LINCOLN — Before Johnny Rodgers, Irving Fryar, DeJuan Groce and De’Mornay Pierson-El, there was a 160-pound Nebraska punt returner out of North Platte who went by the nickname “Cactus.”
Larry Wachholtz was fearless, athletic and a little bit of a daredevil — all the things necessary to be a top-flight punt returner.
“It was kind of exciting to me, but it was probably the worst job in football,” Wachholtz said. “There was that determination you had to (have) to fair-catch it or try to return it. You could have the wind blowing or you’d be looking into the sun ... you just had to be pretty careful or you could get clocked pretty good.”
Wachholtz led the Big Eight in punt return yardage in 1965 and ’66, and his 452 yards during his junior season were best in the nation until the final weekend.
“I was a running back and quarterback in high school, so I carried the ball quite a bit,” he said. “It wasn’t really that big of a deal, because the guys on that (return) side knocked a lot of people in the dirt for me, so I just had to catch it and run with it.”
That wasn’t all Wachholtz could do.
He was an All-America safety and Husker captain as a senior in 1966, after being All-Big Eight the season before. Wachholtz intercepted 11 passes, and his 153 career tackles were the most by an NU defensive back until Reggie Cooper broke that mark in 1990.
Nebraska owned a 28-2 regular-season record during his three varsity years, including the 10-0 record in 1965 that marked the Huskers’ first unbeaten regular season since 1915. There were three bowl losses, but all to teams ranked No. 4 or higher.
Wachholtz, 72, retired three years ago and recently moved from North Platte to Indian Land, South Carolina, to be closer to a daughter and granddaughters just up the road in Charlotte.
More from the member of the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame (1982) and Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame (2003):
Q: Was there ever any question you would go to Nebraska coming out of North Platte?
A: Coming out of high school, I wasn’t exactly on everybody’s radar. I had offers to go to Minnesota and Kansas State and the Air Force Academy, and I really wanted to go to Nebraska, but they weren’t really much interested in me. But there was a kid on our high school team, Pete Tatman, that they were recruiting, and every time they’d come to visit, Coach (Crump) Redding would bring up my name and say he thought I could play for Nebraska no problem.
Q: Being around 5-8 and 150 pounds as a senior, were the doubts mostly about playing at that kind of weight?
A: I wasn’t very big, and I wasn’t very fast, either. At any rate, a lot of people kind of shied away because of my size. In fact, a lot of people told me after I accepted a scholarship that I made a mistake and should have gone to a smaller school. And to be honest, that probably motivated me to work a little harder and show them that they didn’t know what they were talking about.
Q: How were you able to overcome it?
A: The players weren’t nearly as big as they are now, but we also had some pretty good defensive linemen and linebackers, and it wasn’t very often that you made a lot of tackles. So I was mostly a pass defender.
Q: Did you add your Husker place kicking duties out of necessity or because you were good at it?
A: Not necessarily good, but we didn’t really have a kicker, so to speak, when I got there. I guess I was a little better than average, and wound up doing the kicking.
Q: Was it hard to give up playing offense after you were recruited as a quarterback?
A: I knew from the first day I got there that it wasn’t going to work, with Bob Churchich in front of me and Wayne Weber. I think I would have watched a lot of games instead of playing them. I didn’t throw the ball real well. But when I was a sophomore, they came up with the two-platoon deal, and that kind of gave me an opportunity to get on the field.
Q: After 9-2 and 10-1 seasons to start the Bob Devaney era, what were expectations like for 1964 when you started playing?
A: There were quite a few guys coming back. When Devaney came in 1962, the cupboard wasn’t bare. There was a lot of talent there. ... Thunder Thornton and Bob Brown and Dennis Claridge, and I could go on and on and on. So a lot of guys coming back in 1964 were pretty good football players — Freeman White and Tony Jeter and Larry Kramer — so I assumed we’d be pretty good.
Q: Did the focus change before the Orange Bowl after the 1965 season when you found out Nebraska-Alabama would be for the national championship (after Arkansas and Michigan State had lost)?
A: Not really. We knew the winner of that game would win all the marbles, but you still just got to go out and play your game. The thing that killed us (in a 39-28 loss) is Alabama converted three onside kicks against us in that game. One of those crazy deals.
Q: I saw an old picture with you defending a pass from Ken Stabler to Ray Perkins. Looking back, who else maybe stands out among guys you played against?
A: There were a couple running backs that were pretty outstanding. The fullback for Oklahoma State, Walt Garrison, went on to have a great career with the Dallas Cowboys. He was probably the toughest guy I ever ran into. A couple times he would break into the secondary and instead of trying to juke you, he’d just eyeball you and try to run over you. The other that stands out was Gale Sayers, when he was a senior at Kansas and I was a sophomore.
Q: You got to play in Cotton, Orange and Sugar Bowls. Any of those stick out as your favorite bowl?
A: I’d have to say my sophomore year when we were playing in the Cotton Bowl. We went down to Brownsville, Texas, to train for about a week prior. They treated us well down there, and it was fun to go over to Mexico. And it was the first bowl game I’d ever gone to.
Q: What were your favorite stadiums on the road?
A: Two that were really kind of wild were Colorado and Missouri. The reason I say that is you’d never know what was going to happen. I remember when we played at Missouri one year, our band was walking by their student body prior to the game and they threw bottles, and KO’d one of our trombone players.
Q: Would that flat-top haircut from your senior picture go over well in a Husker press guide 50 years later?
A: Well, you don’t see many of those anymore. Other than maybe Howie Long.
Q: How did the nickname “Cactus” come about?
A: That was laid on me by Bobby Hohn, who was from Beatrice. He and Lyle Sittler, I guess with me coming from North Platte, thought I had a little bit of a Western twang. But pretty soon it was Cactus, and it stuck, and before long some guys didn’t even know my real first name.
Q: Who have you appreciated over the years for being a good punt returner?
A: One of the better ones of late is Pierson-El. That kid, he can motor when he gets the ball. And, of course, Johnny was the best ever, I think. Whatever records I held, they all fell by the wayside when he came to town.