Years before Tom Rathman became a Super Bowl champion fullback, he almost became a Nebraska tight end.
It was the spring of 1983, and NU coaches were looking for a way to get the talented sophomore from Grand Island on the field. The Huskers had lost their top two tight ends, Jamie Williams and Mitch Krenk, and were stacked at fullback.
But then their returning starter at fullback, Doug Wilkening, unexpectedly quit. And coaches discarded thoughts of moving Rathman.
That worked out OK for him and them. As a senior in 1985, Rathman produced the best season ever by a Husker fullback. He ran for 881 yards, a position record by 164 yards.
He went on to win two Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers in a nine-year NFL career. In 1989, he led NFC running backs with 73 catches, and he capped the season with two touchdowns in a Super Bowl victory over Denver.
"To be able to do that on Sunday and get paid for it, coming from central Nebraska and having a dream and living that dream, that’s what it’s all about," Rathman said.
He later became an NFL assistant, coaching running backs for the Lions, Raiders and 49ers.
If an athlete like Rathman came along today, he might not play fullback, a position most offenses use sparingly. So where would he land?
"Tom certainly could have played a lot of places," retired NU coach Tom Osborne said. "He could be a tight end. He could be a good linebacker."
Rathman even could have played I-back, Osborne said. He had better speed than people realized, as evidenced by touchdown runs as a senior of 32, 37, 44, 60 and 84 yards.
"Most fullbacks," Osborne said, "would go maybe 15 yards and someone would drag them down."
Most fullbacks weren’t state high jump champions.
Rathman recalls competitors smirking when he first stepped on the high jump runway for Grand Island. He looked more like a shot putter than a high jumper.
But Rathman ended up winning a gold medal at the state track meet, clearing 6-foot-7.
"One day we were at North Platte, and I put him in the low hurdles," said Ken Fischer, his coach at Grand Island High. "And he won those."
Played for: Grand Island High, Nebraska Cornhuskers, San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders
Best athlete from Nebraska played with or against: Grand Island High teammate Clark Toner
Best moment as an athlete: The Super Bowl wins are surely candidates, but Rathman's shining moment came a few autumns earlier. He broke free for an 84-yard touchdown run to open the fourth quarter against Colorado his senior year, cracking a 7-7 tie and sparking NU to a 17-7 win.
At Nebraska: 1,425 yards rushing, 12 touchdowns
NFL: 2,020 yards rushing, 26 touchdowns, 2,684 yards receiving, eight touchdowns
Rathman was No. 54 in the inaugural Nebraska 100 list in 2005. See more about the 2005 list »