Wahoo walk-on Brandon Chapek received the Husker Heart Award from Coach Bo Pelini.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Chapek’s Hermey The Elf Story Near Reality

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York’s N-Sider

Please sit down and relax a bit. This is a Christmas Story you don’t want to race through because it’s doubly true and weaves together all that’s good about Nebraska football. It’s a story about patience and perseverance, sticking with a commitment and the art of unselfish living and generous giving – a spot-on attitude of gratitude wrapped up in shoulder pads, academic achievement, community service and a giant heart that absorbed every hard hit, practice after practice, year after year.

Meet Brandon Chapek, who received the Huskers’ Heart Award at Nebraska’s Annual Football Banquet two weekends ago. If that name doesn’t ring a silver bell this holiday season, so what? Chapek has enjoyed every minute of his anonymity and fulfilled every square-inch of his five dedicated seasons as a walk-on. His selfless, team-oriented marathon of a career finally paid off in the only two non-bowl regular-season road trips he’s ever taken – last-minute Husker wins at Michigan (17-13 in Ann Arbor) and at Penn State (23-20 in overtime at University Park). A combined 210,721 fans watched those two dramatic comebacks live at two of college football’s most historic stadiums.

Destination: Dental School with Three Possibilities

It doesn’t get any more exciting than that for a 6-foot-5, 305-pound offensive tackle who has given everything he has to Nebraska football, and at the same time, kept his ultimate dream alive … dental school at Nebraska, Creighton or Iowa. There are no regrets for Chapek, who never received a dime to walk on at Nebraska. He’d do the same thing all over again because football's daily grind has prepared him well for what comes after the Gator Bowl, his final act as a Cornhusker.

“Dental school started off as a joke on my end,” Chapek said. “I watched Rudolph and Hermey The Elf one Christmas and said I wanted to be a dentist after that movie. I even walked around the house quoting different lines from the movie.”

For context, take two minutes and watch a video depicting Hermey The Elf, who comes to a quick conclusion at the North Pole – he doesn’t like making toys.

“Do you mind telling me what you want to do?” the senior elf asks Hermey.

“Well sir, someday, I’d like to be a dentist. We need one up here,” Hermey said.

“You’re an elf; elves make toys,” he’s told. “Finish the job or you’re fired.”

Suddenly, Hermey comes to a conclusion that only a walk-on would know, realize and accept from day one. “I guess I’m on my own now,” Hermey said, and the truth is, Brandon Chapek knew he was on his own since the first day he walked on UNL’s campus.

Life Skills Associate AD Sees Oral Surgeon Potential

Yes, a holiday movie line became a mini-mantra for Chapek, who always understood that the joke was on him. When you’re on your own, you’re on your own. You toughen up, endure everything that comes at you and use your heart and your soul to earn a bowl. Why not take on an elf-like persona to self-motivation and encouraging teammates? Knock some people down and maybe you’ll earn the right for a few plays on special teams. Use football to lock in academically, athletically and socially. Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s Associate AD for Life Skills, predicts that Chapek will have a long, successful career as a dentist and is equipped with the intelligence, talent and drive to become an oral surgeon.

When he flies with his teammates Thursday to a Gator Bowl matchup with Nos. 22 and 23-ranked Georgia in Jacksonville, Chapek almost has to pinch himself to think about where he was when Pat Smith kicked that dramatic 42-yard field goal on national television, enabling the Huskers to beat the Nittany Lions. Chapek was, of all places, blocking for his fellow walk-on kicker who embraced Chapek as hard as anyone in the celebration.

“That’s one I’m always going to remember,” Chapek said. “We’ve been talking all through the year, and as soon as Pat found out I got called up to help on field goals, he told me: ‘Having someone like you, who’s dying to get out on that field and willing to put anything out there regardless of what it is, adds a little confidence to the kicker as well, just knowing somebody is going to sell out and take that hit.’”

Accepting Nebraska Over Ivy League Schools, Others

Yes, Chapek is your classic Christmas Story, even though the plot sounds like fiction. He’s a farm boy who grew up near Wahoo, Neb., and considered playing at Mankato, Minn., Northwest Missouri State and North Dakota State. With his ACT scores, he could have gone to several Ivy League schools and considered that option as well. The more he thought, the less enamored he was. “I didn’t know if a farm boy with boots and a hat and a diesel truck would fit in that great on the East Coast,” he said.

He opted to focus on his dad, Larry Chapek, who walked on at Nebraska in the 1980s. “Some stuff didn’t work out on the family end,” Brandon said. “It required my dad to drop his dream just when it was starting to develop for him. He had to go back and take care of some things on the farm. Seeing him deal with that and knowing how much he wished he could have fulfilled that opportunity, I knew everything was in my hands. I’d been given a gift and the opportunity to finish my dream. I knew I would never discard that dream and let it pass away. I was going to finish it out and give it my best shot.”

Chapek consistently won Scout Team of the Week Awards. Ask Eric Martin, perhaps Nebraska’s most physical linebacker before he moved on. Martin often said he couldn’t wait for game day because it was always easier than practice. “I’d hit Eric as hard as I possibly could every week,” Chapek told me. “Whenever we’d go against the No. 1 defense on Scout Team, I made it my goal to push, push, push and try to beat them every play, not just for my end of it, but to show those guys what they have coming their way every Saturday.” In addition, Chapek received a HERO Leadership Award from Nebraska Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst for the way he reaches out to local hospitals and schools, plus his work with the DARE program and the Down Syndrome Association. He's also a member of the Brook Berringer Citizenship Team and a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar.

Former Walk-On Father Saw Highlight at Penn State

As much as he loves football, Chapek got used to going home on road trip weekends and farming the family’s 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans. “Those are dollar signs hanging out on those stalks sitting out in the field,” he said. “You’re not guaranteed you’re going to get everything back. Weather can hinder the yield. It’s a risk of livelihood. That’s what my dad does. He farms. He’s in agriculture. His paycheck is basically sitting in the field with 10-degree weather and possible snow and wind. For him to say it was more important to be at Penn State and support me, and be there for me after the game, that’s huge. It’s really touching and really inspiring because that’s what I want to aspire to be someday – having my priorities in line and really being able to understand the call to be a parent. For my dad, it wasn’t even a question about going to see me play in my only road game.”

The day before the Huskers went to Michigan, Chapek had just finished a dental school interview in Iowa. He was expecting that weekend to be like all other road weekends when he was a Husker … he would be hopping into a combine cab on Saturday and listening to the Husker-Wolverine game on radio. Then, in the blink of an eye, he got a text from Jeff Jamrog, Nebraska’s assistant athletic director for football operations.

“Call me as soon as possible,” Jamrog directed.

“The first thing I thought was: Oh crap! What did I do wrong?’”

He called Jamrog back. Injuries had opened a door. “Can you get back to Lincoln in time to fly to Michigan tomorrow,” Jamrog asked. “Absolutely,” Chapek said and the long awaited payoff for five seasons of blood, sweat and hard knocks were finally within his grasp.

Equally Proud Scout Teammates Razz ‘Mr. Big Time’

Chapek played the tuba in Wahoo Neumann’s High School Band, and suddenly he had every reason in the world to play “Hey, Baby” like he’s never played it before.

The guy who tried to make a statement on Scout Team every day finally got the call for which he’d been waiting five seasons. "Getting called up was really cool,” he said. “I have a lot of friends on the Scout Team, and I was doing this for them, too. They kind of harassed me at that end, calling me ‘Mr. Big Time’ and all that. Guys work their butts off on Scout Team. I figured I was going to finish out my career on the Scout Team, and I decided to embrace that. I realized that’s what I was called to do here – help make the defense better, and I gave it everything I had while I was down there.”

Sometimes, down there is "up there" in the grand scheme of life. “My dad always taught me to go all out and never coast through anything,” Chapek said. “If you’re going to invest in something, go all out, regardless of the odds. Always finish whatever you start, whether it’s T-ball, Little League, band, Nebraska football, whatever. Finish it all the way through. That mentality was instilled in me so much, it’s just kind of who I am.”

Chapek does not deny how difficult it was to stay the course. “I struggled with being on the Scout Team. I’m not going to lie,” he said. “Being somebody out on the field on Saturdays wasn’t going to be my role. But at the same time, it gave me the opportunity to push the guys who are out there on the field. I knew I had the ability to do it, and I knew I could make them better on Saturday. So I made it a point to make a personal statement on Scout Team. Maybe I didn’t necessarily belong there. But with our depth, that’s where I was. It might have been different in some other program. But what better problem to have than being somebody willing to go out there and sell out on the Scout Team?”

Taking on Boy Named Suh, Living to Tell About It

Brandon Chapek has been giving his best since he was a shaky, nervous freshman lined up across from Ndamukong Suh, the most decorated defensive player in the history of college football. “Going against him and all the rest of the guys in my career, you reach a point where you say, ‘Hey, I can stand up to ‘em and help make our team better.' It feels great knowing I stayed the course and made it all the way through. As a graduating senior, I’ll have my name on the wall for others to see whenever they come out of the tunnel.”

There will be no reference to Hermey the Elf, but Brandon Chapek will be able to take his kids and his grandkids to see that wall someday and he'll be able tell them how he saw a Christmas movie and had some fun with one of its most memorable characters. He used a line from that movie to become a dentist, all because he had the patience, perseverance, commitment and a dream that went way beyond the Scout Team, a tight-knit unit that taught him everything he needs to be successful in life after football.

And get this. Chapek has a Christmas ornament of Hermey the Elf – something he hangs on the family tree to remind him of what his primary purpose at Nebraska has been since the beginning. Somehow, whenever that day comes and Brandon Chapek is encouraging his own kid(s) to stay the course and finish what he or she started, he’ll take that son or daughter and show him/her the brick that bears his name. At home, he’ll point to that silly ornament of an elf who inspired him to put the team ahead of himself and how that lifelong motto has helped his own family succeed.

The N-Sider wishes all Husker families the same kind of life lessons and special blessings this week, the rest of this fast-moving month and in the years to come. Happy Holidays!

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Voices from Husker Nation

Great article! We saw Brandon play sports at Bishop Neumann High School. It was especially fun to watch this big football player play basketball. He did pretty well and many opponents would bounce off him when they would try to drive to the hoop. Quite a sight. Connie Blum, Wahoo, Nebraska

This is the kind of story that separates Nebraska from others in college football. It makes me proud to be a Husker. Since Devaney and Osborne, Nebraska has made up for its small population by being the land of opportunity for anyone willing to take a chance and prove himself the old-fashioned way, through heart and hard work. It's the way we operate. Congratulations to a 6-5, 305-pound dreamer who farmed a half hour from Lincoln and listened to an elf to help him out along the way. When I say there is no place, there is no need to finish the sentence. Go Big Red! Steve Johnson, Scottsdale, Arizona



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