Bill Barnett sitting in his office in Lincoln.
Bill Barnett sitting in his office in Lincoln.

As a high school football recruit from Minnesota who came to Nebraska, Bill Barnett didn’t think football would be his career after college. After his first years of playing for the Huskers, however, that changed.

Barnett played football for the Huskers from 1974 to 1979. He was a three-time letterman winner, lifter of the year, and earned academic all-conference in the Big 8 conference. He was drafted in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins in 1980 and played six seasons with the team. He remains one of the more successful players in Nebraska football history and his story is one of perseverance and patience.

Barnett is from Afton, Minnesota and played at Stillwater High School. He was recruited by Notre Dame, Tennessee, Colorado State, and many other Division I colleges. He ultimately chose Nebraska because the Huskers were one of the major football colleges that were on national television at the time. He also had a connection, Bob Nelson, who went to the same high school as Barnett and attended UNL. Mike Church, graduate assistant for Husker football, stayed at Barnett’s parents’  house for a week before Barnett’s signing day.

Back in the 70’s, good football programs were typically on television once or twice a year according to Barnett. He said that games like Michigan vs Ohio State, Nebraska vs Oklahoma, Alabama vs Auburn, and other rivalry games were televised. Because of its success, some of Nebraska’s games were televised.

In Barnett’s first semester of college in 1974, he sat out his first season at Nebraska, after he broke his tibia in the Minnesota Shrine Bowl. The next season, Barnett played on the freshman team, and then redshirted in 1976. Barnett finally played on the varsity team from 1977 to 1979.

The Huskers played in a bowl game every season Barnett was on the team. Nebraska played in the Liberty Bowl, Orange Bowl, and Cotton Bowl. The team also won the Big 8 Conference in 1978.

“There weren’t as many games (bowl games) then,” Barnett said. “It was a treat to go to a bowl game.”

Tom Osborne became the head coach in 1973, the year before Barnett joined the team.

“He was learning at the same time we were,” Barnett said.

When Nebraska beat Oklahoma in 1978, that was the first time Osborne defeated the Sooners as a head coach. Oklahoma was one of Nebraska’s biggest rivalries at the time, and the Sooners were ranked No.1 in the nation.

“It was a big deal,” Barnett said. “Barry Switzer (Oklahoma head coach) had Osborne’s number.”

Barnett mentioned other memorable games, such as when the Huskers played against Penn State at Lincoln and defeated the Nittany Lions, 42 – 17, and split a pair of games against Alabama in 1977 and 1978.

“We always had some pretty good competition,” Barnett said. “(athletic director Bob) Devaney didn’t ever seem to shy away from tough competition.”

During Barnett’s time in college, he met his girlfriend, Linda Barnett, and got married during his junior year.

Linda and Bill met at the Brass Rail, a college bar located on O Street in downtown Lincoln. Linda was a registered nurse, and her and her nursing friends went out one night to the bar. Linda and her friend, Beth, played shuffleboard and Bill and his friend, Dana, waited to play next.

“I looked at Bill and I thought, ‘That looks like a really, nice guy’,” Linda said. “I don’t know what it is. I just felt good about him.”

Bill and Linda teamed with each other in shuffleboard and played against Beth and Dana. They dated not long after that.

Linda said she didn’t follow the football team that much then. She said she didn’t even know Bill played for Nebraska for three months. It wasn’t until one of her friends asked, ‘Is that Bill Barnett that plays football for Nebraska’, Linda said she didn’t know, so she checked the football program and saw his name.

“I met him (Bill) and liked him for (being) him,” Linda said. 

Bill explained that he chose not to tell her because he didn’t want football to be his main characteristic.

“There was a lot of guys that I saw that their whole identity came from football,” Barnett said. “I never really thought that I would play as long as I did.”

Barnett graduated from Nebraska in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in advertising and minors in communications and sociology.

IMG 9807 scaled e1684200227630 300x225 - From playing in Memorial Stadium to the Orange Bowl Stadium
Bill Barnett (#97 in the bottom right corner) pictured with other defensive linemen and defensive line coach, Charlie McBride, at Memorial Stadium. Linda Barnett kept student tickets, which is seen on the bottom half of the picture.

Back then, the NFL combines were at multiple locations instead of just one location. Barnett performed the combine drills at Dallas, Philadelphia, and New York.

“It was a big deal to get invited and to go and tryout, but it’s so different now because there’s so much more money involved,” Barnett said.

Draft day was not an exciting day for the Barnetts. It was a stressful day for Bill and Linda.

News reporters came to Barnett’s house and were in the basement with him and Linda, and reported about Bill’s draft process. Bill said he was excited about the Seattle Seahawks, as they reached out to him a lot before the draft. He was projected to be drafted anywhere from the late first-round to the fourth round.

No phone calls occurred in the first round. The news reporters then left.

In the second round, the New England Patriots called Barnett, and told him they considered drafting him. They didn’t draft Barnett due to his potential agent, Howard Slusher. Barnett said he didn’t have an agent during this time. The Patriots had concerns with Slusher’s potential of representing him in the future, as they had experienced issues with players who were represented by Slusher in the past.

The New York Jets called in the same round, and the same situation happened.

The Miami Dolphins called Barnett in the third round and drafted him 75th overall.

“I had no idea they were even looking at me,” Bill said.

Throughout Barnett’s career, he played in 77 games and started in nine. He was on the Dolphins’ roster when the team made Super Bowls in 1983 and 1985. In 1983, Barnett was on the injured-reserve roster, but played in the Super Bowl in 1985 against the San Francisco 49ers. He returned to Nebraska during the off-seasons for workouts.

During his time with the Dolphins, he was part of the “Killer B” defense, because most of the 1982 defense line-up had the letter B in their last name. The defense was ranked the second-best defense in the league during this season.

Braeden Ferryman, UNL student and grandson of Bill and Linda, has been going to Husker football games since he was 6 years old, as his grandpa has had season tickets. His mother, Angie, and aunt, Amy, are UNL alumni as well. 

Ferryman said he enjoys looking at his grandfather’s memorabilia. That includes his old football helmets, to looking at his old offer letters from colleges, his lifter of the year award, a picture from the Cotton Bowl, and his bowl rings. 

“All this great memorabilia is something I’ll hopefully hold on to,” Ferryman said.

Ferryman will be working in the outdoor work industry at Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico upon graduation. He said he received his knowledge about the outdoors from his grandfather. That includes how to hunt turkey and deer, how to fish, and how to conserve things.

“He’s taught me how to respect the outdoors,” Ferryman said. “He’s really instilled the love of the outdoors in me.” 

Barnett currently lives in Lincoln. He enjoys hunting at his land in Clarks, Nebraska, in Merrick County. He also enjoys fishing in Minnesota and reading books.

From playing in Memorial Stadium in Nebraska to playing in the Orange Bowl in Miami, Barnett was part of historic football throughout his college and professional career. Playing in rivalry and bowl games in college, to playing for a Super Bowl team, is an experience not every football player can say they’ve done.

Connor Wieseman is a double major in Journalism and Sports Media and Communication with a minor in Communication Studies.