What’s Tougher than a Black Shirt?
An Interview with John Pitts
What could possibly make a member of Bob Devaney’s Blackshirts even tougher? An afternoon with John Pitts reveals the answer.
A member of the Nebraska Corn Husker’s Blackshirts on Bob Devaney’s 1970 and 1971 National Championship teams, John Pitts is even more lethal now than when he donned pads for the Scarlet and Cream. A black belt in more than one martial art, and defensive tactics instructor for the Lincoln Police Department (which includes hand to hand, knife defense, and firearms) he is possibly one of the deadliest men to ever play in Memorial Stadium. I had the opportunity to sit down to lunch with Officer Pitts at Lazlo’s Brewery and Grill in Lincoln, NE.
Husker Pulse: Martial Arts are very different from American football how did you end up getting involved in them?
John Pitts: My first year, when I started in the (Police) department it was more like on the job training. What we had was about three hours of defensive tactics. You would learn to tumble and to throw and you were good to go. Then in that first year we had an incident where someone escaped from jail that had some martial arts background. We had about twenty people (officers) there and we all had guns, but nobody wanted to go in and go hands on. After that incident I decided I better find out how it works, at least more than the three hours we had. One of my friends from the University was involved in the Martial Arts and we got to talking one day. He said “awe you should come work out with me”. He invited me to the dojo telling me they had a great instructor there. So I finally went to the dojo in February and thought “this is probably going to help me. In March of ’75 I joined and have been there ever since.
HP: I’ve been told you do more than one. Which martial arts do you practice?
JP: Karate is the main one. I was involved in Judo for a number of years, but because of lower back problems right now I have moved out of the Judo part. I focus mainly on Karate and am doing some Kobudo, weapons training. I’ve dabbled in Aikido, but mostly Judo, Aikido, Karate and Kobudo.
HP: So mostly the Japanese arts then?
HP: So as if that didn’t make you scary enough, you were also a member of Special Weapons And Tactics (S.W.A.T.) and a sniper?
JP: Yeah, I was on S.W.A.T. for 14 years. I was the number one counter sniper on the team when I was there. I left the team in 2001, again due to my lower back. I knew my competitive edge was going down, so I thought I’d let the younger guys do it.
HP: I’ve got to ask. What was one of the scariest situations you encountered as a member of S.W.A.T.?
JP: The majority of mine (encounters) were long range, and I came close to shooting a couple people, which was kind of tense, but they ended up working out. One incident we went on where I didn’t have a shot, but our guys up close, they did ended up having to shoot a guy with a shot gun.
HP: Was it a hostage situation?
JP: It started out with an officer making a traffic stop and the guy came out of his car with his riffle. They shot around the car, and then we get the call. He was near the Amigos (restaurant) at 29th and Cornhusker and took over their (parking) lot. We got there and tried to see where he was at. He was away from us, so we went to get people out. On the third time we went to get more people out he had come around the corner and the SWAT member figured its either him or me.
HP: When you were training to be a sniper didn’t you train with the Marines?
JP: We went to Camp Lejeune, Geoff Marti and me. We were the two snipers at that point and basically when we first started we were learning stuff on our own for the first four or five years. Then money was freed up and the Marines put on a class that didn’t cost too much for us to attend so we went down there for a week.
HP: What kind of distances were you shooting from?
JP: We went back to about a thousand yards. We started off at one hundred, then two hundred, three hundred, back it up to five hundred, eight hundred, then you get to one thousand.
HP: That’s 10 football fields!
JP: Yeah, you think “I’m not hitting anything at one-thousand yards”, but then you go back a thousand yards and get the right calculations, you shoot and it takes 2 seconds for the round to get down range going about 2,000 feet per second. Then you see them lower the board and raise it showing where the shot hit. You think, “OK, if I can hit a 10 x 10 target at a thousand, 100 or 200 should be a piece of cake. That was good training, a good hard week. A lot of MRE’s (For those of you non-military people out there, that means: Meal, Ready-to-Eat). (laughter) We learned how to eat them MRE’s.
HP: How did you get interested in being a Police Officer?
JP: I thought I was going to teach school and coach. That was my plan. My senior year I worked with the Police Department. They had a deal worked out with the University that they would hire 5 football players and they would patrol the streets of Lincoln. So, I did that one year and thought it was interesting, and learned a lot that summer. And when I student taught, I just hated it. So I thought I’d try law enforcement again, and see how long it lasts.
We were interrupted by the Server at this point and the discussion turned to Food, health, and working out. We both work out and we discussed gyms, and losing weight. I bring up that I once had an opportunity to attend a class at his Dojo years ago. As a visiting martial artist I respectfully lined up with the white belts, but the head instructor that day in return showed respect to me by inviting me to line up with the black belts. So in order to represent my school well, I had to make sure that I kept up with the senior students no matter how much it hurt. The good news was I lived in a different city, and they wouldn’t see how sore I was after the class, and I was sore!
HP: Speaking of the Dojo, what was a bigger honor in your life, being the Dai Sempai (Senior or Number one student) of the Okinawan Goju Ryu Karate Dojo or being awarded a Blackshirt?
(More laughter and a gleam of pride in his eyes)
JP: That’s a tough question, (still smiling). Probably being Dai Sempai.
HP: As a Nebraska fan, the Blackshirts, we obviously know how much they mean, but was getting a Blackshirt as big of an honor when you were playing as it is now?
JP: There have quite a few changes through the last head coaches, but I think it was established when I got here that you wanted to be number one. You wanted to get that Blackshirt. So you did everything you could with your ability till you were a Blackshirt. That’s what everybody would strive for. You would work double hard, triple hard to improve yourself strength wise, speed wise, and ability wise.
HP: It seems like that’s all people talked about last year. “Are they going to hand them out? When are they going to hand them out?” As long as I’ve been watching it’s obviously been a huge honor. I was curious from the time it started has it been that symbol of accomplishment?
JP: Yeah, I’m sure it has. For those guys last year, you wanted them to get it, but you didn’t know when they were going to get it. You know they were playing really hard on every play, and you didn’t always see that for a couple years before. They got to play for it, and earn that shirt.
HP: Absolutely. I noticed changes dramatically in Potter. The year before he was an impressively huge specimen but just wasn’t very impactful as a defensive end and this year I saw the dramatic change I was hoping to see.
JP: I think that’s reflective on the coach. He said “This is what I want, and this is what you did. If you can’t do it I’ll put someone else up there to see if they can do it.” If you want it, you’re going to do it. I was glad to see the guys really play hard.
HP: Speaking of being a Blackshirt, I’ve seen you listed as a Defensive End, Line Backer, and as a Monster back. Is it common to play that many different positions in college ball?
(He laughs as I ask the question and saying all the different positions with me as I list them off)
JP: Yes and No. You change your position and it depends on the competition. I started off as a defensive end in 1970 and I started the first game and lead the team in tackles, but in my opinion I got demoted to second team in the second game. The way I saw it was I lead the team in tackles and now I’m second team. I did make one big mistake. I missed one quarterback sack, but that was only one, and I made 10 (tackles). The guy who took my spot, everybody will recognize his name, Willy Harper. He never beat me out of the position. He probably had more ability than me, but I think I worked harder than he did. That’s why I was in front, but they probably saw the potential in him and they were correct. After that I got hurt. My knee was really banged up, so I didn’t play anymore that year. I thought to myself, “Willy had a really good year, and I’m not going to take his spot so I’ll move to a different spot.” So I moved to Monster back. (laughing) I mean, hey they’re all linebackers.
HP: So what exactly is a Monster back?
JP: He goes to the strong side of the offensive formations. Kind of like when you have three linebackers, he’s the weak side linebacker. When we went 5-2 he’s basically the weak side linebacker.
HP: I thought I had an idea what it was, but I looked it up and the only solid definition I found was “a combination of safety and linebacker who could run with wide receivers but strong enough to take on any running back.” Does that fit?
JP: Pretty much. Like a weak side linebacker you have to be a pass defender, have enough speed to make a rush, and have strength to do pretty much everything. Back then we only have one safety. No strong safety or weak safety, just one safety, two DB’s and a Monster back.
HP: You probably worked harder than everyone else back there.
JP: Pretty much. (big grin) When I came back to fall camp I had to learn how to back-peddle, and cover people. So I started off number five on the depth chart. I had to work my way up, and ended up being second team. I think I would have been first team, but the other guy was a little faster and better at the pass defense. I was stronger though, and better at the tackling. It all worked out though. By my last year I was a linebacker, and they even let me call the signals my last year.
HP: Which kind of makes you a defensive captain.
JP: Yeah, pretty much. (You can see in his eyes this meant a lot to him.)
HP: I’ve been told you come from a pretty tough area in Michigan. How do you feel your experiences there prepared you for playing college football?
JP: I came from Flint, Michigan, and a lot of people know about Flint from the movies. Like the movie by Michael Moore. Flint’s an automotive town, similar to Lincoln with the population mix black to white. My school was pretty much black. There’s a lot of crime in Flint, a lot of shootings. How did it prepare me for the university? It was a culture shock when I came out here. (laughter all around the table) When I was recruited it was OK, but when I got to campus all the minorities, it seemed, were on the football team and basketball team. There were very few minority students, especially black females. So I asked myself “Do I really want to stay here?” After my first year I didn’t know if I was going to stay or not. Just before fall camp started I decided I’d better come back and try to fit in.
HP: Did you feel that lack of diversity? Did you feel any sort of racism or did you feel accepted on campus?
JP: The majority of people accepted you, but then you had those incidents where people were very racist. I remember we had gone to the movies, three of us, one night. We were all on the football team working hard and making money for this place, and as we were walking back through campus one of the frat houses started yelling certain names. We had a few beers in us and decided we should go kick some butt. So we went over there, and those guys started running from door to door closing them and locking them. I think we probably scared the shit out of them. If we had got in, we would have probably beat up a few people and ended up in trouble. I probably would have ended up not being a police officer. So it’s good they got those doors closed.
HP: I don’t imagine a lot of people think about things like that. I think the second year the Nebraska football team existed we already had an African American player and they were one of the early teams to have that.
JP: Our group talked to Coach Devaney about the fact that there were no black cheerleaders on campus. We have all these minority blacks playing football, but we have no black cheerleaders. We protested a little, and the next year we had two.
HP: Did that make you tighter, closer group of guys?
JP: We were all pretty tight. We all came from different places. Back then they were recruiting Michigan, Illinois, PA, Ohio and Jersey pretty heavily. Coach Devaney, Coach Ross, Coach Corrigan, they were all from Michigan. That’s why they went to Michigan a lot because that’s where they grew up. They knew the work ethic back there. When I got here I think there were ten or twelve people from Michigan.
HP: Who did you hang out with the most?
JP: Jimmy Branch, he was a strong side linebacker. I think he was one of the smaller linebackers we ever had here. He was about 5’9, but he made some big plays. John Adkins. He’s a doctor in Maryland right now, and I hadn’t seen him in a few years. I got to see him again at the Oklahoma game. Those were probably the two I did the most with. Oh and Clint Newton. He was from PA. We all hung out a lot. We joined the fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. A lot of the black football players were Kappa’s. So we were pretty much all pretty tight. We were all from different places. John was from Lynchburg, Virginia. Jimmy was from Chicago, and Clint. Then you’d get a few people from Omaha. There weren’t that many of us, so we all stayed together.
HP: Many Husker fans have watch all the documentaries on Coach Devaney, but what was he like from a players perspective?
JP: Ha! He was fiery. He’d make you shudder just by the way he’d look at you, and then start yelling at you. You know when you’re doing something wrong because he’d start yelling and that Irish temper just boils over, and you’d know you had better go out there and do your best.
HP: I’m an Irishman myself, and I have always liked that about him. I’ve heard people saying they see a lot of Devaney in Bo Pelini. Obviously, instead of the Irish temper Bo has the Italian temper that is very similar.
JP: I think Bo is more vocal all the time where Coach Devaney would pick his spots more. If you weren’t doing well at half time no one wanted to face him. He’d get in everyone’s face. Though he did it because he cared for the program. He wanted you to be the best you could be. He just yelled at you to do it.
HP: Do you think players respond better to a coach who lets you know what you’re doing wrong with a little bit of fire, or someone more like Callahan who in my opinion we never saw that type of emotion from?
JP: Well, I think they probably respond to the emotion more, but in saying that you have T.O. on the other side, who was very even and calm. He’d lay things out for you. I think the harshest thing I ever heard him say was “Garsh Darn it,” but he still got everybody to play at a high level. Though I think the majority respond to that more aggressive style. You’ve got to have an aggressive attitude to go out there and make big plays.
HP: You played in Devaney’s last game, and he had announced his retirement prior to the game. Did that affect how you as players prepared or played in the game?
JP: Not really. I think we knew it was coming. I think we knew that at the begging of the year that it was going to be his last year. He was giving Tom more of a leadership role, and was taking a bit of a step back, and we realized it was going to be his last year. Though when it came to his very last game, we didn’t want to lose. We couldn’t lose the last one. I think we lost his lost home game to Oklahoma that year. (Indeed they did 14-17) So when it came to the last last game we couldn’t lose it.
HP: If I recall correctly you had a pretty big play in his final game. What goes through a defensive players head when he makes an interception in a big game?
JP: I wanted to score. I wish it could have gone for a touchdown, but as I got the ball and got started somebody got my ankle and I went down. I thought to myself “I didn’t go anywhere!” You just always want to make a play. I knew I had to have a decent game if I had any aspirations to play at the next level, but I decided after that game that it was a lot of work. I had just received my degree and decided against it.
HP: Did playing a team like Notre Dame for a big game like that make it more special, or is it still “just a game?”
JP: I think it’s more special when you play a big name team.
HP: As long as we’re talking about great Husker games, I have to bring up “the Game of the Century.” If someone had told you before you played that game that in 2009 people would still be referring to it as the greatest game in college football, what would you have said to them?
JP: You’re crazy. It’s just a game. We want to win, they want to win.
HP: It meant a lot, and still means a lot, to the people of this state. What did it mean to you, the players that actually played it, after you won that game?
JP: Well, we were sure who ever one that game was going to win the Big 8 and have a good shot at winning a national championship if they could win out. We were really happy just to go out and win it. It was a great team effort.
HP: Did you know during the game that you were going to win?
JP: No. We knew it could come down to who ever had the ball last would win, and that’s kind of the way it worked out where we had the ball last. We stop them and we’d score, then they stop us and they’d score. It was real back and forth. We were on our heals all day, and you just hoped you would make a play to get your team in a position where they had the advantage.
HP: Which is what makes it the “Game of the Century”.
JP: Yeah, exactly.
HP: Not to make you feel old, but I wasn’t even alive yet, (He shakes his head and laughs) but I’ve seen it multiple times on DVD because it’s such a big game.
JP: I went down to Oklahoma this year, and they gave us a DVD of the game. There were just great players all around. Two heavy weights.
HP: Now Nebraska is known for ALWAYS having superior facilities. I was told to ask you about the 300lb bench club, and the fantastic equipment you had to work with. Can you elaborate on that?
JP: Yeah, we had basically one room with a stationary bike and a couple hundred pounds of weights. Not a whole lot more than a bench press and a single leg machine. That’s about it. Boyd Epley, he was a track guy, got hurt and started lifting weights and really built himself up. He convinced Devaney that they needed to address conditioning and get a program for us to work on. We had weights that were paint cans with cement in them that we’d put on the bars. At the time I weighed about 190 lbs. I figured I needed to get stronger or get bigger. I knew I wasn’t going to get much bigger, so I’d better try and get stronger. So we started lifting, and when others started to see the change in our body type everyone started lifting. One of the little guys was able to lift two and a quarter. I figured if he could do that I could do that too. So I started lifting hard. One day I was the only guy in there working out and Boyd says “Hey, let’s start a 300lb club. Can you do 300?” I told him yeah, and so he put 300 on it. I popped it up, and then we had a 300lb club. First guy, first guy in the 300lb club.
At this point our food arrives and though I put the interview on hold so we can eat, we chat about family and high school ball.
HP: Are you still involved with the team at all? I’ve been told you can be seen near the stadium on game days.
JP: I used to work the games (as a police officer). I worked them for about 32 or 33 years. Last year was my first year of not working them. I do still have tickets so I went to games last year as a fan. I do have some other participation with the team this year. Carl Pelini called and the strength coach, James Dobson, they wanted the defensive linemen to do martial arts. We’re doing some martial arts hand techniques with them.
HP: Is that something I can put in the interview, or is it a secret?
JP: It’s part of their winter conditioning. Brad Siebler and I worked them out hard. We did blocking drills, working on getting people’s hands off of you. Carl liked the blocks. They’ll find something they can use. The conditioning coach thought we took it too easy on them at first, but we wanted them to learn a little first before we took it too fast. If I go to fast and they don’t see how it’s supposed to be done someone could get hurt. So we did more conditioning type drills later. Block, push, stuff like that. We’ll see if they like it. They’ll find stuff they can use. I think Carl like the block, push drills we did the first day.
HP: I think I’d better call and make sure I can put this in here. I’d hate to spill the beans.
JP: You might want to check. Carl said that he’s used martial arts with his teams before to talk about balance and things like that. We’ll see if they like it, and maybe do it again next year.
HP: How the game changed from when you played to present day?
JP: A lot bigger, a lot stronger, and lot faster. I think if they put us out there, they’d say “you guys run in slow motion.” When we thought about somebody fast back then they were running 4-5’s now they’re running 4-3’s. Everyone seems to be able to run a 4-4. You pretty much have to run a 4-2 to stand out. Our average speed back then was probably a 4-6, or 4-7. I was a 4-7 guy and I was working at it. They’re just much quicker.
HP: Do you think it’s something in the water these days? These kids are just huge. Were kids just not that big back then?
JP: We had a couple big guys, but not twenty of them. Every team had four or five guys in the 270 to 275lb range, but the majority were around 230 to 250lbs.
HP: ESPN did a computer poll were they had people vote on the best teams in college football, and the final matched up was the ’95 Championship team against your ’71 Championship team, and ’95 won. How do you feel about that?
JP: (Laughs) Oh ’95 won huh? You got to play it on the field. If you put us out there, we’d show them a thing or two. I think that ’95 team was a pretty good team though. In the dojo we say you have to do it on the floor, in football it’s on the field. If you’re not doing it on the field it doesn’t count.
HP: Thank you so much for your time John, but there is one last thing I have to ask you about. An insider told me to ask you about your “fruitcake”. What story can be found behind such an unusual set up?
JP: I make fruit cake every year, mainly for my family. I took some around the dojo, and people liked it. It seemed like everybody liked fruit cake. So I have increased my output every year. With fruit cake in general you either hate it or love it, but everyone seems to like mime. I think it must be that stuff I put in, the “extra” stuff I put into it.
HP: A little bit of the “secret ingredient”?
JP: That’s right, my “secret ingredient” keeps it kind of moist.
HP: I think we can all guess what that might be.
More pictures of John Pitts here. (Photos provided by John Pitts)
A special thanks to Daemon for doing this excellent interview and sharing it with us. We are all so lucky to have Daemon as a member of Husker Spot!!
Last updated by NeFan4Life Apr 9, 2009.