Anatomy of an Era: John Reece, Part 3
Excerpted from Chapter 58, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
Anatomy of an Era: John Reece, Part 3
Q: Watching the Florida State game the other night, I never felt so bad as I did when Toby (Wright) bumps into that receiver when they make that pass to the endzone, where the ball was supposedly thrown out of reach…
JR: I had a dream about that the other night, too. That game haunts me, I swear. I had an interception. I had an interception -I actually had two that game- but on one of them I think Dante Jones was supposed to go outside or inside but he gave away his position a little too early, and so I had the guy there.
And Charlie Ward was just -he pissed me off- (laughs) he saw me twice at the very last possible second, twice before making a decision. On both of those passes he lobbed the ball up and I broke on the ball early and the receiver broke his route. Dante came underneath and the back got him, Charlie flushed out to the right and actually ended up beating the tackle and getting there the last minute to beat him there to affect the throw, but I think if he’d have stayed outside we had him. When we got to the locker room George was just livid, “John had an interception if you’d just stay outside!” He was yelling at Dante and going off. And that second play, Toby? He was there. He was there, and I got a little greedy and I jumped too early. I saw it and I was scoring and was gonna run 90 yards for a touchdown, right? And he saw me, last second, and he just threw it out of the endzone. He totally panicked a little bit, because he was obviously in pressure time, we were up and we’re winning and we don’t want to give up a damn touchdown. We can’t let them in the endzone, so Toby did the right thing: just tackled his ass. I don’t think he was aware. If he had actually looked up he would have seen the ball was going out of the endzone. Had I not gotten so damn greedy early on I might have had a pick and it would have been over with. So maybe George was right. (laughs) I gotta go back. That haunts me. Maybe George was right about that...
Q: Hey, you live by the sword and you die by the sword, right?
JR: You could cut the tension with a knife. Me and Toby for four quarters… we’re both sitting on the sidelines just bawling like babies, because we just wanted to win that game so damned bad. Everybody was playing their hearts out and nobody wanted to make a mistake, but you still wanted to give it 100%. It was just one of those games, man, just wasn’t meant for us to win it. We had so many bad calls that game. And we weren’t ones to really harp on that, but I truly, in my heart, felt like we’d beat those guys up and down that field.
And Bobby Bowden was out there and said, “We didn’t play that well tonight…” and I was like, ‘No, you got your asses handed to you tonight. We just had an extra opponent out there on the field.’ (laughs)
Q: We didn’t get beat, we simply ran out of time that night, John. That’s my take on it…
JR: Oh, that’s a tough one. That one still hurts...
Q: That’s the hard part for me, talking to some of you guys who weren’t able to slap that national champ ring on your finger, you know what I mean?
JR: It was bittersweet watching the guys the next two years win it. Me and Zo (Lorenzo Brinkley) used to sit around and replay that damned Florida State game over and over. It was like, “Why are we torturing ourselves over this? We did everything we could possibly do.” And to this day, I bought that whole series and I have that game and I’m still just ...AARGGGGH… biting my lip every time I watch it. (laughs)
Q: Hey, you later played alongside Toby for the Rams, didn’t you?
JR: Yeah, I did. He came into his own, man, he was a beast. That was my second or third year with the Rams. He had an All-Pro season, led the team in interceptions, 100+ tackles, just playing football, being the guy that he was. It was a pleasure to watch.
Q: So I have to ask you, was there anyone behind the scenes that the average fan may not know about, someone who should be spotlighted for their efforts from the time you were there?
JR: I know: I always, always, always loved Bryan Bailey, because Bailey rehabbed my knee. He kicked my ass. But you know what, he told me ahead of time, “Bring a towel with you when you come in here, so you can put it in your mouth. Because we’re gonna do this right. Tom told me he wanted you back to as good as you were, but I’m gonna bring you back better than you were. So we’re gonna go to work.“ He kicked my ass for about a year.
It was a long rehab, it was tough for me after reaching a certain status. I didn’t know if I was gonna come back the same way, I was a young college guy with a whole bunch of hormones and attitudes and away from home. And things went on with my family, had a couple deaths in the family that were tough. Bryan helped me tremendously. We’d just go, and I stopped asking how long we were gonna run; we’d just run. And I would just talk to him, and he’d talk and he’d listen. He was instrumental. He and Mike Arthur, I think those guys did a lot of work behind the scenes that went unrecognized. Boyd got a lot of credit. And I talked to Boyd a couple of months ago and he’s doing that national strength coach deal, but Bryan was awesome.
And Bryan Bailey, he did such a tremendous job rehabbing my knee that I got a higher rating on my surgically repaired knee than most guys were getting on their non-surgical knees at the Pro Combine. And Tom Heiser was the doctor that did my knee. It was the last one he did before he broke his neck. He went out surfing right after he did my knee and came off a boogie board and landed wrong. That was tough.
Charlie McBride, too. I always loved Charlie McBride. That was one guy who could get me fired up before every game. He just knew what to say, when to say it and how to say it. He would get us playing for teammates who were injured, playing for such and such family member, you know, whether they had a sickness or death in that family. We’d leave that locker room literally crying, ready to kill for each other. (laughs) I always held him in high regard. Him and Kevin Steele, great regard.
Q: Anybody else?
JR: Tommie was just a great quarterback. Incredible quarterback. We never could have made it as far as we did without him. I thought he had such character and such leadership at such a young age. And 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 you, the program or your family. So when Tommie made the travel squad we knew he was gonna be special. But I don’t think anybody had any idea of just how special he was going to be. Just the patience, the intelligence, the leadership ability at such a young age, the composure, that talent level. If there was ever a guy, I thought him and Jamelle Holloway were two of the best option quarterbacks I’d ever seen in my life, just incredible. Quiet, understated, never in trouble. Just a good kid.
Q: Tommie was all business, wasn’t he?
JR: Yeah, he was. When he stepped on the field, we knew. Big jokester. Funny kid. But a hell of a football player.
Q: Well, John, I could bother you for another hour’s worth of questions. (laughs)
JR: One thing I’ve got to mention… the other day we talked about that book ‘Good to Great’ and character and all that. Well, they used to bring in the high school students during summer camp. And so a lot of us would go out there and they have the guys doing all sorts of stuff -and Kevin Steele was a great coach, but he was really one of those high energy personalities, always on the go- and I remember one time he kind of slipped and let out some profanities around these high school students. And I remember Tom going, “Hey Kevin, come here!” And he said this in front of everybody, he said, “I don’t ever want to hear you talk to a guy like that. You can get your point across without talking to a guy like that.“ And Kevin said, “Okay, Coach. I’m sorry.” And Tom was, “No, there’s no need to apologize. Just make sure it doesn’t happen again.” And that’s the type of guy that he is: he lived it. We all knew that he was a faithful guy to Christ and I have such an appreciation for him that I don’t think I really had when I was there. It’s grown over the years. And I look back on it, and he really was teaching us to be men.
And I think that’s something that goes understated. Because there were a lot of guys there who didn’t have both parents in the house, they didn’t have a father. A lot of guys, if you look down deep and you really admit it, they’ll say, “He was like a father to me.” There was a lot more than being a head coach, man. He was… he was somebody you could count on. If he gave you his word on something, he was gonna do it. And it was awesome. I hated to piss him off by going to play baseball, but, oh well. (laughs)
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Q: When did you play baseball?
JR: I played the summer before my senior season. I got drafted by the Braves and got a call from the Braves scout. The White Sox had just given up my rights because they drafted me out of high school. A guy named Brian Kohlsheen, a native Nebraskan, he was a huge Tom Osborne fan, so he worked me out and I had a pretty good workout for him. Well, I drove home and talked to my parents and they said, “Well, whatever you want to do, go ahead and do it.” So I actually signed the contract then and I actually had to give up my scholarship, which was no big deal because they were going to pay for the rest of school and all that.
And I never consulted Tom. It didn’t, in my wildest dreams, cross my mind that I should consult Tom. It was just the excitement of being able to play another additional sport, accomplish some childhood dreams. And when I go back to camp I guess word got out that this guy was working me out, and I hadn’t told anybody that I’d signed with them yet. So Tom called this meeting -and I felt so bad, because this guy walks in and he‘s like, “Oh my god, it’s Tom Osborne.” He holds him in such reverence, “Oh, this is Tom Osborne!”- he goes, “Coach Osborne, how are you doing? I’m a long-time fan…” And Coach Osborne looks at him and he goes, “How dare you come onto my campus and try to recruit one of our players!” And I go, ‘Oh man, the mood is not the way that I thought it was going to be.’ (laughs) I figured I’d gently tell him that I was gonna play baseball for the summer, and it got pretty heated. And I finally said, ‘You know what, let’s cut through all this crap. I’ve already signed with them.’ And Tom looked at me and said, “The conversation is done.” He got up and he walked out.
And I remember talking to Toby when I got back to the apartment. He called Coach McBride and Charlie said, “Tom told me. I saw him leaving the locker room.” And then I spoke with Coach Osborne and said, ‘What’s the deal. What’s your problem?’ And he said, “You signed and you didn’t even ask me.” And I said, ‘I have a dad. My dad is in Houston.’ And he goes, “That’s fine, but I’m having a tough time deciding whether or not I’m gonna let you play football for me next year.” And I went, ‘What?!’ (laughs) And we were going back and forth for a little while and I told him, ‘You won’t win a game without me.’ And he said, “Are you that confident?” And I said, ‘Yeah, because you’ve got a young secondary back there and I’m the only guy coming back with experience.’ So we kind of left it at that. Later on Toby called Coach McBride and Coach McBride said, “You know what, things got heated. Tom’s not going to kick him off the team. He’s probably going to come back with something John’s gonna have to do, so he better be ready for it. He’ll calm down and it’ll blow over. Just tell him to have fun playing baseball and don’t get hurt and come back ready to play.“ So I went home and Tom called me before I was to leave on the plane for Atlanta. And he said, “I guess we both said some things we didn’t mean. Okay, here’s the deal: you’re coming back and I want you to play corner, and I want you coming back at 185 lbs. Anything above 185 and you will not play.” And I said, ‘That’s it?’ and he said, “Yup. And by the way, learn how to hit a curve ball.” (laughs)
So I get there and Bruce Benedict is our coach -and I’m a longtime Atlanta fan, so I knew who Bruce was- and Bruce grew up in Omaha, right? So he’s a huge Osborne fan. So I caught him trucking on the field the first day and he’s walking around with his chest all stuck out and he looks at me and he goes, “Guess who I talked to today?” And I said, ‘Judging by the size of your chest and how far it’s sticking out, you probably talked to my head coach.’ (laughs) And he goes, “Oh yeah, I’ve been a fan of Nebraska for years and I always wanted to talk to him. So you made one of my childhood dreams come true.” It was pretty cool. He goes, “He told me not to let you get too big out here lifting weights, and he told me that you better come back in shape and I better not hurt you. He needs you next year.” It was cool. We ironed everything out.
John Reece (right)
When I got back he called me into the office and I stepped on the scales at exactly 185 that day. He said, “Well, you’re a man of your word.” And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re a man of your word, too.’ There was mutual respect that day, so it was cool. I’ve got so many stories. I’m Mr. Nebraska.
Q: So you were in single A, high Rookie Ball?
JR: Yeah, I was in high A. I hadn’t picked up a bat in like three and one half years. So it was, honestly, like learning how to play baseball all over again. A lot of talent, but a lot of bus trips.
It was weird, because we were treated like kings in Division 1 football, and here I am on these cheesy, crappy buses. I would get up in the morning and do football drills and things like that and then go to the baseball fields. So many days were like 6 in the morning to 11 o’clock at night.
Q: Hanging around the clubhouse eating fried chicken, going to Denny’s..
JR: And the Waffle House.
Q: Dude! That’s what I loved about the South. I had the Waffle House menu memorized!
JR: That was my one vice. I would eat a waffle, but everything else was grilled chicken salad and everything for the summer. I knew I had to come back in shape.
Q: What team were you assigned to?
JR: I was with the Danville Braves. Appalachian League.
Q: There you go! I was racking my brain trying to think of the name of that team. We swallowed some of the same dirt from those fields, only different years.
Q: Oh yeah, I’d passed through just about every minor league park in America when I was doing the minor league circuit with the Chickenman. And I have to tell you, Waffle House to me is like Runza to you. I’ve witnessed more, heard more, done more crazy things in Waffle Houses throughout the South than you would ever believe, John. (laughs) From Amarillo, Texas to Chattanooga, Tennessee to Daytona, Florida...
JR: (laughs) You’re serious? Get outta here! That was my one vice.
I got too big up top lifting for football, and by the time I got things straightened out and got to hitting I had to go back and play football. And I had the draft coming up the next year, but it was fun while it lasted. As far as doing things in life I was able to check that box off, but the minors were brutal.
Q: Dealing with all those crazy Dominicans on the roster?
JR: Yeah, that was three quarters of our team! Funny, I was sitting here a couple years ago and I was watching an Angels game on TV, and the relief pitcher comes on and it’s Esteban Yan! And I’d been telling my wife all these stories about these guys, because they were some funny characters; some of the things they would say and their broken-English and stuff. And his whole thing was, “Yacky-yacky,” and he’d make this sign with his thumb like he was masturbating or something.”Yacky-yacky.” Those were the only words he knew. And here he is on TV and comes to the mound and I’m just busting up! (laughs) My wife comes in and says, “What are you watching?!” And I’m, ‘It’s Esteban!’ And she goes, “Oh, the ’yacky-yacky’ guy?” (laughs)
Q: (laughing) Well, John, it’s about both of our bedtimes, but thank you so much for your evening on the phone. I forget how fun it was working with and being around you guys.
JR: It was great. I had a good time rehashing some of these old memories.
A master storyteller with a steel bear-trap of a memory, John took us back to the precise time in history that turned the tide for future Husker fortunes. Some things change and some things stay the same, and it could be honestly and accurately said that every season’s team had as one of its main goals the winning of the final bowl game that would give Tom Osborne his first National Championship. It’s a shame John isn’t able to claim that proud honor today, but you as well as I know that he had a grand hand in making it happen. It still bothers him. Remember, his ‘Arrrggh’, earlier? That’s evidence of a man’s frustration for ever so closely missing the making of football history, eternal bragging rights and all.
John took us into the most private of team discussions, behind closed doors and into an almost sacred inner sanctum, allowing us to listen in on the turning point, the nexus, the critical juncture of where Nebraska’s recruiting mentality was headed when he spoke of Coach Osborne’s, “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.” What I find quite enlightening and truly astounding is the fact that the Nebraska coaching staff, in every sense of the word, was actually asking the student-athletes’ permission to begin recruiting in some of the more questionable social demographics and locales of America, intimating that taking a chance on some of them would also be taking a chance on the refinement and revisement of the image of Nebraska Football, for good or possible ill. And their answer was? “Yeah, go for it!” This meant their newfound team ownership also came with a potentially profound task of exhibiting greater organizational stewardship, peer leadership, and brotherhood as they helped steer the ship. As we all know, times came when the ride was less than smooth sailing: “We were like, “Hey, it’s your team.” And he was like, “No, it’s our team.”
“As it turns out….” John said, “we ended up meeting (the pro wrestlers) downstairs at the bottom floor of this place and all hell broke loose.” I’ve been thinking about these fights we’ve heard about, and despite their rather unsavory and uncivil nature of dispute resolution, I’ve arrived at a place where I believe it should be mandatory -almost a necessity- to place a group of young men in a physical confrontation to test their mettle without the benefit of a structured play call: without referees, without rules, and allow them to sink or swim, bloody or be bloodied, to bond or fracture as a consequence. I’m not here to say what they did was wrong or what they did was right on these occasions, but we do know that many of these young men have given us every indication to believe that the off-field fisticuffs played a most positive part in making those great 60 & 3 teams what they were. Remember Dave Ellis’, “Warriors, Paulie. Warriors…” earlier? Don’t mess with Nebraska.
Notable quote #2:
John Reece on a young Tommie Frazier: “Incredible quarterback. We never could have made it as far as we did without him. I thought he had such character and such leadership at such a young age... Just the patience, the intelligence, the leadership ability at such a young age, the composure, that talent level.”
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