|HometownNew Orleans, LA|
|High schoolSt. Augustine|
Jason Wiltz joined the Huskers in 1994 as a scholarship defensive tackle. At 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, Wiltz came to NU from New Orleans.
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The following Q&A ran in The World-Herald on Sept. 23, 2016.
Jason Wiltz is 39, owns his own landscaping business and is engaged to be married.
But his biggest worry this week as he hurried across the Nebraska campus was his first draft of a 20-page sociology paper that was due.
The former Husker and NFL defensive tackle returned this summer to finish his degree. With support from Dennis Leblanc and others in the academic office, Wiltz could graduate in December if he gets through 15 credit hours this fall.
In retrospect, Wiltz said he probably didn’t take school as seriously as he should have in the late 1990s. He was worried about dealing with an ankle injury his senior season in 1998, and then draft preparations the next winter and spring.
“But I always knew I would come back and finish,” Wiltz said. “Especially over the years, I’d talk to Coach (Tom) Osborne and I’d talk to Dennis, and they always encouraged me and told me, ‘Hey, we’re here when you’re ready.’
“I finally got to the point where I said, ‘Let’s go do this thing.’ ”
Wiltz started 19 games his final two seasons as a Husker, playing on defensive lines that included Jason Peter, Grant Wistrom, Mike Rucker and Steve Warren. He was the New York Jets’ fourth-round pick in 1999 and intercepted Peyton Manning during his rookie season.
Wiltz is renting a Lincoln apartment while he takes NU classes. His fiancé, Anita, is tending to Jet Landscaping back in Zachary, Louisiana, until he gets back.
But the New Orleans native also has thought about getting into coaching, which he called “a desire to give back to the sport” and another reason to pursue his degree.
More from Wiltz, who redshirted in 1994 before playing the next four NU seasons:
Q: Could you ever have predicted when you signed with Nebraska that you would be around to see three national championships?
A: I don’t think anybody could fathom something so great. When I arrived here — at a high point of success for a lot of individuals in terms of coaches and everyone — it was a time when they were bringing everything together. You don’t realize this as a kid, but it was a time when they brought together a plan and how to execute it, and it came to fruition.
Q: How close to perfect were the Big 12 championship game and Orange Bowl to finish the 1997 season?
A: Scott Frost was running full steam ahead, the Blackshirts were rolling that year ... but amongst ourselves, we knew we had to make up for where we were ranked. So we had to make believers out of the non-believers. When we had to take on Peyton Manning (Tennessee in Orange Bowl), and won convincingly, that made everyone say, ‘OK, Nebraska is for real.’ We were on point and we had a mission.
Q: Does any one game stand out?
A: I would say definitely it’s two. It would be that Tennessee game, just because I knew Peyton personally because we were both from New Orleans, and that miracle catch game (at Missouri in 1997) just because my roommate Mike Rucker was playing in his home state and I just remember how excited he was.
Q: How did you react on the sideline after the Matt Davison catch at Mizzou?
A: Disbelief. Utter disbelief. I think we were all like, ‘What happened?’ I was sucking wind on the bench, getting some Gatorade, when I hear Nebraska fans roaring. It just reinforces to me, to this day, never count yourself out.
Q: How does a nose tackle get two interceptions in a season like you had in ’98?
A: One of two things: You’re getting your butt kicked and you’re too deep in territory, or the coaches are geniuses and always coached us to get our hands up and get hands on the ball. One of them, against Louisiana Tech, we were running a stunt. The other, against Washington, the quarterback was rolling out and I’m thinking, ‘Is he gonna throw the ball my way?’ And I got my big paws on it and got it.
Q: Did you maximize your return yardage on those?
A: I know I got some positive yards on the one vs. Washington. The following week, there’s a picture in the school newspaper of a 320-pound defensive tackle with his butt crack showing as Brock Huard pulled me down. By that time, I was ready to lay down anyway.
Q: Did you see Nebraska bouncing back the way it did in 1999 after the ’98 season?
A: I knew what they had coming back. I was looking forward to seeing those guys come to their full potential. I really respected Coach (Frank) Solich, too. This is real life, you’re not going to dominate in and out every year.
Q: What did you see from Eric Crouch that would make you believe he was a future Heisman Trophy winner?
A: He was getting the job done and had a lot of potential when I was here, but he really turned up the heat and went from a young guy to doing great, and to, ‘Hey, this is my team.’ As soon as he stepped on campus, you saw his ability. But he came into his own, just like other guys that came before him. And he was awesome.
Q: How different was a guy like you coming from Louisiana compared to the Peter brothers being out of New Jersey?
A: I’m thinking, ‘I’m rough and tough, I’m from New Orleans.’ They’re rough and East Coast. Initially you were intimidated, which gave way to respect. Just hard workers. But who was king to us was Coach (Charlie) McBride. So in terms of personalities and how it was all orchestrated and flowed smoothly was due to the coaches and mutual respect.
Q: Who were you surprised to find was a walk-on after you figured it out?
A: Probably (Joel) Makovicka. That was unbelievable. Any other school, he starts as a freshman. I was impressed because he was so fast for such a big dude like that.
Q: Anything else in life that you can compare to sitting through the NFL draft?
A: Yeah, being in school right now, waiting on a test to come back. Nah, just teasing. To experience the draft, I have to honestly say there’s nothing like it. And to have Bill Parcells call my little old phone, the Wiltzes’ residence ... he said, ‘Wiltz! You better get ready to work hard, son, because we’re going to take you with this next pick.’ And I was ready.
Q: What did you miss most when it was time to leave football?
A: It’s amazing how fast you’re back in that real world. You think you’re humble when you’re playing, but you’re not humble until that ball’s taken away from you. Nobody’s asking for your autograph, nobody’s asking about the big game this weekend ... but what I missed was the structure and that camaraderie and the competition, and missed having that weekly goal.
These are the players who built Nebraska football.
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