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A perfect football center would be a man of many, sometimes seemingly contradictory, parts. He would have, for example, exceptional quickness. His time in the 40-yard dash might or might not be very fast, but his first few steps would be. He would be large, as in LARGE—larger, in fact, than almost all of the men he would face. His range would be such that he could make blocks beyond the reach of ordinary linemen. An ability to explode—to apply his full strength with great suddenness—would be essential. His understanding of the strategy of a play and of that play inside the game plan would be thorough and swift, as would his ability to translate that understanding, without hesitation, into action. His endurance—muscular, cardiovascular and, so to speak, emotional—would allow him to bring his best self to every play in every game. And his desire to dominate and overcome his opponents would be unflagging. In short, as well as in tall and in broad, he would be a man very much like Dave Rimington of the University of Nebraska.
Only two men besides Rimington have won the Outland Trophy, awarded annually to the best college lineman, in their junior season, and they failed to repeat as seniors. Guard Zeke Smith of Auburn was the recipient in 1958 but lost out to Tackle Mike McGee of Duke in 1959, and Defensive End Ross Browner of Notre Dame won in 1976 but was unseated by Defensive Tackle Brad Shearer of Texas in 1977. The Outland is now in its 37th year, and many observers feel that the 6'3", 292-pound Rimington is at least an even bet to be the first to win successive trophies. However, he isn't the first Cornhusker to win the Outland Trophy; Defensive Tackle Larry Jacobson brought it to Lincoln in 1971 and Middle Guard Rich Glover kept it there in 1972.
If Rimington is able to give Nebraska its second back-to-back Outlands, it will be the result, at least in part, of his attitude toward the award. "It was a big surprise to me, winning the Outland last year," he says, "and I do admit to being proud of it. But one thing I've learned about this season is that the Outland won't make the plays for me. I've got to make the plays for the Outland. I've got to keep all this attention in perspective and realize that if I don't keep my focus on football the reason for the attention in the first place will be long gone. So I'm just going to concentrate on snapping, blocking and helping Nebraska win. I'll let the Outland business take care of itself."
But even with this approach, repeating won't be easy. The attention directed at Rimington this season and the pressure on him created by it have a combined effect that is hard to overestimate. Take, for example, the Penn State game on Sept. 26. Not only was the game televised and thereby rendered More Important, but it was also between two unbeaten teams, both of which had designs on the national championship. Before the game, Rimington was besieged by questions about Penn State, about the state of his left knee, which he had injured both in 1978 and '81, and, of course, about the Outland. As he warmed up for the game, he was surrounded by at least 20 photographers. Rimington feels that this plus the almost deafening conditions down on the field caused him to be overanxious and to make a few uncharacteristic errors—mainly snapping the ball too early to Quarterback Turner Gill—that were scrupulously pointed out in accounts of the game. Rimington regained his composure in the second half and played, according to his coaches, up to his usual dominant standard.
Then a few days after the game, which Penn State won 27-24, and which remains the only blot on the Cornhuskers' record, Charlie McBride, Nebraska's defensive coordinator, was contacted by a state radio station. In the ensuing interview McBride was critical of Rimington's play. The result of McBride's broadcast comments was that a rumor of Rimington's imminent benching was started, and when the wire services got wind of the rumor, it became national news. A day later McBride apologized to Rimington personally and repeated the apology to a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald. Head Coach Tom Osborne also made it clear that he had never even thought of benching his center. But episodes such as this are attritional; they rust the soul and thus increase the difficulty Rimington will have in his quest to win his second Outland.
Rimington's eminence has created the additional problem of causing some officials who have seen his game films to wonder if he might be shading the rules by holding. He seems to control most opposing linemen so easily that he must be holding, even when the infraction isn't apparent. But those who best know Rimington's technique and his strength say he simply doesn't need to hold. Apparently the only way he holds defensive linemen is as in abeyance. Proof: With officials paying him special attention Rimington has been called for holding only one time this season.
Which is just another reason Rimington is regarded so highly by those men who know football well. "The Lord was good to that boy, but Dave has done his share of work, too," says Clete Fischer, Nebraska's offensive line coach. "He blows holes in the line you could send the backs through three abreast. He just annihilates people. Pass or drive block, he can do it all."
Adds Osborne: "His combined physical skills are the greatest I've seen on any lineman, ever. And his game sense is excellent. He makes offensive line calls on between 50 percent and 60 percent of our plays, giving audibles within audibles. He's as quick with his mind as he is with his feet."
Perhaps the most telling comments of all about Rimington were made recently in the living room of a large home in McMurray, a suburb of Pittsburgh. Those present included Steve Courson, the young right guard for the Steelers; Jon Kolb, the former Pittsburgh offensive tackle who now serves his team as the defensive line and conditioning coach; and Mike Webster, of the Steelers, considered by many to be the NFL's premier center. Any list of the 10 strongest men in pro football history would include these three. The room was dark and the clicking of an 8 mm film projector could be heard, but neither Marilyn Chambers, John Holmes nor any of their skinfolk were anywhere to be seen. Instead, the several films featured the mighty offense of Nebraska, which features the mighty Husker offensive line, which features the mighty Rimington. Listen.
Courson: "Run that back. My God, what a surge." General laughter.