Nebraska DE Jack Gangwish goes from walk-on to team captain
''People don't ask me that anymore,'' he said.
Ol' No. 95 is about as well-known as any of the Cornhuskers players now, and not just because of his emergence at defensive end last season. He represents the quintessential Nebraska walk-on, the kid who grows up in the state dreaming of playing for the Big Red and making the folks back home proud.
A year ago at this time, Gangwish was still paying his own way to school and dreaming the dream. But he won the confidence of the former coaching staff when circumstances dictated that he play, and play a lot, and he was awarded a scholarship the week before the opener.
Gangwish enters this season as a starter on what may be the best defensive line in the Big Ten West, and he's one of the Huskers' six team captains. The honor illustrates the respect he's earned from teammates for the sweat he's poured on and off the field. Symbolic of his dedication is the team's prestigious Lifter of the Year award he won in 2014.
''He's a self-made man,'' defensive line coach Hank Hughes said. ''I don't want to take anything away from his athletic ability, but there's a guy who has worked. He's passionate, and it means a lot to him. That's probably every avenue of his life, that work ethic. He's a guy who grew up on a farm, and he has great work ethic.''
Gangwish went to high school in Wood River and was a three-year starter. A good but not great athlete, he never received more than honorable mention for the all-state team in the second-smallest division of 11-man football. Division II Chadron State, in the state's panhandle, offered him half a football scholarship, and he also considered walking on at Kansas State.
But like his dad, Paul, who walked on at Nebraska as a defensive end and played just enough to letter in 1985, Jack didn't want to look back and wonder what could have happened if he had given it a shot with the Huskers.
''I was a fan,'' Jack said, ''long before I was a football player.''
Gangwish showed up on campus in 2011, moved from linebacker to defensive end in 2013 and finally got on the field last season because of a shortage of players at his position. He started three games and appeared in 12.
Gangwish will play this season with returning starters in end Greg McMullen and tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. Gangwish said new defensive coordinator Mark Banker's system allows him more freedom to make plays.
''The No. 1 focus now is always to be playing fast, playing hard, hitting hard,'' he said. ''Your steps may not be perfect, your hand placement may not be perfect, but even if it's not, we want you in there hard.''
Wood River also produced Nebraska's 1997 national championship quarterback Scott Frost, who's now the Oregon offensive coordinator. Frost was one of the most highly recruited high school quarterbacks in the country in the early 1990s, and he went to Stanford for two years before transferring to Nebraska.
Now the town of 1,300 has a new hometown hero on the Nebraska roster. No one is relishing his success more than Paul Gangwish, who appeared in a handful of games on the same field 30 years ago but only after they had turned into second-half blowouts.
The father watches his son live the dream that for him went largely unfulfilled.
''To know what kind of commitment these walk-ons make when they go there... they have a lot of hope something will pan out for their hard work,'' Paul said. ''The fact is, it doesn't always pay off. That's what makes me so proud, that I understand that so intimately.''