Huskers Find Part of Their Identity in the Sandhills
Randy York's N-Sider
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When 40 ex-Nebraska football players and half a dozen members of the current coaching staff rendezvoused in the heart of the state last week, they found something they didn’t expect – a key part of their identity.
For the first time, Trev Alberts, an All-American on the 1993 team that launched Nebraska’s 60-3 run over five seasons, experienced the Sandhills. Somewhere on the
“I think I finally get why Terry brought everything he had to Nebraska and how he helped lead Coach Osborne to his first national championship,” Alberts said.
Getting out there deep in the Sandhills – about 20 miles as the crow flies from the Connealy Angus Ranch south of Whitman, Neb. – Alberts and Connealy connected once again, but this time in a very different way.
A 1993 Academic All-America defensive end and team captain used his first trip to the Sandhills to understand the full force of a 1994 Academic All-America nose tackle and team captain.
Alberts, son of an Iowa farmer, finally got to walk the same sacred ground as Connealy, son of a Hyannis rancher. And when he did, he couldn’t help but focus on his ex-teammate’s extraordinary emotional investment in Nebraska football, not to mention his humility and toughness – qualities that emerged from his first pair of cowboy boots that dug into the sandy soil he grew up on.
“We played next to each other, so our families kind of struck up a friendship,” Alberts said, recalling an emotional conversation he had with Connealy’s father, Marty, a few weeks before the former players and current coaches huddled up for golf and camaraderie in Gothenburg and the Sandhills.
Alberts and his family flew from Atlanta to Nebraska to visit Hooper, where he would hunt turkey with his old college roommate and stay with his family. In Lincoln, he ran into Marty, who brought up his son’s first big game as a starter against UCLA. Alberts, a good friend and national sportscaster, provided some insight and analysis for a proud father of seven and a grandfather of 25.
A Father’s Tears Reflect a Father’s Pride
“When I told his dad how well Terry played in the game that put him on the map, some tears started running down his face,” Alberts said. “Marty is so passionate, humble and loyal, you have no trouble understanding why Terry is so passionate, humble and loyal.”
“Players aren’t the only ones who get emotional. Sometimes, parents do, too,” admitted Marty, who donated some Black Angus steaks for the Nebraska contingent one night at the Dismal and then hamburgers the next day for lunch. “Trev is a credit to the university and a real fine, young fella.”
For someone who’s lived on the same ranch for 47 years, that’s a mouthful.
As much as Marty, Terry and other members of the Connealy family love the Sandhills, they choose not to ballyhoo them, especially to people who would never understand how much they enjoy driving an hour through the wide-open spaces just to eat a decent steak.
If you’d raised your own cattle, been your own boss and watched all seven of your kids graduate from college after attending a tiny high school, you probably wouldn’t think it’s a big deal either.
But Trev Alberts thinks it is, and he’s more than willing to explain why.
“Terry was a year-round defensive tackle,” Alberts said. “His motor never stopped running from the time he got to Lincoln until he left. It’s interesting. His mom’s family owned some land that the Dismal course is now on. They owned an old cabin that had been in the family for years. When they sold the property, they made sure they could maintain access to that cabin. It’s a small thing, but an important thing.”
It’s important, Alberts said, because it helps describe the innate sense of loyalty that the Connealys and so many other Nebraska families have in their native state.
“That loyalty is why Terry pushed through every day in every way,” Alberts said. “He felt such a sense of duty to the program. Yes, he was an overachiever. But don’t kid yourself. He had talent, too, and a level of toughness that was never going to stop. He always knew he would persevere and be tougher, play harder and last longer than anyone else on the field. In the end, he’d win – and Nebraska would win – because he would never, ever allow himself to quit and never allow the team to quit either.”
Connealy’s Brand of Toughness May Be Coming Back
Osborne schooled players before Connealy and after him on a certain brand of toughness. “There were plenty of others just like Terry who had that same unbelievable commitment,” Alberts said. “I got a chance to play 18 holes with Bo Pelini in Gothenburg. I have a feeling you’re going to see that same kind of toughness come back to Nebraska.”
Matt Williams, a former Nebraska pole vaulter and now president of the Gothenburg State Bank, helped host the players and coaches last week. “Bo and his entire staff want to be accessible within the state and want to be known as everyday people just like you and me,” Williams said. “You can feel their connection with the past. I like the way they’re bringing together the former players who have had their nose bloodied a bit in the last few years. They’re doing everything they can to make sure that we’re putting that relationship back together, so it’s on stronger footing.”
Everyone who mixed with Nebraska’s new head coach last week feels the same way. Bo fits right in with the land and the people of Nebraska. He is hard-nosed, loyal, tough and completely committed to building relationships. Why else would he and five members of his coaching staff take two days out of an intensely busy schedule to get together with so many former players, so they could talk about old times and discuss how those times relate to the new order?
If you don’t develop relationships in a state like Nebraska, there’s not much else out there to keep you interested. Bo’s beliefs reflect the state’s values about as simply and elegantly as his athletic director’s: Work hard. Think smart. Talk plainly. Be humble.
Gothenburg or Mullen could have been any other small town in Nebraska you choose to name. They’re the kinds of places that so many of our most loyal fans call home. That’s why Scott Strasburger, another ex-Husker Academic All-American who made last week’s trip, wanted the “reunion” to meet in the heart of the state.
Now an orthopedic surgeon on the Huskers’ medical staff, Strasburger helped Doak Ostergard, Nebraska’s director of player outreach, complete the 1-2 itinerary punch. Gothenburg’s Wild Horse Golf Club is Ostergard’s home course. Strasburger’s home course is the Lincoln Country Club, but the Holdrege native also belongs to the Dismal River Club hundreds of miles away.
Talk about your classic Nebraska dichotomy. For former players, it doesn’t matter, as long as you connect with the roots of your program and subscribe to the same kind of toughness as the land Nebraskans choose to live on.
In this state, it is wide open spaces, and your dreams can take you anywhere you want to go.
His Territory is Much Bigger Than the Panhandle Now
Just ask Connealy, who was born in Alliance, Neb., and now works in Omaha as a market development manager for Wells Fargo Bank. He helps oversee the Western part of the United States, which fits in nicely with his wide-open style.
For the last 10 years, he’s traded in his boots and belt buckles for cleaned-pressed shirts and slacks, but he wouldn’t trade the time he spent at Nebraska for anything.
“I went on the trip last week because I don’t know these coaches very well, and I wanted to meet them,” Connealy said. “It was fun to go back to the Sandhills, which is near and dear to my heart. It’s a wonderful place with great people. I sure had a great experience there.”
So did the ex-players and current coaches. “This business is built on relationships,” said Barney Cotton, Nebraska’s offensive line coach. “What made this trip so different than others is that it was purely social, giving all the older guys a chance to meet some of the newer guys and vice versa.
“In the past, recruiting at Nebraska was hard to explain because the No. 1 aspect about Nebraska football was the relationships, and everyone knew it. It’s what separated us from the other schools,” Cotton said. “For Coach Devaney, Coach Osborne and Coach Solich, it was all about people and the unique qualities in this state. Bo is that same kind of guy. He embraces players from the past and wants them to help teach others why this is such a special place.”
Connealy reconnected with the program he loves last week like he hasn’t in a while. “This coaching staff really embraces the Nebraska tradition and the Nebraska work ethic,” he said. “I think everybody is really excited to get behind this team. It seems like there’s a ton of energy surrounding this program again.”
Ron Brown, Nebraska’s tight end coach who has spent a lot of time in the Sandhills but skipped last week’s trip because of other commitments, wonders how many in the Huskers’ 2008 class of recruits and walk-ons will bring the kind of dedication and toughness that Alberts and Connealy brought together.
“The people in Western Nebraska – like a lot of other people across Nebraska – represent the ruggedness of what Nebraska’s all about,” said Brown, who owns a Christian radio station in Alliance and was the featured speaker at Connealy’s last high school athletic banquet in Hyannis.
Brown: Western Nebraskans Unified, Simple and Strong
“People in the Sandhills are used to the harsh weather and the sudden changeability of the weather,” Brown said. “You get a tough lifestyle of ranching and farming. You’re totally dependent on weather conditions and lots of other things. A lot of hard work goes into something and then all of sudden, some weather pattern comes and just washes it out and kills your cattle or ruins your crops.
“These people have learned how to take risk and yet remained unified and simple and strong. Their character has been tested and proven. They’ve had to rely on God. That’s why when I’ve gone out there to preach, I think there’s been a lot of acceptance – not total acceptance but quite a bit of acceptance – to the word of God. They’re looking to God for answers of life because they don’t have a lot of liquidated money out there. A lot of their money is tied into their land and their livestock. So much of that can go up and down. Farmers and ranchers can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars if something goes wrong. That’s why they have sort of a built-in dependency upon God to take care of them, protect them and move them forward.”
Brown marvels at Connealy, an eight-man player who came out of nowhere to become a star and a captain of a national championship team.
“I remember ESPN deciding to feature Terry because of the uniqueness of where he comes from,” Brown said. “He’s not one of the more decorated names in high school football and the recruiting world, but he became a great player for us and a great representative of the university. Terry represents Western Nebraska and all its ruggedness, determination and faith in God. It’s exciting. I loved being a part of that and can’t wait to see who follows in those kinds of footsteps.”
Editor’s note: Randy York, who writes the N-sider, grew up in the Sandhills. An Alliance native, he remembers people laughing when he’d describe the Sandhills as majestic because of its sunsets peeking above blowing prairie grass on rolling hills against a light breeze. When National Geographic once devoted 40 pages to the Sandhills, York felt his views were validated. He still wonders why more Nebraska natives don’t take the extra time to experience the Sandhills instead of racing through the Panhandle via I-80.“The Sandhills have a way of changing your perspective. You feel so small out there. The Dismal golf course we played goes on forever. You can’t see civilization. You can’t see the hole. You can’t see people. You can’t see houses. You can’t see anything but beautiful, rolling hills and a sky that doesn’t quit. You feel a little vulnerable. It would humble almost anybody. You realize how dependent those people are who live out there with the weather and the conditions. At night, it’s the quietest place I’ve ever been, and the darkest place I’ve ever seen. I’d describe that golf course as pure, unspoiled serenity.”
Trev Alberts, 1993 Nebraska Co-Captain Dismal River, a Jack Nicklaus signature course near Mullen, Neb., Alberts gained a keener appreciation of what really drove Terry Connealy.
Respond to Randy
"After that description of the Sandhills it should come as no surprise that the Sandhills were featured as one of the 10 most scenic road trips in America in Jeep magazine. That article was somewhat instrumental in initiating an annual trip to the Sandhills with my now-13 year old son." - Tom Sandquist
"Having grown up in South Omaha, and while attending the University of Nebraska, I worked summers delivering Xerox Copiers in Nebraska and Wyoming. I was a frequent traveler to the panhandle area. I never tired of the beauty of the Sandhills and always tried to make a point of driving Hwy 2 back toward Omaha from Wyoming or Western Nebraska. I met my wife while in school (she is a small town gal from Seward). We married and moved to Alaska in 1984. I know a little something about beautiful scenery and unspoiled vistas. I can tell you this, the Sandhills are every bit as beautiful and majestic to me as any of the rugged coastline, mountains and glaciers I have lived everyday with for the past 25 years. Thank you for stirring some fond memories and so aptly describing what it still feels like to tell folks I am a Nebraskan." - Larry Weihs
"I grew up in the Sandhills before there were grass greens and fairways. I recently went back and had an opportunity to play on the new Sandhill Golf Club on the Dismal River. What an amazing view. For someone who grew up around all of those hills and to see the golf course etched out around them was an awesome scene. It would have been an even more amazing time if I played better and had an opportunity to hit my balls off of the green grass and not from the Sandhills rough terrain." - Tom Reynolds
"Really enjoyed your article about the former players' reunion at the Sandhills Golf Club. Magnificent country. I've had the privilege of canoeing the Dismal River and riding across the Sandhills en route to Sturgis a couple of times. We always stayed in Alliance and started the morning with a stop at Carhenge. There is a majesty to the land that words can't capture, and I hope our western residents truly appreciate how many of us eastern Nebraskans admire them and the land that has been entrusted to their care. East meets West at every sunset in our lovely state." - Kurt Farris
"I grew up in Mullen, knew the Connealy family, played eight-man football for Mullen. I now live in Hattiesburg, Miss., but had the opportunity to bring my wife to Football 101 last week. The accessibility of the entire coaching staff, the obvious commitment to the culture that is Nebraska football was tangible. It was also very heartwarming to see so much honor given to Coach Osborne from everyone who spoke. I felt like Marty Connealy as described in your piece, as I frequently had to pause and wipe away tears. Few people outside of Nebraska have any idea of the importance of this program in the lives of the people of this state - or what that connection is. I think Trev Alberts captured the essence of it. As we were preparing to exit the stadium following the great day at Football 101, Coach Pelini graciously stood on the sideline signing several hundred autographs and taking pictures, when our turn came, I mentioned that we had come in from Hattiesburg, Miss., to be a part of the day. He thanked us for coming and asked if we knew Btrett Farve ( a Hattiesburg native), when I mentioned that his home was a few miles from our church, he asked me to tell him "Bo says Hi" when I see him. I plan on it. What a great example of a guy who cares more about relationships than what he can get from people." - Mike Ewoldt, Hattiesburg, Miss.
"Loved reading this article on the Sandhills and Nebraska football, both near and dear to my heart! Having been raised in Lakeside and then Alliance, I've always referred to it as "God's Country". When I'd drive up Highway 2 from Broken Bow to Alliance, particularly in the spring and early summer, I always felt it was a spiritual experience, and miss it a lot since I live in Scottsdale, Ariz., now. Nebraska football has always provided me with the same sort of feeling. I still try to get back to Lincoln for a game or two every year, and listen to all the broadcasts on our Husker station here in Phoenix and belong to the Arizonans for Nebraska. The history of my family with the ranching business and Nebraska football go back a long, long way. I am so proud of both, and am grateful that the Pride in the Team is back." - Gerdi Hord Heath
"To this day I tell people how beautiful I think the Sandhills of Nebraska are. It's difficult to explain to people who live in the Pacific Northwest with all the mountains and trees how western Nebraska holds its own special beauty. I remember the winter days of sledding in the wind-swept hollows of the Sandhills and how quiet and beautiful the nights could be with no city lights to dim the star-filled skies." - Warren Miller
"We had a motorcycle convention in Scottsbluff two years ago in June. I spoke with a middle-aged couple from Washington state who were driving to Columbus for a wedding. They were mapping out their route using I-80. I suggested an alternate route - Highway 2 and then gave them an easy route to Columbus. The lady asked for my name and address and sent me a card about three months later. They were absolutely amazed at the beautiful landscape. They thanked me for the Hwy 2 trip and said they would recommend it to friends." - Roger Christensen
"In response to the article about the coaches and former players gathering in the Sandhills, I couldn't be happier to hear that the new coaching staff realizes that getting kids from all over the state is a winning tradition. Anytime we've had great teams, we've always had hard-working kids from small towns in Nebraska helping lead the way. When you combine the hard-working kids from Nebraska who have always dreamed of playing for the Big Red with the other talent from around the country, the result will always be a winning one, and I'm glad Bo (Pelini) embraces this theory and is already putting it to good use. It makes me proud!!! I was from an eight-man school and whenever I would see an eight-man player like Terry Connealy on the field playing with the top players in the country, it would get me so pumped I would feel like I could do anything." - Jerrod Atkinson, Sioux Falls, S.D.