Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Walk-on

(Published September 2009)

Andrew might know.

Why a kid who didn't crack the all-district football team as a high school senior drops his Division II scholarship to carry Mace and handcuffs around a Target parking lot.

What prompts that 19-year-old living with Mom and Dad to rise before dawn and punish his muscles and joints because, six months later, there's a 2 percent chance he'll win a walk-on spot at Nebraska.

How this man, a husband with bad knees and tuition bills, returns to the practice field every day to watch hot-shot recruits steal his chance again and again.

When precisely a Husker career destined to end quietly turned a corner.

Where to start in telling Matt O'Hanlon's story.

Yes, Andrew would know. Best friends are good at knowing that kind of thing.


Maybe start here, in a northeast Ohio steel mill, where Matt O'Hanlon's father burned scrap metal. At 26, he decided he didn't want to grow old with a torch in his hand.

So he joined the Air Force and became an intelligence officer. Moved the family to Denver, where Matt was born, then Germany, then Bellevue.

He taught his son to chase what he wanted. Don't settle.

Competitive drive? Matt had it from the day he put on a uniform.

On the soccer field, he had a propensity to draw an official's red card. On the T-ball diamond, he once fielded a ball in the outfield and sprinted to home plate to tag out a runner.

As a sophomore at Bellevue East, O'Hanlon started at quarterback against eventual state champ Millard West. On a third down, he kept the ball on a play called “6G Keep.”

West's all-state lineman, Nick Leaders, flattened O'Hanlon before he could reach the marker.

O'Hanlon staggered to the sideline and East coach Jerry Lovell checked on his quarterback. “He had snot bubbles running out his nose,” Lovell said.

You OK?

Uh-huh, O'Hanlon said.

Well, what play do you want to run to start the next series?

“6G Keep,” O'Hanlon said. He wanted another shot at Leaders.

No, no, Lovell said, that's probably not a good idea.

O'Hanlon planned to walk on at Nebraska, but Steve Pederson hired Bill Callahan midway through his senior year, and O'Hanlon didn't receive any attention from the new coaching staff.

He reluctantly accepted a scholarship to South Dakota. A few weeks of fall camp crystallized what was in his gut: He was going to be a Husker whether they wanted him or not. So he packed his green Escort and headed home.

“I just didn't want to go through my whole life with what-ifs.”

That fall, as his friends started college, O'Hanlon was working 30 hours a week as a Target security guard.

“I got to wear the whole outfit. I had my Mace, my handcuffs. Never got to use them, unfortunately.”

At 5 a.m., he awoke daily to train. He polished his 40-yard dash and vertical jump. He waited.

In January 2005, he enrolled at NU and inquired again about walking on. Assistant Scott Downing directed him to a tryout. O'Hanlon called every few days to double-check time and place.

On a February night at Cook Pavilion, O'Hanlon got in line with 50 or 60 other wannabe Huskers. They were competing for one roster spot.

He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds. He finished a pro-agility drill in 3.91 seconds. He jumped vertically 38 inches. He walked away satisfied, but unsure.

“I had put about six months of my life into a 20-minute tryout.”

A week later, he was driving home from church when the call came. He walked in the house, concealed a grin and said to his family, “Well, I made it.”

Not exactly.

Backyard ball

“When we first met, he didn't know how to tie his shoes,” Matt said. “He came over to me and asked me to tie his shoes. We just hit it off.

“We were walking home that same day and just kept going the same direction. I was like, ‘Dude, you live right behind me.'”

Only a chain-link fence separated them.

Andrew's mom remembers on occasion looking out her back window and seeing a grade schooler hanging upside down. Climbing from yard to yard, one of the boys had gotten a foot stuck in the fence.
Sometimes it was Matt, sometimes Andrew, sometimes you couldn't tell.

When they weren't prying each other free, they were playing backyard football.

“We'd play until the sun went down,” Matt said. Sometimes we'd play in the streetlights.”
Andrew wanted to play for Florida State someday. Matt set his sights a little closer to home.

Scout team

He walked onto the Nebraska practice field in March 2005 and didn't know a soul. He didn't know the schemes or the coaches. And everybody was bigger and faster than he anticipated.

What had he gotten himself into?

That spring, he barely practiced. All that time. All that work. For what? To stand on the sideline for three hours and get two or three snaps?

“I didn't know if it was something I wanted to do for the next five years.”

O'Hanlon left the team for one day. He talked to Dad and future wife Abby. He decided to go back. Things didn't change much.

Each time he worked his way up to third string, a new recruit jumped him. His role was “just scout (team) stuff. You just see where you're supposed to go from the arrows on the cards. I was just kind of a body out there moving around.”

By the fall of 2007, Callahan's program was crumbling. So, too, was the will of a walk-on safety. O'Hanlon had made the kickoff teams, but he suffered from tendinitis in both knees. He'd go straight from the field to a half-hour ice bath every day.

“I could barely walk after practices.”

He told Andrew that he couldn't do another season under the same coaching staff.

It was hard investing energy in conditioning and practice and meetings. But harder still to sit the bench believing that you were as good as the players on the field.

It was time.

Taking a toll

In December 2002, Andrew went to the hospital with a nasty cold.

The illness activated his immune system. Trouble was, his immune system didn't stop. It attacked his normal blood vessels, causing inflammation.

Wegener's Disease ravaged his sinuses, his lungs, his kidneys. On Christmas Eve night, doctors told Andrew that he had to go into a drug-induced coma the next morning.

Two weeks passed. He missed the holidays. Missed the bowl games. Missed the start of school. Missed the dozens of friends who stopped to see him.

“It was hard,” Matt said. “He was just lying there.”

When Andrew left the hospital in January, he had lost about 50 pounds. Slowly he gained strength. He rejoined the Bellevue East football team that fall; he was long snapper on a state playoff team.

Of course, he missed a week to hobnob with Bobby Bowden, a gift from the Make-a-Wish foundation.

The next two years, Andrew kept the disease under control with medication. He completed high school. He worked at the zoo. He took college classes.

But his kidneys deteriorated. As Matt stewed over playing time, Andrew toted around a dialysis machine that did what his kidneys couldn't.

Didn't stop him from sporting a tux for Matt's wedding in May 2007. Andrew was best man. He swallowed his Seminole allegiance and joined the groomsmen in donning Husker hats as they walked away from the altar to “Hail Varsity.”

That fall, Andrew's spirit waned. He had goals, too, and they were feeling further and further away.

“There were times when he'd call me and I could just tell by his voice he was just feeling terrible,” Matt said.

The football season ended, Callahan was fired and Bo Pelini hired. Matt decided to stick around and see what the new guy was like.

In January, Andrew got an infection in his left arm. On Wednesday, he went to the hospital with a high fever.

Friday morning, the day before he turned 22, he died.

Family and friends didn't get much out of Matt those next few weeks. Tom Osborne called to check in. So did Pelini.

But Matt kept his grief inside — and his promise quiet.

Second wind

Every starting job was open, Pelini announced. Didn't matter if you were a four-year scholarship player or a first-year walk-on.

Pelini was talking to a lot of people when he said it. He was talking to Matt O'Hanlon.

When spring ball started the month after Andrew died, O'Hanlon actually got reps. He learned safety techniques he'd never been taught. He felt reinvigorated.

He took another step after spring ball, when he had surgery on both knees, relieving his chronic pain.

Tuesday before the season opener, Marvin Sanders named him starter at free safety. The same week, he learned he was eligible for 2009 — he never enrolled at South Dakota, so the NCAA didn't count 2004 against him. The next week, he got a scholarship.

His first season as a starter came with adversity. He had never before played defense in a real game. He had a lot to learn. His education culminated in the last few plays of the Gator Bowl.

What was he thinking on third-and-goal when he saw Clemson speedster C.J. Spiller streaking down the seam against linebacker Tyler Wortman with the Huskers leading 26-21 and two minutes left?

“Oh sh--.”

At the last moment, O'Hanlon knocked away the pass. He saved the game.


Remnants of the past accompany him each day. On the back of his gold keychain, engraved is 2-20-05, the day he made the team.

Most game days, O'Hanlon sticks eyeblack on his cheek. Under one eye, he writes in white marker “AP.” Under the other, Andrew Pawlak's football number, “24.”

Growing up, Matt had another dream. This one, Andrew shared. The boys carried it through the high school hallways. They spoke of it often.

They wanted to be teachers at Bellevue East. They wanted to coach football under the lights.

Playing days are almost over now — only four months left in an odyssey that started in a Bellevue backyard.

But a silent vow to an old friend endures.

Keep going.

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