Cory Schlesinger Was a Battering Ram on the Football Field
By Shane G. Gilster
Cory Schlesinger’s battering style of play on the football field was reminiscent of Juggernaut, a Marvel comic book character who wore a helmet and would smash through anything with superhuman strength.
Schlesinger’s reputation warranted nicknames at Nebraska like “Joe Rockhead” and later in the NFL where he was called “Anvil.”
“I remember the Detroit Lions had a goal-line play in practice and it was me going against linebacker Chris Spielman,” Schlesinger said. “I had some good blocks on him and he said I was an anvil, which would keep on pounding. Coming from Spielman it was a great compliment, because he was such a great competitor and player.”
Schlesinger had a linebacker mentality developed as a high school player at Columbus High in Nebraska. It was a position he thought he would play in college as most schools were recruiting him to play defense. But as a senior in 1989, he also lined up at running back and had a huge year, rushing for 1,514 yards and 23 touchdowns. He was named first team all-state and was the honorary captain along with top Husker recruit Calvin Jones of Omaha Central.
Nebraska recruited Schlesinger as an athlete with linebacker and fullback as his two likely positions. He turned down schools like Wyoming, Iowa State, Kansas State and Northern Illinois to play for the Big Red.
Schlesinger started at the bottom of the fullback depth chart, which was 11 deep. He played on the freshman team in 1990, then redshirted in 1991. During that time, he learned the position. But his mentality was already perfect for the position, because he liked to hit.
“I had the philosophy, ‘Hit them before they hit you.’ I was pretty aggressive and always attacking,” he said. “You have to strike them and drive them out of the hole. Coach (Frank) Solich at Nebraska taught me: ‘The closer you get the faster you get.’ But you have to be under control, and after you make contact, use your legs as pistons and drive them out of the hole.”
When Schlesinger was on the scout team in 1991, starting defensive tackle John Parrella told him that the defense wanted to knock him out of practice because he was hurting them. Schlesinger thought that was pretty cool, knowing that he was making an impact and an impression with the varsity.
Schlesinger worked his way up on the depth chart and was third-string as a sophomore in 1992 behind seniors Lance Lewis and Andre McDuffy. The following year, he became a starter, helping the Huskers to an undefeated regular season and an appearance in the Orange Bowl to play for the national championship.
Schlesinger didn’t carry the ball much that season, finishing as NU’s fifth-leading rusher with 48 carries for 193 yards and a touchdown. His main role was to block for guys like Lawrence Phillips, something he particularly enjoyed.
“Carrying the ball was a bonus, but making the big block was a lot more exciting,” he said. “The Iso (isolation play) was definitely one of my favorite plays on offense. Meeting the linebacker at the line of scrimmage and knocking him backwards.”
Schlesinger made his most consistent impact as a blocker, but he is best known running for two fourth-quarter touchdowns in Nebraska’s 24-17 comeback win against the Miami Hurricanes in the 1995 Orange Bowl. It gave NU coach Tom Osborne his first national championship.
“We had unfinished business after almost winning the Orange the year before, so we went to Miami early to condition in that climate,” he said. “They (Mami) took it to us in the first half of the game but both our offense and defense got stronger as the game went on and we just wore them down. There is a photo of our offense standing and Miami’s defense taking a knee during a timeout.”
Schlesinger set the tone for that game on the opening kickoff. He went down and knocked a Miami player out. It was close to Miami’s sideline and the Hurricane defense saw it and knew Nebraska was ready to play some football. Miami’s All-American defensive tackle Warren Sapp even mentioned that moment in his book.
“I wasn’t intimidated by anyone,” Schlesinger said. “My philosophy was the more popular the guy I blocked was, the better for me because the camera was always on this guy. So, if I made a good block on him, they will probably show that on the replay.”
During that championship season in 1994, Schlesinger ran for 456 yards – a 7.2-yard average – with four touchdowns. But if he would play in the NFL, it wouldn’t be as a runner. The Detroit Lions drafted him in the sixth-round in 1995 to block for their All-Pro running back Barry Sanders.
“I blocked for Barry Sanders for four years,” he said. “It was one of the best things and one of the hardest things to do. He really didn’t follow anybody. He would run sideline to sideline and then go up field, make seven guys miss, and still get 20 yards.”
But after Sanders retired, Schlesinger had to adapt to the Lions’ passing offense. He became more of a receiving threat, catching a career-high 60 balls for 466 yards in 2001.
“I played for nine head coaches during my 12-year career with the Lions,” Schlesinger said. “Marty Mornhinweg brought in the West Coast offense in 2001, which I liked a lot because I’m catching the football out of the backfield. It’s funny because I never caught the football while I was playing at Nebraska.”
But it wasn’t just his ability on offense that kept him in the NFL for so long. He also made a name for himself blowing up wedges on kickoff and punt return teams. Schlesinger definitely looked like Juggernaut running down the field smashing into anything in front of him.
“The most common question I still get from people is, ‘How many face masks did you break with the Lions?’ Schlesinger said, laughing. “My equipment managers had to change out my face masks every single game. I would bend them so much that it would stretch out my helmet. I had an old school, full cage face mask with the bar down the front.”
For someone who used himself as a battering ram in a sport as violent as the NFL, it is amazing he didn’t have any injuries during his career.
“I can’t believe I had a long-playing career; it was in God’s hands. I give a lot of credit to the Husker Power staff. Bryan Bailey is one of my good friends and was one of the strength coaches, along with Boyd Epley and Mike Arthur. They really prepared me in the off-season and helped sustain me, keeping me really injury-free,” Schlesinger said.
It wasn’t like he didn’t have any effects from the sport of football. He mentioned that he had several concussions in his career, but at this point doesn’t feel any effects and feels blessed because some of his former teammates are not in great shape.
Schlesinger said one of the key things for him to maintain healthy brain function is teaching. He majored in education at NU and would come back to Nebraska during the NFL off-season to take classes to get his teaching certificate and substitute teach in Lincoln Public Schools.
For the last 14 years, Schlesinger has taught an architectural CAD class, with design engineering and home improvement, at Allen Park High School located near the Detroit Lions practice facility.
He lives in Grosse Ile, Michigan, an island in the Detroit River about 30 minutes outside of Detroit. He is still connected with the Lions organization, working with its youth football camps and visiting people in suites at games. Schlesinger and wife, Karen, who he met at Columbus High, have two daughters – Natalie, 23 and Leah, 21 – both of whom studied engineering at Michigan State.
Looking back at his playing career, Schlesinger didn’t care whether he won awards or trophies. He’d rather earn the respect from his peers.
“I don’t have a Super Bowl ring but I did my job on the field and that’s the main thing,” Schlesinger said. “The linebackers that I played against in the NFL said that when they were going to play the Lions they had to prepare, because on Sunday they were going to have a headache after the game because of the way I hit. That is a big compliment. A true fullback likes to hit linebackers, we were a different breed.”