LINCOLN — On a Thursday afternoon in April, the Nebraska football team flooded into the Osborne Complex auditorium.
Spring ball was over, summer conditioning hadn't started. The semester was winding down, the weather was warming up. If ever there were a time to take a break from football, it was now.
Yet here the Huskers were, staring at a former special operations officer in the Marines as he preached the value of leadership and teamwork.
Talent will help you win games, he said. But making a commitment to get that much better — he put his thumb and forefinger 2 inches apart — will help you compete for championships. It all sounded very clichť.
The Huskers' recent efforts had produced only frustration. Two Big 12 championship losses. A first-year flop in the Big Ten. A humiliating bowl loss to South Carolina.
They wanted more. But how? That was the riddle they had to solve.
On that day, April 19, there was no reason to think the answer was Eric Kapitulik's boot camp, which he called “The Program.” When players first heard about it, Alonzo Whaley said, “we thought it was a joke.”
It was not.
The next morning, as players left the Devaney Center, they had endured the most rigorous workout of their lives. They held 14-foot logs over their heads and carried 50-pound sandbags. They did more push-ups, sit-ups and flutter kicks than they could count. They traded sweatshirts under water. All while suppressing the urge to punch teammates.
They had taken a step toward building not the strongest or fastest Big Ten team, but the tightest and toughest.
Seven months later, Nebraska rides a six-game winning streak into the Big Ten championship game. It overcame menacing halftime deficits against Wisconsin and Penn State. It rallied in the fourth quarter at Northwestern and at Michigan State. How? Why?
According to several Huskers, the answer starts that April day with The Program.
Said defensive back Ciante Evans: “That's when this team really came together.”
* * *
Whaley was charged with the first task. Get your 150 teammates down to the Hawks Center. There's a stack of logs and sandbags. Set them up.
How long do you need to execute the task, Kapitulik said. Whaley wasn't sure what to say. Twenty minutes? Thirty?
No, Kapitulik said. You get five minutes.
Frantically, Whaley directed his teammates. He beat his time limit. Or so he thought.
Then Kapitulik's instructional team sent every Husker back to the auditorium. Why? They had left behind a few pieces of trash.
Senior P.J. Smith's response: “Are you kidding?”
He wasn't the only one grumbling.
“I was miserable,” receiver Kenny Bell said. “I probably had the worst attitude of anybody on the team. I thought, what are we doing this for? What's this going to do for us?”
Was this a team-building exercise or a time-wasting charade?
Actually, The Program had been on the Nebraska schedule since January. Indiana assistant Mike Ekeler, the former NU linebackers coach, recommended it to Nebraska strength and conditioning coach James Dobson.
Kapitulik entered the leadership development business in 2008. By removing athletes from their comfort zone, exhausting them physically and stressing them mentally, he believed, The Program could expose weaknesses and force players to look at their responsibility in a new light.
Among the core principles: Set high standards. Pay attention to detail. Perform under pressure.
Drill No. 1: Log poles and sandbags. Split up into groups of 10 to 15 players. Hold a 14-foot pole over your heads as two teammates depart with a sandbag.
Player A runs with the bag to the 41-yard line, hands it to Player B, who brings it back to the log pole, where two more teammates are ready to run.
The Program instructor delivers commands to the team leader, who passes them on to his teammates under the log. Bring it down! Lift it up! Meanwhile, instructors bark at players, trying to disrupt their concentration.
Any mistake — any unsynchronized movement — is punished. The team leader, not the accused, gets a tongue-lashing and everyone starts over.
The Huskers start over a lot.
“At times, you want to knock a teammate out,” Smith says.
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When every member of the group carries the sandbag 41 yards without error, the Husker team leader says, “Time!”
Is that the fastest you can do, the instructor says.
No. So they do it again.
This time, the Husker team leader says, “Yes.” This was the fastest we can do. He's trying to save his teammates from more punishment. He's trying to give them a break.
The instructor's response: I've seen high school teams go faster.
So they go again. And again and again. And to their surprise, they get better. And the more their time drops, the more they want to go even faster.
By 10 p.m. Thursday, the log poles and sandbags are packed up. Players are exhausted, but it's only halftime. Day two starts at the Devaney Center pool.
Be ready at 4 a.m.
* * *
Here's the challenge in conducting drills in a swimming pool. Not every Husker can swim.
“They made us go into the deep water,” Evans said. “I was like, 'Oh Lord.' ”
Day Two is far tougher than the first. And not just because of the water. The Program mandates that players wear hooded sweatshirts in the pool.
Drill No. 2 begins: Take off your sweatshirt. Hold it up. Switch with a teammate. Put it back on.
“Time!” the Husker leader says.
Too slow. They go again and again and again. Each time, the sweatshirt gets a little heavier. Mistakes get easier.
“That's another one where you just wanted to fight people,” Smith says.
They spend most of the morning in the water fumbling with those sweatshirts, stopping and starting over. But amid the stress, there are little moments of triumph.
In one drill, players take off their sweatshirts, turn them inside out and put them back on. When one struggles to stay above water, a teammate swims under him and lifts him up. Then it happens again with another teammate.
Nebraska coaches stand outside the pool, watching silently as a new hierarchy emerges. Seniors get help from freshmen. Starters get a hand from walk-ons. Players they never envisioned in leadership roles momentarily take over.
Last Drill: The instructor calls Kenny Bell to lead the offense.
His group works out of the pool, doing push-ups, sit-ups, mountain climbers, flutter kicks, jumping jacks, all in perfect unison. The defense is in the pool, swimming from one end to another and back.
Then they switch places. Over and over. Lap after lap.
In the water, Bell does something the instructors have never seen. Instead of escorting his group across the pool, he jumps in last. He pushes them forward. He leads from behind.
For the first time in two years, the skinny sophomore receiver with crazy hair feels like he owns a stake in Nebraska football.
“It was the defining moment of my college career as far as my attitude and how I approach my work every day,” Bell said. “It was the point I realized I actually have a voice on this team. I could use it.”
By 10 a.m., The Program is over. The Huskers are ready to sleep.
But first, one Husker receives The Program's highest honor — a souvenir awarded to the best leader and teammate.
Seven months later, Kenny Bell calls it his proudest T-shirt.
* * *
At the end of every football practice, the Huskers line up, a leader steps forward and says, “One perfect jumping jack.”
The team repeats him.
The team repeats him.
It's the simplest of exercises, right out of a first-grade P.E. class. But if every hand doesn't hit every leg simultaneously, they do it again.
One thing every athlete wants is an edge, Ron Brown says. What the Huskers realized in April is that “it's not in some fancy pep talk or outward miracle that's going to happen overnight. It's going to usually be found locked inside.”
The Program started bearing fruit in June — during 5 a.m. summer workouts. When drills got hard, players found themselves remembering log poles and sand bags. They raised their standards. They focused on the smallest of details. They pushed through fatigue.
“Your brain can tell your body to do anything,” Bell says.
It really made a difference, Smith says, after Nebraska's loss at Ohio State. That's when the season could've unraveled. But players took responsibility for their teammates. They didn't get rattled by mistakes or deficits. They started over — and haven't lost since.
Now they stand on the brink of an achievement that seemed so far away when they staggered into the Devaney Center at 4 a.m., put on their sweatshirts and jumped into the deep end.
It's time to swim.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/dirkchatelain