LINCOLN — Nebraska senior defensive lineman Mick Stoltenberg stepped to the podium after the Huskers’ 45-9 win over Bethune-Cookman Saturday.
He didn’t want to talk right away about returning to action after several weeks off because of an injury. He wanted to talk about his buddy.
“I just wanted to give a shout out to Matt Jarzynka, No. 47 from Loup City, Nebraska,” Stoltenberg said. “Came in with that kid five years ago. He’s a walk-on here. He’s worked his (behind) off every single day and didn’t complain once. He’s given all he has to this program. For him to get out there and make that TFL (tackle for loss), that was awesome.”
What Jarzynka did will never been mentioned in any record books. Few will remember it. It will be lost in the history of the Husker program.
What Jarzynka did was he sacked Bethune-Cookman quarterback David Isreal for a 6-yard loss. It was not only Jarzynka’s first sack of his career, but it was the first tackle period for the fifth-year walk-on.
“It was basically an RPO (run/pass option) play they were looking at,” Jarzynka said. “I had the quarterback and I did my job. I ran at the quarterback and got lucky I guess.”
For nearly five seasons, Jarzynka had toiled away in obscurity. As it says in his official Husker bio, he “added depth on the defensive line,” which is sports information speak for he never played.
“It was basically kind of like a lifelong dream accomplished,” Jarzynka said. “A small-town kid from Nebraska. Ever since I was old enough to walk I wanted to play football for Nebraska. I finally got that opportunity to do that today and I thought I made the most of it.”
Jarzynka considered not even returning for his senior season with the Huskers. He had an internship this past summer with a grain company back home. That’s where his future business interests lie.
But after careful consideration, Jarzynka decided he wanted to finish this thing out.
“It was even a question of was it worth coming back to finish it out,” he said. “This just totally proves it. This is exactly why I’m here. This is why I stuck it out for as long as I’ve done it.”
When he lined up for his moment in the sun, Jarzynka looked around him. All he saw were some of his best friends beside him on the defensive line.
“I had Jordan Paup to the right of me, a Central City walk-on,” Jarzynka said. “We’re pretty close friends. It was special to get to share with him. I had Damian Jackson on the other end and Vaha (Vainuku) at the nose. Those are all guys I consider close friends. It was nice to get to share the field with them.”
Nebraska coach Scott Frost understands. Frost certainly wasn’t a walk-on when he was leading the Huskers to a national title in 1997, but he played with a bunch of them and appreciates what they bring to the program.
“Those are the type of kids that I played with,” Frost said. “They’re the type of kids that make up the patchwork of this program. We want more of them. We want more of them contributing, but any time one of those kids is out there, it’s a little extra special to me.”
And then after the game, Jarzynka got the message from Shamus McKnight of the sports information department. His presence was requested, maybe even required, in the interview area.
When he arrived there, Jarzynka was surrounded by media members armed with cameras and notepads and audio recorders. It was a new experience for Jarzynka.
“This is definitely something I’m not used to,” he said. “This is my first time up here.”
He didn’t dream of getting interviewed as a Husker player. He just dreamed of being a Husker player.
Jarzynka certainly isn’t unique. There have been thousands of Nebraska youngsters over the years that have had that same dream.
There will be more in the future.
“There are tons of kids out there in Nebraska who just dream of this,” Jarzynka said. “To have the opportunity to be a part of this team, I was lucky enough to get called on and got to make a pretty great play.”
Jarzynka knows what it takes to be a walk-on at Nebraska and survive, even through a couple of difficult coaching changes.
“You got to be willing to do what other people aren’t willing to do,” Jarzynka said. “It’s not always going to be the popular thing, but you always have to be thinking ahead. Whatever decision you make is going to affect you in the long run.”
Fellow defensive lineman Peyton Newell had an interception against the Wildcats. But he also wanted to talk about his walk-on teammates who got a chance to play.
“It was great to see that, especially Matt Jarzynka,” Newell said. “No one deserves that more than him. He gave it his all the four and a half years he’s been here. For us to do what we did today and for him to get out there, he did exactly what he was coached and taught to do and it paid off for him.”
And Jarzynka appreciates it. He even thanked the first- and second-team players for getting a lead so he could get a chance to play.
“It’s just the greatest moment of my life,” Jarzynka said.
Bob Hamar is sports editor for The Independent.