Football takes Behning on life’s journey

When a young man picks up a sport for the first time, he hardly begins to dream of going anywhere past even the high school level as anything but that – a dream. Mark Behning, however, made that dream a reality.

Behning was a two-sport athlete at Denton High between football and track and field. The Bronco right tackle won first team honors for All-District, All-Area, All-Greater Dallas, and All-State in football his senior year before moving on to major college football and eventually, the NFL.

Behning arrived on Denton High’s campus the fall of 1977 from Chester O. Strickland Middle School, a little over a mile and a half away. The University of North Texas had an impact on student life at Denton High, especially influencing the music scene.

“It was the rock and roll era,” Behning said. “It was pretty cool. Not everybody, but there were a lot of guys at Denton High that were in bands. There were a couple of rock bands at school. And the guys that were in them – they looked like the classic seventies rock band. They all looked like Fleetwood Mac. The girls were really hippy-looking, and the guys were all long hair, real druggy-looking guys, and they played kick-ass rock and roll.”

Some who knew Behning as he grew up saw his impressive frame as prodigious.

“I had people telling me from an early age, ‘I’m going to see you in the NFL,’” Behning said. “I was always big. Tall. I was like six-foot-one by the time I was in sixth grade, and maybe 220 [pounds]. It’s awkward being that big when you’re a kid too, so as I went through, I continued to grow. When I was in tenth grade, I was six-five, 240. And by the time I graduated I was six-six, 260. So back then I was a pretty good-sized kid.”

While he appreciated the compliments, Behning never became overconfident. The goal was always the same: get better.

“It was comforting that they had that confidence in me,” Behning said. “I never thought I was good enough. I wanted to be good. I worked my ass off when I was in high school. I went out of my way to do things that nobody else would do. I would go train on weekends and Friday nights. A buddy of mine, a guy who played next to me on the O-Line in high school, his next-door neighbor was the offensive line coach at UNT, so he gave us access to use their weight room. So we went to the weight room on Friday nights. And we worked out because we knew our friends were out partying, or cruising on the strip, or whatever. We made a point of doing something for us during that time. You always hear stories about people and the dedication that they have, and outworking their opponents, investing more, working harder than the other guy. That was my classic story: I was going to outwork them. If it was a matter of hard work, I was your guy.”

During and after his senior year of football, Behning began to attract a lot of attention from colleges.

“I got recruited by everybody,” Behning said. “I’ve got file boxes. Just hundreds and hundreds of recruiting letters; personal letters from famous alumni. And then coaches would come to school and coincidentally ‘bump into you.’ And I’d have two or three college coaches in town three or four days a week. It was very flattering. People knew when the University of Texas was in town, because they’d have their burnt orange coaching regalia on; and then the Oklahoma Sooners would come to town; and then Notre Dame would be here – it was just pretty cool that all of these schools were coming here to see me.

Eventually though, Behning would sign with the University of Nebraska in Lincoln to play with the Cornhuskers, a traditional football power in the Big Eight.

“It was all business,” Behning said. “I was there to play football. They gave me a scholarship to go to school for free, but when you get an athletic scholarship you’re there to play sports. It was real clear that football was occupying six to eight hours of the day. Usually football practice started one o’clock in the afternoon with meetings; on the football field at three; practice from four-thirty or five; in the weight room till six or six-thirty; eat dinner about seven; study hall till eight-thirty or nine; get up and do it all over again the next day. It was a well-planned-out football place. It was about football.”

Playing in a conference up to its ears in tradition like the Big Eight was an incredible experience for Behning, who enjoyed the rivalry with Oklahoma the most. In Behning’s four years, Nebraska was in 3-1 games versus the Sooners.

“It was awesome,” Behning said. “Back then, it was Nebraska and Oklahoma. They were the only two teams that were year-in and year-out really good. It was great playing Oklahoma every year, it was a great regional rivalry, and I was sad to see it end when they got put in the Big XII and were separated into different divisions.”

Going into the 1983 season, Nebraska had lofty expectations after going 12-1 and winning the Big Eight the previous year.

“It was that year that we were chosen to play in the very first Kickoff Classic,” Behning said. “It was something that they decided to start doing to kick off the college football season. And they would typically pick the national champion from the previous year and some valid, viable opponent, and those teams would play each other. Well, they picked us to play Penn State. Penn State had won the national championship the year before, and Nebraska had actually played them in Lincoln, Nebraska. Basically, Nebraska got screwed on a couple of close calls. If it weren’t for those two plays, we would’ve beat Penn State, and we probably won the national championship. The following year, we went out to the Meadowlands in New York, and we just kicked the dog-snot out of them.”

After the 44-6 victory over the Nittany Lions, Nebraska went 12-0 for the rest of the regular season, winning a third consecutive Big Eight along the way. The Cornhuskers earned a berth in the Orange Bowl.

“Nebraska was ranked number one the entire year,” Behning said. “We played for the national championship against the Miami Hurricanes, and we had scored a touchdown to put us within one point with just seconds left in the game, and we decided to go for two. We could’ve kicked the extra point and won the national championship, but the coach didn’t want to have a tie on the record since we had been so successful.”

Head coach Tom Osborn opted for a rollout pass to the right. The pass went into double coverage and fell to the ground, incomplete. Miami 31, Nebraska 30. The Hurricanes would be voted the national champions by the Associated Press soon after.

“It was just – it was horrible,” Behning said. “It was just horrible to lose that game. It sucked.”

The 1984 season, Nebraska went 10-2, earning a berth in the Sugar Bowl, where they would defeat LSU by a score of 28-10.

“We beat LSU,” Behning said. “And I signed papers with my agent in New Orleans at the Superdome after that football game. I packed a bag and flew from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama to play the Senior Bowl, which was an invite kind-of-thing for all the top seniors to play in. And it was really the first step in the 1985 Draft, because NFL coaches coached the teams in the Senior Bowl.”

Behning, after a successful Senior Bowl for the North team, then made a decision that would impact the rest of his life.

“My wife was at the game,” Behning said. “We decided that I had an opportunity. It was then that the NFL Draft started really shaping up, it started being, ‘Hey, this is real. This is really going to happen.’ I told Nebraska that I would not be a student-athlete for them anymore. I went back to Lincoln after the Senior Bowl, and I didn’t take any classes. I just trained for the Draft every day. Six, seven hours a day: running, lifting.”

On April 30, 1985, the NFL Draft arrived. Behning, at his home in Lincoln with his family, was told to expect his name called within the first two rounds.

“I think the teams had fifteen minutes per pick, and everybody used every second that was allotted to them,” Behning said. “So the first round took four hours to get through. That was just painful to go through. And I finally got drafted in the second round by the Steelers. I just felt relief.”

After he was taken with the 47th pick in the Draft, Behning reported to Steelers training camp. However, an unhealed college injury returned to haunt him.

“My rookie season was horrible,” Behning said. “Turns out that I cracked my arm sometime during my senior year of college, and it never healed. I could still do things. At the NFL Combine they had a thing where you could bench press 225 pounds, and I did forty-three reps. That’s probably top three, all-time in the history of the NFL Draft. Not many people do that many reps. I was still strong. It just hurt like hell.”

In a preseason game during Behning’s rookie year, the Steelers played a game versus the Washington Redskins.

“I was getting beat on an inside pass rush,” Behning said. “I grabbed the guy, and I just fell down with him – that’s just one of the things you do when you’re getting beat. And when we fell down, his arm was between my arm and his body, and it just snapped my arm in half. I ran off the field after that.”

The following year, Behning would start one game, but for most of the season he was as a bench player for Pittsburgh.

“I look at my NFL career as a failure,” Behning said. “And when I tell people that, they’re like, ‘Are you crazy? You did what very few have done – the elite, of the elite, of the elite.’ But when your livelihood is based on competition, it’s got to end sometime. And the only way it’s going to end is by you not being good enough someday. That’s the hand you’re dealt, unless you’re like Barry Sanders, and you get out at the pinnacle of your career. He had the ability to get out at the top of his game. Most people, they’ve got to have it pried out of their hands and be told that it’s over. That’s what happened to me.”

At summer training camp in 1988, the Steelers cut Behning, and the Chargers would pick him up. However, Behning was dismissed from Chargers camp soon afterwards. He would never play again.

“I wanted to keep playing,” Behning said. “I had visions of playing ten or twelve years – and ten or twelve years back then was a damn good NFL career. I wanted to have that. And I got cut my fourth year, and it was over.”

Behning’s career stats included 16 NFL games, one started.

“It hurt,” Behning said. “Because that’s all I’d ever been: a football player. I was a lot of other things because it came with it, like I was a student-athlete. But in college, you were an athlete-student. It was football first. If it wasn’t for football, you wouldn’t be a student. You were an athlete first. And you go your whole life doing that, especially in football. I was hurt, I was empty when it was over. I ended as a failure. That’s the way I think about it. I know I shouldn’t think that way, and everybody I talk to says, ‘No, it’s this way,’ but when it gets right down to it, how you feel is what things are.”

“I was broke,” Behning said. “I had a saw and a hammer, and I had a 1979 Camaro that I was driving. You didn’t need a key to start it, and the doors wouldn’t lock. I was literally living check-to-check. My wife was working, and I had two kids. I still was thinking about having this great comeback, so I was still training, still trying to train three, four, five hours a week.”

During this training, Behning would arrive at Torrey Pines High School in northern San Diego.

“I was in the head coach’s office, talking to him,” Behning said. “There was this big poster on the wall, and it just had a picture of this woman who happened to be the academic counselor at Nebraska. It was just like one of those Uncle Sam posters, with Uncle Sam pointing at you, saying ‘I want you.’”

The rest of the poster asked for former college athletes who were no longer able to pay for school but were just short of enough credits to graduate.

“I was like, ‘They’re talking to me,’” Behning said. “So I picked up the phone, and I called this lady. She was working in Kansas somewhere. She said, ‘Write me a letter, tell me what you need, we’ll go to the board, and see what we can do.’ So I wrote a letter. I got a response back a couple weeks later that they had reinstated my scholarship.”

Behning graduated in 1990 after completing two semesters’ worth of classes, making the dean’s list both semesters. After briefly working for a construction company, Behning coached a year of football at McMath Middle School before returning to his alma mater.

“People always ask me what I remember about football,” Behning said. “I don’t remember the games. I remember the locker room, and the guys I was with. I talk to people about that now, and even the guys I coach with, they all played high school football, and most of them played college football, and every one of them: they talk about the experiences they had with their teammates. They don’t remember the games, or the details about the games, they remember the guys they lived with.”