Anatomy of an Era: Matt Vrzal, Part 2
Excerpted from Chapter 26, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
Matt Vrzal, Part 2
Q: Tell me more about Coach Osborne. You get older and you get more comfortable talking to him, what stands out now?
MV: I’m still not comfortable talking to him. (laughs) Coach is Coach. At the end of the day, what makes him the man that he is? He’s happy for us, that we had success on the field. And he’s proud of us for the success we had off the field.
I owned some bars in Lincoln for a while, then I got out of the business and ran into Coach. I was barely a week out of it and he said, “Verz, that’s a good move. I’m sure that you’re gonna pursue a respectable line of work.” (laughs) And I said, ‘Coach, restaurants are fun, but people like to go to bars and enjoy themselves. And it’s not all just breaking up knock-down, drunken brawls. It’s an exciting atmosphere.’ And he said, ”It’s just good to see you move on in your life.” (laughs)
Q: So you owned a few bars?
MV: Yeah, I had Lazzari’s Pizza. And remember Herm’s?
Q: “Coldest beer in town”?
MV: Yeah, we renamed that one “The Bar.” And the Lizard Lounge? Bought that one and renamed it “Downtown.” And then we had Sidetracks. (The two in the middle were more just fun and games for us.) Kids would be in the bar and they would call their friends and try to tell them where they were. They’d say, “Where are you at?,” and they’d say, “The Bar!” And you could hear them say, “Yeah, I know that, but which one?” And they‘d say “I’m at The Bar!” (laughs) As you know O Street is referred to as downtown, so you’d hear conversations about that, too. “Where are you?” “Downtown.” “I know, but what bar?” “That’s what I’m saying, I’m at Downtown!” (laughs) Those were just funny names that when it was 12:30 at night and I was grouchy and tired, I could just laugh.
Q: (laughing) Getting back to the teams, what do you think separated the teams from others of their time?
MV: Every team kind of had their special players. You know, we were lucky enough to have Tommie, Lawrence, Ahman. Everybody had that… it was just the “it” factor. The ’83 team, they had it, but it just wasn’t in the cards for them, there was something wrong with the universe that year. But for us everything just clicked.
More than anything it was respect for everybody. It wasn’t like everybody liked everyone, but there was respect, kind of like big brother, little brother. You know, “I can pick on them, but you can’t pick on them.” And it didn’t matter, black, white, purple, yellow.
Q: Any particular recollections of that brotherhood, that unity?
MV: Here’s one for you. For the holidays -my redshirt year, Thanksgiving- some of the guys, because they closed the dorms they sometimes put the guys in hotels. One year I took the Peter boys, Scotty Saltsman, Ben Rutz, and Twig (Ryan Terwilliger) (because he lived way out west) they became a part of my family. (Christmases, too, when we could, because we had an early Christmas. Oh yeah, and Larry Townsend. Big Larry Townsend! When he showed up my grandma looked at him and said, “Uh oh, we’re gonna need more food.”) (laughs) But yeah, stuff like that was a great example of what kind of family we had. The great bonds, the buddies that you cared about, you don’t want them by themselves. As we moved on in college we rented houses, and all the guys came over to the house for early Christmas and Thanksgiving and my Mom and Grandma and my Aunt would come over to our house and cook. Those are the things outside the game that bond you. All the blood, sweat and tears on the field really bond you as a team, but those off-the-field things are sometimes just as important, the friendships and brotherhood and stuff like that. Clint Finley still calls me every Thanksgiving and asks -us bohonks (Bohemians) call them rolls, but they’re really biscuits- he says, “Hey, can I get some of your Grandma’s biscuits?” (laughs)
Q: Any memorable play stand out for you, Matt?
MV: You really want me to do this, Paul? From a team aspect, the ’94 triple zeros on the scoreboard was unbelievable for me. From the gut-wrenching year before that we had in ’93 when that clock went to zero. Wow, what a feeling! And that Miami team ended up having 7 or 8 Pro-Bowlers from that team that we beat that year, but the next year when that clock read triple zero and we were ahead and won the national championship, that was probably the moment of all moments.
From a personal aspect, for me it was when we were playing Arizona State and I was (Aaron) Graham’s backup. It’s second, third quarter -and I didn’t play a whole bunch, enough to say I was a player and that made me proud- but not enough to say that I really made that much of a difference, really. Well, Graham comes sprinting off the field screaming, “My helmet’s broke! My helmet’s broke!” So Coach Young sends me in the game. And we had worked this freaking play every time in practice and it was Shotgun 36 Trap. What happened was, the center snaps the ball directly to the running back and the quarterback misses it. (And I had this bad habit of launching the ball over the quarterback’s head and the running back’s head.) So I’m in and Tommie doesn’t know I’m in, and he calls the play and looks down and sees it’s me and says, “Verz, you got this?” And I’m, ‘I got it.’ He goes, “I can call timeout.” And I’m like, ‘No, don’t call timeout. I’ve got it.’ So I get in my stance and I’m like, ‘Okay…’ (Now, I’ve got to keep my rear end low for this snap. You had to keep your butt low to keep the ball low.) So it looks on the field that my rear end is so low that it’s only an inch above the heals of my shoes. It looks like I’m on the toilet, and if that’s not the truth, Paul, I’ll kiss your rear end and like it. (laughs) Anyway, I snap this thing and it’s just a little bit high, but Ahman grabs it. And they blitz right into it, somehow. I took my step –really, the fastest block I’ve ever had- I pick the noseguard off and knock him into the blitzing linebacker and Ahman goes for 70-something yards for a touchdown.
And on the field, (we had to watch it on film about 800 times) but Ahman takes off and he’s going (and I had my block, and the defensive lineman is down and the linebacker’s down), and then I take off. I started chasing him. I was running and celebrating and having a great time, and we get into the endzone and I can’t believe he caught it. And later, with Coach Tenopir in the film room, he goes “Verz, you are really kind of fast! (laughs) If you look here, Ahman is ten yards ahead of you and you haven’t even started running yet. (And we watched this so many times) You’re giving him a 10 yard lead. Ahman is 20 yards ahead of you, and then you take off.” Then as the film goes on, now it’s only 18 yards, now it’s only 15 yards, now it’s only twelve yards from catching him. And he’s like “You are actually catching Ahman Green!” (laughs) Everybody is laughing and hooting and hollering. So I’m laughing, too. It was funny. Well, I get into the endzone and Coach is like, ”Now, here’s where it gets scary.” And I’m thinking, ‘Oh no,’ (because I knew what I did). So Ahman literally gets to the endzone and turns around and I’m like right there! He turns around and jumps up and I catch him. And I didn’t think he was going to jump up, and he kind of almost knocks me over.
It ended up on the cover of Huskers Illustrated that week. We beat them like 77 to 14. Then Lance Brown did that backflip. They were all mad because they thought we ran up the score. Matt Turman did his job, he checked out of an audible that he saw. Lance Brown saw it too and ran the right route, and Turman hit him on a post route and he scored. Then like a doofus Lance Brown does a backflip.
Q: After that game, I think I saw a T-shirt in the Nebraska Bookstore saying, “If you don’t like us running up the score…get a defense.”
MV: Yeah. And Graham was always gone on Friday, which was prep practice, and I had to run with all the ones. It was raining and we had to hurry up, and Brook was the quarterback, and I just launched it over his head. And Brook’s like 6’5” -it’s impossible to launch it over his head. But I did it. Coach Tenopir was gone, so the film session the next day we went to watch with Coach Osborne and the clock just couldn’t go fast enough. I was like “Come on, clock! Just keep going. Go fast so we can get out of here before we get to that play!” Well, we didn’t. And we get to that clip and I’m thinking, ‘I am so screwed.’ So it’s paused right at the height of Brook’s jump and the ball is just sailing over his head and his reach and Coach Osborne goes “Verz, what happened there?” I was like, ‘Coach, it was my fault. Nobody to blame, I didn’t do everything correctly. I got excited when I saw the blitz I had to pick up. I didn’t panic, and I just wanted to get over there fast enough. But I didn’t take care of my first responsibility to get the ball to the quarterback. There’s nobody else to blame but me.’ And then he stopped the film. He didn’t just pause it. He stopped it.
And Tommie turns around to me and says, “Oh, you’re done.” So I was like ‘Oh man, they’re gonna kick me off the team….I am outta here.’ And Coach Osborne says, “Verz, I’ve been coaching for a long time…” and I was like ‘Oh, my God, please let this slide…’, and he goes, “I have never had anyone give me an answer to a question like that.” And I look at Aaron Taylor and I’m thinking, ‘This could be good or this could be bad.’ Coach Osborne goes, “You could have blamed that on the wet ball, on the nose guard (who’d jumped offsides on the play, but he got back), you could have blamed it on any number of things, but you didn’t. You just admitted what you did wrong,” and then he just stopped… and went on to the next play. I look over at Dishman and I ask, ‘What the hell was that? Was it good or bad?’ And Dishman says, “I think that’s good, but I’d ask him later.” (laughs) But then he did say, ‘Vrzal, that’s probably one of the best answers I’ve had in my coaching career.’
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Q: And is there anything you wish you could do over, better, differently?
MV: Um, this is just more a psychoanalysis of myself, but for me it would be to realize that, being a lot healthier now instead of being just a real big, strong guy, to maybe realize that I was good enough to be there. Because there’s always the doubt in your mind, ‘Are you good enough to be here? Are you good enough to play?’ In my situation, you’ve got guys with a scholarship in front of you, but you get your shot and try to work your way up.
And me? I was a walk-on for a reason. And I should have realized that I did have the talent, but I think that year in ’96, my senior year, I should have been starting. I still have that in my own mind. I realize the situation, if I had more confidence in myself I could have been the starter. Let me retract, I should have been the starter. I knew the system, I knew I had to be in better shape, and when I got into camp I realized I wasn’t. That maybe might have alleviated some of the panic, because we had so many great linemen. And was I better than Chris Dishman? No. Was I better than John Zatechka? No. Was I better than Aaron Taylor? No. Was I better than Adam Treu? No. But you know, maybe you don’t have that knee-jerk reaction where you move Taylor to center and Dish to guard, and then you’ve got everybody out of position. But if I do better for myself, then you have a three-tackle rotation, three-guard rotation, and a two-center rotation. And that was my thing, I was battling some inferiority stuff in my own mind. We started spring ball and it was, “Let’s move Taylor to center.” I don’t hold anything against anybody, it was just that I let myself down in that aspect, and that’s so hard to deal with most days. I should have been more prepared. We shouldn’t have needed that option.
Q: What would you pin that on? The weightroom & staff?
MV: No, not the weightroom. I was always in there and did well. If it wasn’t for a broken strap on the hang clean I would have been a winner on the Performance Index Platform.
Q: Aw, really?!
MV: Yeah, I broke a strap on my last rep. I had one side racked and the other side was on the ground. Dave looked at me and he goes, “Dude, I am so sorry. That was the one that would have put you at 500 points for the Performance Index.” Maybe I’m not looking at it correctly, either, though. I wasn’t the fastest guy. I thought I had decent feet, but man, we just had so much talent.
Q: Any thoughts on those slogans? What did you guys think about those? Did you buy into them or think they were hokey?
MV: It wasn’t something that you woke up every morning and go like, “Unfinished Business, let’s get it going.” But it helped. The thing I liked the most was when summer conditioning from ‘93 going into ‘94, the amount of time being put on the clock. That was a good one. I liked that one.
But you know, Bryan Bailey, when we won ‘94 and were in summer conditioning going into ’95, we always liked to flip him crap and give each other a hard time. Well, Bailey said, “Well, you’re no longer national champs.” And we’re like, “What do you mean? Yes we are.” And he’s like, “Nope. It’s over. Now you’re trying to defend your national championship. This is a new deal.” It may not have registered as much as the time-on-the-clock thing, but we thought at that moment, “Hey, he’s right! We’re not anymore. He’s right. Now it’s time to go…” That wasn’t necessarily a motivating factor, but a lot of guys, it registered with them.
And those ’95 guys -I think there were a lot of them- they won’t say it, but they wanted to show everyone that “Hey, there’s a lot of that ’94 team that’s gone, but a lot of the parts that made that work are still here.” And anybody, anywhere, I will come out and tell anybody, that ’95 team would have just pounded any team that USC had, any OU team from back in the day, any Notre Dame team that ever existed. You were looking at a team whose closest game they had was a 14-point game, and that was due to the fact that Washington State, I believe, scoring a touchdown with their first team offense on our third team defense. That turned it into a 14 point game. Other than that, nobody was close. That Florida team had so much speed, so much talent.
I remember them after that game. They did their share of running their mouth before: “We’re so good, we shouldn’t even be on the same field with Nebraska. Why are we even here? They should just give us the national title,” blah, blah, blah down the line. Well, if you poke a bear with a stick long enough, that bear’s gonna come up and bite you. I tell you what, after that game there was a different tone. Walking off the field they were like, “Hey, you guys are the real deal. You are as advertised. We don’t belong on your field.”
To be continued…
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