Ties that bind: Nebraska, Arizona State players following in their fathers' footsteps
Almost 15 years ago in Shelton, Neb., a small town of about 1,000 residents, a recess argument between little boys at Shelton Elementary School went something like this:
"I want to be Scott Frost!" said one boy, naming the former Nebraska quarterback who led the Cornhuskers to a share of the 1997 BCS title.
"No I want to be Scott Frost!"
"Hey, it's my turn to be Scott Frost!"
Then second grader Jack Gangwish stepped forward. "I'll be Grant Wistrom," he offered, referencing the former two-time All-America defensive end who won the 1997 Lombardi Award as the nation's best lineman.
Minutes later, Gangwish, channeling the spirit of Wistrom, tackled the Frost-wannabe to the ground. He sprang up, blood running out his nose, and nodded to his friends. "Cool," he said. Hey, maybe he liked this football thing.
These days, Gangwish is still trying to bring down quarterbacks, but now it's in an official capacity, as a starting defensive end for Nebraska, the team he grew up rooting for.
Cornhuskers indoctrination started early in the Gangwish home, because Jack's dad, Paul, was born and raised in Nebraska. In Shelton, as in every other town that dots the prairie, claiming the Huskers as your own comes naturally because the state has no other major college or professional teams. Jack grew up in section 36C, row 91, sitting next to his father and hollering, "Go Big Red!" His attachment took root not just because Paul had told him that Nebraska was the team they supported, but also because his dad used to play there.
Paul Gangwish, 52 and a fifth-generation farmer, was a walk-on defensive end at Nebraska from 1981 to '85 under legendary coach Tom Osborne. Gangwish played sparingly in three games as a senior, and never earned a scholarship. So, when his oldest son called from Lincoln last fall to say that he had accomplished what dad hadn't, Paul got emotional.
"I worked my butt off and I played in quite a few games my last year, but they were always decided," he says. "Jack, he earned a scholarship before he even played a snap. Then this year, he was elected captain. I have some disappointment in my career, but he won't. That's what makes it so special."
Jack played his first game on Aug. 30, 2014, against Florida Atlantic, and had one tackle and one quarterback hurry in a 55–7 Nebraska win. As Paul describes the moment, and what it felt like to see his boy run through the tunnel with 90,000 people screaming, his voice catches in his throat. After the game, he sat with his son in the family RV and the two traded stories about their first collegiate snaps, with Paul trying to communicate to Jack the pride he felt. He still wonders if he got through.
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Ronnie Simone can relate. Though he and Paul have never met, their boys—Jordan Simone is an all-conference defensive back for Arizona State—share an uncommon bond: both are former walk-ons, and both are children of walk-ons at their respective schools. "That's pretty freaking cool," Ronnie says upon learning the connection.
Ronnie Simone, 52, played receiver for the Sun Devils from 1983 to '85, highlighted by an 8–3 senior season in which he caught six balls for 98 yards in four games before blowing out his left knee. He and his wife, Patty, raised three children in the Seattle area, but Arizona State gear dominated their boys' wardrobe. "There was no purple in my house," Ronnie says in reference to Washington, the family's local team. The Simones scheduled vacations in Tempe during football season so that their kids (Gino, 25, Jordan, 23, and daughter Payton, 19) could make regular visits to Sun Devil Stadium.
Gino played receiver at Washington State from 2009 to '12, catching 72 passes for 757 yards with one touchdown. Meanwhile, Jordan played both sides of the ball at Skyline High in Sammamish, hauling in 69 passes for 1,318 yards with 15 scores. But his only offer was from FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington, and Jordan wanted to play in the Pac-12. So he followed Gino to Pullman, walking on as a defensive back. Jordan played as a true freshman in '11 and was a standout on the Cougars' special teams. But when Mike Leach and his staff took over before the next season, Simone didn't feel like he fit anymore. He walked away from the game, attending school as a regular student during the '12–13 school year.
Years ago one of Ronnie's friends had told him that two of the most important questions to ask yourself when you have children involved in athletics are, "What's my role? Am I a parent, a coach or a fan?"
As a former collegiate athlete who understood the pressure of big-time sports, Ronnie decided long ago that he was always going to be his kids' biggest fan, nothing more and nothing less. Yes, he was bummed that Jordan had quit. But more than that, he worried about Jordan having second thoughts 10 or 20 years later. For all the success that Ronnie had playing football, he had his own regrets, too. A basketball player at Sammamish High in Bellevue, Wash., Ronnie turned down football offers from both Washington and Washington State, believing that he would get a basketball scholarship.
That opportunity never came. Instead Simone spent two years at Seattle University, listening to stories from buddies who were playing college football, and wondering if he'd made a huge mistake. When he decided that he had to find out if he could still play football, his high school coach found a walk-on spot for him at Arizona State. (Like so many visitors to Tempe, he had taken one look at campus and told his family that he had to go there.)
In 2012, Ronnie received a call from former Washington State coach Paul Wulff, then a senior offensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers. Wulff (now the offensive coordinator at South Florida) expressed dismay that Jordan had given up football. "Jordan needs to play," Ronnie recalls Wulff saying. "Football is in his blood. He's got a motor like nobody else."
Ronnie passed on Wulff's words of encouragement and shared his own story about how he came to play for the Sun Devils—then shut his mouth. Months later, Jordan came to Ronnie with a proposition. "What do you think about me going down to ASU?" he asked his dad.
In his head, Ronnie knew that he should play it cool. But his heart won out, and his fanaticism shone through. "I love it!" he cried. "Let's go! Let's do this!"
It helped that Chris Ball, Jordan's secondary coach with the Cougars, had taken over as the safeties coach at Arizona State. After redshirting in 2013 per NCAA transfer rules, Simone took the field for the first time in last season's opener against Weber State, starting at free safety. As a Sun Devils alum, Ronnie is allowed on the sidelines before kickoff. Usually he cheers politely when Arizona State takes the field. August 28, 2014, was different.
"That was super emotional," Ronnie says. "Oh my God, my boy, rocking Sun Devil Stadium, on the field. And I had run on that same field once!"
Courtesy of Patty Simone
Ronnie wasn't sure what to expect the first time Jordan played. Yes, it was his kid and of course he was a fan … but no Power Five school had offered Jordan a scholarship out of high school. Maybe all those coaches knew something Ronnie didn't?
"His first Pac-12 game was at Colorado and he had this incredible interception," Ronnie says. "He returns it 30 yards, strips a guy for a fumble, leads the team in tackles  and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, it's Jordan doing this. This kid is a baller.'
"But, you know, in the back of my mind somewhere I'm thinking, 'Well, it is Colorado.' But then he goes to USC and he gets 20 tackles! I'm sitting there thinking, 'This kid is legit.'"
Jordan led the Sun Devils in tackles per game (8.3) last fall and earned honorable mention all-conference honors. Heading into Arizona State's game on Saturday at Washington State—where Gino will be forced to pick between rooting for family or for his former team—Jordan is tied for second in the country in solo tackles, with 59. (Houston's Elandon Roberts leads FBS with 63.)
The season hasn't gone as planned for the Sun Devils (4–4, 2–3 Pac-12), who were touted in August as playoff dark horses. After a backbreaking 61–55 triple-overtime loss to Oregon last week in Tempe, Arizona State finds itself fighting for bowl eligibility. Aware of outside criticisms that can creep into an athlete's head, Ronnie has returned to his initial promise to be Jordan's biggest fan. After every game he tells his middle child, "I absolutely love watching you play, kid. It's a blast."
Paul Gangwish takes the same approach with Jack. Nebraska is trudging through a miserable 3–6 campaign (1–4 Big Ten), a far cry from the consecutive nine-win seasons that the team turned in under former coach Bo Pelini in 2013 and '14. As a former Husker and a Nebraska native, Paul wants to see his team, and his son, do well. But he is still proud of Jack's leadership and confidence, and he tells him that daily. For his part, Jack was pleasantly surprised that new Huskers coach Mike Riley embraced Nebraska's rich walk-on tradition. Six of the program's former walk-ons have been named first-team All-Americas, and 33 have been drafted into the NFL. Riley was part of one of the best walk-on stories of all time when he was coaching at Oregon State in 2005, when unknown and unoffered receiver Mike Hass went from barely acknowledged to Biletnikoff Award winner.
"Walk-ons add a loyalty and a passion to programs that's special," Riley says. "Their work ethic is contagious. That's really amplified in Nebraska because of the history: Lots of rural kids grew up in this culture, all they ever wanted was to be a part of this. Jack epitomizes that."
Losses can't diminish the pride Jack feels every time he pulls on a Cornhuskers jersey. Though he received a scholarship offer from Division II Chadron State after he recorded 103 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles as a senior at Wood River High—and while he likely would have had a chance to become a good college wrestler as one of the state's top 215-pounders in high school—Gangwish couldn't turn down the chance to fulfill a childhood dream.
"I'd always wanted to wear that N on my helmet," he says. "Football is like religion here. For boys who grow up in these small towns scattered across the plains, you drive around and there are Blackshirt banners in yards and everyone's got a Husker den in the basement. All we have is football. Yeah, I had another offer, but that wasn't the route I wanted. I wasn't ready to give up on this dream."
Courtesy of Paul Gangwish
Typical of walk-ons in the 21st century, Simone and Gangwish both become Internet sensations after videos documenting their journeys made the rounds on social media.
Simone's surfaced last year, when five Sun Devils were awarded scholarships in a recorded team meeting. It's a bubbly, exciting video right until the end, when Simone calls his mom and shares the news. That's when tears start, and he covers his face with a sheet of paper. He didn't cry when he told his dad—"I'll admit I'm a mama's boy," Jordan says, nodding curtly—but Ronnie did. For him, it brought back memories of when he had been awarded his scholarship. During practice in 1985, Ronnie snagged a pass over the middle in traffic, embarrassing scholarship defensive backs. Coach John Cooper blew his whistle in frustration. If Simone was going to play like that, Cooper said, he'd better put him on scholarship.
"The entire team just mauled me," Simone says. "As a kid, it was cool but now, as an older guy, it means even more. For Jordan to experience that … man, what a great story."
As a walk-on, you never feel fully accepted until you have been awarded a scholarship. But in Lincoln, acceptance is more than a piece of paper: As a defensive player, you become part of an elite group when you get a Blackshirt, the practice jerseys given annually to Nebraska's defensive starters. In a video this fall, Cornhuskers managers hung the Blackshirts in lockers' and let players discover them together. Amid whooping and hollering, the camera zooms in on Gangwish. He silently cradles his jersey, staring in awe. Then he sits down and puts his head in his hands, overcome by the moment. When he called his dad to tell him, he thanked him, too.
"At one point in time my dad chased the same dream," Gangwish says. "He understood where I was coming from. I wanted to take my shot, wanted to give it a chance. And he let me."
Jordan and Jack both say they have imagined what it could be like to have sons of their own one day, and how their boys might grow into football players. Maybe they'll want to share another legacy with their dads and be walk-ons, too.
Then again, maybe not.
"It's a rough process to go through, being a walk-on," says Simone, laughing. "Hopefully, my kid will be good enough to get a scholarship coming out of high school!"
Know a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com.