Fifty years ago, a Grand Forks Red River graduate was a key figure during Nebraska football's dominant reign

Bill Janssen was inducted into the University of Nebraska Hall of Fame last year and will be recognized in the latest round of Grand Forks Red River's Athletics Hall of Fame this year.

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Bill Janssen was inducted last year into the University of Nebraska Athletics Hall of Fame.
Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska.
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LINCOLN, Neb. — When Bill Janssen goes to Memorial Stadium on Saturday, the 72-year-old will watch the two teams that wanted him to play to college football face off against one another.

UND plays at the University of Nebraska at 2:30 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.

"Very, very unique," Janssen said this week from his Bennet, Neb., home near Lincoln. "I easily could have played at the University of North Dakota, but I went to Nebraska instead. And now, 50-some years later ..."

Janssen, who was a two-year starter, national champion, Nebraska Hall of Fame member and 1972 co-captain, is the son of an Air Force pilot who was stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base after Janssen's sophomore year of high school.

Janssen spent his junior season at Grand Forks Central before transferring to the new school opening in town — Grand Forks Red River.


Janssen, a 1968 Red River graduate, also wrestled and competed in track and field for the Roughriders. He and his wife, Cindy, will be coming to Grand Forks at the end of September as Bill will be inducted into the Red River High School Athletics Hall of Fame.

A family friend who raised horses in Nebraska led to a connection for Janssen to play for the Cornhuskers. Jerry Holland sent high school film of Janssen to the pilot of Nebraska football coaches who then delivered it to the coaching staff.

Carl Selmer, Monte Kiffin and Warren Powers then came to North Dakota to recruit Janssen.

"The University of North Dakota talked to me, but I had already accepted my scholarship offer to Nebraska," Janssen said.

Janssen started his Nebraska career as an offensive lineman but after breaking his arm early in his career moved to defensive tackle, where he started on the 1971 national championship team.

The Janssen family plans to host a reunion for the 1970 and 1971 Nebraska teams at their house later this month.

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Bill Janssen, University of Nebraska.

Janssen played in what was labeled as the Game of the Century — Nebraska vs. Oklahoma in 1971.

The defending national champion Cornhuskers were ranked No. 1 and held a 20-game winning streak while the Sooners were ranked No. 2.


Led by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, Nebraska beat Oklahoma 35-31. The game aired on ABC and was viewed by 55 million, the largest television audience to ever watch a college football game at the time.

The Huskers went on to beat Alabama 38-6 in the Orange Bowl to complete back-to-back national titles.

After beating Alabama in January of 1972, Janssen was prominantly featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.


That issue of Sports Illustrated is framed in a den at the Janssen house. Bill still sees it sent to him in the mail from time to time to autograph.

After college, the 6-foot-4 Janssen was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the eighth round of the 1973 NFL Draft.

Janssen lasted one camp with the Steelers. Janssen played offensive line with the Steelers but said he was beat around pretty good by Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain of Mean Joe Greene, LC Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White.

In 1974, Janssen played in the World Football League for the New York Stars and the Charlotte Hornets.

Janssen, who speaks softly now as he battles Parkinson's disease, first worked in finance in St. Peter, Minn., owning an Edward Jones branch. Most recently, he was vice president and manager at Ameritas in Lincoln, Neb.


Although Janssen's worlds will collide this weekend when UND visits Nebraska, there's no question to his allegiance.

"I certainly hope Nebraska wins," he said.

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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