Blackshirt Honorary Captain Grant Wistrom will be honored at Friday's Heroes Game.
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Grant Wistrom Honorary Blackshirt Captain

By NU Athletic Communications
 Randy York's N-Sider

DL Grant Wistrom* (1994-97)

DL Rich Glover (1970-72)

DL Ndamukong Suh (2006-09)

DL Neil Smith (1985-87)

LB Barrett Ruud (2001-04)

LB Trev Alberts (1990-93)

LB Lavonte David (2010-11)

DB Ralph Brown (1996-99)

DB Prince Amukamara (2007-10)

DB Mike Brown (1996-99)

DB Larry Wachholtz (1964-66)

 *Honorary Captain

Today's Thanksgiving Special N-Sider collaborates again with longtime Nebraska football historian Mike Babock to announce the 50-Year Anniversary All-Time Blackshirt Team, and let's be clear right away. This team is meant to be representative not definitive. It is an all-time Blackshirts team. It is not the all-time Blackshirts team. That would have to include every player who pulled on a black practice jersey since those jerseys were first distributed in 1964. In fact, Babcock believes the Blackshirt tradition should probably include those prior to 1964 because they, too, exhibited qualities we've come to associate with Blackshirts. "Would Tom Novak have been a Blackshirt?" Babcock asks before answering his own question: "Anyone who earned the nickname 'Trainwreck' would have to be an honorary part of the tradition."

But that’s a story for another time. The Blackshirt team at the top of this column is intended to represent the tradition. It is based primarily on fan voting, coupled with an attempt to encompass different eras. "Defensive schemes have changed, as has terminology, which means this team is also arbitrary," Babcock said, explaining why it does not include nickel or dime backs, middle guards or monsters, outside linebackers or rush ends. The positions are generic: defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs. "Should Larry Jacobson, the Huskers’ first Outland Trophy winner, be included?" Babcock asked. "How about Jerry Murtaugh? Broderick Thomas? Wayne Meylan? John Dutton? Josh Bullocks? A case could be made for every one of those guys, plus several more, with the age of those making the case a factor." He's right, of course, and we agree that Grant Wistrom should be the honorary captain of this 50-Year Anniversary Team because he and teammate Jason Peter bypassed being first-round NFL draft choices to return to Nebraska and win a third national title in four years. But really, any member of this Blackshirt team could be the captain. "All except Rich Glover were, in fact, Nebraska captains, and he led by his presence," Babcock pointed out before adding that all except Barrett Ruud earned All-America recognition, "yet he's Nebraska’s all-time leading tackler, an accomplishment that hardly needs All-America certification. Besides, Ruud was an All-American in every sense of the description."

Two-Time Unanimous All-America Defensive End

So was Wistrom, a two-time unanimous All-America defensive end at Nebraska. He was also the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year twice and a Lombardi Award winner. Wistrom played on teams that won 49 of 51 games and three national championships. Three years ago, he was inducted into the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame. The sixth pick in the first round of the NFL draft, Wistrom played his first six years with the St. Louis Rams and won a Super Bowl Championship before moving to Seattle and playing three years for the Seahawks, which also made the Super Bowl. Wistrom has seen football from every angle. He's experienced the game as a prep star, a college superstar and a professional starter whose motor only stopped when he fell asleep at night.

Wistrom has had the good fortune of earning high honors at every level of the game. “But I don’t have any of their symbols on my body,” he said the week before Nebraska’s third annual Heroes Game against Iowa at Memorial Stadium. “For me, there’s only one tattoo, and that’s the Blackshirts. I have one because that symbol means so much to me. I will be a Blackshirt for life. It’s part of a brotherhood. The team itself is a brotherhood, but there’s also another brotherhood – being a Blackshirt. You can talk to any guy who’s been a Blackshirt and gone on and played football in the NFL. I guarantee you, they are going to identify more with the Blackshirt than any other team they ever played for, even if it went beyond Nebraska and won a Super Bowl. The Blackshirt absolutely becomes part of your DNA and who you are. To be a true Blackshirt, it lives deep within you. To play for Nebraska, you need a certain mentality, a certain attitude ... the kind that’s already there before you ever pull that black practice jersey over your head.”

The Blackshirt Standards Are Half a Century Old

If Wistrom sounds poetically inspired, deeply moved and passionately committed to an almost indescribable brotherhood, it’s only because he is all of that and more. “You don’t just get a Blackshirt if you start on defense,” he said. “When you play for Nebraska, there were standards long before I arrived and the standards will still be there long after I left. I wore a Blackshirt for every practice for three years. I wish I could remember the day when I wore one for the first time, but part of being a Blackshirt is getting hit in the head a lot, so the memory begins to fade, but the significance of having one never leaves you. Anyone who’s ever followed Nebraska knows how important it is to earn one. I can’t even imagine what it would feel like to have that Blackshirt stripped from you.”

Whatever feeling that might be, understand this – Grant Wistrom understands Bo Pelini’s inner thoughts about not distributing Blackshirts until they are truly earned in the daily grind and the grand jury of coaches. “When Coach Pelini first said he wouldn’t hand out any Blackshirts until they were earned, that means to me that Coach Pelini understands what Blackshirts are all about. From that moment on, I’ve been a fan of Coach Pelini. Every time he calls me or asks someone else to call me, I jump right on the opportunity to help Coach Pelini out or the program out in any way I can.”

One of Top Eight Blackshirts Over Last 50 Years

Speaking of the program, Wistrom is the eighth and last Husker Blackshirt to be honored in this the 50th anniversary of the fabled black practice jersey. The honor – determined by a two-week online fan voting process last August – inspires and humbles at the same time. Wistrom knows it’s not easy to earn a Blackshirt. “Nothing worth having is ever easy,” he said, admitting that he was so absorbed with keeping his Blackshirt that he never took the time to stop and enjoy the experience until the last game of his junior season in 1996 – a day when the Blackshirts held Colorado to 51 yards rushing on 32 carries and 12 completions in 38 passing attempts with two interceptions. Nebraska won that game, 17-12, the day after Thanksgiving and that game is Wistrom’s fondest memory because he and teammate/friend Jason Peter were projected as first-round NFL draft choices and were leaning towards making that decision.

“It was my most memorable moment in football and maybe most memorable ever,” Wistrom said, “because I didn’t know if I was coming back for my senior year, so it was the only time in my career that I took the time to try to soak up every single thing going on around me … the crowd, the noise … just everything. It might not have been the most significant game in my career, but it was the one where I took the time to acknowledge and recognize how important everything really is.”

On a Horrible, Rainy Night, Wistrom Soaked It In

To this day, Wistrom can close his eyes and hear the crowd. He can feel how he thinks they felt that day when he took the time to paint a mental photograph. “It was a horrible, horrible day weather-wise by anyone’s standard,” he recalled. “But when you’re out there playing football, it was an incredible day. The weather was rotten. It was cold. It was raining. It was a night game and back then, those were few and far between. All of those things just added up to make a memory that I will carry with me until the day I die, even though I don’t remember any specific plays from the game. I just remember the overall feel and environment and how much it all meant to me. I really did try to take it all in. To be in that moment when you’d never taken any time before is something that’s still in my brain and still in my heart.”

That day and that moment forced Wistrom to look at the world differently and about six weeks later, after Nebraska won another Orange Bowl, Wistrom and fellow Blackshirt Peter went to Coach Tom Osborne’s office to meet about their future. Osborne fully expected both to bypass their senior year, so they could be drafted in the first round following their junior seasons. Somehow though, Wistrom and Peter reached a joint conclusion. They just couldn’t resist trying to win another national championship. They wanted their last memory in 1997 to be their best memory.

Grant’s Constant Motor Was a Learned Exercise

Wistrom realized his biggest asset was his constant motor, and “that was taught to me at Nebraska,” he said. “There is only one way to play the game, and that’s all out on every single snap. I learned that from my coaches at Nebraska and that attitude is what kept me in the NFL for nine seasons. It’s instilled in you; it’s driven into you. The guys you played with felt exactly the same way every day. To do anything less would be cheating yourself, and it would be cheating your teammates. It’s just not an option, period. When teammates sell out for you, you have to sell out for them. If you just have one shred or one ounce of pride, you don’t give anybody anything less than your very best.”

Grant Wistrom, the Hall-of-Famer with a Blackshirt tattoo, feels certain that his favorite symbol will be rejuvenated. “You know there’s an ebb and flow to everything,” he said. “Blackshirts will come back. It might not be tomorrow and it might not be next year, but they will come back. They were here before we were here and the tradition will be passed on to those who come after us. As long as Nebraska plays football, there will be Blackshirts, and everyone on defense is going to want to be part of that. It’s important for the players. It’s important for the people in the stadium, and it’s important to the families watching at home. The fight song says there is no place like Nebraska, and that is 100 percent God’s truth. Everyone who’s ever worn the Nebraska uniform knows it and everyone who’s ever been in Lincoln for a game knows it, too. I feel honored that I got to spend four of the best years of my life at Nebraska. There really is no place like it.”

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