Walk-ons carry rich college football history

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I’m a huge college football fan but until the other day, I had never heard of Brandon Burlsworth. Evidently I missed the boat on this former Arkansas Razorback. That is, until I saw the movie “Greater” on Netflix.
In short, Burlsworth walked on to the University of Arkansas football team in 1994 as an offensive lineman, got a scholarship his first year there and became a star, getting drafted by the Indianapolis Colts as the 63rd overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft. His tragic death as the result of a car accident just 11 days later, after a Colts’ coach told him he would be a starter at right offensive guard but before he could sign his contract, is how his life came to an abrupt end.
Burlsworth is a legend in Arkansas. Bleacher Report named him the No. 1 Greatest Walk-On of the BCS era. He and Clyde Scott are the only two Razorbacks to have their jerseys retired, and Burlsworth’s locker is encased in glass inside the Hog’s locker room.
Also, his family and friends established the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation, in honor of his work ethic and Christian values, supporting the physical and spiritual needs of children.
But hard work is what this guy was all about. He reported to Fayetteville at over 300 pounds and was promptly told to lose the fat. To the amazement of his coach, he got down to 260, then built himself back up into a 300-pound blocking machine, mauling defensive lineman and linebackers.
It’s quite a story and he was quite a person.
Considering Burlsworth’s road to success at Arkansas, he perhaps is indeed the greatest walk-on player ever. But the Huskers, as you know, have had some great ones as well. Looking at the list I’ve compiled, I could make a starting lineup of nothing but former Husker walk-ons and do pretty well, no matter what era we’re talking about.
But the question is, who is the greatest walk-on Husker football player of all-time? Fairmont’s Derrie Nelson? How about Grand Island’s John Parrella? Seward’s Sam Koch? Maybe Andy Janovich from Gretna? Jarvis Redwine from California, via Oregon State?
All good choices, and one could make a case for all of them, but the problem is, there are just so many great ones.
Alex Henery walked on and kicked the longest field goal in school history against Colorado in 2008. His long snapper (T.J. O’Leary) and holder (Jake Wesch) were walk-ons as well.
Joel Mackovicka followed his brother Jeff in walking on to start at fullback for the Huskers from East Butler and holds the record of 13 touchdowns from a fullback, from 1995-1998. He had quite a burst and was a bruising, slashing runner who wasn’t afraid to run over a defender or two.
Adam Treu came from Lincoln Pius and played center for the Huskers, going on to play for the Raiders for 10 seasons, starting 44 games.
Anthony Steels was a wingback who once sang the National Anthem before a home game. Linebacker Clete Pillen was All Big 8 and was the UPI Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 1976.
Steve Runty started at quarterback in Tom Osborne’s first game as head coach against UCLA in Lincoln in 1973, going 9 of 11 through the air during a 40-13 romp over the Bruins.
How about Scott Shanle from St. Edward? He was a three-year starter at linebacker from 2000 to 2002, and played 10 seasons in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams, the Cowboys and the Saints. Another linebacker, Stewart Bradley, walked on from Salt Lake City and also started three years for the Huskers, going on to play professionally for the Eagles, Cardinals and Broncos.
Aurora has been fortunate to send numerous walk-ons to Lincoln, including linebacker Pat Shaw, defensive back Brian Haase and his brother, quarterback Tom Haase, receiver Joe Broekemeier and his brother, quarterback and punter Tyson Broekemeier, defensive lineman Garret Johns, wide receiver Todd Honas, and current offensive lineman Ian Boerkircher, whose brother Nate will join him this fall.
But back to the question of best ever,  I’ve finally figured it out. On offense, I’m giving my award to I.M. Hipp, and on defense, it’s going to Jimmy Williams.
Hipp came to Lincoln from South Carolina and is perhaps the program’s most famous walk-on (and undoubtedly boasts the coolest name ever). He finished up the 1979 season as Nebraska’s all-time leading rusher with 2,940 yards, and set the rushing record in a game against Indiana with 254 as a sophomore in his first career start. In 1977, he became just the fourth Husker ever to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season, joining Bobby Reynolds, Jeff Kinney and Tony Davis. He was an Honorable Mention All-American in 1977 and 1978, but his senior season was limited due to a turf toe injury.
He was picked in the fourth round by the Falcons, but then was traded to the Raiders, playing just one season and in just one game.
Williams walked on with his brother Toby in 1978 from Washington, D.C. weighing 185 pounds and running the 40 in 4.8 seconds. By the time he was a senior, he could bench press 300 pounds and cut his 40 time down to 4.34, unheard of then (and now) for a defensive end. He was a first-team All-American in 1981 and was drafted 15th overall by Detroit, playing in the league for 11 seasons with the Lions, Vikings and Buccaneers. He also coached linebackers at Nebraska in 2003.
So that’s it. Nebraska’s football program has been fortunate throughout the decades to have welcomed in so many great players and great personalities. It’s one of the things Nebraska is famous for.
Hopefully, with head coach Scott Frost expanding his walk-on program, we’ll be able to one day add a few current names into the mix.
Hopefully, someone like Burlsworth.
DAVE BRADLEY can be reached at advertising@hamilton.net.

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