Randy York’s N-sider
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Nebraska has the most successful walk-on program in the history of college football, and a certain film producer has a pretty good idea of why it’s flourished for nearly half a century.
After 14 months in his latest labor of love, Joel Geyer is convinced that Nebraska’s unparalleled success with walk-on football players reflects the heart of this state’s unique culture.
That’s why fans are going to love “Walk-Ons: Huskers’ Edge”, the Geyer-produced film that will make its debut on Tuesday, Aug. 4, at 7 p.m. (CDT) on NET Television. The story that chronicles the tradition of the Huskers’ fabled walk-on program also will be shown at 8 p.m. Thursday and at 6:30 p.m. Sunday on NET Television.
A producer, director and award-winning writer for national PBS documentaries for two decades, Geyer has a soft spot in his heart for this one.
“Nebraska has to be one of the most connected cultures in the world,” said the NET’s documentary unit senior producer, who has worked in Africa, Asia and Australia as well as in New York and California.
“Every place has its own special qualities, but Nebraska is just better connected than other places I’ve lived or worked,” Geyer said. “Nebraskans seem to have stronger families, closer communities and absolutely unbelievable ties to their home state. I’m not saying those same things wouldn’t be true without football, but somehow football turbo-charges Nebraska’s incredible sense of connection, and the walk-ons are definitely the bond that brings it all together.”
Geyer knows how to get to the root of things. He did it when he produced two award-winning documentaries on Willa Cather and when three more of his films were distributed nationally – “Coach Osborne – More Than Winning”, the “Last of the One-Room Schools” and “In Search of the Oregon Trail.”
For his film on walk-ons, Geyer was in search of a fundamental truth that makes Nebraska football what it is today.
It All Goes Back to Nebraska’s Culture, Values
In a nutshell, “It all goes back to our culture and our values,” said Geyer, an Indiana native who considers himself a bit of an adopted son himself.
“People joke about Nebraska football being a religion, but I’ve learned it really is a form of spirituality,” he said. “When I studied Willa Cather and one-room schools in many different ways, they were also about communities that were strong, close and well connected. Nebraska football brings this state together even more, and the walk-ons celebrate the best of our values . . . perseverance, hard work and honesty.”
Geyer uses some vintage footage of young, unidentified boys playing football in the backyard, dreaming perhaps that they, too, might someday don a red jersey with a familiar voice calling their name on the way to the end zone.
Classic emotion squeezed out of filmmaker ingenuity creates cinematic magic.
There is no question that one of the best, purest moments in the film is the kick that defined Nebraska's 2009 season and program – a snap from senior walk-on center T.J. O’Leary, a hold by senior walk-on Jake Wesch and a 57-yard field goal from the right foot of sophomore walk-on Alex Henery, who is probably in line to earn a scholarship this fall as the pre-season All-Big 12 kicker.
“It’s been 14 months from the time I first talked to Tom Osborne and Bo Pelini about doing this film to the time we first showed it last week in Norfolk and Omaha,” Geyer said. “Normally, programs don’t take that long, but we didn’t know what the story was going to be and what kind of characters would emerge. That 57-yard field goal against Colorado set the stage for the Gator Bowl win over Clemson.”
In the end, the season boiled down to “a classic example of three walk-ons having the focus, passion and desire to help Nebraska do something great,” Geyer said. “It’s fascinating that very few fans had even heard of T.J. O’Leary or Jake Wesch before that moment. And, of course, Alex Henery hadn’t even talked to a coach before he decided to walk on. He was going to go to Creighton to be a soccer player.”
Without the Kick, Film Might Have Lost Its Luster
Geyer can only imagine what the film and the season would have been like without that record field goal. Even national championship flashbacks would not be nearly as impactful in this film if they didn’t have the context of such a favorable finish to Bo Pelini’s first season as head coach.
Fans will see Geyer’s focus on Jeff Makovicka and Joel Makovicka as masterful. Where else but Nebraska can two brothers walk on from a tiny town of 350 and march straight into the hearts of Husker fans everywhere? The Brainard, Neb., products each ended up lettering four years at Nebraska – Jeff in 1992-93-94-95 and Joel in 1995-96-97-98. Remarkably, Nebraska was almost untouchable while they were in Lincoln, and their smash-mouth style of play epitomizes why the Huskers were so dominant.
Still, the Mackovickas are merely representative of hundreds of other Husker hopefuls who were willing to turn down scholarships elsewhere just so they could walk on, dare to dream and have the chance to play for the team with the best record in college football over the last 40 years.
Geyer’s favorite story is Langston Coleman, the first modern-day Husker walk-on, who used one of those incredible Nebraska connections in Washington, D.C., to hitch-hike his way and even ride the train rails for a chance to play for Bob Devaney. Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez was a teammate with Coleman, and he loves telling the stories about how Coleman went from the sidelines to a star player.
“The Langston Coleman story is an inspirational part of the program,” Geyer said. “One of the reasons I love it is because he came to Nebraska when Tom Osborne was a graduate assistant coach working on his doctorate degree and how that influenced his own decision to earn a doctorate degree. Clear back in the 1960s, Coach Osborne was leading players where they never thought they could go. It didn’t end up in the film, but Coach Osborne hosted Langston Coleman in his suite for the Kansas game last year, and you could see the mutual respect they had for each other.”
Every Husker Walk-On Story Like the Film ‘Rudy’
Geyer would never compare this film to the one he did with Osborne. “I loved doing Husker Century with Coach Osborne,” he said. “This one is different, and we came at it in a different way. In many respects, all Nebraska walk-on stories are like the film “Rudy”, where someone from a small town works hard and perseveres to make his own dream come true, and who doesn’t love a classic American success story?”
That’s what Geyer wants people to take away from this film . . . “that dreams can come true, especially if you keep working hard enough and are disciplined enough to never give up,” he said. “Tom Osborne always said that you can’t control the outcome, but you can control your own effort, and to me, that’s the lesson of Nebraska football and the legacy of walk-ons . . . they’re players who do everything humanly possible to achieve their dream.”
At Nebraska, the walk-on process works because it comes from two decidedly different places – from the top down and from the bottom up.
“Nebraska coaches have the leadership and the power to recognize the unique treasure and the incredible work ethic of student-athletes who come here from rural areas,” Geyer said. “I think this film proves that once you nurture the inherent culture of your state, young men will come here with dreams and imagination and powerful passion to take this program to a level that almost defies logic.”
Respond to Randy
Voices from Husker Nation
"We agree that the walk-on program is Nebraska football at its best. Our son, Sam, would never have been on the team in 2002 and 2003 were it not for the walk-on program. We wish we could see the NET movie, but here in Illinois, we don't know if it will be broadcast. Love to stay in touch with our favorite team via Huskers.com." Knight and Susan Wells, Bloomington, Ill.
"I think it is outstanding that someone has done a video on the time honored and wonderful walk-on tradition for the Huskers. It has been so important for the program and has produced so many good players over the years. We are all happy that Coach Osborne is in charge of the program and helping us to get back on the road to dominating again!" Bryan Rauch