Chatelain: Huddled former Husker greats capture day's spirit

Former Husker quarterbacks Scott Frost and Eric Crouch embraced Sunday morning. Frost had no idea that nearly 200 former Nebraska players would be in Lincoln to greet him. Upon seeing them, Frost said: “Thanks for coming, boys! Let’s get this thing right, huh?” 

LINCOLN — The invitation went out at 4:39 p.m. Saturday, just 18 hours before the surprise party.

The sender was Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos. The recipients: hundreds of former Husker football players. The subject: “Welcome Home Coach Frost.”

Cliff Dale, 85 years old, got the message and went searching for his 1951 letter jacket. His young friend, 79-year-old Lee Zentic, grabbed his red sweater.

DeMoine Adams, a freshman on the last Nebraska team to win a conference championship, saw the email during the Big Ten championship game. Looks like we’re not going to church, he told his wife.

Rob Zatechka was working out at the gym. Jamel Williams was at his son’s basketball game. Mark Moravec was in a goose blind near Grand Island. Separately, they dropped everything and took off for Memorial Stadium, where together they might feel something new again.

At 11:40 a.m. Sunday, almost 200 men — spread across seven decades of Husker football — gathered in the Osborne Complex lobby and tried to huddle in a corner to avoid ruining the surprise. The crowd was too big, so they filtered into the weight room and waited for the new era.

For the chosen one.

Scott Frost had no idea they were coming. He turned a corner, stepped into the weight room and walked toward a gentle ovation. Then came the first roars. Frost, dressed like 5 million bucks, threw his fists up and smiled.

“Thanks for coming, boys!” Frost said to cheers. “Let’s get this thing right, huh?”

“I don’t know what to say to you guys other than, ‘Come help me do this.’ We’ve all been watching this for a long time. I want to make it what it was, so I need all your help. All your ideas except when they’re bad.

(The audience roared again.)

“You guys made this place special. I want to get it there again. Let’s get it done. Thanks for coming, man.”

It was the highlight of a monumental day at the old palace, a moment when beating Wisconsin and Ohio State and Alabama didn’t seem so impossible. Behind Frost stood NU administrators, including Moos, who was choking up. Tom Osborne was emotional, too.

Frost’s mentor, more than anyone, recognizes how far the old players had come to be here. Osborne has endured the slow, steady erosion of a powerhouse and its principles.

“This isn’t like 1997 all over again,” Osborne said later. “But some of the chemistry and some of the basics, I think, will be restored. That’s why all those guys were here. They had lived through it at one time and they had experienced it. It’s really hard to explain to somebody. I mean, we can talk to the coaches that have been here recently, but they never did really understand.”

In some ways, Frost is an unlikely vessel for the hopes of old heroes. Remember, some of these same former players scorned him when he left for Stanford in 1993 — and heckled him he returned two years later. He wasn’t Tommie Frazier. He didn’t make winning look easy.

But maybe that’s why they love him, too. Frost earned their affection during the ’97 national championship run — and he’s worked even harder since.

“He’s paid his dues,” Adams said. “To get a group of men to act like cheerleaders, it was just amazing.”

In Frost, they see the wisdom, toughness and “supreme confidence,” as Harry Grimminger described it, they once represented. They see the best of both worlds. The past and the future.

When Nebraska flipped coaches in 2004, ’08 and ‘15, ex-players were excited mostly for the change of scenery, Zatechka said. Like getting a new pair of shoes at Christmas.

“This was the complete opposite," said the former offensive tackle. "All these guys showed up going back literally 60, 70 years of Nebraska history because they’re excited about who was coming. That was the difference.”

Standing in the back of the weight room Sunday morning, soaking up the scene, was a classmate of Zatechka's. A 45-year-old reserve offensive lineman who lives in Chatham, Illinois.

Bryan Pruitt came home Saturday afternoon from his daughter’s basketball game and caught the highlights of Central Florida’s double-overtime win over Memphis. The Illinois state policeman saw Frost celebrating with his players — what a cool guy, he thought. Soon Pruitt saw the news reports and the email from Moos.

“Hey, check this out,” Pruitt told his wife.

“You should go,” she said.

Drive six hours to Lincoln? Pruitt shook it off, but he couldn’t quite let it go. In 1990, he came to Nebraska as a Prop 48 walk-on. He bought in to Osborne’s system. Worked his way up to playing time.

He was on the field when Byron Bennett missed the game-winning field goal against Florida State on New Year’s Night 1994. He was there one year later when the Huskers doused Osborne with Gatorade.

When Pruitt thought of Nebraska, he thought of a walk-on from Stanton named Brady Caskey. Before their senior seasons, Osborne awarded them scholarships for their hard work. A couple days later, he returned and apologized. Something came up; Osborne only had one to give.

That’s when Caskey stepped up: Bryan, he said, I want you to have it. You need it more than I do. 

“I’ll never, ever forget that,” Pruitt said. “Who does that? It’s this kid’s lifelong dream to earn a scholarship and he gave it to me. That’s the way Nebraska people are.”

Saturday night at 9:30, Pruitt decided to go for it. He threw a couple shirts in his truck and took off for Lincoln. “I’m either stupid or crazy, I’m not sure.”

At 4:30 a.m., he got a room at Embassy Suites. Seven hours later, he walked up to a man he’d never met, the former quarterback who arrived at Nebraska just days after Pruitt’s last college game, and extended his hand.

Congratulations, he told Scott Frost. Good luck.

Pruitt took an elevator to the press conference and listened to Frost preach about hard work, integrity and a "unity of purpose."

Then Pruitt went downstairs and took a photo of 85-year-old Cliff Dale in front of the letterman’s wall. He looked inside the stadium that will be full again on Sept. 1, 2018. He hit the road for Illinois -- with one small detour.

A Husker can’t go all the way to Lincoln and come home empty-handed, right? So Pruitt walked into Scheel’s in South Lincoln and opened his wallet.

He picked out a miniature helmet for his son. Sweatpants for his daughter. A sweatshirt for his wife. And two T-shirts for himself.

Christmas is coming and red is back in style.

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Reporter - Sports

Dirk writes stories and columns about Husker football in addition to covering general assignments and enterprise for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @dirkchatelain. Phone: 402-444-1062.

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