Nebraska football fans are regarded as the most knowledgeable in all of football. Most pride themselves on knowing their team from A to Z, literally. Whether it’s Avery Anderson or Tanner Zlab, Husker fans can recognize and name almost every player who suits up for Nebraska every season. But if you ask these fans about Ryan Carstenson, you’ll likely receive a blank stare and a “who?” But don’t feel bad for Carstenson; not knowing who he is just means he’s doing a good job.
Carstenson has been a student manager for the Nebraska football team since the spring of 2013. In that time he has moved up the ladder to being the head student manager, while experiencing the highs and lows of Bo Pelini’s final two seasons in charge and Mike Riley’s first two seasons at the helm. Being around the program for that long, Ryan has some good stories, and he was kind enough to share a few.
Carstenson initially intended to be a member of Nebraska’s football team as a player, after playing at Lincoln Southwest High School. Multiple concussions forced him to hang up his cleats, however, and find other ways to be a part of football. He found his way, with a little help from his big sister.
“My sister knew the head manager at Nebraska when I was in high school,” said Carstenson. “So I was able to talk to him and learn some more about the job. After I heard about it, I applied and got a shot to work for them.”
Carstenson did well that spring and has remained a part of the manager-staff since then, though his responsibilities have changed.
“When I was a freshman, I just had to be at every practice at do laundry once a week,” said Carstenson. “Now I have a bit more responsibility, so I arrive at the stadium at 1 p.m. and get the scout-team jerseys ready, then I go to the coaches to get the practice scripts and coordinate with the coaches on what they will need for their individual practice time.”
During practice, he spends most of his time overseeing his fellow managers while also assisting defensive coordinator Mark Banker.
“During team-time, I’m the guy in charge of holding up the personnel cards for the defense,” Carstenson said.
A typical practice day usually requires Carstenson to be at the stadium until 6 p.m., an impressive workload for a college student. His Saturdays are even busier, sometimes starting before the crack of dawn.
“We have to be at the stadium six hours before kickoff,” Carstenson said. “If we have an 11 a.m. kickoff, the managers and equipment staff need to be there around 5 a.m.”
During that time, most of the managers’ responsibilities have to do with making sure everything runs smoothly leading up to kickoff.
“When we first get there, we make sure all the jerseys are on the pads correctly and then we pick up around the locker room and get it so it looks real nice,” Carstenson said. “Then we go get the chains and sideline trunks and get those set up in case a player breaks a piece of equipment and we need to fix it. After we get all that done, we usually have about 30 minutes of down time to watch TV or do smaller projects.”
During that time, Carstenson typically works on getting his personnel cards taped up and ready.
“I’m the guy holding up the cards behind Banker when he signals in a play so the defense knows what personnel the offense is running,” Carstenson said.
With approximately three hours left before kickoff, Carstenson and the rest of the managers clean the manager-room, prepare the game balls and then deliver the balls to the referees. This usually leaves them about 20 minutes to get dressed in game-day clothes and get ready for pre-game.
“When the 90-minute clock hits is when time really starts to fly,” Carstenson said. “It takes so long to get from six hours to 90 minutes but then everything is a blur until the game is over.”
He and his colleagues wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s a heavy workload sometimes, but it’s all worth it once game day gets here,” Carstenson said. “Being down on the field during the game is just awesome and it has given me a ton of great memories from my time working here.”
With Carstenson having worked at Nebraska four-plus years, he was part of the program during the difficult transition from Pelini to Riley. While Pelini was well-known for his temper, he instilled a fierce level of loyalty in his charges, meaning a new coach would have some challenges connecting to them. Carstenson said while there was some tension early, Riley’s personality helped ease the transition.
“I think his personality was the biggest reason why they hired him,” Carstenson said. “He is the most personable guy I’ve ever been around; you just can’t stay mad at the guy.”
Carstenson said the assistant coaches followed Riley’s lead, creating a much more relaxed and friendly environment during practice and meetings.
The more relaxed environment didn’t immediately lead to wins on the field, as Nebraska struggled through a 6-7 season in 2015. Despite the early struggles, however, Riley and his staff never changed their approach to day-to-day operations, helping Carstenson form some lifetime friendships in the process.
“There was just so much less stress caused from going to work,” Carstenson said. “I will have some lifelong friendships with Coach Banker and the defensive GAs because we were spending 40-plus hours a week together and actually getting along.”
After that rough first season, Riley and his staff have led lead Nebraska to nine wins and a berth in the Music City Bowl. Carstenson cites improved chemistry as the main reason for Nebraska’s improvement.
“Our chemistry is so much better than it was last year,” Carstenson said. “Going through the tragedy with Sam (Foltz) really brought the team and university together, and it really helped our senior class grow as leaders.”
That improved team chemistry was certainly tested during the season, as a pair of incidents – Keith Williams’ arrest and a trio of Huskers kneeling for the national anthem – could have divided the program from within. Carstenson said despite the media attention, neither of those incidents changed things for the program.
“The Williams incident really didn’t change anything, other than the managers had to throw the ball in practice more,” said Carstenson. “Coach Dub’s wideouts love him. They will always fight for him.”
The national anthem incident caused considerable media backlash, but Ryan was impressed with how well the other team members handled it.
“We all have our own opinions on that whole situation, but it was really cool to see how the team handled it,” Carstenson said. “Nobody on the team really batted an eye, and they just accepted those guys’ beliefs and continued to play with them.”
Carstenson has now completed four seasons as Nebraska’s student manager and he plans to spend one more with the team in 2017. He’s not sure yet what he wants to do following graduation, but he does know that he wants to stay involved with football.
“I’d like to do what DVD (Associate AD/Football Operations Dan Van De Reit) does, kind of the organization and behind-the-scenes stuff,” Carstenson said. “Hopefully after next year I can catch on as a GA somewhere and start working my way up. The NFL is the dream job, but I know I’ll probably have to work up from a GA spot to start with.”
Regardless of what he does following graduation, Carstenson will always look back on his time as a student manager with fondness.
“The main thing I’ll take away from this job was getting to live my childhood dream and getting to be a part of the Nebraska football program,” Carstenson said. “I remember sitting in my seats for the first time and looking around and thinking, ‘This is the coolest thing ever. I love this job.’”