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Milt Tenopir: The Healing Power of Helmets and Pads
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Milt Tenopir: The Healing Power of Helmets and Pads

September 27, 2016

This story by John Mabry appeared in Volume 4, Issue 13 of Hail Varsity. To read more great stories like this, subscribe here.

It’s late afternoon on an autumn Tuesday, and cancer fighter Milt Tenopir is at the Hawks Championship Center, where he goes for treatments two or three times a week.

“I wasn’t going to come today, but I’m going to miss tomorrow,” he says, noting that a biopsy awaits the next day. “Thought I better get up here today because I don’t think I can handle missing two in a row.”

Between chemotherapy sessions and blood work and assorted doctor visits to fight leukemia, Tenopir also receives health care on the UNL campus – at the Hawks Center, at Memorial Stadium, wherever those linemen are working.

That’s where the man who might just be the most popular position coach in college football history finds the best medicine.

“I try to come at least twice a week,” he says. “I enjoy coming down, and they’re kind enough to let me do it.”

Tenopir, 75, gets dropped off and picked up by his wife, Terri. He would like to drive to practice himself, but bouts with dizziness make that unsafe.

“She doesn’t want me driving, so she’ll drop me off, and she’ll be here to pick me up,” he says. “She’s the trooper, hauling my butt all over.”

He can operate a motorized scooter just fine, and that’s how he rolls at practice, buzzing around the huddle to get a peek and a listen.

“I always feel good when I come up here,” he says. “I feel good that I watched. I feel good that they allow me to be a part of it. It definitely gives me a boost in the day to be able to come up here.”

When he doesn’t get to practice, it hurts. When he does, it heals.

“I do miss it. I told Terri I feel like I’m working again. I feel like I gotta go,” he says.

“Otherwise, I’d be sitting in the recliner the rest of the day. I enjoy it. I enjoy watching them. I enjoy watching the coaches work.”

Tenopir is already a big fan of Mike Riley and the post-Bo Pelini Husker environment, despite the tough losses that continue to mount.

“This is a good change,” he says. “Coach Riley has put together a staff of teachers. It does remind me a lot of our staff (under Tom Osborne).

“He’s got a disposition similar to Tom’s. He doesn’t hoot ‘n holler. He lets his people work. The thing I like best about them is they don’t put blame on anybody. We’ve played some good football this fall, and there have been a couple of clunkers. He could easily blame somebody for it, but he won’t do that.”

Clunkers were rare when Tenopir was coaching the offensive line for Osborne and later Frank Solich. The Huskers were 295-63-2 during his 29 years on the NU staff (1974-2002). In that stretch, Nebraska led all of college football in rushing 13 times and had 21 All-America linemen – all of that thanks in large part to the work of Tenopir and the late Dan Young and Clete Fischer.

The new line coach, Mike Cavanaugh, doesn’t need a history lesson when it comes to Milt.

“I knew exactly who Milt Tenopir was,” Cavanaugh says. “I have a great respect for him, so he was the first guy I couldn’t wait to meet when I came here. Obviously we’ve developed a great relationship and a great friendship and it’s been awesome.”

They are friends. Their wives are friends. There are dinners. There are football conversations. There are non-football conversations.

Cavanaugh says that what he likes best about Tenopir’s coaching style is the caring part.

“You can coach guys hard, but also love ‘em hard,” Cavanaugh says. “There’s coaching, and then they’ve got to know you’ve got their back.”

It means a lot to the new guy to know that the legendary line coach has his back.

“For him to be out here, that means a ton to myself and Coach Riley and our staff.”

Former offensive tackle Adam Julch loves how Cavanaugh and the other coaches have embraced Tenopir, whom Julch describes as a “second father to me.”

“There’s not a guy alive out there who loves Nebraska football as much as Milt Tenopir,” says Julch, a team co-captain as a senior in 1999. “He cares so much for that university and wants to be a part of it in some ways, even with his current health situation.

“That really warmed me that Coach Cavanaugh is open to input and wants it, and that’s just been a neat thing to see from my point of view.”

Tenopir stays in touch with a lot of his linemen, and many of them check up on him with texts or calls. He made a lot more friends than enemies with the hundreds of big guys who came through the program during those 29 years.

“I had a good relationship with my linemen,” he says. “I was always under the feeling that you could demand as a coach but you could also be a friend. Kids knew if they had a problem they could come in and shoot the bull.

“There were a lot of times when I’d have to explain to them their position, why they were where they were. I had more than 30 linemen at a time because of the way we chose to practice, with four units. We only had five starters, but I really thought it was important from the coaching aspect that every kid, down to the 30th , knew what their role was on our football team, even if it was a scout-teamer.”

In all those years, he can only recall one player who wasn’t buying what the coach was selling.

“I only had one kid who retaliated, and I can’t tell you his name. I don’t know for sure that he did it. I had a discussion with him. I came out and my antenna on my pickup was tied in a knot. That was pretty tough steel. It had to take somebody big and strong to do that.”

No problem, Tenopir says laughing, “I still got decent reception.”

He lights up when he talks about the 1995 juggernaut team, which was recently honored with a variety of 20th anniversary events in and around Lincoln, including a party in Gretna, Neb., that Tenopir and Osborne both attended.

“They had that highlight tape running of that ’95 team. I knew we were pretty good, but I’d forgotten how good,” he says. “I watched that, and I was just amazed.”

He marvels at how mild-mannered types like Chris Dishman, Steve Ott and Eric Anderson turned into monsters in the trenches play after play.

“You wouldn’t think they would have that kind of nastiness in them,” he says, “yet they came out and just played their butts off.”

Some of them – Ott, Jon Zatechka and Aaron Taylor – were not exactly giants either, but they paved the way for an incredible ground attack, one that averaged 400 yards per game.

“Those guys were in the 6-1ish range, except for their heart.”

He also likes the heart of the 2015 Huskers, even though it has been broken time and time again.

“I feel badly for them. It’s one thing after another,” he says. “I do feel that the path they’re on, even though they’ve lost some pretty tough games, is the proper path.”

Tenopir’s path hit a detour in May of 2014 when he found out how sick he was. He spent the first 2 ½ weeks at the Nebraska Medical Center getting daily doses of chemo. For three months after that, he was traveling to Omaha four days a week for treatment.

Terri drove him every time. He is so grateful for the woman who has been there for every mile of this tough journey.

“It’s ain’t easy taking care of me,” he says.

And from the start, it has not been easy for doctors to draw up plays to win this tussle.

“There were so many unknowns,” he says. “The leukemia that I’ve got is normally for young kids. So from the get-go, they really didn’t know how to treat it because of my age. They hammered me pretty good early, but the good thing about this is I’ve never been sick. I ran a fever one time, and that was right after I got out of the hospital, so I had to go back into the emergency room.

“I’m fightin’ her. I’ve got the lineman’s heart.”

The fight got a little tougher in recent days. The biopsy that caused Tenopir to miss that Wednesday practice in late October did not produce good news. Like this year’s Huskers, the red blood cells are getting knocked around a little.

“Something’s getting rid of them about as fast as I can produce them,” Tenopir says.

So another attack was launched at Nebraska Medical Center. The weekend of the Purdue clunker is when he started 10 straight days of chemo, 10 straight days of round-trips to Omaha, 10 straight days of doing whatever it takes to get back in the game.

“I just need to fight her again,” he says.

And he will, because despite the unknowns, there is one thing we know for sure.

That lineman’s heart is no clunker.

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