LINCOLN, Neb. – The Nebraska Blackshirt represents defensive excellence, membership in a fraternity that spans five decades and, in Rickey Thenarse's case, a personal watershed.
Seeing one of those coveted practice jerseys hanging in his locker two weeks ago nearly brought Thenarse to tears, not just because it affirmed his status as a starter, but because it provided him with a sense of closure to everything that's gone wrong since he arrived in Lincoln in 2006.
The senior safety is making the most of the extra year of eligibility he was granted after he tore a major ligament in his right knee early last season.
He'll go into Thursday's Big 12 opener at Kansas State as the No. 7 Huskers' third-leading tackler, a performance that has helped shed his reputation as a hard-hitting special-teams contributor who struggled to otherwise get on the field because of assorted injuries and his failure to grasp what was being coached.
He admits his mind was not in the right place after the deaths of two half brothers in shootings two months apart in 2008. He easily could have faded into oblivion on the depth chart.
"Coming back and playing, and how well we've been playing, this is kind of a dream come true," Thenarse said. "Everything that held me back ... getting that Blackshirt put a stamp on it like you've overcome it, you've arrived."
Secondary coach Marvin Sanders said Thenarse is a changed man since he met him three years ago during the transition between the Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini coaching staffs.
After enduring surgery and excruciating rehabilitation for his torn anterior cruciate ligament, Sanders said, Thenarse showed up for preseason practice with a sense of resolve. Sanders told him: "You've had a lot of distractions in your life, and this is your last go-round. If you come back, there is no more tomorrow."
Thenarse said he considered giving up football after the injury in the fourth game of the 2009 season.
"I thought that maybe football is not for me," he said. "I'm a competitive person. Since I was growing up, I've always been that guy who has played well on the team, always the guy who was looked to. It wasn't the case anymore, and I thought about quitting. I'm glad I didn't."
Teammate DeJon Gomes said Thenarse has never talked much about the adversity he's faced, especially the deaths of his half brothers.
"We know the situation, and it's sad," Gomes said. "He may not talk about it too much because he doesn't want other people to feel sorry for him. I think there are some days he's a little under the weather. We try to keep him up. He fought through a lot and I respect him for that."
Thenarse's mother, Kathryn Wooten, visited Lincoln two weeks ago and said her son seemed re-energized after winning a starting job.
"After his brothers passed away, he was discouraged. Football wasn't the same to him anymore," Wooten said.
Thenarse and his older half brothers were close. Wooten said they loved to roughhouse, but they also were each others' biggest fans. She and Thenarse's father, Rickey Thenarse Sr., said they hoped the kids' involvement in sports would shield them from the violence in Watts, the rough neighborhood in Los Angeles.
Wooten's oldest sons, Branden and Kejuan Bullard, were 26 and 24, respectively, when they were gunned down in January and March 2008. She said, hesitantly, that the two were "associated" with a gang.
Rickey Jr. said he thinks about his half brothers every day, "but I don't harp on it."
"I don't let it get me down no more," he said. "I leave it in God's hands. I try to live through God and live by His ways. That's helped a lot."
Thenarse himself was headed the wrong direction until he was 13, when he was caught stealing a neighbor's car, Wooten said. She said he was sentenced to several months at a juvenile facility as a first-time offender.
"Usually, they give kids another chance," Wooten said, "but they socked it to him."
Shortly after his release, Thenarse was shot when he was walking home from his aunt's house. His assailant was never caught.
The bullet pierced a muscle and passed through his leg, and he had to sit out his first two football seasons at Jordan High School.
"If you get shot and don't die," Wooten said, "you're either going to straighten out your life or you're going to be bad."
Thenarse chose to go straight and devoted himself to football, basketball, baseball and track.
Rickey Sr. said he urged his son to look at the big picture.
"I told him, 'Your future is way better than where you are now,'" he said.
Thenarse has started each of the first four games, returning an interception 47 yards for a touchdown against Idaho.
"I know I can be just as good as anyone else after all the things I went through," he said. "I want to prove that I can be that guy and prove the doubters wrong."
His most tangible reward came when he earned his first Blackshirt. The tradition started in the 1960s when Bob Devaney had his defensive starters where black tops at practice.
"It's our culture and our identity," Thenarse said. "Once you have a Blackshirt, you're always a Blackshirt."
(This version corrects Nebraska's ranking to No. 7.)