Hail Varsity Radio caught up with former Nebraska Blackshirt Grant Wistrom on Monday to talk about his recent trip to Lincoln to speak with the team, how it came together and what they talked about.
You can listen to the full interview on ESPN 1480 AM or 101.5 FM from 4-6 p.m. Monday afternoon or online here.
The following is a transcript from that interview, edited for length.
HV: Talk to me about that trip, you and Jason Peter to Lincoln, and how it all came together?
GW: I think Jason had golfed with Scott [Frost] and Coach [Erik] Chinander a couple weeks ago and Erik talked to Jason about getting some guys back in front of the team that really understand what the Blackshirts are supposed to be about. That happened, a couple weeks had passed and Jason shot me a text that said they’d like us to come in and talk. I just reached out to [associate athletic director] Matt Davison and said: "I’d love to come in. From what I understand, Coach Frost and Coach Chinander would like us to come in and I want to do it. I know time is pretty precious right now so if you can find a way to get me up there in a hurry, I’m happy to do it."
HV: In one of the pictures posted on Twitter, you were pointing to your arm. Why?
GW: Trying to emphasize how important being a Blackshirt is to me, how important it is to Jason and just, "Hey, guys, we’ve got lots of tattoos but the only one that has anything to do with where we’ve ever played football is a Blackshirt tattoo." Just get the point across that I’m a Blackshirt as much as my last name is Wistrom.
Just trying to get the guys to understand that it’s not just a practice jersey. There’s so much more to it than that and it takes a special individual to represent what a Blackshirt is supposed to be. I think the message was received, I think they do understand the significance of it. I think there’s still a lot of growing to do but I think they know at least what’s expected of them now. Now it’s up to them to find a way to develop it within themselves to reach the standard.
HV: Can you put into words what a Blackshirt is? What it means to you?
GW: You’re constantly putting the team above yourself. I’m not playing for myself, I’m playing for the guy next to me, I’m playing for Coach Frost, Coach Chinander, I’m playing for my mom or my dad. You’re never doing things for yourself. Whatever is expected or asked of you, you do it no matter how menial you think it is or how beneath you you think it is.
When you’re on a team, you always are putting the team above yourself. Being a Blackshirt is about being mentally tough. When it sucks, when the grind is getting to you, that’s when you’ve got to ratchet it up a notch. When you’re out at practice and you’re just wanting to lean on the offensive linemen instead of battling to get better, a Blackshirt doesn’t do that. A Blackshirt lines up with his hand on the ground every snap like it’s game day. Just instilling a sense of urgency that every snap is imperative that you win. There are no plays off, there’s nothing you take off in life and it’s just something that you attack every day. That’s the way you approach football, that’s the way you approach life and it’s just a mindset you have at all times.
HV: Talk about that Missouri overtime game in ’96 when you and Jason Peter took over, how can you translate that leadership style into today’s era?
GW: It is a different kid that’s playing the game and we have to understand that. There were actually some questions from the team dealing with that which was awesome because you think this is a kid that’s actually listening and digesting this process and they want to apply it. But I think Jason and I and the guys that played back then, there were role models already there, we didn’t have weak senior classes any year. So when I stepped in, it was Aaron Graham and Brenden Stai and Ed Stewart, guys like that who had been in the program and paid their dues and seen the men before them and the standards that they set.
Unfortunately, the guys that are there now don’t have high standards. There wasn’t a senior class before them that raised the bar that you have to reach every day. There is some learning to do there and some developing and there were questions dealing with that. "When did it click for you guys?" And it’s going to be harder for them because they didn’t have the examples that we had before us but it’s still within them to do it.
It takes a guy who comes to work every day and busts his ass to be a leader and then after you’ve earned the respect of people and they understand how badly you want it and how hard you work for it every day, then you can be a vocal leader.
That’s something we tried to get across. For freshmen, you may be the best player on the team but a freshman better now walk into the locker room and be a leader. You have to have somebody there that’s paid their dues, that understands the system. They need to be the leader, not just the most athletic guy or the best football guy on the team. A guy that’s paid his dues, that knows what it takes, when it’s the fourth quarter they’re going to find a way to win the game.
HV: At what point do you think guys started following you two?
GW: Not until our senior year. We probably should have stepped up more our junior year and assumed more of a leadership role.
HV: So your message was don’t wait? Was that part of the discussion on Friday?
GW: Yeah. Don’t be the guy that stands up and pounds his chest and doesn’t back it up either, though. That’s worse than not having a leader at all. You have to earn that right. The main message was being mentally tough. You have to be tough to play football. And then also it’s playing for the other guy, playing for the university, playing for each other.
I think they heard the toughness message. The message that when we’re at practice, we’re not friends with the offense. They are our adversary. We have to line up and kick the crap out of them on every snap, just like they’re trying to do to us. And if we can get two hours of great work out there on the practice field, that’s going to transition to Saturday. But, if you don’t have a tough team – mentally tough, physically tough – you’re going to have a long season, just like we’ve seen for far too long around here. That was a big part of the message.
Talking to Coach Chinander, the following day there was a fight out at practice and two or three scuffled. Now, we weren’t looking to get the guys to fight each other out there but if you’re playing you’re hardest and you’re playing the hardest you can on every snap and that guy across from you is doing the same thing, then tensions are going to run hot and there are going to be skirmishes and shoving after a play and that’s okay. As soon as you walk off the field you’re brothers again. But when we’re out there on the field we are fighting tooth and nail to make each other better.
HV: How can the weight room make you tough and how can that translate to the field?
GW: Being removed from the situation for so long and so far away, I didn’t really realize how far the weight program had fallen and just how deconditioned the guys were to working hard. When they’re made in the fall, they’re made in the offseason.
From what I understand, Coach Duval just handed it to ‘em this offseason and the guys responded incredibly well, they were excited about. You hear the joy in their voices about how hard they worked because we as people are designed to work. When you go out there and you’re working hard and you know you’re paying your dues and you know it’s going to lead to further success down the road, it makes working hard easy and the guys finally got a taste of that. I think they’re going to walk onto the field this season feeling that "we’ve paid dues, now we should expect to go out there and play hard and win the football game."
HV: Do you sense that the guys are confident and excited to attack?
GW: I do. I think they’re very excited about playing for Coach Chinander. I think there’s excitement in the program for just the level of excitement surrounding the program. The guys know they have a chance to be a part of something special. That whole coaching staff is amazing. They all love Coach Frost. The players at UCF loved Frost and that was evident when he left and they were all so happy for him.
The excitement surrounding the program throughout the state, you’re getting these good recruits to come in, there’s a lot of energy there and I feel that. It’s still going to be a learning curve and a process but I think we as fans just want a more excited, more inspired team out there on the field, a harder-playing team, a physical team and a tough team and I don’t believe we will be disappointed this season.
HV: Did you talk to the players at all about the treatment that you guys gave Coach Frost within the team when he came back from Stanford?
GW: So thankful Jason brought that up in the meeting. That was a big premise and a big point of our talk was just being tough.
Jason was like: "Let me tell you about one of the toughest people I know. He’s sitting in the back of the room and he’s your head coach. This is a man that was an incredible athlete in high school, was playing football at Stanford, starting at Stanford but chose to transfer back here and when he got here, I’m not going to lie to you, he was a scout team guy and we treated him like a scout team guy and that wasn’t the kindest way to treat anybody. But he showed up every single day and busted his butt because he is that tough. He knew what he had to do, he knew that he was not above paying his dues just like everybody else in this room. If your coach can do that and he can suffer through that and persevere through that and come through on the other side and be a quarterback who wins a national championship and takes this trajectory of coaching, why can’t you do that as well?"