Husker All-America defensive captains Grant Wistrom (98) and Jason Peter (55) celebrate Nebraska's 1997 national title, the career finale for Tom Osborne.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Captains Rave about Walk-Ons, the Heartbeat of the Huskers

By Randy York

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For those who inspect the anatomy of Nebraska’s 1997 National Championship team that celebrated its 20-year reunion in the West Stadium Club Friday night, you would be more than surprised how players, coaches and staff embrace the honor to walk out of a fabled tunnel onto Tom Osborne Field. You might, in fact, be semi-shocked.

Why? Because the last team that college football legend Tom Osborne coached was full of native Nebraskan starters, including eight on offense, three on defense, plus the Huskers’ first-team punter.    

Those remarkable numbers deserve an exclamation point, so the Nebraska coaching staff unilaterally added one in the official Orange Bowl Guide with special recognition to honor the importance of having a sixth man.

The decision, fueled equally by his teammates, enabled Matt Hoskinson to get the credit he earned and so richly deserves for being Nebraska’s selfless honorary center/offensive guard, even though he never started a game in the Huskers’ 13-0 magic carpet-ride season two decades ago.

No official note, acknowledgement or conversation was necessary to pull off that well-deserved honor. Jason Peter, one of Nebraska’s four 1997 captains, gives rave reviews on the legendary tradition of Husker walk-ons while he played at Nebraska and the DNA they deliver to penetrate Nebraska’s heart, soul and overall mindset.

The Huskers’ 42-17 Orange Bowl triumph over Payton Manning-led Tennessee was Osborne’s collegiate swan song. “It’s hard to pick one underrated guy who elevated his play when you analyze our ‘97 team,” said Peter, a first-team All-America defensive tackle. “If I had to pick one, it would be Matt Hoskinson (pictured above). He was a walk-on offensive guard from Battle Creek, Nebraska. Matt didn’t have all the physical tools a lot of players had.”

Hoskinson was 6-foot and 280 pounds. “A good chunk of that fell right above the waist line and below his chest,” Peter said. “He probably ran a 5.5 40-yard dash and probably had a 25-inch vertical. But when Matt put those pads on and that game started, there wasn’t an offensive lineman that was more valuable than Matt was! He was the O-line’s ‘6th man’ and played guard and center. Having a guy like Matt was crucial to our success because he could come in and give a guy a breather and not have the line miss a beat.

“Matt Hoskinson was absolutely invaluable to our team,” Peter said. “He could’ve started for most schools in the Big 12, and he was good enough to be a full-time starter at Nebraska. That was never an issue with Matt. He was a ‘whatever the team needs kind of player’ and I truly believe that if we did not have Matt on the team – and many others that had similar paths and backgrounds to his – we wouldn’t have been as good as we were, and I doubt that we would have won another National Championship!”

If football was like the Emmys, there would be a major award for the best supporting player, and Hoskinson would get that honor, even though it would end up in his basement closet.

The popular lineman laughed Friday night when he heard that statement. "For whatever reason (the late) Milt Tenopir told me I would be a unique starter," Hoskinson said. "He wanted six guys in the O-line. I would be in the second series at left guard, the third series at center and the fourth series at right guard. It was an honor for me because I was a Nebraska kid who thought that was great. I tried to award my coaches with as many pancakes as possible."

Hoskinson received three scholarship offers from Kansas State, Iowa State and Wyoming. He took a chance and it paid off in a scholarship offer from Nebraska after his freshman season. "I got goose bumps tonight listenting to Jason Peter talk about all the starters from Nebraska on offense and why it worked out so well," Hoskinson said. "It's a great honor, and I think we need to go back and recruit more walk-ons into the program and then develop them so they can play as juniors and seniors. I agree with Jason. Walk-ons are the heartbeat of Nebraska Football. When we get back to that, things are going to turn around here."

“I’ll give you a prime example of why Nebraska needs more walk-ons,” said 1997 All-American and Outland Trophy winner Aaron Taylor. “We had to become different from other programs, and we still need to do that. I don’t say that in a bad way, a braggadocio way or anything even close to that. We simply have to build our walk-on program back up to where we were because of Nebraska’s population."

Under the meticulous direction of Nebraska Hall-of-Fame Coach Tom Osborne (pictured above), walk-ons played a huge role in his last national championship team. “Some walk-ons could have played in other places, but they chose here," Taylor said. "The walk-on program was perfectly integrated and here’s what I tell people who want to understand why that’s so important. I was an All-Big Eight Conference player on the 1995 team, an All-American as a junior and the Outland Trophy winner as a senior. I was all of those things, but you know what was on my mind every single practice every single day? I was thinking about a 6-foot, 280-pound walk-on from Battle Creek, Nebraska.

“I wondered every day if Matt was going to take over my spot because he brought everything he had to every practice,” Taylor said. “He showed up every single day and worked so hard. He never screwed up. He was incredibly physical and did everything that he was asked to do, and he did it well. He was a walk-on with so much pride, you couldn’t help but follow his mindset. I was a Texan who wondered every single day if he was going to take me out of the starting lineup. I guarantee that everyone I know was thinking the same thing.

“Walk-ons work hard and set the tone for everyone else,” Taylor said. “I’m glad I worried about losing my position because it pushed me to get better every day. It wasn’t just me. It applied to all positions on a team that won another national championship. Walk-ons bring spirit and positivity to the team. It wasn’t just my position. It was every position. That’s why we got better every single day – through good coaching and Nebraska pride. We had stories that you can’t make up. Even though I was playing very well, I was always worried about that walk-on right behind me. Matt was so inspiring. He never started but he motivated everybody on the team.”

Peter embraced his most memorable moment. “We had just left a huge party in the lobby of our hotel and went up to our room,” he said. “We knew the announcement from the AP poll (Michigan No. 1) and waited a couple of hours for the results of the Coaches’ Poll. I sat in the room with Grant Wistrom (a fellow captain and Jason's best buddy). We discussed all the reasons why they would name us champions and also all the reasons why they might not.

"I will never forget when the announcement came. I remember yelling, screaming and chaos. You could hear people screaming from the front lobby and 10 floors above you. The entire hotel exploded with pure joy. Grant and I ran around the room. We yelled, screamed, even jumped up and down on the beds. It was crazy to say the least.”

Peter sets the record straight on Tom Osborne, his head coach. “I think people confuse Coach Osborne’s commitment to his faith with his on-field demeanor or coaching style,” Peter said. “Coach could be as emotional and fiery as they come. When he wasn’t happy with a player or there was a coaching point he needed to get across, Coach could be highly animated and very demanding.

"The difference between Coach Osborne and other coaches was his preparation," Peter said. "There was never a game where we were not prepared. There was never a stone that was left unturned. Never a play that was a surprise to us in a game and never a formation we hadn’t practiced against. Not only was Coach Osborne preparing us with plays that the other team had run in previous games that season, but also from games that were played in previous years, plus plays he thought a team might run against us. Basically, he prepared us for every possible situation that we could be in over the course of a game.”

Charlie McBride's Constant Reminder: Play for the Fans Because Without Them, None of This is Possible 

Make no mistake. “Nebraska fans are the best fans in the world,” Peter told me. “The commitment that these people have made with their time, money and emotions is simply unmatched. Charlie McBride always used to say before games that we should play for the fans because without them, none of this is possible. Rain, sleet, snow…it never mattered. In fact, the worse the weather got the louder and more supportive our fans became. It’s even more obvious today because even though there hasn’t been the same amount of success on the field, the seats still have bodies in them and they still get loud.”

A big part of the energy, vitality and spirit traces back to the Nebraska walk-on program and the players that “have always been the heartbeat of our program,” Peter said. “These kids come from all over to fulfill their dream of playing for the Huskers. They’re the real cornerstone of the success we achieved. So many paid their own way to come to Lincoln and make a name for themselves.

"For everyone that goes on to be a starter and maybe even play in the NFL one day, there are dozens upon dozens that never become a starter," Peter said. "Some never even play a down for us but the commitment and the dedication between those two types of players is exactly the same…there's not one single difference between the two. Both types are equally important to the success of our team, and I hope that the walk-on tradition continues for decades to come because I truly believe they are the heartbeat of our entire football program.”

Send a comment to ryork@huskers.com (Please include city, state)

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