Nebraska Fans Never Tire of Storybook Scripts Written by Walk-Ons
Randy York's N-Sider
To "Respond to Randy" click on the link below and choose "Randy York's N-Sider" under "Area of Interest" on the new screen. Please include your name and residence (city/town and state) and share your thoughts on Nebraska's walk-on tradition and the players you consider your all-time favorite walk-ons. Your comments may be published at the bottom of this column.
At Thursday's Nebraska Walk-On Club Luncheon in downtown Lincoln, Todd Peterson offered some entertaining descriptions of his first two catches in a Husker uniform as a redshirt freshman.
Both resulted in touchdowns in back-to-back road games at Baylor and Missouri in 2005. That's the good news. The bad news is Peterson's dad had no idea his son would make the travel roster, so he missed both games.
"My dad didn't miss a game the rest of that season," said Peterson, who, unfortunately, didn't catch another touchdown pass in the last five games that season either.
Click the link above to hear Peterson, one of the Huskers' most popular walk-ons ever, remember how fast he went from anonymity to star. Even four years ago, his teammates were calling him Touchdown Todd, a fitting description to the final game of his career which included a crucial 19-yard touchdown catch in the Huskers' 26-21 Gator Bowl win over Clemson.
Former Nebraska Academic All-American Jeff Jamrog, the Huskers' assistant athletic director for football operations, also spoke at the luncheon and described the impact walk-ons are having in Bo Pelini's second year as head coach.
Jamrog, understandably, is proud of the six walk-ons who were awarded scholarships this fall and are now living their own once-in-a-football-lifetime dreams this season.
All six are native Nebraskans:
- Senior wide receiver Wes Cammack (DeWitt)
- Senior linebacker Colton Koehler (Harvard)
- Senior offensive guard Derek Meyer (Campbell)
- Junior place-kicker Alex Henery (Omaha)
- Junior tight end Dreu Young (Cozad) and
- Sophomore center Mike Caputo (Omaha).
Koehler and Young say Peterson was an important role model in their respective rise to scholarship status. That means soon, the Husker history book will continue to expand. Right now, 442 Husker walk-ons have become letterwinners since the arrival of Bob Devaney in 1962, and 131 walk-ons have become starters.
Knowing that Nebraska fans never tire of storybook scripts written by walk-ons, here's a closer look at the path each walk-on has taken to earn his coveted scholarship:
Wes Cammack - From Regent's Scholar to Four-Year Letterman
Cammack is one of those rarities. Not only was he not on scholarship, he was not a recruited walk-on. He needed a tryout to gain his spot on the roster.
"Sometimes I feel like I've been at Nebraska 10 years, and sometimes I feel like this is just my first year," Cammack said. "The season moves really fast. It'll be December before you know it."
That's why every day, every practice, every game, Cammack makes a promise to himself to cherish each moment, good or bad.
"The friendships I've made here in the last five years are friendships I'll have the rest of my life," he said. "It's been a long road, but it's taught me how to grow up. I've learned a lot - about football and about life."
Cammack knows the meaning of perseverance and why it's so important whether you're a walk-on or on scholarship.
"Playing football takes a lot of dedication," he said. "We put in a lot of hours. It's almost like a fulltime job."
He was certainly equipped to handle the extra load. He did, after all, come to Nebraska on a four-year Regents scholarship, which paid for his tuition and books the first eight semesters of college.
His first game action came in 2006 against Missouri as a member of the kickoff team. He earned a letter as a redshirt freshman and repeated that honor in 2007 and 2008, meaning he will complete his career as a four-year letterman.
Cammack has played in 30 career games. If Nebraska plays in the Big 12 championship game this season and earns another expected bowl berth, and if he continues to stay healthy, Cammack will finish his career having played in 40 games . . . not bad for someone who had to try out just to walk on.
The two-time, first-team Academic All-Big 12 selection is on track to graduate in May of 2010 and has helped set the table for other non-recruited walk-ons to follow in his footsteps.
"I take great pride and honor in being a Husker, and this program is definitely headed in the right direction," he said. "I'm glad my story might help other kids continue to dream about playing here just like I did."
Colton Koehler - From Nebraska Wesleyan to Nebraska Cornhuskers
Talk about your proverbial long shot. Even the most astute followers of Nebraska football had to check their programs last season when Baylor was pressing the Huskers in Lincoln, and No. 54 started making tackles. He was even credited with an important safety in the fourth quarter.
Colton Koehler went from almost total obscurity to a familiar name in one game. The junior was pressed into important duty when injuries depleted Mike Ekeler's linebacking corps, and Koehler finished the season as a starter in the Gator Bowl win over Clemson.
His journey is worth recounting. A standout quarterback, tight end and linebacker at eight-man Harvard in high school, he spent his freshman season as a linebacker at Nebraska Wesleyan. After his freshman season was complete, he took a trip to Boulder to watch his favorite team while growing up play the Buffs.
Before he left Colorado, he'd made an important decision. "I decided then that I wanted to walk on," he said. "I asked my dad about it, and he kept telling me that I needed to do what I wanted to do . . . he wasn't going to tell me what to do."
So Koehler talked to his high school coach, who initiated a conversation with the Nebraska coaching staff to jump-start the process.
"I was ready to go somewhere bigger and try something that I'd always dreamed about," Koehler said. "It's worked out for me. I'm part of the team, and I've gotten to play."
Koehler couldn't help thinking about the players who have had similar experiences as walk-ons through the years, especially Peterson, a wide receiver who became a second-team Academic All-American last year.
"Todd really worked his butt off and inspired a lot of the rest of us," Koehler said. "It was fun to watch him slowly but surely work his way up the depth chart and onto the field. All of a sudden, he started making plays left and right. He helped the rest of us understand how much you have to keep fighting and never lose sight of the reason why you're here in the first place."
When Pelini became head coach, he told everyone in his first full-team meeting that it didn't matter whether you were on scholarship or a walk-on, every job was open and everyone could compete. "And he's really held his ground on that," Koehler said. "The players who play are the ones who flat-out practice the best to earn the opportunity."
Koehler often thinks about the walk-on tradition that had its meager beginnings with Devaney and was enhanced substantially by Tom Osborne. "If it weren't for the philosophy of those two legendary coaches," he said, "I would never have had the chance I did."
Derek Meyer - From Scout Team to Senior-Year Scholarship
Offensive guard Derek Meyer began his career at Kansas State before transferring to Nebraska in 2008. He redshirted last season and earned the honor of Scout Team Co-Offensive Player of the Year.
Everything he's done since his arrival has been geared to playing in his one and only chance as a senior, and he's built a reputation as someone willing to do anything and everything asked of him.
So, forgive Jamrog for throwing Meyer a curve ball this fall. When he called Meyer into his office, he asked him to shut the door and sit down.
With a stern look on his face, Jamrog told Meyer: "You're in a little bit of trouble here. We've gotten some drug test results back, and . . ."
Suspecting perhaps that he was the target of a practical joke, Meyer said "No way" in a semi-startled, but confident voice.
"Actually, the reason I called you in here was to tell you we're putting you on scholarship this fall," Jamrog said with a smile every bit as wide as the one starting to emerge on Meyer's face.
"That was a pretty good joke," Meyer said. "I went a full 180 degrees in less than three seconds. Needless to say, I was taken aback. A scholarship was something I was working very hard for, but it was not something I was expecting. Really, just like everyone else, it was another dream come true for me."
Friends and fellow linemen Jake Hickman, Keith Williams and Mike Smith were the first to congratulate him. So was Mike Caputo, the backup center who had learned he was getting a scholarship the same night, but couldn't tell anyone either.
"It was pretty hard not to call my parents, but I was told not to, so I didn't," Meyer said. "When I finally could tell them the news, they were pretty emotional just like I was. They knew I had finally arrived at where I wanted to play all along. I grew up coming to games here with my dad. The whole family was excited."
More importantly, "My honor was another positive way to look at how this program is run," Meyer said. "Bo said he would look at everyone exactly the same - whether you were on scholarship or walking on. It's all about putting in the hard work. There are no favorites at Nebraska. Everyone is equal."
Alex Henery - From Great to Possible Legendary Status
With all due respect to the obvious fan favorite player, there is, among many, another popular choice on this team, and he's not a blocker or a tackler, a quarterback or a running back or even a receiver. They don't scream his name whenever he does something spectacular. The applause meter, though, does move quickly to the right every time he steps on the field and calmly splits the uprights.
Alex Henery, a walk-on placekicker/punter, is even more popular this year than he was as a freshman/sophomore and became the nation's most accurate kicker, making 26-of-29 field goals.
This year, he's made eight of nine field goals and converted all 19 of his extra point attempts. He leads the Huskers in scoring with 43 points and ranks among the leaders in the Big 12 Conference.
Henery is more popular because he's also added punting to his repertoire, kicking 14 times for a 42-yard average while pinning opponents inside their own 20 on half of those punts.
One was a 76-yard punt after a bad snap at Virginia Tech, giving Henery the chance to run first before delivering the punt. "I was in shock because I didn't know what the heck he was doing," Bo Pelini said. "From my angle, I couldn't see that the snap pulled him to the side. I'll be honest with you. When I first looked up, I thought he was running the football and I was like, good God, and then he hit a mortar shot off his foot . . . it was a phenomenal kick. I've seen him do things like that in practice, so it really doesn't surprise me."
Henery was named the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Week. He was responsible for all of Nebraska's points in a 16-15 loss at what is now sixth-ranked Virginia Tech, connecting on field goals from 40, 27, 19 and 38 yards twice. His five field goals in Blacksburg rank second in a single game in school history.
Pelini describes Henery, who turned down a soccer scholarship at Creighton to walk on at Nebraska, as someone who's "tougher than you think. He's very athletic. You can't do that unless you're a tremendous athlete. He's a tremendous athlete."
The only difference is, Nebraska fans only see what Henery can do with his foot and a ball. "He's like a golfer with a lot of clubs in his bag," former Nebraska deep snapper T.J. O'Leary said of Henery. "He's very versatile, and nothing fazes him. He's so gifted, so natural. He'll practice any situation until he gets it down. We've all seen him kick the big ones. We knew, and he knew he could kick that 57-yarder last year against Colorado."
Henery's school record kick catapulted the Huskers over CU and into the hearts of Nebraska fans everywhere.
Ten months later, a record crowd of 86,304 for Nebraska's 300th consecutive sellout applauded loudly when Henery's record kick was shown on a highlight reel during the post-game fireworks display.
It's hard to imagine that less than two months ago, Alex Henery - who will go down as one of Nebraska's most fabled walk-ons ever - wasn't even on an athletic scholarship.
Dreu Young - From Waiting in the Car to Picking Up a Check
Dreu Young said he's had so many walk-on role models at Nebraska, it's hard to say which one inspired him most.
There are, of course, the Makovicka brothers while he was growing up in Cozad, Neb.
Then there are Todd Peterson and Tyler Wortman, a pair of Grand Island walk-ons who became second-team Academic All-Americans at the same time.
Young even mentions fellow junior walk-on Alex Henery as an inspirational role model.
"Man, all those guys inspire me," Young said, "but if I had to pick my favorite one of all-time, I'd go with Petey (Peterson). I played high school football in the same basic area he did, and he kind of remembered me when I got here. He also really helped me, so I probably look up to him the most."
The thing is, Young said, all walk-ons are role models for others. Actually, even walk-ons who did not letter for the Huskers are role models because they were willing to give "the big time" a try, so they'd never have to wonder if they could have made it or not.
"There are still walk-ons on this team who deserve to be on scholarships, and if we had enough to go around, they'd have one, too," Young said.
"When Jeff Jamrog told me I had a scholarship, I was excited," Young said. "When I told my parents the news, I'll admit it - it was hard to hold back the tears because I'm an emotional guy. My parents were very proud of me. They knew how hard I'd worked to get to that point."
Work ethic remains one of the most important measuring sticks in Nebraska football. Sometimes, it's the most important characteristic a walk-on has.
"This coaching staff doesn't care who you are or how many stars you had as a recruit," Young said. "They don't care if you're a 185-pound walk-on from Nebraska or a 250-pound scholarship star from somewhere else . . . they treat you exactly the same. The same standards and the same rules apply to everyone."
Young, now 6-4 and 250 pounds, caught a 27-yard touchdown pass against Arkansas State.
It didn't make him feel any more special. "The only difference I feel now is when we go pick up scholarship checks," Young said. "In the past, I had to wait in the car while my friends went inside. Now, I get to go with them and pick up a check, too."
Mike Caputo - From Listening to Oldies to Lifting with Passion
Sit down with any of Nebraska's strength and conditioning coaches. Ask them what players rank in the top five of the Huskers' most dedicated weightlifters, and one name will make every coach's list - Mike Caputo.
At 6-1 and 275 pounds, the sophomore backup center to Jacob Hickman is undersized by Division I standards, but Caputo more than makes up for it with outstanding technique and incredible strength.
He comes by his strength naturally. His father, former University of Nebraska at Kearney football player Tony Caputo, once held the Nebraska state bench press record.
"He benched 530 pounds once at halftime of a basketball game," Mike said, "so growing up, lifting weights was just something I always did. It was no big deal, but it's made a big difference in my career."
An all-state lineman, who led Millard (Neb.) North to four straight Class A semifinal games and a state championship in 2005, Caputo considered accepting an offer to play football at a Division II school.
But he couldn't resist walking on at Nebraska, and the reward has been worth the risk. After earning a letter in 2008, Caputo was one of six Husker walk-ons awarded a scholarship.
Caputo made headlines last spring when he worked with the No. 1 unit at center while Hickman moved to offensive guard. The experiment sent a major motivational signal to Ricky Henry, who intensified his efforts in learning the playbook, so he could bring the mental part of his game up to the same level he was demonstrating physically.
Caputo, meanwhile, continues to earn the respect and the trust of his teammates and coaches.
His most memorable moment at Nebraska was playing as a freshman against Western Michigan.
His favorite singer is Frank Sinatra. His favorite band is the Eagles, and he's always enjoyed listening to oldies because he grew up on the songs his parents listened to.
For a 20-year-old, Mike Caputo was the biggest throwback on the Nebraska team when the Huskers celebrated their 300th consecutive sellout crowd last Saturday night.
Not surprisingly, he wears No. 65 - the same jersey his dad wore in college.
Editor's note: To make reservations for the Dec. 10 Walk-On Luncheon, featuring offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and former Husker walk-on and team co-captain Brandon Rigoni, call 402-472-2367 or 1-800-8-BIG RED).
Voices from Husker Nation
I have a comment and a prediction. No one breathed more fire as Nebraska walk-ons than Derrie Nelson and Joel Makovicka. One (Nelson) was the Big Eight Defensive Player of the Year who might belong on a list of the Top 10 all-time Blackshirts. The other (Makovicka) was as physical on offense as Nelson was on defense and would just as soon run over you as look at you. Now, having made those comments, I would like to make a prediction. Two years from now, after he becomes a two-time All-American kicker and leads Nebraska to a national championship in 2010, Alex Henery will go down as the most popular walk-on in Husker history. I make that prediction confident that the skinny, but athletic engineering major is every bit as mentally tough as the other two are physically tough. Therein lies the beauty of Nebraska football . . . brains and brawn. You need both, and Nebraska has both. And just watch how Bo and his staff keep recruiting that combination now and well into the future. Ri Edwards, Yuba City, California
Thanks for taking the time to interview these six young men. They all have amazing stories to tell . . . uniquely Nebraska kinds of stories. We all know about Alex Henery, but it's just as fun to know "the rest of the story" about the other five players. It's obvious they've invested a big part of themselves into the program. It's guys like these and the Matt O'Hanlons who make plays that quite often save seasons. Jake Swanson, Phoenix, Arizona
I like to go way back to the early days and mention my favorite walk-ons. If Bob Devaney hadn't created opportunities for walk-ons like Billy Johnson, Langston Coleman and Jim McFarland to become starters in the 1960s, the walk-on phenomenon might not ever have taken off. I found it interesting last week to see those old pictures of the players carrying Devaney off the field after his first national championship. One of the guys carrying Coach Devaney on his shoulders was Mike "Red" Beran. I read where the "Red Man" didn't even make all-conference at Ord (Neb.) High School, but he spent so much time in the weight room that he ended up lettering on the '71 team and starting on Devaney's last team in '72. Those are the guys that laid the groundwork for others and convinced Tom Osborne to expand the walk-on program and create even more opportunity. Ex-players have said that walk-ons are the heart and soul of Nebraska football, and for those of who have been following the Huskers since Bob Devaney arrived, there is no doubt in my mind about the truth of that statement. Steve Sorum, Lincoln, Nebraska
We all love the Makovicka brothers, and I noticed in your Fan Poll they were Nebraska's most popular walk-ons of all-time. I don't dispute that one bit. Even though I.M. Hipp and Jarvis Redwine are my all-time favorite walk-ons, what about Jimmy and Toby Williams? Like Coleman, they came all the way from Washington D.C. to walk on at Nebraska, and together they ended up playing 18 years in the National Football League. What successes they became, and all because they were attracted to a big-time school that offered them a good education and an opportunity to play. Tom Osborne had one of the best all-time records in college football history because he welcomed walk-ons with open arms, developed them as student-athletes and rewarded their hard work. In reinforcing that same philosophy, Bo just might recruit some terrific out-of-state walk-ons to complement the in-state walk-ons. Jerry Seiler, Hastings, Nebraska
Editor's Note: In an August 6 Fan Poll on Huskers.com, asking Nebraska fans about their favorite walk-on story of all-time, 43 percent of 2,600 voters said Jeff and Joel Makovicka were their favorites, followed by I.M. Hipp (26 percent); Jared Tomich (10 percent); Langston Coleman (8 percent); Brandon Rigoni (7 percent); and Jarvis Redwine (6 percent).
I attended the Walk-on Luncheon Thursday and so enjoyed hearing Todd Peterson and Jeff Jamrog. The Nebraska walk-ons definitely are another very important dimension of Nebraska football and the character of the people in this state. I strongly encourage everyone to attend future walk-on luncheons and to support the Walk-on Club. Ivette Bender