LINCOLN — Chris Chambers.
It took me years to match up a movie character to Nebraska linebacker Will Compton, whose grin and nature has a movie character quality to it. And Monday's Senior Week press conference sealed it: Chris Chambers from “Stand By Me.” Compton even looks a little like River Phoenix did.
Chris Chambers. Remember? The leader of the bunch, quick joker, secretly serious, with a study habit to match his on-field spirit? That's Compton.
You'd want to go look for some kid's body with a guy like that. He'd keep good company. There hasn't been anything remotely morbid about the past five seasons of Nebraska football, but it's been a long, winding, occasionally perilous journey that these seniors have taken with coach Bo Pelini.
It's reaching an end. And somehow, after four double-digit comebacks, Nebraska remains in the driver's seat, a league title in sight.
“We'll remember this month in particular — and the beginning of next month — for the rest of our life,” Compton said. “We're chasing our goals.”
He doesn't want to get emotional Saturday before that final Tunnel Walk, when coach Pelini whispers a quick encouragement in Compton's ear and he goes out to meet his parents on the field.
But defensive end Eric Martin pretty much guaranteed it. Why? Because Compton cried last year.
“And he wasn't even a senior,” Martin said.
Compton said his teammates call him “sentimental” because he keeps mentioning, out loud, the last time the seniors will do one thing or another. Some guys don't feel the loss of their college careers until years later. Compton's on the other end of the spectrum. He's in the moment — perfectly present — as the final days tick away. So are many of his fellow seniors.
Pelini calls it “a sense of urgency.” I'd call it a lot of men bearing witness to their final hours of extended childhood and knowing that, however great their football playing or coaching careers might be after this year, it won't be good like this again.
The Bonne Terre, Mo., native recalled the story Monday of how he arrived at NU. He'd committed to Kevin Cosgrove and Bill Callahan in 2007 as part what looked like a top-five recruiting class. Until Callahan lost and Cosgrove started dashing into elevators to avoid tough questions.
“Everybody kind of scattered,” Compton said of his fellow recruits. Guys like Blaine Gabbert and Dan Hoch.
Compton nominally stayed committed to Nebraska, but by January he was ready to commit to Missouri, a thought that made his mom, Kathy, cry.
“She thought I was making a mistake,” Compton said.
So did Pelini, who sent his whole defensive staff down to Compton's house in Bonne Terre to watch the Giants upset the Packers in the NFC championship. Then-linebackers coach Mike Ekeler wore a Blackshirts tattoo with “Compton” written on top.
“It was just Nebraska from there,” Compton said.
Pelini made a deliberate choice to redshirt most of that 2008 class. He nearly burned Compton's redshirt in the Virginia Tech game — when Phil Dillard blew a coverage — and Compton darn near volunteered to burn it himself a few weeks later versus Baylor when the Huskers got hit with a slew of injuries. But he stayed on the sideline.
That patience set up a shot at playing this year. Not Compton's numbers — 83 tackles and three fumble recoveries — but his role in giving Pelini offseason feedback, and Pelini accepting that feedback, helped sow the seeds for the in-season comebacks.
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“I don't know if we would have been able to do that a year ago, two years ago or three years ago,” Pelini said. “That requires mental toughness, it requires a belief in each other and belief in the team.”
Compton built that belief in smaller moments.
He built it when he lost most of his playing time to a deserving Dillard midway through the 2009 season and didn't whine about it.
He built it in 2010, when he got hurt just days before the season opener, then spent several nights coaching up Alonzo Whaley to take his spot.
He built it riding around at practice on a scooter, grinning wide, while he rehabbed his injured foot.
He built it when he sheepishly admitted that he really didn't do anything to help Lavonte David make that dramatic fourth-down stop in the 2011 Penn State game.
He builds it weekly, linebacker coach Ross Els said, in the sheer amount of film he's willing to watch to know an opponent inside out.
“He's a leader because he deserves it,” Els said. “The guys know: He's put in the work. He's put in the time. He's put in the pain and the suffering. And they listen to him because of that.”
Compton calls that senior group a brotherhood. A lot of seniors at a lot of schools do. What makes Compton's declaration different is that he'll admit they argue. They bicker. And they come back together.
“Like brothers would,” he said.
Is Compton the peacemaker of the bunch? You remember that Chris Chambers, under the tough, rascal exterior, was a peacemaker at heart.
“Sometimes I might be bickering or in the argument,” he said. “Other times, I might be the peacemaker. You get a lot of different things with us. But we're all close and we all have each other's backs.”
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