TEMPE, Ariz. — When Kevin Steele became the inside linebacker coach at the University of Nebraska last spring, his first job wasn't to coach football players, but to try to discipline one.
"My first assignment was Mike Petko," Steele said.
It seems Petko, a freshman linebacker, was stirring up quite a fuss in Lincoln, Neb., a city where it's only supposed to stir on football Saturdays.
As Petko remembers it, he was leaving a bar in Lincoln one night when he bumped into a guy who apparently didn't care much for linebackers.
Or maybe he just didn't like Petko's brash attitude, mohawk haircut or his earring.
Petko, 6-feet-3, 240 pounds, exchanged a few not-so pleasantries with the fellow. And before you could say misdemeanor assault, someone was laying on the ground, minus a few teeth.
It wasn't Petko.
"I think I knocked out about eight of his teeth," Petko said. "He had to have some plastic surgery too."
Assault charges were eventually dropped against Petko, who said he was only defending himself.
Still, Steele knew he had a problem. When they met, Petko was engrossed in a copy of the book, "The Boz."
"He treated that book like a Bible," Steele said. "He had that wild haircut, wore polka-dot balloon pants and wild sunglasses. His dialogue was very much that brash linebacker style."
Petko, the California bad boy from Servite High School, was making quite an impact at Nebraska.
He was the second-leading tackler on the junior varsity, but also was among the leaders in eye gouges.
Steele wasn't impressed.
"I felt like Mike was at a crossroads in his life," Steele said. "He was trying to play a role of what he thought the linebacker image was supposed to be.
"The first thing I did was clarify what his role was. I told him if he lived his life to the extreme, with the wild haircuts, the wild dress and earrings, he would be recognized by people, but they (would) grow tired of him."
\o7 "I like to think of myself as causing more injuries (than he suffers). I like to see guys' eyes roll back in their heads when I hit them. It gets me charged up. I like to turn it up and get wild a little bit. You play tough man's football here in the Big Eight. I busted a few fingers my senior year at Servite, but here I average one a game. I found out the real meaning of pain when I came here."\f7
It has been nine months since Petko met Steele, and Petko's talking tough while preparing for Nebraska's Fiesta Bowl game Jan. 1 against Florida State.
After all, he's starting at linebacker as a sophomore. And that's not an easy accomplishment when you play for the sixth-ranked team in the nation.
But Petko has changed. His mohawk haircut and earring are gone. "The Boz" is tucked neatly on a bookshelf back in Lincoln. There are no more fancy clothes, although he has added one new piece to his wardrobe--a knee brace.
Petko had heard all of Steele's speeches about maturity and staying out of trouble. Now all that talk was starting to hit home.
Petko was learning all about pain.
He strapped the red fiberglass brace, which stretched from mid-shin to his thigh, around his right knee. It's a constant reminder of his last tackle, the one he made on Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan in the fourth quarter of a 27-21 loss on Nov. 4.
Petko remembers the play:
"It was was an option on Colorado's last play of the game. Hagan went outside and I picked him up. He cut back and I met him and wrapped him up. Then (nose guard Mike) Murray grabbed his legs. When we went down, Murray landed on my legs.
"I heard my knee rip. Then more people piled in and I heard it pop and rip again. People around me were nauseous. It was instant pain. I was wondering if I would walk again."
Petko tore ligaments in his knee as well as the muscle behind it. Doctors placed him in a temporary cast, suggested surgery and told him to stay off the knee for three months.
Playing in the Fiesta Bowl, they told him, was out of the question.
Petko wouldn't listen.
"I had it instilled in my mind that it can't stop me," he said. "I can't let a little knee injury blow me out.
"My outlook on everything is to live for the moment. If my number is up, it's up. I know I'm risking it. Another hard hit could put me in a wheelchair."
Petko told the Nebraska coaches they would have to take away his shoulder pads to keep him from playing. Brave talk, especially for the rehabilitation that lay ahead.
Forty hours after the injury, Petko cast aside his crutches and was back in the weight room, working on his upper body and left leg. Two weeks later, he was jogging.
Petko sat out the Huskers' next two games, against Kansas and Oklahoma. He had trouble watching from the sidelines.
"Mike is a very intense person," Steele said. "That's a big advantage sometimes for a linebacker. But he also overreacts to things. He was down emotionally and the Oklahoma game was really tough for him."