Anatomy of an Era: John Reece, Part 1
Excerpted from Chapter 58, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
“I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault.”
Born to a prostitute mother and pimp father in Austin, Texas in 1928, Dick “Night Train” Lane was ditched into a back alley dumpster a few short months later, an infant left to die a most hideous death. By God’s graces he was salvaged from sure demise by a passing widow. Later adopted by this same Ella Lane, Dick was raised to take on whatever the rough and tumble world could throw at him. After high school he somehow found his way to collegiate football in extreme western Nebraska at Scottsbluff Junior College, where the motto was and still is, simply, “The place to be.”
Going across the middle was not the place to be for opposing receivers, though, as this most vicious of defensive backs was almost single-handedly responsible for the outlaw of face-masking and the clothesline-tackle, a practice known during his NFL days as the “Night Train Necktie.” Goading quarterbacks into ill-advised throws by giving the impression of playing too far off a receiver, he set an NFL season record of 14 interceptions as a rookie cornerback in 1952 for the Los Angeles Rams. Later inducted to the NFL Hall of Fame, he was one of football’s more unique characters and talents.
Which brings us to John Reece -though a far cry as to his own family history- was a Texan who matriculated to eastern Nebraska in hopes of making something of a football splash. A talent of great proportion from the outset, he was a calculating ball-hawk and a skilled supervisor of the Blackshirt backfield. Also a character in his own right, he too made his mark in the pros as a Ram, albeit in St. Louis after their move from Los Angeles in 1995. I urge you to get comfortable in your seat for this one, as catching up with John is sure to be a smash hit…
Notable quote #1:
“One thing about Nebraska, they were never gonna put you on the field if you weren’t ready, because they didn’t want to embarrass yourself, the program or your family.”
Scholarship recruit, Cornerback/Safety, Houston, Texas (Jersey Village)
Where are they now? Lantana, Texas, Sales/Management
Question: So John, how did you end up at the University of Nebraska?
John Reece: It was really kind of strange, because I was out of Houston and I was a Top 40 prospect. It was me and a guy by the name of Patrick Bates -I don’t know if you remember him or not- he was a big old safety. I was a little faster than he was. I was 6’ 1” and about 195, he was like 6’ 3” and about 230. And I came out and ran a 4.3 out of high school and he ran like a 4.38, and he was a specimen, man, a big old kid. We were the number one and two safeties coming out that year, so we were a real good defensive class.
So it boiled down to my top two picks, and at that time the Southwest Conference was in shambles, so I knew I didn’t want to play in Texas and the Southwest Conference. My two dream teams had been Nebraska and UCLA. I always had this desire to move out west because of the weather, for one thing, and as a defensive back playing in the Pac 10 I was going to see a lot of action because most of those teams threw the ball. So it came down basically to me and Patrick for Nebraska and UCLA. And the same weekend I was visiting Nebraska he was out visiting UCLA (and I didn’t hear how all of this shook out until a long time after), so me and my dad flew up to Nebraska and we went and talked to Coach Osborne. And the guy I was rooming with on that recruiting trip was Billy Wade out of Texas, a tight end. And he’d broken is leg or something three or four games into that high school season and he couldn’t play, so he comes hobbling out of Coach Osborne’s office and he’s on Cloud Nine and says, “Man, I think they have one more scholarship left. So if they want to give you one, you better take it.” So I walk in there thinking, ‘I’m gonna be offered a scholarship. This is great! I’ll get the last one.’
So me and my dad sit down and we do the formalities and talk to Coach Osborne and he goes, “Well John, I’m holding a scholarship for a guy who’s out at UCLA right now taking a visit, so I really don’t have a scholarship unless he decides not to come here.” And I said, ‘I know who that is.’ (laughs)
And it was funny, because I was supposed to go to UCLA the next week, and the day before I was to fly out to Nebraska I got a call from the UCLA defensive coach who was recruiting me and he said, “I need you to commit right now. There’s one scholarship left. It’s yours if you want it. Commit right now and you can have it.“ And I said, ‘I can’t. I haven’t seen your campus. I haven’t met any of your players. I’m going to Nebraska this week and I’ll be out there at UCLA next week, can you hold it?’ And he goes, “No. If you don’t accept right now on this phone call then forget it. You can’t come.“ So I turned him down. It was sad, because my mom had just paid 400 bucks for a plane ticket and there was nothing the NCAA could do about it. She was upset and called Coach Donahue at UCLA and he said, “Hey, let me talk to this one guy.” But they really never called me back.
So here are my top two prospects and they just flew out the damn window, (laughs) because, you know, I just spent the weekend at Nebraska. And I was, ‘Why wouldn’t a guy like to come here? It’s great!’ And Tom said, “Here’s what I’ll do: If you’re interested in coming here I’ll call you tonight. What time does your plane arrive home?” And I was like, ‘Oh, we’ll probably be home at 10 o’clock.’ So he said, “I’ll call you at ten o’clock and tell you whether or not you have a scholarship.”
And so at 10 p.m. -on the nose- he called and he said, “I don’t know if you’ve heard or read by now, but Patrick has decided to go to UCLA, so the scholarship is yours if you want it.“ And I said, ‘I’ll take it under one condition.’ And he said, “What’s that?” and I said, ‘I’m not going to come up there to redshirt. I want to play.’ And he laughed. He goes, “Well, John, we normally don’t do that up here, particularly on the defensive side.” So I said, ‘Well, those are my conditions. I’ll take the scholarship, but I want to you to seriously consider me as a top prospect and I want to be on varsity next year.’ And he said, “Well, you’ll have to work your butt off, I’ll tell you that. I’ll give you that. You come up here in great shape and you learn the system and we’ll see.“
So Paul, I worked my ass off. Really did. George Darlington, the defensive backs coach at the time, sent me some basic formations and defenses they had, so when I stepped on campus I had a pretty good understanding of what the defense was trying to accomplish. And free safety was where I thought I was going in at -and we captain the whole defense- there’s a lot of calls and check calls you have to make, formations you have to know and all that stuff. So when I got there it was, honestly, there just wasn’t enough time in training camp to really learn all of it, so they had me at corner and at dime back and some other places. So midway through camp Tom came to me and kind of shook his head and said, “John, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you yet.” And I said, ‘Well, I told you on the phone, ‘I didn’t come up here to redshirt.’‘ (laughs) And he said again, “Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.” And I said, ‘Let’s see how it goes this scrimmage and base your decision off of that.’ And he says, “Great.” So I had a really good scrimmage.
And it’s funny, the first day the varsity was practicing I was standing outside our dorm room talking to the other freshmen on the team and one of the assistant coaches pulls up and says, “What the hell are you doing?” I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, “You’re on varsity. Let’s go!” (laughs) So I jumped in the car and went on over and I’m like, ‘Yeahhh!’ It was a good ride. It was me and Will Shields, we were two freshmen who made the traveling squad that year.
Q: What year was that?
JR: It was August of ’89.
Q: So you show up that first day on campus, anything in particular stand out to you?
JR: It was all so surreal at the time. The varsity was all into their routine and all that. It was funny -because you know the walk-on program was so huge- so I walk in and, honestly, there was only a handful of us with color there, (laughs) which was no big deal for me. My high school was 70% caucasian and all my friends were different races, so I never had an issue with it, but I was just intrigued by how many guys would actually pass up opportunities to go elsewhere just to walk on there.
The first day? The one thing that did stand out, there was over 100 guys there that turned out for the freshman team, and as the days went on through two-a-days -and I’m from Texas and it’s a hundred degrees in the shade in the summer, so it wasn’t that big of a deal- but to see the numbers dwindle each day? And I think we ended up with like twenty guys. My numbers may be off, but it seems there were a ton of guys that first day of practice, but as the week went on the numbers were less and less and less.
And we had guys from all over the nation there and we had a couple of receivers that did real well and were pretty quick, and it got to a point that anytime we did one-on-one drills or something and one of those guys got up there, most of the guys on our defense would look over to me and say, “Okay, John, you go in and cover those guys.” (laughs) They just weren’t used to that speed.
I still remember going out for my first practice with the varsity. That was awesome. With high school you walk in and you’re kind of the top dog, and then at Nebraska the first guy I saw getting dressed and take the field was Pat Tyrance at linebacker. And I remember looking at him and saying to myself, ‘That guy is a grown man!’ (laughs) Pat was huge, man. He came out and had this little spandex and no shirt on and I was, ‘Damn, this guy is like Arnold Schwarzenegger! That’s a linebacker! That’s a middle backer!’ You know what I mean? Big old guy, deep voice. It was like I was playing with my dad or something. (laughs) I’m 18 and barely have any facial hair; this was big-time football. But I was there to compete, so it was pretty cool.
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Q: Any guys you first befriended from the start?
JR: You know, one of the guys who really took me under his wing was Curtis Cotton. I don’t know why, but we ended up competing for the nickel back position that year and then ended up giving it to me mid-season, but he was just a guy that took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. He invited me over to his house and showed me the ropes, and he roomed with A-Train, LeAndre Anderson, defensive tackle. Those guys were roommates and they’d take me over to their place on the weekends. We didn’t have training table on Sunday, so we’d go over and they’d have meals and stuff prepared and we’d sit and read and watch Sunday football together, it was cool. You weren’t out there on your own.
Q: Curtis Cotton. He had that high haircut for a while, didn’t he?
JR: Yeah, he had that big old high-top fade haircut. (laughs) If you see him now, he’s bald-headed. His hair started falling out so he cut it all off. (laughs) But talk about a physical specimen! Oh, my God! And he was pretty strong. We had a really good weight program out of high school; I squatted with John Parrella and most of our defensive linemen. I squatted with Curtis and we’d do bench press and stuff, so that’s one of the things we had in common. So it was just kind of a natural fit for a relationship. We weren’t competing directly as safeties; he was at strong safety and I was at corner, but that toss-up position there for the dimebacker, nickel backer, we did compete a little bit. But it was fun. We helped each other out.
Q: Coach Darlington: tell me more about him and what the meant to you?
JR: He was always good to me. He really was. I have no complaints about George.
He was a little brash. I think he rubbed me way, way wrong after the ’94 Orange Bowl. We played our lights out and, quite honestly, after going through the films -and I’ve gone through the film year after year after year- it was a tough loss losing that championship to Florida State. It was the first time we’d played for it in a while.
And my freshman class, we always said that we wanted to be the ones to give Tom his first title, and I honestly saw comfort from my teammates’ words that night, because I had the toughest position on the field. That there was a time I had a rough outing. We had Lo Brinkley, who was a defensive back -and he and George really didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. It actually worked out to where we made a rover-type position, so him and Ernie Beler shared that job. Well, Lorenzo was more of a corner, he was quick and he’d get his hands on receivers and he’s quick at blitzing, but he broke his arm like the third or fourth play of the game, so he was out. Ernie, he was more of a true strong safety-type and wasn’t real quick on his feet, so he really didn’t get a whole lot of jersey on the guys that he was covering- so I’m covering these guys 10 yards out, middle of the field, he’s got a two-way go. And George’s philosophy was, “Okay, if you just don’t fall of the cliff when the ball is snapped, you should be able to cover this guy.” And I’m standing still while Kez McCorvey’s coming full speed at me, (laughs) to give the blitz time to get to Charlie Ward. So we’re trying to make everything look the same and disguise it and all, and it was a tough position.
And I was up for the challenge, but apparently I didn’t play as well as he thought I should play. And at the end of the game me and Toby Wright are standing in the locker room crying and Toby walked off for a second, and George grabbed him and said, “Hey, you know what? You played a great game is what you did. And I think we could have won the game had we gotten better free safety play.” That’s the type of guy George was, kind of brash, and whatever was on the top of his mind was what was coming out, “I’ll think about what I said later.” And I knew kind of how to deal with that, but most guys he would rub the wrong way.
Toby Wright & John Reece (Unknown/Uncredited)
Q: A few guys have made comments that they and George didn’t see eye to eye. Was that a common theme with a lot of you defensive backs?
JR: Well, it was tough. Because the guy never played defensive back in football. He was a lacrosse player, and everything he knew was all book knowledge. His philosophy was, “If the guy runs a 4 nothing and you run a 4.5, you should be able to cover him as long as you get your hand on him.” And I was like, ‘Yeah, and I could probably cover him for a couple of seconds, but after that the guy’s gonna run by me.’ (laughs) Sooner or later the laws of physics are gonna take over, right?
He was really good at x’s and o’s, but the one thing that killed me -and it used to drive me crazy- was that we got really good at playing bump and run. We had some really good bump and run corners (me being one of them), and we would get to the damn bowl game and he would back us all off 6 or 8 yards. And it just sent that message to those Florida teams -and I remember we got beat 27-14 or something in ’93 in that Orange Bowl and the following year was a rematch and I remember going out for picture day that day- and some of their receivers came in and were talking, and they just flat-out asked us, “Why do you guys play bump and run on everybody until you get to us?” And we go, “What do you mean?” And they go, “Well, you just send the message that you’re afraid of us.” And I go, ‘We’re not afraid of you. We’re just trying to make everything look the same.’ And they were like, “Well, it looks like you guys are afraid of us, so you guys are giving us the edge every year you come down here.”
And that just stuck out to me, because every big game we had, be it Colorado when they had Westbrook and Charles Johnson, we played the hell out of them. And what really killed us that game was we backed off and we still beat them like 65-7 or something like that. And Coach Darlington was like, “See, it works.” And I’m like, ‘It worked against them because it’s freezing cold out here! (laughs) We get down to Florida they’re gonna have the edge.’ Nothing pleased me more than to watch them the next year against Miami because they bumped and ran. They really did. And they won! And it was like, ‘Kudos to us!’ I felt like, in talking to those those guys that won it, they looked back at us and go, “Man, we never would have won it if not for the leadership you guys provided and seeing what you guys went through.” They practiced an extra 1:16 in memory of us that year before. And I was just happy to see Tom win one the next year. He certainly deserved one.
’93 Blackshirts (Joe Mixan)
Q: So you were playing in the pros that next year, right?
JR: Yes, I was.
Q: Do you recall watching that Miami game? Do you remember where you were?
JR: I was actually at my parents’ house. The NFL season had just ended and I was talking to Toby Wright at that time. We were watching the game and he was in Arizona and I was in Texas, and we were on the phone the whole game just talking about different plays, the fact that they were being aggressive this time. It was about time! (laughs) ‘Why didn’t we do that when we were playing?’ (laughing)
Q: So you came in August of ’89 and played your last game in January of ’94. Can you put your finger on a transition that went on there during that span of time?
JR: You know, I played my freshman year and blew my knee out, so I redshirted my sophomore year, and that season was a horrid season. We got beat by Oklahoma -got thrashed by Oklahoma- and I’m sitting home at Thanksgiving because I couldn’t travel. I’m sitting home and just wanted to beat the TV up. We got thrashed like 52 to something. They went to the Citrus Bowl and got thrashed by Georgia Tech, and I think we went 9-4, maybe? We lost to Colorado -got schooled in Colorado- lost in Washington to start the year off, lost to Oklahoma and lost the bowl game. All horrible losses. The public around there was really upset with Tom. We had gone 9-2 my first year and then went through that year, and then coming back my redshirt sophomore season I think we went 9-3 or 9-2, and there was just an uproar.
People thought that Tom was just outdated and it was time to move on. And he made a decision and created the Unity Council at the time, kind of a governing board. I think that two players from each position group were voted on. I think they had to be juniors or seniors, upperclassmen. They were kind of the governing board. Tom wasn’t, quote unquote, the ‘bad guy’ anymore. One thing about him: when he said he was gonna do something, he did it, you know? And he told us from the start, “It’s gonna be your team. I‘m gonna come to you guys when there’s tough decisions to be made. And we’ll make them together.“ I remember him coming to us and saying, “I’m tired of losing these bowl games. We used to recruit for a certain type of athlete and not go into certain neighborhoods. I think for us to compete at a level you guys want to compete at and a level we want to compete at and win national titles, we’re gonna have to go into those areas and after those guys, who are gonna be able to academically live up to our standards.” Basically, he just came to us for our permission. And everybody was like, “Yeah, go for it!’ That recruiting season we brought in Tommie Frazier and the rest is history, you know? (laughs) But for him to come to us and ask us our opinion and we were like, “Hey, it’s your team.” And he was like, “No, it’s our team.” And for him to come to us, that really won a bunch of guys over.
Q: He handed you bona fide ownership of the team?
JR: Yeah, he did. There was a player in question going into that last game for us, getting ready to play in the national title game where one of the running backs got in trouble, Lawrence missed curfew or something. And Tom’s whole policy was, “You miss, you’re out.” And it turns out Calvin Jones tweaked his ankle in practice and didn’t feel like he was gonna be 100% for that game -and we really didn’t have any experienced running backs for that game- and Tom came to us and said, ”I’ve always been a man of my word, and told Lawrence that he wasn’t going to start and he’s not going to start. And I don’t know if we’re going to get him in or not. It just depends on how Calvin feels. And I wanted to come to you guys and it’s your call. If you say that he can’t play, then he can’t play, but this is a pretty tough game and we’re gonna need all the men we can get. He’s healthy. We don’t know how long Calvin’s going to be healthy.”
And we all got together and said, “Well, he can’t start. We agree to that. If we can wait until the second half or whatever it’s gonna be, to kind of teach him a lesson,” knowing Calvin can’t carry the whole load, that we were gonna need somebody back there to carry the ball. But we got the point across. So he brought Lawrence in and we all talked to him and made the decision at that point of, “Okay, if we need you, you’ll play. If not, you aren’t gonna play.“ And he ended up playing and he rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown, so it’s kind of one of those things where if it wasn’t that big of a game he doesn’t play, but hey, this is what we all worked for, so we needed him to play. And he was probably the greatest running back I ever saw in my life, man, up close and personal.
JR: Yeah. Talent up the wazoo. Just incredible. Incredible. And I was the one that recruited him! (laughs) Well, he was George’s prospect, and during recruiting season the upperclassmen would have to host recruits. I remember George called me in there Friday morning and said, “I need to talk to you”, and he put on some filmwork of Lawrence in high school and I was, ‘Who is this kid!?’, and he was, “Well, this is who I want you to show around this weekend. He’s kind of fragile. He comes from a broken home. Don’t take him partying. Just hang out with him and talk to him about the university. Hopefully we can sign him.“ So that’s what we did. Me and Toby took him to our place and we sat and had meals and we just kind of talked about goals.
And I told him flat-out, ‘I’ve seen you on film. You’ve got more natural talent than I’ve seen around here in a long time. If you keep your nose clean you’ll win the Heisman and everything else.’ And I don’t know, we left and he didn’t have the leadership there, and I think at one point they got so successful they felt they were untouchable with some things. I can’t recall Tom ever telling a guy to go to the NFL before finishing his schoolwork, but Lawrence had been in such shambles that it was just time for him to go.
Q: I hate to get off track here, but what was your first impression of Lawrence?
JR: I thought he was a great kid. A great kid. I still do. It’s just unfortunate, there may be some type of imbalance there that may have needed to be addressed. He was just an outstanding kid. He was really quiet. That was the shocker to me and Toby, when we heard about what happened, because he was always the quiet jokester, to me. When I heard all the horror stories of about what went on I was, ‘There’s no way.’
To be continued….
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