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Three Walk-ons Collaborate on 57-Yarder; Nebraska’s Best Career Kickers Applaud the Feat
Here’s the snap from senior center T.J. O'Leary.
Senior holder Jake Wesch puts the ball down on the Colorado 47-yard line.
Sophomore Alex Henery hits the ball well with his right foot. It’s in the air, heading a little right. It’s drawing back in. It’s going, going, still going . . .
Can it make it? Will it make it?
More than 85,000 fans tell everyone in the house and those watching on national television the outcome. Their roar beats the official signal. Yes, Alex Henery’s 57-yard field goal, the longest in Nebraska and Memorial Stadium history, is . . . GOOOOOOOOOODDDD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
“I knew Alex had it, but he’d already taken off down the field to celebrate,” Wesch said. “Until I actually saw the ball clear the crossbar, my heart was racing a hundred miles an hour and my head was spinning. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. It brought a tear to my eye. I knew that kick defined our whole season. It meant so much to us seniors and to the whole state of Nebraska.”
The relevance of Henery’s school record kick didn’t end there. The signature play in an 8-4 season was near flawless execution among three walk-ons. It started with a perfect deep snap from O’Leary to Wesch, who caught the ball and teed it up with the same speed and precision he’s shown for three seasons. Without a picture-perfect snap and hold, the kick would not qualify as heroic or historic.
“The snapper and the holder have just as much pressure on them as there is on me. Their jobs are just as hard as mine,” said Henery, a quiet engineering student who came to Nebraska on an academic scholarship and admits he’d “rather just stay under the radar and do my job like they do theirs.”
Not this time. “Oh Henery” was a headline waiting for something dramatic to happen. And the sophomore who passed up a soccer scholarship at NCAA power Creighton to walk on at Nebraska “will be remembered forever in the folklore of Nebraska football,” Wesch said. “T.J. and I are just happy to be a part of that one play with him. We think it summed up our time here at Nebraska. As seniors, it didn’t always go our way – at least the Virginia Tech (35-30 loss) and Texas Tech (37-31 overtime loss) games didn’t. But we finally caught a break. That field goal was a fitting metaphor for our last game at Memorial Stadium.”
Kris Brown Reacts in Houston
“My level of appreciation and respect for that kick just went up higher than I ever thought it could go,” Kris Brown said. “Walk-ons are the lifeblood of Nebraska’s program, and I love to see them back in the big picture. I still pinch myself knowing I got to play for the best college football program in the country, and we all know why it’s always been different and better than anyone else – because of all of those walk-ons who are inspired to play at Nebraska. They’re the heart-and-soul of the program. They came – and will continue to come here – to do what those three guys just did.”
In his 10th pro season, Brown has made 222 field goals in the NFL. He’s hit 45 of his last 51 field goal attempts, but only one in his career has gone as far as Henery’s traveled last Friday afternoon. “I asked my wife during the timeout before the kick if she remembered my only 57-yarder,” Brown said. “When Amy said ‘yes,’ I said: ‘Who knows? Maybe this kid will kick one, too. Wouldn’t that be something?’”
When Henery nailed his historic kick, Kris Brown was “glued to my TV” with a large family gathering in Bellaire, Texas, a Houston suburb. “I was holding my six-month-old son (Burke) in my arms,” he said. “I leaped up off the couch and jumped so high, I think my head hit the ceiling. It was weird because when I saw the ball come off Henery’s foot, I knew it had a chance. Watching the draw and how it turned back to the upright, I knew it had the distance. What a great kick! Beautiful! Fifty-seven is a magical number. It creates such a unique feeling.”
In 2007, Brown kicked five field goals against Miami, including an NFL record of three field goals of 54 yards or more. The last of the five was a career-long 57-yarder with one second remaining to give the Texans a 22-19 win over the Dolphins.
Amazingly, Kris Brown was more excited for Henery than he was for his own dramatic 57-yarder. “I was excited for Alex, the team, the program, Coach Pelini and his coaches and all the students and fans who just experienced a remarkable season one year after the worst one in more than 40 years,” Kris said. “I loved the way Bo rolled the dice and put his faith in someone who could come through like Alex did. I see that kick as a sign of bigger things to come.”
Josh Brown Celebrates in St. Louis
In his sixth pro season, Josh Brown has made 139 field goals in the NFL. He was the Seattle Seahawks kicker in the 2006 Super Bowl and has made 23 of his 27 field goal attempts this season, his first with the St. Louis Cardinals after spending five years with the Seahawks.
Josh and his family of 20 were “all curled up around the television” in his Creve Coeur, Mo., suburban St. Louis home last Friday. “What did that kick mean to me?” he asked. “Well, let’s just say I celebrated like I made the kick myself, even though I couldn’t understand at first why they were kicking it when they passed up the 50-yarder before halftime. All I can say now is Coach Pelini really knows his players. He put Alex in that situation, and that kid came through like a pro.
“You could just feel yourself rising up out of the chair. We were all rooting the kick on. I mean, our whole house shook when we knew he made it. We were all screaming – everybody. I went high in the air and said: ‘Oh my God, this kid just hit a 57-yarder with 1:43 left to put his team up by two (33-31). That’s a tough kick on a calm day with nobody in the stands. It’s a tough kick all the way around and any way you look at it. To do that on a big stage against a rival with 85,000 people admiring your work – and who knows how many more like us watching on national television – you better be able to hold your water. And he did . . . quite well. To kick one of those 57 yards puts him in an elite group. A lot of guys can make ‘em in practice, but making it in a game like that . . . well, it’s a whole, ‘nother story.”
Paul Rogers Watches Solo in Omaha
Unlike the Browns, Paul Rogers watched the game by himself in Omaha. He was the first Husker to kick a 55-yard field goal (against Kansas in 1969) – the Nebraska record he shared with Billy Todd (1977) and Chris Drennan (1989) until Henery erased all three names from Nebraska’s record book.
The only Husker kicker in history with at least three 50-yard collegiate field goals, Rogers has been waiting to fade into football’s woodwork as he runs his Internet marketing business. “It was a great kick and a very timely kick – one of those deals where everything just clicked at the same time,” he said. “Most athletes have one time when everything comes together like that. This was Alex Henery’s time, and I thought it was great. After almost 40 years, it’s about time someone took over that record. I have no complaints. I’m glad it was him, and I’m glad it was such an important kick.”
Rogers had one of those “times” and one of those “kicks” himself – a 51-yarder with 21 seconds left to give Nebraska a 13-10 win over Wyoming in the 1968 season-opener. Bob Devaney and the Huskers were coming off their worst season in six years, finishing 6-4 in 1967. They finished 6-4 again in ’68, and Devaney told Rogers and more than one banquet audience that the game-winning kick against Wyoming was the one play that probably saved his job.
Henery didn’t have to save Pelini’s job, but Nebraska’s first-year head coach will be the first to tell you that his kicker saved his bacon after his decision to use the same Wesch-Henery fake field goal play that resulted in a first down against Kansas. This time, though, when Wesch flipped the ball backwards, Colorado’s Jimmy Smith intercepted the “no look” lateral and ran it back for a 58-yard touchdown that pulled the Buffs into a 24-24 halftime tie.
As devastating as the 10-point swing on that play was, O’Leary, Wesch and Henery all now understand that the good never would have unfolded so magically if the bad and the ugly hadn’t caved in first.
Whenever O’Leary does his job, he’s anonymous. “If anybody knows my name, it’s usually because I messed up,” he said. “That’s why my dad (former mid-1970s Husker running back John O’Leary) can’t stand being in the stands for kicks like that. He’s been walking laps around the field since I was in high school. For the Colorado kick, he was behind the disabled section underneath the North Stadium. He had no view of the ball at all, but he could hear the crowd, and he could see the refs put their hands up.”
Kevin Seibel Gets Excited in Chicago
John O’Leary was inside the stadium, but Kevin Seibel, another prominent former Husker place-kicker in the early 1980s, had a better seat inside his suburban home in Chicago, where he’s an assistant principal at Elmwood Park Elementary School. “When Joe Ganz got sacked 15 yards two plays before the kick, I thought we were in severe trouble,” Seibel said. “I’ve seen Henery kick, but I thought a 57-yarder was going to be a tall chunk of cheese to chew there.”
Seibel’s longest field goal at Nebraska was 52 yards against Colorado. “During the timeout, TV showed Alex talking to Coach Pelini and giving him a pretty confident nod of the head that he could do it,” Seibel said. “Being a kicker myself, I could tell he hit the ball good the second he struck it. But like everyone else, those next few seconds were an eternity. You would have thought I was the official. The second that ball went through the uprights, my hands were straight up in the air, and silently, I was thinking and hollering that there is no place like Nebraska.”
Kris Brown, Josh Brown, Paul Rogers and Kevin Seibel were all Nebraska scholarship kickers. None knew that Henery is a walk-on without a scholarship, but it does not surprise them, and it does not matter.
It doesn’t even matter to Henery, who came to Nebraska for one reason – to live his dream. “During the timeout before the kick, Jake told me I was going to be the hero,” he said. “It’s hard to understand how much this means to so many people. I don’t look at it in terms of being a hero. I just love to kick – before, during and after practice. I enjoy working with Jake and T.J. We work hard every day, just like everyone else.”
Henery is so good with his foot and a ball, “he’s like a golfer with a lot of clubs in his bag,” O’Leary said. “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 in practice. We knew. He knew, and that kick against Colorado just catapulted us right into a New Year’s Day bowl game.”
Wesch told Henery his soccer background was about to pay off. “I told him he could make any range,” Wesch said. “I also reminded him that he’d kicked a 64-yarder in practice.”
Jake Wesch: The Goalposts Looked So Far, Far Away
Even though he bullishly envisioned hero status for Henery, Wesch is the Boy Scout who cannot lie. “I will admit that while I was waiting for the snap, I looked up the field,” he recalled. “I couldn’t help thinking how far, far away those goalposts looked and how far that ball was going to have to carry just to get there.”
After that, everything became a blur. “It was surreal,” Wesch said, adding that the three protagonists in perhaps Nebraska’s most pivotal play of the season don’t look at themselves as walk-ons.
“I just hope we showed kids everywhere that Nebraska is still the best place out there,” Wesch said. “If you come here, work hard and stay dedicated, the sky is the limit. Just ask my two roommates. Todd Peterson and Tyler Wortman walked on together (from Grand Island), and now they’re both second-team Academic All-Americans.”
Only in Nebraska . . . land of opportunity.
And home of the humble walk-on celebrity kicker. Teammates say Henery may be the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Week, but he will not change because he has the emotional makeup of an athletic director, not a kicking star. One fell swoop of his right foot may have made him a household name in Nebraska, but it will not alter his below-the-radar style or his low-key approach to life.
“I never envisioned any of this at all,” Henery said. “I don’t understand why more than 200 people I don’t know wanted to get on my Facebook page that night. I’m the quiet guy, and intend to stay that way.”
Still, “If what I did inspires walk-ons, I feel good about that,” Henery said. “Walk-ons work hard. At Nebraska, they turn down scholarships just for the right to fight and get on the field. That takes character.”
That character defines a season.
And in this case, it even defines the entire program.
"Great article about Henery and the former NU kickers and of course their reactions. I was at the CU game and didn't think Alex could make it from that distance. What a kick and what a collaboration by the walk-ons. I started going to NU games at the age of five and also being an NU alum I've seen more than a few home games. It's hard to say for sure, but the crowd noise after Alex's kick was probably as loud as anything I've heard in Memorial Stadium. What a moment! I was also at the game in 1968 when Paul Rogers hit the winning field goal against Wyoming. I was 12-years-old and vividly remember being in the North end zone (the same end zone as Alex's kick) and my buddy and I were in the ramp opening and as soon as ball cleared the cross and the crowd erupted we went running, jumping and screaming down the ramp and out the stadium. I'll never forget either kick as long as I live. Thanks again for the great article." - Matt Samuelson, Pender, Neb.