Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Husker Memories

The college football season begins tonight, an event that gives me fewer good feelings with each passing year. As a lad, my life revolved around Nebraska Cornhusker football from the end of August to New Year's Day. (Remember when that day, and that day only was the only one for the big bowl games?) The older I got, especially as I entered an academic career, the more disgusted I became with the waste and corruption caused by big time college athletics. I am now firmly convinced that the NCAA ought to be disbanded and all college teams run as clubs, rather than uncompensated professional minor leagues. That said, this old believer still feels a twinge in his heart when the 'Husker fight song plays, and is still known to pace about the room wearing red on game days, hanging on every play. I just can't help it. That's why the following is one of my favorite posts from my old blog.

As many of you know, Nebraska Cornhusker football is the one abiding religion in my life, and college football is my favorite sport. With the showdown between #1 and #2 today –a rare occurrence that hasn’t happened for ten years in the regular season- I remembered my own experience at such a game. In 1987 the tender age of 12, when adolescent emotional chaos makes sports losses especially painful, I went to the Game of the Century II between #1 Nebraska and #2 Oklahoma. It was given that title in reference to the one versus two Nebraska –Oklahoma match in 1971, which Nebraska won 35-31, and many still consider the greatest game ever played. (Although last year’s Texas-USC game can rightfully challenge it.)

Before the second incarnation of the Game of the Century, I feasted on the lore of the past, and looked with unbearable anticipation towards game day. In those days, the Nebraska-Oklahoma game was a state religious holiday. It occurred on the day after Thanksgiving every year, a football counterpart to the family holiday. As long as anyone could remember, that game decided the fate of the Big Eight conference, which basically consisted of “Nebraska, Oklahoma, and everybody else” as folks used to say. For most fans, it was the only game and certainly the only rivalry that truly mattered. I even used to have a sweatshirt that said “My Two Favorite Teams Are Nebraska and Whoever’s Playing Oklahoma.” The cast of characters made it even easier to hate Oklahoma in the 80s. First off, they were coached by Barry Switzer, the embodiment of reckless disregard. He seemed to physically delight in beating Nebraska, and had some kind of voodoo curse on Tom Osborne, who had only beaten him twice in over a decade. (Osborne, a soft-spoken, humorless ramrod of a man was an extreme contrast to Switzer, the free-wheeling bootlegger’s son.) Second, 1987 was the hey-day of Brian Bosworth, the middle linebacker known as “The Boz.” Even though he was playing in the NFL at this point, Husker fans associated his obnoxiousness and lawlessness (he had tested positive for steroid the year before) with Oklahoma’s program. Of course, plenty of shady things were going on in Lincoln, too, but college football fans, being religiously devoted, tend to overlook these things.

Because the game fell so late in the season, two or three weeks after the last game before it, the entire state whipped itself into a frenzy, talk of the game permeated every household, every bar, every post-church conversation. The week before the 1987 game, one local TV station replayed the 1971 contest, a momentous occasion in the hearts of all true Nebraskans. The local video store rented and sold tapes of the game. Many a bar in the state has a picture of I-back Jeff Kinney just barely stretching the ball into the end-zone for the winning touchdown, and even though it happened before my birth, I knew well the hallowed names: Glover, Kinney, Tagge, Rodgers, Devaney. My father still talks breathlessly of Johnny Rodgers’ punt return for a touchdown in that game, and how he was so winded and nervous that he started puking in the end zone. (For a video of that score, and the great call from Lyle Bremser, go here. Just fast-forward the video to 1:10 into the highlight reel.)

1971 had been Nebraska’s last national championship, and after the excruciating loss to Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl (and four years of second-guessing Tom Osborne for going for two), the good people of Nebraska could smell the Promised Land. It didn’t hurt that in Oklahoma’s previous game their amazingly talented quarterback, Jamelle Holloway, had gone down with an injury, and they would have to play Nebraska with an inexperienced quarterback, the freshman Charles Thompson. Nebraska had the dazzling I-back Keith “End Zone” Jones who possessed magical breakaway speed, as well as Steve Taylor, an option quarterback who could actually pass (he threw a Nebraska record five touchdown passes against UCLA that year.) When I left Hastings for Lincoln the morning of the game with my father, my best friend Dan, and his father, we were all supremely confident that the Huskers’ moment had arrived. When we got to the game, I even remember talking with Dan about rushing the field after the win. (Something that would have horrified my Dad, no doubt.)

I should now note that growing up in a small town, a trip to Lincoln was a special treat, it was as close to the big city that I ever really got until I was in high school. My heart would race about ten miles away, when I could spot the tall (and VERY phallic) state capitol rising above the flat prairie. If you come into town on O street (which we usually did), you take an overpass across the massive train-yard, and suddenly the downtown –more sparkling and big than anything else I knew then- appears before you. On game days the city buzzes with excitement, the pilgrims have come to Mecca for their Hajj. The smell of tailgate chili and beer fills the air, along with a general sense of unity. Keep in mind that Memorial Stadium becomes the third largest city in the state on game-day, some of the electricity comes from people who have traveled from tiny towns, enjoying the feeling of being in a crowd, something they never get at home.

It was an overcast, cold day, typical for Nebraska in late November, but somehow a little ominous. For most of the first half, the two teams slugged it out to little result, the score 3-0 on an Oklahoma field goal. At the very end of the half, however, Keith Jones busted out one of his signature long touchdown runs, and the crowd woke up. (And released their balloons. There’s a tradition at Memorial Stadium that fans buy red balloons, and then let go when the Huskers score their first touchdown. In the Osborne years, this almost always happened in the first quarter.) Going into halftime, it seemed that our confidence had been well placed.

And yet, it was not to be so. The second half of that game is probably the harshest moment of my sport fan’s life. Oklahoma didn’t blow out Nebraska, that might have been merciful. Instead, they treated the crowd to an extended crucifixion. Switzer kept running straight at the Nebraska defense, who never allowed a big gain, but couldn’t stop Oklahoma on third down. They seemed to get five yards on every run, and even when the Blackshirts hit a back at the line, he would twist and dive forward for a couple of extra yards. If I had been an impartial observer, I might have marveled at a gutsy display of grinding, old-school football. Instead, I felt like the demonic Switzer was intentionally twisting a knife into the heart of Husker nation. They scored two touchdowns in this manner, making the score 17-7.

On the other side of the ball, the Huskers couldn’t move the ball on the ground, and it became obvious that Nebraska needed to pass to get back into the game. Keep in mind, in those days Nebraska passed the ball about as gracefully and competently as a chicken flies. Even though Taylor was better than other option quarterbacks when throwing, the Sooner defense was ready for it. I remember the anger that erupted among the fans surrounding me, who yelled loudly for Osborne to put in Blakeman, a back-up slightly more adept at passing. Being a young true believer in America, Husker football, and the Roman Catholic church, I became forlorn that our fans dared to attack Saint Tom Osborne and his boys.

The game ended 17-7, but the score made it seem close, when in fact the Huskers didn’t really come close to winning. We filed grimly out of the stadium, and I’ll never forget the moment when we were walking to downtown Lincoln for supper, and Dan suddenly and angrily threw his game program onto the sidewalk and gave it a scarily rage-filled kick down the street. Although I was too timid to do the same, his actions expressed the feelings in my own heart. My dream had been shattered, and it wouldn’t be the first time.

When I remember those feelings, I often wonder why I’m a sports fan at all. True fans often don’t even enjoy the games, we just hope not to lose. My father and sister often have to leave the room when Nebraska falls behind in a big game, I myself couldn’t bear to watch the White Sox last night, I wanted to relax for a change. I guess fandom gives meaning in world where it’s hard to find, which is why it’ll never be “just a game.”

Postscript: At the time, I had no idea that I was witnessing the beginning of the end of an era. The next year, in 1988, Nebraska would break to Switzer curse in an absolutely brutal 7-3 game in Norman. It rained heavily the whole time, and when players hit the turf they would go sliding, water spraying in the air. It was a classic Big 8-style grind out win, and it would be the last important Nebraska-Oklahoma contest until the year 2000. In the off-season Sooner quarterback Charles Thompson would be arrested for dealing coke, setting off a series of investigations into sordid behavior in Oklahoma’s football program. In the ensuing firestorm, Switzer resigned, and the team went on NCAA probation, becoming a shell of its former self. In 1989, the Colorado Buffaloes, of all teams, won the Big 8, showing that the old Husker-Sooner dominance was over. By the time Oklahoma got good again, the Big 8 was no more, and under the Big 12 Nebraska and Oklahoma no longer play each other every year. Perhaps it’s fitting that the Berlin Wall fell and Husker-Sooner reign ended in the same year.

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