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First-Year Walk-ons Get Chills, Shivers and Goosebumps
Tuesday morning, a dozen first-year Cornhusker football players entered the main room in Lincoln’s Village Manor Living Center to the familiar ring of Nebraska’s Tunnel Walk music. Even though all eyes were on the big bodies, applause was light and intermittent.
But that didn’t stop the hearts of three Nebraska walk-ons from beating almost through the official game jerseys they were wearing for the first time.
“I’ve always dreamed of putting on a red jersey for Nebraska since I was a little kid. Even though we walked in today in front of a small group of people, it gave me chills, and it’s just a taste of what it’s going to be like,” said Jase Dean, a freshman walk-on defensive back from Bridgeport, Neb.
Husker players Justin Jackson and Cameron Meredith flank resident Ray Shrader. Jase Dean signs an autograph for George Bodensteiner, 105. Photos by Lindsay Erwin, Nebraska Life Skills
Husker players Justin Jackson and Cameron Meredith flank resident Ray Shrader.
Jase Dean signs an autograph for George Bodensteiner, 105.
Photos by Lindsay Erwin, Nebraska Life Skills
“Wearing this red jersey for the first time sent shivers right down my spine,” offered Justin Jackson, a freshman walk-on defensive lineman from Roca, Neb. “I had offers from others, but money can’t buy this feeling. There’s no way I’d go waste someone’s time on a full-ride when it’s not where I want to play.”
Derek Meyer, a walk-on offensive lineman from Campbell, Neb., had the same reaction putting on a Husker jersey. “It’s an awesome feeling,” he said. “I’ve wanted to do this for so long. You get goose bumps when you put on this jersey, and I’m sure I will every time I put it on from now until I graduate.”
Walk-ons: ‘The Heart and Soul of Nebraska Football’
Dean, Jackson and Meyer – three members of Bo Pelini’s first class of recruited walk-ons – understand why Derrie Nelson, former Husker walk-on defensive end and 1980 All-American, calls walk-ons “the heart and soul of Nebraska football.”
They understand it because they can’t imagine anyone who feels stronger about Nebraska’s tradition than they do. That’s why their passion was so obvious in their first-ever community service activity as Huskers.
“My parents have always taught me to give back to the community. Sometimes, the community helps make you who you are. Right now, Lincoln is my new community, and it’s always nice to give as soon as you can and whenever you can,” said Dean, who gravitated immediately to the oldest person in the room – George Bodensteiner, 105 years young.
“We just talked about simple things,” Dean said. “He wanted to know what I did when I wasn’t playing football, and I told him about some of my hobbies – like going scuba diving or just hanging out with my friends.”
Dean, who played last month in the Nebraska Shrine Bowl game, said making Nebraska’s fall camp of 105 players “is just amazing. I really didn’t even know what to say when they told me I was invited. It was just so exciting, I was pretty much speechless.”
Jackson also used the word amazing to describe what it’s like to be a walk-on and get invited to two-a-day practices. “It’s a given that these scholarship players have to be here,” he said. “But it’s an even better feeling for a walk-on. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy being here and how much I appreciate reaching out to the community like that as part of a program that means so much to so many people.”
Small-town Kids Know the Art of Small Talk
Dean, Jackson and Meyer were the most demonstrative players to work the room. They went straight to the residents, leaned forward to listen to what they were saying and never stopped being engaged.
“It’s good to go out and visit places like this,” Meyer said. “I mean, these people don’t have the chance to come and watch us play, so it’s the least we can do. I’m from a small town, and I knew everybody there. It’s just how I was raised. When you go out and talk to people, be polite and show them respect, it makes you feel good inside.”
Small talk was no problem for the small-town Meyer, who walked on at K-State and played in the Wildcats’ first five games as a redshirt freshman before sustaining an injury and deciding to transfer to Nebraska when Pelini & staff were hired.
“I enjoyed talking to everyone today,” Meyer said. “A lot of them talked about their kids and where they used to work. We’re here to talk about what they want to talk about, not just football.”
Growing up in Bridgeport (population: 1,594), Dean is the city slicker of the walk-ons who mixed with the scholarship players on Tuesday.
Campbell, Meyer’s hometown, has a population of 387. “We’re located about an hour south of Grand Island,” he said. “If you drive through it and blink your eye, you’ll miss it.”
Still, Campbell has 167 more people than Roca, where Jackson lives and attended nearby Norris High School.
Each player who participated in Tuesday’s community outreach program, a part of football orientation, shared some background about their position, hometown, intended major and reasons for selecting Nebraska.
Steinkuhler Receives the Loudest Cheers from Residents
Baker Steinkuhler, a scholarship lineman, got by far the loudest cheer when he said he was from Lincoln Southwest. He also said he probably “would have gotten in trouble” if he attended another school besides the one his father and brother chose. He’s the son of 1983 Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award winner Dean Steinkuhler. His brother, Ty, is a senior defensive lineman.
“Today was a great experience,” said Steinkuhler, who was ranked among the nation’s top 25 high school players last season. “There’s nothing really like it. It’s hard to describe how much you get out of something like this. It’s just nice to get out and talk to people, hear what they have to say and show them that you care.
“Life skills are a great thing they’re trying to teach us,” Steinkuhler said. “Today’s experience will go a long way to helping us embrace the program we have here.”
Ray Shrader, 89, is a Village Manor resident who played football at Lincoln High School and knew dozens of members of Nebraska’s first bowl team ever – the 1940 team that lost, 21-13, to Stanford in the 1941 Rose Bowl.
After several residents had asked Nebraska players certain questions, Shrader stood up and said, “I don’t have a question, but I have a little advice. It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose. It’s how you play the game. You’ve all got spirit, and that’s what counts.”
A woman in a wheelchair sitting next to Shrader nodded in agreement, and added a comment of her own. “It’s OK if you win ‘em all, too!” she said.