Published Tuesday, November 5, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 11:07 am
Chatelain: Jordan Westerkamp gives new life to Husker jersey No. 1
Who's No. 1?
The 30 players who have worn
No. 1 since Clarence Swanson:

Jordan Westerkamp
Harvey Jackson
Khiry Cooper
Adi Kunalic
Chris Brooks
Zack Bowman
Lornell McPherson
Josh Davis
Thunder Collins
Taylor Gehman
Dom Williams
Frankie London
Eric Johnson
Lawrence Phillips
Kareem Moss
Mike Grant
Will Thomas
Ray Coleman
Rick Wendland
Dale Klein
Dave Schneider
Tom Curry
Scott Gemar
Ron VanderMeer
Randy Pittman
Jeff Schneider
Zaven Yaralian
John Decker
Lynn Young
John Brown

Jay Terry grabbed his sheet of paper and started filling out his puzzle, oblivious to the curse.

Assigning jersey numbers isn't the Nebraska equipment manager's most important duty. But it's essential to a happy, functional football team. So in the summer of 2012, Terry greeted incoming recruits with his list of available numbers — and his list of numbers that were off the table.

Take No. 22, for example. Rex Burkhead wasn't changing, so that number was a no-no for any new offensive player. Same for Taylor Martinez's No. 3 and Kyler Reed's No. 25 and so on.

But good news, young men: You can have No. 11. Or 28 or 35 or 84.

Some recruits come in and don't care what they wear. To others, the jersey number is sacred. It becomes part of their identity, the stamp on every TV graphic, the exclamation point on every autograph. (Imagine Tommie Frazier wearing No. 18. Or Eric Crouch wearing No. 2.)

Sam Cotton took No. 84, left open by Brandon Kinnie's departure. Mo Seisay took Lavonte David's 4. Avery Moss took Jared Crick's 94. Michael Rose took Alfonzo Dennard's 15.

How 'bout you, Jordan Westerkamp?

When the Chicago native showed up in Lincoln, he wanted No. 81. That was the number Randy Moss, his idol, wore with the Patriots. That was the number Westerkamp wore in high school when he broke all the major receiving records in Illinois.

One problem: Senior Ben Cotton already owned 81. Seniority rules.

Westerkamp considered his options: 20, 26, 36, 99. Ugh. What about this one? Khiry Cooper had worn it in 2011, but he'd since left the program. Hmmm.

No. 1.

Little did Westerkamp know that his new number was the apple in the Garden of Eden, the Scarlet Number on his chest, the most infamous jersey in Husker history. Yeah, No. 1 looked good on paper, but careers — and sometimes lives — had crumbled beneath its weight.

It all goes back 95 years to an All-America receiver from small-town Nebraska, who became one of the most influential figures in Husker football history.

It all goes back to the Curse of Clarence.

* * *

Fact: 17 Huskers have had their jerseys retired. None wore No. 1.

Fact: 98 Huskers (wearing 64 different numbers) have earned All-America honors. None wore No. 1.

Fact: 514 Huskers have earned all-conference honors. Only two wore No. 1. One was a kicker. The other stained the greatest five-year run in college football history.

Before the ACL tears and ruptured discs, before the depth-chart demotions and prison sentences, No. 1 belonged to a kid from Wakefield, Neb.

Clarence Swanson stayed home his first year after high school, 1917, before analyzing the NU football team and deciding, “Hell, I'll beat those guys out.” He did.

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According to the 1921 university yearbook: “Swanie” is a natural leader of men and is bound to be successful as captain of the 1921 Cornhuskers. He played a hard game at the left end position and was given mention in All-American selections. His specialty is taking passes beyond the goal.

He captained that '21 team to a 7-1 record (NU's only loss came at Notre Dame, 7-0). In Swanson's last game, he caught three TD passes, a record that stood for 50 years until Johnny Rodgers matched it.

Swanson later became only the fourth Husker to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

So where's the curse, you ask.

Well, Swanson's impact on Nebraska football didn't stop in 1921. Fast forward 40 years to Bill Jennings' firing. “Swanie” was on the Board of Regents.

New Athletic Director Tippy Dye thought he had Jennings' replacement in Hank Foldberg; the two had worked together at Wichita State. But Foldberg chose Texas A&M instead, leading to a goose chase that foreshadowed Steve Pederson's coaching search 42 years later.

One of the emerging candidates was a fiery Irishman named Devaney. When he sneaked into Lincoln (under a fake name) to interview for the job, Swanson twisted his arm: “Bob, if you come here and win, you'll never be sorry. These people want to win that much.”

Devaney grudgingly accepted. He went 9-2 the first year, won the Orange Bowl the next and celebrated countless victories with his close friend, Swanie. On Dec. 3, 1970, 29 days before the Huskers' first national championship, Clarence Swanson died.

That's when the curse kicked in.

* * *

From 1921 until Swanson's death, only three Huskers wore the No. 1. (A quick check of old rosters at other programs like Oklahoma indicates that single-digit jerseys were outlawed most of that span).

But in 1972, cornerback Zaven Yaralian picked El Numero Uno. Apparently he recognized the curse, because he soon switched to No. 15.

Since Yaralian, 27 Huskers have worn No. 1. Their careers are a Who's Who of Coulda Beens and Never Weres. Some suffered a mild strain of the curse:

Adi Kunalic, whose golden foot made him a ballyhooed recruit, hooked the most important kickoff of his career out of bounds against Texas in 2009.

Khiry Cooper and Chris Brooks were highly touted receivers who barely saw the field, combining for 30 career catches.

Zack Bowman, the top junior college recruit in the country, blew out his knee in 2006, then ripped up the other one in 2007.

Josh Davis grabbed No. 1 when he earned a starting job as a senior. Then he rushed for fewer yards per carry than any NU starting I-back in 30 years, losing his job to Cory Ross.

Eric Johnson dislocated his shoulder in each of the last two games of the season, got smart and switched to No. 27 as a senior.

Kareem Moss came to NU from junior college, wore No. 1, got smart and switched to No. 29 as a senior. His interception of Frank Costa clinched a national championship.

Will Thomas, Broderick's little brother, quit the team in 1991. Dave Schneider, place-kicker on the 1983 team, had a chance to boot more extra points than anybody else in the country. But he missed one against Missouri and Tom Osborne gave his job away. The next year, Schneider quit the team.

Others suffered a more serious strain:

Thunder Collins was supposed to be the next great Nebraska I-back. But after he flipped the ball to Mike Stuntz in 2001, he was suspended four games in 2002 for NCAA violations, then quit the team a month later. Now he sits in jail convicted of first-degree murder.

Taylor Gehman, twice the state's leading prep tackler at Omaha Northwest, was one of three freshmen in 1999 to bypass a redshirt. Five games into his career, he ruptured a disc in his neck, endured intense pain and quit football a year later.

Frankie London pushed Scott Frost in 1997. But instead of leading NU to national championships, he lost the starting job in 1998 to Bobby Newcombe, moved to wingback and broke his leg returning the first punt of his career. Following surgery, he found himself behind Newcombe again — this time at wingback.

Mike Grant is best known as the fifth-year quarterback who endured heavy criticism from fans in 1992. Tom Osborne insisted he wasn't making a QB change — until he did. The replacement: Tommie Frazier.

Of course, the most infamous No. 1 of all is also the most accomplished: Lawrence Phillips.

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It takes a nasty kind of curse to besmirch the 1995 Huskers. But Phillips did it, ruining the most promising career of any Nebraska I-back. He carried the curse to the NFL and now sits in a California prison.

Phillips, of course, is an extreme case. Most members of the No. 1 club have become productive members of society. Great family men. But on the football field? It's hard to shake the curse.

Dale Klein managed. He put on No. 1 in 1985 and twice lost his starting job. But he rebounded to make a record seven field goals against Missouri and earned All-Big Eight honors.

Still, he's an exception.

Swanson first donned No. 1 in 1918, the same year the Red Sox won the World Series. But the Curse of Clarence has outlived the Curse of the Bambino.

When Harvey Jackson, who wears No. 1 on defense, lost his starting safety job this fall, I figured the curse might endure forever, victimizing generations of innocent freshmen with big dreams.

And then Saturday happened.

* * *

On Nov. 2, 1920, Nebraska went big time. For the first time in school history, NU traveled to the East Coast. The goal, NU officials said, was to become a national program. Expand the brand.

That Tuesday at the Polo Grounds, a speedy receiver from Wakefield, Neb., introduced himself to the nation's largest media market and the Cornhuskers throttled Rutgers, 28-0.

“They grow something besides corn out on the prairies of Nebraska,” the New York Times wrote. “An avalanche of football warriors descended yesterday upon the unsuspecting Rutgers eleven at the Polo Grounds, a great, husky, fearless mass of gridiron terrors ...”

On the 93rd anniversary of Swanson's breakout performance, Jordan Westerkamp lined up wide right, sprinted downfield as time expired and waited in the end zone, as if he knew exactly where the ball was going to bounce.

He leaped, snatched it and squeezed it against the No. 1 on his chest, securing his first touchdown and sending a sound wave across Lincoln that may have startled Mr. Swanson in Wyuka Cemetery.

Did one Hail Mary catch reverse the Curse of Clarence? I don't know. But when I pulled Westerkamp aside Monday morning and gave him a history lesson, he gave a hint.

You badly wanted No. 81 when you became a Husker, I said. You think you'll ever go back? Westerkamp, his hat backward, shook his head.

“I think I'll stay No. 1.”

* * *

>> Video: The Big Red Today Show, Nov. 5:

Contact the writer: Dirk Chatelain    |   402-649-1461    |  

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments.

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