Derek Meyer: The ‘Old Man’ and the Dream

By NU Athletic Communications
Derek Meyer and the Huskers began spring practice this week.
Derek Meyer and the Huskers began spring practice this week.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

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A 6-5, 315-pound senior walk-on, Meyer began the first week of spring football practice battling with 6-7, 310-pound sophomore Marcel Jones for playing time at offensive right tackle.

That means that Meyer, the Campbell, Neb., native, may be playing the fastest walk-on game of “Beat the Clock” in Husker history.


Nebraska football stands for a lot of things, but “Now or Never” isn’t one of them. Since the early 1960s, Nebraska has embraced a traditional process that maximizes talent with competitive benchmarks and systematic improvement.


Fortunately, Meyer got a chance to reflect that process in the most positive way possible when he was named 2008 “Offensive Player of the Year” for the Nebraska Scout Team.


The rest of his story is unique, if not inspiring. But first, it begs for more historical context.


A Once-in-a-Lifetime, One-Season-Only Opportunity

How many others, besides Meyer, have done what he’s trying to do – get on the field in what he knows is literally his once-in-a-lifetime/one-season-only chance?


Quarterback Sam Keller, of course, pulled off the unimaginable feat in 2007, 48 years after Tom Kramer made a similar  first and last impression in his only year of eligibility. According to Nebraska football historian Mike Babcock, Kramer transferred in 1959 from the University of California to Nebraska, where he sat out a full season before sharing quarterback duties with Harry Tolly as a senior. 


Babcock, however, can’t recall a single time when a Husker walk-on made a conscious decision to roll the dice, knowing full well that his ultimate benefit would be just one season of playing time.


Barney Cotton, Nebraska's offensive line coach who played four positions in four years for the Huskers in the late 1970s, can't remember a walk-on making that kind of late-career decision either.


So Meyer indeed could be on the threshhold of another historic first in Nebraska’s fabled walk-on program. “The Old Man and the Dream” is a classic case of 11th hour, heavy duty, self-driven pressure, but that’s not why his teammates call him “Old Man.”


They call him Old Man because he started losing his hair when he was a junior in high school, and even though he’s still only 21 years old, “my teammates think I look 10 years older than them, and I probably do,” Meyer said with a healthy laugh.


Make no mistake. Meyer wishes he were getting ready to dive into a time capsule much bigger than one year, but he’d be the last man on earth to say reality bites, even though it bit him hard when Nebraska had no scholarship room for an eight-man player from Silver Lake High School in 2005.


Played Early at K-State, Then Decided to Leave

So he did the next best thing – accepted a football scholarship from Kansas State, where he redshirted his first year and then played significantly in his first five games the next season. An ankle injury that required surgery ended his redshirt freshman year under Ron Prince, who had replaced Bill Snyder as head coach.


A highly positive, intensely polite and spiritually committed young man, Meyer decided to leave K-State after two seasons and ponder a different future.


“I’d never wish an injury on anybody, but it gave me time to mentally prepare myself more than I ever had,” he said. “It made me realize how short your opportunity in college athletics really is.”


Meyer decided he wanted to be around players and coaches who share the same vision and have the same values. He said nothing means more to him than to compete hard every day, to get better every practice and to grow together as competitive individuals and a unified team.


He had two opportunities to analyze carefully. The first was from Del Miller, the offensive coordinator who recruited him at K-State and now offered Meyer a scholarship at San Diego State. The second was from Bob Stanley, his K-State offensive line coach who offered Meyer a scholarship when he became offensive line coach at Western Michigan.


The choices were simple and clear-cut: Go to San Diego State and the Mountain West Conference or Western Michigan and the Mid-American Conference, and Meyer would have two remaining seasons of eligibility.


San Diego State, where Miller had become offensive coordinator, appeared to be Meyer’s best bet, but Western Michigan continued to pursue him as well. “Bob Stanley called me to try and help steer Derek to Western Michigan,” Cotton recalled. “I know Del, too, so I kind of became a conduit for both coaches when they were recruiting Derek the second time around.”


A Dream Made More Sense Than Two Scholarships

But a funny thing happened on the way to Derek Meyer’s transfer. Sensing different dynamics because Bo Pelini had become Nebraska’s new head coach, Stanley called Dana Meyer, Derek’s dad, to ask a very important question.


“Bob told me he’d love to have Derek at Western Michigan, and he knew Del would love to have him at San Diego State, but he wondered if Derek still wanted to play at Nebraska,” Dana Meyer recalled. “He said if he still had that dream, he could ask Barney if Nebraska would be interested and if so, he could put a good word in for Derek. That’s how much Coach Stanley cared – he was willing to put Derek’s welfare above his own interests.”


Somewhat taken aback with Stanley’s conversation, “It was kind of hard for me to believe that Derek would be interested in walking on here,” Cotton said. “Because we’re in the Big 12, Derek would lose two seasons of eligibility here instead of just one at San Diego State and one at Western Michigan. I couldn’t envision him turning down two scholarships and two years of eligibility at both schools just so he could roll the dice to walk on and play on the scout team for one year here without any guarantee of ever being on scholarship.”


Such passion for Nebraska football shouldn’t surprise anyone any more, not even when applied to this historically “smallest window” example of walking on.


Dana and Mitzi Meyer, Derek’s parents and longtime Nebraska football season ticket holders, “have always supported me in any decision I make, and they definitely supported my decision to walk on here,” Derek said.


He did, after all, start attending Nebraska games with his dad when he was 6 years old and still remembers the first game he ever saw in person – Nebraska’s 70-21 win over Pacific on Sept. 24, 1994, in Tom Osborne’s first national championship season.


The ‘Little Guy’ is a Big Guy with a Chance Now

“I can remember my dad telling people we’d sit next to every game how cool it would be if the little guy sitting next to him just had the opportunity to run out on the field someday,” Derek recalled. “I remember thinking that wasn’t just a long shot – it could definitely happen. Growing up in Nebraska, everybody knows the walk-on stories. Everybody knows how walk-ons helped build this program up to what it was and what it will be again.”


In the end, that was the logic that influenced his decision.


“When Coach Cotton called and invited Derek to walk on, everything just fell into place for the entire family,” his dad said. “If money was the issue, we would have said go to one of the other two schools. But the lure of playing for Nebraska has been there for Derek since grade school. It’s something he’s always dreamed about. When we asked him what he really wanted to do, he said: ‘I’d really like to walk on.’ His mom and I just looked at each other and said: ‘Go for it!’”


And he has. “Derek had a heckuva fall last year on the scout team,” Cotton said. “He’s a great effort guy. I knew that when I saw him play 50 snaps against Louisville on film as a redshirt freshman. When we had a couple guys go down last fall, Derek filled in on the second unit a few times in practice. You could see right there that he can play.


“In some ways, he’s like a junior college guy, but he’s beyond that really because he’s actually played in a Big 12 program,” Cotton said. “The long layoff set him back a bit at first, but he knows what it takes to prepare and to compete at this level.”


Ask Zach Potter, Pierre Allen, Barry Turner, Ndamukong Suh or Ty Steinkuhler if Meyer can compete in this, his first and last shot at Nebraska.


Not the type to sing his own praises, Meyer, when pressed, will only say: “I think I held my own. There were times when those guys beat me, but I think I beat them a few times, too.”


The Goal: To Make Himself and His Teammates Better

The foot that Meyer put on the accelerator last fall still hasn’t come back up. “I knew my place was on the scout team,” he said. “My job was to help the team any way I could, and I took that job very seriously. When you have to sit out a whole season, every practice becomes a game day.”


The approach paid off physically, mentally and emotionally. “That was the fastest year of college and the fastest year of football I’ve ever had,” Meyer said.


“It’s hard to believe that I actually fell out of love with football for awhile until I came back here,” he said. “Walking on at Nebraska was worth giving up that extra year of eligibility. You get goose bumps just putting on the jersey. Getting a chance to play for Coach Pelini and this entire staff is just an honor in itself.”


That honor has refueled Meyer’s confidence and his comfort level. “Once I got here and saw what these coaches were like and how they treated people and everything else, that’s when the love came back into it for me,” he said. “These coaches truly care about everyone on this team. They want what’s best for all of us. They trust us, and we trust them with everything we do. This is all so much bigger than any of us. That’s why we all want to come together and get this program built back up to Nebraska’s standards.”


Money can’t buy the kind of love Meyer feels right now for the program. “In the end, this just felt right,” he said. “This is worth every sacrifice I’ve made.”


That loud chorus of “amens” you hear in the background are coming from Derek’s parents, who farm 2,500 acres 40 miles southwest of Hastings; his eighth-grade sister, Sydney, who has her brother’s picture on her computer every time she turns it on; his granddad, Deyman, who still farms a half mile from his dad; his uncle, Jay, who also farms nearby; and all the members of those hard-working relatives.


It All Started in His High School Weight Room

Meyers’ dad remembers all through high school when Derek attended summer weight training sessions, even though he had to drive just to get to the bus, which would then “shuttle” him another 25 miles to Silver Lake High School at 5:45 a.m. four days a week, all summer long.

“I don’t know if hard work is bred into you or it’s something you just pick up along the way,” Dana Meyer said. “All I know is the Campbell kids live farther from Silver Lake than the Bladen kids or the Roseland kids. Yet I can’t recall Derek ever missing a summer session or having to wake him up to get there. That’s just his nature.”


Still is. “Hard-working guy . . . salt of the earth . . . good farm kid . . . can’t get enough of those,” James Dobson said of Meyer. “He’s a quiet guy, keeps to himself and just takes the initiative to do whatever’s expected of him. That was probably instilled in him from day one. He has to work hard. He lived on a farm. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. You don’t get out of anything, and he’s instilled that in himself.”


The offensive line coach agrees with Nebraska’s strength and conditioning coach. “Derek knows he’s a small-window guy,” Cotton said. “Everything he’s done so far leads me to believe he’s going to give it his absolute best shot. He gives great effort as a player, a student and a teammate. He’s great in the weight room and in the meeting room. He realizes everyone gets a fair shot. At Nebraska, it doesn’t matter if you’re on scholarship or a walk-on. We evaluate everybody, and the best guy is going to play.”


The first day of spring practice, Meyer felt a huge weight lifted off his shoulders. “This is the first time in three years I’m playing football eligibly again,” he said. “It’s been a long road back, but I’m fighting for a job again. This is my last go-round, and I’m going to make the most of it. This is where I belong . . . this is home.”


For Derek Meyer, the journey is more important than the destination. “Like I told my mom and dad over spring break,” he said. “Even if I don’t play a single down this year, the experience is going to be worth it just to have that ‘N’ on the side of my helmet, so 30 years down the road, I’ll be able to say something I’ve dreamed about saying forever: ‘I played for Nebraska!’”


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