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Last Friday night, Willie Harper had to make a choice - stay in Lincoln and join all of his 1971 national championship teammates at halftime for a 40-year national championship anniversary celebration or head back to California to watch his youngest son, redshirt freshman Fresno State wide receiver Josh Harper, play his first college game.
Harper already had reservations to travel back the next morning to San Francisco, where Cal would beat Fresno State, 36-21, in the season-opener for both teams. But once he got around his former teammates at Friday night's championship banquet, he started having some mixed emotions ... should he stay for the next day and experience a sellout crowd's appreciation for what he had just learned was still the best college football team of all time?
Or should he proceed with his original plan and head straight back to California?
Willie Harper, father of nine, stayed with his game plan, boarded a plane in Omaha Saturday morning and watched Josh catch a seven-yard touchdown pass from NFL quarterback David Carr's little brother, Derek Carr, with 3 minutes and 29 seconds left in the game.
Those closest to Willie Harper, including his 13 grandchildren, knew he would put his family ahead of himself, just like he always does.
"It was tough, leaving my teammates," he said, "but Joshua needed my support. He's the third-team wide receiver, and he needs to know he's first-team in my heart."
The irony of it all made Harper, 61 and in his 21st year as pastor of the Jesus Christ for All Nations Church in Pleasanton, Calif., pause and think.
First Candlestick, Then Memorial Stadium
"What are the odds that my youngest child would play his first college game in the same stadium (Candlestick Park) that I played in for 11 years with the (San Francisco) 49ers?" Harper asked. "And then, in his second college game, he would play in the same (Memorial) Stadium that I played in for four years?"
I'm no master statistician, but I would think the odds of that are even higher than college football completely redefining itself.
The bad news is Harper missed all the pomp, circumstance, autographs and adulation of Nebraska fans. But the double-good news is his son caught three passes, and, as planned, he returned to Nebraska Friday afternoon so he and wife Roxane can see Josh play his second collegiate game Saturday night.
Harper never has rooted against his alma mater, and that record will stay intact, but don't be surprised if Husker fans give son Josh a nice round of applause if he makes a catch against the Blackshirts.
Harper's too busy enjoying life to worry about such frivolity. Ten years after celebrating back-to-back national championships at Nebraska, the Toledo, Ohio, native saved himself from the "drugs, the alcohol and the whole gamut" that scarred the first seven of his 11 seasons with the 49ers.
Now 61, he's celebrating something much bigger than a 40-year national championship anniversary. He's celebrating his 30-year anniversary of being drug-free.
Nine Kids Range in Age from 43 to 19
A happier man you will not find. Harper is a loving husband and a proud father of nine children that range in age from 43 to 19. He also adores his two great grandchildren, both born within the last year.
Last Friday night, I had the pleasure of sitting at a table next to Harper, and you could hear his hearty laughter, sense his love for life and feel his caring spirit.
Last year, we had a conversation that navigated through Harper's bouts with addictions and his inability to stop his own destructive behavior even though he could stop almost anyone in the NFL. He remembers the night his life flashed before his eyes, his endless and unsuccessful pursuit of "a real God" and the dichotomy of feeling great physically but knowing he was dying spiritually.
Doctors told Harper he was killing himself, and truth be told, he didn't think he would ever survive the demons that passed through his family until one day in February 1981 - the day when he had "the ultimate experience" that he compares to Pentecost. "For me," he said, "that was the day when I finally experienced the promise of the Holy Spirit, the power of the Father, the understanding of Revelations, and the healing of my soul. My journey was grueling, but it did lead to salvation."
The experience removed Harper's self-imposed shackles, opened his heart and helped him savor everything about life, including the two national championships at Nebraska and starting in a Super Bowl for the 49ers.
A Superstar among Husker Superstars
Husker fans will always remember Harper, a two-time consensus All-American, for his speed, strength and aggressiveness.
In collaborating on a book, Devaney, with NU Sports Information Director Emeritus Don Bryant and fellow writers Mike Babcock and the late Virgil Parker, we had the opportunity to visit Nebraska's Hall-of-Fame coach often in his Lincoln home. Even though Harper was highly decorated, Devaney always felt that he played in the shadow of Outland Trophy winners Rich Glover and Larry Jacobson. Devaney said it was almost impossible to knock Harper off his feet, so teams constantly ran away from him, especially during his 1972 senior season.
Devaney believed strongly that Harper was every bit as good as Hugh Green, Pitt's three-time All-America defensive end, but make no mistake. A humble Harper would be the last person to get drawn into any "all-time best" comparisons.
To him, the only thing that counts is beating the biggest foe he ever faced, and he insists that no play, no game and no moment was ever bigger than that February day in 1981 - the day he unplugged the power from the enemy and knocked the devil out of his life.
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Voices from Husker Nation
I really enjoyed your article on Willie Harper. It says a lot about a man's character when he chooses his family over himself. Although I am sure his son would have understood, his action demonstrates that even with all of the accolades of his playing days, he remembers what must come first - God, his family and faith, and then himself. It would be nice if some of Willie would rub off on the football players of today and those who will be leaders of tomorrow. Chad David, Albion, Nebraska
Willie Harper may have been my all-time favorite Husker player. When he was a sophomore, he took control of LSU in the national championship game, and anyone who saw the highlights of that game would understand why an opposing coach would run away from him the rest of his career. We all knew he would be a great pro, and his 11 years in the NFL are proof. Jerry Stark, Cleveland, Ohio
Thank you, Willie, for publicly sharing the dark side of being a pro and how you overcame that tough experience through faith. We can see your positive personality in the photo with your teammates. Congrats to every single one of you that was a part of that memorable team. Sharon Miller, Olathe, Kansas
Interesting story on Willie Harper and his family. After reading it, I will be one of those Husker fans who will applaud when Joshua Harper catches a pass, just as long as he doesn't get in or near our end zone. Cal Sims, Omaha Nebraska
Thanks for taking time to write about a Husker that I knew was great, but had no idea how compelling his story was. Eleven years with the same NFL team says it all! His battles off the field were probably much more difficult than the ones he had on the field. Takes guts to be so open and gives us all another reason to love a living legend even more. Go Big Red! Mike Thompson, Lee's Summit, Missouri