Six senior defenders get to wear black this week
BY STEVEN M. SIPPLE Lincoln Journal Star
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Gregg List and Greg McGraw traveled a long road together, and now it is time to reminisce.
They thought back to 1995, when they were two of six freshmen walk-on defensive backs at Nebraska.
"We wore white (scout-team jerseys), and we called ourselves "The Storm Troopers,'" List recalls. "Out of "The Storm Troopers,' there are only the two of us left. It's a big accomplishment to make it this far. Starters or not, we're still part of a great program."
List and McGraw, along with four other senior reserve defenders, came here to conclude college football careers that were inglorious yet rewarding. Each of them a walk-on, the six survivors arrived to prepare for another game -- this one against Tennessee in the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl -- in which they'll play a small role, if they play at all.
But they're here, still grinding away, and Charlie McBride feels that alone means a lot.
That's why the Huskers' defensive coordinator greeted the six veterans, as well as starting senior punter Dan Hadenfeldt, as they walked onto the practice field Friday for NU's first bowl workout in Arizona.
In keeping with a Nebraska bowl tradition, McBride handed each a black practice jersey, articles of clothing typically reserved for first-team Husker defenders.
It was an acknowledgment of their perseverance, a token of appreciation for their commitment.
"He said "Congratulations' and shook our hand," said middle linebacker Ben Buettenback. "He ain't much of a talker, but when he says something, he pretty much means it."
Cornerback Chris Moran, strongside linebacker Steve Raymond and rush end Eric Ryan also will be wearing black for the final week of practice.
"It means a lot," said Buettenback, of Hastings, who plays behind junior Carlos Polk and sophomore Jamie Burrow. "It means I'm one of the elite."
Well, sort of. Really, though, Buettenback is unsure which is tougher: Earning a Blackshirt by becoming a starter, or earning one by sticking it out as a reserve for 4 1/2 years. They put in the same hours as starters, but their work comes without the glory.
Few of even the most ardent Husker football fans would recognize them. Not that they care.
"We're here, battling every day, maybe not getting all the publicity," Buettenback said. "But we've stuck it out and done what we have to do."
List, of Valentine, listed as the third-string rover, said it wasn't always easy to keep battling in the shadows of the stars. He would watch non-football friends having a good time, going to parties, hanging out, doing what college kids do. But he would have to lift weights or get taped for practice or attend meetings.
"You sit there and hear Coach (George) Darlington say the same things over and over for 4 1/2 years," List said, referring NU's secondary coach. "After 4 1/2 years of Coach Darlington, I think everyone would attest, you've heard it all."
Of course List wanted to start. But All-American Mike Brown was ahead of him. Far ahead of him. So List decided starting was unrealistic and set other goals.
The other survivors went through similar thought processes.
McGraw, of Millville, N.J., and Moran, of Frederick, Md., both came from the East hoping to make their mark.
Raymond, of Gering, and Ryan, of Overton, came from small Nebraska towns hoping for the same thing.
Forgive Hadenfeldt if he feels a little out of place in this crowd. He did become a recognized name, setting a school record this season with a 44.98-yard average and earning second-team All-Big 12 honors.
A defender? Well, after he brought down an Oklahoma State return man with a non-textbook grab around the waist, Darlington ran him through tackling drills in practice. So he qualifies for a Blackshirt.
"I guess it kind of depends on how your teammates feel about you," the Des Moines, Iowa, native said. "Hopefully, when they see me with one, they'll feel like I earned it."
Now the survivors' goal is to help third-ranked Nebraska prepare for No. 6 Tennessee.
Buettenback, facing his grand finale, says he practices with even greater fury than usual.
"You want to get in there every play you can and hit people as much as you can. You have to give it your all, because there is no more," he said. "There is no more Tempe, there is no more Miami. This is it for me. It's the last time I'll be with this team. It feels good."
Said List: "The 4 1/2 years we put in here paid off. I think everyone's heard about the reputation of the Blackshirts. We got them. Maybe we didn't get them because we're starters. But we got them through the hard work of 4 1/2 years."
List wears his reward proudly. He basks in the Arizona sunshine. He brought his golf clubs.
"You can't ask for a better place to be than Tempe," he said. "It's about as good a place to end it as possible. I finish my career with a bunch of great guys. They will always be part of an extended family to me."