Anatomy of an Era: Mike “Biff” Roberts Part 2
Excerpted from Chapter 6, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1
Mike “Biff” Roberts Part 2
Walk-on, Rover, Omaha, Neb. (Central)
Q: Any of your teammates stick out to you from those days?
MR: Oh, Christian Peter by far, is one. As far as leadership. His speeches prior to the game were tremendous. Just the way he acted and how he felt about the team we were playing, you could hear him breathe heavy, how he would show his emotion, it was how he could hardly control himself. You saw how intense he was into the team we were going to play, and it would go through all the other players. He would really pump us up.
When he became captain he’d always get the pregame speech in -like when we went to Michigan State- they had a Christmas tree up in the corner and there were these Christmas bulbs, all green. Well he’s freaking out during his speech and he grabs an ornament off the tree and smashes it into his face! And there’s just blood all over. He cut himself. And the players are all just ready to go out there and kill Michigan State, you know?
His intensity in practice, he would get in fights all the time. He’d just always go 100% against the offensive lineman, and that was typically against the ones (first team). That’s how it was, usually the ones versus ones, two versus twos, threes against threes, and so on. Rarely did they pit the ones versus 4’s and so on. Maybe Coach Osborne, the first week of fall camp practice would pit the rookies against the ones, maybe that was just to toughen them up or show ’em what it’s like, you know?
And I heard about this -I never saw it- but the rookies were in and then seniors and everyone else came in a few days later, and Christian was going against some redshirt right out of high school. Supposedly the freshman was intimidated and didn’t go hard against Christian. Well, Christian goes and just wallops him right upside the helmet, “Don’t you ever go half-assed against me…or I’ll kill you!” That’s what it took, you know? That’s what brought it together as a team, you know? It was huge, walk-ons, everyone…
Q: “If you’re not going to bring it, get out of here”?
MR: Exactly, and Christian had no idea who this kid was, just that he didn’t go 100%. That set the tone, you know?
Q: Any of the National Championship games stick out to you?
MR: Miami in ’95 by far. For some reason, I don’t know if I’d say we had a better team in ’94 than the ‘95 team, but those guys with Ray Lewis and Warren Sapp were good. I think that Miami team was a lot better than the Florida team that next year.
And here we’re going down there to Miami kind of beat up because we were beating each other up: we just killed each other in practice. I think he gave us a good 4 or 5 days of rest when we got down there. And those first two weeks we just killed each other down there, too. We go in there and we’re down at first and it looks like another Miami/Nebraska year, you know? But we finally came out and did it, whether it was due to our working hard or from losing the year before.
Q: You were on the sideline for the 2 point loss to Florida State the year before
MR: Oh yeah, that was brutal. Of course the ‘clip’ on Corey Dixon’s touchdown, then when we stopped them at the 1 yard line and they called it a touchdown and the ball never got across. That would have changed the game.
Q: Any moments stick out to you from that game?
MR: Just all business. We were serious, we wanted to win. It was what they were thinking: they had the right technique, the right plays, the right responsibility. I remember we did a lot of rotating, just like we did the year before. I know we had a lot of guys in, especially on the front, the D-line. Other than that, it was watching every play hoping it goes our way. And then, of course, the bad calls..but it was quite an experience.
Q: Any of you guys ever talk about that phantom clip on Corey Dixon’s 77 yard punt return?
MR: No one knows about it but the players. All the players would talk about it, you know, bring it up every once in a while. But no one else knows about the phantom clip.
Of course, it was Corey Dixon who ran it back. At one time it was, who was it, a fullback? I think he went on to play special teams for the Vikings. He was a long-haired fullback. A California boy? And they thought it was him, he was a great special teams player. No one was really sure. Everybody was, “No, I didn’t clip.” But after the bowl game, I don’t think anybody ever went over the film on that one.
Q: So the bowl game film wasn’t gone over?
MR: Nope, that was done, it was over. You just let it go.
Q: Is it true that all of a sudden things would come to a screeching halt in practice to work on special teams?
MR: Oh yeah, special teams was its own little time during practice. It was warm-up drills first, then position drills, then we’d go to the run station, then pass station, then we’d break and go specials, then we’d go do option drills. I think they’d go full field punts and kickoffs. But they were never ‘live’, you just made sure you’d go down the field and find the guy and know who you were going to block on the kickoff return.
Kickoff team? After all the work we’d done on the previous drills, they weren’t too concerned with us tackling. They would make sure the kicker got the ball off and the return guy would be able to catch it. Those were the two big things.
Around age 5 or 6 -so sometime in 78′ or 79′- my dad gave me the nickname Biff. He said he quickly noticed I was a very aggressive hockey player at the start of that sport at age 4. When he gave it to me, he not only called me by that name, but signed me up under the name Biff for everything from sports to school events. He also had a lifelong nickname “Butch”, and he kept that tradition going by giving my brother, also Ralph, the nickname “Robb” too.
Q: What made those teams special, Biff?
MR: Well, coming in a freshman, the seniors would show what it takes to play at this level. Like Tyrone Byrd and Steve Carmer and those guys were seniors when I was a freshman. They showed the effort it took to train at this level, the blood, sweat and tears. ”This is what it’s gonna take,” you know?
It was brutal, brutal training in practices. I can remember it was tough to even walk after some practices. Of course, you never showed it. But you spent some time in the hot showers. I was just beat up and sore every practice. I’m sure other players were, too. But you know, you see another player and you’re thinking, “They can take it. They’re doing it. He’s fine, so I’ll act fine.” So every player feeds off of that. It builds chemistry. It’s that hard work ethic.
And we’re talking about an intensity that’s just out of this world. I can remember some of the starters would say, “It’s worse to go against the starters of our team than the other teams.” The scrimmages were worst, playing against each other than against the other teams, you know? The blood, sweat and tears, with the circuit and then the sprints. And then going into spring ball we had two live scrimmages every week.
Q: It was a crucible, a gauntlet… it took some manhood to survive?
MR: Oh, by far, there were some guys. Like Sedric Collins, he had an injury, came back well. And I don’t know if it was the physical-ness coming in or some personal issues, but he quit. And then some of the walk-ons. I remember about 11 guys I came in with, and I think about 8 or 9 finished: me, Turman, Chad Blahak, David Alderman, Adam Treu, Kory Mikos, and Schuster and Vedral. I think those were the only ones left.
Q: Good or bad, what have you taken into adulthood from that experience?
MR: It’s all good: knowing that in life you’ve got to work your butt off to be successful. Unless you’re lucky somehow and some way.
Me, being a police officer, you have a lot of down time, and there were times I was lazy and patrolling and just driving around, not being proactive. If you’re not being a proactive, hard-working police officer, other people look at you and it affects your future. I’ve been turned down before, not going to certain training/schools. So I always have to be putting forth my best effort.
And fellow officers on the force? It‘s kind of like you’re brothers. You’re brutal toward them because you love them, you know? I tell you what, they love to hear the stories of the Nebraska locker rooms…
Q: Like Christian?
MR: Exactly! I can remember one day one of the guys said, “Hey, can you grab that towel for me?” And I lean over, and I feel somebody’s stuff on my shoulder…and it wasn’t a hand! I knew something felt different. And all the guys started laughing, so I knew I’d been had. I jumped back and was like, ‘Get your stuff off me!’ (laughs) Goofy stuff like that.
And after the practices and the wars, everybody left it on the field, you know? But there was Lumpy -Lance Lundberg- he got into a fight during one of the bowl game preparations. It was a kid from Florida, a skinny kid, a cornerback, he was a starter at one time but then got hurt. I forgot his name. Anyway, he got pancaked by Lumpy in practice and the other guys made fun of him, “Man, you got jacked up there!”
And he didn’t take it well, being a freshman. His ego was kind of hurt, and he goes up to Lumpy in the locker room, taps him on the shoulder and then punches him right in the eye. Lumpy just looks at him and says, “Dude, what is your problem?!” Coaches sent him home for the game, though, of course. The next day. And Lumpy had this big, huge, black shiner for the game. That sucker was nasty. Thank God he didn’t have any broken bone or anything from that punch. That kid came back on the team after the bowl game, but he was gone, they sent him home for the rest of the time there.
Q: Was there any particular background figure who stood out to you?
MR: Of course, the big names: Sully. George Sullivan the trainer. We’d give him some sh*t, joke with him. There was Doak Ostergard. I’m trying to think of the Graduate Assistants, most of them would only get two years there to get experience. The defensive back assistant, he wasn’t as intense as Bill Busch. Clayton Carlin was his name; his dad was involved in big time football with the Philadelphia Eagles. Very calm guy, wouldn’t get heated up over anything. Wouldn’t yell too much, very collected and Osborne-like. I liked him because he didn’t yell at me! (laughs) And of course, Bailey. Strength Coach Bryan Bailey. I loved Bailey. Then there’s Keith Zimmer and Dennis Leblanc in Academics. Of course, their roles got bigger as I left, they would always help you out if you needed a tutor or advice.
Q: Anything about the training table?
MR: I remember they had a study hall for all freshman for two hours: Monday through Thursday, 7 pm to 9 pm. Me, I was not a Brainiac by far, so I had to buckle down and do my assignments. Some guys, of course, they’d goof off and play dice in the bathroom, play craps. They’d get caught and in trouble, of course. (laughs)
Q: What was your major?
MR: Criminal Justice!
Q: So you knew what you were getting into?
MR: No, not a clue. (laughs) Going in, I wanted to coach. I’d been in sports my whole life, thought I could relate to athletes pretty good. So I go to the Teachers College, and I thought, ‘Man, this is not for me.’ So I got into business: business is in just about everything. Tried a few of those classes, accounting and stuff, and it didn’t really turn out to be my liking, either. And then I take an intro criminal justice course and had Professor Eskridge. Probably the best professor I ever had.
Q: Chris Eskridge?
MR: Yeah, and he ended up working with Boyd Epley in the weight program on coming up with the weight formulas and stuff like that. So Chris Eskridge was an awesome professor and I was like, “This is really interesting. I love this sh*t!” So I switched majors three times until I got into criminal justice. So here I am.
Q: You’ve probably heard it a few times, “You football players have it easy, Everything is given to you. You guys are so pampered, not like the regular students.” What would you say to that?
MR: Oh, if they only knew how beat up I was every night, how sore I was, how tired I was. I would get home at 8 o’clock at night after pretty much weightlifting, eating dinner, showering, all that, 7:30 or 8 I’d get home. I’d have to take a power nap from 8 to 9 just to rest up to study from 9 to 11. Just for my body to rest, that’s what it took to get by. I needed that rest to heal my body.
You see all the fame and glory on game day. The fans, they don’t see behind the scenes how hard we worked, how much we studied, the blood, sweat and tears, what it takes to get the job done.
Q: Did you ever go in front of the Unity Council?
MR: No, its role was to make sure everyone was on the right track if you messed up. It was pretty closed-door stuff. I guess you might get called in and things were taken care of or you were admonished or things like that, but it usually never got past the closed doors, unless there was a major problem, which there rarely ever was. It was pretty discreet. There were some good leaders. Christian, you have to talk to, he was a great leader. You could hear him screaming in the weight room lifting the weights, and he had his troubles off the field. But the main point was, did you learn from the experience and grow from it, you know?
Q: Anything about Coach Osborne stand out to you?
MR: The one moment for me? I made him laugh one time, which was hard to do. He didn’t laugh very much. It was during practice, Jeff Makovicka came out to the flat, like a 5 yard ‘out’ in the flat, and I was just waiting for him. It was my coverage and he had his back turned to me and I thought, ‘What are they thinking?! I could take his head off!’ I could have killed Jeff, literally killed him. That would have been a terrible cheap shot.
It wasn’t a live scrimmage either, just wrap-up. So as soon as he caught the ball and turned around it was a split-second deal. I smacked him with my helmet and wrapped him up, and as I was doing that I just screamed. I went, “POWWWWW!” His eyes popped open and it scared the living sh*t out of him. And Osborne knew Jeff just about pissed his pants, so he had some giggles on that. That was my own personal thing with Coach Osborne. I don’t know if Jeff remembers that, but he’ll remember my name. We had some little tiffs, some run-ins. (laughs)
Notable quote #2:
Mike “Biff” Roberts on weekday practice work effort, “Every drill was just super intense. No laziness.”
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