In a Nov. 6, 1964 edition of The World-Herald appeared 12 pictures of Nebraska football players under the subhead “These Are N.U. Black Shirts, Nation’s No. 1 Defensive Unit.”
The idea of “Black Shirts” — not until years later would it be merged to one word “Blackshirts” — was still in its infancy back then. The practice began at the start of the 1964 season as a way to distinguish the top defensive players from the rest, as the two-platoon system had only just been instituted in college football.
The first mentions of “Black Shirts” in The World-Herald had come a couple months prior, and Bob Devaney himself mentioned them when awarding a game ball in late October. But by the start of November, the “Black Shirts” had started to gain national prominence as the country’s leading defense.
The aforementioned headshots accompanied a story previewing an upcoming game against Kansas with the headline “Crunch! Kansas and Nebraska Will Match Grudging Defenses.” The Huskers would win that, 14-7, in what lived up to expectations as a defensive slugfest.
From there, the “Black Shirts” became a thing of legend for Nebraska football. The tradition that still carries on today — the 2017 Blackshirts were handed out Monday — owes a lot to the 12 men who served as the foundation. That “Black Shirt” unit in 1964 featured an All-American, multiple All-Big 8 selections and eventual Nebraska Football Hall of Fame inductees.
So to take it from The World-Herald 53 years ago, “These are N.U. Black Shirts, Nation’s No. 1 Defensive Unit.”
Walt Barnes: A two-time All-Big 8 selection and a first-team All-American in 1965 when he led the Nebraska linemen in tackles. He was inducted to the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
Langston Coleman: Bob Devaney’s first walk-on who hitchhiked from Washington DC to Lincoln and ended up starting three seasons for Devaney. His mother worked for Lincoln native and presidential speechwriter Ted Sorensen, who exposed him to Husker football.
Dick Czap: The tackle from Essexville, Michigan, made an All-Conference honor roll as a sophomore and led the linemen in assisted tackles his junior season. Injuries sustained in a preseason car accident limited his production as a senior.
Chuck Doepke: A two-way player from Waterloo, Iowa, Doepke was versatile for both the offensive and defensive platoons, splitting time between right end and both flanker positions.
Mike Grace: The Sioux City Heelan product had both the 1964 and 1965 seasons cut short by torn knee ligaments. He was the team leader in tackles before the injury in 1965 that eventually ended his career.
Bill Johnson: A three-year letter winner from Stanton, Johnson played both halfback and corner at Nebraska. He had 40 tackles as a junior in 1964.
Mike Kennedy: The defensive captain, Kennedy was also an All-Big 8 linebacker for the Huskers. He was inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1998
Bernie McGinn: Coming out of Chicago, McGinn began his collegiate career at Marquette before transferring to Nebraska. He later became a judge in Lancaster County.
Joe McNulty: The only senior among the 1964 “Black Shirts,” McNulty played both corner and fullback during his time at Nebraska. McNulty was hired as the head football coach at David City Aquinas after his Husker career ended.
John Strohmyer: The Lexington product had 46 tackles as a junior in the first year of the “Black Shirts.” He was drafted in 1965 in the 12th round as a “futures” pick of the Washington Redskins and signed with them after that season.
Ted Vactor: Originally from Washington, Pennsylvania, Vactor was a three-year letter winner and got inducted to the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 2000. He played in Super Bowl VII for the Washington Redskins in 1973.
Larry Wacholtz: The North Platte product did a lot for Nebraska as a safety, punt returner and kicker. He was a two-time All-Big 8 selection, second-team All-American in 1965 and twice led the conference in punt return yardage. He was inducted to the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1982.