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Making Sense of Nebraska’s Blackshirt Tradition

August 30, 2019

Dicaprio Bootle was asked which former Blackshirt had handed him his Blackshirt on Monday. The same one who gave Deontai Williams his, the junior cornerback said. But he couldn’t remember the former Blackshirt’s name. If he heard it, he would recognize it, though.

“Zack Bowman?” someone asked.

Yep, Zack Bowman. Definitely, Zack Bowman. 

That brought back memories, as is often the case these days.

Bowman was a cornerback from Anchorage, Alaska, by way of New Mexico Military Institute, a 5-star recruit in Coach Bill Callahan’s 2005 class—his Alaska home was on an Air Force base.

He earned letters at Nebraska in 2005 and 2007, missing the 2006 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He was a co-captain in 2007, a reflection of his character.

With that as background, his decision wasn’t surprising. But there was some controversy, among at least few Husker fans, over his decision not to wear his Blackshirt to practice on the Monday following a 49-31 loss against USC at Memorial Stadium, in the third game of that 2007 season.

The Trojans rolled up 457 yards (to Nebraska’s 420), but then, they were ranked No. 1. And Bowman was less than 100-percent physically. He missed the next game against Ball State. Nevertheless, he didn’t consider his play worthy of a Blackshirt, so he left it in his locker.

He didn’t tell anyone, coaches or teammates. It was simply his decision, a personal matter, though he couldn’t avoid being asked to explain when it was apparent at practice.

This might not make any sense, but it did to me then as it does now. Bowman’s decision increased my respect for him without diminishing my respect for those who continued to wear Blackshirts they had earned through commitment and hard work during practice.

Earning a Blackshirt is special in a way that can’t be expressed here, or at least it should be. And perhaps not every player who receives a Blackshirt understands the tradition. 

But Bowman definitely did.

Here’s where my memory gets fuzzy on that 2007 season. I recall that one day after practice—and maybe it wasn’t that season—an emotional Larry Asante sat near an exit in the Hawks Championship Center and wondered whether he deserved to wear a Blackshirt, given his play. He was a sophomore starter at safety, from Alexandria, Virginia, by way of Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College.

As with Bowman, my respect for Asante was re-enforced. 

(He was still wearing his Blackshirt, I’m pretty sure.)

The matter of wearing them became moot following a 45-14 Homecoming-game loss to Oklahoma State, the second of five consecutive losses and six losses in the final seven games. On the Monday after the game, all the Blackshirts were pulled, in what would’ve been big news except that was the day Chancellor Harvey Perlman announced the firing of Athletic Director Steve Pederson.

Oh yes, and the hiring of Tom Osborne as Pederson’s replacement.

The season continued to degenerate, and it seemed appropriate that no one wore Blackshirts to practice. The fifth-consecutive loss was by 76-39 at Kansas. 

Afterward, Tyler Wortman, a junior back-up linebacker who had walked on and hadn’t played a down until that season, was among only a handful of Huskers willing to meet with reporters, such was the embarrassment over what had happened in Lawrence. Wortman might’ve been the first player to come out. He was surrounded, with some reporters asking who the guy in the No. 53 jersey was.

Nebraska would win 73-31 the next week against Kansas State, then score 51 at Colorado, and lose by 14. Callahan was fired, and well, you know the rest of that story.

Statistically, the 2007 season was the worst defensively in Nebraska history. The Huskers allowed averages of 476.8 yards and 37.9 points per game. Both remain school records.

Responsibility for those numbers had to be shared by defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove and the other defensive assistants; it wasn’t all on the players, or even most of it.

Even during that season, however, you could find the meaning of the Blackshirt tradition. And you didn’t necessarily have to look all that closely.

Bowman—symbolically appropriate, perhaps, who wore a No. 1 jersey—was Blackshirt-worthy, as were Asante and every other player who had earned one. That the Blackshirts were taken away didn’t diminish who they were, and are, nor did it diminish one of Nebraska’s most meaningful traditions.

That might not make sense to you. But it does to me. 

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