Walk-ons Play Key Roles for Huskers; MVP Broekemeier Helps Lead the Way
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Make no mistake. Joe Broekemeier felt highly honored and deeply humbled earlier this month when he received the Walk-on MVP Award at Nebraska's annual football banquet.
It's difficult, though, for the senior wide receiver from Aurora, Neb. to describe the reward for an unrelenting journey that landed him on the same stage of honor with the likes of Roy Helu Jr., Prince Amukamara, Pierre Allen, Eric Hagg, Lavonte David, Niles Paul and Rex Burkhead.
"Walk-on MVP" has a nice ring to it, but you must understand that Broekemeier was on the Scout Team throughout his junior season, and injuries prevented him from playing in Nebraska's first 11 games his senior season.
Talk about taking an escalator to the awards floor.
"Joe's journey was as much about timing as anything," Nebraska Receivers Coach Ted Gilmore said. "He was healthy about the same time Niles Paul went down with a foot injury. So he went from no time on the field in our first 11 games to our third starting receiver in the 12th and 13th. It was never a question of ability. We knew he could play. It was a question of getting healthy."
Broekemeier, 6-4 and 210, played for the first time as a starter against Colorado on Senior Day and then started again against Oklahoma in the Big 12 Conference Championship game.
As one of 14 Nebraska seniors playing in the Holiday Bowl as a college graduate, Broekemeier is expected either to start or continue to play a pivotal role against Washington.
Nebraska Baseball's Loss Became Football's Gain
"Because he came to Nebraska to pitch for the baseball team (his first career that was cut short by injuries), we only got two years with Joe in football," Gilmore said. "We would have loved to have had him longer, but he's made the most of this opportunity."
Not surprisingly, Brokemeier never sees himself in any kind of spotlight. In fact, if he could vote for the Walk-on MVP honor, he would have given it to Alex Henery.
"C'mon, Alex is Alex," he said. "He's the greatest place-kicker in NCAA history. He's phenomenal in everything he does - whether it's kicking, punting or engineering school. He's just a great guy all around. He's earned everyone's respect, on and off the field."
Henery, of course, earned enough honors to fill the trunk of his car on his way back to Omaha for the holidays. He became the first place-kicker in Nebraska history to make first-team All-America. At the 2010 team banquet, he was named a captain and the Special Teams MVP.
As much as Broekemeier appreciates his MVP honor, he sees equally valuable walk-on players all around him.
"Look at Mike Caputo, our starting center," he said. "He's a tough old bulldog, that's what he is. He's a fantastic kid as well. I mean, if I'm in a fight, I would definitely want Mike Caputo on my side. He's someone who will do everything possible to win."
Caputo the Cornerstone of Big 12's Rushing Leader
Caputo became the cornerstone in a Nebraska offensive line that leads the Big 12 in rushing and ranks 10th nationally. Caputo also handled all the line calls and was nearly flawless handling the snapping duties in Nebraska's shotgun formation.
Caputo isn't the only walk-on with an ultra-tenacious attitude. "We have others on this team just like him - guys like Jim Ebke, Tyler Legate and Lance Thorell," Broekemeier said. "I mean, we had reminders all around us every day to keep us going and stay motivated no matter what."
Ebke, from Lincoln, is Broekemeier's roommate. The safety-turned-linebacker and special teams star "is just like us - hard-nosed, hard-working small-town players who give everything we have every practice," Broekemeier said. "We're all fighters. We're never going to give up."
Ebke switched to linebacker midway through this season and is expected to challenge for a Blackshirt as a senior.
"He's one tough cookie - some think the toughest on our entire team," Broekemeier said. "He starts on every special team we have and has shown how important walk-ons can be. He's been fantastic all season long."
Legate, a fullback from Neligh, Neb., is as tough-minded offensively as Ebke is defensively.
"He just has that mindset to take on anybody," Broekemeier said of Legate, whose lead blocking has contributed to three Nebraska backs (Helu Jr., Burkhead and Taylor Martinez) having the chance to reach 1,000 yards rushing in the same season.
Legate Can Knock You Down and Catch a Pass
Known for his physicality as a blocker, Legate is still an offensive threat, and Oklahoma State learned that lesson when he caught a short touchdown pass in Nebraska's 51-41 win in Stillwater this season.
Legate's attitude and team spirit mirror his fellow walk-ons.
"If my part of the game plan is being in there only on goal-line, short-yardage scoring plays designed to win the game, that's fine with me," said Legate, who earned first-team All-Big 12 Academic honors. "If I get five reps or 30 reps, it doesn't matter. The only thing that ever matters to me is getting that "W" in the win column."
Thorell, a defensive back from Loomis, Neb., subscribes to the same team-oriented philosophy. That's why he played in 11 games and started five as a redshirt freshman, played in all 14 games as a sophomore and in all 13 games as a junior. Whenever he does get a chance to spell Amukamara or Alfonzo Dennard, NU Secondary Coach Marvin Sanders says Thorell plays well.
Broekemeier doesn't have to look far across the line of scrimmage to see another amazing walk-on story. Junior safety Austin Cassidy, a walk-on from Lincoln, emerged as a Blackshirt this season and became a key cog in one of the nation's top defenses during the stretch run. He started the last half of the season and helped Nebraska rank fifth nationally in pass efficiency defense and seventh in passing yards allowed. The Blackshirts also rank in the top 10 in scoring and total defense.
Cassidy finished the regular season with 41 tackles, one forced fumble and a touchdown interception that was crucial in Nebraska's overtime win at Iowa State.
"Everywhere you look, there's a walk-on making a difference," Broekemeier said. "We have so many guys out on the practice field busting it hard every day. They're all important."
Cassidy, Stoddard and May Play Key Roles
Graham Stoddard, a sophomore linebacker from Lincoln, and Mathew May, a junior linebacker from Imperial, Neb., both have played in all 13 games, just like Cassidy and others. Two Husker walk-ons have played in 12 games this season - Jay Martin, a junior fullback from Waverly, Neb., and Thomas Grove, a senior linebacker from Arlington, Neb. Grove shared Nebraska's "Character Award" at the football banquet with Burkhead and Hagg.
Two Nebraska walk-ons played in 11 games this season - Justin Blatchford, a sophomore defensive back from Ponca, Neb., and Jase Dean, a sophomore cornerback from Bridgeport, Neb.
The walk-on influence stretches beyond that. Jake Long, a redshirt freshman tight end, from Elkhorn, Neb., joins Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed on the Huskers' Holiday Bowl depth chart. Brett Maher, a sophomore punter/place-kicker from Kearney, Neb., is the backup punter for Henery and top holder for Henery's kicks.
P.J. Mangieri, a sophomore walk-on from Peoria, Ill., is Nebraska's No. 1 long snapper. He's backed up by another walk-on, Sam Meginnis, a sophomore linebacker from Lincoln.
There are so many walk-ons and so many contributors. That's why Broekemeier believes "Walk-on MVP" is a symbolic award that represents all walk-on contributors, not just one player's.
Etching the Broekemeier name in to the Nebraska history book is the result of his having the courage and the confidence to pursue football after a seven-year absence.
Work Ethic: The Mantra of Every Walk-on
Broekemeier sees nothing special about himself, even though fellow receivers Niles Paul and Brandon Kinnie knew from the time he participated in seven-on-seven passing drills that he had the speed and route-running precision to be as steady and electrifying as one of his walk-on heroes, Todd Peterson.
Where they see athleticism, Brokemeier sees work ethic.
"As walk-ons, we're not bound to be here. It's our choice to be here," Broekemeier said. "One thing I've learned. If you're a walk-on at Nebraska, you love the program, you love the school, and you love the state. That's why it takes so much passion to make the grade here. You have to want it more than anyone else does."
A team award says Brokemeier was Nebraska's Walk-on MVP for 2010. In typical fashion, he would prefer to share that award with every other walk-on who worked just as hard as he did.
That will not change when the Huskers return to the Holiday Bowl to play Washington.
"Last year's game against Arizona was a big statement game for the entire program," he said. "It was really rewarding for all the players, the coaches and the fans."
Even though he did not play in that game, Broekemeier started dreaming about having a role this year.
It took 11 games to materialize and countless ups and downs, but he never lost hope.
He relied on the three P's of being a walk-on -- persistence, passion and performance.
"Walk-ons have an important role in Nebraska football," Broekemeier said, "and I hope that never, ever changes."
When Coach Bo was first hired and said one of his goals was to re-start the walk on program, I was thrilled. Now I see how wise that decision really was. Gerald Bretschneider, Norfolk, Nebraska
Nebraska's walk-on tradition goes clear back to the early 1960s when a future All-American named Langston Coleman walked on at Nebraska from Washington, D.C. Coleman's mom worked for Ted Sorensen, a Nebraska grad who was John F. Kennedy's chief advisor. Bob Devaney welcomed Coleman with open arms, and we all know the rest of the story. A half century later, walk-ons still make Nebraska tick because they give every ounce they have in them. Joe Broekemeier joins a long list of players who really are the heart and soul of Nebraska football. Congratulations to him and every other walk-on mentioned in this column. Ri Edwards, Yuba City, California