Anatomy of an Era: Tony Veland, Part 3
Excerpted from Chapter 31, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
Tony Veland, Part 3
Q: Do you have a favorite game?
TV: Oh, it would be the Miami game, no doubt. Because it’s amazing: when you see big competition, most people always inwardly root for the underdog. So we were that underdog, we were the guys who’d been there all week, we were being talked down by the fans, by the media, how we didn’t have a chance. We knew this was our chance to really seal all that talk, to really build that confidence and show the world what Nebraska football was all about.
From the first play on defense, I made the first tackle on the running back. That just started it. And we knew it was gonna be a slug-fest, that they had a good quarterback, good receivers, a crazy-dominant defense, but we felt like, “Here it is. Our opportunity to shine. We’re gonna make it happen,” and obviously, as the game goes on they’re up and then we’re up, and then at halftime Osborne gives that prophetic speech. It was great. We made some good plays, we made some bad plays, but when it was all said and done, what he said was true, they were sucking wind. It was easier for our defensive line to get to their quarterback, his passes weren’t as crisp, those 4-5 yard gains turned into 7-8 yard gains on offense, and you could see this thing happening, just building inside of us and energizing us, I tell you. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as good as I did when Kareem Moss caught that last pass, because I knew it was over. I knew that was it and we’d finally done it. And I tell you, I’ve had a Super Bowl Championship and this and that, but that was the best feeling that I’ve ever had as a football player.
Q: Take me back. Does the turf stand out to you? The smell, the sounds? What stands out in your memory?
TV: You know, probably all the orange and green that you saw in the stadium, because we’re used to the Sea of Red, how when you go there and see that it’s a little intimidating. But at the same time, I don’t know how everybody else feels, but that kind of charged me, kind of revved me up a little bit: ‘We’re against all odds, they’ve been talking stuff about us all week, and it was, “We’re in the ring now. Let’s do this.” ’
Q: Any memorable off-field occurrence?
TV: I think one thing that was kind of interesting, we were supposed to go to a professional football game the week of that Miami game and we almost got into fights with some of the fans who were there, because that’s how crazy they were, just in our face, talking all this trash. And it was, “Are you serious? Do you wanna put the pads on? Because we can do that.” That’s what stands out for me at that particular time, to drum up one. Plus, I don’t want to implicate anybody. (laughs)
Q: Any memorable practice story?
TV: The most memorable practice I can think of was, I can’t remember if it was before or after the Oklahoma game in ’95 and we were getting ready to play the Florida team, and there was one practice that was more spirited than any practice we ever had. I can remember going up on the goal line and just banging heads, and I can remember Christian (Peter) and Aaron Graham getting into it.
And this is kind of crazy, because here Christian is our big guy on defense and Aaron is the big guy for the offense and, “What is gonna happen here?” And I hate to say this, because A.G. is my guy… but Christian tossed him like a baby. (laughs) I was like, ‘Wow!’ (laughs) I may be exaggerating a little bit, but we had 3 or 4 fights happened that particular day. It just showed that we were actually ready to play a game versus this particular Florida team, we were tired of being disrespected and showed that everybody was on the same page.
Q: Well, anything else we haven’t touched on that really set those teams apart?
TV: You know, I don’t know if this necessarily separated us, but I felt there was one particular time that showed that we were all banded as one and we were going to make this thing happen: Tommie goes down and then Brook goes down, and here’s little five foot nothing (laughs) Matt Turman comes in and saves the day and doesn’t skip a beat. You could just see on his face before the game first started, he was a little wide-eyed at the start, but during practice that week the coaches had gotten him prepared and we were going up against a highly ranked Kansas State team at Kansas State with Chad May and all those guys, and we knew we had to step up as a defense, and the other players on offense knew they had to step up. For that to happen, after a third string quarterback to come in and us not skip a beat? It meant that what we were trying to go after was real, and after that game happened we knew we were destined to win a championship that year.
Q: And it seemed like a secure, quiet confidence. Not necessarily a cocky confidence, no?
TV: Well, it was a little scary. If you remember that year, we struggled with Wyoming, a team we were supposed to blow out by 70. (laughs) I think we made it easy for the skeptics to believe the team wasn’t for real, but at the same time we still did whatever it took to make that thing happen when it was all said and done, to come up with the W. Then after we beat Miami that next year we were just ridiculous, the confidence was sky high.
Q: Nobody could stop you but yourselves?
TV: Exactly. And there’s one thing that stood out to me: that particular year in ’95 Coach Osborne was a little bit more frank with us and told us that we were the best team in the nation, that we were going to win this national championship as long as we did the things we were supposed to. And I can remember in years prior where I think he had that confidence, but he wasn’t as upfront as saying, “You guys are gonna win this championship.” I think what we accomplished in ’94 really built our confidence, but hearing him be somewhat bold and say we were probably the best team in the nation and win the whole thing, it was like Coach Osborne ‘talking stuff,’ you know? (laughs) Coach Osborne ‘talking stuff,’ that really lit a fire underneath us. That’s when we really knew. And that was at the beginning of the season, so we knew we had something special there.
Both volumes available on Amazon.com
Q: Do you think it was the best college football team of all time?
TV: I really do. At the time I don’t think we felt that way, but the way we played, with the way nobody really came close, the closest game was like 14 points. The unity, the way we dominated? I think we were the best team ever.
Q: And being on defense, was there a mindset of the Blackshirts that set you guys apart?
TV: Hey, all you had to do was look at the defensive line, and they were leading us. And they were about as mean and nasty as you probably get. If you’re not following suit after that? After those guys? You might as well go sit down somewhere. We just had that blue-collar mentality where we were going to be in your face all day. I was very happy to have those guys in front of me because they made my job a heck of a lot easier.
But it was one of those things that when the ball was in the air we were gonna try to get to it, and when that ball was in somebody’s hands we were gonna try to get there and not be ‘happy’ when we got there. So we knew we were pretty decent, and I’m very happy just to be a part of a team that had that many athletes all going in the same direction.
Q: What was it like being a quarterback when Tommie first came in?
TV: Honestly, I knew when he came in and was highly touted and they were saying he was gonna come in and take over -and I didn’t have anything personal against him- but I was thinking, ‘Hold on, I’m still here. I haven’t gone yet.’ (laughs) But I was one of those guys -not that others were necessarily disrespecting me- but it always seemed others were writing me off because I was from the Midwest. I wasn’t one of those guys from California or Florida or Texas, I wasn’t this highly touted quarterback, so I always felt I had something to prove when I was out there. So I had to elevate my game to make sure that all the hype about this guy didn’t just take over.
Yet, at the same time, when he first got there I knew he was a good player. He was still young and making mistakes. I think it was as the year progressed and I looked at this guy I thought, ‘This guy’s a freshman and he’s in the huddle telling people what to do, telling them to shut up?’ You could see that even as a freshman he was a leader and he was one of those guys who was gonna elevate the other players by the way he played. That kind of showed when he took over against Missouri.
And I can’t say enough great things about the guy, because I don’t know if my game would have been as good as his, if I would have had the type of effect on the team that he had. So I’m very thankful that things transpired the way they did, because I played on the greatest teams ever. I had two national championships. I can’t complain.
Q: Last question, Tony. And Tommie might not like this (laughs) but so many guys have told me that Lawrence was the best player. What do you think?
TV: Lawrence Phillips? Yes, I would say the best player from a talent perspective. There’s no doubt about it: Lawrence. I’ve been in the league and played with some good players, and in my opinion he was the best running back I played with. I think he had everything you needed from a back: speed, power, very elusive speed, the attitude, he could catch out of the backfield. He knew the offense. He could block well, he pretty much had everything one needed. He had size.
And he came in: I can remember his first scrimmage against us Blackshirts. He takes the ball the first carry and doesn’t get too much, but the second carry he gets 40 yards! And we’re like, “Hold up. Hold up, who’s this punk?” (laughs) And it’s two series later and he does it again. The first time scrimmaging with us and he does this. We go, “Okay, this guy can play here,” and that’s saying a lot considering the running backs that we had there.
Anytime you watch the Florida game or the Miami game you’ve got to go back to some of those runs that he made: it was pretty to watch. He was just one of those guys who made you look bad in the hole. (laughs) He was a beast. And I keep in touch with Clester and Clinton and Damon a lot, too. They have better memories than me, so between those three they’re probably gonna have some crazy stories. (laughs)
Perseverance. Surely we’ve all seen those familiar, framed office-setting photos of a nature scene or a faceless, athletic individual while below is a positive affirmation of some timeless axiom, something to provide a little inspiration as many go about their hum-drum 9 to 5 in the world of cubicles and windowless offices. Well, if I were to create a print celebrating the concept of perseverance Tony Veland would be my photo’s subject. Here’s a guy who proved that nightmares are also dreams. But he got through that dark night with the unlikeliest of inspiration: a stranger’s letter. With both Tom Osborne and the mentoring Turner Gill at his disposal, who would ever suspect that a heretofore anonymous fan’s words of encouragement would turn this young man’s life in the most positive of directions? Astounding! There truly is no place like Nebraska, and even though Steve Pederson’s (shudder) placement of the “Through these gates pass the greatest fans in college football” at Memorial Stadium’s gates may inspire a roll of the eyes for many, perhaps the former A.D. had the Diane Yuetters of the world in mind. I’ll give him that much. You can be sure that I will track this lady down if it’s the last thing I ever do.
Tony summarized the reason for the great 60 & 3 in two concepts: the Unity Council and the collective work ethic. The first dealt with thinking as one, which led to their training as one. Pretty succinct, wouldn’t you say? By now I think we can pretty much say that the creation of the Unity Council was a stroke of genius of vast dimension, as it not only allowed the coaches to simply coach, but it also raised accountability and gave them an unsurpassed ownership stake. Above even that, the Unity Council was absolutely crucial in creating a bedrock foundation of unity and a leadership dais for dealing with some of the inner, destructive issues during those years: Scotty Baldwin’s mental issues and their tragic consequences, Christian Peter’s supposed groping of a former Miss Nebraska in a crowded bar (rumors say he may have taken the fall for a teammate) and other (some unsubstantiated) allegations, Lawrence Phillip’s highly publicized and hyper-politicized altercation with on-again/off-again girlfriend and Nebraska Basketball student/athlete Kate McEwen, Tyrone Williams’ shooting a gun at an alleged Lincolnite gang member’s car, and outlandish accusations of robbery/attempted murder against Riley Washington, among others. Dealing with typical issues of ‘boys simply being boys’ to the most serious in nature (as mentioned above), Unity Council leadership was a weighty burden placed on already taxed young men, but they held the line and learned much from the experience. History will show that a vast majority of them became better men for enduring it, despite national media pundits’ painting the program with wholly unfair, ignorant and overzealously misinformed brush strokes.
Another item of note worth addressing was his reference to Coach Osborne’s “talking stuff.” Now, Tony cleaned up the locker room jargon and sanitized it for the family kitchen table here, but I think it shows the power of the leader they had in Tom Osborne. Here was man vastly devoid of smack talk, of bluster, showiness and bravado, yet the simple voicing of his confident expectation was enough to put these guys over the edge and essentially challenge them to live up to the premise of another season’s total domination. Author John Eldridge once wrote that every boy needs to hear these simple words: “You have what it takes,” from his father or a father-type figure in order to blossom into true, confident manhood. This was Coach Osborne paraphrasing that same notion.
The last item of note may be a bit nuanced, but it caught my eye and ear nonetheless, and that was Tony’s statement of the defensive backfield’s being a “supporting cast for the defensive line at that time.” For a stellar athlete, a defensive captain and a Unity Council leader to possess the humility to not puff up his chest and point a finger at himself, but instead reveal that they were the ‘supporting cast’ of the famed Blackshirt Defensive line speaks volumes. Zach Weigert mentioned earlier that the leadership of those teams started on the offensive and defensive lines and then moved in an outward fashion, and Tony here states unequivocally that such was the case. Quite revealing and extremely profound, if you ask me.
Notable quote #2:
Tony Veland on the powerful impact of one Nebraska Football fan: “But she reached me, and the words she had for me changed my life. The words were unreal. She was really a beacon for the Lord trying to reach me, and it kind of opened my eyes to why I was going through what I was going through.”
Copyright @ 2013 Thermopylae Press. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credits : Unknown Original Sources/Updates Welcomed