LINCOLN — What is a high school football player to do, when the visitors to your home include Bear Bryant, Duffy Daugherty, Ara Parseghian, Bob Devaney and John McKay?
John O’Leary was sitting at the kitchen table one day going over all those who had come through when his father asked if the running back had decided.
“I told my dad, ‘Who won the national championship last year?’ ” O’Leary said. “He said Nebraska. I said, ‘Who won the year before?’ He said Nebraska. So I said, ‘Call Coach (Monte) Kiffin up and tell him I’m coming.’ ”
O’Leary lived in Port Washington, New York, and went to Holy Cross High in nearby Flushing. Nebraska had started working the New Jersey area with recruits like Rich Glover and Daryl White.
Once playing for Tom Osborne from 1973 through ’75 — after Devaney stepped down — O’Leary would rush for 1,526 yards and 14 touchdowns. But the I-back never had more than 131 carries in a season, splitting the workload with Monte Anthony and Tony Davis during a time when the Huskers threw it plenty with Dave Humm and Vince Ferragamo.
O’Leary and Davis triggered the Bummeroosky play in 1975 at Missouri, when Davis took a short punt snap and slipped the ball through the legs of O’Leary in front of him. As the Tigers chased what appeared to be a fake punt going right, O’Leary went around the left side for a 40-yard touchdown run.
“How do you like that?” KFAB’s Lyell Bremser said on the radio call. “My word! What chance have you got covering something like that?”
O’Leary went on to play parts of five CFL seasons with the Montreal Alouettes, including a Grey Cup title in 1977, after a brief stint with the Chicago Bears. The 62-year-old lives in Omaha and recently watched his son, T.J., play for the Huskers from 2006 to ’08.
More from O’Leary looking back:
Q: How did it come that an I-back wore No. 14?
A: I came from New York, and I would go to Giants games, and Y.A. Tittle was my favorite player. That was actually in my letter of intent. Coach Kiffin put it in there: room, board, tuition, books, fees, etc. — and No. 14. My first game (with the NU freshman team), they gave me No. 42. He came down and yelled at the guys, and at halftime they got me No. 14.
Q: Who else did you consider out of high school?
A: My entire life I wanted to go to school at Notre Dame. When I was recruited and when I was there on my trip, I had built it up so much in my mind that when I got there I was kind of disappointed. It was just like everyplace else. But I was probably down to Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State and Army.
Q: Was it the wrong time to be an I-back at Nebraska, with Humm and Ferragamo flinging it around?
A: No, actually. When I got there, (assistant coach) Jerry Moore came to me and said, “God taught you how to run, Mike Corgan will teach you how to block and you just go catch the ball. Do all three and you can play at the next level.” So that’s what the future held.
Q: What was one of Ferragamo’s best attributes at quarterback?
A: He was one of those guys that never got flustered. Something would happen, and he’d never get too excited. He’d just say, “Let’s go do this or that.”
Q: And Humm?
A: I once threw a touchdown pass to him (against Oklahoma in 1974). It was a pitch to me and I threw it back to him. I always told him I had a better completion percentage than he did. I got intercepted once, too. So I was 2 for 2 — one for them, one for us.
Q: I read once that Tony Davis said he didn’t brush his teeth on game days in order to be “as nasty as possible.” Can you vouch for such neglect of hygiene?
A: Yes, I can. He wouldn’t brush his teeth, he wouldn’t take a shower ... one time, a guy was screaming in a pile and Tony comes up and he has blood in his mouth. I said, “What’d you do?” And he said, “I bit him.”
Q: What was Tony like as a player?
A: He’s one of those guys, he doesn’t want to lose at a game of pitch as much as he doesn’t want to lose a football game. Very, very competitive. I tell you what, he was a big influence on me, when I watched him run. I had to get tougher as a runner, and I had the perfect example sitting next to me.
Q: Where did Coach Osborne come up with trick plays like the Bummeroosky, and how many ended up in the trash can?
A: When we would do it (in practice), we would do it more as a break during special teams because it could get monotonous. We’d do stupid things, throw passes, just to make it more fun. If we practiced 10 plays in the three or four years I was there, that was probably the only one we used, other than maybe just a fake punt where a guy rolls out and throws a pass.
Q: At 10-0 in 1975 with Oklahoma on deck, what do you recall the hype being like?
A: It was fun. That’s the reason you come to Nebraska, because you have such a great fan base. We were 10-0 and the league was good that year.
Q: How hard was it to swallow not beating OU during your time at Nebraska?
A: That is the one regret I had, that we never beat Oklahoma. It was funny, though, because Missouri was probably the hardest hitting team we played. You could lose to Oklahoma, go out and play golf the next day. Play Missouri, you play dead the next day. For some reason, I hated Missouri the most.
Q: What was it like watching T.J. play for Nebraska?
A: Absolutely wonderful. We were very, very lucky in that we had the Sieverses, the Swifts, the Wortmans, the Caputos, and we all got together, went to every game, bowl games. And vicariously living it again through your kid is amazing. Now he’s got his first son, so we got a third generation coming.