Anatomy of an Era: Mike “Biff” Roberts Part 1
Excerpted from Chapter 6, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1
Butch Coolidge: (beating up Marsellus Wallace) You feel that sting, big boy, huh? That’s pride #%@in’ with you! You gotta fight through that shit!”
-Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction
Do you remember those old Jiffy-brand peanut butter ads? To loosely paraphrase, “Choosy mothers choose Biff!” Jokes aside, Mike “Biff” Roberts was one tough & persevering hombre. If you saw him in street clothes you’d never have guessed he played football for the University of Nebraska. I’m sure now and then he’d be at some campus house party and a couple buddies would try -laughably and unsuccessfully- to convince a pretty young coed that he truly was a member of the Cornhusker football team.
Now, that’s not a put-down of Biff, but rather my way of paying respects to a guy who -despite lacking an overly physically imposing stature at the time- made hay every day on the practice field as a member of the scout team. Like the old Mark Twain saying goes, “What matters most is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” Let’s reacquaint ourselves with Biff…
Notable quote #1:
“I can remember it was tough to even walk after some practices. Of course, you never showed it...every player feeds off of that. It builds chemistry. It’s that hard work ethic.”
Mike “Biff” Roberts
Walk-on, Rover, Omaha, Neb. (Central)
Where are they now? Council Bluffs, Iowa, Law Enforcement
Question: So Biff, where did you grow up?
Mike Roberts: Originally from Omaha. I attended Omaha Central, what they called ‘I-Back High.’ We had Leodis Flowers, we had Curtis Cotton. I came to Nebraska in 1992 and redshirted my freshman year...and I finished with the ‘97 Orange Bowl game, the end of the ‘96 season.
Q: Hey, Calvin Jones was from Central, too, right?
MR: Yeah, he was two years ahead of me. He didn’t know me too well. I was just a skinny little beanpole on the sophomore team when he was a senior making the state records for yards and all that stuff, being recruited all around the nation.
Q: What position did you play in high school?
MR: I played safety and receiver, and was recruited as a receiver. And Central was a real top-notch school when it came to recruiting, and they were looking for blocking receivers that could also catch well. The only reason the university knew about me was when I went to the football camp and had the greatest three days of my life! (laughs)
Q: In what respect?
MR: With everything: testing, catching. I caught everything with my eyes closed just about, with one hand, I don’t know how I did it. My testing was decent, no blazing speed where the eyes would pop open, but it was a 4.7 electronic time, which is pretty decent for a young high school kid. And they were probably thinking, “By the time he gets to Nebraska and develops he’ll be running 4.5 or 4.6 electronic.”
Q: Sure, “Let Boyd get ahold of him and he’ll really make some progress,” right?
MR: Exactly. And that never happened. I don’t know if I’d peaked or what. (laughs) What happened was, I had a bad high school senior year. Nebraska didn’t have enough scholarships and I wasn’t scholarship material for that level, so they asked, “We’d love for you to walk on”, and the walk-on program was huge at that time. And I had a few scholarship offers to Northwest Missouri State, Wayne State. I was part of a great walk-on group that year with Adam Treu, Brian Schuster, Jon Vedral. All those guys became starters, so I had a great class I joined in that year.
Then every summer I had to go back home and work, stuff the Husker Football staff set me up with at the time. And the jobs sucked. (laughs) I was like, ‘Hey, I’m supposed to have the easy job,’ like watch other guys do work. (laughs) They found me a job at Pamida, like a small Kmart in smaller towns. They put me in the warehouse so I had to load up all the merchandise that they were going to ship out. So we’d go and load like a hundred boxes of Tide that weighed 30 lbs. and then 100 boxes of Duracell batteries that weighed 50 lbs. And it was high speed, you had to do it quick. And the warehouse was 100 degree heat and almost 100% humidity and no breeze or wind at all. After 8 hours of just throwing boxes it was bad.
Q: Nowadays they call that a great ‘core workout’…
MR: (laughs) When I went home it made it all the more difficult to work out with the guys, too. Maybe only twice a week I’d make it to the stadium to work out. And I didn’t hit it hard until August before fall camp, as far as getting back in shape. I was like, ‘I’m losing a step every year, losing 5 lbs. of muscle every year instead of gaining 5 or 10 lbs of muscle every year.’ It kind of froze me as far as progressing at Nebraska. I could compete, but not at a first-string level.
Q: What was the highest you ever found yourself on the depth chart?
MR: It was my redshirt sophomore year, they had me rotating with the first team. I got back from the summer and they were, “Hey, you made it back. I’m glad you’re still on the team!“ But they had me rotating in and out with the Blackshirts. I think they were giving me that opportunity to earn some playing time and I’m thinking, ‘What the hell? Did they not get the message that I wasn’t really here this summer?’ And then that fall camp I blew out a flexor tendon in my finger and they were like, “Well, we can either tape it to your middle finger,” -you know, ‘cause it was my ring finger- “..and play with it for the rest of the season and it‘ll be like that forever. When you make a fist, that finger will stay straight” -‘cause the tendon connects to the bone that causes it to flex- “or,” they said, “you can get it fixed and you’ll be out two and a half months, which is more than half the season.” So, I’m like, ‘Well, shit, I’m not some dynamic, All-American Blackshirt so I’ll get it fixed.’
Q: Did you ever see any special teams play?
MR: They really wanted me to start on punt returns because I was a pretty aggressive, decent hitter. I didn’t have the weight behind me as far as going against the 250 lb. guys. I did punt returns for a couple of weeks and they had me blocking this like 250 lb. fullback, and I was a buck-eighty! And that didn’t turn out too well. (laughs) Then I was on kickoff team off and on throughout my career and I was able to letter my last two years, which was something like 10, 11, or twelve quarters to letter.
Q: Coming from a big high school program, what was your first impression when you first joined the team?
MR: As far as the athletes putting out effort, in high school you’d see someone being lazy and slacking when it was practice and training. You know, people goofing off. At Nebraska there was no goofing off in practice time, it was 100% full bore training and practice. I was, “Man, these guys are serious!” They were going full speed.
In high school you didn’t see guys going all out. So that was a big surprise, which was good, because that tells me, “You’ve got to go all out every play, every drill. Backpedal drills? You do it as fast as you can, the wet turf drill...”
Q: The ‘wet turf’ drill?
MR: It was when you’re backpedalling: you chop your feet in really small steps. And if you chopped your feet you wouldn’t slip and fall; if you planted your feet and tried to cut you might lose your balance. But every drill was just super intense. No laziness.
Q: Do you have a time or play you wish you could do over?
MR: Yeah, my redshirt freshman year they put me in the last couple series. And here I was like 8th string or something, you know, and here I’m getting put in. It was either Pacific or North Texas, I can’t remember, but they threw a bomb on me, knowing that I was a rookie and stuff, and the ball was coming down and I’m like, ‘Here’s my chance to get an interception,’ and we both jump up and our feet get tangled coming down, and I’m lying on the ground and looking up and he’s got the ball in his hands, falling out of bounds. If not for that he would have walked into the end zone. I wish I could’ve gotten that ball. I think that was my first time ever being in, too.
Q: That being a home game, what was the first game you recall traveling with the squad?
MR: It was either K-State or Missouri, one of them… It was Missouri. I remember we stopped for lunch at some park and I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ We stopped and hopped out of the bus and had brown bag lunches. I don’t know where it was at, had no clue. It was always the bus, it was just that distance where it made sense to take a bus. I don’t remember too much about it, but for some reason they wanted to keep the starters in pretty much the whole time. The home games were where you really had the chance to get in.
Q: What’s happening on the sideline during these games?
MR: Even as a backup it’s intense. The tunnel walk, it’s intense. And you remember the Unity Prayer? We had great leaders, and when I went to the Varsity locker room it was kind of like an initiation. They had this little fun thing where they beat on you. (laughs) Like a gang-beating, you know? You‘re one for life once you’re in. After they knock you out and beat you. (laughs) Oh, it was brutal, me and Aaron Davis got it the worst. Ask him about the initiation. It was me, him, a few other guys when we moved from the north locker room to the south.
I think they first started this -I don’t think it was tradition- a couple guys, they’d get you when you just walked out of the shower, so you were butt naked….they pretty much dragged you out to the center of the room. They’d just surround you with about 50 guys and you’re just curled up in the fetal position (laughs) and then after they throw and dump a bunch of water bottles on you, it’s pretty much done. (laughs) They had guys watching the door, ‘cause Osborne would never allow that. (laughs)You might not want to put this in the book and get us investigated by the NCAA. (laughs) But it was all good.
My redshirt year I was in the north stadium locker room, my freshman year I still stayed and then I moved over the next year. They end up telling you, “You’re South” when fall camp starts, and your name is on the locker and all that good stuff.
Q: Any particular teammates really stand out to you?
MR: Lawrence Phillips. He was just the nicest guy in the world. He was just a workhorse! Some guys, being that good, they’d usually slack off sometimes. But not Lawrence. He was a really hard worker. I never saw it and he never told me, but I think Ahman Green got his work ethic from watching Lawrence Phillips. In practice it was 100%. The option drill, he’d always be going 100%. But for some reason, as fast as he could run, he would push the envelope. What a work ethic. He already had blazing speed for his size.
We even got into a couple of fights, you know? We always had fights in practice. On the field he was business, and I remember we got into a couple of tiffs back and forth. No punches flying, but as far as, “I’m gonna f** you up,” he’d talk a bunch of smack and stuff. But off the field, he was just the nicest guy, would buy you a pop. But it was when he was drinking he got into the silliness and in trouble with the law and stuff.
I mainly fought with Damon Benning. We got into a couple of fights where Osborne made us both run the South Stadium stairs. All we would do was punch each other and scar up our knuckles, hitting ourselves in the helmet, you know? That was when we wouldn’t try to grab each other’s facemasks and try to twist each other’s heads off. (laughs)
Other than that, there was one time the entire Blackshirts -I was with the 2’s and 3’s- the Blackshirts were on the other end of the field and we were going light scrimmage on both sides, and all of us got into a huge fight with the first string offense. We were all just, “What the hell’s going on down there? Man!” Someone had lost their helmet. And Christian Peter had his helmet off, and someone blasted Christian with their helmet over his head. I don’t know if it cut him or what, but Christian just went nuts. The offensive linemen looked like they wanted to kill him, and it seemed to go on for a full 5 minutes.
Q: Obviously, Coach Osborne was around, right?
MR: Yeah, and the coaches just stayed out of the way. Someone told me it occurred because they were all pissed off because they were thinking they were going to go home for Christmas break, and instead the coaching staff decided to stay and keep on practicing through December. Anyway, that’s just what I heard from a guy or two.
Q: What created most fights?
MR: I don’t know if it was that they wanted not to show they were giving in to the other players or “You’re not going to get the best of me.” To a degree, the coaches would force it.
One of Coach Solich’s fullbacks went at it with a middle linebacker one time and the fullback lost the fight. Well, Solich grabbed his helmet – which was torn off during the fight- and said to the player, “If you’re gonna go...GO!” Then he took the guy’s helmet and tossed it over to the sideline. (laughs) I was like, ‘Man!’
The practices, that’s where I think we became great, and the chemistry was so good. It was just blood, sweat and tears in those practices. But it got us all closer when it came to the games. And do you remember ‘The Circuit’?
Q: The old Metabolic Power Circuit in the weight room?
MR: Yeah. I tell you what, that was just brutal!
Q: Funny you say that, Biff, I’ve been working out in my garage doing that circuit recently.
MR: Are you kidding me!?
Q: Well, being an old strength coach, you go with what works, right? (laughs) Getting a super high intensity set of lifts in with exactly and only one minute of rest in between each set…
MR: Man, you’re nuts. That was horrible. You know how many people puked after that? Well, I was one of them! That was terrible.
And then, of course, the sprints we’d do, too. Then the guys started pulling some muscles, so then we switched it up to running later down in the Cook Pavilion and then we’d have to do the circuit afterwards. Well, I could hardly do the sprints before the circuit, I don’t know how I was going to do them afterwards. I mean, you needed like a two-hour rest after that circuit to do anything, much less run.
Q: And then the circuit would always end up with biceps and triceps at the end. I recall not many guys wanted to hang around and just work their arms all day during that part of the lifting season.
MR: Arms wasn’t too bad, but it was nothing compared to those squats! I remember the first thing we started with was squats, and for some reason it just killed! Octavious McFarlin? Me and him were about same age and played the same position. I remember him one time, he was in pain and laying out on one of those carpet benches out by the entrance to the weight room & academic center after that circuit. And he was just like, “Don’t talk to me… or I’m gonna puke!” It was hilarious, he was trying not to puke for about a half hour. He was just rolling around. Man, I tell you, that circuit was just brutal.
Bowl Game Golf Excursion: No pressure... (Unknown/Uncredited)
Q: Who was your position coach?
MR: George Darlington. Coach D. I was good friends with Dave Alderman and Chad Blahak, and we’d always call him Dad, like, “Hey, where’s your Dad today?” It was our way of making fun of him. And I’m not sure if he ever did play football. Rutgers, I think he was from. He was a big x’s and o’s guy. He was the old guy. We’d always make fun of him and talk about how he was around for the Louisiana Purchase and stuff like that. He always took it well, he was a joker. He’d always say -if you tripped or fell down in the process of turning your feet- he’d say, “The sniper up there got ‘ya.” He’d always make funny sounds while we were watching film.
He was always big on recovering first before you looked back at the ball. That was a big issue for Nebraska fans, ”Why don’t they turn around and look for the ball?!” Coach D said you had to be 100% recovered to turn around and look for the ball, you had to be elbows to elbows. And if you were just a half-step behind he didn’t want you looking back for the ball. I don’t know if it was from his experience -if he saw too many cornerbacks get burned because of that- but you couldn’t be behind the receiver if you wanted to look for the ball. Sometimes it depends on the arc of the ball and all that, but that was the issue. And his technique was that you waited for the ball to hit the receiver’s hands, then you would bring that arm down and knock it out. Of course, 9 times out of 10 we would fall and the receiver would walk in.
We also had a technique of punching at the ball, from underneath instead of on the top. We’d do the fumble drill, too, scooping up fumbles would be a drill, too. I was like, “Fumbles? We’re just going to fall on it, right?” Believe it or not, there was a technique for scooping up a fumble and we’d practice that. I think his drills as far as technique were very good.
Q: He was a pretty cerebral guy?
MR: I’d say that. When I came in I wasn’t even aware of some of the terminology that he had. It was like, ‘What’s ‘technique’?,’ you know? He’d always say, “Play your technique,” and you’d progress and learn and eventually pick it up. He was very good at explaining, “This is the reason we go man to man”, or “This is the reason we play the receiver soft,” things like that.
Q: It seems Coach Osborne would always remind the coaching staff as a whole to ‘coach positive’ and be encouraging. Do you recall anything like that?
MR: Yeah, he would point out what you did wrong, but he would never chew on you. Now, Coach (Kevin) Steele was a whole different type of coach. A couple of the other guys, they respected him but they couldn’t stand him. You’d have to ask the linebackers. They’d know more. He was more of the ‘get in your face, criticize you-kind of guy,” that was his nature. He got in my face one time and he was like, “What the f%$& are you doing?” He said it real low, in almost a whisper, so Coach Osborne wouldn’t hear him, you know?
Q: Did you answer him?
MR: Well, I was a backup on special teams, second string. It wasn’t kickoffs, it was punt returns. And they were yelling my name across the field. And I’m never in this drill, and I’m on the other end of the field. They must have been screaming my name for like 5 minutes, and finally I run over there and Coach Steele comes up and grabs my facemask and pulls my head into his and whispers that, and then says, “Get out there.” And I’m like, ‘Hey, I didn’t hear ‘ya.’
To be continued…
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