LINCOLN — Wearing a T-shirt and jeans, standard issue for a Midwestern college student, Nebraska starting defensive end Jack Gangwish gently held the Blackshirt in his hands, rubbing the fabric of the jersey with his thumbs.
As he sat in front of his locker, Gangwish stared at the jersey even as he still wore his backpack. Time had stopped for him. A camera operated by a Husker football staffer captured the moment on video, but Gangwish, usually quick with a joke, didn’t mug for the camera or even look at it.
In the next shot, Gangwish buried his head into a T-shirt. The Husker video, one minute long and featuring the reaction of several players, went viral on social media Monday night. It’s one heck of a recruiting tool, but you won’t remember the reactions of Daniel Davie, Josh Kalu or even Josh Banderas, even if they were great in their own way.
You’ll remember Gangwish picking that jersey off a hook and treasuring it like a long-lost family heirloom. That’s what being a Blackshirt meant in that moment.
Here’s how he got there.
In an interview over the summer, the senior from Wood River recounted some of what it took for him — the son of former Husker Paul Gangwish, who played for NU in the 1980s — to go from a 6-foot-2, 215-pound linebacker in high school to that guy sitting in the locker room, holding a Blackshirt.
“I’d dreamed of having an ‘N’ on my helmet forever,” he said.
* * *
Stand here. Try not to get killed.
Those were the instructions Gangwish recalled getting on the first play of his practice career at Nebraska. This is 2011. He wouldn’t play a down in a game for three years. His job was to hit and get hit.
Gangwish was a scout team linebacker. And here came the first-team Husker offense to the line. The dudes Gangwish had just watched last season. Taylor Martinez. Rex Burkhead.
“Holy crap, it’s real,” Gangwish recalled thinking. “It wasn’t intimidating. I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt or anything. It was more like, ‘Wow, I get to mix it up with these guys.’ For a moment there, I was completely blown away as they walked up to the line.”
Goal line drill. Lead play. Power football. Martinez handed off to Burkhead, who followed the rear end of fullback Tyler Legate, whose job it was to pummel Gangwish back into the end zone. Gangwish slammed into Legate with force.
“It was like running my head into a brick wall,” Gangwish said. “His head was full of cement. But what I noticed is that I wasn’t on my back or anything.”
Right then, he thought he could compete. He saw a tiny light at the end of the tunnel. But he was undersized. He’d hadn’t lifted weights religiously before college; he’d worked the farm. A former graduate assistant, T.J. Hollowell, joked that Gangwish had skinny “rock star” arms. A former strength coach, Brandon Rigoni, had a question for Gangwish.
“Jack, how is it possible a human being was born completely without a bicep muscle?” Gangwish recalled. He knew little about lifting or gaining weight, but he’d learn fast.
Gangwish started pumping more iron; logged his sleep patterns; and ate so many proteins, carbs and fats that he thought he’d throw up. When he reached 225 pounds, he felt like a “muscle tank” at linebacker. Sometime before the 2013 Capital One Bowl, then-defensive coordinator John Papuchis called Gangwish over for a pass-rushing drill. Gangwish was good at it, and Nebraska’s defensive line depth chart was, and still is, a train wreck. So Gangwish switched positions and asked then-defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski what he should weigh to play end.
“Kaz said 260,” Gangwish said. So he had to gain 35 pounds in a handful of months. He ate so much cottage cheese he can barely stand to look at it now. He had a lot of “round” days when he looked more chunky than chiseled. To close the size gap, he lifted as much as possible — one or two hours more after his scheduled lifts — and even did extra lifts in the Campus Recreation Center when the strength coaches didn’t want him lifting more in their building.
“They were telling me to pull the reins back,” he said, “and so was the training staff.”
But he didn’t.
“No!” Gangwish grinned. “Hell no! It got to the point where I was walking around and my teammates were calling me a ‘meathead’ and all this stuff.”
He became the “hype man” in the weight room. Almost a mascot. It was a level playing field in there, no first team and scout team. Just men, bars and weights. Morning after morning. Gangwish radiated energy, almost to the point of “being annoying.” He aimed to win Lifter of the Year, which he did in 2014, through sheer omnipresence. When teammates looked at their vote card, he didn’t want them to think of anyone else who could win it.
“We’d be lifting at 6 a.m. and I’d be jumping on benches, screaming, beating my chest and head-butting people,” Gangwish said. Heavy weights and protein shakes. Gangwish benches 400 and squats 600 now. He weighs 265 pounds. And he’s a starter.
As late as the spring of last year, though, he still wasn’t sure he’d play much. Reporters saw him winning battles in practice, but Gangwish knew that if some scholarship freshman flashed potential, the newcomer might get the nod. That’s sometimes how it worked. Plus, he’d never learned NU’s defensive playbook. He’d always been a scout-teamer.
But Gangwish looked around and thought, aside from Randy Gregory, there wasn’t anybody at end that much better than he was. And by the 2014 opener, Gangwish was the No. 3 end. And Gregory got hurt on the first series of the Florida Atlantic game. And because Gregory chose to limp off the field instead of sitting down on the turf, Gangwish’s first play was a complete whirlwind. He didn’t even know the defensive call.
He’d eventually settle in. He played in 12 games. He started three. The biggest football test of his life came in the season-ending game at Iowa, when he matched up against Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff. Every bit the lifter Gangwish is, and an elite athlete, Scherff had neutralized and frustrated Gregory the year before.
“Given the techniques I was assigned to play against him, I accomplished them,” Gangwish said. “And I made some plays, too.”
His best — and proudest — moment as a Husker came on Iowa’s last offensive play in overtime. Third-and-goal, Scherff had been shooting forward at Gangwish all afternoon, so Gangwish spun back to the inside. Scherff was a step slow, and Gangwish flushed quarterback Jake Rudock out of the pocket, hurrying him into a bad throw. Iowa had to kick a field goal. Nebraska won the game.
After spring practice, Gangwish was named a captain by his teammates, and heading into the season, he’s one of the defense’s primary spokesmen. He just might be the guy who gives the fiery pep talk on Friday night. He gave one for reporters on Monday, rolling out a few new phrases, like “head-buttin’ mother fathers.” Those kinds of lines haven’t been heard much since Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter tag-teamed the humor in 1997.
Gangwish is fond of those guys. His favorite player is Wistrom.
“Everybody talks about how mean those guys were, how hard they played,” Gangwish said. “And that had an impact on me, because I came from a place where being a hard worker was always praised, something celebrated.”
The hard work and years of sacrifice, with little immediate payoff, put Gangwish in that locker room Monday with a black jersey hanging from his hook. Because the Huskers have chosen to award the Blackshirts before the season — unlike Bo Pelini’s preference to make players “earn” it after several games — a few of Pelini’s former players, like linebacker Lavonte David and safety DeJon Gomes, took to Twitter on Monday night to question whether that was right. Had those players really earned them?
Their answer was at the end of a one-minute video, at the end of five years of lifting, cottage cheese and endless days eating turf as a scout-teamer. Gangwish sat in front of that locker and had to relive at least some of that journey — one traveled by so many Husker walk-ons.
Yes, he’d earned it. He had every reason to weep for joy.
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