Rucker Speech Caps Day One
One of the first people Michael Rucker laid eyes upon Friday after returning to Memorial Stadium was former teammate Matt Davison, now in an administrative role within the Nebraska football program.
Blast from the past, Rucker thought.
Of course, he specifically remembered what most people do when initially seeing Davison or hearing his name – that miraculous game-saving, national championship-saving touchdown catch as time expired to force overtime against Missouri in 1997.
“That’s a good one,” Rucker said, smiling.
Yeah, you could say that.
Well, here’s something else good. Rucker still has that game ball. When he stripped it from Missouri quarterback Corby Jones on the game’s final play, well, he just never bothered returning it.
“I just kept running,” said Rucker, who teamed with fellow Missouri native Grant Wistrom to sack Jones and seal Nebraska’s 45-37 victory. “Once I took it from Corby Jones, I just kept running.”
Whether Rucker shared that story with the Nebraska football team on Friday night isn’t certain.
But rest assured Rucker, who played eight years in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers, told current players about the culture of those three national championship teams in the 1990s, all of which Rucker was a member.
Even the one in 1994, when he redshirted.
Especially that one, actually.
“Everybody matters,” Rucker said in a Friday interview in explaining his message to the team. “That walk-on. That guy that’s redshirting. Where’s your role? It’s not like you take off, you’ve got a year to hang out. You have a role in this machine. You have a role with this team.”
Nebraska coach Scott Frost – the quarterback who threw the aforementioned pass to Davison – asked Rucker to fly from his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, to Lincoln to speak to the team Friday night to cap a long first day of preseason training camp. The Huskers practiced in shorts, jerseys and helmets for a couple of hours indoors Friday morning, then had meetings and heavy lifting in the afternoon before listening to Rucker.
Rucker said he wanted to be encouraging. Sure, he’d talk about the past. But most importantly, he wanted to stress how these Huskers control the future.
“You’ve got a clean slate,” Rucker said. “You’ve got a new staff. You guys control the future. You draw the line in the sand and say, ‘We, from this day, we don’t go back across this line. We move forward.’ If it’s one step, it’s one step. If it’s 20, 30 … we’re moving forward. We’re not going backwards.”
Rucker is entering his 10th season as a television color analyst for preseason games for the Carolina Panthers and does a weekly podcast during the season. He continues to run Vision Group Reality, a real-estate business he founded in 2006, and is the Southeast coordinator for the NFL Legends Community, an organization that helps former players connect with their teams and the League.
When Rucker heard 3-4 weeks ago from Keith Zimmer, Senior Associate Athletic Director for Life Skills and Enrichment, that Frost wanted him to speak the to the team, he accepted immediately.
“What Scott has brought, and his staff,” Rucker said, “is a mixture of the new coaches that might be learning some of the tradition, and weaving in some people that have had some history and wisdom. It’s a nice blend.”
Rucker remembers thinking Frost might be a viable candidate for Nebraska head football coach the previous time the position came open, following the 2014 season. The timing wasn’t right then, Rucker said, but now Frost brings to the table a guy who knows hard work.
“We’re going to be smart, and we’re going to be tough,” Rucker said. “If we’re smart and tough, we’re going to win some football games, and then we start building off that. That’s what Scott brings back. I think he understands the history. I think he understands the fan base. We have the best fan base.”
Rucker was a senior in 1998 when Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams and Texas upset the Huskers 20-16 to end Nebraska’s 47-game home winning streak. Rucker years later ran into Williams, who recalled the game and specifically remembered Longhorn players fearing they would get pelted with thrown objects when leaving the field after the game.
Instead, Nebraska fans offered a standing ovation that, Rucker said, stunned Williams and his teammates.
“That’s the kind of fans we have,” Rucker said. “Scott coming back, he knows that.”
Rucker appreciates how Frost has built his staff, and feels the program is moving in the right direction but will need time. Roads will have bumps. There will be hiccups.
But knowing that still can’t override a strong feeling Rucker has.
“I feel it’s serious,” Rucker said. “We’re paying attention and we’re intentional about this thing now. It’s not about collecting checks. We’re trying to restore honor. We’re trying to restore dominance that we’ve been used to in the past.”
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