An engineer by trade, Layne Hergert sees problems and has an innate desire to fix them.
In 1999, Hergert saw a recurring glitch in the Nebraska football system, a flaw that was costing his favorite team dearly. He no longer could sit back and do nothing.
The breaking point was Oct. 23, 1999, an awful day in Nebraska football history. NU, undefeated and ranked third at the time, fumbled five times and lost three of them while falling to No. 18 Texas. The killer was I-back Correll Buckhalter's lost fumble at the Longhorn 1-yard line in the fourth quarter.
Hergert seethed. A 1987 Lincoln Northeast graduate, he's long been a passionate Nebraska fan. He has a master's degree from the school in systems engineering. He had to do something to fix those fumbles; Nebraska ended the 1999 season with 49, including 25 lost. The fumbles in the 24-20 loss to Texas likely cost NU a chance at the national championship.
Former Nebraska assistant Ron Brown grimaces at the recollection.
"We would've played Florida State for all the marbles had we won," he said.
"I'm going to figure out how to solve this problem," Hergert recalled thinking as Nebraska stumbled in Austin, Texas.
Long story short, Hergert came up with the idea to envelop a football in a slick fabric in order to make it more challenging to carry during drills. It's essentially a sleeve. In August 2000, at 5 a.m. on the day before Nebraska began preseason practice, he drove from his home in Gretna to Lincoln. He presented his blue-colored sleeve to then-Husker running backs coach Dave Gillespie and a few days later, an NU equipment manager ordered a dozen of them.
The engineer's "Slipskin like pigskin" had gained foothold. A business was born.
"Thunder Collins was the first running back to try it out," said the 46-year-old Hergert, now a senior manager for TD Ameritrade in Omaha.
There was one problem.
"I had no idea how to start mass producing the thing yet," Hergert said.
You have free articles remaining.
A sewing company in Omaha solved that issue, and an extremely successful enterprise took off. Within the next nine to 12 months, 150 to 200 teams — NFL, college and high school — were using the product thanks in part to Hergert's marketing, which included countless phone calls, as well as a trip to the American Football Coaches Association convention, where he set up a booth.
Nebraska used the sleeve the past few years under Brown, who extols its benefits.
"It forces the player to have to squeeze the ball tighter," said Brown, who now coaches at Liberty University in Virginia. "At times, I also put a towel underneath the armpit to go along with it. That forced the runner to lock his elbow into his ribcage. When the elbow is up, they're vulnerable to fumbles."
Although it's unclear if the new Nebraska coaching staff will use the product, Mike Riley's crew likely has some familiarity with the sleeve. If not, they could ask NFL great Adrian Peterson. The product "basically helped save his career" six years ago, when Peterson was dogged by a nasty case of fumbleitis, said Hergert, who sold the business in 2007 but retains a patent.
A great-nephew of former Omaha World-Herald sports editor Wally Provost, Hergert to this day proudly refers to the sleeve as "my product."
Former Nebraska running back great Ahman Green used it while starring for the Green Bay Packers. He remembers first trying it in 2001 or 2002 during training camp. He was instantly intrigued and immediately understood the benefits.
"It makes you focus a little bit more," Green said this week. "It's like anything else; if you make it a habit — a good habit — no matter the situation, you'll know to always secure the ball, whether you're going for it on fourth-and-1 or catching the ball out of the backfield.
"Then, eventually, there becomes a lot less thinking about carrying the ball, which enables you to become who you really are as a running back. You become trained physically how to secure the ball, and it becomes an innate ability."
Hergert's product perhaps explains why Nebraska's fumble total dropped to 26 (nine lost) in 2000 and 24 (14) in 2001. If there's any correlation at all, well, you can imagine his feeling of pride. Bottom line, Hergert developed a direct connection to his beloved Huskers and enjoys a unique, albeit largely unnoticed, place in program lore.
Hergert loves the game. He was a 5-foot-9, 180-pound wide receiver for Lincoln Northeast, but doesn't remember many of his statistics. However, Hergert vividly recalls a certain play.
"We were playing Lincoln East. Before halftime, I caught a pass across the middle, got hit at about the 5-yard line, and fumbled it into the end zone," he said. "That's probably why I designed the product, because that fumble probably stuck with me forever."
I chuckled as he told the story, which was probably insensitive if not a bit disrespectful. After all, the guy's a successful inventor, as several running backs would attest.