Making the Switch

Charles Fryar Listened to Osborne and Became All-Big Eight

By Shane G. Gilster

Charles Fryar had planned to follow in cousin Irving Fryar’s footsteps to play wingback at Nebraska. Irving is still considered the best true receiver to ever play for the Huskers. He was an All-American in 1983 and the first overall pick in the 1984 NFL Draft.

Charles didn’t get recruiting attention just because of his famous cousin. He made a name for himself at Burlington City High School in New Jersey.

Charles Fryar came to Nebraska as a runningback, but he became a Husker star after making the switch to defense as cornerback.
Charles Fryar came to Nebraska as a runningback, but he became a Husker star after making the switch to defense as cornerback.

As a senior, he excelled on both sides of the ball. He was an all-state and All-American tailback rushing for 1,600 yards and scoring 32 touchdowns. On defense he intercepted nine passes as a safety.

Schools like Penn State, UCLA, Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma all were interested in Fryar, but it came down to Iowa State and Nebraska.

“I had three shoe boxes full of handwritten letters,” Fryar said about his recruitment. “If I would have had the grades, I would have been more highly recruited, but a lot of schools backed away because of my grades.”

ISU went all out and made a last-ditch effort to win Fryar over with assistant coach Dave Campo sleeping outside Fryar’s home the night before signing day.

“I took my official visit to Ames, Iowa, and I liked it there,” Fryar said. “I had a great relationship with coach Campo. He was honest, and Iowa State had an All-American receiver (Tracy Henderson) who was a 1,000-yard receiver in 1983. They wanted me to play wide receiver and said they are going to get me the ball 15 times a game.”

But in the end, family won Fryar over to Nebraska.

“Irving would come back to New Jersey and help Nebraska recruit me. Irving told me that I was going to go to Nebraska, and that is that. He didn’t want to hear about any other school,” said Fryar, who was the first in his family to go to college. “My mom asked me if I thought I was one of the best players in the country and I said, ‘yes’ and she said, ‘Who is the best team in the country?’ And at the time Nebraska was rated No. 1 in the nation in 1983.”

Fryar signed with the Huskers and, because of his grades, walked-on. NU coach Tom Osborne didn’t want to risk losing Fryar to a junior college where he could end up getting recruited by other schools. So Osborne promised him that if he got his grades up in the first semester, he would be put on scholarship soon after.

Some of Fryar’s best games and key interceptions came against Oklahoma State. Here he tackles Hart Lee Dykes.
Some of Fryar’s best games and key interceptions came against Oklahoma State. Here he tackles Hart Lee Dykes.

Fryar would redshirt that 1984 season to work on his grades and he earned his scholarship. Then the following year, Osborne approached him about moving from wingback to cornerback. He told Fryar that if he would make the switch, he would likely be at the top of the depth chart to begin the 1986 season.

Fryar then went to the office of defensive backs coach George Darlington, who showed him how much money the top NFL cornerbacks were making and that he could help Fryar reach that level someday.

“I went back to my room and busted out in tears,” Fryar said. “I called home and told my mom to call coach Campo and tell him I was coming to Iowa State. My mom asked me what was wrong and I told her that they (NU coaches) took the ball out of my hands and moved me to defensive back. My mom calmed me down and told me if I can’t be the best receiver they got then be the best cornerback they got.”

So Fryar made the transition to defense and played on the 1985 freshman team. He led the 5-0 squad in tackles showcasing the ability that Osborne thought he had to be a cornerback.

Staying true to his word, when fall practice began in 1986, Osborne penciled Fryar’s name in atop the depth chart at one of the cornerback spots.

Fryar didn’t let Osborne down as he was fifth on the team and first in the secondary in total tackles (52) and tied for the team lead in interceptions (3). He tied the school single-season mark for pass breakups with eight.

“It was a hard and easy transition to cornerback,” Fryar said. “My first introduction to bump and run coverage was in practice against Ray Nelson. He spun me like a top but the next time I backed up and read him. I studied film and watched the top cornerbacks in the NFL. I went film crazy and would study the receivers in order pick up on their signs and when they would get the ball. I would remember their tendencies and things I used to do when I played offense.”

Fryar and the Husker defense went up against some of the nation’s best receivers: Keith Jackson of Oklahoma, Hart Lee Dykes of Oklahoma State and Willie Anderson of UCLA, to name a few. But the toughest were a pair of wideouts from South Carolina – Sterling Sharpe and Ryan Bethea. Fryar and his teammates had to deal with them in 1986 and again in 1987.

“Sharpe could do whatever he wanted to against us,” Fryar said. “They also had Bethea who was a big, physical receiver. One time he was blocking me and took me all the way to the bench.”

But the Huskers would beat the Gamecocks in both of those games and kept NU in the national title race until later in the year when they faced their nemesis, the Oklahoma Sooners.

“Whenever we played Oklahoma, we were wound up too tight,” Fryar said. “That was one of coach Osborne’s Achilles’ heels because he was trying to keep Nebraska’s and his image. He wanted us to play a certain way. When we played Oklahoma, they played loose and were allowed to celebrate. If we got an interception, we had to give the ball to the referee and get back into the huddle. We couldn’t even high-five after a good play.

“In 1986 we had Oklahoma beat but they came back to win because we tightened up,” Fryar said. “If you look at Oklahoma, you saw Keith Jackson and Jamelle Holieway smiling and having fun and we are the ones up 17-7 in the fourth quarter and aren’t acting like that.”

Fryar felt both the ’86 and ’87 teams had the ability to win the national championship.

“We reminisce as teammates and how we could have won a game with just two or three plays and then we would play for the national title,” Fryar said. “Our 1986 team was the best when I was there. We had a top defense. There was no way we shouldn’t have won the national championship. I always say that if Doug DuBose wouldn’t have gotten hurt, we would have won it. He was the type of player they had at Oklahoma; you need a couple of those types of players who could talk the talk and walk the walk. Broderick (Thomas) was like that, myself, Dana Brinson, LeRoy Etienne; but we could never show it.”

The 1987 season was also one when the big prize got away. The Huskers entered the season ranked No. 2 behind Oklahoma, but Fryar and the Blackshirt defense didn’t look national championship caliber in their nonconference games against UCLA, Arizona State and South Carolina. NU gave up an average of 27 points per game but they still won. It wasn’t until their game in Stillwater against No. 12 Oklahoma State that the Blackshirts finally put it all together in a 35-0 statement win over the undefeated Cowboys.
Fryar preserved the shutout with a second quarter interception. The Cowboys drove to the NU 2-yard line. Fryar was one-on-one against OSU receiver Ronnie Williams. The 5-foot-10 Fryar outleaped the 6-4 Williams for the ball in the corner of the end zone.
Fryar said the Blackshirts were fired up for the game against the Cowboys. OSU coach Pat Jones said his team could score 50 points on anybody. Then the night before the game, heated words were exchanged when both teams went to the same movie theater.

Thurman Thomas, a Heisman Trophy candidate and the nation’s leading rusher who entered the game with an average of 140 yards per game, was quoted as saying, “You all don’t have one man on the defense that can stop me one-on-one.”

“We held Thomas to seven yards that day and I said after the game that Thurman’s number 34 means 3 plus 4 equals 7,” Fryar said, laughing.

Nebraska was on track to have its first undefeated regular season since 1983 and was looking to play Miami in the Orange Bowl for the national championship. But in a battle of No. 1 and No. 2, the top-ranked Huskers lost to the Sooners 17-7. Fryar had a season-high eight tackles in that game and was a second-team All-Big Eight selection.

The Huskers were once again ranked No. 2 entering Fryar’s senior season in 1988. After a disappointing loss to UCLA in the second game of the season, NU got back on track and faced Oklahoma State once again. This time the No. 10 Cowboys didn’t have Thomas but had someone better – Barry Sanders.

Fryar breaks up a pass against Kansas State.
Fryar breaks up a pass against Kansas State.

“Oklahoma State was the best offense I faced at Nebraska because Barry Sanders alone was an offense in itself,” Fryar said. “In the game in Lincoln, I hit Barry one time on the thigh and everything went numb so I was thinking I flipped him over or he went down, but I looked up and he was still running and shaking. He was unbelievable.”

Amazingly Nebraska led 35-0 after the first quarter and won the game in a shootout, 63-42, but Sanders rushed for 189 yards on 35 carries, the fourth-highest total allowed by a Nebraska team.

For the second year in a row, Fryar once again made a game-changing interception against the Cowboys. With NU up 7-0, he picked off an OSU pass and returned it 86 yards for a touchdown.

Fryar, who was a first team All-Big Eight cornerback, finally beat Oklahoma and got his Big Eight championship that season, but NU ended the season with a disappointing loss against Miami in the Orange Bowl. The Blackshirts played well in a 23-3 loss, with Fryar recording two interceptions and seven tackles. NBC named him NU’s most valuable player in the game.

Despite his performance against the Hurricanes, Fryar was undrafted but signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was on the team for one year before the Steelers sent him to the World Football League.

“When I went to the NFL, I had the wrong impression on what it would be like,” said Fryar who left NU tied for the school record in career pass breakups. “I was coming from Nebraska, a top college football program, and thought I would get a lot of playing time. I was a Blackshirt and big-headed. I got away from the things I was accustomed to doing. Instead of watching film and staying in Pittsburgh, I would go home because New Jersey was close by.”

Fryar played for the Barcelona Dragons for three years and then after the World League folded, went to the Canadian Football League with the Sacramento Gold Miners for one season.

“I tore my hamstring and that was it,” said Fryar of his professional football career. “So I came back to Nebraska, graduated in 2000 with a degree in human resources and got into coaching as an undergrad assistant with Frank Solich for two and a half years.”
Fryar has stayed in the coaching profession, going back to New Jersey and coaching at Burlington City High School where his sons played football.

“I didn’t pressure my kids to play football but they wanted to play and had to live in my shadow at Burlington City High School,” said the 56-year old Fryar. “My son, Tyree, played at Chadron State as a safety and made the Omaha World-Herald All-Nebraska Division II First Team. My other son, Christian, played ball in California.”

Fryar is now at Nottingham High School where he coaches football and teaches special education. He is hopeful to someday return to the college ranks.

“I want to get in contact with Trev Alberts and see if there is something NU can do to help former Huskers get back into the coaching profession,” Fryar said.

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