Photo by Nebraska Communications

Gifford Excels After Early Lesson In Adversity

By Brian Rosenthal

Today, Luke Gifford happily shares the story, especially in public speaking engagements, as a shining example of overcoming adversity and failure.

At the time, however, Gifford would have rather crawled into bed and assume the fetal position, never to show his face in public again.

A Lincoln native and longtime Nebraska football fan, Gifford was fulfilling a lifelong dream in playing his first game as a Husker in the 2015 season opener.

The game began with Nebraska scoring first and taking a 28-24 lead into the fourth quarter against BYU. It ended with Gifford on his back, in the end zone, with a dude in a Cougar outfit stomping on his face in jubilation.

“I think about the mascot every time,” Gifford says with a straight face.

It’s true. When you feel like you can stomach it, do a YouTube search on the BYU Hail Mary that defeated Nebraska 33-28 in the debut of the coach Mike Riley era. You’ll see exactly what Gifford describes.

“I was actually on the bottom of the pile, and the mascot was on my head and everything,” Gifford said. “I’m a freshman, this is my dream school, and to have that happen is like …”

The cougar mascot stepped on Gifford’s head as part of a big postgame celebration in the end zone after BYU's winning touchdown on the game's final play.

“I couldn’t get up,” Gifford said. “It was a nightmare. I was in Sports Illustrated, the number one play on Sports Center. … it was not what I wanted for my first start.”

What really irks Gifford, who details the play as if it happened yesterday, is that Nebraska had actually worked a fair amount in practice the previous week in defending the Hail Mary pass.

“We practiced it plenty of times,” Gifford said.

They just didn’t practice it, of course, against 6-foot-6 Mitch Mathews, who secured the winning 42-yard touchdown heave from quarterback Tyler Magnum.

“I was supposed to be underneath him,” Gifford said of Mathews. “Nate (Gerry) was over the top of him, and when I turned back for the ball, I kind of faded back a little bit, and he kind of came over the top of me. I was a little off to the side, and he jumped over the top.

“I was underneath him. Nate came over the top of him, and he just snatched it out from both of us. I remember rolling back, not knowing where the goal line was, and trying to pull him in any direction I could. I remember looking down and seeing him just barely crossing the goal line.

“Everybody is running on the field. It was just a fog, disbelief that it happened.”

If it sounds as though Gifford, a senior linebacker, has relived the play in his head hundreds of times, well, he has. He recalls it now, entering his final game Saturday at Memorial Stadium, as he reflects on his Nebraska football career.

“I still think about it all the time,” Gifford said. “It’s definitely something I’ve learned from and grown from, and it was probably good that it happened at that stage of my career, because it set me up for a lot of the adversity I would deal with the next three or four years.”

Through the Hail Mary passes, three coaching staffs and losing seasons, Gifford has no regrets – especially this season, knowing that he and the rest of the senior class is setting the foundation for the Scott Frost era.

“It gives you a lot of incentive, for sure,” Gifford said. “As a group of seniors, that’s something we’ve all talked about. Obviously, we had a lot of goals and wanted to win a Big Ten championship and all those things, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is setting the foundation for Coach Frost and changing the culture and getting the program back to where it needs to be.

“And definitely, these last few games, these last few weeks, we’ve definitely set the path for these guys to do that.”

As for the Hail Mary story, Gifford is sure to share it when speaking in public, notably to younger students and elementary school children. He recently spoke at Humann Elementary, where Gifford attended. The school welcomed his homecoming with signs, a special video tribute and visits from former teachers, all a surprise to him.

“It was super cool for me," Gifford said. "It was one of those moments where you realize how much of an impact you have on people. It’s easy to forget that.”

Gifford then told the Humann students about being on the bottom of a Hail Mary pile for the wrong reasons, and how it’s been a significant part of his journey through college.  

“I try to make light of it and make it funny, or whatever I can,” Gifford said.

Frost said he had never heard Gifford’s Hail Mary story, but the coach beamed when told Gifford freely shared it as an example of overcoming adversity. It’s exactly the type of person Frost wants in his program.

“I tell guys all the time, I don’t have as much respect for, or trust in anybody, that hasn’t been through something hard,” Frost said. “I think you learn the most through great success and great failure. Both of them help train you for the next challenge.

“When you’ve been through something like a bad play, a bad injury, something like that, it helps put everything into perspective. I think it helps make you better.”

Gifford has endured both – he had offseason hip surgery – but says the Hail Mary moment is the low point of his Nebraska career. The high point, he said, was learning that Frost, a Nebraska native and former Husker player, would be his head coach his senior season.

Gifford remembers him and Mick Stoltenberg, another senior and Nebraska native, voluntarily walking into Frost’s office shortly after his hire to introduce themselves.

“For us, it was a pretty cool moment, just because we heard so much about him and everything he’s done for the program,” Gifford said. “It was really surreal. To hear that much about him and everybody talk about him possibly becoming the head coach, and now he’s here.

“Obviously, our record hasn’t been great this year, but I’ve had more fun playing football this year than I have since I’ve been here. I can’t thank him enough for just giving me the opportunity to do this and have fun with these guys.”

In the same manner, Frost is happy and thankful to have players like Gifford, a Lincoln Southeast graduate, on his first Husker team.

“The best thing about Luke is how good of a person he is,” Frost said. “Any time you get a Nebraska kid that’s playing well, him growing up in town and knowing what this program is about and what it stands for, it means more to someone like him.

“Shoot, I wish we had him for several years rather than just one. He’s what we’re looking for.”

On the field, Gifford’s career took a turn upward last season, when former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco introduced a 3-4 defense, which suited Gifford perfectly as an outside linebacker.

“Selfishly, that was probably the best thing that happened to me, just because of the defensive scheme change,” Gifford said. “It wasn’t really clicking with me in the old defense.”

So Gifford took advantage of the clean slate and new position, and he fulfilled another dream by earning a Blackshirt.

“I remember walking down there and it was hanging in my locker. Dream come true,” Gifford said. “There are no words to explain it, really. A lot of hard work and dreaming, really. Honestly. Ever since I can remember, I wanted to wear one. It was really cool.”

Off the field, Gifford, a team captain, has embraced a new coaching staff this season, and he’s done what he can to help change the culture and build a foundation for Frost’s future teams.

That hasn’t been an easy process. Not until after a home loss to Purdue, and a week before an overtime loss at Northwestern, did Gifford see a change in a positive direction. That includes everything from players going to class and showing up to meetings on time, to taking a turnover drill more seriously.

“Accountability has been talked about so much,” Gifford said. “It sounds cliché and everybody says it, but until you’ve seen a program without accountability and seen a program with accountability, you can’t really explain it. Seeing the difference from where we are now and where we have been in the past here, it’s just night and day. There’s a complete difference.”

When coaches stress how little details add up to big results, Gifford believes. He’s seen it unfold firsthand in recent weeks, and as a senior leader, he’s setting an example the best way he knows possible.

“Some guys let it go in one ear and out the other, and then you start to realize those little mistakes on third down or those personal foul penalties that continue the drive,” Gifford said. “Those are all little things from off the field, translating to on the field. I think everybody is starting to realize that, and it’s really shown. We’ve cleaned things up a lot.”

As a senior at Southeast High School, Gifford kept telling himself to keep an open mind in his recruitment, to view all options, even though he loved Nebraska.

When former head coach Bo Pelini offered him a scholarship, though, those thoughts “went out the window,” Gifford said.

Nebraska is where he wanted to be.

No, he never predicted he’d see three different head coaches in his five years with Nebraska. But he’s also not sorry for it, either.

“It’s cool to look back on, because not a lot of people get to experience that, the good or the bad,” Gifford said. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs, but honestly the bad has made this place mean so much more to me.

“I think just being able to see where it’s come from and where it’s going, it gives me a lot of perspective on things and how blessed I’ve been to even get a year with Coach Frost and these guys. It’s exciting.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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