Anatomy of an Era: Tom Sieler, Part 2
Excerpted from Chapter 80, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 2 by Paul Koch
Anatomy of an Era: Tom Sieler, Part 2
Q: Take me into the mind of a 17-year-old, 18-year-old kid at the time. Was your goal to earn a scholarship? Was it to achieve something? Beat your personal best? Notoriety? Girls? What?
TS: It really wasn’t any of those things. It was more to do with really enjoying being good at kicking. I enjoyed hitting the ball and watching it. I went to the driving range tonight before I came home; I was working on my 6 iron, 7 iron, driver. I hit my driver -jumped on my driver- and was hitting the ball really well, and it kind of brings back some of those feelings of hitting a ball really good, where the ball jumps up really high and floats. So I think I got a lot of self-gratification from it.
Q: So I’m guessing you had a chance to watch the long Alex Henery field goal a few years ago when he nailed that long one to beat Colorado. What’s going through your mind as you watch a kid prepare for something like that?
TS: I was nervous, man. I honestly thought there was no way he was going to make it. Just because it was cold, and I didn’t think he was strong enough at the time. Now, after that game? There’s not a whole lot that a kid can’t do.
Q: Does one’s confidence go up as you mature, as you get older?
TS: It goes down.
Q: Really? Why?
TS: I’ve coached a couple kids in kicking -and I’ll put on the cleats and they don’t know any better- and they go, “Oh boy, he’s great.” I’ll kick and it’s not horrible, but it’s not very good, and it will get me in a bad mood just because it’s not a good hit. Again, it’s like golfing and duffing the ball around a little bit. It’s pretty depressing for me. There’s times, though. I was twenty-seven and was gonna try out for the XFL and I gave myself three months to see if I could put it together, and I was lifting. Anyway, I was hitting the ball really well and I went and worked out for them and kicked badly. And that was fine, you know? I said, ‘That’s it.’ It was the last time I actually really put an effort forward and was really hitting the ball well. But I’ll try to demonstrate a little bit for these kids, and I’ll kick badly and my confidence is just shot. I’ll think about it all night long.
Tom Sieler (upper right) at the White House
Q: Kicking in Memorial Stadium, was there anything special about kicking there?
TS: Just the only thing that would be different, maybe, was going on the grass fields. Because when it was cold we really weren’t on grass very much. But when you are on the grass, like those practice fields, the grass would be high so the ball would be almost buried in it. So when you’d get to a different stadium it might be a little different. But it wasn’t that bad.
Q: Any special surfaces stand out to you more than any others?
TS: I would say maybe that last one in the Orange Bowl. I remember Texas Tech, remembering trying to kick. Beyond the uprights was this building, and I remember trying to kick the ball over the building. Again, with the golf analogy, that’s how I’d hit. I’d get stoked if I hit my extra point and really jumped on it.
I think my last kick in the Orange Bowl was the best kick I ever had. After Cory Schlesinger scored that last touchdown -my extra point I hit?- the ball probably would have been good from the 60. It was high, right down the middle.
Q: Who as your holder?
TS: Jon Vedral. David Seizys was the year before.
Q: How did you pick the guy?
TS: It was trial and error. I worked with Matt Shaw. He didn’t have great hands, then he put on his tight end pads and he could barely get his hands around. I worked with him and he got somewhat decent at it, and the first day of spring ball it was just… the coaches were looking at me and going, “What in the hell?” He was trying to hold and he couldn’t even catch the ball, he could barely get his shoulders around. It was tough if you’ve got your pads on.
I wanted Gilman to do it. I know Gilman had great hands because he was my roommate, but he didn’t want to do it.
Q: That’s the funny thing, they’re both tight ends but you say Matt Shaw didn’t have great hands. (laughs)
TS: Shaw didn’t have the best hands, but the guy would have done anything to get on the field. So he was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” He did a pretty decent job, but then the first practices of the spring, there you go. Then Gilman said, “I don’t want to do this.” I even held one spring. I remember telling Coach Young, ‘I don’t really want to do this. I want to kick.’ I’m not saying I’d give Byron bad holds, but come on. In the Spring Game I got a snap and messed it up, so that was the end of my holding.
Q: Do you ever keep in contact with any of those guys?
TS: Oh yeah, I talk to all of those guys. I had a kid in math who was a huge Angels fan and I asked the kid, “Who’s your favorite player?” He goes, “Oh, you wouldn’t know him. He doesn’t play there anymore.” I said ‘Who is it?’ he said, “Darin Erstad.” And I go, ‘I know Darin Erstad.’ And the kid absolutely, he had no clue that I played football at the University of Nebraska, and I tell him, ‘I played with Erstad.’ And he was, “No you didn’t.” So I told Erstad about it. And the kid’s pretty poor -real poor- and Erstad actually sent him a bat with his autograph on it and saying, “To Edgar, Go hard!” or something like that.
Q: Were you pretty close with the other kickers?
TS: I always tried to separate myself. I think I could have been a better teammate, looking back on it. I always stayed a little bit away from it. I could have shared more information. I was a little bit greedy. With Erstad I could have shared more information with him and could have helped him.
Most of the guys, I hung out with (Brenden) Stai and (Mark) Gilman, my roommates. I didn’t want to be thought of as one of those schleppy guys, all goofing around and giggling and screwing around. What it is, is embarrassing. They were over there playing touch football and everything. I was like, ‘Come on. It’s hard enough to be a kicker and then you guys are all acting like a bunch of queers. Now they all think we’re a bunch of dorks. Stop it.’
Q: Standing around drinking coffee while everybody’s practicing, huh?
TS: Yeah. They think it’s funny while the other guys make jokes about it. Here they’re acting like knuckleheads. I remember Mike Stigge when I got there, that guy had a lot of respect. The way he carried himself and got guys to respect him. And these other guys who were backups were just dorks, man. It was like, ‘Stop it. Quit it.’
Q: I spoke with Joel Wilks a few months ago. Were you one of the guys who removed the top off of his Suzuki Samurai one rainy day?
TS: Oh no, that was Shaw who did it. That was Joel Wilks. The poor guy, they took it off and then he had to drive to Omaha like that. We used to always get on Joel, and he was so pissed off. Just the other day I was telling my son about this: There was a kid who was kind of messing with him at school and I told him about Joel. I said, ‘Hey, if this kid messes with you you’ll probably have to punch him…’ And I said, ‘If you punch him …you might not get whooped anymore.’
And I told him the story about Joel and said, ‘Look, I used to mess around with Joel’ -and he’s met Joel- ‘but I did it real carefully, because there was a chance I might get punched in the face. Just remember that.’ That always stuck in my mind. Shaw would mess with him and I’d always get my little shots in there, but I’d always make sure I had an out. (laughs) I probably shouldn’t say it as a teacher -which I hate to say- but I told him, ‘Look, if this guy messes with you again, don’t even say anything. Just punch him …and fight him.’
Q: That’s old-school, Tom.
TS: Yeah, you know? ‘It’s enough. The kid will get the idea you don’t want to be messed with anymore.’ You can see I’m working in an inner-city school, right? (laughs)
Q: (laughing) Beautiful! Just beautiful, Tom! So what do you think you’ve taken from those days? What rubbed off and stuck with you, means a lot to you?
TS: Again, I was talking to my son about this, and he didn’t play football this year. And I told him, ‘Look, a lot of stuff about teamwork and togetherness, blah, blah, blah… a lot of it’s bullshit,’ I told him. But the one thing I took from it was work ethic and the friendships I had through it. A lot of the work ethic? I didn’t learn from the coaches, I learned from Joel Wilks and Matt Shaw. They were good coaches, don’t misunderstand me, but being a kicker is different.
But I saw Matt Shaw… I swear to God I thought Shaw was a kicker when I first got up there. I looked at him and I thought, ‘Man, this guy must be a punter.’ But here’s a guy who’s like 6’1” and 200 lbs. and he just builds himself into a damn good run-blocking tight end. I learned a lot from him. And I learned a lot from his studying, too. He would separate himself. I learned that sometimes you have to separate yourself from your surroundings and sometimes just take care of you.
Q: “You’ve got a job to do. Take care of it. You’re part of the team, but you still have to take care of number one”?
TS: You’re part of the team -but especially being a kicker- you’re kind of an individual deal. ”Teamwork and this and that,” but you have to have yourself ready to go. And when it’s time to go, “don’t have any excuses and go out there and do it.”
Q: Are you in touch with Byron at all?
TS: You know, I talk to Byron about twice a year. I used to hate Byron when I competed with him. I almost hated him, because he’s kind of a chirpy guy. Then his senior year and my junior year I kind of realized, ‘All right, it’s this guy’s job.’ And then I got to know him better and I just loved the guy. I absolutely love Byron now. I think he’s a great guy.
Q: Well Tom, any other recollections about those experiences worth sharing? Staff personalities?
TS: You know, I remember always really respecting Coach (Milt) Tenopir. I thought really highly of him. I remember I got benched my senior year and I got put on scout team. I remember playing scout team cornerback and somebody blocked me and I got rolled, and I got up and kind of pouted. And Coach Tenopir came up to me and says something like, “Is that what you’re going to do now? Are you going to be a big pussy?” And I remember that was on a Monday or Tuesday, and that kind of snapped me out of it. I really appreciated him doing that, because I was so down. I thought, ‘This is my senior year and I’m probably done now.’ That really lit a fire under my ass and it really pissed me off, and I decided to bust my ass and win the job back. I’m thankful for him. He was always really nice to me and I’m thankful he was a hard ass to me that time.
Pre-Game ’95 Orange Bowl[/caption]
Q: Do you recall what got you demoted?
TS: You know, it was such a bad deal. God! It was the Oklahoma State game and I missed my first extra point! (arrgghh) I missed this extra point, and (the play call) was for a fake field goal. And I remember Vedral saying, “Fake field goal, fake field goal.” So I go back, and then I go up to the ball and I’m waiting for him to pull it away -I was gonna just swing through the ball- but he just kept it there. Because I’m holding my leg back and waiting to let it go, like a trigger… and I pushed it right. Then after that they put in Erstad. It was just like a bad dream. I asked Vedral about it afterward, and they saw something and called it off but I didn’t hear it and I tried to hold off and I pushed it right. That was my Senior Day, too! My parents were there and everything. It was horrible.
Q: Last question: Was there anyone behind the scenes who was special to you, someone you thought really made the place special?
TS: For me, a behind-the-scenes guy? I’d say Dennis Leblanc and Keith Zimmer. Those guys were really good to me. I didn’t send any announcements or anything and I didn’t have anybody come to my graduation, so I didn’t get any cards or anything. But I remember Keith and Dennis gave me a card. That meant a lot to me, that those guys gave me a card. They just wrote how proud they were of me that I graduated and what not, and wished me the best of luck in whatever I do. I just remember Dennis and Keith -all the time- if I ever had a question or needed help they would always be there. Just great guys. They put up with a lot of crap. Guys were expecting them to get their schedules for them and babysit them. They worked really hard and were super-nice guys. Good, good guys. I’m excited to see Coach Osborne when I go back there, but I really look forward to seeing those guys. Coach Osborne was there for practice, but I spent so much more time with those guys, you know?
Q: Do you get back for many games?
TS: Well, I’m a civil servant and we’ve got three kids, so we’ve kind of got to watch our money, but I was back there two years ago for the opening game. I want to take my son there, maybe this year, and show him around. I’d really like him to experience the whole going downtown and milling around. We go to UNLV games and all but I tell him, ‘This is not really what college football is really about.’ I let him know, ‘The community gets behind the places like Nebraska and Ohio State and Michigan, Notre Dame. There’s a whole production.’
Q: It’s the spectacle?
TS: Oh, yeah.
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Q: Any last things we haven’t touched on that set Nebraska apart?
TS: As far as non-kicking, the one thing I think was really good at developing players -and right now they have two offensive stations going, but when Coach Osborne was there we had four stations going- and any time you can get a kid those reps… If you have a freshman who can run and get used to audibles and what not, that’s a big deal..
Q: For the ‘Turmanators’ on the team, so to speak?
TS: Yeah, without a doubt. You never know when you’re going to need them. That guy came in and did a heck of a job. And that’s a story I’ll leave you with: there was a writer for the Daily Nebraskan -I forget what his name was- but after the Kansas State game he called Turman a “walk-on wussy.”
Q: Are you fooling?!
TS: I kid you not. He said we were left with a ‘walk-on wussy.’ So I was walking out of the Union and I remember reading that story, and I remember seeing some Daily Nebraskan guys. So I walk over there to their offices and I say, ‘Where’s blah-diddy-blah?’ The other guy was like, “Oh, he’s not here.” So I said, ‘Well, tell him that any time he wants to go and do what this ‘walk-on wussy’ is doing and he wants to run some speed option, some read option, he’s more than welcome to.’ And I said, ‘He needs to respect Turman for what he’s doing.’ And then like two weeks later, this guy blasts me in the paper. He calls me a ‘big rat.’ So after practice I went over and I said something like, ‘I’m gonna beat the piss out of this guy.’ And then Chris Anderson, the Sports Info lady, she jumps in there and says, “You need to go.” And then Coach Young talked to me and says, “You can’t do that.” I couldn’t believe that, this guy writes that about Turman. The guy wasn’t even at practice that day -and I might have said it a little cruder than that- but the guy wasn’t even at practice that day, and I thought it was really bush-league to rip on Turman, who’s walking on and busting his ass.
Q: The way I see it, Tom, if your name is on that roster and you are a senior, you should be considered an out and out warrior. You’ve hung around for that long. You’ve run the gauntlet. You’ve passed the crucible. That’s a feat in itself just making it to your senior year…
TS: It’s not easy, especially for those guys who walk on and never get above the scout team. They really paid a price. They’re getting teed off on. Do you remember Todd Heyne? Geez, that poor dude, he was just getting worked. And he just kept on coming out. God bless him. He had a dream and he stuck with it. That’s Nebraska.
English poet John Donne in 1624 wrote that “No man is an island.” True. Even so, kickers in many respects are something of an isthmus, only minutely connecting the offensive to defensive changeover with a lone swing of the lower appendage. They are a smallish tribe, to be sure, and receive no mulligans, no repeats, no do-overs. Rarely are kickers highly exalted or rightly appreciated. They often get no respect, either, even from their own. That shouldn’t sway us from giving Tom Sieler’s words credence, though, as he was in the mix just as much as any. A Blackshirt’s heart in a kicker’s body, Tom is a prime example of the concept of playing to one’s strengths, “I’d much rather have been an All-American linebacker or just a linebacker who played, but God dealt me this hand and so I just did the best I could at it.” Author Tom Rath’s book ‘Strengths Finder 2.0’ shares his opinion of something equating to the beloved ‘Nebraska Walk-on Complex’ when he writes, “This is quite apparent in the way we create icons out of people who struggle to overcome lack of natural talent…This leads us to celebrate those who triumph over their lack of natural ability even more than we recognize those who capitalize on their innate talents… Unfortunately, this is taking the path of most resistance.” One can hardly argue against Mr. Rath’s point, but then again, the bigger picture would show that a generation of walk-ons’ perspiration led to inspiration, which resulted in many a young Nebraskan’s adulation and imitation. It was a losing battle trying to stop that walk-on bus during the 1990’s walk-on era.
Then there was Tom’s, “I remember being a freshman there and just absolutely feeling that maybe I didn’t belong.” We’ve heard countless recollections of the increased size & speed of the college game as opposed to that of high school, and how many a player often wondered both to himself and aloud whether they had the stones and the talent to stick it out in a Division 1 program. This is where that word perseverance appears once again, and should give Nebraska fans all the more reason and encouragement to stick around at the end of the game to loudly and proudly support the late-comers when they get their chance as the clock winds down. Those small moments often have a way of paying off big-time in future years.
Notable quote #2:
Tom Sieler on the heart of the walk-on: “It’s not easy, especially for those guys who walk on and never get above the scout team. They really paid a price… That’s Nebraska.”
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