Randy York’s N-Sider
In last Saturday night’s postgame press conference in the North Stadium Complex, Bo Pelini met the press and provided insight on Nebraska’s 23-9 win over Michigan. So did Jeremiah Sirles, Ameer Abdullah, Sean Fisher and P.J. Smith. There’s no doubt that Nebraska’s head coach and four key contributors had major investments in the pivotal win they were discussing, but no one was more interested in hearing them elaborate than a Naval Academy graduate who became a Major in the United States Marine Corps. Somehow, Eric Kapitulik (pronounced Kappa-too-lick) maintained his anonymity while standing near the back of NU’s strength and conditioning complex, even though he was holding the game ball that Pelini presented to him in a packed locker room just minutes before the press conference.
At the urging of a jubilant team, Pelini made the presentation after everyone in the locker room took a knee to reflect on the game and what drives them to play. According to several Huskers, the period of grace that the Huskers share privately following every game was momentarily interrupted by senior safety Daimion Stafford, who was standing on the bench in front of his locker, surveying the same landscape as a proud head coach preparing to address his equally gratified team. Kapitulik was doing what he always does ... blending in and concentrating on three competitive imperatives: 1) Listening; 2) learning and 3) analyzing leadership in action.
Stafford Spots Honoree in the Locker Room
Let the record show that this was one time when an infantry and special operations officer in the Marines, not to mention a platoon commander that led 20 covert Special Forces missions, could not blend in with the woodwork ... at least not in Nebraska and definitely not when Daimion Stafford was in the room.
“Hey, there’s our teammate!” Stafford yelled, pointing at Kapitulik, whose company, The Program, located in suburban Boston, worked with the Nebraska football team extensively last winter after the Huskers lost the Capital One Bowl in Orlando.
Kapitulik had flown into Lincoln Saturday morning and, according to several Husker players and coaches, delivered one of the most inspiring pregame speeches you can imagine. He qualified for that opportunity because he personally designed a leadership development training regimen that challenged every member of Nebraska’s football team to get “that much better” – a term he uses often as he separates his thumb from the closest finger.
Stafford’s outburst triggered a locker room full of players and coaches who knew, deep down, how much impact Kapitulik and his company had in helping Nebraska transform a 28-point 2011 loss to Michigan into a 14-point win over the Wolverines in Lincoln. Once the Huskers spotted their “teammate”, Pelini motioned him to the middle of the room with his right hand so Kapitulik could join him in the circle as he hoisted the football in his left hand.
Husker Players Chant, Yell, Jump, Applaud
“As I walked through all the players, they were slapping me on the back and yelling ‘Game Ball ... Game Ball!’” Kapitulik said. “I couldn’t hear the rest of what Coach Pelini was saying because the team was chanting and yelling and jumping up and down. What Daimion started, the whole team seemed to pick up on, and they just went crazy, even though I was in the locker room as an observer, not as someone to get a game ball.
“Coach Pelini was talking to the team after the game about the same things I was talking to the team about before the game,” Kapitulik said. “If someone had told me four years ago when I started The Program that I would have the opportunity to be in the Nebraska locker room getting a game ball ... I mean, I bet on myself, I bet on my teammates and we all have unbelievable trust in each other being successful, but this was certainly an honor that I never expected and one that I will never forget.”
I’ve watched Kapitulik’s speech, and it is riveting. But it is also the private property of its only intended audience – Nebraska players, coaches and support staff, period, end of sentence.
I can, however, frame up how and why a 40-year-old former Marine, who also happens to be a University of Chicago business school grad, decides to launch his own leadership training company that chooses to provide scholarship funds for children of deceased comrades.
He Had Close Call; Best Friend Died in War
As a Marine Corps captain, Kapitulik commanded a platoon that crashed into the side of ship in 1999 and plunged into the water while attempting to land on an aircraft carrier. Six men died in that tragedy, yet Kapitulik, who had fractured his leg, managed to haul himself out of the sinking helicopter, hand-over-hand, one step at a time.
Not once in his pregame speech did Kapitulik mention the tragedy he survived. Instead he focused on Major Doug Zembiec, a two-time NCAA All-American wrestler at the U.S. Naval Academy and a fellow U.S. Marine Corps Major.
Zembiec was killed in action while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has been called the “Lion of Fallujah” and the “Unapologetic Warrior” for his heroism that is detailed in the book No True Glory: A Front-line Account of the Battle of Fallujah. Zembiec was rewarded with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts for wounds incurred in action.
Doug Zembiec was Eric Kapitulik’s best friend at the Naval Academy and best friend in the Marines. Kapitulik is a godparent to his late friend's only daughter. Zembiec will be remembered for warning his troops and saving the lives of the unit he led into a dark Baghdad alley on May 11, 2007.
Marine Corps Taught Kapitulik How to Lead
Football is hardly military combat, but Kapitulik uses the sport as a metaphor and a way to honor competitors that bond like soldiers fighting for a common cause. Kapitulik had a vague idea of what makes a good leader but couldn’t define it until he joined the Marine Corps. “The Corps really taught me what being a great leader is,” he said. “They taught me, they challenged me, and they helped instill leadership in me more than anybody else, anywhere, anytime.”
For that reason, Pelini asked James Dobson, Nebraska’s head strength and conditioning coach, to check out The Program, an organization that Dobson knew had a good reputation. Once Dobson gathered more information from the Quincy, Massachusetts-based company, Pelini gave the green light to hire the company to help build Nebraska's leadership and to define, develop and improve teamwork. The Program took the Huskers to their limits, using such exercises as helping teammates that can’t swim tread water. In a competitive exercise, they also asked individuals and teams to haul 35- to 50-pound sandbags and 7- to 14-foot log poles.
“Every off-season you try to get better, and you look around for someone that can help make you better,” Dobson said. “What Eric does and how he does it is great. Our guys really bought into The Program. Our players learned some things, and our staff learned some things. When we went through those two days of training, it was different than anything we’ve ever done. It put us in positions we haven’t seen. Sometimes, it takes an outside source to do that and then take the lessons you learn and go from there.
“When you’ve been there like Eric has and listen to what he’s experienced, there’s more credibility,” Dobson said. “I have a hard time with leaders who give their two cents worth and then just hand things out. Eric is the leader of his company, but he was on the floor every day with our guys. He was around them. He listened to them. He taught them. He was involved with everything they were saying and was in the thick of everything they were doing. He had credibility. He had a mindset. He influenced leaders.”
Nebraska Demonstrated Its Sense of Purpose
Against Michigan, the Huskers showed a sense of urgency and and a sense of purpose. They also had a keen sense of honoring the right person with a game ball.
For every football program that The Program trains, it honors a player and presents a shirt to the player that most exemplifies the training program’s core principles of mental and physical toughness, no excuses and working hard. Even though there were all kinds of worthy recipients for that honor, Kenny Bell was selected as the top-rated teammate for The Program’s intense leadership training at Nebraska.
“The Program taught me how to lead and how to lead in the right way,” Bell said. “That was the No. 1 thing I got out of it. More importantly, Mr. Kapitulik taught us all how to treat each other and how to operate as a team. It meant a lot to me to see him get a game ball, particularly for the Michigan game because that was a pretty significant victory.”
Being the teammate he’s become, Bell made it a point to give Stafford a huge pat on the back. “It was awesome when Daimion saw Mr. Kapitulik in the back of the room and then reminded us and let everybody know how important that program was,” Bell said. “We were all feeling great. We all just a got a big ‘W’, yet we all knew that our focus had to change to Michigan State in a matter of hours.”
Kenny Bell: Kapitulik Deserved the Game Ball
Kapitulik “definitely deserved that game ball for the way he’s affected this team,” Bell said. “When he implemented his program, it really molded us a team. I mean, he and his company are a huge reason for the way we’ve come together and handled adversity. Personally, I learned so much myself that it’s provided the biggest change in my career, as far as my outlook on our program and what it means to be a part of it.
“Mr. Kapitulik absolutely knows how to lead and how to train others so they can lead,” Bell said. “What I like most is he didn’t just instill leadership in me. He got inside the heads and hearts of our whole team.”
For evidence, Bell asks a certain writer to look at Will Compton, who was a solid leader before The Program training and a great leader afterwards. “Will has done such a great job all year,” Bell said. “He’s not only led the defense, but keeps everybody on the team working towards the same mindset. He’s such a great spokesman for our team, internally and externally. He represents all of us in everything he says.”
Compton believes winning a championship requires a vision consistent with the intense leadership training every Husker has taken. “You create it, and you try to get everybody on board with that same vision,” Compton said. “I think it makes us a very tough team to beat. We have one ultimate goal and one way to do things. The coaches have done a great job handling it the way they have. They’ve taken a player’s opinion of things and adjusted some things around. It’s been pretty much a no excuse, no explanation type of season.”
Designed to Spur Leadership, Build Teamwork
The Program, in essence, is designed to spur leadership development, personal development and team building through shared adversity. Nebraska got a big dose of adversity in its first road game at UCLA and another major dose in a disastrous second half at Ohio State. Fortunately, the Huskers didn’t panic, applied their leadership training and have set their sights on each individual week for the rest of the season.
“It was a privilege to talk to the team before the game, to be with them on the sidelines during the game and then to receive the game ball at the end of the game,” Kapitulik said. “For Coach Pelini to allow my teammates and me the opportunity to work with Nebraska football is such an honor for all of us. I grew up in New England. I know and respect the great programs in college football, and Nebraska is certainly right up there with the very best.”
In his pregame speech, Kapitulik talked about the “bold initiatives” his late friend took to save the lives of his comrades in Bagdad. He talked about being his classmate, his teammate and his friend and went on to explain why men and women fight for their country.
“If you ask why they fight, they’ll all tell you they attack for the warrior on their left and the warrior on their right," Kapitulik said. "That’s what I want to share with you, men, because I want to challenge you to do the same thing – attack for the warrior on your left and for the warrior on your right.”
This Leader Came to Watch Nebraska ATTACK
“Men, it’s my pleasure to be here and to come and watch you all play,” Kapitulik said. “But as we said six months ago when we met each other, men, I didn’t come here to watch you all play. I came here to watch the men of Nebraska football attack, so let’s make sure you do exactly that – attack!”
Nebraska offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles enjoyed Kapitulik’s pregame speech so much that he watched it again this week in the Nebraska football video room. “He (Kapitulik) had a big impact on us,” Sirles said. “When he came in here in the winter, he commanded immediate respect. He just takes over a room and then teaches you why teamwork is so important. It was great to hear him speak, to have him on our sideline and then inside our locker room getting the game ball. We all wanted to show him what we’ve been working so hard for and thank him for helping us start our journey. He deserved that game ball because he really solidified who we are and why we’re a close-knit team. To finish what we’ve started, we have to keep attacking every game we play.”
The Huskers must attack for every man on their left and every man on their right ... for every man in front and every man behind. They must attack for others that would treasure the honor like a surprised and a humbled Eric Kapitulik ... one of The Few, The Proud, the Marines ... ever faithful, always loyal and now a certified member of Nebraska’s extended family.
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Voices from Husker Nation
Thanks for a great article and good for Coach Pelini and the Nebraska team. I don't know Eric Kapitulik, who is now a proud Husker, but my wife and I watched Doug Zembiec wrestle any number of times at the Naval Academy, where he was terrific. He was also one heroic Marine. I'm forwarding this story to a group of my closest Naval Academy friends, including two great wrestlers who became Marines – Lt.Gen. John Sattler and Tom Jones. As I recall, John was Major Zembiec's commander when he was the senior Marine in Iraq during the worst of the fighting in Fallujah, Ramadi, etc. Thanks for writing this article and Semper Fidelis! And remember, only nine days until the Marine Corps' Birthday on Nov. 10. Dan Nelson, Washington, D.C.
Great article!!! Very touching and powerful! I’m the son of a retired military service man who was in Vietnam and Iraq – eight years in the Navy and 32 years in the Army. I played Division II football in college and was blessed to play for some years after college. Reading this article brought up some great memories of my football career and pride in what our service men and women do for us all. I always said that if I could grow up to become half the man that my father is, I would be proud. His guidance and football have helped me to keep moving forward to obtain that goal. Thanks for writing this story behind the game ball. GO BIG RED! Jeff Reed, Waverly, Nebraska
Thank you for this story. I continue to be proud of this program and what it stands for, and we all should be proud of this piece. Bill Moran, Pottsville, Pennsylvania
I just want you to know the article about the former Marine brought tears of pride to my eyes. You do a great job of getting "inside" Husker sports. Keep up the excellent work, and Go Big Red!!! Mike Gall, Edgerton, Kansas
As a retired Marine, I take pride in the article you wrote!! There are many retired "Husker Marines" and know that our own can help out our beloved Huskers means a lot!! Thank you for the article!! Semper Fi!! OOOOOORAHHH!!!! Rodney Eskam, Bedford, Indiana
Just read your latest N-Sider on Eric Kapitulik (via Twitter) and wanted to send you a quick note letting you know how much I enjoyed it. Very well written. I hope Eric's impact to the team will continue to inspire them through the remainder of the season and for years to come. Keep up the good work. GBRI Sara Nelson, Overland Park, Kansas
It’s great to hear stories about how a team can be motivated and come together and how one guy can have such a positive ripple effect on a whole team.Thanks for a GREAT story! Tim Adams, Elkhorn, Nebraska
Really, really, really cool story! Thanks for telling it. John Strope, Lincoln, Nebraska
Thank you for the story about the Marine getting the game ball. My nephew was a United States Marine who lost his life five years ago last week on his base in Virginia, so this story about Eric Kapitulik getting the Nebraska game ball is meaningful to me. Susan Pierce-Lincoln
Just read your article about The Program. Sounds awesome … hope the Marines keep on the players. GBR. Larry Elsasser, Russell, Kansas
Thanks for the story. Of course, I have a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. It's always been more than "football" and this helps explain why that is! Sharyn Ostrem, Wakonda, South Dakota
Good story. Just shows, no one ever knows what really goes on behind the scenes. GBR. Peggy Williams Muzney, South Sioux City, Nebraska
I’m a Marine from Nebraska and I am proud of both the Major and the Team. Good job Coach. James Brown, Hedgesville, West Virginia
This is what makes me love the Huskers. Thanks Coach Osborne for building this type of mentality. Scott Pablonis, Omaha, Nebraska