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He was bigger than all the kids his age, so Sam Hahn could only watch.

It was fifth grade, and like a lot of boys, Hahn was eager to play some football. So he joined the area pee-wee league.

One not-so-small problem …

Hahn, who hit an early growth spurt, was over the weight limit, and he wasn't allowed to play in games. But the country kid loved football too much, and he attended the games to support his team. And pee-wee practice? He never missed one.

"I just practiced because I wanted to play football," Hahn said.

His pee-wee coach had seen nothing like it — an 11-year-old ball of energy limited to practice. Where's the fun in that?

But for Hahn, it was fun. He loved to work. Still does.

DeWitt's favorite Husker lineman has worked his way onto Nebraska's depth chart. Saturday, he's expected to start at left guard against Fresno State. It was only a week ago when Nebraska football coach Mike Riley announced that Hahn would be stepping up to fill in for the injured Jerald Foster. But Hahn — who was at a family wedding reception when he saw the news he'd be starting — has been envisioning this day for a long time.

"I've been picturing that since I was a little kid," he said. "I'm sure it will be different than I imagine, because I've been through gameday before and everything. The only thing that's different is when the offense goes out on the field, I'll be walking out with them.

"I'll enjoy that, but I've also got to focus and got a job to do, too."

Hahn knows nothing is guaranteed after this week.

"Who knows, this could be my only shot," he said. "I’m going to play and see what I can do."

Hahn's walk-on story is like many others (though his route to Nebraska took a short detour). He was a farm kid who drove combines, watched football and dreamed one day of suiting up for Big Red.

He remembers listening to Husker games on the radio with his dad, James. Quickly, Hahn became hooked on football.

"I knew school was out because he was back there with a football," his father said. "And he wanted to run patterns, and I was suppose to throw him the ball. I didn't have any clue what patterns were, but I was throwing the ball."

"'I'm going this way, Dad, and I'm going to turn this way and you throw it to me.'"

Hahn didn't stop growing either. He developed into one of the best players to ever come out of Tri County High School, playing for coach John McGary. It was McGary, Hahn says, who taught him how to truly work.

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"Football actually helped me with working hard on the farm," said Hahn, who was a three-sport standout with the Trojans. "After I went to college, and I couldn’t be around farming much, it really kind of helped me realize what was important. When I went home, I wanted to work and get stuff done."

McGary saw that mentality on the field.

"He’d do everything you ask," McGary said. "He’d help everyone with their plays. He would be the one that everyone had to ask. He would know every fake in the backfield."

Hahn's play in high school (he rarely left the field) caught the attention of FCS powerhouse North Dakota State. With a partial scholarship on the table, Hahn headed to Fargo, North Dakota, in the fall of 2012. But something immediately wasn't right.

"It tore me up pretty good the first semester at North Dakota State, when I irrigated all summer and put the work into the crop and I didn’t get to see any or reap any of the benefits of it," Hahn said. "I’m a pretty home-based, family-based guy, and I just wanted to be here."

Hahn was part of the Bison team that went on to win its second straight national championship, and a surefire chance to help the program win more titles awaited the lineman. But a couple of passions tugged at Hahn — the farm, and Husker football.

"I remember him telling me that fall he was up there how hard it was for him to watch a Husker football game because that’s where his heart was," Hahn's mother, Robin, said.

So Hahn enrolled in classes at Nebraska following that fall semester, and a phone call from the Tri County athletic director led to dialogue between Hahn and then-Husker assistant Barney Cotton. That led to winter conditioning and a spot on the roster.

Hahn played sparingly as a sophomore and junior. Asked what his role was entering fall camp as a senior, Hahn said, "Field goal, punt and be ready at tackle if something goes wrong with the first two."

Suddenly, Nebraska needed help at left guard following the loss of Foster for the season and Corey Whitaker for a couple of weeks. That's when the 6-foot-7, 300-pound Hahn stepped in.

"Just to be able to play offensive line for Nebraska and now, this Saturday, to get a chance to start and play some meaningful snaps, that’s pretty cool,” Hahn said.

Making it better for Hahn, he's less than an hour from the family farm, his sanctuary. He takes a lot of pride in the 800 acres.

He's back helping Dad when he can, though not much during football season.

"Bye week, I’ll be home for sure," said Hahn, an agronomy major. "Any chance we don’t have to be here for stuff, I’ll be home."

Hahn, one of 22 walk-ons on the Husker depth chart, will soak it all in Saturday. The walk through the tunnel. The crowd noise. The tribute to his late friend Sam Foltz. Hahn and Alonzo Moore will step foot onto the field as the Foltz honorary captains Saturday.

Monday, the Huskers have an off day. Hahn, remember, never stops working. He'll be near DeWitt. The farm awaits.

"I think we’re going to pick up (irrigation) pipe," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-2639 or cgrell@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsCG.

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