In this edition of NCB’s “Where Are They Now?” series featuring greats from the University of Nebraska, Derek interviews former defensive back Michael Booker.
After drawing interest from schools across the nation as a stand-out defender at El Camino High school in Oceanside, CA, Booker would go on to play a vital role on the 1994 and 1995 National Championship teams at Nebraska. Booker would finish his career as a two-year starter, a one-time All-Big 12 defender, and the 1996 Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP. Booker would also be selected to the Nebraska All-Century team following his illustrious career as a lock-down cornerback for the famed Blackshirts of the mid-90’s.
Booker would then go on to be drafted by the Atlanta Falcons as the no. 11 overall pick in the 1997 NFL Draft. Following his five seasons in the NFL, Booker would go on to create I.T. Fitness in Grand Prairie, TX where he and his staff provide personal, sports performance, kid fitness and group fitness training.
Q: Why did you choose to play football at Nebraska?
A: The top schools I was most interested in at the very beginning were Ohio State, Miami and UCLA. It wasn’t until later on in the process that I was contacted by Nebraska. I knew so little about Nebraska that I had to pull out a map to find it. That also tells you how well I was doing in school. I didn’t realize the importance of grades at the time.
Schools started shying away from me because my grades weren’t where they were needed to be, but Nebraska was the only big time school that said they’d stick with me all the way the through. Although they weren’t one of my first choices at the beginning of the process, they became one of my first choices because they stood by me. They called to check in on me and they genuinely cared how I was doing. I really enjoyed how genuine Coach (Ron) Brown and Tom Osborne were when I talked to them. My parents loved them too.
I’ll always be Nebraska through and through and I’ll bleed “Nebraska Red” no matter where I live. That’s not just because we won games, but also because of the culture, my coaching staff, and the fans that stood by me and the other players. I know I made a great choice with Nebraska because it’s a lifetime relationship. I’m not sure there’s many schools like that.
Who was your main recruiter?
Coach Brown was my main contact. He was the guy that picked me up when I drove to Nebraska. I DROVE to Nebraska and my car broke down. I had no idea where I was and he came out and picked me up.
Q: Being from Oceanside, California, what was your first impression of Lincoln, Nebraska?
A: Where I grew up in California it seemed like there was every nationality, it was very much a melting pot. When I moved to Nebraska it was the first time in my life I actually noticed it was 90% white and 10% black. Most of the blacks were athletes too. That was definitely the first thing I noticed. On my recruiting trip I did notice it was cold, very cold. Being a Cali boy, we don’t do cold well at all.
I was kind of expecting the demographics to be vastly different than back home based on what I saw on my recruiting trip. We had to be sort of “cliqueish”. We (blacks) didn’t HAVE to stay together though and we did mingle every once and a while. I never really had a problem with racial tension either. I had a couple, but I even have a couple here in Texas.
I always tell people that Nebraskans are the most genuine, wholesome and nicest people in the whole world. I still visit to this day and my opinion hasn’t changed. My son is born in Nebraska and we’re proud of it. It’s one place I love to visit, but I ‘m not trying to live there though! (laughs)
All that being said, no matter what I do or where I’m at I’ll always remember how well the people in Nebraska cooked. Because of my roommate Andy Smith we used to always go to Laurel, NE on the weekends. You know how people always talk about southern cooking? Well, I never tasted food any better than what I ate in Nebraska. NEVER. I think a big reason for that was the food came straight from the farm to the table.
Q: What was your best football memory as a Cornhusker?
A: Can I talk about two memories?
I just called Jamel (Williams) about this one the other day.
It was 1996 and we were playing Colorado. Jamel was having an awesome game and I was playing pretty well too even though I really wasn’t getting many balls thrown my way because of the respect factor. I really wanted to showcase my talent that year because that was the year we just got done playing Florida and I was getting some attention, but the whole year I really didn’t get a lot of balls thrown my way.
Towards the end of the game CU was driving and I knew they had to throw the ball because it was crunch time. I’m on Rae Carruth and he was the man at that time at Colorado. Rae did a button hook right, I broke out on the play, and Jamel got the interception.
That game was one of my proudest moments on the field because I stayed focused the entire game even though they weren’t really throwing to my side of the field. They threw to Ralph’s (Brown) side and to his credit he had an excellent game too. They showed a lot of respect for me, but coming down to the end they had to go to their money maker (Curruth).
The reason that particular play was memorable to me was because it’s something I could always bring up. I was watching that game with my son and I was like “I need to call Jamel”. My son asked why and I was like because he owes me a thank you card for that interception! He never gave me a thank you card for that!
This is like 20 years later and I told him I need a thank you card. I don’t even think he hugged me after that interception. That would definitely have to be one of my best memories on the field.
My 2nd memory I want to mention, but probably my first big memory, was the interception I had against Florida. Actually, that whole national championship game experience would have to be one of my favorite memories. That was a good game for me. Not because I played well, because I played well in a lot of games, but, because I really showed my worth that game.
Florida was talking so much trash the entire two weeks before the game and I really took it personal. I take a lot of things personal in football, especially when I played at Nebraska. That’s just the mentality we had back then. This game I took VERY personal though because they didn’t understand that we were #1 and they were #2 (in the polls). Even if it was vice versa we still believed we were #1. We were cold.
A lot of people always tell us how good we were and I don’t think they know how talented my boys were. I always tell people I wasn’t even close to being one of the best. You name off nine, ten players on that team and I was probably like ninth best. That’s how much talent we had on that team.
So Reidel Anthony and his teammates were trash talking all week and the week prior. The first thing you need to do is give a team some sort of respect. Just give them some kind of respect. They weren’t giving us any, with maybe the exception of Danny Wuerffel. Even though he was a good guy, he was still our opponent though. This was actually first time in my career that I had to read in the papers that my opponent was talking trash about specific parts of the defense. They were saying the “DBs”. I was like did they understand who they were playing? Did they watch any of the films?
That was probably one of the first times I ever went to practice and was like, you know what, I need to focus, focus, focus.
When the game started I was like these cats got to calm down a little bit. We were stretching and they ran right through our section. They didn’t even care that we were stretching. They were going to run through there regardless. I thought to myself if this were a boxing match we would have started right then and there. That’s how serious that game was. I took everything personal throughout the whole game. Every time I put my hands on them. Every time I covered. Everything. Even though I did get scored on that game, I was still focused.
After all the work I did, at the end of the game I was defensive MVP. I was really proud of myself. I’ll always be able to carry that accolade with me. It was actually one of the few years where #1 and #2 played and it didn’t matter what the polls said. They got it right since #2 could have beaten every other team in the nation that year. That whole Florida game experience was definitely one of my most memorable times at Nebraska.
Q: What is your favorite Coach Osborne (or any coach) memory?
A: One thing I always remembered was in the weight room, Coach (Ron) Brown always had some sort of cereal or something in his mouth that he would eat. Every time I grab cereal or snacks and put it in my kids’ bags, I always think of Coach Brown. This might be the health nut that he is, but he always had some sort of granola or something. I didn’t know if it was because of a health issue or he was hungry all the time or whatever. It just blew my mind.
Coach Darlington always had a Snapple. HE WAS ALWAYS DRINKING SNAPPLE. Every time we went to a meeting he had a Snapple. It was like he was a spokesman for Snapple or something. He usually had M&Ms too, but that’s what I always saw him with.
Charlie McBride always had a dip in his mouth and I think he slept with it in his mouth. I think every person that played on Nebraska’s defense at that time can remember Charlie chewing them out at least one time. One or two times. As a matter of fact, I think Charlie McBride would go back to his office, go down the list and see who he hasn’t chewed out in the last month and then chew out that person the very next day. Once you got chewed out by Charlie McBride your game got elevated. ELEVATED.
I don’t even know if I want to bring this up, but one thing I remember about Tom Osborne is that he was always fair. I even got into some mischief one time and I had to go to T.O.’s office and when he handed down his decision, whether it was something I agreed with or not, I felt good about it. I thought he was always fair. When I say fair, I mean he took a chance with me. I was at risk because I was a Prop 48 guy and I didn’t meet the qualifications to go to other colleges. They took a risk on me and there were a lot of other guys on that team he took risks with. If he didn’t take those risks I don’t know where we would be. I don’t know where I would have ended up. Maybe I would have gone to college and maybe I wouldn’t. Well, I would have gone to college because my parents would have made sure I went to college somewhere.
Q: You were part of the most dominating college football team in history in 1995 – what are your thoughts on the comparison between the mid-90’s Nebraska Dynasty and the current run Alabama is having?
A: One thing people don’t realize about me is that, other than Nebraska football, I don’t follow football much. I love the camaraderie and the competition and I love watching my son play, but I don’t really watch much pro or college ball unless Nebraska is playing or the Super Bowl is on.
One thing about me and football is this – I always tell people that I was a great athlete. I wasn’t a great football player. I just happened to be in the right position at the right time. That’s what I tell some of the athletes that I train. They tell me they’re not a good football player and I tell them I’m not training you to be a football player. I’m training you to be an athlete and hopefully your coach can put you in the right position to succeed. A quarterback though has to be a quarterback. You can’t get a DB to be a quarterback. Quarterbacks are just quarterbacks. Cornerbacks are the most agile, athletic people on the field. I just learned to be a great athlete. I always told people I didn’t want to play anything use but cornerback because I had good speed, reaction, and strength. Just let me be an athlete out here and cover this dude all over the field.
In regards to Alabama, I really don’t know much about Alabama. I know they’ve got to be a hell of a team to be even mentioned with our team. Because of that I might go watch some of their games year. They’ve got to be amazing out there.
Q: If the 1995 Blackshirts played a “real” game against the 1995 Pipeline-led offense how many points would the offense score?
A: Man, we would DOMINATE that offense. And that’s just real. Straight real. We would definitely dominate the offense hands down.
If our defense would have played with that offense, and let’s say Florida had our offense and vice versa, I think the game would have been closer. We had great talent on offense, but what made our offense over the top was we had great coaches. We had coaches that took risks, calculated risks. Every coach takes calculated risks, but most of the time when we took a calculated risk with just a good team it could be a disaster. We had too much talent for a mistake to turn into a disaster. We had a ton of speed and strength too.
Back in practice we would run goal line a lot of time and that used to be the worst part of my practice. I used to hate having to face Lawrence Phillips and Ahman Green coming around the ends. I hated that. I was like man this is too much. Then you still had Damon Benning, Clinton Childs – man, it’s like they were trying to hurt me before the game!
I knew the team I played in practice was the best team I was going to face all year.
I know if the defense went head-to-head with our offense that the defense would win. The only reason I would say we would dominate is because there were some things we knew about our offense. We knew what their strengths and weaknesses were because we played against them in so much in practice.
That said, I do think it was the number one offense out there (nation) though. They had a great offense, but I just can’t see anybody touching the defense I was on. I just can’t see it. I joke around with some of my friends that play with UT (Texas) and other places about how great that D was. We had a college team that could probably beat the Cowboys today.
Again, I’m not tooting my own horn, but I was like ninth best out of everyone that was drafted. A lot of the guys out there laid it down. I did too, but when you look at everyone around you that’s that good you keep trying. I NEVER wanted to let my team down. When I got beat I think in ’94 or ’95 when we played Colorado, I thought about it that entire week even though we won. I couldn’t even look at these guys until the next game until I do something spectacular. That was just the kind of team we were on. You didn’t want to let anybody down.
Q: Explain your 1997 NFL Draft experience:
A: The draft was one of the more rewarding times for me, and not because of the money or being on TV or anything. It was rewarding from a personal level.
The only reason I started taking football seriously was because one of my friends got shot and killed. After that, one of the coaches came to me and asked me if I wanted to end up like this girl that was murdered and I wasn’t having that. That’s the last thing I wanted to do. So they invited me out. I played sports before that, but nothing serious.
They said if I didn’t want to end up like my brother, who headed up gangs, I needed to find an outlet like football. I was tough, but I wasn’t that type of tough. I needed to do something better. My freshman year I played football, but I stopped playing because it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I wanted to hang out and wear my pants saggy and braid my hair (when I had hair). I was a potential thug to be.
When I started playing cornerback that was the only spot they could give me. All the other positions were taken and that’s what I was left with. When coach came to me I told them I wanted to be out there and play. They asked me what position I wanted to play, but there really wasn’t a choice. They needed a cornerback and guess what? There I was. I started playing cornerback and I liked the position because it was just me and the other person. That’s it. I didn’t have to worry about the rest of the game. I wasn’t even interested in what every one else was doing. That’s why I loved man-to-man coverage. Of course when we played zone it was cool and I got familiar with zone, but even when I was in high school I played cornerback and preferred man-to-man.
Back to your question, the reason the draft experience was so rewarding to me was because I MADE myself that cornerback. I was 6’1” in high school and back then they said I was too tall of a corner and didn’t have enough agility to be successful. I got the best of those critics. It didn’t matter that I ended up 6’2” and it’s a 5’8” position, I had the heart of a lion. The draft validated I can do whatever.
You also have to remember I just came off the streets per se. Now, I wasn’t a thug or a gangbanger, but I was at-risk. So when I got there (NFL) I still had the mentality that nobody was going to beat me. Considering everything I went through growing up, going through college, finishing up my school and everything else, when I actually made it to the ’97 Draft I had a reason to be elated.
I thought of everything I went through that most people didn’t know. A lot of people didn’t know I drove to Nebraska. A lot of people didn’t know I slept on somebody’s couch for my first year. A lot of people didn’t know that there was a drive-by shooting at my house when I was at school. A lot of people didn’t know that me and Lawrence Phillips were fighting all the time. There were so many things that that I looked back on at that moment that I overcame throughout my life. It was an amazing feeling.
The biggest thing about the draft experience though, was that my whole family was there. My family knew of all the trials and tribulations that I had to overcome to achieve that accomplishment. Everybody was there: my closest friends, Jamel Williams, and everyone that lived with me.
Jamel was the first one to tell me that I had come a long way. I was a kid from the streets that made it. When I say “from the streets” I mean my parents worked and they had a military background, but we lived in a very uncompromising environment. It was hard to make the right decision, say no to drugs, and gangbanging.
When I came back after I was drafted, and even today, cats in the hood said I made it. I was a kid that used to have the flat top and the sagging pants and now I was a football player.
I felt a big sense of accomplishment. Not because of the money or even because of football, but because I made it. My goal as a freshman was to live. My freshman goal was to not get shot, not get killed and work at McDonalds. McDonald’s is a good, honest paying job, but that was my goal. I didn’t have big goals back then.
1997 (draft) wasn’t about anything else but looking out in the crowd and saying I actually made it. I say that, but I didn’t realize I didn’t actually “make it”. I still had/have a whole life to live, but at that point I thought I made it. I was just so proud of myself. I hate to say it like that, but I was so proud of myself because I did. It wasn’t because I was picked #11 or because I was picked in the 1st round. It wasn’t because I had money in my pocket or because the girls thought I was cute, I ALWAYS thought I was cute. (laughs)
Q: What was your worst football memory at Nebraska?
A: Now that I think about it, you didn’t ask me about my worst football memory. It was after/during one of the biggest games I ever played in.
I’m still friends with everyone from high school and I still talk to them to this day. One of my friends was/is Bryant Westbrook, who went to UT (Texas).
My worst memory was after we lost the first Big XII Championship game to Texas. Other than losing the game, it was bad because I used to talk to him and he used to think we (Nebraska) thought we were bad because we won national championships. He honestly believed that if Texas and Nebraska ever played, Texas would win. I thought there was no way in the world that UT would beat Nebreaska. It just couldn’t happen. So we had all this chatter way before the Big XII Championship.
It was so bad that my friends from Texas didn’t care about me being drafted in the first round (11th pick). All they care about was that game between UT and Nebraska and we lost. And I have to live with that the rest of my life.
Q: Did you guys actually have the flu that game?
A: Did we have the flu? Does it matter? We came in and we showed up at that game. It doesn’t really matter what we had.
I didn’t have the flu and I wasn’t sick. I was definitely sick after the game since we lost. We were all sick AFTER the game.
Let me tell you one thing about that game, the guys that played really know what happened. You know what happened? We lost. That’s it. There’s nothing else to say about it. We just lost. It was a horrific loss. I still talk to Jamel (Williams) about this game to this very day.
You might interview one guy that throws out it all out there what actually happened that game, but it’s not going to be me.
If there was “something” that happened for us to lose that game it’s probably the same thing that happens when all teams lose. There’s no hocus pocus. Once you step onto that field and you tape your ankles you better be 100% and if you aren’t, that’s still not an excuse.
I actually never heard about this rumor and if anyone was using the flu as an excuse, I wish they would have sat out.
There’s never an excuse when you lose.
Q: Where did life take you after your playing days in the NFL?
A: One of the biggest things I learned after my days in the NFL until now is that life is a series of obstacles that you have to get through.
There was a time in my life where I was on top of the world. I owned two businesses I had a family and all the things were great. Then one year everything plummeted. After that I learned that I’m really resilient no matter what life gives me.
When I started playing football I didn’t realize I was only going to play for a very small part of my life. It was hard for other people to separate me from football. It was really tough after I retired. I didn’t appreciate all the fan support until the cheering stopped and it was gone. Once the lights turned off it wasn’t the same.
I eventually started my own business in Nebraska that did pretty well and then I eventually started a business in Texas. I was doing well business wise but I noticed the fans weren’t there and I had to figure out how cheer myself up. I had to re-evaluate where I wanted to be. What I realized after football was that I was resilient. I failed at a lot of things: businesses, relationships, etc., but then realized I had to grasp on to the things where I was successful.
I wasn’t a business man, I was a football player. At least that’s what I thought, until I realized I AM a business man. I had a printing and embroidery company for about eight years that I was doing well at, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. It wasn’t my passion. I learned how to do graphic design and screen printing, I learned a lot of things but I wasn’t passionate about it.
So I got back into athletics since I absolutely love athletics. I love to see an athlete achieve the “unachievable”. I like when they come in and say “I don’t think I can run a 4.4.” Your mind tells your body what to do. If your mind is beating you, your body is going to follow. I had to find something I enjoyed and being involved in athletics and helping people achieve their goals was it.
I then started I.T. fitness. I didn’t want to name my company “Michael Booker Sports Agility Champ Training” or something like that, I wanted a name that would be welcoming to everybody. I do kids fitness. I do Zumba, well not me personally, but I try to implement a lot of things for everybody at my facility. One of my main initiatives is to introduce fitness to kids. Now days, the food we eat is crazy. Even the “healthy food” we eat isn’t even healthy any more. We have to start popping pills to get the nutrients we need and our kids are at a disadvantage because of that. I’m passionate about being a better athlete and being a better person. I want to help.
I train everybody. Everybody is an athlete. They all hate when I say that but they’re going to be one when they work with me.
As a side note, no one is allowed to wear any UT gear in my facility.
Q: You were named to Nebraska’s All-Century Team and were drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft so you obviously know a thing or two about playing the game and getting yourself in peak physical condition – what advice do you have for aspiring athletes?
A: Athletics and sports are evolving where we need to focus more on the mental aspects of everything. You need to prepare mentally just as much as you do physically. I also can’t stress enough the importance of nutrition, especially for kids. What you put in your body is what you’re going to get out of it. Just because of you’re fit now, doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay attention to what you’re doing moving forward. A lot of the people that package our foods don’t have our best interests in mind. They want to make a living and not necessarily help you live a better life.
Q: What are your thoughts on the direction of the football program?
A: We win. We’re not winning the big one or any championships but we’re picking up wins. I’m about national championships, but we’re winning nine games a year. I think our expectations our high, but I think every team goes in, hopefully, thinking about a national championship.
The main thing I think about the program now is I just don’t want the team to appear like they’re giving up. Maybe they are tired, maybe they need more conditioning, maybe they don’t know the plays, but I don’t want them to look like they’re giving up. That’s probably the thing that kills me the most is when it looks like we’re not giving 100%.
Recently I’ve watched some of the games and I thought they didn’t give 100%. The only thing I want next year is if they’re going to lose, man, is go down fighting, scratching, and kicking – everything within the rules of course. Leave it on the field.
I do want them to win the national championship and I do want all the guys to be safe, but I want to win and I want to watch the games and feel like they’re giving me everything they got.
Q: What do you think of the 9-win benchmark that has taken a life of its own?
A: Jamel (Williams) tells me we win nine games, but we need to win a national championship. We need to not only recruit talent, but leadership. Real leadership. It’s hard to have a team filled with leaders and lose by 40 points. It’s just hard. Sooner or later someone is smart enough to slow the ball down or something. Make a play.
Like I said before, it’s mental. Some of these guys are not mentally ready to play the game. This game is getting better and better each year. The only way we’re going to get another Tommie Frazier is to get mentally prepared to be the best. We need guys mentally prepared to prevent a 40 point slide and make a play. Make an adjustment. Rally your team. If you had a bunch of leaders on the team, nobody would just want nine wins. We’re not a program that should be satisfied with nine wins, but we are also not a program that is not appreciative of nine wins. We are, but we should want more.
Q: What was/is your favorite place to eat in Lincoln?
A: If I don’t answer this correctly I know I’m going to lose some of my friends. I know it wasn’t Runza. I know some people said that. It was/is Valentino’s. I love Val’s. It was the best pizza for me.