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How It Was: Willie Harper returns

Willie Harper attended the 1971 national championship team reunion banquet the night before the Tennessee-Chattanooga game. He did not attend the game, however.

Willie Harper

The former Husker All-American flew back to California for the Fresno State-California game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, to watch youngest son, Josh, play his first collegiate game.

Josh Harper is a redshirted freshman wide receiver for Fresno State.

So Willie Harper will be in Memorial Stadium on Saturday night, arguably the best defensive end in Husker history coming home – collegiately speaking. Harper was from Toledo, Ohio, and was recruited by former Husker fullback Bill Thornton, who also called Toledo home and coached him for one season in high school before returning to Nebraska as a Bob Devaney assistant.

Harper began his Cornhusker career as a middle guard but was moved to defensive end after playing on the freshman team, as Devaney looked to replace Mike Wynn and Sherwin Jarmon.

Like Memorial Stadium, Harper has changed over the past 40 years. For one thing, he no longer wears that distinctive Afro. But the 61-year-old minister and father of nine still looks as if he could pressure a quarterback, coming off the edge with quickness and strength.

“He was almost impossible to knock off his feet,” Devaney wrote of the 6-foot-2, 207-pound Harper in his 1981 autobiography. “And he was perfect for the defensive scheme we played.”

That was reflected, in part, by Harper’s 41 career tackles for 268 yards in losses. His three-season total is tied for sixth all-time at Nebraska. All of those ahead of him played four seasons. In fact, he’s the only one among the top 10 who played before the NCAA restored freshman eligibility in 1972.

Quarterback sacks weren’t recorded until 1982. By that time, Harper had a San Francisco 49ers’ Super Bowl XVI championship ring to go with two national championship rings.

“They talk a lot about Hugh Green of Pitt. Harper is in the game class,” Devaney wrote. “He didn’t get that many tackles when he was a senior because no one dared run his way.”

Green was a three-time All-American and Lombardi Award-winning defensive end at Pittsburgh, finishing his collegiate career just before Devaney’s autobiography was published. He also finished second to South Carolina’s George Rogers in voting for the 1980 Heisman Trophy.

Harper was a two-time consensus All-American, an accomplishment made more remarkable by the fact that his career coincided with that of Rich Glover, among the most decorated defensive players in Cornhusker history. Glover also was a two-time consensus All-American (once unanimous) and earned both the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy when he and Harper were seniors in 1972.

Nebraska had another Outland Trophy winner in its defensive front in 1971, Larry Jacobson. Harper’s Cornhusker career also coincided with that of Johnny Rodgers, another two-time consensus All-American (once unanimous) and Nebraska’s first Heisman Trophy winner.

Surrounded by such talent, it would have been easy for those who vote for national awards to overlook Harper. “Although Willie Harper never won the Outland Trophy, I’d have to put him in the same class with Jacobson and Glover,” wrote Devaney. “Willie was a natural.”

Nebraska combines defensive ends with rush ends and outside linebackers in its historical statistics, so Harper’s name is alongside those of Grant Wistrom, Trev Alberts and Broderick Thomas.

In other words, Harper was one of the best, and he’ll be back home, watching the Fresno State player in the No. 3 jersey play his second collegiate game on Saturday night. There’s a bit of irony, Harper said at the ’71 team’s reunion banquet. Josh’s first game (he caught a touchdown pass, by the way) was in the stadium his dad called home for 11 NFL seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.

So welcome home, Willie. Those of us who are old enough haven’t forgotten.

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