A Classic NU Walk-On Dream Came True in 28-24 Win Over Sooners in '82
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This is not your typical Nebraska walk-on success story ... far from it.
Who can say that Tom Osborne visited your home on Christmas Day and started the process to talk you out of an Ivy League education for the chance to play football at Nebraska?
Who was smart enough when he was rotating in against a future Heisman Trophy winner to ask the coach if he could switch to defense between his first morning and afternoon college practice?
Who beat the odds of walking on and never redshirting?
Who got a Blackshirt his sophomore season the week before the 1982 Oklahoma game?
Who intercepted an OU pass a few days later and almost returned it for a touchdown in the last 26 seconds to preserve a 28-24 win over the Sooners?
Who, 28 years later, is still the star of that game and keeps showing up on Memorial Stadium's big screens, reflecting the drama of a tradition so rich that students jumped out of their seats and spilled onto the field when he hit the ground?
Who went on to become a two-time First-Team Academic All-America defensive end as a junior and senior in 1983 and '84?
And, finally, who gets to inspect Taylor Martinez's ankle every day to make sure that everything humanly possible is being done to get Nebraska's redshirt freshman quarterback onto the field for an historic Big 12 Championship Game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas?
Some of you, no doubt, were getting warm to the right answer with each paragraph, but the doctor part of the equation was a dead giveaway for Strasburger, one of 13 Nebraska Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine doctors who are proud to be your Husker team physicians.
"It's a great job. I love going to work every day," said Strasburger, who has created time in a busy surgical schedule to speak at the Thursday, Dec. 9, Nebraska Walk-On Club Luncheon at Lincoln Station.
Oh, what a story he can tell between shoulder replacements and ACL reconstructions.
Let's start on that Christmas Day when Osborne was in Holdrege, Neb., to visit his wife Nancy's family. "Through some quirky bowl timing, he just happened to be in town that day, and that conversation changed my mind and sealed the deal," Strasburger said.
After being accepted at both Yale and Dartmouth, Strasburger had decided he would attend Dartmouth and play football. "They don't have athletic scholarships in the Ivy League, but I was going to get my tuition paid, and I was pretty set on going that direction," he said.
Osborne pointed out that two former Holdrege athletes, Todd Brown and Andy Means, had walked on and became three-year starters - a script that Strasburger followed if you count his starting the last three games of the '82 season with wins over OU, Hawaii and LSU in the Orange Bowl.
Nebraska Football a Focal Point Growing Up
"I was like every other kid in the state of Nebraska," Strasburger said. "Back then, Nebraska football was the only thing in town. If the game wasn't on TV, you were glued to the radio listening to every play."
The more Strasburger thought about it, the more he saw opportunity. "After Coach Osborne's visit, I thought why not give it a try?" he said. "If it doesn't work out that first year, I can always transfer and still get an Ivy League education. It was the best decision I've ever made in my whole life."
Not far behind was another decision Strasburger made to stay on his self-directed, accelerated schedule.
You have to remember when he walked on in 1981, Nebraska had a freshman team with 120 players who reported a week before the rest of the squad. Included among the early arrivals were junior college transfers who needed an orientation every bit as much as the freshmen.
"I was an I-back and linebacker in high school, so that first morning practice as a freshman, I was an I-back rotating in with another I-back," he recalled. "I had no idea who the guy was, but it didn't take me long to figure out he was out of my league."
After practice, Strasburger approached Nebraska Freshman Coach Frank Solich and decided to be completely honest. "Coach," he said, "I don't know how to say this, but I don't think I can ever beat this other kid out.'"
No Match for Rozier's Speed and Skill Sets
Solich smiled and told Strasburger that the I-back he was rotating in with was none other than Mike Rozier, a junior college All-American who became a Heisman Trophy winner two years later, played in the NFL and is still considered by many to be the best running back in Nebraska history.
The second Rozier's name came out of Solich's mouth, "I asked him if I could move to defense," Strasburger said.
On the spot, Solich asked him where he wanted to play.
"I really like Coach Samuel," Strasburger told him.
"Tony," Solich said, "can you come over here for a minute?"
That's all it took for Strasburger to chart a new course to everything he ended up experiencing.
"I think that proved I was a pretty good evaluator of my skills, not to mention Mike Rozier's skills," Strasburger said. "There have been some kids with average speed who have played I-back at Nebraska, but I knew that morning no one was going to play ahead of Mike."
So, yes, Strasburger said, that was perhaps his second best decision. "I-back morning practice ... defensive end afternoon practice ... both on my very first day as a Husker," he pointed out.
Strasburger made enough progress as a freshman to be encouraged about playing time as a true sophomore and, sure enough, it happened just as he visualized it would.
The Highest Honor Imaginable: A Blackshirt
Nebraska's only loss in a 12-1 1982 season was 27-24 to national champion Penn State in a controversial game at State College, Pa.
Throughout the season, Strasburger played, but did not start. Then, the week before the third-ranked Huskers hosted No. 11 OU, he got the biggest surprise of his life ... a Blackshirt hanging in his locker on a still vividly memorable Monday, Nov. 22.
"I will tell you this," he said. "When you see that shirt handed to you in your locker for the first time, you never forget it. I will always remember that day. It was one of the best feelings I've ever had and as excited as I've ever been. I was a sophomore on a great team. I didn't have to redshirt, and all of a sudden, I was wearing a Blackshirt the week before the Oklahoma game."
Life doesn't get any better than that, and Strasburger laughs about how he might have handled it all if today's technology had been available nearly three decades ago. "If I would have had a cell phone then, I would have called everyone I knew," he said. "That night, I would have had it on Facebook and Twitter. I was that excited."
Fortunately, he recovered from the haze he was in during practice that day to do his homework for the classroom and in the film room. "I had been playing a lot before getting the Blackshirt," he said. "We played a 5-2, but were moving more into a 4-3 and adding a third linebacker to counteract Oklahoma's attack."
Strasburger happened to be that third linebacker whenever the Blackshirts would go into a stacked defense. To this day, he remembers how his magic moment unfolded, enabling him to wear the same black jersey worn by such idols as Wonder Monds and Tom Ruud.
With Good Coaching, He Knew Exactly What to Do
"Being a Blackshirt is all about paying attention to the little things," he said, "and I paid attention all week to what we were doing. OU had a screen they liked to run to Marcus Dupree whenever they would get in a tough third-down situation. When I lined up, I was thinking screen all the way, so I started dropping back. I saw Dupree hiding behind the tackle, and I started running as fast as I could run. I made the interception and almost got it all the way home to the end zone."
Strasburger said he'd like to take credit for the play. "But really, it was just good coaching," he said. "I knew exactly what was coming my way. Saturday was all about what I learned on Monday and Tuesday, just like it is today. You pretty much always play like you practice."
The way Coach Bo Pelini has restored the order - and the prestige - of the Blackshirts has been important to Strasburger.
"With the exception of an Ndamukong Suh, the Blackshirts are not one guy's defense," Strasburger said. "It's the Blackshirts ... it's everyone's. It's never been one face ... it's always been 11 faces. That's the great thing about the Blackshirts. There's a mystique about it. You have to be a team player. You have to make sacrifices for other people to shine. It's a unifying thing."
That's why the Blackshirts represent excellence in context with the team. "The amazing thing about being a Blackshirt," Strasburger said, "is the knowledge that nowhere else in the country is a defense so revered as it is here."
Blackshirts with Speed, Physicality and Smarts
Strasburger credits the Pelini regime for enhancing that reputation. "Bo and Carl have brought in kids who are phenomenal athletes and understand the game," he said. "They can do things out there that other teams can't. They're book smart. They understand checks and reads and use their smarts to the same advantage as their speed and physicality."
Above all, the extreme makeover Blackshirts love their coach. "I would love for my son to play football for Bo Pelini. I mean, he has the biggest heart in the world," Strasburger said. "I love how he stands behind his kids. He is passionate ... maybe to a fault sometimes, but not if my kid was playing for him. There's pressure at Nebraska. Bo's the coach, but he knows there are 80,000 more in the stands.
"I will tell you that Charlie McBride would get so mad at you that he wanted to tear your head off sometimes, but he always had your back and still does, just like these coaches have their players' backs now," Strasburger said. "We were talking the other day how fortunate it was that there weren't 30 different TV camera angles 30 years ago like there are now.
"Charlie yelled at everyone just as passionately as Bo did," Strasburger said. "But I'd like to know if there's anybody who ever played at Nebraska who doesn't love Charlie McBride."
A team doctor who understands the rigor, discipline and passion required to play at the highest level, Strasburger thinks he knows the answer.
"Pressure is just part of being at Nebraska, and everyone has to be on the same page," he said. "This is an incredible coaching staff - one that reminds me of what so many of us experienced when we were here. Believe me, when the day is done, no one knows more than the players how much their coaches love and appreciate them."
A Welcome Mat for Competition and Walk-Ons
The rejuvenation of the Blackshirts isn't the only exciting wrinkle Strasburger appreciates about Pelini's return. He also raves about the huge welcome mat on the doorstep of the North Stadium for walk-ons who want to pursue their dreams like he did.
"Back in those days, if you wanted to see if you could become a college football player, Nebraska was one of the few places that gave you that opportunity," Strasburger said. "The walk-on program has evolved into something you never thought it could be. It has become such an important part of our program again. Just look out on the field in any given game. There's always a walk-on out there making something happen and helping us get a win."
Nebraska is a special program because it welcomes special players willing to do what Strasburger did - give a challenging sport the old college try so you can see how you measure up.
"I'm so glad that Bo embraced the walk-on program and reinforced its importance when he came back," Strasburger said. "It's like it was when I played here. Everyone is treated equally. When I played, it took me a month to figure out who was a scholarship player and who wasn't."
That's the way it should be when you're an equal opportunity provider.
"Walk-ons are a vital part of Nebraska football," Strasburger said. "We do not have the resources here to go out and win a national championship unless we have that little extra edge to what we're doing."
The Blackshirts help provide that edge. So does the walk-on program.
"It was so exciting to be a part of both Nebraska traditions at the same time," Strasburger said. "I wouldn't' trade either experience for anything."
Voices from Husker Nation
The 1982 game was a special memory for me. I was poised to run onto the field that day before the game officially ended. We climbed the fence on the Nebraska sideline and were amongst thousands of students getting ready to go to the North goal post and tear it down. I couldn't see the end other than knowing the interception almost went for a touchdown. As I ran on the field I was in front of the OU quarterback and pulled off his helmet. I felt really bad about that and ran after him to give it back. It wasn't very smart on my part, but the excitement put me in that position, and the helmet was there saying "take me home." To this day, I'm glad I gave it back. Fans do stupid things that cause players to react, but he didn't. I jumped on the North goal post as it came down, then ran to the South end zone and was on its West cross bar as it came down towards me. The corner of the crossbar and upright just missed my shoulder as it hit the ground. Bad things can happen in such excitement, but I'll never forget that day. I remember going on that year to watch the Orange Bowl and missing the opportunity for a National Championship against Clemson. So many writers forget how close we came that year to winning it all. Greg Balfany, Kearney, Nebraska
The '82 NU/OU game is a tremendous highlight event for me - being there, as a high school senior with my best friend, having just ended our 8-man playoffs out west. What a great game. The Husker D responded strong after Dupree opened the second half with a long TD run that tempored the festivities for a moment! We had made our way down into that northeast corner of the end zone and were part of the rush onto the field after Strasberger's pick. We had such a great time slapping pads with players after the game. A piece of that day is still with me. I'll be wearing the cap I bought that day when I watch the game Saturday night. Neil Hilton, Cheyenne, Wyoming
Great article. We wake up every day to learn about another walk-on success at Nebraska. It was great to go back in time and remind fans of the importance of the walk-on program. Just like my nephew, Joe Broekemeier, who came in when Niles Paul went down last week. We are proud of how hard Joe has worked to experience his dream. Words can't describe what it means to see him get the opportunity to start for the Huskers. That's why I am a very strong supporter of and glad to be involved with "Grow Big Red". I hope through the Cornhusker Cooperative program, we are able to help the walk-on program continue to prosper at Nebraska. GO BIG RED!!! Dean Oberle, Hastings, Nebraska
Editor's note: The Cornhusker Cooperative Program is a partnership between the Nebraska Athletic Department and farmers across the state.
This is one of the best columns I've read this week on past NU/OU games and the players that made the series so wonderful. I vividly remember this game, and KFAB's Lyell Bremser exclaiming: "Get those turkeys off the field! What's wrong with fans these days!" after Dr. S's near TD interception. What a game. What a series. What a player. Kevin Horn, Alliance, Nebraska
Thank you for a very good story on the walk-on program. I know a few people that were a success and a few that were not. The important thing is they had the opportunity to try. Donn Henke, Columbus, Nebraska
Any time we can reminisce about walk-ons and their accomplishments is a good thing. I always admired Holdrege and what that community has contributed to Nebraska's football success - from Academic All-Americans like Jim Huge and Scott Strasburger to key players like Todd Brown and Andy Means, who combined for seven letters between the two of them. Means and Strasburger were Blackshirts for three years, and Huge and Brown were solid starters at tight end and split end. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. It's always fun to go back in time. I think it helps us understand why we love to look forward. Who wouldn't enjoy seeing another 28-24 win over the Sooners Saturday night in the Big D? Wouldn't that be fun? David Miles, Overland Park, Kansas