LINCOLN — The kids wanted a dog. How could Milt Tenopir say no?
So the Nebraska offensive line coach hunted through the newspaper and found an overpriced cocker spaniel. His two young stepchildren named him after their favorite football player, a Husker center who spent a lot of time at the Tenopir house.
“Doesn't sound too flattering,” Tenopir says, “but that's what the kids wanted to name him.”
He tells the story from a quiet sports bar, stopping to spit tobacco into an empty water bottle. It's Oct. 12, a cold, gray Lincoln morning, a decade to the day after a terrorist bomb annihilated an Indonesian nightclub.
Of all the memories of Jake Young, his old coach remembers the dog. And what happened next.
Tenopir left for work one morning, steering his Chevy pickup down his long, narrow, wooded driveway off South 40th Street. He received a call from his wife.
The dog had followed him to the street. Got hit by a truck.
Tenopir went home and told the kids. They had a ceremony in the backyard. They buried Jake beneath two pines next to the garage.
A week later, the namesake for that dog — a blond-haired, hard-wired Texan insomniac who would go on to be a two-time All-American, a two-time academic All-American, a marathon runner in Chicago, a corporate lawyer in Kansas City, a rugby star in Hong Kong and, according to a teammate, “an unforgettable character” — showed up at the Tenopir house with a gift.
A mutt from the pound. The kids gave the dog the only name that made sense:
Jake the Second.
* * *
Game day. Oct. 20, 2012.
Smoke rises from charcoal grills into a blue sky. Nebraska's first road trip to Chicago in 80 years has drawn thousands of Husker fans.
In an alley west of Northwestern's Ryan Field, three old Husker line mates — mid-40s and balding — sip beers and wait for kickoff.
Doug Glaser. Bill Bobbora. Jim Wanek.
They used to be four. Wanek describes the scene at the 1997 Big 12 championship game — they attended as spectators.
Nebraska beat Texas A&M 54-15 en route to a national championship. Aggie fans didn't like that. Out of nowhere, one walked up to Bobbora's dad and punched him in the face. That started a brawl, during which Big Red was badly outnumbered.
Bobbora came up with a strategy: Shove the Aggie fans toward Jake Young, who was “round-housing” like Joe Frazier. It worked for a while. Then, suddenly, Jake shouted “Timeout!”
“The whole fight stops,” Glaser says.
Jake's glasses had fallen off. He wasn't rejoining this scrum until he found them.
“He's just one of those guys, when you met him you just knew there was something special about him,” Bobbora said. “Some people you say, 'Wow, I want to follow him.' It wasn't necessarily that with Jake. It was more like, 'Wow, I want this guy on my side.'”
Who was Jake Young?
To Husker football fans, he was the first true freshman lineman to letter at Nebraska in the modern era. A three-year starting center and linchpin of the Huskers' dominant rushing attacks in the late-'80s.
To Tenopir, Jake was the emotional leader of the closest line he ever coached. Jake didn't have All-American strength and quickness. He had a knack for working on the ground. Scramble blocking. Shooting through a crease and taking a linebacker off his feet. He had an inner drive Tenopir didn't have to teach. In fact, sometimes Milt had to pull the reins back.
“He was kinda my guy,” Tenopir said. “I was his daddy here.”
To his teammates, he was the guy whose Ford Bronco got towed so many times — parking tickets — he knew the impound lot phone number by heart. The guy whose study habits and manners were impeccable — Yes sir, No ma'am — but whose punctuality was not.
The guy who cursed in practice when he screwed up, drawing a scolding from Coach Osborne — “Jake, it's not a war, it's only a game.” The guy who sprained his knee the week before the 1988 Kickoff Classic. He was in uniform, but on crutches ... until his replacement overheated near the goal line. Jake put on his helmet and moved toward the field. Teammates stopped him before he could steal third-team center Roger Fitzke's moment of glory. Nebraska scored the next play.
More than anything, they remember a guy who lived thousands of hours while others slept. Last to bed, first to rise.
Freshman year at the Sugar Bowl, he came home from the New Orleans bars at 5 a.m. and didn't get caught ... until he jumped on Glaser's bed, screaming and hollering. Assistant Frank Solich had the room next door.
Sophomore year at Missouri, he hurt his knee. That night, after the team flew home, he drove to his buddies' house. The front door was unlocked, so he climbed the stairs on crutches and pounded on Wanek's door. It was 3 a.m., but he wanted breakfast.
Wanek, half-asleep, considered his options. “Jake would've sat outside my room all night.”
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So they went to Village Inn. Wanek was so ticked they barely spoke. But Jake got his huevos rancheros.
On New Year's Day 1990, they played their last game together. Nebraska got blown out by Florida State at the Fiesta Bowl. As teammates boarded the buses, Jake sat in front of his locker, refusing to take off his white No. 68.
* * *
He hated running. He was 6-foot-4, 270 pounds. Too big for a recreational jogger.
But getting fat was worse. So during law school at Nebraska, Jake ditched his cleats for cross trainers. He didn't stop until he hit the finish line at the Chicago Marathon. All 26.2 miles.
By then, he was working mergers and acquisitions for a Kansas City firm. Still not sleeping.
When he met the guys for a Husker road trip, he joined the Friday night party for a few hours, then found a branch of his law office and worked till 2 a.m. Five hours later, he was tailgating outside the stadium. When he hosted them in Kansas City, he retired from the bars to take his Labrador for a six-mile run.
“I'm thinking, I've had several beers, I need to go to bed!” Wanek said. “I don't even think I could run around the block.”
At a Kansas City Chiefs game in November 1994, Jake met a future nurse practitioner named Laura. Friends set them up, and they handed out tickets. Jake and Laura were side-by-side, alone.
Three months later, he proposed.
Over the next five years, he showed Laura his old stomping grounds. Memorial Stadium. Village Inn. Barry's Bar, where he worked as a bouncer. He took her and the Lab to Tenopir's house. When are you gonna replace that dog with a kid, Milt joked.
He conducted business all over the country, breaking up the long hours with exercise. He ran through rush-hour traffic in downtown Manhattan. He ran up Squaw Peak under a full moon in Phoenix.
He wanted more.
One of his co-workers, an Irishman, told Jake about a job in international law at the British firm Clifford Chance. One Saturday morning in the spring of 2000, Jake told Laura he had some news.
If you're OK with it, I'm gonna take a job in Hong Kong.
Honey, she said, I have some news, too.
His mouth dropped: “OK, you win.”
* * *
He hated posing for pictures. He was a red-blooded American male — and a little self-conscious about his receding hairline.
But now, based in Hong Kong, he was traveling the world — Hawaii, India, Australia, Europe, China. Now he had baby Wilson. He wanted pictures. And he wasn't the only one.
All over Asia, he and his son drew stares. Strangers snapped photos of this 6-foot-4, fair-skinned giant in his beloved Yankees hat. And of the blond, blue-eyed toddler.
Can we touch his hair?
Jake loved the vibrance of Hong Kong. He made fast friends — they called him the “Mayor” because he knew everyone. He discovered another passion: rugby.
The jerseys come without pads — and the helmet has no face mask. The perfect sport for Jake.
He worked his way up the ranks, starting out on a JV squad with Chinese teammates half his size. Soon he was teaming with ex-pats from Australia and Canada and England.
But his two-year contract in Hong Kong was ending. In September 2002, Jake and Laura discussed their options. Clifford Chance wanted to send him to New York. He preferred an opportunity back in Kansas City. In-house counsel for Bank Midwest. He signed a contract. They bought a house.
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But first, they wanted one more Asian vacation.
Bali was hosting the season's final rugby tournament with teams from all over the region.
He and his family flew down a week early. They listened to music on the beach. They went to the monkey forest. Laura dragged him basket shopping.
Then Jake took them to the airport. When the tournament was over, he would follow them.
“Don't forget to meet me in K.C.,” Laura said.
On Oct. 12, his last night before coming home, he told Laura his team had won that day and they were going to Kuta Beach.
At 11 p.m., Jake had just walked into Paddy's Pub when a suicide bomber linked to al-Qaida blew up his backpack. Within a minute, another bomb exploded inside a van across the street.
Laura hadn't heard anything when she called his phone. It rang and rang and rang but never went to voicemail. Then she turned on the TV and saw the carnage from the first major terrorist attack since 9/11.
From there, it was a haze.
The “Today Show” interviewed Jake's parents. The family filed a missing persons report. They called anybody who might have heard from him, anybody who might be able to find him, including Congressman Tom Osborne. The U.S. Consulate told them not to fly to Bali, so they sent his fingerprints and dental records. All the while, they wondered why he couldn't have been late — he was always late.
Almost two weeks passed before Laura got confirmation. The final death toll was 202, including a 34-year-old Yankees fan.
Lying in the rubble, Jake was still wearing his hat.
* * *
Oct. 26, 2002. Game day.
The Huskers, in the midst of a miserable 7-7 season, traveled to Texas A&M for a night game. Milt Tenopir was there coaching the offensive line. His mind was elsewhere.
Seven hundred miles north in Kansas City, Jake's wife, son, parents and friends, including rugby teammates from Hong Kong, huddled around a TV in a hotel suite. They had just buried Jake on a hill beneath a tree.
They watched Nebraska rally in the rain from a 31-14 deficit. They watched Tenopir's offensive line throw roundhouse punches — toss sweeps and isolations — at a stalwart Aggie defense. Three hundred eighty-one rushing yards.
Tenopir, who retired at the end of that season, helped win 295 games at Nebraska. He was never part of a larger comeback.
“That line just put on a display,” Bobbora said. “They got after it that night.”
After the game, sitting at the hotel bar in Kansas City, Jake's offensive line mates made a commitment, fueled by booze and sealed with a handshake.
They would stick together. Find time for each other. Protect and savor the bonds they'd built.
A decade later, they meet half a dozen times every year. They go fishing. They follow the Huskers on the road. The biggest date is the spring game.
Doug Glaser comes from Dallas, Bill Bobbora from Houston, Jim Wanek from Des Moines. They meet up with former teammates like Roger Fitzke who live in Nebraska. They find the long, narrow, wooded driveway off South 40th Street.
Tenopir owns two big kettle grills. This past April — after a monsoon wiped out the spring game — he had them ready to cook. But where were the guys?
Pretty soon, Tenopir saw the Embassy Suites shuttle rolling down his drive.
“Doug Glaser had conned 'em into bringing 'em over,” Tenopir says.
They ate Milt's onion-seasoned burgers. They drank Milt's Busch Light.
They fulfilled one more promise made the night of the funeral, one thing they do every year right before the room gets silent and someone has to change the subject.
They toasted one to No. 68.
* * *
In 2008, Laura married a football coach from Ohio. She and Wilson moved to a Cleveland suburb. That's where he's learning the game.
He's in sixth grade, and this is his first year of tackle — he requested a No. 68 practice jersey. He's still getting used to the contact, but intensity is not a problem.
A coach once told Laura he'd never seen a kid with a look in his eyes like Wilson.
“And I said, 'Well, you didn't know his father.'”
Wilson hears stories. He sees pictures. And every fall, his mom pulls him out of school on a Friday. They fly to Nebraska and meet up with Jake's parents and sister. Before the game, they go down to the sideline, where Wilson presents a scholarship award to a Husker who embodies Jake's values — Saturday night he gave it to Cole Pensick, an offensive lineman.
This is where Wilson wants to go to college. His buddies cheer for the Buckeyes, but his bedroom is covered with Huskers. He was running out to the field a few weeks ago when a friend's dad yelled, “Hey, Wilson, what was the score of that Ohio State-Nebraska game?”
“I can't hear you!” Wilson said.
His hair is blond, his cheeks are dotted with freckles, and on weekends, he's the first one up in the morning. To friends, he bears resemblance to Dennis the Menace.
But look closer and you'll see the spitting image of a man who pulled into Milt Tenopir's driveway carrying a black mutt.
He's Jake the Second. Today is his 12th birthday.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/dirkchatelain