LINCOLN — A few curious golfers who had wandered over turned out to be disappointed.
The starter at Highlands Golf Course called “the Mark Pelini foursome” to the first tee box. So Mark Pelini and his playing partners headed that way.
Only it wasn’t the Mark Pelini — and the interest disappeared like a bad slice into the trees.
“I came up to the first tee and a couple people were over there waiting, and were like, ‘Ah, that ain’t Bo Pelini,’ ” Mark Pelini said. “I think they thought it was a joke, or something like that.”
Had they stuck around or asked, they would have learned that the short and stocky hacker was not only related to Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini but was also part of the Husker program.
It was just fine with Mark, however, that they walked away without the story. That’s not why he followed his uncle to NU.
The 6-foot, 295-pound center from Youngstown, Ohio, just wanted to play football. He expected no favors or special treatment, but he saw the value of being somewhere with family. (Carl Pelini, another uncle, was the defensive coordinator when he joined the Huskers as a walk-on in 2010.)
“It just kind of is what it is,” Mark said. “You just happen to have the same last name.”
Mark is the son of Vince Pelini, Bo’s oldest brother. Bo’s given name is Mark.
“I think my dad wanted to name me Mark, and he called my uncle Bo to make sure it was fine with him,” Mark said. “But I don’t think I was named after him.”
Slowly, Mark is starting to make a name for himself as part of his uncle’s operation.
The junior has battled Cole Pensick through preseason practice for a shot as the No. 1 center. Even if he doesn’t win it, Pelini already has exceeded many expectations considering no other major college programs paid him much attention coming out of Cardinal Mooney High.
In fact, he was looking at Yale, Columbia and possibly Army. The choice of schools gives you an idea why Husker assistant John Garrison called the Academic All-Big Ten pick “one of the smartest football players I’ve ever been around.”
That intelligence and grasp of fundamentals and technique are necessary to overcome the lack of size, but the desire comes in handy, too.
“I think he loves the game, and obviously playing at this level was something he wanted to do,” Garrison said. “I think a lot of people passed on him doing that because of his size, but he did a nice job for us last year filling in, and I feel comfortable with Mark.”
If there’s a little Bo in him, Garrison said, it might be in how Mark sees the game.
“It’s not only what he has to do, he knows the entire offensive line and a lot of the offense,” Garrison said. “We could probably line him up at wide receiver — he’d run the right route, I don’t know if he’d get open — but he’s one of those type of guys that just understands the game.”
Pelini was limited to mop-up duty in a few games last season before Justin Jackson went down in the first quarter at Iowa. NU had Pelini pull around the outside on the very next play, and he realized he would have to get acclimated to the speed of the game.
“It’s just a lot different,” he said. “Even if you scrimmage in practice, it’s different than whenever you play a game. I just remember running around and seeing everything flow a little faster than you ever see it flow.”
Pelini hit both the film room and weight room hard in the offseason, knowing that Jackson was gone and the center job would be up for grabs. Now he will “let the chips fall where they may” as the Huskers inch toward the season. He wants to be ready whether he’s the starter or the backup.
“Obviously I’m really excited about any opportunity that I get,” he said.
Living in Lincoln, he gets a chance to watch games played by his cousin, Bo’s son. And the Pelinis golf together. It’s nice to be around family, Mark said.
But the idea of coming to Nebraska was to challenge himself and play football with some of the best.
“It came down to I can only do this thing once, so I’m going to try and do it as big as I can,” he said.