It has been a long time since anything small has happened to Nebraska. The flat horizon stretches off in all directions, and it takes something very big to fill it in. Nebraskans take pride in things gigantic, and what really makes a citizen stick his thumbs in his suspenders and pop out his chest is the University of Nebraska football team. At the drop of a stetson a Nebraskan will point to the young men who play football at the state university and defy you to find a bigger, meaner bunch anywhere. If you insist on knowing the pragmatic application of such size, he will happily refer you to the 1962 season, when the team won nine of 11 games, and the season of 1963, which was even better: 10 won against a single loss.
It has taken some doing, then, for size-conscious Nebraskans to adjust to this year's team. As usual, the linemen are Bunyanesque—240 pounds or so—and the halfbacks are mostly 190-pounders. But at fullback, the position that should be manned by the biggest and meanest player of them all, Nebraska has a young man named Frank Solich who weighs only 153 pounds and stands only 5 feet 7 inches high. Standing among his taller, heavier teammates, Solich looks like the victim of a fraternity hazing.
When Coach Bob Devaney first announced his intention of using little Solich at fullback this season many people felt that he finally had cracked under the strain of keeping Nebraska at the top of the Big Eight. But now that Nebraska has won six games without a loss this season, incredulous fans are convinced that Frankie (it is an old Nebraska custom that when they really take someone to their hearts, he gets the extra syllable) Solich is worth his weight in first downs, and heaven help the stranger who lets out even a small snicker.
The idea of using Solich at fullback came to Devaney last spring when he noted that the big men he had were barreling into the line with the deliberate speed of overfed oxen. "That's not what I had in mind," said Devaney, who then began to look over his other backs to see if one would fit in. He passed right over Solich, stopped, went back and...was it possible? "We know he's quick," Devaney thought then, "and in our system it is the halfbacks who carry the brunt of the blocking assignments. It will call for a few adjustments, of course, but maybe, just maybe..." Solich was tried at fullback in the spring game, and he did fine. "Next season," Devaney told him, "you're a fullback."
Such information might have fazed some players of his stature, but not Solich. His confidence in his ability to handle any job is infinite, and if the coach says fullback, fullback it is.
While Solich is incontestably small, he is about as frail as a bowling ball. For several years he has been working devotedly with weights and at present is able to bench-press 240 pounds. With a shirt on he looks like a small man. Without a shirt he looks like a blacksmith—scaled down. Until this season Cleveland was the scene of his greatest triumphs. In his last year at Holy Name High School, Solich scored 104 points as a tailback and was a factor in helping his team win the city championship. That done, Solich began looking around for a college that would give him a scholarship. Many coaches were keenly interested in his 104 points and the fine endorsements of rival high school coaches, but after taking one look at his size, they suddenly remembered that their scholarship quotas were full and suggested that he take himself off to some nice little school where football was fun, not business.
And did all this make Frankie Solich sore? It did. "None of them were willing to give me a chance," he says, "and I knew I could do a job." Devaney, however, was willing to give him a chance and figured that such tasks as running back punts and kickoffs might suit him just fine. Then in his second varsity game last year, against Minnesota, Solich broke his ankle, and it was not until the next to the last game that he was ready again. "Frankly," says Backfield Coach Mike Corgan, "we were worried that he would be gun-shy." Solich was not. Playing in the Orange Bowl, he ran a punt back against Auburn for 80 yards and an apparent touchdown. The fact that the referee ruled he had stepped out of bounds was only a minor disappointment. Frankie was back.
When Solich showed up for football this fall, he was determined it would not be as the smallest man on the team. Nebraska has a 160-pound defensive halfback named Larry Wachholtz, who became the man for Solich to beat. On weigh-in day, Solich took the trainer aside and had him tape eight pounds of weights inside his shorts. The trainer put him up on the scales—carefully, so Solich would not clang—and solemnly recorded his weight as 161. Wachholtz then stepped up, full of bananas and milkshakes, and came in at 162.
Resigned to his weight status, Solich went dutifully about winning the starting job at fullback. It happened in the second game of the year, against Minnesota. "We had that sinking feeling going into it," says Corgan. "We didn't think we were ready for them, and if we lost it, we felt we'd probably lose the next game, too, against Iowa State."
As it turned out, it was Minnesota that was not ready for Nebraska, and most especially for Frankie Solich. "They handled the conventional stuff we threw at them," Devaney points out, "but with Solich in, we flanked both ends, slotted both halfbacks, and that drove them crazy." When Minnesota brought their linebackers up close, Nebraska would slip Solich through on quick openers, a maneuver that few fullbacks in the country can carry out with speed. Solich is no sprinter, but he is fast enough and his initial move is explosive. Even with Solich's running, Nebraska was behind by nine points with just seven minutes to play. Obviously the situation called for Nebraska Quarterback Fred Duda to pass—which was what he did the first chance he had. But as Duda prepared to throw, he saw that both his end and his flanker had been knocked to the ground by the Minnesota defense. It might have been disaster except that Solich reacted by racing downfield, where Duda hit him 45 yards away for a touchdown. When Nebraska scored again just two minutes before the end, that was the game.
Since then Nebraska has beaten Iowa State, South Carolina, Kansas State and, last week, Colorado. The team is undefeated, leads the Big Eight Conference and is ranked fifth in the nation. As for Solich, he leads the team in rushing with an average of 5.5 yards a carry and is fourth in rushing in the conference. He has scored four touchdowns, one of them on a 41-yard run against South Carolina.
Between Nebraska and an undefeated season lie the big teams in the conference—Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas. Nebraska eagerly awaits these games, and so does Frankie Solich. He's never been afraid of anything big.