Lance Thorellís early first-quarter interception ignited Nebraskaís 24-3 win over Michigan State.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Walk-ons Thorell, Blatchford Earn Blackshirts

By NU Athletic Communications
Randy York's N-Sider 

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Following Saturday's 24-3 win over Michigan State, head coach Bo Pelini and defensive coordinator Carl Pelini awarded 21 Blackshirts Monday, and two went to walk-ons - senior hybrid linebacker/defensive back Lance Thorell and junior safety Justin Blatchford.

Thorell set the tone for the Huskers' most complete defensive performance in their 7-1 season, and Blatchford knocked down a fourth-quarter Kirk Cousins' pass that preserved Nebraska's defensive masterpiece.

A quintessential role player, Thorell earned his head coach's praise at Monday's press conference. "We ask him to do a lot of different things. He's played well like he always does," Pelini said. "We ask him to step up and fill a role, and he always steps up. He's a wonderful guy to coach, and I love having him on our team and what he does for us."

Loomis Has 397 People and Ponca 961

Thorell is a product of eight-man football in tiny Loomis, Neb. (population: 397), and  Blatchford played at Ponca, Neb. (population: 961). Both have quietly but systematically worked their way up from scout team and special team status, and both now become part of an elite list of small-town Nebraska walk-ons who have been awarded Blackshirts, joining such players as former NFL linebackers Steve Manstedt of Wahoo (1971-72-73) and Derrie Nelson of Fairmont (1978-79-80) and Academic All-America safety Mark Blazek of Valparaiso (1986-87-88).

"I think it (the Blackshirt) is a great tradition, and we have embraced it, and I think there is a pride that goes along with the tradition," Pelini said, giving no one outside Nebraska football's inner sanctum even a hint about the timing of his decision. "I always feel like anything you do in life, you don't do it just to do it. You do it when you feel in your heart it's right, and that's how we like to handle it."

Monday, Pelini re-emphasized that there are requirements that match the return of one of the Huskers' most time-honored traditions. "One thing our guys understand is that it's something you earn and continue to earn," he said. "Just because you put the Blackshirt on doesn't change anything. It should make you want to play that much harder, to live up to the standards that surround that shirt and tradition. It is something our kids fully understand. They understand what it means to actually put one on."

Crick's Blackshirt a Fitting Symbol

What a wonderful thrill for 19 Huskers that were given Blackshirts to pull over their shoulder pads for the first time this season. There were two exceptions: 1) defensive tackle Terrence Moore was excused from Monday's practice for a private family matter; and 2) preseason All-American Jared Crick is sidelined for the season after pectoral surgery. He still attends team meetings, practices and has an NCAA exemption to travel with the team.

In addition to Crick, Moore and walk-ons Thorell and Blatchford, Blackshirts were distributed to defensive ends Jason AnkrahEric Martin, Cameron Meredith and Josh Williams; defensive tackles Thaddeus Randle, Chase Rome and Baker Steinkuhler; linebackers Will Compton, Lavonte David and Sean Fisher; cornerbacks  Alfonzo Dennard, Ciante Evans, Andrew Green and Stanley Jean-Baptiste; and safeties Austin Cassidy, P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford.

It's hard to imagine anyone appreciating the journey more than Thorell, who grew up on a farm and has played in 47 Nebraska games. He has the kind of passion and love for football that Pelini had when he played at Ohio State.

Maybe that's why Pelini enabled Thorell to experience the thrill of being a captain, so he could walk into Memorial Stadium with that honor and more than 85,000 fans could see what he means to the program.

To describe how a special teams star can make the leap from eight-man football to weekly battles on NCAA Division 1 fields, you have to go back, way back, to see the qualities that make Lance Thorell what he is and define why his passion and love were always there, even at a tender young age.

Straight Out of a Hallmark Movie

We have one example of his passion and another of his love. The first came at age 6 and the second at age 9, and both seem to come straight out of what would be great Hallmark Hall of Fame movies. Let's start when Lance Thorell was 6 and did whatever he could around the 800-acre family farm just south of Loomis, where dad Mike and mom Kristi grow corn and soybeans and cut some alfalfa, some hay and some wheat.

"I was big into cows when I was little, and my mom tells this story about when I was 6 and saved this one calf in a really cold winter, and actually, I still remember it myself," Thorell said. "The cow had the calf in the middle of a blizzard, and he was going to die, but we drug him into the barn, and I just coaxed him back to life.

"I just kept staying with him and keeping him warm," he said of the calf. "I kept rubbing him and rubbing him and bringing him back to life, and ever since then, that calf and I had this connection."  This is where it really starts to smack of a Hallmark movie. Kristi Thorell remembers a scene after Lucky was saved and became part of the herd. She remembers seeing her 6-year-old out in the middle of the pen, petting the calf he saved and made friends with, and she remembers all of the other calves huddling around Lance and Lucky.

"There were about 150 of them, and she says she couldn't do anything because one little spook would have spooked 'em, the whole herd would have taken off, and I would have been trampled," Lance said.

So what does a worried mother do when she happens on such a scene? "She just had to let it all play out and wait for me to come back," Lance said. "Lucky just stood there, and I just kept petting it, and all the other ones around us were a little timid, but would just stand there and kind of watch." It's hard to get inside the head of a calf, but I suggest that instinctively, Lucky's herd probably wished they had a friend, too. Lance laughs and said that Lucky grew into a 600-pound steer, and, well, "eventually, we parted ways," he said.

His Magic Moment Was on Radio

And that brings us to Lance Thorell's defining moment ... that one time when he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was in love with Husker football for life.

Thorell didn't need to close his eyes and think. His answer is immediate. "That would be when we were in our Chevy pickup and driving back from deer hunting," he said. "I was 9 years old, and we were listening to the 1997 game at Missouri on the radio."

The game was tense. The outlook was bleak, and the Thorell family wondered how on this green earth can Scott Frost direct a team down the field in less than a minute and no timeouts. Then it happened ... that magical moment when Frost threw into Missouri's end zone, and the ball deflected off Shevin Wiggins' leg and into the waiting hands of freshman Matt Davison. For a 9-year-old farm kid, who had learned to hunt pheasants three years earlier, it was love at first sight, even if it was over the airwaves that connected Warren Swain's voice to the radio in Mike Thorell's Silverado.

There you have it ... the passion of a 6-year-old, the love of a 9-year-old and the unrelenting commitment that a young man used to walk on at Nebraska and live a dream that will never leave where it now resides ... in his heart.

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