Anatomy of an Era: Kareem Moss, Part 3
Excerpted from Chapter 25, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
Kareem Moss, Part 3
Q: Kareem, earlier you spoke about the focus of winning every game. I’m of the opinion that it’s very difficult for a bunch of college kids to maintain focus for 11-12 consecutive weeks. There is usually a little bit of a letdown somewhere along the line. What would you say about that, and how would you say you kept your focus?
KM: Well, I would say the group of us would just hang out and really kind of create a small, off-field game plan to get over the obstacles. You know, at one time I got in trouble. I don’t want to get into it, but a couple of my teammates were always around, and once we made up our minds it all of a sudden became a unit. There was a oneness. Nobody disrespected anybody for who they were, where they came from. We just kind of reached above all of that and really enjoyed where we were. We were all here for a reason.
I can’t stress that enough, the importance that God had played in our lives, me personally in overcoming so much adversity. And still going through it, I just had to kind of give it all up and let God help me figure out what was going on with me personally. I did the best that I could. I couldn’t shy away from that. That’s how I was raised. My mother did a good job of teaching me the importance of being spiritually grounded. And with all the adversity that was going on, that helped me understand a lot of things that were happening. And some of the things that didn’t happen, too. It kept me grounded.
And we, as a team, resolved to party less and work more. Twinkie had me going to church quite a bit while he was there, Doug Waddell continued that on. It was a home away from home, being how he was from South Carolina, too. He helped me to understand how, as a young man, to be spiritually grounded.
Q: How did you become the team barber?
KM: Oh man, I picked that up in junior college. I was kind of picky, and all the guys in Kansas weren’t very good barbers. And the ones that were around? I thought, ‘I could cut my hair just as good.’ So I cut it myself, cut my own hair. I messed it up a time or two, (laughs) but I caught on. Then I got a lot of practice and guys started knocking on my door.
Then by the time I got to Nebraska I had it all figured out, and both me and Toby Wright were doing it. Toby, that’s how we ended up living together and came in together. He had two years and I had three to play. We still stay close. I learned a lot about football and a lot about life from him, he’s a good friend.
Q: One of the guys told me that Toby really brought a physical, hitting mindset to the team…
KM: Yeah, we kind of fed off of Toby. I was kind of like that -a physical corner in high school and junior college, and I played safety from time to time, because of my physical attributes- but Toby came in and took it to another level. You know when you had the ball in Toby’s vicinity that you were really gonna get hit, and might get hit very hard. We really fed off of that. That came natural to him. He went on and did the same thing at the next level. A lot of NFL guys may have learned some things from his being aggressive and so physical.
Q: Any games stand out to you, Kareem?
KM: Oh, my first interception in Lincoln was at Memorial Stadium and I wasn’t yet a starter. I was a sophomore, I caught my first interception and they couldn’t tackle me for some reason. I kept running into opposing players and they couldn’t tackle me, all those people and all that energy, that sea of red, just energized me and it really sticks out.
Also, my first moment walking thorough the tunnel. I never knew that that many people could be at one place at one time. And I never knew what it sounded like. Gamecocks, you could get a couple ten thousand for a game. High school, junior college? But Nebraska is Nebraska. That’s a different level. Nothing was comparable to that first time walking out of the tunnel. In fact, me and Toby were walking next to each other, walking two by two, it was me and Toby Wright. He said, “Hey, this is what we’re here for.” And we both even started crying a little bit. We’d realized that we were on the way to achieving our goals, going through that tunnel for the first time. It was an amazing feeling. It was something else. And as a visiting player, when you see that first guy coming out wearing the red? Well, it don’t stop. We’d just keep it coming until the end of the fourth quarter, we’d never let up.
Q: Getting into your mind, how did you feed off the energy of the crowd?
KM: Well, it let me know how committed they were to Nebraska football. To make a long story short, how could we let our supporters, our fan base, down? They showed up every time we played. At the end of the day we’re playing for ourselves, but with the support from the fan base, you just can’t let the fans down. They looked up to us so much that it’s a great responsibility, they supported us and we played the best that we can.
Q: Did you ever feel they expected too much?
KM: Once I learned the game of college football I never looked at it that way; I thought it just went hand in hand. And going back to that first interception, it was like playing that first game on TV. That was something else.
Q: Some folks back home might be watching?
KM: Oh yeah, the phone was blowing of the hook, Paul. Then I’d go home and you’d thought I’d made a movie or something, like I was from Hollywood or something. People would come up to me and say “You’re Kareem Moss! You played on TV for Nebraska!” We’d had a couple of people came out of South Carolina and did a few things, but at that time it was something that I had never experienced in my life, and getting attention for doing something positive.
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Q: Any memorable practice story?
KM: I think it was my first legitimate practice as a Blackshirt. That was something special. Because I had always heard of the Blackshirts and I was, ‘Where did that come from? We’re red and white, where did that come from?’ Once I learned that Blackshirts were not only the starters, but the main source of the defense that the people were depending on to stand up and be counted. My world had just started. I was there three years, Paul, and I didn’t get a Blackshirt until my senior year. I think when you finally step up and be a leader like I knew I could be, the coaches understood that I had matured, they didn’t have to really worry about me as a player, for a young man that made a difference.
I just know that I had it on at practice, and the whole time before I got it I was like, ‘I’ve gotta get a Blackshirt. I’ve gotta get a Blackshirt.’ I’d never asked for anything, I wanted to feel as though I’d earned it. I never wanted anyone to give me anything. Anything but an opportunity. Then I’d earn it.
Q: Anything else that stands out that made a difference in your life?
KM: The bad was the incident that gained national attention for me and Tyrone, and I think Tyrone bore the brunt of that situation more than anybody else. I felt like I had a lot to do with it happening, but things just kind of got out of hand and we were kind of in the wrong place a the wrong time, and we all reacted the way we know how to react, the way we were somewhat raised on, how to protect and defend ourselves. Then the media account blew it way out of proportion. We just had to own up to it.
Like I said, by the grace of God, Tyrone wasn’t affected by it, to prevent him from being as successful as he wanted to be. I think it had to do with pride, with girls, with some of the guys, the Lincolnites. They had a problem with us coming into their community. Their girls liked us and so on and so forth, and when we’d go out there would always be a confrontation between us and some Lincolnites. It was unfortunate, you know, but those are some of the things you go through growing up. Being a young man and successful, there’s a lot going on with being a player now in the communities that surrounds them, good and bad. Not everybody liked Nebraska football… (laughs)
Q: Especially if you’re drawing all the good-looking girls away from them…
KM: That’s something we didn’t seek out. It just kind of happened, Paul! (laughs)
Q: And what were the perks, the privileges, of being a player?
KM: The attention you would get academically. Just walking around campus in your sweats, not to mention going back home. And like I said, not a lot of people from Spartanburg, S.C. played at Nebraska. And the tradition that Nebraska had, that ranked up there as one of the best colleges and universities in academics and athletics than anybody in the country. That N on your sweatsuit or your jacket or your helmet was really something special.
Q: What would you say you are most proud of?
KM: Really and truly, it was getting my degree. Had I not gotten my degree I don’t know where I would be right now. Like I said, I didn’t get the opportunity to make a few dollars and take care of my family like I wanted to. But being as I got my communications degree I still have so many more options and can be a leader and know I can achieve what I want.
Q: Anybody behind the scenes who mean a lot to you?
KM: There was a situation that happened, remember Scott Baldwin? Scott Baldwin. I had a chance to sit down with him and talk to him a few times. I didn’t really know the details of what happened in his situation and how he ended up like he did, which was unfortunate, but seeing Scott walk around and run around like he did before this situation happened, it was the reason I went back to wearing the number 29. It was because of Scott Baldwin. Just being able to do the things that I could do, run around and compete, and then compare my situation to Scott Baldwin’s was a major component inspiring me to do the things that I did, as far as success goes.
My first year I was number 29, then I wanted to wear the number I wore in high school, number 1. Mike Grant graduated, so I got my number 1 to kind of go back to, but then we had this freshman running back come in, a young man named Lawrence Phillips who was supposed to redshirt but we had a number of injuries at I-back so he didn’t get to redshirt, so he had to play. And I decided to go back to my number 29 in honor of Scotty, and that number worked just fine for me. I said, ‘Lawrence, you can have number one. Scotty’s number is calling.’
And I wish I could have been a little closer to him and helped him through some of his issues he was dealing with, you know? Sometimes you take things from your past and you’re thrown into situations where you don’t know how to deal with things. I wish I could have been there to help him more. Had he been able to handle some of the adversity he’d been through, I think he would have been much better off. I love Lawrence and I always wish him well and keep him in my prayers.
And then Tommie Frazier, there’s another guy who overcomes adversity. Tommie almost died, and to see him in that hospital in that bed with those tubes going through him and into his heart, it was all so impossible. It was a reminder of just how good I had things, of how you never know when you may go down. It was simple blood clot in his leg -which almost caused his life to end- and in that same year having him come back and contribute to winning that national championship? I have to call him a super man for God. I’ve gotta give it to him. And then to come back and keep a level head and win another after that when they beat Florida? To come back after that happened?! I mean, I broke my leg and came back, but to almost die? He looked so helpless, but then he bounced back that same year and contributed to us winning. It was really hard to look at him. From being used to seeing him running up and down the field, then seeing him so motionless and immobile was scary. It was a scary moment for me, for one of my teammates. I was scared for him, but I never doubted he’d really be alright. I did doubt whether he’d be able to play football again. But that proved it right there when he came back to play another season.
And you can’t forget Matt Turman, after Brook Berringer got hurt. Brook was a wonderful guy as well, I can’t end without saying a few things about Brook, how beautiful he was helping us win the national championship. I can say that of all the years seeing Nebraska football and following it, that we were one of the teams that touched on pretty much every aspect of life to overcome and win a national championship. I would say that ’94 team was the best, just being able to deal with life and do what it did.
Q: Anything you wish you could do over, better, differently?
KM: I would say it happened just like it was supposed to, because now I’m the man who knows that I am where God wants me to be. Yes and No, Paul, (laughs) but I worked hard and continue to work hard to make something better for someone else.
Q: Last question. Anything we haven’t touched on that played a huge part in the success you guys had?
KM: Let me think about that. (pregnant pause) I think it was the confidence we developed and the tradition that we had to sustain before we even won the national championship. All the years before us were a major component in us being successful. I want to give credit to all the guys who came before us, even as far back as those ’70 and ’71 teams who won those championships. They were my role models at Nebraska because they had accomplished a feat that nobody else had done.
I remember having quite few conversations with Johnny Rodgers. There was a time when I was there and he was working on a degree, too. He was my mentor. We’d sit down quite a few times and talk about past, present and future endeavors. That, and just wanting to be the first team to win the national championship with Coach Osborne.
That settles it. I don’t care if I have to hop a midnight railcar to Hoboken, I promise you that I will, I must, find Toby Wright for this project. It amazes me the difference his positive peer influence had on these guys. You’ve heard it before: in some way, somehow, Toby Wright brought a uniquely savage art to his Rover position and found ways to make actions speak louder than any words. Also, there was Kareem’s mention of his friendship with former Husker Running Back Scotty Baldwin, a sad and tragic story in its own right, and the sway that relationship held. Evoking the age-old dramatic arc of securing victory in memory of a fallen teammate –think “win one for the Gipper” here – seeing a paralyzed Scotty in his wheelchair or the immobilized Tommie Frazier confined to his hospital bed likely had a profound effect on most of those young men, because the vision of an impaired peer etched into their young, impressionable minds served as a glaring reminder of how limited a time they had to shine in the spotlight of football Saturdays. It created a personal and a collective sense of purpose and urgency, engendering the notion of redeeming the time. Then you add the shared life lessons of Johnny Rodgers, a former Nebraska Heisman Trophy winner one score-removed from the college game, and it’s highly likely these brushes with legacy had a unique ability to rouse the passions.
I guess another term that stuck out to me would be the words ‘community.’ Maybe even ‘family.’ Can you imagine these guys hanging around an apartment or dorm room receiving haircuts, watching Sports Center on TV, talking about their goals, their focus, next Saturday’s opponent, encouraging and exhorting one another, maybe even critiquing that day’s practice? Surely there was a lot of joking going around, too, but it’s become apparent to me that these guys had reached the edge of the map as far as what Nebraska Football had achieved. And in doing so, their pride and their consciences were pricked, for they could either continue to coast along and meet the standard of recent 9-win teams, just falling short of the gold ring, or they could push the envelope and grasp, even embrace, “the opportunity to make history.” The holy scriptures state that “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men,” and the result of this divine knowledge is the notion that deeds and accomplishments live on in our stead long after we have passed. This was an interplay of tradition and legacy.
Finally, I think Kareem’s maturation process, like so many others’, was pivotal. For all the recruitniks’ ballyhoo and bluster, there is the somewhat immeasurable factor in every kid at every school playing every position, which is the ability to sacrifice ego and ‘get with the program.’ It was not an easy nor a pleasurable exercise to be under the tutelage of George Darlington, as others have already attested. George had a ‘my way or the highway’ mentality, and unless you were traveling on his bus you might as well be on the roadside thumbing it. Many student/athletes in the defensive backfield gave the thought of jumping onto another bus -i.e. Ron Brown and his receivers- serious consideration. But in the end, with one more year of seasoning, of adjusting, of learning, of contorting themselves and readjusting their mental image and how they fit in the scheme of things, their perseverance finally paid off. In spades.
Notable quote #2:
Kareem Moss on fan support in Memorial Stadium: “Nothing was comparable to that first time walking out of the tunnel. In fact, me and Toby were walking next to each other, walking two by two, it was me and Toby Wright. He said, “Hey, this is what we’re here for.” And we both even started crying a little bit.”
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