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Walked off: Not every Husker walk-on has success, or even the 'Rudy' moment

December 31, 2012 10:00 pm  • 

Colin McDermott, facing a stuffy, heat-generating 635 pounds of flesh, tucked himself deep into a gap better suited for an ice tray than a human refrigerator.

Staring the Nebraska walk-on down were two future NFL linemen, hulking athletic specimens who dug callused palms into the turf, preventing even the smallest sliver of blue sky from passing through on the muggy afternoon in fall 2008.

The backs and receivers hustled to the line of scrimmage. Matt Slauson turned to his right, nodded to offensive tackle Lydon Murtha and whispered a thought into his ear. McDermott, playing defensive end, paid little mind.

Slauson extended an arm back to the ground and fixed his eyes forward.

That’s when the center snapped the ball. When things started to go blurry.

When initiation started.

On one of his first college football snaps, the 230-pound freshman was instantly propelled five feet into the air, like a cartoon character on a seesaw when an anvil falls from the sky.

McDermott’s thighs met Murtha’s shoulders, and the walk-on hit the turf, flailing his arms, struggling to stand.

“Running around with my head cut off,” he said. “I just remember thinking, ‘This is what it’s gonna be like.’”

McDermott regained his footing, and a 320-pound bull of an offensive lineman charged to ensure he regretted it. Slauson, now a starter for the New York Jets, slammed him back to the turf.

On the sidelines, a grinning coach waved him off the practice field. McDermott stayed on the ground, writhing.

“It was just ‘Welcome to college football,’” he said. “The coaches pulled me. … I’m just like, ‘So, what do I do next?'”

* * *

They’re the kids who just want to play.

The gracious, hardworking, usually blue-collar athletes who turned down other offers -- sometimes better ones -- to fulfill childhood dreams. That’s the legend, not the myth, of the Nebraska walk-on program, which includes names such as I.M. Hipp, Jarvis Redwine, Jimmy Williams, Spencer Long and so many more.

They’re set on suiting up for the Huskers. Even if it means only getting to do so once. They’ve seen "Rudy." Heard the stories. Felt the pain.

Jon Damkroger of Firth let go of a full ride to the University of Nebraska at Omaha for a chance to walk on in Lincoln. Brian Thorson of Omaha rejected an offer from Buffalo. McDermott might have been a Hawkeye.

What drove them to Lincoln?

“It went from watching TV with people you see playing on Saturdays to ‘Whoa, I’m lined up with them now,’” McDermott said.

No longer would they chant “Go Big Red” from the sidelines. They would be Big Red. Even as walk-ons.

Don’t think so? Ask running backs coach Ron Brown. Ask Tom Osborne, whose championship-winning squads regularly boasted 20 or more walk-ons. He called them the very fiber from which the culture of Husker football is woven.

“They're almost by definition overachievers,” Osborne said. “I think that the devotion of our fans certainly is, in some ways, related to the walk-on program. They have a lot of pride in those kids.”

Brown praised the determination, passion, the fierce loyalty of kids from all across the state who foot the tuition bill on their own to represent Nebraska on the field. Players from small-town Nebraska who have paid a dear price, Brown said. Players, like Damkroger, who represent their entire communities.

“Many of them have turned out to be tremendous,” Brown said. “Some of them, we'd never really heard of a whole lot, but they were great contributors in practice.”

Like anyone else on the team.

“One of the things I really like about Nebraska is that distinction (walk-on) really doesn't exist after they get here,” Brown said. “I mean, you are a player here.”

And yet, so many never see the light at the end of the Tunnel Walk.

McDermott dedicated four years to the Huskers, changed his eating and sleeping habits in the process, made new friends and sacrificed his body in pursuit of a goal he’d never fulfill.

But along the journey, he said, he became a man.

Man enough, perhaps, to walk away.

* * *

An offensive lineman from Millard North High School, Brian Thorson had never even lined up at center for a shotgun snap. Let alone opposite a 300-pound mammoth, a man who’s since been named the dirtiest player in the NFL. Twice.

The true freshman showed up to his first Nebraska practice in 2008 with eyes wide open and nerves knotted. Eventually, he knew, he’d have to compete with Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick, but he didn’t expect that just yet. His first two years would be Suh’s last two.

The quarterback yelled “hike.” Thorson snapped the ball into his hands. And before he could so much as raise his own palms to block, Suh slammed him with enough force to launch him flying into the dirt.

The game speed was just too much, Thorson said.

Coach’s solution: As long as Suh was lining up across from him, Thorson would snap a NERF ball to an imaginary quarterback, while the real quarterback -- holding the real ball -- simulated receiving it. At least until Thorson could engage faster.

On getting the crap knocked out of him, Thorson said, “That’s kind of fun, to think back.”

Now it is.

Thorson spent four years at Nebraska looking forward. To winter conditioning, spring ball, summer conditioning.

***

He’d meet with a nutritionist a few times a semester. Weigh in once a week. Lift at 5:30 every morning. The routine barely changed, but the whole time he had the success stories -- kickers Alex Henery and Brett Maher -- in the back of his mind.

All the while, walk-on Jon Damkroger was living in their shadow.

The UNO transfer would have punted for NU if he ever got a chance. But he landed in the wrong place at the wrong time as a redshirt in 2008.

Henery was establishing himself as an ace kicker and punter by then. Maher, who also consolidated the positions of kicker and punter to a single seat on the plane, was next in line.

Damkroger could nail 47-yard punts, but he simply couldn’t fill two roles at once.

The frustration took a toll on Thorson and Damkroger, but neither pinned it on the program or his walk-on status. They put in the work, they just couldn’t get on the field.

* * *

One morning in high school, McDermott woke up and saw himself pictured in the newspaper's sports section.

Mostly, though, he saw his behind. His red boxer shorts sticking out above his pants, his jersey and pads sliding up his back as a Millard North linebacker ran straight through him, the pancake block photographed and published in the Omaha World-Herald. That was when he played offensive line as a sophomore at Creighton Prep, when being photographed during an unfortunate mishap in a critical game was the most humiliating thing that could happen.

Friends teased him at school. Teammates poked fun at him. And his mom, an avid scrapbooker, certainly didn’t reach for the scissors.

But back then, at least he saw enough playing time to make it into print.

A couple of years later, the once-sought-after recruit rolled out of bed before the sun rose, glugged 95 grams of protein in the form of a shake and geared up to run a mile, or two or six, depending on how the coaches were feeling that day. During the course of the 19-hour day, he'd take in something like 8,000 calories.

For breakfast: toast and eggs, a couple of bowls of cereal and oatmeal. A few sandwiches, a cup of yogurt, a couple bananas, a bowl of cottage cheese for lunch. A Gatorade shake afterward.

Then there’s second lunch: Two or three chicken breasts, a salad, bowl of pasta, a heaping pile of rice or noodles, spaghetti, another sandwich. And then another 25-gram shake to top it off.

But McDermott wouldn’t burn off a single ounce of that playing football on Saturdays.

McDermott was the No. 1 defensive end on the scout team -- which is like the regular team, except without the TV time and the 85,000 fans screaming his name. His twin brother, Conor, faced the same dilemma, trying three positions in four seasons, and this year, achieved some success at tight end.

But for Colin in 2011, something had to give.

“It sucks,” he said. “I’d just come to practice the next day, and the guy that I thought was better than me, I’d try to beat him every day -- just trying to show, like, 'Hey, I’m better than this guy.' The only way to take out your frustration is to compete.”

* * *

Tom Osborne recalled one school forcing its walk-ons to earn their title -- literally -- by making the mile-long journey to the practice field on foot. Scholarship players rode a bus.

He wanted better for his program.

“That was kind of a humiliating, degrading experience,” he said. “There are places where walk-ons are treated rather badly and sometimes discouraged.

“I don't think that's the case here.”

At Nebraska, he said, walk-ons receive the same access to dining and training facilities, academic counseling and athletic coaching as scholarship players. They receive letters and travel to bowl games like all the other players.

“We just feel that every human being is important. Every human being deserves to be cheered for, and that's just the way we try to treat people,” Osborne said. “There's no distinction.”

Except one: The walk-ons are paying to take highway-collision-force hits.

* * *

“What do I have to do to play?” Colin McDermott asked his coach.

John Papuchis told him it was time for a change. McDermott decided to gain 30 pounds -- “get more chiseled” -- and become a fullback full-time so maybe he’d get a shot at playing.

“The way I’d describe how I felt, is like, huge,” he said. “Like behemoth. Large. Massive. I’ve never been that big in my life. I wasn’t like obese, 265. I was just 265, and that’s the way I was.”

He’d see friends from high school who wouldn’t recognize him anymore. His twin brother, the then-defensive end he called his “measuring stick,” looked more like the 230-pound baby. Colin McDermott would watch his favorite movie, "300," and realize he looked exactly like the guys on the screen.

He was trapped inside his own body. He’d gotten too big. The center would snap the ball and synapses would fire, but the self-described behemoth would engage a second too late. Like a lame horse limping out the gate, while the thoroughbreds whizzed past.

Only in this case, the thoroughbreds were ramming into his chest.

“It’s pretty hard to put in all that hard work,” he said. “It’s a full-time job. It’s a full-time job year round. … You always know you’re putting in all this work and actually getting nothing to show for it.

“But if you start doing that, you’re kind of putting your needs ahead of them. Those were some of the harder points with the realization of walking on.”

The hardest point: When he realized, “Man, I’m never gonna play.”

* * *

By his senior year, Colin McDermott had achieved all the goals he set out to. Scout-team player of the year. Dean’s list. Brook Berringer Citizenship Team.

Except one.

Coach Brown had always told him, “God gives people different abilities.”

“Like, maybe he gives one guy five-star ability at running back, who only employs enough to be no better than a two-star," McDermott said. "But maybe there’s a two-star who works his butt off to become a fifth-round draft pick. … I mean, who did better?”

He was neither. He was a no-name fullback bordering on washed-up before he ever hit the field.

So, finally, the time came to decide. And the choice wasn’t hard.

His mind began racing the second the referee’s whistle blew to conclude the 2012 Capital One Bowl. He was a sideline spectator dressed in jersey, pads and helmet. Weeks earlier, coaches had ripped into him for leaving the scene of a car accident and neglecting to tell them about it. McDermott lifted with the team two days later and, oh, did it hurt.

He was getting fed up.

His opinion didn’t change much after something like 12 phone calls and four or five meetings with Coach Brown and offensive coordinator Tim Beck. The costs outweighed the benefits. It was time for something else.

“I wanted him to play, but he was still kind of struggling,” Brown said. “We just tried to look at it long-range, look at ‘What is it that you want really to accomplish?’”

McDermott talked with his brother, consulted his dad, even asked the coaches a few more times, just to make sure he was making the right choice. Walk-ons still made up about a third of Nebraska’s travel squad, so coaches had dealt with similar cases for years.

Osborne said his coaches approached the decision process carefully, seriously, and he saw the same from the current staff -- no sugarcoating.

“We tried to level with them,” Osborne said. “We expected a lot out of our players, but underneath it all, I hope our players understood that we cared about them, as people. We wanted the best for them, even if it meant that at some point, maybe they'd be better off to go somewhere else.”

McDermott had a study-abroad program in England in the back of his mind. He’d wanted to spend a semester at the Oxford School of Economics since his freshman year, but never had the time.

Now, he could.

He spent the summer visiting Paris, London, Rome, studying at Oxford. He immersed himself in new cultures, lived independently.

Now, he calls it “one of the most memorable experiences of my life.”

So when he returned to Lincoln strapped for cash, he didn’t worry. He’d get a job, maybe two. He knew he could outwork anybody. Brown and Osborne agree.

“I mean, what experience will you ever have when you are under such tremendous discipline? You're challenged tenaciously every day. You get to be with black kids from the inner city, white kids from rural Nebraska, rich kids, poor kids, and you come together as a team,” Brown says. “How do you take that experience and duplicate it anywhere else?

“I think, without a doubt, Colin McDermott will benefit from the years he played football even though he didn't finish his career here. There's no question in my mind that it was a catalyst for him to excel.”

Damkroger, who graduated without playing a snap, now works in technical services at American Family Insurance. Thorson is seeking his master’s from UNO, with a goal of becoming a police officer.

Of the walk-on experience, Thorson said, “It just didn't work out.”

He left the team after his junior season, after seeing action in two games during his redshirt freshman season.

For Colin McDermott, almost a year removed from football, one thing is clear: It’s time for something new. The marketing and economics major earned his bachelor’s degree in December.

Now, he’s got a little more time on his hands.

“I just want to go to a bigger city for a while,” he said. “Not get lost, but just go do something different.”

Of course, he can’t outright give up the game that taught him so much. He’d like to coach a few years down the line -- but in a volunteer capacity, at the most. He’d love to teach the basics, he said. Technique.

***

That’s something McDermott knows well.

Years after he saw his drawers plastered in the center of the Omaha World-Herald, he made the sports section again.

That week in December 2011, all the local reporters knew his name.

Fans began to learn it. Coaches grew tired of hearing it.

He was getting noticed. And not for good reason.

A few nights earlier, he totaled his mother’s 2009 Smart car after hitting a patch of ice just west of downtown Lincoln at about 2 o’clock in the morning.

The diminutive car -- which he fit into like a normal-sized person would fit inside a briefcase -- flipped twice. It landed on its hood. In a ditch filled with snow. The pain was excruciating. Like a million needles piercing his shoulder, a zillion more protruding into his neck.

But his cellphone was dead, and he couldn’t contact paramedics, or police or even his parents.

So that night, Colin McDermott decided to make the long journey home on foot. A mile and a half in deep snow. In the middle of December. He had no other choice, he said. Police later would cite him with careless driving.

The message boards erupted that week: “It seems like a car he would wear rather than get into,” one commenter said. What, “did he lean over to pick up something?” asked another.

And speculation was rampant. Was he crazy? Was he drunk?

Wait, who was he?

McDermott called the experience humbling.

“I don’t feel like I’m ever going to be that mentally and physically drained (again) in my life,” he said recently.

Too drained, he said, to pay any mind to the naysayers.

Walking away from the car was hard, he said, but it sure as hell beat being trapped in it.

He’d spent the last four years in a similar place. Boxed in, roughed up and thrown to the ground. Daily. But on that particular night, Colin McDermott got up.

And, years after first being slammed back to the turf by Matt Slauson, the walk-on stayed up.

And walked. And walked. And walked.