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At a recent luncheon to celebrate a significant gift to the Nebraska Athletic Department, the donor was asked if he realized the potential benefits of his generosity. Ken Graeber curtailed the conversation immediately, explaining that he didn’t want or expect anything in return. All the former Blackshirt middle guard wanted was the certainty that his gift would continue to support the nation’s best walk-on program.
Tom Osborne, Graeber’s former head coach and now Nebraska’s Athletic Director Emeritus, was not surprised. Candor is one of the best qualities of an un-recruited walk-on who paid his own way to Lincoln from Minneapolis in the early 1980s and played on three teams that were legitimate national championship contenders in 1982, ’83 and ’84.
“That’s the way so many walk-ons are,” Osborne said. “They all learned early in college not to expect anything in return, even though they worked every bit as hard, if not harder, than our scholarship players. Sometimes, the most generous people we deal with are the walk-ons who have come up the hard way, and Ken certainly exemplifies that.”
Scholarship Honors Coaches Osborne, McBride
Graeber’s gift to his alma mater came straight from his heart. “I grew up a Christian and have given almost exclusively to Christian causes, but I felt compelled to make a gift to the walk-on program,” he said. “I gave to honor Coach Osborne, who I believe ran the program under a Christian framework, and Coach (Charlie) McBride. In my mind, those are two of the best coaches in the history of college football. They both treated every walk-on player who stepped foot on that field the same way they treated every scholarship player. There were no distinctions then, and I hope that philosophy continues forever. That is what makes Nebraska different from everyone else.”
Osborne agrees, and even though walk-ons cannot receive any financial benefit from the generosity of donors like Graeber, the money can go to support equipment, uniforms, locker room space and all the other extra expenses inherent in fielding dozens of extra players.
“Ken was one of those guys who just played hard all the time, whether it was practice or in a game,” Osborne said. “All he ever wanted was a chance, and fortunately, we were equipped to give him that chance. We really appreciated his efforts and his accountability. When your heart’s in the right place and you give great effort, he was able to do what all walk-ons strive to do – get better every single day.”
Walk-Ons Heart-and-Soul of the Osborne Era
Walk-ons were the heart-and-soul of Osborne-coached teams for a quarter century. “About 40 percent of our travel rosters were walk-ons over that period of time,” Osborne said. “Just about every player who traveled played, whether it was on offense, defense or special teams. If we couldn’t spend the extra money to provide practice opportunities for those walk-ons, we couldn’t have accommodated them.
“The No. 1 benefit of walk-ons is the depth you’re able to achieve on the team,” Osborne said. “That depth enabled us to practice differently than just about everybody else in the country. We were always able to have two offensive stations and two defensive stations going simultaneously because of No. 3 teams. A lot of those guys just kept getting better and better.”
That ascent happened quickly for Graeber, who grew up in Minnesota yearning to play for either Nebraska or Oklahoma. He chose the Huskers because of its sustainable culture for walk-ons, which he equated to the land of opportunity.
Graeber Sat Down and Wrote Osborne a Letter
“I had so much appreciation and respect for Coach Osborne I finally decided to write him a letter and ask if I could walk on,” Graeber said. “I had such admiration for two of the greatest programs in the country. Oklahoma recruited me to a degree, but didn’t offer. So I knew where I was going – to Nebraska, where Frank Solich was in charge of the walk-on program at that time.”
Graeber immersed himself in the culture and ended up earning three letters, including two where he was considered either the starter or a co-starter. “Walk-ons like Ken were major factors in establishing the culture of the team,” Osborne said. “The scholarship players would see the sacrifices the walk-ons were making just to get on the field, and their drive and effort were rather contagious. They really were the heart and soul of our teams in more ways than one.
“Recruiting is such an inexact science,” Osborne added. “Walk-ons earned their time on the field through their character, their attitude and above all else, their tenacity. They were willing to hang in there through their freshman and sophomore redshirt years to create an opportunity. I would say that Ken’s tenacity was pretty high. He might have been close to the very top. He really worked hard, and he really improved.”
Tenacity Paid Off in the Business World, Too
Graeber, in fact, became the strongest player on the Blackshirts during his tenure. He could bench press 425 pounds and lift 850 pounds on the hip sled, yet still run a 4.82 40 as a 6-foot-2, 255-pound senior.
Ken Graeber worked just as hard in building an Omaha-based natural gas business with his partners (Encore Energy) as he did building his body and his playing time at Nebraska.
Osborne sees Graeber’s generosity as both a thank-you and an endorsement of a walk-on program that helps Nebraska overcome a statewide population of only 1.85 million people. “It’s a compliment when a walk-on, who came through the program and has succeeded in business just like he succeeded on the football field, makes a generous contribution to something he strongly believes in,” Osborne said.
Steve Graeber Following in Dad’s Footsteps
That isn’t the only contribution from a Mechanical Engineering graduate. Graeber earned a high GPA at the same time he played on teams that won 34 of 38 games, including Orange and Sugar Bowl wins over LSU that became bookends for the ’83 Huskers that came within inches of a national championship. We all remember how that one ended, 31-30, after a failed two-point conversion under a moon over Miami.
Hope in this Omaha household, however, springs eternal. Steve Graeber, a 6-foot-1, 255-pound defensive tackle, is Ken’s youngest son. A first-team Super State selection from Millard North’s Class A state championship team, Steve Graeber is also a member of Nebraska’s 2013 class of walk-ons.
“He’s a much better athlete than I was and very smart,” Ken said of Steve. “He can power clean 365 pounds, squat 510 and runs a 4.71 in the 40.” Like his dad, Steve is quiet and not boisterous. “He’s stronger right now than I ever was,” Ken said. “You don’t see that animalistic defensive lineman attitude displayed in his day-to-day life, but when he gets on the field, he plays like a madman. I tell him what Coach Osborne and Coach McBride told every walk-on who ever played at Nebraska – It all comes down to a matter of work and how much you put into it. If you use your God-given talent, you overcome a lot of things, but it’s still a matter of who works the hardest. Those are the ones who get to the finish line.”
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