For No. 1ís Jacobson, Rimington and Alberts, the NFL Was a Rude Awakening
Husker legends Larry Jacobson, Dave Rimington and Trev Alberts are card-carrying members of the Ndamukong Suh Fan Club, and they're all proud that Nebraska's most decorated defensive player ever won't have to experience the same kind of shock they got as first-round NFL draft choices.
Suh went straight from Times Square to ABC's National Person of the Week to a Detroit Lions Training Camp where he's been greeted with open arms, national praise and a defensive system that will be designed to optimize everything he brings to the table.
If only Jacobson, Rimington and Alberts - all major award winners and first-round NFL draft choices from the 1970s, '80s and '90s -- could have made an equally smooth transition from college football's most productive program to the pros.
Their respective ascension to lifelong dreams wasn't anything close to what Suh's life is expected to be like - an experience already so richly rewarding that he made the unprecedented decision to pledge $2.6 million of his future paycheck to the University of Nebraska before he knew which team would draft him.
Jacobson, an All-American and Academic All-American, said the New York Giants he played for wasn't even a shadow of the franchise that won a Super Bowl with Eli Manning.
The same was true for Rimington, who had to buy practice jerseys that fit him at Cincinnati long before his former teammate and current boss, Boomer Esiason, led the Bengals to the Super Bowl.
What Does It Take to Replace One Knee Pad?
At Indianapolis, Alberts recalls how he couldn't even replace a knee pad with a hole in it midway through the season - a far cry from the gold standard that Bill Polian, Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning brought to the Colts years after the franchise matured into something similar to what it once was in Baltimore.
Once you realize what three Husker legends endured 38, 27 and 16 years ago, you'll understand why players rose up to defend their own rights when the NFL negotiated the most lucrative television contract in sports history.
Oh how the times have changed from a player's perspective. Don't be misled. The NFL is still a cold-hearted business with plenty of franchises that can't see any sunshine or rainbows on the horizon - and Detroit may be one of those places - but at least today's players aren't likely to experience the oddities that Jacobson, Rimington and Alberts did.
"The Giants were terrible," Jacobson said. "When I was drafted, the culture was the pits. It was a rude awakening to go from a place like Nebraska - where everything is built on camaraderie and a will to win - to a place where nobody cared about the team. After the fifth scrimmage, players only cared about themselves. It was totally different than what we did at Nebraska to win national championships."
Rimington, the only player ever to win back-to-back Outland Trophies and add a Lombardi Award to become the most decorated offensive lineman in college football history, said being drafted in the first round by Cincinnati was like being back in junior high school. "I went from a place where everyone - from the equipment man to the ticket people to the coaches being on the same page - to a place that didn't even have a training table," he said. "We had guys drawing straws to see who had to pick up lunch. I mean, every day it was Kentucky Fried Chicken or Popeyes, and the rookies were the guys who had to fetch lunch and bring it back. It was just like club football."
You would think 10 years later, when Indianapolis drafted Butkus Award winner Alberts in the first round, that things would change, but not much.
Colts' Training Table Was Out Back ... on a Grill
"We didn't have to go get our own chicken, but you know what our Training Table was?" Alberts asked, bouncing a question back to the interviewer. "The Bengals had a corporate sponsorship with Outback Steakhouse, so every day, there would be a guy outside, throwing steaks on the barbie, grilling shrimp and an occasional piece of chicken. Now, I love Outback, but it wasn't exactly the nutritional value that we were used to at Nebraska. No wonder we had so many out-of-shape football players. Our nutritional needs simply were not taken care of."
That wasn't the only shocker Alberts had on his first day as an Indianapolis Colt. "I walked into the strength and conditioning room, and our strength coach had a chalk board and a piece of white chalk and wrote 3x20 on the board," he recalled. "He looked at me and said: 'Ah, you come from Nebraska, where all those pencil-neck geeks sit behind computers and draw this stuff up'. I remember how odd I thought it was that he was making fun of the school that actually invented football strength and conditioning training."
To this day, Alberts marvels at the full-scale approach Nebraska took and still takes to total-person development - a strategic plan that continues to set the standard in college athletics.
"The commitment that Tom Osborne made to academics and the Hewitt Center, to strength training and the training table, and just to overall philosophy, created an environment where student-athlete welfare was at the forefront of everything you did," Alberts said. "Then, I got to the NFL, and everything was just strict numbers. It was something I certainly wasn't prepared for."
Rimington and Alberts both have more extreme examples of Culture Shock 101.
"You would have to experience it to believe it," Rimington said. "Here, I thought going pro would be the apex of my football career, and it was an eye-opener the first day I arrived. It wasn't just the time wasted getting your own lunch. It was equipment and everything else. I used to go to the sporting goods store and get stuff made for me all the time because they wouldn't give it to you. I liked the equipment guy, but I don't know what kind of incentive program he was on. I think he got paid more when he didn't have to use stuff. I mean, it was bad. We had dirty clothes. Most teams would wash 'em between two-a-days. We didn't. We wouldn't. It was just bad."
In the ninth game of his rookie season, Alberts noticed his knee pad had developed a rather large hole. "I went to the equipment manager and said: 'I need a new knee pad,'" he recalled. "He looked at me and said: 'I'm sorry, but we're all out of those, and we won't be getting any more this season.' I thought to myself: 'Wow, can you imagine anyone thinking like that at Nebraska?' He did suggest I fill it with something and put some tape over the hole, so that's what I did."
A $25,000 Annual Paycheck for This First-Rounder
Getting drafted in the '80s and '90s, Rimington and Alberts prospered more than Jacobson, who made $25,000 his first year with the Giants before an injury finished his career a few days after a $55,000 contract kicked in during his fourth season.
"I remember buying an 18-foot inboard-outboard boat in Nebraska with part of the $40,000 bonus check I got for starting my rookie year. I learned a lesson about why you should never buy something you don't need," said Jacobson, who went on to a productive career as a wealth management advisor.
Money is important, but it's not what makes these three Husker legends shake their heads.
"I've thought about this a lot," said Alberts, now the athletic director at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "Clearly, I'm painting this with a broad brush because there are a lot of Nebraska guys who have been great pros - guys like the Grant Wistroms and the Ahman Greens. It is not entirely the case, but I'll tell you this. Although it's not indicative of how Ndamukong will perform in the pros, I think the leap that he will take from college to the NFL will be a far more dramatic change for him than going from high school to college.
"Everything he was taught will be different," Alberts said. "At Nebraska, every piece of culture and tradition was important to him. Like everyone who plays here, he bought into the concept of team and being part of something bigger than himself. When you go from that mindset to being an individual and not thinking of those around you, some of us really struggled with that. It helps you understand that turning a game into your livelihood isn't easy.
"When you play for an institution like Nebraska and the kind of players who come here, and then turn around and say it's all about me when you become a pro ... well, that's a tough leap," Alberts said. "I can certainly tell you that I enjoyed and preferred the prior equation where it was about a community, a state, a group of guys, an athletic department, a coach, a culture and a team that cared a whole lot more about each other than just 'what's in it for me?'"
Pro football, of course, is a business, and Alberts praises Polian for hiring Dungy to coach his former team because he believes Dungy brought Osborne-like beliefs to the Indianapolis Colts. "Bill Polian and Tony Dungy are special people who have unique abilities," he said. "There are very few leaders who can do what they did - create, within a strict business, a culture where it isn't about each individual protecting his livelihood and himself, but about the franchise, the team and each other."
Alberts: Colts, Steelers are NFL Versions of Nebraska
To Alberts, the Indianapolis Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers today stand apart as great franchises that have based their organizations on core beliefs and values and have distinguished themselves on and off the field. Alberts believes those standards explain why the Steelers recently dealt more sternly with their star quarterback than the legal system did.
"They know and understand they're in a business, yet, like all successful organizations, they've managed to create a culture of unity and family - a culture that we were able to create and experience at Nebraska," Alberts said.
"It all starts with leadership," he added. "When you have leaders who are in it for unselfish reasons, it's not unusual or hard to understand how that permeates the organization and filters down to everyone who's part of that organization."
Nebraska, Alberts said, may not be the only standard that proves that point.
But the Huskers are just about as good as it gets anywhere else.
Voices from Husker Nation
The article on going from college football to the pros was a great piece. It provides a perspective that the fan would probably never see or understand. The NFL seems like the end of the climb, yet now, when put in perspective, it's truly an eye-opener. It also builds an appreciation for how great Nebraska is as a program and how great a man Tom Osborne is. Thanks for the research it took to put the article together. Dave Showalter, Omaha, Nebraska
I just finished reading the experiences of Jacobson, Rimington and Alberts. I think all college players going into the NFL should read these accounts of how it was from day one, and be prepared for what to expect. Please pass along to the three of them that I think they should get together and write a book about the transition from college to the pros. It just shows how great the program is because Nebraska teaches not only how to become a first-class football player, but also a first-class citizen. Go Big Red! Mike Nimrod, Omaha, Nebraska
Nice article. What an eye opener. It seems like the pros would try to learn from the colleges (or at least a program like Nebraska). There is a huge return on investment with a training table, equipment or even developing a team attitude amongst the players. I would think the program a player comes from would be an important part of the draft criteria. I guess the owners have a big pile of money to work with, and their objective is to keep as much of it as they can. That seems pretty shortsighted to me. Galin Hodges, O'Fallon, Missouri
Liked how you wrote about a Husker legend from three different decades and gave us another side of the pro football glamour we have in our minds. I find it interesting that being a former Husker is bigger than being a former Giant, a former Bengal, a former Colt, etc. Seems like it's the same way with other players who come back to something that's always been bigger than the paychecks they cashed in their pro days. Nebraska is a place that binds you for life. I always felt Tom Osborne could have gone to the NFL as a head coach many times, but he saw a bigger picture here, and we should all be thankful for that. Steve Sorenson, Chicago, Illinois
In reference to your story on the hardships of former Cornhuskers in the NFL, please let it be known that the Colts were a charter member of the All American Football Conference. They were an established powerful football team, second only to the likes of the Giants and Bears. When they were added to the NFL, Lombardi had not yet worked his magic. In 56 years of NFL competition, the Colts have achieved a 444-406-7 record, including four world championships and 17 conference and divisional titles. The Colts had already been in Indianapolis 10 years in 1994 - the time near Albert's "hardships". They were hardly a destitute expansion team at the time. J Leroy Brandt, Lifetime Member, Nebraska Alumni Association
I agree with a reader that a book would be interesting, but I think it should focus on how Nebraska prepared so many great players to succeed beyond football. Even guys like Irving Fryar, who lasted a long time in the NFL, faced some tough problems, but he straightened things out. You can't help but wonder if the values he learned at Nebraska helped influence his ability to come back and eventually become a pastor. Nebraska doesn't turn out perfection, but it certainly prepares young men and women on how to deal with imperfection - something we all seem to have. Thanks for another interesting column. Connie Johnson, Cedar Rapids, Iowa