If the 1994 and '95 Nebraska teams were some of the best the program has ever assembled, then Aaron Graham was literally the centerpiece.
A three-time All-Big Eight selection and 1995 first-team All-American at center, Graham helped paved the way for the Huskers' magical back-to-back championship run.
In our latest edition of "Where Are They Now?" we caught up with Graham to get the latest on his life. Not surprisingly, Graham has kept close tabs on the Huskers since his final collegiate game, and few former players had a better idea of how the following 13 years would turn out for NU than he did.
Do you still keep pretty close tabs on Nebraska and what's gone down the past few years?
"Yeah. It's gone through some quite historical changes after I left. Frank Solich became the coach and then, ironically, after I left the Oakland Raiders, Bill Callahan - who was my offensive line coach and offensive coordinator with the Raiders - became the head coach at Nebraska.
"I felt like I may have had as close of a relationship with the past three coaches as anybody. I know there's bee a couple of other (former NU) players who played for the Raiders under Callahan, but I really got to see first hand how they all operated, their differences and their positives and negatives."
What was your immediate reaction when Callahan was named head coach at Nebraska?
"My initial reaction was that I thought it was a positive move with one hesitancy, and that was I wasn't sure how Bill was going to be able to relate to 17-, 18-year old kids coming out of high school, because he was very well organized and he was a very good technical coach.
"He was very thorough in his coaching practice, but he also expected a tremendous amount out of his players. I wasn't sure how the adjustment of coaching 30-year old to 20-year olds would go over, and certainly after a few years of him being there I could definitely see that being a challenge for him."
|Where are they now? |
|Player: Aaron Graham, 1991-95 |
Current city: Gretna, Neb.
Family: Wife: Kim, three children: Cooper (9), Baylen (7), and Landrie (3).
Current profession: Graham earned his real estate license after retiring from the NFL in 2003. He then was awarded five territories through Cabela's Trophy Properties, LLC, in Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa, which allows him to sell recreational real estate through Cabela's services. In 2006, created his own company, Premier Outdoor Companies, Inc., which services as a licensed real estate broker in Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa. Graham said his company is the largest recreational real estate company in the region.
Professional career: Graham was selected in the fourth round of the 1996 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals, where here played four seasons. After a year with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2000, he joined the Oakland Raiders in 2001. Graham then played for the Tennessee Titans the following year in '02, which would be his final NFL season.
NU career accomplishments: After redshirting as a freshman in 1991, Graham went on to play in every game from 1992-95, earning All-Big Eight honors in '94 and '95 and playing in three national championships, winning two.
In 1995, Graham was named first-team All-America as he helped guide the Huskers to their 12th NCAA rushing title (399.8 ypg) and didn't allow a single sack the entire season. More impressively, Graham was named an NCAA Top Eight Award Winner for his efforts in the classroom, which is the highest individual honor a student-athlete can receive.
In four years, Graham never allowed a single sack and finished with 231 "pancake" blocks in his career, including 99 in 1995 (8.25 per game). Former NU offensive line coach Milt Tenopir summed up Graham's career the best when he said Graham was "probably the best center I've had around here in 22 years and the best college center I've seen."
Did you ever expect things to get as bad as they did with him at the helm?
"No, I really didn't. I definitely was a supporter of the decision of bringing in Callahan. I was really kind of amazed that they were able to get him. Keep in mind, in the previous years my experiences with Bill Callahan were we went to the AFC divisional round and got beat by Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Snow Bowl game in Foxborough, and we by far were the best team in the NFL that year.
"The following year I went to Tennessee and we got beat by Oakland in the AFC Championship game when Bill Callahan was the head coach. So he was certainly capable of being able to, at least from the offensive side, he was a machine in the NFL."
So basically you're saying his biggest downfall was his inability to translate his coaching style to kids at the collegiate level?
"Yeah. You know, our playbook (in Oakland) was as complex or more complex than any offensive team in the NFL, and I wasn't quite sure how he was going to be able to cut that down and explain and teach that to teenagers.
"You know, it was hard enough for us in the amount of classroom hours that we spent learning his offense and intricacies that go into a Bill Callahan-style offense. I know there was word in the media he had taken an approach maybe in his second or third year to be able to cut back on the amount of information that he was trying to teach to those kids, because he was seeing that it was just too much.
"At some point it still comes down to football is football. It's blocking and tackling and X's and O's, and if you over-complicate that - especially with younger kids - I could see how that kind of led to the downward spiral."
What are your thoughts on Bo Pelini and the current staff? Are you happy with what he's done so far?
"I am. I like Coach Pelini's style. I've had a chance to visit with him a couple times before practices in the previous two springs, and Brenden Stai and I had an opportunity to be a part of a radio show last year that got us media passes on the sideline, so we had an opportunity to witness close-hand how he operated and how he was doing things, and I was happy.
"I think he put more of the fun back in the game and really taught the guys. He really took more of a tough mental attitude with them, which I think showed up this past year, and I think we're going to continue to see that."
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