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Three Decades of Wauneta Walk Ons PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wauneta Breeze   
Friday, 04 September 2009 00:00

It’s the dream of every young man who ever set foot on a football field within the borders of the Cornhusker State — to play football for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers. Every year, hundreds of young men take to the field at Memorial Stadium as part of the university’s legendary walk-on program. Usually, these young men had enticing offers from other schools, usually with guaranteed playing time, but chose to fulfill their dreams of becoming part of one of the most storied football programs in the nation — a program steeped in tradition and excellence. To experience the camaraderie and ceremony, and to learn the work ethic that so defines the Husker Nation.

Three Wauneta natives have learned firsthand what it means and what it takes to be a walk-on at Nebraska. These are their stories.

By Dave Vrbas, The Wauneta Breeze


1980s — Brian Harchelroad

Brian Harchelroad recalls Nebraskans’ attitudes toward Coach Tom Osborne when he took off for Lincoln the summer after his senior year of high school. “They said he couldn’t win the big one after several losses to Oklahoma,” Harchelroad said with a knowing grin. “He not only won the big game, he won three of them.”

Harchelroad, who took off for Lincoln tipping the scales at a not-so-whopping 170 pounds thanks to an illness at the end of his senior year at Wauneta High, said playing for Tom Osborne was nothing short of amazing. “He carried himself like a leader and commanded great respect,” Harchelroad said from his desk at Harchelroad Motors where he has served as the Wauneta division’s general manager since his father’s death in 2002. He returned to Wauneta as soon as his run at Nebraska ended to work in the family auto business. “I’m thankful I had the opportunity to play for someone like that.”

Inspired by older brother Sid’s successful college football career at Chadron State College, Harchelroad began to imagine himself following in his brother’s footsteps and playing college ball.

Recruited by several schools who guaranteed him playing time, Harchelroad said there was no doubt he wanted to play for Nebraska. “If I didn’t try, how would I ever know?” he said of the decision to snag a walk-on spot.

Recruited by Dan Young during his junior year of high school at Wauneta, Harchelroad said his journey to Lincoln as a walk on student athlete in August 1985 was “scary and exciting both at the same time.” A self-described ‘scrawny little soul,’ Harchelroad said nearly everyone else on the field was bigger than him. But he didn’t let that slow him down a bit.

Harchelroad had respectable success as a freshman I-back, helping lead the freshman team, also notching a spot as the third-leading rusher on the team behind Tyreese Knox and Ken Clark. Hitting the weight room and toiling away to gain weight, Harchelroad was 210 pounds by his sophomore year of eligibility and 225 pounds by the end of his pigskin career.

After a fair share of success during his freshman season, Harchelroad held down a redshirt spot during his academic sophomore year, traveling with the team to New Orleans to witness a Sugar Bowl victory over Louisiana State University.

During his academic junior year, Harchelroad made the varsity team as a sophomore athlete. During his first carry on varsity, he rushed for three yards against Utah State. His strong work ethic and a move to fullback during his junior year of eligibility earned him more and more playing time.

One of his proudest memories on the team also serves as one of his most embarassing moments. Playing against Texas A&M in the Kickoff Classic, Harchelroad stripped the ball out of an A&M player’s hands and gained possession. Throwing his arms in the air with the ball in hand, he ran off celebrating his play with the cameras following closely behind. “I ran right over to the other sideline, suddenly realized I was going the wrong way, and made an abrupt u-turn. And the camera followed me the entire way,” Harchelroad said. “Someone even taped it for me and it’s pretty funny to watch.”

Other highlights for Harchelroad were Saturday game days, the simple euphoria of being out on the field with one of the best teams in the nation, bowl games and the playing time he had in a victory over Oklahoma on their turf which netted Big Eight championship ring for each of the Cornhuskers. “To see the look on the coaches’ faces with tears in their eyes after that win... that really stands out for me,” Harchelroad said.

Harchelroad continued to net a great deal of playing time with the varsity team during his academic senior year. During his eighth play on the field in a win over Missouri, two Tiger players took his leg in opposite directions.

While he feels fortunate and blessed to have experienced the walk on program, he said it “wasn’t just a fun road trip.”

The knee injury, and the fact that he had only three credit hours left at the end of his junior year of eligibility, led him to the decision to graduate and skip his senior year of eligibility. “Where it ended on a high note, I wasn’t bitter. I had a lot of friends who finished their final year, and for whatever reason, it didn’t go the way they expected,” Harchelroad explained. “Those guys kind of turn their nose up at the program. I’m one of the fortunate ones who had a good experience.”


1990s — Rod Haarberg

Rod Haarberg not only put himself among the elite number of high school graduates who are invited to walk on for Nebraska every year, but through grueling work and dedication continued to prove himself an elite athlete among his Husker peers.

During his senior year at Wauneta, Haarberg broke his ankle, which slowed recruiting. “I chose to go to Wyoming and play because of the opportunity they gave me,” Haarberg said in a phone interview from his hotel room in Texas, where he works for a precision agriculture technology firm as a sales representative.

Haarberg took off for Wyoming three short months after local football standout Brian Harchelroad cut his term at Nebraska a year short due to graduation and a knee injury. Although he enjoyed great success and a large amount of playing time at Wyoming during the 1989 season, Haarberg’s heart was still in his home state. He gave Dan Young (who also recruited Harchelroad) a call at Nebraska during Christmas break. He was relieved to hear that his opportunity to walk on was still available.

Ineligible to play during his sophomore academic year, Haarberg helped out on the scout team during the 1990 season. He began playing a bit during the 1991 season and “doing typical sophomore duties” on the field since his fullback position didn’t lack any depth. Fans of college football will remember another Husker fullback from the years Haarberg spent at Nebraska, his college roommate and fellow walk-on Corey Schlesinger.

His friendship with Schlesinger helped push him to new heights as a player, as did other teammates. “Universities have fraternities. Well, football was our fraternity,” Haarberg explained. “You lived with them, you worked with them. To this day when I go to a game there, I see someone I played with.”

Speaking of running into people he knew from the team, a few years ago Haarberg found himself at a stop where his former coach, Tom Osborne, was campaigning for Congress. Nearly a decade after Haarberg’s career at Nebraska, Osborne spotted him in the hallway, stopped and said, “Rod Haarberg. How are you doing?” That was the kind of coach Osborne was, explained Haarberg. “For him to remember Ahman Green is one thing, but to remember me is amazing. It’s hard to describe what he’s like, and I get questions about it all the time. He just had an aura about him.”

Haarberg joined an elite group of Huskers when during his sophomore year of eligibility, he earned the exclusive honor of having his name added to the Record Platform in the Huskers’ Strength Complex. To attain the honor, athletes had to earn a minimum of 500 points on all seven official strength and performance evaluation tests. Haarberg, Schlesinger and Danta Jones were the only three to earn the distinction that season. As a reward, they were the only three allowed to use the platform to do their workouts. The only other athletes allowed to use the platform were Heisman, Lombardi or Outland trophy winners.

“I also held the position record for about four minutes, but then Schlesinger broke it,” Haarberg recalls, laughing about their spirited, inner-team rivalry.

Like Harchelroad, Haarberg didn’t play for the Huskers during his senior year of eligibility, but it wasn’t by choice. A neck injury left him partially paralyzed for nearly an hour after a play and his position coach, a man by the name of Frank Solich whom Haarberg calls “a great man and a fantastic coach,” had to later level with him. “I was rehabbing and lifting and still not getting medical clearance. I was determine to overcome it,” Haarberg said, explaining that it was Solich who finally got through to him that his whole life was ahead of him — but only if he bowed out.

Watching from the stands during what would have been his senior season was tough for Haarberg, but looks at the situation from a positive standpoint. “My career was over and I knew it, but I was always welcome,” he said. “The program was a great experience. Injury included.”

One of Haarberg’s standout moments, in addition to the countless times they walked on the field to see a scared-spitless opposing team, was an unusually emotional speech Osborne gave at halftime of a Kansas State game. “There was excitement in his voice, but no swearing of course. He said, ‘Dagnabbit, you’re bigger, stronger and faster than these guys.’ He showed some emotion that we rarely ever saw.”

Haarberg said he likes what he sees from Bo Pelini: “I’m excited about the direction the program’s going. There’s a stability again. During the Bill Callahan years I just didn’t come back because I didn’t feel welcome. I feel welcome again. It’s exciting.”


2000s — Taylor Dixon

Although Taylor Dixon, a 2008 graduate of Wauneta-Palisade, joined the Nebraska walk on program three coaches later than the other two Wauneta natives who took to the Memorial Stadium field, he is experiencing many of the same things his predecessors were exposed to.

“It was an interesting change last fall,” Dixon said in a phone call from Lincoln, where he starts two-a-day practices next Saturday. “I was getting settled into college and acquainted with a lot of people. There was a lot of change in a little amount of time.”

Dixon joined the team during Bo Pelini’s first year as head coach, having been recruited by Barney Cotton and Shawn Watson, who had worked with Dixon during summer camps and spotted potential in the Bronco player. “Barney called around to check with schools and saw I was all-state and had good grades.” After a call to his high school coach, Randy Geier, Dixon had an offer from Nebraska to go with the other offers he was fielding.

Of the decision, Dixon said there was really no choice to be made. He knew where he wanted to play. “I would have regretted it all my life if I hadn’t become a Husker,” he said. “I don’t know of one person who wouldn’t want to play for the Huskers.”

Dixon had an extremely successful high school run and said he used his first year as a Husker to get in shape and increase his strenghth. “I had my share of success in high school, but this has made me mature quite a bit. It’s been humbling. I’m at the bottom of the totem pole, working my way back up again.”

Which is not to say he hasn’t had some success with the Huskers. Dixon saw playing time during the Baylor game last year, even earning designation as the Special Teams Player of the Week. That honor earned him a giant poster that hung in the hallway for weeks. He later gave it to his father, Brad.

His hard work and dedication also earned Dixon a spot on the scout team for this January’s Gator Bowl game against Clemson. He was able to travel down to Jacksonville, Fla., a week earlier than most of the rest of the younger members of the team. In addition to the extra week, one of his favorite parts of that trip was being randomly chosen to represent the Huskers on a visit to Jacksonville Children’s Hospital with other Nebraska and Clemson players to sign autographs and sing Christmas carols.

Dixon describes Pelini as “definitely a disciplinarian” and looks forward to playing for him during his entire career at Nebraska. “He keeps us whipped into shape. Hopefully he can get the program resurrected.” He said the players from the Bill Callahan era comment on the fact that it’s a change for the better.

Going into his sophomore season at Nebraska, Dixon is content to keep plugging away. “I might get my opportunity. I look at Matt May and he’s a year older than me. His hard work is paying off already,” said Dixon, stressing the positive aspects of helping the team in whatever role is given him. “If I don’t play, I’m still helping out the team. That’s the important thing for me.”

Which is not to say Dixon is content to rest on his laurels either. “I am excited to see where I fit in playing-wise this year,” he said. “I want to keep on developing as a receiver.”

Dixon said one of the attributes he brings to the team is a quiet calm. “I come from a small town where you let your play speak for itself. I’m not one of those big-headed guys with an all-for-me attitude.”

Dixon said the adjustment to a college life full of grueling practices and a full academic schedule has been made easier by his family. With older brother Grant not far away in western Iowa and younger sister Blair moving to Crete to attend Doane in the fall, his family makes the tough work bearable. “My family’s been really good about coming to see me,” he said, noting that his dad, Brad, and mom, Mindi, have several trips lined up for this upcoming season.

Dixon’s ultimate goal is to be starting string by the end of his career at Nebraska. “I just have to stick with it and not get discouraged,” Dixon explained. “I want to be starting and get accepted into dental school.”

Last summer, Dixon worked at Harchelroad Motors alongside former walk-on Brian Harchelroad. The two were filmed for a special documentary, “Walk Ons: Huskers Edge” which airs this week on NETV. Dixon was one of only two people on last year’s team to have played eight-man football in high school. See the left side of this page for information on NET’s special program.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 08 September 2009 19:37