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By Randy York
Fourteen years ago last December, a superb athlete from Garfield Heights, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, decided to visit Nebraska. Lincoln was off his personal radar, but DeJuan Groce wanted to see what life was like outside the Big Ten Conference and the four schools he'd already visited - Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. Once he could check the fifth school from his list, he could get serious about which Big Ten school he would attend. "Nebraska was never on my radar until Frank Solich visited my high school," Groce said, recalling how Solich also grew up in Cleveland. Groce considered feigning interest in Nebraska and moving on, but Jim McQuaide, his high school coach, encouraged him to visit Lincoln, so he could compare differences.
Remember, this was 1997 when Nebraska was riding the best five-year stretch in college football history. Groce was just a teenager still steeped in Big Ten roots, thoughts and mindset. Finally, he convinced himself that a Lincoln visit made sense because: 1) It couldn't hurt anything; 2) Nebraska was paying for the trip; and 3) He had a lot of thinking to do anyway. Squeezing in a rare mid-week recruiting trip, Groce ended up experiencing something that literally made the hair stand up on his back ... Nebraska's first-team defense in full-scale combat against the Huskers' No. 1 offense in a knockdown, drag-out Wednesday scrimmage that helped NU prepare for Tom Osborne's and Peyton Manning's simultaneously final collegiate game in a Husker-Vol Orange Bowl.
"Ralph Brown was my recruiting host, and he told me what to expect," Groce recalled. "It was absolutely awesome. I fell in love with the Blackshirts that day, and I was sold on Nebraska in the first 10 minutes of that scrimmage. I saw guys like Ralph Brown, Mike Brown, Grant Wistrom, Jason Peter, Jay Foreman, Eric Johnson, Chad Kelsay and Loran Kaiser collide with guys like Ahman Green, Scott Frost and Joel Makovicka. They were all going full-bore, trying to beat each other up. They were hitting so hard, it was like watching a train wreck."
With that picture ringing inside the head of an ultra-physical player, Groce committed to Nebraska, wore a Blackshirt for four years and became a three-year starter at cornerback. He also became a first-team All-America kick returner and still owns Nebraska's two longest bowl game punt-return touchdowns, including a 71-yarder in the national championship Rose Bowl game against Miami. He played 4½ years in the NFL. Today, Groce and wife Tiffiney live in Grapevine, Texas. They have two sons, 2-year-old Aiden and 4-month-old Caleb. Groce is a personal trainer and directs "boot camps" for adults and football camps for youth. After going from off-the-radar to All-American, Groce is also a fervent fan of Nebraska in the Big Ten and thinks the Huskers are a perfect fit in their new league, especially if they continue to wear Blackshirts and keep those 1 vs. 1 combat missions as a regular part of each week's practices.
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