Fans still remember Demoine Adams as a three-year starter at defensive end. An honorable mention all-conference performer. A second-team Academic All-American. A rising star and a nice guy.
Those were good times, he said, but they almost never happened.
The undersized rush end who helped lead the 2001 NU team to the Rose Bowl almost flunked out of college his first semester. Now he's mentoring students and working on a Ph.D. at his alma mater.
Demoine Adams once had a GPA of 1.67. Now he's working on his doctorate.
But Adams didn't set out to become an academic. He didn't even know what graduate school was until he had almost finished his bachelor's degree.
He wanted just one thing: a path to the NFL.
* * *
Adams knew football could be his ticket out of Pine Bluff, Ark.
So before his senior year of high school, he got a job at an eight-screen movie theater. He needed to save $375 to attend Nebraska's summer football camp. Maybe there, he thought, a smaller school would see him and give him a shot.
He was 16 and alone when he got to camp. Undersized for a defensive end but fast, he caught the eye of Coach Tom Osborne.
A few months later, the kid from Pine Bluff committed to become a Husker.
But his playing career at Nebraska almost stopped before it started. While redshirting in his first fall on campus, Adams passed just six of the 15 credit hours he took.
With a GPA sagging below 2, he almost was sent back to Arkansas. But he asked for another chance.
He took 18 credit hours that spring, got tutors, started going to lectures and learned how to study. The athletic department sent people to make sure he wasn't skipping class and made him go to a daily study hall.
Then a funny thing happened: The kid who always scraped by in school, but never really cared much for it, discovered he liked learning.
He earned a 3.6 GPA, the highest in his life.
* * *
Raised by a grandma who didn't go to college and great-grandparents who didn't graduate from high school, school was never Adams' priority.
He stayed out of trouble, avoided gangs and got involved with his church. In school, he did his homework and got average grades.
But he never really learned to study. His friends didn't much care about school, and he preferred the football field to the classroom.
College, he thought, was just the next step on his way to NFL glory.
* * *
It all started to come together in fall 1999.
Just a year removed from failing nine of his 15 credit hours, Adams earned a 4.0 GPA.
"It was fun because he was so into it," said his academic adviser, Dennis Leblanc. "He was a guy that was not going to get discouraged, and he knew how to persevere."
Adams' playing career also started that fall, and he appeared as a reserve defensive end for Coach Frank Solich. He even scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery -- the first and last score of his life.
Then things started to move faster. After just three years on campus, Adams finished his political science degree.
He thought about law school, but Solich said no. Too many practice conflicts.
With two years of football eligibility left, he needed to find something to study. Then Leblanc suggested grad school.
Intrigued, Adams applied for the master's program in counseling psychology. He was accepted, and that got him thinking about something he couldn't have fathomed earlier: life without football.
* * *
Adams' college career peaked one year too early. He was a second-year starter on Nebraska's Rose Bowl team, and before long, he was ranked among the nation's elite rush ends.
He was coming off an honorable mention all-conference season. But the knock on him was that he was too small.
He put on about 30 pounds, but that slowed him down and led to injuries. He was bigger, but not better. At one point, Solich yanked him from the starting lineup.
Then the NFL Draft came -- the reason he spent five years at college. But after seven rounds, the commissioner never uttered "Demoine Adams."
His football life appeared to be over.
* * *
That next fall, while his ex-Blackshirt teammates were living his NFL dream, Adams stayed in Lincoln. He kept working on his master's degree.
But then he got a call from Torii Hunter, a Major League Baseball outfielder and his childhood friend. Hunter encouraged him to give football another chance, so he started working out that spring and signed a contract with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League.
Adams wanted to be a Chief or a Seahawk, not an Eskimo. So when the Green Bay Packers offered him a tryout, he hopped the border.
The Packers gave him a spot on their practice squad, but he never played in a game. He bounced to the Tennessee Titans practice squad, then to jobs in the Arena Football League, then smaller leagues.
In the off-seasons, he returned to Lincoln and eventually finished his master's degree.
Even after spending parts of two seasons on NFL rosters, Adams never played a game in the big league. And when the AFL's San Jose SaberCats cut him in 2007, he signed for $200 a game with the Omaha Beef of the United Indoor Football League -- still holding out hope he'd catch the eye of an NFL scout.
But at the end of the season, with football opportunities drying up, he left the game without ever playing a down in the NFL.
* * *
The next year was tough. Adams was a 27-year-old with two college degrees but no work experience after his days at that Pine Bluff movie theater.
No one was hiring. And he missed football. Badly.
He couldn't go to games and didn't want to watch them on TV.
"I should be out there," he'd think when he saw one of his college teammates play on Sundays.
He asked a friend at his alma mater about job opportunities, and she mentioned a program the university was starting.
The William H. Thompson Scholars Learning Community, designed to help lower-income Nebraskans transitioning to college, needed an academic program coordinator.
With a master's degree in counseling psychology and a little experience of his own in the challenges of jumping into college, Adams applied and got the job. At first, the demands of helping start a new program were daunting.
"I felt like a 22-year-old in a 28-year-old body," he said.
And football still nagged at him. That first season, he only went to two Husker games. But as he adjusted to life without football, he discovered something else.
He started working on a doctorate in leadership education and teaching a few undergraduate classes. He saw himself in many of his students -- bright kids who maybe weren't quite equipped to succeed -- and he found another passion. A passion for helping kids like him.
Among those students was Alex Jurgens, a kid from a small, central Nebraska town who turned to Adams when he decided his journalism major wasn't the right fit. A peer mentor in the Thompson community, Jurgens already respected Adams.
That respect grew as the two talked, and Jurgens ended up following Adams into the leadership program. It was Adams' example that ended up being a deciding factor, Jurgens said.
"If you talk to him, he's just very inspiring. He inspired me to be more motivated and get involved on campus."
Three years into the program, more than 90 percent of Thompson scholars are still in school. Adams thinks that's proof that with the right mindset and resources, more students can go from almost flunking out to working on graduate degrees.
"I think what we have done is shown the university that just because kids come in with low ACT scores and are first-generation (college students)," he said, "doesn't mean you should count them out."
And his new mission has given him a fulfillment as sweet as any quarterback sack.
"When other people reminded me of the success I had with football and the difference I could make in my next career," he said, "that allowed me to have peace."