The legacy of Nebraska is intertwined closely with the legacy of its football team. There have been 356 Nebraska alumni who have gone on to play in the NFL, which is why it’s important to analyze Nebraska’s best in professional football.
Before we start, a few guidelines for this list:
First: A player’s place in Husker history was not factored into this list because it is solely based on their value in the NFL, not in college.
Second: The list will attempt to avoid favoring skill positions over other positions. That being said, a quarterback is obviously more impactful to a team than a punter, and a running back might have more impact on a game than a safety. It can be argued that lumping all positions in football into a single list is unfair, and while that may be true, that argument is also no fun.
Third: This is not an objective list, and please note that everyone on this list is probably a bit better at football than you are (that is, unless, you are a professional football player — in which case, it’s an honor to have you).
So, with those rules set, we will start the countdown:
10. Link Lyman, DT, 1922-34
Link Lyman represents one of the first truly great Nebraskan linemen, a motif you’ll see throughout this list. Lyman was one of football’s greatest forefathers. Over his 12 years in the NFL, Lyman helped pioneer the shifting of the defensive line, which you can now see in every modern defense today.
Few stats exist today to represent Lyman’s greatness, but per Pro-Football-Reference.com, he scored six touchdowns as a defensive linemen — two from interceptions and four from fumble recoveries.
9. Vince Ferragamo, QB, 1977-86
Ferragamo was pretty solid for Nebraska, and he went on to be pretty solid for the Rams, too, leading them to Super Bowl XIV. The zenith of his career came when he threw the second most touchdowns in the NFL in 1980. After a few more average years, he bounced around Canadian Football for a bit, before returning to the NFL and becoming one of the eighteen quarterbacks to throw for 500 yards in a game, up there with names like Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
8. Mike Brown, S, 2000-09
Mike Brown was a defensive stalwart for the Bears throughout the 2000s. A two-time all-pro and a one-time pro-bowler in 2005, Brown was a rugged presence on a staunch Bears’ defense, one that carried the team to a Super Bowl appearance in 2006. Despite having a career which boasted seven touchdowns, seven sacks, and twenty interceptions, Brown was unable to play in a Super Bowl throughout his career, due to an injury in the 2006 season.
7. Guy Chamberlin, RB, 1919-27
Guy Chamberlin, like Lyman, is another artifact of the old-age of football where players wore leather helmets and threw around an actual pigskin. He won four straight NFL championships as a running back, part-owner, team captain, and head coach (try doing that, Brady!). He did this with the Canton/Cleveland Bulldogs (they moved during his tenure) and the Frankford Yellow Jackets.
6. Ahman Green, RB, 1998-2009
A local legend, it was genuinely hard not placing Green higher on the list. While he’s certainly one of the greatest Huskers ever, his NFL career never quite reached the stratosphere. Green was selected to the Pro Bowl four times, but only made an all-pro team once. Green’s prime lasted six years which, for a running back, is not bad at all, but injuries limited that.
He holds the Green Bay franchise record for rushing yards in a season, and ranks ahead of players like Herschel Walker and Jamaal Charles for career rushing yards. This is a bit deceptive though, because at Green’s height, he had one of the most statistically impressive seasons from a running back. He is one of two players, along with Bo Jackson, who scored two 90+ yard rushing touchdowns in a season, and his 2003 season with Green Bay ranks ninth ever for rushing yards in a season with 1,883 — eclipsing names like LaDainian Tomlinson and Walter Payton.
If he had three or four more years of his prime, he may have gone down as one of the true greats, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.
5. Bob Brown, RT, 1964-73
“The Boomer” was an offensive lineman who is tied for the most all-pro first team selections in Nebraska alum history.
“The most intimidating lineman in NFL history,” NFL Films states, “was a huge, angry man named Robert Brown.”
This may sound trivial by today’s standards, but Bob Brown stood at 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, a giant by 1960s NFL standards. Despite the all-pro selections and his imposing stature, Brown was mostly used as a trade-chip during the latter half of his career. He was traded from the Eagles, to the Rams and then to the Raiders. All the while, Brown kept getting Pro Bowl appearances, and ended his career with a Pro Bowl appearance on every one of the teams he played for.
4. Roger Craig, RB, 1983-93
Roger Craig helped cement the San Francisco 49ers dynasty of the 80s with his unique running style. Imagine doing high-knees in the gym, then imagine doing that with a football in your hands while NFL defenders try to tackle you. In some highlight clips, it looks like Roger Craig is kicking out and jumping while running into the endzone.
In Super Bowl XIX, against the 14-2 Miami Dolphins led by Don Shula and Dan Marino, it was Roger Craig who scored three touchdowns to lead the 49ers to victory. Some people say that the hybrid, receiving running back is a new invention, and while its used more in today’s NFL, Roger Craig was doing it 40 years before names like Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffery would come along.
Craig became the first running back to record 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in a season, with the only other running back to do this since being Marshall Faulk. In the end, Craig won three Super Bowls with the 49ers, and rushed for 56 touchdowns in his career.
3. Mick Tingelhoff, C, 1962-78
Tingelhoff is arguably the most successful Husker on this list. He’s one of only 17 undrafted free agents in NFL history to eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame. His finest moment came with the Minnesota Vikings (commonly known at the time as the Purple People Eaters because of their strong defense) as he won the 1969 NFL Championship Game against the Cleveland Browns, 27-7.
He was selected as an all-pro five times throughout his career as well. He’s one of only 11 players to play in every one of the Vikings’ Super Bowl Appearances throughout the 70s. In 17 seasons with the Vikings, Tingelhoff never missed a game, the third longest streak of its kind in NFL history.
When asked about his streak for a documentary funded by the Vikings, Tingelhoff said, “I had a good career and a lucky career.”
2. Ndamukong Suh, DT, 2010-Present
Part of what makes Suh’s legacy is a notorious dirty streak which clouds his NFL career (as YouTube commenter Shawn Howard said, Roses are red, violets are blue. Unsportsmanlike Conduct, Ndamukong Suh). Another part that makes Suh hard to place in a list is the fact that, for most of his career, he played on horrendous teams. In his nine years in the league, he’s made the playoffs four times. The only time he made it past the wild card round was this last year with the Rams. In our culture today, to be great you need to win, but Suh’s situations haven’t been conducive to winning.
Along with that, his position isn’t one where you rack up the sacks and tackles for loss. Suh is a traditional defensive tackle, unlike Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt, where he fills space in the middle and relies upon closing gaps in the defensive line, not getting sacks. While sacking the quarterback may arguably be more valuable, it’s unfair to compare Suh to players like Von Miller, Donald, Khalil Mack, etc. because he plays a different position or style.
Suh has been a first-team all-pro three times, and a second-team all-pro twice. His 2014 season ranks in the top 30 for tackles for loss, and he has more career sacks than Gerald McCoy, who many people consider better. Suh, like many of the players on this list, was and continues to be a workhorse, someone who is under-appreciated in the modern game.
1. Will Shields, RG, 1993-2006
It might be a bit odd to place a lineman at the top of the list, but no man is more deserving of it than Will Shields. Playing in the NFL 14 years, Shields never missed a game. His streak is the fifth longest in NFL history. His list of accolades includes 12 pro-bowls, seven all-pro selections (three first team and four second team), and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015.
Today, Shields is a businessman and philanthropist, owning a number of children’s parks in Kansas City. He also started a charity for battered women & children called Will to Succeed. Along with that, Shields started a school to teach lineman called the Dump Truck Academy. In 2003, Shields won the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
One of the main takeaways from this list might be that the Nebraskan legacy isn’t defined by the flashiest players that put people in the seats like Odell Beckham Jr. or Patrick Mahomes. Rather, much like the Midwest, the greatest thing Nebraska has given to the NFL is the workhorse. The person you can put on your team, and you know he’s going to do the job for you for 15 years, and he’s never going to complain about it. The true soul of a team comes from its offensive and defensive line, and that’s what Nebraska’s legacy is as well.