Anatomy of an Era: Kevin Ramaekers, Part 3
Excerpted from Chapter 27, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
Kevin Ramaekers, Part 3
Q: Dr. Jack Stark once mentioned a big moment may have been halftime of the Citrus Bowl, where Kenny Walker got up and gave Coach Osborne a big hug and begged him not to retire. Another one was what Boyd Epley said in January of ’91, the team meeting right before winter conditioning, where he pointed out the ‘Wanna be’s,’ the ‘Have to be’s’ and ‘The Jerks.’ Do you remember that at all? Were any of these the impetus to some changes?
KR: I think the big thing was after my sophomore year where we got beat by Gino Toretta and Miami, 22-0. We came back and the coaches had a meeting and just said, “Listen, we’re gonna change up our defense: we’re gonna play like a bunch of crazy bandits. You guys have got to do this together, because if we do this we’re not gonna have individuals.” That’s when it was pointed out, that’s what Boyd was talking about: “There were guys that wanted to do it, guys that had to do it, and some guys that just aren’t gonna do it… and they’re not gonna be around here.” I don’t know if he called them jerks, they just weren’t going to be around here anymore.
It was work. And it became a point of “Do I wanna do it or do I have to do it?” You found out real quick who was out there because daddy wanted them to play at Nebraska and they got a scholarship and they weren’t happy and didn’t get the playing time and weren’t willing to push themselves to get a starting spot. And I think that turning point that Boyd mentioned, was going into that winter conditioning after the Miami loss. Pat Englebert had graduated, John Parrella was a senior, I was the junior, so on and so forth. That’s when I felt things clicked. When we changed our defense and they said “Okay, you’re not 320 lbs. anymore, you need to play 285-290 lbs….and it’s all speed, pin your ears back and just go.” And I felt like that was the style, the character we had on the team and the athletes we had on the team, that was when things started changing. And then we had a good ’92 season and then in ’93 go undefeated and play for the national championship.
Kevin Raemakers & Brenden Stai (Joe Mixan photo)
Q: It seems to me that ’93 national championship game was huge turning point, also. It wasn’t a victory on the scoreboard, but you knew in your heart that you actually played well enough to win it. I hate to bring up a potentially sore subject, but what about that game stands out for you?
KR: Well, first of all, we were seventeen- to twenty-point underdogs and that game should’ve been over at halftime. But we had a great, great two weeks of practice down there; guys weren’t getting drunk and chasing cat. It was just very focused. It felt like we had played just as well as their team. They were fast and athletic, but we realized right away we had a chance. And I remember thinking, ‘Hey, we’re gonna beat these guys.’ And I never in my mind, not for one minute did I doubt that we were gonna win. Even when Byron (Bennett) was kicking that field goal I still thought we were gonna win the game.
And I don’t know if you remember, but William Floyd, Florida State’s fullback, scored that one touchdown that wasn’t even close. And that just fired me up even more, you know? It fired me up so much that I got a late hit on Charlie Ward, which really helped, you know?
Q: I remember that!
KR: It was your emotions taking over, and the officials kept protecting him. They would tell us on the field, “Stay away from the quarterback.” And they were like, “Ball’s gone! Ball’s gone!” It was to the point where the guy hadn’t even thrown the ball yet and the refs were yelling, “Ball’s gone! Ball’s gone!” It was just bullshit.
And this year… this year (and I’m getting off the subject) for the first time I watched that game. On the Classic channel one Sunday they’re playing classic games: it was that game and it was narrated by William Floyd. They talked about a couple things that stood out, and he said, “When we got into this game we definitely took them (Nebraska) for granted. We knew they were big and physical, but we didn’t realize how athletic they were and how they didn’t stop. How every one of those guys had a motor, and it never stopped!”
I got that penalty four or five plays before Floyd supposedly scored that touchdown, and he even said, “There were some frustrations going on on the field. Would I throw a flag on that? No.” And the announcer even said, “That was a real questionable call,” and Floyd said, “But I’m glad they called it, because it set us up for that touchdown.” And I’m like, ‘Oh, great! I blew the Orange Bowl for us.’
But when Floyd jumps for the endzone, the announcer said that it was a “real questionable touchdown”. And Floyd said, “Listen, we won the game. I’m not gonna say I was in the end zone or not. The scoreboard says I scored.” (But he never came out and said, “I scored a touchdown.”) People -to this day- will come up and say, “You guys got screwed in that game.” To this day! And that was like 15-16 years ago?
Q: A lot of the younger players said that after that game they knew in their heart of hearts that they could play with anybody.
KR: Right. And I tell you what, I work out with former pro and Georgia Bulldog Garrison Hearst. He and I train together at a local gym. He played at San Francisco with William Floyd, and once Garrison found out I played football at Nebraska he said, “William told me you were the best team they’d ever played.” That’s huge.
(Joe Mixan photo)
Q: Wow, that’s something to hang your hat on. Now, I watched that game in preparation for talking to some of you guys; you barely touched Charlie Ward on that penalty call.
KR: Yeah, I touched him on the shoulder, just kind of pushed him. He didn’t fall down. I just kind of pushed him and they threw the flag.
Q: Well, I remember Charlie McBride on the sideline said something to you, and he seemed kind of conflicted, because it’s a ricky-ticky call. But then again, you were trained to go 100% on every play, so how can they expect you to hold back now?
KR: When I went to the sideline Charlie just yelled at me, “Use your f***in’ head!,” but then he said, “But don’t let up.” So again, being nuts but being under control. “Use your f***ing head, but don’t let up. Be smart.” That’s what he said to me. I thought I’d never play another snap again. (laughs)
Q: Would the f-bombs fly out of Charlie’s mouth within earshot of Coach Osborne?
KR: Oh yeah! With Charlie, what you saw was what you got. He never changed, because Charlie was the type of guy that would just break you down. That was his whole deal, when you came in to him you were just a big chunk of clay; he would mold us and form us the way he wanted. Charlie was intense, spit in your face, his eyes bulging out of his head. And Coach Osborne would put his arm around you, analytically, “Let’s talk about this…” I felt like I was going to confession in church, you know? (laughs)
Q: Good cop, bad cop? Coach Osborne knew what he was doing when he pulled that staff together?
KR: Absolutely. He knew the guys that would pull his strengths up and help him out with his weaknesses. That staff, I’m telling you -and I said it in my Hall of Fame speech- you had Coach Ron Brown, Coach Tony Samuel, George Darlington, Dan Young, all those guys, Kevin Steele. It was an unbelievable staff that was always on the same page. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes, if they got along or hung out together, but to us guys there was nothing that could get in their way.
Q: Any other thoughts or recollections from that Florida State game stands out in your mind?
KR: I mean, the whole game was awesome. I didn’t have a great game individually, but the play of Trev Alberts? The play of Tommie Frazier, Lance Lundberg and our offensive line moving them back? Terry Connealy, Toby Wright, Mike Anderson? I miss a tackle and, boom, here’s Mike cleaning up. It was just like we were flying. Everything seemed so fast. Guys were just flying around. By far one of the fastest games ever. The game flew by time-wise, but the speed on the field?
One thing in my mind: after the game I’m sitting in the hotel room with my dad, crying, and just saying, ‘It was just so fast!’ I was exhausted after that game, but the speed of the game was incredible.
Q: Favorite practice story?
KR: There were so many. My experiences at Nebraska were everything and more than I could ever dream of. There were so many good practices, so many good memories, it was a great experience. Making a decision to go there was the best thing I did.
Q: Where else where you recruited to?
KR: I went to UCLA, Notre Dame, Tennessee and Iowa, because I was going to wrestle and play football. So Hayden Fry and then Dan Gable -because I’d gone to Dan Gable’s wrestling camp the year before- they said I could play football and wrestle.
Q: And once you stepped foot on campus you realized that it’s hard enough to play football alone, much less football plus wrestle?
KR: Exactly. I would go down and wrestle with Tolly Thompson, who was the heavyweight, and Rulon Gardner. I would just go down there to roll around with them because I was big and strong, and Coach Manning asked, “Can you come work out these guys?” So I would come down there and work out with them every now and then. They were superior wrestlers.
Q: That’s’ pretty heady company, Kevin. Here you had Tolly, who became the NCAA heavyweight Champion, and then you have Rulon, who became the Olympic champion…that’s pretty huge. You were a sparring-partner equivalent of that great Russian, Alexander Karelin, in training Rulon? (laughs)
KR: Yeah, right. That dude would rip my head off. (laughs)
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Q: Let me ask you, was there anyone behind the scenes, the inner workings, who meant a lot to you?
KR: There is. I think there’s three departments that do not get enough credit. One’s gonna be the training staff: Doak Ostergard, George Sullivan, Jerry Weber. You’ve got to understand, those guys kept us on the field for 4 years. I don’t know if you’re gonna talk to anybody who didn’t have an injury and those guys got you back and were on the cutting edge in rehabilitation, the nicest equipment, ice baths after practice, tubs before, stretching, just taking care of you. They were awesome. They were there 7 days a week. People don’t understand that. Sunday mornings after the game they were giving treatment again.
And the strength staff, I was a huge Randy Gobel fan and Boyd Epley fan. Those guys were constantly monitoring you, talking to you, come up at lunch and see what you were eating, just constantly on you.
And then at the end of the day, Keith Zimmer and Dennis Leblanc, those guys taught you how to be a student. A lot of people forget that. If you go to Nebraska and think you’re just gonna play football, you are mistaken. You are gonna go, you’re gonna get an education, they’re gonna push you and they’re gonna monitor you. The deal at Nebraska -if you’re fortunate enough to get a scholarship to play there- they will produce outstanding citizens. If you come to the program you will succeed. There’s no doubt in my mind, you will succeed. If you commit. But if you wanna do your own thing you’re not gonna graduate, you’re not gonna play football. You might go to the pros, and what percentage comes back and finishes school? I’m not sure.
Q: Anything I haven’t touched on that you feel had a big effect on creating this unbelievable, unstoppable championship run during Coach Osborne’s end of tenure?
KR: There are two things that really stand out in my mind. From your position all the way to the trainers to the coaching staff, everybody was all on the same page. We had the same common goals, the same theme. And every department had the same intensity, whether it be weightlifting and conditioning, when you went to study table you had to buckle down for two hours and just focus on your schoolwork, when you went in to get treatment you’d walk out of there soaking wet because of rehab, you’re getting your body stronger, healing from your injuries, to the training table. Everybody was on the same page, we had the common theme.
And you hear this all the time, “Nebraska has the greatest fans in the world.” And I will tell you, our fans are amazing. Down here -you know I’ve lived in Tennessee, I’ve lived in Louisiana, I’ve lived in Georgia- and even the Clemson fans from the game we had at the Gator Bowl, they’ve talked to me and said, “Your fans are incredible! Good people.” They live for Nebraska football, and the way they treated us is phenomenal.
And win or lose, they were just so awesome, so supportive. The letters you would get? When I got hurt -when I blew my knee- I get this big freakin’ stack of mail! The mailman brings me this big honkin’ stack of letters! I don’t know how the hell they got my address, but he must have brought a stack of something like 75 letters. People I don’t even know. Don’t even know! Just, “We hope you’re doing well, we’re thinking of you. We can’t wait to see you get better and get on the field again.” Just totally encouraging.
Q: That does a lot for a kid knowing he’s gonna be out of commission for a while…
KR: Yeah! When you feel you’re not gonna be a part of the program, here these people reach out even further and draw me into the family more than when I was playing.
Q: Any special perks or privileges as far as being a Nebraska football player?
KR: I think just putting that helmet on alone is the biggest privilege and honor, to say I wore the Blackshirt. I wore the N and I played on that field. That in itself is an honor.
Q: Do you still have your Blackshirt?
KR: Oh yeah, I’ve got my Blackshirt down in my basement, framed; my Orange Bowl jersey framed; and my helmet from my senior year downstairs. My wife calls it ‘My Shrine to Myself.’ (laughs)
Tina (Coutresis) Lundberg, Kevin & Heidi (Junius) Raemakers (Photo courtesy of Tina Lundberg)
Q: Any parting shots?
KR: Hopefully, I think if you were to interview guys from the ’90 to the 2000 class, I think you would hear a lot of the same answers. It would show you that everyone was always on the same page. And I think after Coach Osborne’s departure and Coach Solich’s departure, a lot of things changed. I think a lot of tradition, a lot of things we used to do, maybe the athletes weren’t given, weren’t empowered to do some of the things we did when we were there together.
They basically gave us all a leash, and they knew player by player how long that leash could be. And they let you take that leash to the last inch. But then if you got a little outside that line they’d rein you back in. There’s no way without Boyd and Bryan and Keith and Doak and George and Jerry and Dennis, there’s no way I’d have graduated or even played after I got in trouble my sophomore year. There’s no way. I mean Osborne, I thanked him at my Hall of Fame banquet and said, ‘This guy never gave up on me. And he had every right to. Because you know what? I would have. If I were him, I would’ve.’
Q: Which probably, for the average person out there, sheds some light on his treatment of Lawrence Phillips.
Q: And hey, I swore I heard somewhere at a banquet or something that someone thought your name was Rainmakers. Do you remember that?
KR: Yeah, they thought I was Native American. I’m Dutch, man. (laughs)
When I went to Iowa the first time I met Hayden Fry. My brother and I went on the recruiting trip. We were walking around and they had a place where they meet the recruits and are shaking hands, and a lieutenant there said to Coach Fry, “Hey, this is Kevin Ramaekers and his brother Mike.” And Hayden Fry looks at me and he says, “Rainmakers? You know, you sure don’t look Indian.” And I thought, ‘What?!’ My brother looked at me and mumbled, “Who is this asshole?” (laughs) Hilarious.
Notable quote #2:
Kevin Ramaekers on the defensive change: “Listen, we’re gonna change up our defense: we’re gonna play like a bunch of crazy bandits.”
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