This is my countdown of the greatest Nebraska Cornhuskers to wear each jersey number, 1-99. For background on the project, click here. We’re going to start at #99 and work our way down to #1. For each number, I’ll list the best player to wear that number, some of the other memorable Huskers to don that jersey, as well as a personal favorite of mine.
When coaches and broadcasters talk about controlling the line of scrimmage, the odds are that work is being done by somebody wearing number 59 through 50. At Nebraska, that means defensive linemen and linebackers on one side and on the other side you’ll find offensive guards, tackles, and one of NU’s prestige positions: Center.
Best Player: Josh Heskew, Center, 1995 – 1998
Other notables: Ryon Bingham, Brett Byford
Personal Favorite: Heskew
Comments: In our last installment, we covered the amazing career of Aaron Taylor, the only Husker to be an All-American at two different positions. One of the reasons that Taylor moved from center to guard, was Josh Heskew was a capable replacement, having studied under All-Americans Aaron Graham and Taylor. A tough Oklahoman, Heskew helped anchor the offensive line for the 1997 National Champions. He earned all conference honors as a senior in 1998.
Best Player: Harry Grimminger, Guard, 1982 – 1984
Other notables: Mike Caputo, Dave Volk
Personal Favorite: Mike Caputo, Center, 2007 – 2011
Comments: Harry Grimminger was a mainstay – and a force – on the left side of some dominating offensive lines in the 1980s. Grimminger initially backed up Dean Steinkuhler, but broke into the starting line up in 1983, helping to pave the way for the Scoring Explosion to put up over 400 yards of rushing and 52 points per game. As a senior, Grimminger picked All Big 8 and All-America honors.
When three-year start Jacob Hickman graduated, there was concern among Husker fans about who would take over at center for the 2010 season. Mike Caputo was the favorite to get the job, but there were concerns over his (relatively) short stature and his lack of experience. Having watched him backup Hickman, I knew there was nothing to be worried about. Caputo may have been built like a fire hydrant, but he was fierce like bulldog. That concern became such a strength that when Caputo graduated, fans wondered who could fill his shoes.
Best Player: Mark Traynowicz, Center, 1982 – 1984
Other notables: Chad Kelsay, Chris Kelsay, Kevin Lightner, Kelly Saalfield, Kenny Walker
Personal Favorite: Kenny Walker, Defensive Tackle, 1987 – 1990
Comments: How would you like to be the guy who follows one of the greatest center in college football history? Mark Traynowicz had some mighty big shoes to fill when he moved from being a backup tackle to “Dave Rimington’s replacement”. All he did was help anchor the line on one of the greatest offenses in NCAA history, while often grading out as well as (or better than) Outland Trophy winner Dean Steinkuhler. As a senior, Traynowicz earned his second All Big 8 honors and was named an All-American.
Not only was Kenny Walker a tremendous talent (All-America in 1990), he was one of the most inspirational Huskers of all time. Deaf since the age of 2, Walker was a strong and fast defensive lineman, with serious big play potential. I was not there, but I have often heard that Walker’s ovation on his Senior Day (instead of clapping and cheering, the Memorial Stadium crowd gave Walker a “Roar of Silence” waving their hands in the air) was one of the most moving moments in school history.
Best Player: Ed Periard, Middle Guard, 1968 – 1970
Other notables: Rob Zatechka
Personal Favorite: Jeremy Slechta, Defensive Tackle, 1999 – 2001
Comments: Need a good example of how much football has changed in the last 40-50 years? Ed Periard was an All-Big 8 performer at middle guard in 1970, and was credited with seven tackles in the Orange Bowl win over LSU that gave Nebraska their first National Championship. Periard was listed at 5′ 9″ and 198 pounds, which is by today’s standards is undersized for pretty much any position other than alto saxophone in the Cornhusker Marching Band. Periard passed away in 1993.
As a Nebraska native, I have a soft spot for Nebraska kids who play at Nebraska, especially the ones who walk on or are lightly regarded but go on to be reliable starters. Jeremy Slechta (Papillion-LaVista) is one of those guys. Not the big or fastest guy, but one that you could always could on to play hard every down – and break up a pass or two each game.
Best Player: Russ Hochstein, Offensive Guard, 1997 – 2000
Other notables: Christian Peter, Jason Peter, Baker Steinkuhler
Personal Favorite: Jason Peter, Defensive Tackle, 1994 – 1997
Comments: Let’s get the controversy out of the way first: Jason Peter arguably had a better NU career than Russ Hochstein, but Hochstein did more in the #55 jersey than the guy who refers to himself as the “double nickel” did. (Remember, Jason wore #95 for the first three years of his career, while big brother Christian wore #55). But don’t overlook the career of Hochstein. He was a starter on some very respectable lines in the late 90s, earned All-Big XII twice and was an All-American his senior season. According to his Huskers.com bio, Hoch owns the school record for pancake blocks in a game (23 against Notre Dame).
Jason Peter is the kind of player I would build a defense around. Big, strong, fast, with a healthy hatred for offensive linemen he had the talent and toughness to be an excellent defensive tackle. I’ll always remember how after Peter broke his hand, he played with a cast that made it look like his arm morphed into a giant Q-Tip. Instead of being hindered by only having one hand to fight off blocks and make tackles, Peter adapted by using that cast as a bill club. But Peter is equally remembered for his vocal leadership, which is something Nebraska has sorely lacked since he and Grant Wistrom left.
For many people (myself included) the lasting image of the 1998 Orange Bowl is Tom Osborne whipping around to see who had dumped the dadgum Gatorade bucket on him. T.O. initially looks as upset as anybody who is about to win their third National Championship can look, but the sight of Peter’s mug puts a big smile on Osborne’s face. As they embrace, it shows the nation a side of the stoic coach that many had not seen.
Best Player: (3-way tie) Rik Bonness, Center, 1974 – 1975; Aaron Graham, Center, 1992 – 1995; Dominic Raiola, Center, 1998 – 2000
Other notables: Barney Cotton, Kelly Petersen
Personal Favorite: Raiola
Comments: Three centers from three different eras, but all with essentially the same resume: Two time all-conference and All-American in their final season. A strong case could be made that Raiola should have the Best title by himself as his jersey is retired and his name is on the North Stadium facade for winning the very first Rimington Trophy in 2000. But let’s face it: had there been a trophy for the nation’s outstanding center in 1975 or even 1995, Bonness and/or Graham probably would have taken it home too. Bonness was a two-time All-American as well as an academic All-American. Graham was also an athletic and academic All-American, and never allowed a sack during his playing career.
I loved watching Raiola play. He was a beast of a blocker who could steamroll anybody in front of him, but he was also surprisingly quick. Early in his Nebraska career, he was the long snapper on the punt team. Many times, Dom would be one of the first guys down the field. Imagine being a kick returner expecting to have a corner or safety be the first guy you see, then you look up and there is a freaking center bearing down on you.
Best Player: Randy Schleusener, Offensive Guard, 1977 – 1980
Other notables: Thad Randle
Personal Favorite: Tyler Wortman, Linebacker, 2004 – 2008
Comments: Randy Schleusener was an excellent guard for some very good Nebraska teams during the end of the 1970s. Schleusener was All-Big 8 and All-America as a senior, but he might be best known for scoring a touchdown on a fumblerooski against Oklahoma in 1979, a play that earned him a lot of notoriety. Schleusener was also a two-time academic All-American, who went on to become a very successful surgeon, specializing in spines.
Tyler Wortman is another great walk-on story. After a stellar high school career at Grand Island Central Catholic (a star of the football, wrestling, and track teams) he walked on at Nebraska during a time (the Callahan era) when the walk-on program was greatly reduced. Despite not seeing the field during his first three years, he stuck it out to become a key contributor on Bo Pelini’s 2008 team. He played some of his best football in the final four games of his career.
Best Player: Tom Davis, Center, 1974 – 1977
Other notables: John Garrison, Lyle Sittler
Personal Favorite: Philip Dillard, Linebacker, 2005 – 2009
Comments: One of the fun parts of this project has been learning more about some guys who played before I was born, or was aware of Husker Football. Tom Davis is one of those guys who I was not very familiar with. In reading his huskers.com bio, I was impressed (and slightly amused) to see that Tom Osborne once referred to Davis as “the best center Nebraska has ever had”. Considering that Tom “Train Wreck” Novak was a center, that is very high praise. My amusement comes from the fact that Osborne apparently referred to many centers (including Rik Bonness, Aaron Graham, and the guy at #50) as best ever. For his part, Davis earned All Big 8 and All-America honors as a senior.
You could always tell that Philip Dillard had talent. What was harder to tell was when he’d be able to show it. Injuries derailed a couple of his seasons, and a poor attitude / work ethic got him demoted to the third string as a senior. But I’ll always respect and admire how Dillard turned it around. He stopped moping and started doing the work necessary to get back on the field. Once he did, he became a stand-out performer making plays all over the field.
Best Player: Bo Ruud, Linebacker, 2003 – 2007
Other notables: Will Compton, Richie Incognito, Dan Schmidt, Kerry Weinmaster
Personal Favorite: Ruud
Comments: I would imagine it is not easy being a “legacy” at Nebraska, as often times the younger member of the family has a hard time meeting or exceeding the standard set for them by a brother or father (see also: Rodgers, Terry; Wistrom, Tracey; Makovicka, Jordan; among others). Bo Ruud is no exception. His brother is the all time leading tackler in school history. His uncle owns one of the greatest hits in school history. His dad, another uncle, and great-grandpa all played at Nebraska. With all of that to live up to, one could understand how a guy might wilt under the pressure.
Bo Ruud’s career may not have surpassed big brother Barrett, but he certainly held his own. He had a knack for big plays, recording five career interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns. One of the pick-sixes was a 93 yarder against Iowa State, the longest ever by a linebacker. Ruud was a three-year starter, earned All-Big XII honors as a junior, and did the family name proud.
Best Player: Dave Rimington, Center, 1979 – 1982
Other notables: Kurt Mann
Personal Favorite: Rimington
Comments: Arguably the single greatest center in college football history, and definitely on the short list for greatest lineman in college history, Dave Rimington was a such a dominating force that he was named the Big 8 Offensive Player of the Year in 1981. He won the Lombardi Trophy, the Outland Trophy twice – the only person to ever do that – was a two-time All-American, and was All-Big 8 three times. In addition, he was twice named an academic All-American.
Rimington is the gold standard for student-athlete success, and it is fitting that his name is attached to the national award for college football’s best center.