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In football, sometimes it can be a very short distance between the penthouse and the outhouse.
Credit that line to Nebraska Hall of Fame Coach Bob Devaney. It was one of his favorite expressions to describe how fast a football player can descend from winner to loser, from victor to vanquished, from hero to goat ... and back again the other way.
As low as O'Hanlon felt after that 16-15 loss in Blacksburg, he has experienced something much worse than that.
In fact, you won't believe how far he fell two years ago. On the eve of Nebraska's trip to Kansas and its worst defensive performance in school history, Matt O'Hanlon was crushed like never before ... so crushed that he put the experience into the deepest recesses of his brain.
On Thursday night, Nov. 1, 2007, O'Hanlon had his bags packed and was finalizing his next day's schedule for the team's trip to Lawrence when he got a phone call from Bill Busch, his secondary and special teams coach.
A Hole in the Travel Roster ... a Bigger One in His Heart
Busch told O'Hanlon he wasn't on the travel roster for this game, even though he had started every game that season on the kickoff team and the kickoff return team. Yes, he was one of the Huskers' five leading tacklers on the kickoff team, but suddenly, in a season that had gone bad and was about to get worse, O'Hanlon wouldn't even be in uniform.
Busch was told that the Huskers needed another offensive player on the travel roster, and O'Hanlon's spot would create the opening.
O'Hanlon remembers getting off the phone, looking at his packed bag and wondering how much lower life could get, especially for a player who busted his butt every day in practice.
He went home that weekend and watched the NU-KU game on TV with his family in Bellevue. If you think a 76-39 loss was hard on you, imagine how O'Hanlon felt. "It was hard to look my family in the eye," he said.
Life in football's outhouse isn't fun for anyone, but fortunately, a few weeks later, O'Hanlon adjusted the sails on his psyche and envisioned a different future for his last two years as a Nebraska walk-on.
Bo Pelini was announced as Nebraska's new head football coach, and what he told the team in its first meeting was music to Matt O'Hanlon's ears. "He said all jobs were open, and everything would be based on how hard you work and how well you practice," O'Hanlon recalled.
With a Clean Slate Came a More Aggressive Goal
Suddenly, O'Hanlon's goals broadened beyond special teams. "If all jobs were open," he said, "I thought I would finally get a look, and this was my chance to start. So I set my sights on that."
You know the rest of the story. Last year, O'Hanlon started Nebraska's first nine games at safety and finished third among all Husker tacklers with 52, including 33 solo stops. In the Gator Bowl victory over Clemson, he had six tackles, including five solo stops, and helped preserve the win with a critical pass breakup on a Clemson third-and-goal play in the final two minutes.
The high of that experience is balanced by that busted coverage in Blacksburg, something that O'Hanlon had a hard time living down, publicly and privately. "My wife helped me get through that more than anyone," he said. "She was at the game and saw me burst into tears outside the locker room. She reminded me how much I had already persevered through and how I would get through this, too. She told me I would come out of that game stronger than ever."
Even though it took O'Hanlon a good week to get over it, he is indeed stronger than ever. A captain for last Saturday's Oklahoma game, O'Hanlon had a career-high 12 tackles, including nine solos. His tackle total tied the team's season-high mark set a week earlier by Jared Crick. His three interceptions - all in the second half - tied a school record. His first interception led to a field goal, and his third sealed the 10-3 upset of the Sooners with 41 seconds left.
Uncharacteristically, O'Hanlon threw the ball high in the air after making that final interception. He was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. Officials never make exceptions for emotional relief, but fortunately, understanding coaches do.
"Coach Bo lives and dies with this team," O'Hanlon said. "He cares about us as much as he cares about his own family. He has our backs."
And therefore, Pelini's players bounce right back up every time they get knocked down. "Through ups and downs, we keep our confidence," O'Hanlon said. "We take the field every time thinking we can play with anybody in the country."
No Need to Look Far for Exemplary Role Models
Not a bad mindset for a player who spent his first three weeks of college at South Dakota before deciding to return to Nebraska and give his lifelong dream a try. "I didn't want to have any regrets," he said, "and I had plenty of role models."
Cory Schlesinger was the first, but there were others. The Makovicka brothers. Ben Eisenhart. Blake Tiedtke. Wes Cammack. Todd Peterson. Tyler Wortman.
"It's all about persistence, will and self-confidence," O'Hanlon said. "You also have to be a risk-taker. If I wasn't, I'd still be in South Dakota. I wouldn't be here. Thank God, I have two great parents and a great wife who support me in everything I do. Without them, I wouldn't be here either. The only regret I have is that I didn't come here right away. But I'm glad I'm here now. I'm glad I took the risk."
Matt O'Hanlon is the kind of heartwarming story that has kept me loyal to Nebraska since Tom Osborne developed our full-fledged walk-on program in the 1970s. It's good to see us returning to our equal opportunity roots. At Nebraska, scholarship players and walk-ons blend together and feed off each other's strengths. One of my favorite walk-ons was Derrie Nelson. He became a great player despite all odds. Andy Means was another favorite of mine because he, like O'Hanlon, was an ABC Defensive Player of the Game when we upset Oklahoma. I love those rags-to-riches stories and hope we have at least one Matt O'Hanlon story every year that Bo's here. Personally, I consider accomplishments like Matt's the reason why our tradition will always be different than anyone else's.Paul Johnson, Chicago, Illinois
Editor's note:Since you mentioned them, you might enjoy N-sider features on Nelson and Means from our archives.
Mister O'Hanlon, Husker Nation is glad you took the risk to come to Nebraska. You've done a great job and should be proud. Finish the year strong. GO BIG RED! Troy Nitzel
Way to go BELLEVUE!!! I graduated from Bellevue East with Matt's older sister, and he has been near the top of my favorite player's list since the start of last season. I'm so glad Matt is having a great year and even more glad that he decided to leave South Dakota and come back home. B-E-L-L-E-V-U-E - BELLEVUE - EAST!Pat Douglas
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