For over a decade, current Nebraska Cornhuskers Head Baseball Coach Darin Erstad was considered one of the most consistent players in Major League Baseball. While playing for the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels, Chicago White Sox, and Houston Astros, Erstad was a two-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, won the Silver Slugger award, and was a World Series Champion.
All the while, he was praised by everyone in the game for this grit, his hustle, and yes, though he downplays it now, his toughness. Go back and listen to any broadcast in which Erstad made a diving catch in center field, broke up a double play with a hard slide into second or stretched a single into a double and invariably the announcer will have brought up the fact that Erstad was a former football player.
Growing up in rural North Dakota, Erstad (like most kids) played every sport, but gravitated strongly to football and baseball. His skills on the gridiron earned him a baseball scholarship to Nebraska. While on campus, rumors of his exploits as a punter found their way to the legendary Tom Osborne. He would not only earn a spot on the team, but was a part of the 1994 National Championship Nebraska team that earned Osborne his first title.
Now the head skipper for his alma mater, Erstad recently took some time away from his busy schedule to talk to USA Football about the importance of playing multiple sports, what it means to be a good punter, and lessons he learned from Tom Osborne.
EM: Thanks for joining us today, Darin. Let's just jump right in and go back to the beginning. When did you first start playing organized football?
DE: Oh geez, that was a long time ago. I think it would have had to have been second or third grade. Back then, you just played whatever sport was in season, so in North Dakota, we played everything. I played baseball, football, basketball, hockey, track; you name and I played it back then.
I loved being active, I loved being part of a team, I loved the camaraderie. I think those are things that never went away for me, really. The same things I loved at Nebraska and in the Major Leagues are the same things I loved when I first started playing sports.
EM: I'm assuming you played multiple positions in football, right? What else did you play and when did you start as a punter?
DE: Right, I was a defensive back as well. I always played soccer growing up, too, and I always had skill kicking the ball. I always did all the punt, pass, and kick competitions growing up. It was just a unique skill I had that I was constantly working on.
EM: How did you decide that you wanted to go to Nebraska? Was playing football part of your plans, too?
DE: Well, for baseball, I didn't have many options. An assistant coach I played for in high school gave my name to the coaching staff at Nebraska. I was thrilled at the chance to play baseball there. I really had no intentions of playing football. The fall of my freshman year, word got around that I could kick a little bit. One of the football coaches came by and asked me to meet Coach Osborne. I went out and kicked some for him. He sat there and didn't say a word. After I was done, they told me to come out for the team as a walk on.
I knew how big of a deal Nebraska football was before I got there. As part of my recruiting trip, the coaches took us to see Nebraska's game against Washington. I was amazed. There were more people in the stands than lived in my entire town!
EM: How difficult was it to manage your time? I mean being a student athlete and playing one sport is difficult enough, but you were playing two. How did you manage?
DE: Well, it was difficult, to be sure. You learn to manage your time really quickly. In all honesty though, and I tell this to people all the time, I was just the punter on the team. I didn't have to be responsible for as many meetings as the rest of the team. I did my part, but it was a little different. Still, having to balance all my responsibilities was a challenge.
EM: So, I'm just curious about this. Did playing football really make you a better baseball player? Obviously, looking at your career, you were a tremendous player and had a great deal of skill already. But, did football help and if so, how?
DE: Oh to be sure it did, yes, especially at Nebraska. There is the obvious part that it kept me in shape the entire year. I went from football to baseball and then baseball to football, so I never was out of condition. Also, it really taught me how to handle playing in front of a crowd. Playing in front of 90,000 fans at Memorial Stadium got me used to being able to handle pressure. That was so valuable to me once I got into the big leagues. I also really learned a lot from all the guys on the team and especially from Coach Osborne. I can't say enough of how big of an influence he has had on my life.
EM: What are some things specifically you learned from him? Are there things you still use today now that you're a coach yourself?
DE: Definitely. One thing I have always tried to incorporate was how Coach always knew every player on the team. He knew where they came from. He knew their stories. He made everyone on the team feel like they were an important part of the team. Something like that is something I always felt good about and when I got into coaching, I knew that was how I wanted to relate to my players. I can't say enough about Coach Osborne.
EM: When I watched you play, nearly every announcer would first talk about your toughness and then hand-in-hand talk about your stint as a football player. How much do you attribute that trait of yours to playing football?
DE: [Laughing] Whenever that got brought up to me, I would always have to remind people that yes I played football, but I was the punter. There is obviously some physicality to the game that translates. I like to think I was tough, but I really do think that was overblown quite a bit. I think it made for a good story. Growing up, my parents instilled in me how important it was to be tough, how important it was to go all out, and how important it was to never hold anything back. I played football that way and I played baseball that way.
EM: That makes perfect sense. When you were wrapping up your time in the Big Leagues, did you know you wanted to be a coach? How did the position there at Nebraska come about?
DE: No, I had no idea that I'd ever get into coaching. I knew at some point when I was done playing I was going to be living here in Lincoln, Nebraska. We had bought a home here about three years before I was done playing. I thought when I was done in the major leagues, that I would just be at home being a husband and a dad.
The opportunity came up for me to help out as a volunteer on the staff here. I thought I would give it a try and I ended up enjoying it. I got hired on as the hitting coach the next year and when the head coach position came open, I was asked to step in. It's not what I had planned, but I can honestly say I am loving it.
EM: Last thing for you, is there one lesson that you got from playing football that you still use today either as a coach or just in life in general?
DE: Sure, I think the one thing I learned early on and had it kind of reinforced here under Coach Osborne is to never leave anything in your tank. You never know when your last game or last play is going to be. You never want to be there at the end and still have something left. You never want to be left wondering if you could have done more. Every time I played, I never wanted there to be any doubt in my mind that I gave it my all.