During the first couple of games every year, I always carry a folded up roster in my pocket – usually given to me by some political campaign – so I know who the new contributors, backups, and random special teams guys are. By the third or fourth game of the season, you can tell me a number and I can tell you that player’s name. Over time (I’ve been to almost every home game since 1993), a lot of names and numbers are stuck in my head.
This glut of numbers can be a challenge as I try to adjust my brain to seeing one of NU’s “signature” numbers – 15 for example – being worn by a fullback (Willie Miller), a linebacker (Steve Octavian), or a cornerback (Alfonzo Dennard). It also makes me think about which player is the best to ever wear a certain number.
In effort to clear some of these numbers out of my brain (and to kill some time until the season starts) I’ve decided to take on my own countdown project – the 100 greatest Huskers of the last 50 years.
There are dozens of lists of top players, top teams, and the like, so I’m going with a slightly different spin: My list of greatest Huskers will be the greatest to wear each uniform number, 1-99, from the first Bob Devaney team (1962) through the 2012 season – the first 50 years of the sellout streak.
Obviously, some of these are pretty easy. (Spoiler Alert: Tommie Frazier is the best to ever wear the #15, and the smart money says the 16 other Husker legends whose names appear on the North Stadium skyboxes will make the list too).
On the flip side, there are some numbers with a very pedestrian history. Take #49, for example. Who would you name as the best player to ever wear #49? Heck, I’ll tip my cap if you can name more than two players to wear #49 in the last 50 years without turning to the internet or old media guides. (Stay tuned to see who I picked).
How will I decide who is best? There is no good way to objectively compare an offensive player, a Blackshirt, and a kicker who all wore the same number, so I’m loosely using the following:
- Individual awards and recognition. Specifically: National award finalist, first team All-American or All-Conference. These things played a big role, but they were not an absolute end-all.
- Team success. I was more likely to consider a guy from one of the National Championship teams than a guy from the late Solich/Callahan years. That’s no disrespect to some of those guys, but I think a standout on a 12-0 team tends to be a better player than a standout on a 7-7 team.
- Only their Nebraska playing career. For the purposes of this list, what a player did during their Nebraska playing career matters more than what they did in the NFL or elsewhere. So while Scott Shanle has had a good NFL career, I felt there was a better person to recognize for the #43 jersey at Nebraska. Players who became coaches (Frank Solich, Turner Gill, Barney Cotton, Barry Alvarez, etc.) were considered solely for their playing days, not for their coaching careers.
- My own experiences and biases. Let’s face it, every list like this is subjective and probably a little slanted. I’ll own my primary weakness up front: my earliest Husker memories are from 1981 or 1982, so it is likely that I’m not going to give somebody from the Devaney or early Osborne years the credit they deserve. (Let me know where I’ve gone wrong in the comments). I’m also pretty biased around the teams from my college days (1993 – 1997) as I had the great privilege of being in school for one of the greatest runs in college football history.
In addition to the best for each number, I’ll also select a personal favorite. This person probably won’t be a star, but will likely be somebody who I enjoyed watching, participated in a memorable play, or some other completely random – and only relevant to me – reason. As you can guess, these players will mostly be from the last 25 years.
Sound like fun? Okay, before we get started, let’s quickly cover my methodology and ground rules:
- I came up with this list by copying old rosters from huskers.com and pasting them into a spreadsheet. I then added in the All-America, All-Conference, and major award lists also found on huskers.com. Since this method meant a player could appear 4-5 times, I flushed out the duplicates to get my starting point – a little over 2,000 players in all.
- If a player changed numbers at some point in his career, I only considered him for the number worn at the end of his career. For example, Jason Peter wore #95 for his first three years, but switched to #55 for his senior season. Since Peter was an All-American wearing the double nickel, that is where I’ll consider him. The same goes for other notable changes, including: Jammal Lord (#5, from #10), Marlon Lucky (#5, from #20), and Bob Brown (#64, from #61).
- Along those same lines, the 2005 roster has Ndamukong Suh listed as #77. While Suh ended up being better than any other player to don the #77 jersey, he’s only making the list at #93.
Finally, let’s recap the distinction between a retired number and a retired jersey, as Nebraska has both. A retired number is just that – a number that is no longer issued to any player. There are three numbers currently retired at Nebraska (in order of retirement):
60 – Tom Novak. Nobody has worn #60 since 1949.
20 – Johnny Rodgers. Originally, the Jet’s number was retired after the 1972 season, but Johnny allowed his son Terry to wear it during his NU career (1986-1990). The number went back on the shelf until 1995, when it was in regular circulation until it was re-retired in 2009. (Random trivia: Jase Dean and Adi Kunalic are the last two Huskers to wear the #20 jersey in 2008).
64 – Bob Brown. His number stayed in circulation until it was retired in 2004. (Random trivia: Kurt Mann was the last Husker to wear #64).
In addition, Nebraska also has 17 “retired jerseys”. Basically, this is a way for NU to honor Huskers who win major awards (Heisman, Outland, etc.) but still keep the number available for active players. Otherwise, there would not be enough numbers for offensive linemen, as a good chunk of the seventies (71, 72, 75, 79) would be on the shelf. Some of these numbers (specifically 30, 50, 71, and 79) were not issued for 10 or more years, but all have been back in circulation since the mid 1990s.
In addition to Novak, Rodgers, and Brown, whose jerseys are retired along with their numbers, here are the other 14 Huskers with a retired jersey:
7 – Eric Crouch
15 – Tommie Frazier
30 – Mike Rozier
34 – Trev Alberts
50 – Dave Rimington
54 – Dominic Raiola
67 – Aaron Taylor
71 – Dean Steinkuhler
72 – Zach Wiegert
75 – Larry Jacobson
75 – Will Shields
79 – Rich Glover
93 – Ndamukong Suh
98 – Grant Wistrom
So with all of the housekeeping out of the way, let’s get to it: