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Cory Schlesinger is 38 now, but he can close his eyes and still remember that first time he exploded out of Memorial Stadium's tunnel and bathed in the glory of Nebraska's legendary fans.
"It was my third year in the program, and it was the most awesome experience - so overwhelming that even to this day, I can't really describe it," he said. "I started on the last freshman football team that Nebraska ever had (in 1990), and I redshirted my second year, so I thought I knew what to expect as a sophomore."
After practicing two years on the same turf, Schlesinger felt fully prepared for his Husker baptism in full pads in front of a full house, but the experience exceeded every imaginable expectation.
"When I took that first step onto the field and heard that first roar from the crowd, I said to myself: 'This is it. This is big time!'" Schlesinger said. "The crowd just blew me away. They helped me understand why I came here. Their energy made me realize that now was the time ... the time to show everyone what I can do."
Eighteen years later, as Nebraska hosts Western Kentucky in its 2010 season opener, dozens of first-year players will remember their Husker christenings just like Schlesinger does. They will learn what he did - that there are no fans anywhere like Nebraska fans -- and they will help others keep that experience in a special place, never to be forgotten.
It was Sept. 5, 1992. Nebraska was hosting Utah in the season-opener, and 76,234 fans packed Memorial Stadium. On the other side of the ball that day was a guy named Luther Elliss, who became Schlesinger's NFL teammate with the Detroit Lions.
Detroit Teammate Remembers Big Red Sportsmanship
Elliss became a Pro Bowl defensive tackle with the Lions and told Schlesinger years later how impressed he was with Nebraska fans. The Huskers led, 35-0, at halftime, and ended up winning, 49-22. But Elliss walked off the field that day a proud man, too, because Nebraska fans cheered him and his Utah teammates and kept telling them "good job - good game" as they headed for the locker room.
Schlesinger feels a sense of pride every time he hears such stories about his alma mater. He thinks Husker fans are like the head coach who recruited him out of Columbus High School - passionate about football, but balanced in the way they view the game.
"When I was playing and even to this day, Coach Osborne was a huge influence because he put other things ahead of football. There's not another man like him out there," Schlesinger said. "Whenever you saw T.O., he never talked about football. He talked about school or your family or something else. With a leader like him, it was easy for me to transition from high school to college because I didn't make football my life."
Humility runs in the Husker family. Even now, after 12 NFL seasons, Schlesinger drives a 1998 Ford Explorer and lives a simple, but productive life.
Schlesinger cherished his entire student-athlete experience at Nebraska. He says he learned all about discipline, how to study and why it was important not to think he was any better than anyone else just because he played football.
He thinks he worked with the best academic and life skills staffs in the country, and the more he hears and reads about those two components in the Nebraska athletic program, the more he realizes how blessed he was to benefit from their expertise.
Schlesinger is friends with Elliss and was saddened to see his teammate forced to file for bankruptcy this year.
Nebraska Practices What Elliss Now Preaches
Elliss had a suggestion for college programs when he was contacted by USA Today to reflect on what went wrong: Stress money management in college, so others wouldn't see their financial world unravel with poor investments like his did.
Elliss told the newspaper that athletes should learn basic financial premises so they can understand the business skills required to build a strong foundation.
Schlesinger is proud that Nebraska, under Osborne's leadership and Keith Zimmer's guidance, has ramped up its life skills program and now includes basic financial planning as a core course for student-athletes.
"I know I grew up here, but when you look at everything we offer, you wonder why anyone would turn down a scholarship at Nebraska - whether you're from California, Florida, Texas or anywhere else," Schlesinger said.
"We have the best coaches, the best facilities, the best work ethic and the greatest fans in college football. I'm excited for all those guys who get to run out of that tunnel for the first time against Western Kentucky. Like me, they'll know - more than ever - why they came here."
Cory Schlesinger Profile
Residence: Allen Park, Mich.
Occupation: Teaches computer-aided design and home repair and is the strength and conditioning coach at Allen Park High School.
Family: Wife Karen; Daughters Natalie, 12, and Leah, 10.
Background: Played on Nebraska's last freshman football team in 1990, redshirted in '91 and was a back-up fullback to Lance Lewis as a sophomore in '92. Started as a junior fullback in '93 on a team that came within a whisker of beating Florida State and winning the national championship.
Highlight reel: Was a star on Tom Osborne's first national championship team (1994) that beat Miami, 24-17, in the 1995 Orange Bowl. Had a 15-yard burst into the end zone with 7:38 left in the game and five minutes later, ripped off a nearly identical 14-yard touchdown to seal the deal with 2:46 remaining..
Interesting fact: "Everywhere I go, all that people want to talk about are those two touchdowns, but the biggest play of the Orange Bowl for me was on the opening kickoff. I was deep and saw a guy coming down, but he apparently didn't see me. I hit him so hard,
I knocked him out. I thought to myself, 'This is going to be a good game.' I also thoughtthat since the game was on national TV, everybody would see that hit. But no one saw it - no one."
Interesting job: "I work Saturday mornings from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. at Capri Italian Bakery in Dearborn, Mich. I love doing it. I scale dough - weigh it, cut it and size it. I love the bread, the pizza dough and the pepperoni roll. Basically, I work there for food."
Interesting ministry: "Four of us who love strength training (Schlesinger was Nebraska's Co-Lifter of the Year in '93) got together and formed a group called Sons of Thunder. It's a Christian strength ministry team, and we travel around to churches and schools and preach the good word. We break bricks, but we can also break bread. Dan Foor, the guy started the group, was supposed to be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger), but this means a lot more to him because we're helping other people."
Pro career: A sixth-round pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, Schlesinger spent 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions, a team that still has four ex-Huskers - safety Daniel Bullocks, center Dominic Raiola, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. "They're all very good players and come from a program that didn't even take a practice off. When I practiced at Detroit, people didn't exactly like my approach. Our linebackers used to say: 'Cory, slow down!' I told them I had to practice like I intended to play. That was my only gear. Sometimes, though, I would point at them to let them know I was coming their way."
Favorite movie: "Sixteen Candles".
Favorite music: "I grew up in the hair band era of the '80s, so I'm old rock. Now, it's mostly Disney. What can I say? I have two young daughters."
Greatest advice: "Straight from the book of Tom Osborne: Be a person of character. Be where you're supposed to be. Do what you're supposed to do. Know the difference between right and wrong and do what's right."
Basic philosophy: "I try to teach my kids what I learned in football. Life is all about desire and wanting to do something. You either make a block or you miss a block ... no excuses."
Life lessons: "Learn from your mistakes and help somebody else. Those mean the most to me."
Voices from Husker Nation
What a wonderful article on Cory Schlesinger. It's great to see those that succeeded on the field succeed after they hang up their jerseys. Let's see more stories like this. Linn Erickson, Lincoln, Nebraska, UNL Class of 1996