LINCOLN — Nebraska center Cole Conrad sits at his locker before football games. The Fremont Bergan graduate looks at his helmet — that red, austere N staring back at him — and finds the moment “a little surreal.” How many hours did he spend as a kid watching that helmet on TV? He straps it on. He’s wearing that N. “It sparks a fire in you,” he said.
By the time you read this, players may already be at Memorial Stadium, readying for a morning kickoff, one of just 12 they’re guaranteed over the course of this season. They know moods across the state depend on their three hours of football. They prepare nine months — weights and running and drill work and scrimmages lost to time — for those brief hours. Many of them get a scholarship, some don’t, but none of them gets a salary. They play with a growing awareness of the physical risk in the form of concussion and long-term head trauma. They balance school with hours of voluntary film study.
Why? Why do they play football? Who is their motivation? How do they push through the grind for a morning kickoff?
Family. Hope for the future. Faith in what football means. And, more to the point, out of love.
“I was basically born to play football,” Conrad said.
“Football is a great thing for men,” cornerback Lamar Jackson said. “Builds character, builds discipline.”
“It’s physical,” nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. “You can’t do that in a lot of other sports. You can’t hit people like that. And it’s a fun team sport. Everyone has to play together in order for you to succeed.”
“It was an outlet, a stress reliever,” receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El said. “And now I love it. I can’t get enough of it.”
For Pierson-El, the game is more poignant than it ever has been. He lost football for most of the 2015 season with injuries to his foot and knee. The senior from Alexandria, Virginia, grew up with the game, like all but a few Huskers, and, as the best athlete on his high school team, played whatever position best gave his team a chance to win. For a while, that was quarterback. At Nebraska, Pierson-El was an immediate hit as a freshman punt returner and receiver. Then, before the 2015 season, the first injury. Then, after he’d come back, the big knee injury.
“I don’t like to quit, I don’t like to turn my back on things,” Pierson-El said. “That’s the competitiveness part of me. I don’t want to back down from anything. It made me cherish more stuff — the little, little things. It made me realize my love for football is still there. No matter that I got hurt two times in a year, no matter what I went through to get back, the love was still there.”
A love strong enough that, even though he knows about the risks — long-term brain trauma that has been scientifically linked to football players sustaining multiple concussions — he accepts them.
“The research is great and all, but you love the game so you’re not really worried about the risk, and the repercussions that come from it, you just love doing it,” Pierson-El said. “If it happens, you’ll live with whatever comes after. I’m not really looking for a way out or a way to diminish the sport I love. You know the hits are going to come and you know your body is going to take a toll.”
Stoltenberg has weathered his own set of injuries. The junior from Gretna plays for Husker fans. He, like Conrad, grew up rooting for the team. He also plays for teammates — he’s reached the point that he’s just as excited for what they do on the field.
For cornerback Eric Lee, it’s all those things, but, additionally, a memory of how it once was at Nebraska that drives him. His dad, Eric Lee Sr., earned his doctorate at Nebraska and worked at the university in several roles for six years while he got his Ph.D. Eric Lee Sr. got to know a lot of the Huskers on the 1990s teams. By extension, his son got to know them.
“I knew guys from all the championship teams in the ’90s — they used to come over to the house all of the time — and that was a big reason I wanted to come to Nebraska, to be like those guys,” Lee said. “I wear No. 6, who was Kenny Cheatham on the 1997 team.”
Lee said he plays for his parents, Eric Sr. and Dana, who attend most games, including the 42-35 loss to Oregon.
“I always look forward to that ‘good job’ after the game,” Lee said.
Stoltenberg looks forward to giving up to his younger sister, Sally, who plays soccer at Hastings College. One day after the Oregon loss, Stoltenberg surprised her by heading to the game in Hastings. When asked who he plays for, Mick picks Sally from his family.
“She’s resilient,” Stoltenberg said. “She fights. I think about that at practice. She might be my little sister, but she’s motivation for me.”
Family was a consistent theme among the players. Teammates are family, too. For Jackson — a top 100 prospect from Sacramento, California, who picked NU over home-state USC — he zeroes in on his mom, Catherine Horton. She put him in football at age 6.
“No father in the house, so that was my discipline,” Jackson said. “By the time I’d get back in the house, I’m tired, I’m wore out, so she didn’t have so much to handle.”
Football, Jackson said, mirrors life. It’s hard. It hurts. It’s a good teacher of resiliency and fight. And Jackson sees a potential path to the NFL, if he keeps working. It’d be a reward, but also the chance to return the favor to the person who introduced him to the game, who kept food on the table.
“That alone is a motivation,” Jackson said. “I owe my parents for the sacrifice they made. And this is all I know. It’s a good way for me to pay them back and live the life I want to live.”
Mikale Wilbon to start for injured Tre Bryant at running back for Huskers against Northern Illinois
LINCOLN — In a turn of events since Tuesday, Nebraska is expected to be without its top rusher when it meets Northern Illinois.
Sophomore Tre Bryant — who topped the 100-yard plateau in each of his first two games and is second in the Big Ten with 299 rushing yards — didn’t practice all week with a knee injury and won’t start Saturday, coach Mike Riley said after Thursday’s workout inside Memorial Stadium.
Running backs coach Reggie Davis declared Tuesday that Bryant was “good to go.” Instead, Riley said, junior Mikale Wilbon will make his first career start while Devine Ozigbo moves up to No. 2 on the depth chart.
The junior Ozigbo has yet to appear in a game this year after carrying 97 times last season — third most on the team — for 412 yards (4.2 average).
“I was kind of hoping to wait as long as I could, but it’s probably too late,” Riley said of Bryant. “So he probably won’t play.”
Wilbon is tied with wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El as Nebraska’s second-leading rusher at 23 total yards. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound Chicago native played almost the entire fourth quarter at Oregon last weekend after Bryant went down, turning three carries into 8 yards and adding a 4-yard catch. He ran twice for 15 yards and a touchdown in the opener against Arkansas State.
Riley said the Husker offense remains steady no matter who lines up in the backfield.
“We don’t have to change too much with any of the backs,” Riley said. “They’re all pretty much all-purpose, they all have good hands, they’re all knowledgeable about what we do. They’re all experienced — Devine and Mikale a little more so. But they’re all versatile enough to play all the time. And so’s Jaylin (Bradley), actually.”
Riley reiterated that Bradley, a true freshman from Bellevue West, will play his first collegiate game this weekend despite an illness before Thursday’s practice. The coach said he thinks it’s the same sickness that went through much of the Nebraska women’s soccer team and forced it to postpone Friday’s match with Iowa.
“Jaylin’s going to play, but this was a real good practice for him today,” Riley said. “And he was not here. It would have been great for him. Special teams stuff.”
Other injury news:
» Along with Bradley, Riley named freshman offensive linemen Matt Sichterman and Brenden Jaimes as others stricken by the illness. There was at least one other player affected Riley couldn’t recall.
» Regular starting safety Joshua Kalu (hamstring) and right tackle David Knevel (ankle) won’t play this weekend, Riley said. Junior Antonio Reed will man Kalu’s safety spot while redshirt freshman Matt Farniok will start on the line for a second straight week.
“I thought he actually played a good game, Matt Farniok did,” Riley said. “So I’m looking forward to more growth from him.”
» Starting safeties Reed (thumb) and Aaron Williams (shoulder) practiced in green no-contact jerseys but are expected to go Saturday.
“We’re pretty darn thin in the secondary,” Riley said. “Yes, they’re OK, we expect them to play. They both had injuries that made us make a decision to not want them to get hit during practice.”
Riley said backups at those spots are sophomores Reid Karel and Jeremiah Stovall.
» Sophomore Wyatt Mazour remains out after a quad injury during fall camp, Riley said.
» Pierson-El (shoulder) appears to be fully healthy if Thursday’s workout was any indication.
“De’Mornay looked the best that he’s looked in a while today,” Riley said. “Fast and comfortable. He looked good. His foot was bothering him early in the week, his shoulder was bothering him. But today he looked good. He looked fast.”
Northern Illinois at Nebraska
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
Radio: 103.1 FM