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If you want a classic case that measures the value of the Nebraska walk-on experience, please look no further than Spencer Long and Jake Long, twin brothers who turned down football scholarships at UNO to walk on and play in the same program where their father walked on and played.
Spencer, the Huskers' starting offensive right guard and second-team All-Big Ten Conference selection, was named Nebraska's "Walk-On of the Year" at the team's annual football banquet earlier this month.
Jake, Spencer's sibling and fellow sophomore, is in line to earn another varsity letter at tight end. Both still have their eyes focused squarely on careers in medicine, something that brings us to a point rarely made about the walk-on program, and it is simply this: Whether you succeed on the field or not, the walk-on experience delivers life skills that not only can sharpen time management, but increase scholastic intensity, not to mention clear a path later in life.
Case in point: Doug Long, Spencer and Jake's dad who just happens to be a successful Omaha neurosurgeon. Conventional wisdom would consider Dr. Doug Long an unsuccessful walk-on because he only played one year at Nebraska.
That one year indeed was a short stint for someone that Osborne took time to recruit as a walk-on. Nebraska's head coach went to Alma, Neb., to see both Hoppy McCue, his former Hastings (Neb.) College teammate and Alma High School administrator, and Alma head football coach Dale Harsin, both of whom praised the roots and the values of Doug Long. Doug was, after all, the son of Dr. Jim Long, who is still a family practitioner in Alma, a small community of more than 1,200 progressive-minded citizens that enjoy great schools, a stable economy, fresh air, clean water, safe neighborhoods, high-quality medical care and community spirit.
Every Fourth of July is Family's Homecoming
No wonder Dr. Doug Long and what could become twin doctor sons Spencer and Jake Long always manage to head back to Alma every Fourth of July to visit and reminisce with grandpa Jim and grandma Joan. Both, their twin grandsons insist, exemplify the family's work ethic and values.
Hopefully, by now, you're getting the picture of why twin brothers would turn down football scholarships in the state's biggest city to walk on where their dad may have played only one year, but was smart enough to use that experience to leverage skills he learned to elevate his dream - to come straight from the farm and pour every ounce of energy into qualifying for and graduating from the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Osborne can't remember a lot about the Long twins' dad, but he knows this. "I remember going out there to see Hoppy and Dale, and having a good reception," Nebraska's athletic director recalls. "I'm sure if Doug and I would sit down and talk, it would bring back some memories for both of us. It's always gratifying when sons of former players come here because that usually indicates the father had a good enough experience and feels it's worth his son having the same experience.
"The Long brothers certainly have done well here and when you think about the contributions they've made, it's pretty remarkable what they've accomplished not only as athletes, but what they've accomplished as students," Osborne said, adding that he's well aware that their dad "has gone on to succeed very well in his professional life."
Walking on at Nebraska requires an unremitting spirit, supreme confidence and a will to beat astronomical odds when you choose to roll the dice and take a chance on yourself. "Walking on is not for everybody, and it doesn't work for everybody," said Barney Cotton, Spencer's offensive line coach. "But for the guys that have that true blue-collar survivor mentality and will never give up, like the Long twins have, something pretty good is going to happen."
Father Knows Best on How to Beat the Odds
And that gets us back to Spencer and Jake and the profound impact their father has had on their relentless pursuit to beat the odds.
"My coaches have helped me throughout my entire football life," Spencer said, "but my work ethic definitely comes from my dad and my mom. He's worked hard for everything he has, and I've always looked up to him. He's taught me about life, and he encouraged me and my brother to shoot for it all and go for the top. You only get one chance, and I think we both would have regretted it big-time, if we didn't come here and try what he did."
Doug Long learned enough in his brief college football experience to understand and communicate the benefits of Nebraska's daily improvement process. To him, it's so well defined and honed, it can't help but produce better athletes, better students and better citizens.
"My dad's been a great role model because he learned a lot just being in the Nebraska system one year," Spencer said. "That's where he developed the drive and the motivation to do whatever he wants to do, and he's passed on that same mindset to both of us. Growing up, we've had every opportunity to do what we think we can do. I just try every day to make my dad proud and my family proud.
"I try to live up to his legacy, and the tradition that was passed from my grandfather to him. Both sides of my family have that mindset. My dad didn't letter in the year he played, but he started on the freshman team, and that was enough to help him decide what he really wanted to do - pursue a medical career."
The Long twins have had a few casual conversations with their dad's one-time recruiter, and they're fairly certain they're well aligned with the walk-on philosophy Osborne developed and perfected over his quarter-century as Nebraska's head coach.
Long Brothers Value Every Single Walk-On
"All of us come out here every day without a scholarship, knowing that walk-ons play a key role on this team," Spencer said. "There are countless Scout Team guys that come out and bust their butts for the offense and the defense, and without them, we would be nothing. We have people who bring it every day and challenge each other. If we're not able to mimic the opposition with the right attitude and the right effort every day, then we're not going to have a good practice or a good game. That's why every walk-on plays a crucial role, and everyone plays hard every day. It takes a lot mentally and physically to do that."
Jake is grateful that Ron Brown was his first college coach at tight end. "Like all other NU coaches, he (Brown) was never into that scholarship/walk-on thought process," Jake said, "so when we had a couple of injuries, I was ready to take that opportunity and get a little more action, especially in spring ball that first year. I was able to show my stuff, and that kind of helped me put my foot in the door."
Even though he hasn't achieved the on-field level of success his brother has, Jake still goes all out. "I just always try to work hard every day and get better every day and learn from the older guys like Ben (Cotton) and Kyler (Reed)," Jake said. "They have a lot of experience, and if you can soak up what they learn when they pass it on, it can definitely help you get better, too."
Cotton marvels watching how the Long twins attack the field and the classroom. "Those are two very smart guys," he said. "They're competitive. They care, and they have great work ethic. Football means a lot to them, and that's probably the biggest reason why they play. They care so deeply every day, they don't ride the roller-coaster. They're always going to give their best effort in the classroom, in the weight room, on the practice field and in the game. Having coached Spencer, I can say he plays as hard and finishes as hard as just about anybody I've ever coached."
Thanks to a 3.81 GPA in Biological Sciences, Jake envisions medical school and becoming "a doctor of some sort." With a 3.79 GPA in the same major, Spencer has similar goals, but says "I have an awful lot of work yet to do before I see how it all plays out. I just want to make a positive influence on society. I want to be the best man I can and help out my neighbors. I want to have fun at the same time I'm having a positive impact on people's lives."
Brothers' Goals Part of Great Expectations
The Long brothers' high goals would surprise no one in their family.
"Our parents have always expected us to succeed academically," Spencer said. "Grades always have been our No. 1 goal, and that's another reason why we came here, so we could benefit from the great support, help and guidance that Nebraska offers academically."
Jake agrees and wants to expand more into life skills. "We haven't experienced community outreach as much as we would like, but we're going to do more of that this spring because we have our bearings and everything figured out now, athletically and academically," he said. "We didn't know how involved we should be in life skills the first few years here, but we're starting to realize we need to do more than we have. Life skills are a vital resource in this athletic department, and we have to take advantage of it."
Osborne smiles when he hears how twin walk-ons are seeing the big picture of everything Nebraska has to offer. "We're proud of every player that goes on and succeeds in life, whether he walks on, letters or plays," Osborne said. "The Long twins' dad has been very, very successful, so apparently whatever happened in that one year he played here didn't hurt him any."
Who knows? Maybe the next chapter in the Long family history will show how football links Dr. Doug Long with Dr. Spencer Long and Dr. Jake Long. And just imagine some future Fourth of July weekend in Alma when Dr. Jim Long, family practitioner, might welcome home his neurosurgeon son, along with his twin doctor grandsons.
What an impressive sight that would be.
Even for a family that strongly believes in dreaming big.
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Voices from Husker Nation
Good article on the Long brothers. I am an Alma native and of course even living in Colorado, former Alma and overall Nebraska natives love these kinds of stories. Dr. Long was my doctor all my life as a child. He would make house calls and took care of my family, dad, mom and sister. Thanks anyway for the article and Go Big Red. Dan Lowry, Colorado Springs, Colorado
The story on the twins from Elkhorn explains why Nebraska is one of the top five college football programs of all time and how Nebraska manages to rank among the top five in terms of bowl invitations. Without walk-ons playing their roles and showing their heart and spirit, you have to wonder if a state like Nebraska would be among the top 25 programs, let alone top five. Thanks for writing a good old-fashioned Husker walk-on story. For me, they never get old. Larry Davis, Rapid City, South Dakota
Enjoyed the N-Sider on the Long brothers and can't wait to watch the Huskers play an SEC team here in Florida. Go Huskers! Tim Graves, Altamonte Springs, Florida