Anatomy of an Era: Matt Vrzal, Part 3
Excerpted from Chapter 26, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
Matt Vrzal, Part 3
Q: Anything else about the process, team building, that stands out that drove the team? You said Strength Coach Bryan Bailey made that comment. Wasn’t he in charge of working with the O line at that time? Was he you guys’ personal trainer?
MV: He just floated around. He was such a great guy. All you guys in the weightroom were such great guys. Mike Arthur, too. And Boyd was flexing and never breathing though.. he just got under everybody’s skin. (laughs) But you kind of have to have that figurehead. You’d be working out and here would come Boyd, and you’d be like, ‘Boyd, just go back to your office.’ (laughs) We’d test out and he’d come over and act like he was the one that trained you all the time, then he’d go back in his office. We knew who really did it. (laughs) That was more of the linemens’ view of Boyd. (laughs)
And another thing: fighting in practice -to me- always brought everyone together. Remember, for a fight to happen you have to have two people who deeply care about the situation or the circumstance of what has happened. They have that passion about that. If you have somebody come to blows there is a reason: You’re either getting beat or beating the other guy. And one, he doesn’t like getting beat, and two, he doesn’t think it should happen.
And there were times when it was just miserable: that time after the final exams and before you left for the bowl game, when there was nothing going on except practice. And you’d see those f***ing MUSCO lighting trucks come in. Then you were like, ‘Crap!’ and you know since they’ve got lights out there you’re gonna be practicing ’til like 6, 7 o’clock.
And I recall the times we went to live one-on-ones. It was my sophomore year, I’m Aaron Graham’s backup, and away we go… “Goal line! Ones against ones!” And I’m thinking, ‘This is a bad idea, there is some tension in the air. It’s palpable. This is not good.’ So here we go. Somebody had to come out, and Steve Volin comes in. Now, when you pit Christian Peter against Steve Volin, it’s a defensive win…but the more you get into offensive line play the more you realize one thing: the beauty of the ‘cut block’. It’s an unwritten rule when you’re going one-on-ones, you don’t ‘cut’ people. So they toss the ball and, well, Volin cuts Christian. And I’m watching this as a backup and I’m saying, ‘Uh oh, this is not good. Volin is not going to like the repercussions of this.’ So Christian shoves his head in the ground. (That’s the thing about Christian, if you do it one time he’ll let you get away with it, but if you do it again, “We’re gonna have a problem.”) So he shoves his head in the ground, “You fat SOB, don’t you cut me!” Bow, wow, wow, and so on. So we got back to the huddle and Coach Tenopir, with his ornery demeanor, has his dander up because the toss didn’t work too well. And he says, “We’re gonna run that again.” So here comes Volin up to the line, and I’m like, ‘Volin, don’t do it. Don’t do it….’
And he did it. He cuts Christian again. Christian, for as big as he was, was so ungodly quick. So as Volin cuts him Christian already has him shoved into the turf, his hand on his facemask, lifting his helmet up on his head so he can get the proper punching angle. He starts firing jabs into Volin’s face! Well, Graham sees this and he goes and hits Christian! Well, then Jason’s radar goes off and says, “My brother is being hit. I’ve got to go help”, and here comes Jason into the mess! And then Stai sees this and jumps in! Then Tomich and Wistrom see the Peter brothers getting picked on, and they go psycho! So this thing is literally squared off!…Linebackers have running backs, corners have wide receivers, safeties have tight ends, a couple of guys that are backups are pushing each other. (laughs) It was just bedlam. There was a fight everywhere. And Coach Osborne is blowing his whistle as loud as he can to save his life and nothing is happening. (laughs) You usually hear the whistle and you stop it, you know? Well, he keeps blowing that whistle and nothing is happening, so he finally lets out a “Dadgummit!”
And out of all the whistle blowing and commotion, the dadgummit stopped it. It’s over. He’s so mad and his face is so red, and he just pointed a finger and it’s shaking and he yells out “Christian!” and he points to the South Stadium stairs. Then he goes, “Volin!” and he pointed. And I’m like, ‘That sucks!’ (’Cause he’d already gotten punished.) And Christian says, “How many?” And Osborne goes, “Until we start gassers!” So these two dudes start running stadium steps.
Now, Coach Osborne: a faithful, holy, upright man, but there’s a devious side to him. They’re up at the top of the stairs of the South Stadium and Christian is trying to play the game: he’s trying to time it so that when that final whistle blows and gassers start, he just has to come down the steps. Coach Osborne and him are squaring off -and neither one will acknowledge they’re squaring off- so Christian finally decides to turn around and run down, and when he gets to the bottom he takes one last look back. And Coach Osborne goes, “Huddle up. Run one more play.” Christian takes off. And he’s about a quarter of the way up, and Osborne blows the whistle for time to run gassers. (Now, if you know Christian, he’s not going to go only a quarter of the way up and turn around, he’s going to go all the way up to the top and then run all the way back down.) So we get done and we’re all on the gasser line anticipating when his whistle is gonna blow and how I’m gonna cheat so I don’t have to touch all the lines. And we’re standing there, and finally someone on the defense says, “Hey, are we gonna go?” And Coach Osborne says, “We’re gonna wait for those two.” And they were about three quarters of the way up now. They had to finish that last one, so he got an extra South Stadium stairs out of them, ninety-six rows. And they come down, and they are just gassed, huffing and puffing. And Coach goes, “Alright, defensive linemen first!” (Defensive line never went first!) He lined them up and ran ’em. And by that time, the lactic acid had built up so much -and Christian ran with wide elbows, anyway, when he wasn’t tired- but man, now he was swimming. (laughs)
Q: For the sake of educating the uninitiated, define what a gasser was…
MV: Oh, it was lining up on the sideline and then sprinting across the field to the other sideline and back, then across and back. So two times across and back the width of the football field was a gasser. Sideline to sideline.
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Q: And being a former player, what would your response be to the person who said, “You players have it easy, you get everything.”
MV: There’s a whole gamut of things that come into my mind when you say that. The first one, initially was, ‘Hey, come live my life. Do that for a couple days and then tell me what you think.’ Did we get special treatment? To an extent, yeah. The real difference back then was that the food was prepared off-site and then shipped out to the dormitories whereas our food was made right there. Now, I won’t say that was fact, as I got that from a second-hand source. Computer lab? At the time every sorority had them, every fraternity had them, the residence halls had them. Tutoring? If you go to the Union there are tutors available everywhere. And then I would also say, ‘OK, if you don’t want us to get special treatment, then let’s not play football. We’ll see what happens to your university.’ Your computer lab is not there, your Love Library remodel doesn’t happen, you don’t have a Physics Department. The revenue we get, it’s a necessary part of the game.
I got into it once, just jiving with an athlete from one of the other sports, and they were saying “You football players…you get so much more of this and that.” And I responded, ‘That’s great. Any point in time if you guys want to pay for your own sport, have at it. You have fun with that four-game season. (laughs) Golf? You can go hit range balls. Awesome. Have fun with that range ball competition.’ For those sports it was, ‘Hey, let’s keep it in perspective. Yes, we do play a revenue-producing sport. We’re more than happy to do that. Do we get a couple extra perks? Yes, we do. So we can go watch our buddies play baseball and play basketball and have you guys get this experience, too. Don’t forget that.’
Q: Great response. And I have to ask, any special talents or personalities that stand out to you from those days?
MV: Well, speaking of Lawrence Phillips, he was just a great guy. I had a lot of fun with him, joking around the locker room with him. And when he got to the NFL, you could see if he ever had an issue come up, it would usually be a mixture of alcohol in the situation. And maybe it’s just me (I’m kind of a bleeding heart), but try to understand the situation he came from, where he was left on somebody’s doorstep, saying, “Hey, take care of my kid.” I may be wrong on that, but that’s kind of the way I understood it. That’s got to do some damage to you as a person. Just dealing with that feeling of abandonment, I suppose.
Locker room Lawrence? I loved him to death. He was funny. A great sense of humor. A great teammate. But he had a short fuse and he needed to take care of it. That just really hurts my heart. And when he got picked up by St Louis I went and told him, ‘Listen, I don’t want anything from you. I’ll pay rent. I’ll go get a job in St. Louis and I’ll just come with you and be your support staff, see what you can do to the NFL. I’ve seen Walter Payton play in person, seen Tony Dorsett play in person. And you’re better. You‘re better than both of them.’ And he looked at me and said, “You would do that, wouldn’t you Verz?” I was like, ‘I’d do it in a second, buddy. I’d move down there and, like I said, get a job. I don’t want to be paid by you, I just want to make sure you don’t get in harm’s way.’ He just laughed it off. That guy was so unbelievably talented. Just gifted. He had everything: power, finesse, moves, speed, ughh! Just as a fan of the game of football, that one hurts my heart.
Q: I feel much the same, Verz. Tell me, anyone behind the scenes play a huge role in those teams? Anybody stand out to you?
MV: The entire support staff: managers, strength staff, secretaries, sports information. All those people. Those are the people for me. The trainers, they don’t get enough credit. You guys will be the first ones to acknowledge that we weren’t easy to work with. (laughs) There was a lot of bobbing and weaving and trying to get us to work some days when we didn’t feel like it, but you guys got us to do it. The folks up in the office handling staff schedules, all those people. They were all part of it. All those people did such a great job, they allowed the coaches just to focus on the coaching and teaching. Those student managers, we put those guys through hell. They were always there if you needed anything. They were great. The behind the scenes guys. If you’d like me to mention some of them you’ve got Mike Mason in the equipment room…
Q: I’ll have to get a hold of Mike. That’s a great idea. Well, thanks for your time talking about the memories, Matt. It was fun.
MV: No problem.
Proper planning prevents piss-poor performance. Though I never once heard that phrase uttered in the halls of Memorial Stadium, the 6P axiom was the unspoken mantra of the players and staff in that 60 & 3 era. Maybe a sanitized, more politically correct way of conveying the point would be to ‘leave no stone unturned,’ because the rocks were constantly rolling from Sunday through Saturday in Lincoln. At that time in the early 1990’s the collusion of computers and videotape was still just a vague dream, but Nebraska led the way with a new-fangled way of working with game film and practice film: it was called digital format. This was way, way, wayyyyy before YouTube and podcasts and video streaming the like, and the simplicity with which film could now be sliced and diced and repackaged lent to a super-efficient use of opponent’s game film (as well as a rehashing of the previous day’s practice film). What this new technology did was speed up film study to uber-efficient blocks of coach/player interaction as well as provide a virtual non-stop feedback loop in the preparation for next Saturday’s contest. While the opponent was most likely fumbling with scratchy VHS recorders or Super 8 film projectors, Nebraska’s coaching staff could -with a click of the mouse- go exactly where they wished and pinpoint a play, a maneuver, a technique or tendency, and make the most of every teachable moment. With that came players’ renewed confidence that they had not only seen everything that the opponent could possibly throw at them, but it also provided an opportunity to view how they reacted to game-like simulations on the practice field in the days leading up. In essence, it removed necessity of a whole first quarter of the game to explore and surmise opponent’s moves and strategies, thus allowing the game plan to move forward at warp speed. Resultantly, the Husker squads often jumped out to early leads, which led to larger leads as the game moved along. The hay was in the barn at an earlier stage than most contests of that era, playing a vital role in getting ahead, turning up the heat, and staying ahead.
Another item that stood out was Matt’s mention of the ’96 team’s absence of a vocal leader. To drive home a point -in case you may not have paid much notice- he did not say that there was a leadership vacuum, but that there was no vocal leadership. If I could deduce anything from that ’96 year it would be the absolute necessity for a team to possess at least one outwardly rambunctious, gregarious, over-the-top verbal leader to complement those quiet leaders all around. I think of Christian Peter and Kevin Ramaekers when I make that statement, and I look forward to what they might add to the conversation as we go forward.
Another item touched upon was Matt’s mention of the bonding experiences apart from the campus team activities. Can’t you just imagine some of these beefy brutes sitting down to a holiday feast and scarfing down massive quantities of food in no time flat? If you’d ever seen Larry Townsend in person, you would know exactly why Matt’s grandmother shuddered, as ‘Bohonks’ are pretty well-versed in churning out good quantities of holiday food. And too wit, did you notice just a little glint of a difference between the group of ’92 guys in relation to Tommie Frazier? I did. It seems to me that his peers respected perhaps the greatest college quarterback of all time, but they didn’t necessarily become fast friends. Interesting.
Lastly, Matt mentioned how the 1:16 on the clock during the summer workouts of ’94 was a huge motivator. As longtime Husker fans, we’ve likely heard it more than we have the Pledge of Allegiance, but I find it peculiar from a psychological point of view that the constant reminder a negative memory repeated over and over was actually turned into a positive. Think about that paradox for a brief second: what would you think of seeing a photo, every single day, of your Ex or an IRS Auditor or the thug who mugged you last year? I don’t suppose it would give me the warm fuzzies, if you get my drift. Nonetheless, it’s a testament to the fortitude of those kids and acts as Exhibit A for the concept of taking a frown and turning it upside down. Making hay? Indeed!
Notable quote #2:
Matt Vrzal on being a Nebraska Football fan turned player: “If it means that much to people, it must really be special. I want to be a part of that and play whatever role I can play.”
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