Husker Walk-Ons, Ag Economy – Strikingly Similar

Memorial Stadium Blimp Color

Whether you’re a passionate fan or simply a bystander, it’s hard to escape the hype that surrounds college football recruiting today. If you somehow managed to missed it, Feb. 6 was national letter of intent day, where high school senior football players from across the country signed on the dotted-line to let colleges and die-hard followers know where they will be taking their lightening quick and physically gifted talents over the course of the next four or five years.

It’s the day ESPN and others put the hype machine in gear to try and generate drama from decisions made by 17-18 year old kids that have never so much caught a pass, made a tackle or much less scored a touchdown on a Division 1 college football field. The popping of flash-bulbs, talk of three-, four- and five-star prospects and efforts to compare this new crop of athletes to college football legends is all in full swing. That of course all leads to the talk of what schools did well, and which schools have been seemingly left with little hope for the future. It’s simply a sign of the times.


Being a true-blue (or red) Husker fan, we all want to do well in the recruiting game. But not that long ago there was a time when the average Nebraska fan didn’t worry quite so much about whether a Husker class was loaded with four- and five-stars. Nebraska had a secret weapon, one that replenished every year. This weapon didn’t draw attention from national pundits, but was widely known even in the smallest communities across our state. Our secret weapon was the walk-on. The blue collar, lunch pail carrying kid, who showed up in Lincoln maybe not with the most talent, stars or hype, but simply a whole lot of pride, passion and old-fashioned want to.

On numerous occasions I’ve heard past Husker greats talk about what it was like to come play at Nebraska and the impact the walk-ons had on them as they watched the dedication in action and witnessed it carry some of these determined kids from relative obscurity into the starting rotation. The walk-on was and is the foundation of something bigger. While they don’t necessarily get the headlines, their contributions over the years have been unmistakable and reflected in decades of winning and championships.

It hadn’t struck  until recently just how much Nebraska’s agriculture economy had in common with the tradition of the walk-on program. Certainly many of these athletes come from rural communities, but the comparison was more so in agriculture’s broader public perception.


As a state we don’t often publicly celebrate or acknowledge the decision of a young farmer or rancher to return to their community to reinvest in the family farm or ranch like we do the placement of a more prominent, well-known company. The scope of investment and job creation between the two are most likely different, however, for the vitality of a rural community that decision by a young farmer or rancher is equally important. As a state we are always aggressively looking to create a climate to land that next four- or five-star business that will bring with it hundreds of new, high-paying jobs. And we should. But it would be a mistake to lose sight of the economic importance and role agriculture plays in our economy.

A UNL study released this past June shows agriculture accounted for more than 40 percent of our state’s total economic output and created more than 289,000 jobs (one out of every four in the state). That’s enough jobs to employ every man, woman and child in Kearney, Neb., more than nine times over. Certainly agriculture is an economic player.

Not so long ago we had a coach who was in charge of the Husker football program who chose not to embrace the value and culture of the walk-ons, ignoring history, and instead choosing to focus solely on the more flashy four- and five-star recruits. The results were less than stellar and a foundation built on decades of commitment and passion crumbled. The winning simply stopped. It was a tough lesson for coaches and fans alike.

As a state we would be well served to make that connection when it comes to our economy. Just like the Huskers we should continue to grow and bring in the best to fill Nebraska’s business roster, but it would be a mistake to forget the farmers, ranchers and other associated agriculture businesses that the foundation of our state’s economy is built upon.

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