Skating up the ice, he feels the cold breeze flowing through his cage onto his face, knowing that every move is a critical shift, and at the same time bringing back old memories.
Darin Erstad spent most of his summer with his buddies playing hockey at the John Breslow Ice Hockey Center on campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“It’s one of those things where there hasn’t been a day where I didn’t put on my skates and wasn’t excited to get on the ice,” he said.
Erstad, 47, a former MLB player, UNL alumnus and dual-sport student-athlete and baseball coach, now finds time to enjoy his free time after a long historical baseball and coaching career by still being involved with sports he loved to play and be with his family.
Spending most of his weekends at the ice hockey rink watching his sons play hockey, Erstad has a love for the game he had as a child and now makes more time for himself to get out there and play.
“I love skating,” Erstad said. “Even as you get older and you’re not very good, it’s still fun to go out there.”
As a multi-sport athlete growing up in Jamestown, N.D., he played anything you can name: football, baseball, ice hockey, basketball, soccer and track and field. His parents were his inspiration. His mom said he should play sports in college and play all four years at a university. Erstad said he really didn’t have a lot of options for colleges besides Creighton and UNL.
When he was 16, his legion baseball coach, also a UNL assistant coach, gave his name to Nebraska when Erstad was getting ready to go look at schools.
His senior year of high school rolled around and Nebraska asked him to come down on a visit. Erstad showed them a video tape of his highlights. The coaches liked the tape and offered him a scholarship. But all of this isn’t what really got Erstad to come to UNL.
“In the fall of ‘91, I went to the Washington versus Nebraska football game on my recruiting trip. The atmosphere was something I’ve never seen before coming out of North Dakota, and I was in and pretty much committed on the spot,” Erstad said.
Erstad’s dream was to play professional baseball once he was done playing at UNL. He would live up to his dreams as he was taken first overall in the 1995 MLB Draft by the California Angels. Erstad would go on to play 14 years in the MLB, for the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels, Houston Astros and the Chicago White Sox, and played in 1,654 games. He would finish his MLB career batting .282 hitting 124 home runs and getting 1,697 hits.
After 14 years in the MLB, Erstad returned to his alma mater to be the hitting coach in 2010 and in the following year, he would be hired as UNL’s head baseball coach.
“I was asked to come back and help get the culture back in place for Nebraska baseball, and when the University of Nebraska asks for something, I’m going to more than likely do it,” Erstad said.
He described Nebraska as a second home to him and for his family — the UNL mentality is similar to the mentality of his hometown Jamestown — and said it felt right to come back.
When former Nebraska Cornhuskers baseball player Jaxon Hallmark met Coach Erstad on his unofficial visit to UNL, he said he was intimidated at first.
“I walked in and I met him and shook his hand, and I was blown away from his presence and the aura that he had. He was very intimidating, but he had a very dominant presence,” Hallmark said.
Hallmark, who was coached by Erstad for two seasons before Erstad stepped down from the program, described Erstad as a hard-nosed, serious coach who coached like he played baseball. As a person, Hallmark described Erstad as a person who is more interested in setting up his players for the more important life after baseball. Hallmark also mentioned one of his best memories of Erstad in 2019, his sophomore year. Hallmark played Oregon State and was 1-11 with seven strikeouts after coming off being Big Ten Player of the week the previous week. Erstad called out Hallmark for his poor efforts at the plate and Hallmark would go on to be First-Team All-Big Ten in 20-21.
Angelo Altavilla, who played high school hockey in Minnesota and baseball at UNL, played all four years under Erstad and said that he treated everyone with respect.
“It was nice to obviously connect to him on a hockey level because he enjoys hockey a lot,” Altavilla said, adding that Erstad was the best coach he ever had. When Erstad had the chance to coach the Los Angeles Dodgers and other teams in the MLB, he chose to stay at Nebraska where he coached the baseball team for eight seasons (‘12-’19), going 267-193-1 overall and 111-77-1 in conference, leading Nebraska to a Big Ten Conference championship in 2017 as well as earning Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2017. After the 2019 season, Erstad stepped down as head coach from Nebraska to focus on spending more time with his family and watching his three children, Jordan Elizabeth, Zack and Adam, grow up.
Now, he spends time watching Jordan’s dance recitals, taking both sons to practice and the same games their dad played growing up. His wife, Jessica Erstad, said too that it pained her husband to not be there at his children’s event when he was a coach.
“The thing I miss most about Darin coaching is obviously getting to meet all the players and their parents and building relationships. But with that said, having Darin home now is super nice because he is able to see games,” Jessica said.
Erstad’s middle child, Zack, also said that it has been nice seeing his dad every weekend now that he isn’t coaching anymore and still gives him insights if he or his brother or sister have any questions about anything.
“In the big leagues, it was what do I need to do to stay here, and for coaching, what do I need to do to get these kids to be better. Now, it’s not about me,” Erstad said. “It’s about what do our kids need and what is best for them.”