American Football Database

The Blackshirts on the field against USC, September 15, 2007

For other uses and meanings see Blackshirts (disambiguation).

The Blackshirts are the first-string defensive unit players for the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team.


The term originally dates back to the early 1960s and refers to the black practice jerseys that Nebraska's first-string defenders began to wear during practice. The National Collegiate Athletic Association had recently changed rules which permitted two-platoon football teams (different players dedicated to offense and defense), and Head Coach Bob Devaney desired to have the two squads visually distinguishable during practice by having the two units wear different colors.

Assistant Coach Mike Corgan was tasked with obtaining the new jersey pullovers. The sporting goods store he visited reportedly gave him a good deal on black, because the color had apparently not been selling well.[1] The new jerseys were then assigned to be worn by the Nebraska defensive players during practice.

Quickly identifying starting defensive players by the black jerseys they wore on the field made coaching them much more efficient. The unmarked black jerseys were collected each day for laundering and then redistributed during the next practice. After a time, the black jerseys were only given to the defensive players who practiced and performed well. "There probably wasn't a day when we didn't make switches," said George Kelly, Defensive Line Coach for Nebraska from 1960-1968.

Long-time sports information director Don Bryant credits much of Blackshirt mystique to Coach Kelly, who was often heard yelling and exhorting the Blackshirts during practices and scrimmages. Eventually, the rest of the coaches began calling the top defensive units by the same name, and by the time Kelly retired and was succeeded by Monte Kiffin, the "Blackshirts" had become a widely recognized name for the Nebraska Cornhuskers football defensive starters.

The choice of black to bring about the name 'Blackshirts" was not intentional. Said Coach Kelly in later years, "Honestly, it was an accident of availability".


Blackshirts are awarded to defensive starters and other key defensive players. Punters at Nebraska have also rarely been honored by the defense for their individual efforts at stopping punt returns, including Jesse Kosch who was awarded a Blackshirt for his efforts from 1994 to 1997. Besides the black practice jerseys, which today have the player's name and number imprinted on them, the Blackshirts also have a black circle on the back of their helmet. These players will often cross their arms in an "X" across their chests, representing the skull and crossbones, a longtime logo for the Blackshirts. This is called "Throwing the Bones." The defensive players not awarded a Blackshirt wear red practice jerseys, while offensive players wear white practice jerseys.

2007 suspension / 2008 reinstatement

On October 16, 2007, the defensive players and coaches made a joint decision to remove the Blackshirts.[2] The first player to remove his Blackshirt was Senior captain Zackary Bowman, who felt he wasn't playing up to the standards of the Blackshirt tradition.[3] On November 11, 2008, the Blackshirts were given back to the eleven defensive starters by new Head Coach Bo Pelini's staff, three days after a win against a strong Kansas Jayhawks football team. The win also made the 2008 Nebraska Cornhuskers football team bowl-eligible.[4]