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Randy York’s N-Sider
Courtesy: NU Media Relations
05/18/2008
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‘Rags to Riches’ Walk-on:
Making It at Nebraska All About Passion

Here’s a pre-summer memo to Jase Dean of Bridgeport, Kramer Hyland of Lincoln, Justin Jackson of Roca, Jordan Makovicka of Ulysses, Brent Moravec of Grand Island, Brian Thorson of Millard, Jeremy Wallace of Omaha and more than 20 other walk-ons who were recruited last winter to join Nebraska’s 2008 football team:

Coming to Nebraska as a walk-on is a once-in-a-football-lifetime opportunity. It’s your chance, as a highly driven student-athlete, to write your own rags-to-riches story. Your story, like others before you, will be built on promise, paved with passion and achievable only at a certain price. Potential is important, but in the end, performance is the only thing that counts. So check your ego at the door, roll up your sleeves and get to work. And remember this fundamental truth – football sometimes mimics life. So at some point – more than likely in your first two years as a walk-on – you can pretty much count on your greatest rejection leading to your greatest direction. Once you learn that and how to handle adversity, you will be well on your way to survival.

“Passion is what Nebraska football is all about, and passion is what’s driven every walk-on who has ever played here,” says Mike Tranmer, who wrote his own rags-to-riches story at Nebraska a quarter century ago. Rising from the ranks of almost total anonymity to team captain, Tranmer started at middle guard on a team that won 12 straight games in 1983.

If Turner Gill’s two-point conversion pass to Jeff Smith had been complete, the top-ranked Huskers would have beaten Miami, 32-31, in the Orange Bowl, and they would have won their first national championship under Tom Osborne.

Who knows? If fate had been kinder, perhaps Tranmer might have enjoyed the same kind of name recognition as say, a Terry Connealy, a middle guard from Hyannis who sacked those same Hurricanes 11 years later when Osborne won his first national championship as a head coach.

But that’s just a writer’s thought. Tranmer, who also lettered on Nebraska’s ‘82 team that lost only at Penn State (27-24), doesn’t look back for one minute or regret one thing.

Was Tranmer the Only Modern-Day Captain to Play Without a Scholarship?

In fact, he’s rather proud of his place in Nebraska football history and would make an interesting question in a game of Nebraska Trivial Pursuit: Who is the Huskers’ only modern-day football captain who never received an athletic scholarship?

Step to the head of the line if you answered Mike Tranmer. The blood, sweat and tears he traded for playing time are, in a word, priceless. There was a time when Tranmer thought his days at Nebraska were over, and staying to the end of his fifth year was reward enough for him.

His senior year, he stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight, even getting quoted in Time magazine.

“You wouldn’t believe how many requests for interviews I got from out-of-state reporters,” he recalled. “Nebraska writers had no trouble believing I was a starter and a captain because there had been a number of walk-ons who did the same thing – the Derrie Nelsons and the Jimmy Williamses. But I think I was the only one who walked on and became a captain without ever going on scholarship. That’s why the out-of-state reporters kept asking for interviews. They just couldn’t believe that as a team captain, I was actually paying my own way to play and go to school.”

It made perfect sense to Tranmer. “Am I proud of that fact?” he asked, repeating a question. “Absolutely! I was going to be a student anyway. But to be a student who gets to play football at Nebraska at the same time! Who cares if I have to pay my way? I had two guys on scholarship playing behind me – Kenny Shead and Ken Graeber . . . just great kids, both of them. We shared time, but I got to start. That was my lifelong dream. It was the passion that drove me to come here in the first place.”

Tranmer grew up on a hog farm near Lyons, Nebraska (1,214 people at the time). “I remember watching Jerry Tagge play quarterback and listening to Lyell Bremser on the radio,” he said. “Following Nebraska football was just an indescribable passion. You watch, listen and learn early that a player’s goal was just to get to Lincoln and simply help the team. In the past, Nebraska football was just a bunch of guys like me who may have been too small to play college football, but knew the door was always open to prove otherwise. People told me I couldn’t even get a Division II scholarship, so why would I want to go to Nebraska and work my butt off just for a chance to play on the scout team?”

He Just Couldn’t Stop Believing Even When Osborne Told the Truth

It’s a tough question, and only tough guys can answer it. Mike Tranmer came to Nebraska as a 5-foot-11, 185-pound defensive lineman with a dream in his heart and stars in his eyes. He never quit believing in his dream, even when his head coach thought it might be time for him to give it up and go somewhere else.

It was the summer before Tranmer’s sophomore year and Tom Osborne wanted to talk to each player before he went home. Tranmer remembers every word Osborne said in his one-on-one meeting. “Mike, I don’t think you’re ever going to play here,” he remembered Osborne telling him. “So if you want help transferring, I’ll help you. We want to keep you as a scout team player because you’re working your tail off. But I just don’t know if you’ll ever get to the point where you can play.”

A year later, after another season on the scout team, Tranmer had climbed his way up the depth chart to second team. “I busted my butt every day to get on that field,” he said. “My junior year, I lettered and worked harder than ever in the weight room. That’s when I was voted ‘Lifter of the Year’ and then voted captain.”

Tranmer finds it interesting that his greatest rejection – Osborne’s honest analysis of his playing chances – also created his greatest direction – a legendary head coach noticing a down-the-liner working “his tail off” and acknowledging that his work ethic made an important contribution to the team.

“I think that’s what Coach Osborne had, what we lost and what we need to find again,” Tranmer said. “You can be the greatest athlete in the world, but if you’re not playing for something, it doesn’t make a lot of difference. When I played here, we didn’t have top 25 recruiting classes. But we had kids who played with heart and with passion. We had great athletes and great kids, and together, we knew who we were playing for – the University of Nebraska and all the history behind it. We were also playing for the state of Nebraska and all the people who followed our program with loyalty like no one else.”

Tranmer enjoyed coming back to Lincoln last month.  Doak Ostergard, Nebraska’s new director of Outreach Programs, introduced him to several members of the current team.

“There wasn’t one prima donna out there,” Tranmer said. “They were all bright-eyed kids who want to do well. They just didn’t get the opportunity to focus on what Nebraska football is really all about. Bo Pelini and this entire coaching staff have really embraced these players. They’re teaching them about the passion of Nebraska football and about the passion of walk-ons. When I played, we were fortunate. We had such continuity among coaches, the players always knew what we were about.”

‘If You Didn’t Buy Into It, You Weren’t Going to Be Around’

“I’ve heard people say in the past that the football program just kind of ran itself,” Tranmer said. “Well, it didn’t run itself. It’s just that the philosophy was set up so that when you first came in, you understood what you bought into. If you didn’t buy into it, you weren’t going to be around. Everyone knew the walk-ons were every bit as important as the scholarship players. For all of us, it was about one thing – team. Everyone knew we were going to put the best players on the field, and everyone knew you had to earn that right through hard work and perseverance.”

Tranmer and almost all of his teammates were willing to pay whatever price was necessary. “We wanted to play hard for the university, the state, our families, our friends and especially our coaches,” he said. “(Defensive coordinator and line coach) Charlie McBride wasn’t the softest guy in the world, but by golly, he loves you, and it was an honor to go out there and play for him, Coach Osborne and everyone else. We won most of our games back then because we had incredible passion. If we got behind, we knew we were still going to win.”

Turner Gill and guard Dean Steinkuhler were the offensive captains of Nebraska’s 1983 team. Tackle Mike Keeler and Tranmer were the defensive captains. The Huskers were not without stars. “Like Turner, Mike Rozier and Irving Fryar weren’t from Nebraska, but they were All-Americans who absolutely knew who they played for and why it was so important. They knew it because our coaches instilled it in them every single day,” Tranmer said. “They intermixed well with Nebraska natives like (Outland Trophy winner) Steinkuhler,  (Academic All-American defensive end Scott) Strasburger and me.

“My kids tell me I was the classic overachiever, and I guess I was. What I’m trying to say is those All-Americans from New Jersey and Texas came to love Nebraska and understand what drove us just like we did. That’s why understanding the passion of the past is every bit as important as understanding the X’s and O’s the coaches put up on the board. I’m absolutely convinced once we get that passion back, we’ll be a national power again.”

Surprisingly, Tranmer wasn’t the only Husker starter in 1983 to play without a scholarship. “Monte Engebritson, our starting tight end from Hastings, (Neb.), and Mark Schellen, our starting fullback from Waterloo, (Neb.), busted their butts just like I did and were more than willing to play without a scholarship,” he said. “We all could have gone to other schools, but we didn’t care. We walked on for two reasons – to play and help the team. We always said we’d rather be on the field without a scholarship than on the bench with a scholarship. People just couldn’t understand it, but we did.”

Walk-ons Were the Heart and Soul of the Team and Can Be Again

A senior manager of pharmaceutical operations for a large national company, Tranmer helped Tim Turman coach two of his three sons – Mitch and Jake – to state high school football championships at Wahoo Neumann. He admits that Mitch and Jake, who played football together last fall for Nebraska Wesleyan University, still don’t quite understand what drove their dad in college.

And he’s okay with that because there is no single definition for passion. It can be defined in so many different ways, and Tranmer, for one, can’t wait to watch who emerges in the next few years from Pelini’s first class of recruited walk-ons. He knows how tough the road will be for almost all of them. He knows passion will be a differentiating factor in whether they stay and if they play. That’s why he hopes no one jumps to conclusions no matter how difficult it gets.

“Walk-ons were the heart and soul of our teams from the past,” he said, “and I don’t see any reason why that can’t be the case again soon and continue well into the future.”

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