Article Published: Monday, November 17, 2003
Sea of red good for soul
Nebraska fans stay true to loyalties, sportsmanship
By Bill Briggs
Denver Post Sports Writer
LINCOLN, Neb. - Welcome to the way it should be.
To the one place where howling for the home team doesn't mean bashing the visitors - an island of good cheer in a world where sportsmanship is nearly extinct, a Jurassic Park for the touchdown crowd.
Welcome to a corn-flavored wonderland of red balloons and the Black Shirt defense, a state where everything halts on Husker Saturdays: work, weddings and, sometimes, the births of babies.
You need some sun? Go to Miami. You need some action? Go to Vegas. You need to soothe your football soul? Come to Lincoln - preferably in mid-November when the sky is slate gray and the sea is red.
"It's funny," says one Nebraska diehard, Mike O'Donnell from Omaha. "A buddy of mine who is a Michigan State fan actually got mad because the fans were so friendly during a lopsided (Huskers) win a few years ago. He just wanted to be left alone."
Better go somewhere else if that's your game. Here, no matter what color you're wearing, it's more family reunion - hugs, handshakes and Nebraska-shaped hamburgers. (Scottsbluff sticks out of the bun.) This marked the 10th stop on The Denver Post's spin through Big 12 venues. At each stadium, I wear the visiting team's attire into a rabid mass of homers.
At the house of red Saturday, I donned purple and pulled for Kansas State: the biggest game at Memorial Stadium in years. The winner likely would play mighty Oklahoma for the Big 12 Conference crown, the loser would grab a mid-December bus to the Baloney Bowl.
Husker Nation was pumped. That didn't change a thing in the stands. Ever been there in the opposing team's duds? Here's a corn-roasted sampler of a visitor's game day in Lincoln.
Along the vehicular thicket that Interstate 80 becomes on certain Saturdays, you sense the first hints of the football addiction 10 miles outside Lincoln. Three hours before kickoff, you notice a higher ratio than normal of red cars, red trucks and red minivans. Flags bearing "Huskers" and "Black Shirts" flutter at 60 mph. Magnetized N's adorn the side panels. Personalized license plates make bold proclamations such as: 1NUFAN1.
In Lincoln, tavern entrances seem to simultaneously inhale and exhale men, women and children in red coats, red sweaters, red scarves, red pants, red shoes and red necklaces. (A few free spirits wear yellow corncob knit caps.) On city buses, the destination panels above the windshields flash: Go Big Red.
The parking lot attendant points you toward the party, under the Ninth Street overpass next to Memorial Stadium. There, between the RVs and the grills, a ragtag group of men and women wielding a bass drum, trumpet, trombone, flute, clarinet, tuba, saxophone and other instruments jam out Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4" and then bounce into the Nebraska fight song. They wear Huskers jerseys and call themselves "The Drunken Alumni Band."
Near a rickety bus hand-painted green with cornstalks, a Nebraska student carries a half-shucked ear of corn above his head while a woman grabs a slice of rye from her wicker, corn-shaped breadbasket. There is something about the corn, something deeper than the school emblem, something remotely soothing. Maybe it's the American roots it represents. The peaceful sound of the rustling it makes.
An hour before the game, you stroll past a chain-link fence into the Husker Nation Pavilion, a carnival of Big Red boosters, booths and a band stage set up at the Nebraska track and field complex. Just inside the gate, a woman in a yellow security jacket grabs your arm firmly. You think maybe you forgot to pay. But the woman, Peggy, then clasps your hand with both of hers and says with a smile: "Good luck today, honey. We thank you for coming." On a grass field chalked up with white yard markers, dads and sons toss footballs.
Time to go in. Beneath the south stands, you watch about 200 Nebraska faithful line up along a brick walkway inscribed with national championship years and the names of Huskers financial backers. The fans hoot and holler as the home team emerges from the locker room and, wearing one giant game face, heads up the tunnel and then onto the field. Minutes later, segments of the Huskers marching band flow out of the four on-field openings, then merge on the turf.
You take your seat as two F-14 fighter jets buzz the stadium, perfectly punctuating the final note of the national anthem. About two rows back, a lone Huskers fan boos as the Kansas State Wildcats take the field. A grandmotherly woman just behind you snaps her head around and lectures: "We DO NOT boo. THAT is bad sportsmanship!" The man does not make another peep.
See, Nebraska isn't exactly the tourist capital of the Heartland. Huskers fans quietly beam when folks stream in from other states, checking out the university and the ambiance.
"The team is viewed by so many as the front door to the state," says Bill Ojile, a 1985 Nebraska graduate who lives in Greenwood Village. "We're proud of the sea of red. We're proud of the campus. People just like having new folks here."
As the Huskers score on an acrobatic, knee-twisting pass from quarterback Jammal Lord, fans let loose hundreds of red balloons that float above the field and drift south toward Kansas. The game is tied 7-7. The home team will never taste a lead.
Kansas State throttles the Huskers in the second half en route to a 38-9 waxing. It marks the first Wildcats win in Lincoln since 1968, the worst home drubbing for Nebraska since 1958. But you notice the vast majority of fans stay and watch until the game's final five minutes. As they file out, a military man in a camouflage uniform punches you lightly in the arm and says sincerely: "Good luck against Oklahoma, man."
"It's a lot easier to be hospitable when you're on top," Ojile admits.
You file out through a north-end portal along with the smiling, back-patting Kansas State players. Above that narrow exit, several dozen red-clad fans are standing. They are clapping. For K-State.
Notre Dame's got their Touchdown Jesus. But I'll take football nirvana.