Micah Kreikemeier was hungry. Night had fallen on the family farm and it was time to drive nine miles to West Point for supper.
But Mom and Dad were dragging their feet, so Micah waited.
It was Dec. 2, 2007, not the average Sunday in Nebraska. That afternoon, Tom Osborne had ended a turbulent fall by announcing Bo Pelini as the next Husker football coach. Micah, a senior at West Point Central Catholic, watched the press conference on TV.
That fall, Bill Callahan's staff had been recruiting Micah as a potential walk-on. What did Bo Pelini mean to his future? He wasn't sure. He'd figure that out after supper.
The house phone rang. Micah checked the caller ID: “Osborne, Thomas.”
That name had special meaning at the Kreikemeier farm, which goes back almost a century, when Micah's great-grandfather scooped feed into the bunks with a shovel. In 1981, Osborne recruited a walk-on offensive guard from here, Keith Kreikemeier.
Micah grew up playing with Dad's old Husker helmet and cleats. He studied the picture on the office wall of Dad and Osborne at the '84 Orange Bowl. A keepsake.
Now Coach's name appeared on caller ID. Micah picked up the phone and climbed the stairs for some privacy. Five minutes later, he returned with a grin.
Osborne had offered him a scholarship. He was a Husker.
When word got out, people wondered if this was a publicity stunt. Was Osborne trying to make a statement about the direction of the program? Was he worried Iowa State or Kansas — both recruited Micah — might swoop in and take him?
Osborne insisted later he just liked the kid's film.
But Kreikemeier instantly became a symbol of the traditions Callahan had neglected. He was a kid who grew up taking care of 2,500 cattle on a 300-acre farm, stopping on Saturdays only to watch the Big Red on TV. It was straight out of Central Casting.
A few months later, a photographer showed up on a sloppy spring day. Micah rushed home from track practice to take a photo for the magazine Huskers Illustrated. That's what he thought. Turns out, it was Sports Illustrated.
He put on his high school letter jacket, navigated the mud and climbed up on a feedlot gate, holding Dad's Husker helmet. When the story hit gas stations, bookstores and mailboxes across the country, the photo was a striking two-page spread.
Just like that, Micah Kreikemeier was the new national face of Husker football.
“You think there's ever been another feedlot in Sports Illustrated?” Keith said. “My dad was probably turning over in his grave.”
Truth is, Keith wasn't crazy about the attention. There were almost 30 other recruits in the 2008 class. Where were they?
But when a company offered to put the SI spread on a plaque, Keith bought one and hung it in his office.
By Micah's graduation, the hubbub had died down. Reporters from as far as Denver and Kansas City had stopped calling. Micah packed his bags and took off for Lincoln. He joined his new teammates in the dorms.
He started training in the Taj Mahal of weight rooms — slightly more impressive than the weight bench in the basement back home.
On one of the first days of summer drills, Micah lined up in front of a receiver.
“He went one way. I tried and couldn't. My knee wouldn't let me.”
Just like that, freshman year was done. Torn right ACL. When fall camp opened, NU was limited to 105 players. Micah couldn't be on the sideline, in the meeting room, he couldn't even be in the dorm.
He'd never had a significant injury. Never even missed a game. Now, after surgery, he could barely walk.
He rehabilitated and returned the next spring, smacking Quentin Castille in the backfield during the spring game. Keith always believed Micah could compete at this level. That's when he knew for sure.
Micah worked his way to No. 2 Buck linebacker, behind Sean Fisher. He traveled to Virginia Tech.
Then, the week before the Texas Tech game, he was covering a kickoff in practice when he planted his left cleat. His left knee — the healthy one — failed.
It was supposed to be a meniscus injury. Two or three weeks and he'd be back. But an MRI revealed a bone fragment the size of a quarter floating in his knee. He'd had it for two or three years. It had to be removed.
Just like that, redshirt freshman year was done. He was on crutches more than a month.
Six months later, the week before the 2010 spring game, Micah woke up one morning and couldn't extend his elbow. Injury No. 3 set him back further.
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Suddenly Kreikemeier was so far behind his classmates, he couldn't catch up. They were making big gains in the weight room; he was just trying to regain the speed he had in high school.
Back home, Keith heard the occasional murmur from a rival town — See, we knew Micah wasn't good enough.
Nebraska's first scholarship offer after hiring Bo Pelini — the face of the program — had become the forgotten man.
At some point, his mom made sure he knew something important. It was OK to stop. The meetings, the practices, the workouts, all that time he could spend somewhere else. You don't have to do it, she said.
Micah laughed at her.
Life on the farm
Truth is, Micah had come to grips with standing on the sideline every Saturday. He'd come to grips with seeing the other three scholarship linebackers in his class — Fisher, Will Compton and Alonzo Whaley — in the starting lineup.
If he quit, he didn't get to walk through that tunnel on game days. If he quit, he gave up friendships with Compton — they always argue about whose hometown is bigger. And Kyler Reed — the tight end is in Micah's wedding next summer. And the Osborne twins, Stephen and Courtney.
The twins are from suburban Dallas. One day, they got the urge to visit Micah's farm. They showed up in shorts, T-shirts and high-dollar sneakers, but they weren't shy.
They drove the tractor. They climbed the 80-foot-tall Harvestore — they thought they might be able to see Lincoln from the top. They learned the whole process of making money. The highlight, though, was “preg-checking.”
This is how it works: A veterinarian reaches inside a female cow — through the rectum — and finds the uterus, where there may be a fetus. On the hierarchy of tourist activities at the Kreikemeier feedlot, it's just above rolling in manure.
But, sure enough, Micah was rounding up cattle for the vet when he came around a corner and saw one of the twins — a latex sleeve on his arm — shoulder deep inside one of Cuming County's finest heifers.
Micah took a picture and sent it to Stephen and Courtney's mom.
On Sept. 22, almost five years after Tom Osborne appeared on the caller ID, Micah entered his first game. He's played in two more since then, recording two tackles.
He was on the last kickoff at Michigan State, when the Spartans tried desperately to score as time expired. They fumbled and a few Huskers fell on the ball — Micah got credit for the recovery.
Is that his biggest contribution to Nebraska football? No.
He never looked at Husker football as an individual endeavor, Micah says. His class, which leaves alongside Tom Osborne, helped re-establish the attitude that epitomized Nebraska's best teams.
“The mindset that says that you gotta suck it up and make sacrifices,” Micah says. “Not have people coming in, just playing for themselves, trying to get to the (NFL).
“It's about playing for this program, playing for the state. It kinda sucks every day looking up at that banner, seeing 1999 is the last time we had a conference championship. That's what our goal is.”
Yes, it's a been bumpy road, Micah says, “but not too many people can say they've gone on that road, either.”
Saturday represents the beginning of the end — Senior Day. Micah probably won't play unless it's a blowout.
But he'll make an extra effort to soak in the atmosphere. Before kickoff, he'll hear his name over those mammoth speakers, jog out of the tunnel alone and meet his mom and dad on the field. After the game, the seniors' families will get together and remember five years that went too fast.
Back on the farm, the picture of Keith Kreikemeier and Tom Osborne at the '84 Orange Bowl still hangs on the wall. But they've taken down the Sports Illustrated photo. They replaced it with a poster of all 30 Husker seniors.
Micah is second row, fifth from the right. Barely noticeable, but right in the middle.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/dirkchatelain
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