Matt Vrzal is on the bottom of the pile. Brook Berringer just scored. And now Vrzal can’t move.
Tommie Frazier had “the run” in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. Vrzal had this moment. It’s mop-up time. Berringer scores on a sneak. And Vrzal’s leg is caught. And he’s yelling.
“Brook just kind of says in a low voice, ‘It’ll be OK,’” Vrzal said.
“I say, ‘No, dude, get off me now.’ Brook says, ‘You’re too fat to feel anything.’ ”
Vrzal has another war story. He has them on speed dial. The topic this week is new Nebraska assistant coach John Parrella. So Vrzal bounces back to 1992, when he is playing guard for the two scout teams coach Tom Osborne has employed.
“I’m on both teams, so by the end of practice, I’ve got like 200 plays in me,” Vrzal says. “I go to block Parrella and I give it about 70 percent.
“Next play, he comes and grabs me. He says, ‘You get your (butt) going. You don’t practice like that ever.’
“(Linebacker) Mike Anderson says, ‘John, the kid runs every play in practice.’ John says, ‘I don’t care. If he’s out here, he’s going to give me everything he’s got and more.’ ”
Vrzal has a million of these stories. But the best one might be how the former walk-on utility lineman made himself a restaurant entrepreneur, football coach and radio host (filling in for Nick Bahe on KOZN) by age 41.
I heard the story as I waited for a pizza at Vrzal’s Piezon’s Pizzeria, near Skutt High School, where he serves as offensive line coach for his former Husker teammate, Matt Turman.
The pie got cold as Vrzal went one story after another.
The co-owner of Piezon’s takes your order and your money and then delivers Husker tales from the glory days.
I was fascinated by this, because I’ve always wondered why there weren’t more sports bars and joints owned by former Huskers. Think Harry Caray, Mike Ditka or Mike Shannon sitting at their bar, entertaining customers with tales from the locker room.
There’s an easy answer for this — it’s hard — but I’ve always thought if there was a culture where a former player could do this, it was Nebraska.
Johnny Rodgers and Aaron Taylor gave it a go, but, again, it’s not an easy business. But Vrzal, the guy who had a hard time snapping the ball to I-back Ahman Green on a special play, makes it look effortless.
The kid from Grand Island never started a game for NU. But he leads all offensive linemen in personality, instinct and guts — traits that have served him well as he negotiated the obstacle course for college football players: life after the spotlight.
“It’s one of the most hollow feelings ever,” Vrzal said. “You think you’re just going to keep playing forever, and then you don’t.”
What did Vrzal do? It’s a great story. Got a minute?
The summer of 1997, his life became a “Blues Brothers” movie. He had cash from running the Nebraska senior football players’ traveling basketball team. A full tank of gas. And a love of the Chicago Cubs. He drove to the Windy City.
“I went right to the Cubs game,” Vrzal said. “I finally found a place to park, right next to a sign about an apartment for rent. So I call the number. The guy comes out.
“He wants $1,400 a month. I said, ‘Well, I’m not feeling that.’ I said, ‘I’ll give you $700 a month for the next six months, right now, and if you find someone to rent the place, I’ll leave.’
“So I pull out $4,200 in cash. He looked at me and says, ‘You sell drugs?’ I said, ‘No, I’m from Nebraska.’ ”
Vrzal decided to stay awhile. He found a job as a runner for an investment firm. That lasted five months, or until the next baseball season rolled around.
“One day I called in sick for work,” Vrzal said. “I had friends in town. The Cubs were playing. That night, the White Sox were home. We hopped the train and went to the Sox game. What could go wrong?”
Hmm. Vrzal had settled into his box seat when he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was his boss, who had been sitting two rows behind him the whole time.
“He said, ‘Matt, we need to talk on Monday,’ ” Vrzal said. “I said, ‘You’re probably right. Do you want a beer?’ He said sure. We watched the rest of the game together.”
Vrzal was offered a severance package — and took it. He did Chicago for several more weeks until one day, after a long night, he decided it was time to go home.
Back to Lincoln. For the next year, the former Husker worked for Double Eagle Beverages as a “young adult market rep.” Or, as he put it, “I hung out in bars, bought people drinks and gave stuff away.”
One night, one of his favorite customers, DJ Rezac, asked Vrzal if he wanted to buy into Lazzari’s Pizza. The former Husker said sure, why not?
The next thing Vrzal knew, he was part-owner of Lazzari’s, The Bar, the Sidetrack Lounge and the Lizard Lounge, along with four other partners.
He lived with former teammate Ryan Terwilliger and his wife — in the basement. Vrzal spent his days doing the mundane chores at each establishment and coaching football at Malcolm High with Terwilliger (now the superintendent of Malcolm schools).
Vrzal, a behind-the-scenes utility lineman, was now a utility restaurant partner, doing the grunt work in the trenches and pocketing enough money to buy his mother a house in Lincoln when his father passed away in 2006.
At that point, Vrzal sold his shares and took a job as an investment broker with Carson Wealth in Omaha. That lasted a few years until his mother had a stroke. He left the finance world to care for her. Then the phone rang again.
It was a friend in Omaha, wondering if he wanted to buy into this little joint called Piezon’s.
He’s the majority owner now, with a silent partner. He wants to expand to four or five shops. But this isn’t Harry Caray’s. Vrzal’s name isn’t on the sign. Walk in, and you’d never know it was owned by a former Husker.
“I’m not that guy,” Vrzal said. “I’m a people person. I like hanging out there and chatting with customers who come in. Sports, business, whatever. Everybody has questions. I love Nebraska football.
“Everybody thinks, I’m a former Husker, I open a place and here come all the people and I swim in a pool of money. Then they find out there’s a lot more going on. I still put 60 hours a week into this.”
Instead of Husker stuff on the walls, you get the stories and takes from the real thing.
“The psychology of football fascinates me,” Vrzal said. “Did we have talent? Yes.
“But you had guys who had been told they weren’t good enough for this or that. The Peter brothers, they were hockey players. Phil Ellis was too small. So was Aaron Taylor. Tommie Frazier was a running back-defensive back.
“We were the land of misfit toys. There was a lot of determination there. But our championships were won in 1991-92. John Parrella, Kenny Wilhite and Kevin Ramaekers taught us how to work, how to be professional.”
Now Vrzal goes into the story of his menu, and one of the items is named after his teammate, Matt Hoskinson. Vrzal says “Hos” bugged him incessantly to have one of the pizzas named after him.
“He’s asking over and over,” Vrzal said. “Finally, to get him to stop, I say, ‘OK, what do you want on it?’
“He says, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ ”
Make it a slice of Nebraska football, to go.
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