Randy York's N-Sider
At Nebraska’s last pre-Gator Bowl practice in the Hawks before the Huskers took a few days off to celebrate Christmas with their families, Dan Pensick found an inconspicuous spot off the beaten path and realized this particular day not only was the last indoor practice for his son in Lincoln, but also the last one for him, the dad, who watched every one of Cole’s football games and track meets at Lincoln Northeast High School and nearly every football practice, plus every game, at home and on the road, in college.
“I’m used to him being here. It’s kind of weird when he’s not,” Cole says of his dad, an accomplished Husker defensive tackle who lettered in 1977-78-79. Those three Nebraska teams won 28 of 36 games, including a monumental upset of No. 1-ranked Oklahoma in ‘78. With his own hard-nosed, blue-collar work ethic, this father knows what’s best for his son, and that’s why Nebraska’s coaching staff always welcomed Dan Pensick at practice. He blended into the woodwork and at times “would mention a few things here or there,” Cole said. “He loves the game that much and just wants to come and see how everyone’s doing.”
Silent views and positive feedback helped Cole become a starting offensive guard late in his junior season and the Huskers’ starting center as a senior. Fellow Nebraska line starter Jake Cotton may have come up with the best description for the way Cole worked his way up the food chain to second-team All-Big Ten status and Nebraska’s 23rd recipient of the Cletus Fisher Native Son Award. “Cole’s like a Chevy truck in there … dependable and always going as hard as you can go,” Jake said.
At that last pre-bowl Lincoln practice, Dan Pensick shared one of the strangest requests he’s ever had from his son. “Can you believe that kid actually wants to buy a suit for the Outland Trophy Banquet in Omaha?” Dan asked. “I never in my life thought I would hear something like that.” Yet here we are, two days before Cole will join teammates Ron Kellogg III and Jeremiah Sirles as winners of Nebraska’s top three individual team-based awards that will be presented Thursday night at the Outland Trophy Award Dinner. Omaha’s DoubleTree Hotel at 16th and Dodge Streets again will be the site of the Outland Trophy ceremony honoring Pitt Defensive Tackle Aaron Donald. North Carolina State Defensive Lineman Jim Richter, the 1979 Outland Trophy winner, also will be honored at the banquet. Tickets to the event still can be reserved by calling the Greater Omaha Sports Committee at 402-346-8003.
Pensick Wins 2013 Fischer Native Son Award
Pensick joins such past Fischer Native Son Award winners as Terry Connealy, Chad Kelsay, Chris Kelsay, Niles Paul and Jared Crick. The award, launched in 1991, is named in honor of legendary Husker Assistant Coach Cletus Fischer, who recruited Cole Pensick’s father to Nebraska. The award is presented annually to the senior player who best exemplifies work ethic, competitiveness, leadership, forthrightness, humor, pride, loyalty and a love for his native state. Baker Steinkuhler, son of former Husker Outland Trophy winner Dean Steinkuhler, was the 2012 recipient of the Fischer Native Son Award. Nebraska coaches’ votes determine the Fischer Award winner.
Kellogg joins such past Novak Trophy winners as LaVerne Torczon and Pat Fisher from the 1950s, Dennis Claridge and Tony Jeter from the 1960s, Rich Glover and Tom Ruud from the 1970s, Turner Gill and Marc Munford from the 1980s, Kenny Walker and Tommie Frazier from the 1990s, plus Cory Ross and Joe Ganz. The Novak Award, launched in 1950, is Nebraska’s oldest individual team-based award. Sean Fischer was the 2012 recipient of the Novak Award, presented annually to honor the senior who exemplifies courage and determination despite all odds in the manner of Nebraska All-America Center Tom Novak. Sportswriters and broadcasters vote on the award.
Sirles joins such past Chamberlin Trophy winners as Marv Mueller and Dana Stephenson from the 1960s, Jeff Kinney and Bob Martin from the 1970s, Jarvis Redwine and Dave Rimington from the 1980s, Will Shields and Trev Alberts from the 1990s, plus the likes of Eric Crouch, Barrett Ruud, Ndamukong Suh, Alex Henery and Lavonte David. The Chamberlin Trophy, launched in 1967, honors the memory of a Nebraska All-American who is a member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is presented to the senior whose performance and contributions enhance Nebraska football and reflects the dedication of Guy Chamberlin to Cornhusker tradition. Sportswriters and broadcasters vote on the award. Here are closer looks of each Husker who will be honored Thursday night at the Outland Trophy Dinner:
Cole Pensick: Lifelong Fan Lives His Dream
One of the best pieces of advice Cole ever received from his dad was to be patient, be versatile, wait your turn and go all out every single day of practice. That landed the former Nebraska state high school shot put champion an opportunity to move from full-time dependable backup to full-time starter. The minute teammate Justin Jackson went down in 2012, Pensick popped up and never left the picture. He worked hard, became stronger, faster and heavier than he’d ever been at 280 pounds. He’s ecstatic that he played defensive line before moving over to the other side of the ball because the experience helped him learn tricks he knew how to stop.
He’s a lifelong fan who lived his dream and never imagined his own name populating the Dave Rimington Watch List. He loves to hunt with fellow honoree Sirles and others, and he’s been known to take an ice bath in a lake before spring arrives, not to mention sit down and take time to watch a Frozen Four NCAA hockey game. Yes, part of his toughness quotient was a memorable stint in youth hockey.
Football, however, has been his passion since he can remember. “Where else would fans show up at 3 a.m. to be first in line for Fan Day in August?” he asked. “I grew up here. I know how crazy Lincoln is, and really, that’s the norm. I know everyone says it, but it really is true – there is no place like Nebraska. When people leave this state, they keep coming back. You can walk down the street here and 10 or 15 people will say hi. Some places, you don’t get any. I love our fans. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. They come and watch us play and fill the place up every time.”
Cole knows that “flash” is great for recruiting, but Nebraska does it the right way. “We’re here to play football and go to school, and we have some of the best facilities in the country,” he said. “We have the best weight facility with the best technology. We care more about what we do in it than how it looks. I remember how loud it was here when we beat Oklahoma when I was a true freshman. I couldn’t imagine anything louder than that, but it is louder now that we've expanded the East Stadium. Sound echoes off that side and goes all over the place. I’m going to miss this place. It was an honor to play here – the dream of a lifetime.”
Ron Kellogg III: He Played and Will Return
Kellogg is another Husker player who followed in the footsteps of a father who played at the Division I level. Ron Kellogg Jr. was an all-conference basketball player at the University of Kansas, and he had to be one proud man watching a son who walked on at Nebraska. Yes, RK3 redefined perseverance. At a mid-season press conference inside Memorial Stadium, he admitted that if anyone had told him he would be the Huskers’ starting quarterback as a senior, he would have called you a liar. Yet there he was, throwing a Hail Mary touchdown pass and triggering one of college football’s biggest plays of the year. The 49-yard connection with Jordan Westerkamp gave the Huskers a 27-24 win over Northwestern in Lincoln. Is there anything better than a walk-on giving Nebraska its first ever walk-off Hail Mary?
The play elevated Kellogg and Nebraska’s program into the national spotlight. Suddenly, it wasn’t just Husker fans talking about a quarterback who heaved the ball as far as he could, then left his helmet at midfield and sprinted to the opposite end. That night, Kellogg had 250 text messages, including one from Larry the Cable Guy. It really hit him when he turned on the TV and watched Sports Center and heard an ESPN voice saying he may have a rocket for an arm but he has the build of a long snapper.
Sorry ESPN. If Kellogg gave his detractors credibility, he never would have seen the field. He sees no need to set the record straight nationally. The senior walk-on quarterback, who wears a rib protector under his jersey, accepted an offer to help the Huskers have some fun shortly after his anonymity blew up in a nation’s face. RK3 even agreed to go undercover in this YouTube video. The idea was to see fans on his own campus connecting to a name before a ball was tipped, caught and made him famous. Instant fame is a hoot, and a fifth-year senior who didn’t go on scholarship until three months earlier had a great time after he threw the ball an estimated 57 yards. “I put everything I had into the pass,” he said, “and I almost knocked myself over.”
Larry the Cable Guy’s text told Kellogg he almost gave Nebraska’s comedic icon a heart attack. To avoid one himself, there was a method to Kellogg’s madness of running the other way after he completed the pass. “My whole mentality was to run away from the pile because I’m kind of claustrophobic,” he said. “That wouldn’t have been good for me to be underneath a pile like that.”
Make sure you take the time to watch the video, which has 153.000 views. My favorite line in the video was a man who came up to RK3 on campus and said: “It doesn’t matter what religion you are. Once in a while, a Hail Mary is okay!” Or how about the answer when Kellogg asked: “Who would you rather see play, Tommy or the other kid?” The interviewee gave the “unknown interviewer” an immediate reply. “The other kid!” she said rather emphatically. The video is fun and real, and the humility that Ron Kellogg III showed throughout his five-year career and his stellar senior season explains why the Nebraska coaching staff wants him back next fall in some capacity.
Jeremiah Sirles: A Spirited Entrepeneur
In the last seven seasons that I’ve covered Nebraska football, I don’t know if anyone has been a more articulate, passionate spokesman for the Huskers than Jeremiah Sirles, who started every game at offensive left tackle when he was a redshirt freshman and started every game at offensive right tackle when he was a junior. Shoulder surgery limited his sophomore season, but he refused to let injuries affect his ability to start every game at tackle as a senior.
A management major, Sirles played the 2013 season as a graduate student and already has a businessman willing to hire him whenever he becomes available. Former Husker linebacker Blake Lawrence, an analyst on NET’s weekly Big Red Wrap-up Show, owns a company that Entrepreneur Magazine named one of its 2013 “100 Brilliant Companies”. The company is called Opendorse. It uses its own online platform to streamline relationships between pro athletes and company sponsors. Sirles was so persistent in pursing an internship, Lawrence finally relented and let his new employee know that T-shirts and cargo shorts were considered appropriate professional attire.
Lawrence based his business on the notion that there are all levels of sports endorsements, not just those at the high end. He’s put together a solid business plan and executed it with precision and energy. He tweets potential customers, facilitates action and tracks results. And yes, he would hire Sirles in a minute to be one of his nearly two dozen full-time workers.
Fans might forget what a recruiting catch Sirles was. I went back five years ago and checked the top four scholarship offers he considered, and guess what? None of the four started with an N. Louisville, Michigan, Oregon and Texas Tech were his top four, followed by Nebraska and Kansas State, plus Colorado and Colorado State for the Lakewood, Colo., native.
What a coup it was to land an intelligent, well-spoken, hard-working 6-foot-6, 310-pound offensive lineman who started 41 games at Nebraska. Something tells me that before he accepts a standing job offer from Blake Lawrence, Jeremiah Sirles is going to at least probe the prospects of playing football on Sundays. However his life unfolds, Sirles has a safety valve – an entrepreneur’s voice, vision and built-in value, plus the instincts to see life after football. No wonder Nebraska moved to the top of his priority chart. He sees the big picture and wants to help paint an even bigger one as a young business professional. Congratulations to Jeremiah, RK3 and Cole – three hard-working Huskers who deserve to share a spotlight with college football’s best lineman.
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