Friday, September 8, 2017

Memoirs of a Lapsed Husker Fan, Part Three

1995 was the year of Lawrence Phillips, in more ways than one

This is the third installment of a four part series. You can read part one here and part two here.

The 1994 national championship win will never be rivaled as my most meaningful sports fan moment. I don't think I can care about sports the same way now that I am older and wiser, and none of the teams I root for has the dramatic tension of the Osborne-era Cornhuskers. The aftermath of the win, however, was bittersweet. Penn State had managed to win the Rose Bowl and go undefeated, leading to whispers that the poll voters went for Nebraska only out of sympathy to old man Osborne. That rankled. Would Nebraska ever truly get the respect it deserved?

There was also something more serious afoot, namely accusations of sexual assault against defensive lineman Christian Peter. These had first emerged during the 1994 season, but in 1995 the University of Nebraska would award his victim, Kathy Redmond, a settlement. She has gone on to be a prominent activist in the fight to hold athletes accountable for acts of domestic and sexual violence. Peter's acts would be overshadowed during the season by Lawrence Phillips, as the 1995 season exposed a deep, dark underbelly of misogynistic violence on the Nebraska football team. While this team would go on to be the most successful in Nebraska and maybe college football history, looking back 1995 was the year that my Husker fandom stopped being naive and absolute and began to start cracking oh so slightly.

This was a team that absolutely dominated the opposition in ways that have perhaps never been seen before or since. The closest any team got to the Huskers was Washington State, who lost 35-21. Tommie Frazier was back from his blood clots, and at the top of his game. The Blackshirts were putting the fear into opposing offenses, and Nebraska's option attack put up obscene statistics. Four different running backs put up 100 yard games. I got to see them play Pacific in Lincoln, when the Huskers put up over 700 yards and their third string running back, Damon Benning, ran for 173 yards. I was able to attend the game because a friend of mine at Creighton was high school friends with one of the players. We even hung out a little afterward, and there just seemed to be this aura of absolute confidence around him and the couple of other players I met hanging out in the dorm afterward. These guys were not going to lose.

But beneath all of this was a scandal that began to permanently alter my feelings about Tom Osborne and the Nebraska Cornhuskers and college football writ large. Lawrence Phillips went to the apartment of backup quarterback Scott Frost (more on him later) to attack his girlfriend Kate McEwen, who was Phillips' former girlfriend. He dragged her down three flights of stairs by her hair in the midst of the beating. The news was absolutely shocking, especially Osborne suspended Phillips, rather than kicking him off of the team. His reasoning was that Phillips, who had lived a hard youth in foster care, was in danger of going completely off of the rails had he been kicked off the team.

I didn't buy it.

At the time, this was a kind of apostasy. I was sure that Osborne believed at least a part of what he was saying, but this, along with Christian Peter's continued presence on the team, disturbed me. Looking at my fellow Husker fans, I began to believe that they had struck a deal with the devil. In that long period of frustration between 1983 and 1994, Nebraska fans began to turn on their old image of themselves. They used to talk with pride about the team's record number of Academic All-Americans, the number of walk-ons, and the team steering clear of recruits who might be talented but lacked moral values. (Yes, there was some mythology here, but the narrative was important.) Husker fans had started to wonder if these straight and narrow traditions meant that the Huskers would never be able to go to the top. In 1995 it looked like the pinnacle had been reached after the older values were betrayed. Even worse, it seemed that most of the team's fans were willing to accept that. Of course, at the time I would put those thoughts aside on game day, which I guess was an act of true hypocrisy.

After crushing the opposition, Nebraska played in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship against the Florida Gators. Again, the Husker chip on the shoulder got inflamed, as Sports Illustrated predicted a Gators win, despite the Huskers' absolute dominance. I was actually pretty confident that they would win, which is why it didn't bug me that much that I was in Ireland at another debate tournament during the game. At about half-time a friend made the transatlantic call home to get the score, and when he told it to us, we thought he must have had a bad connection. At that point Nebraska was up 35-10, en route to a 62-24 domination. Lucky for me, my parents taped the game for me, and after I got home I watched it every day for a week. I laughed at the normally cocky Steve Spurier throwing his stupid visor, powerless to stop the Husker onslaught. I exulted when Tommie Frazier broke 8 tackles on a 75 yard run that might be my favorite Husker play of all time. It was his last game, and he went out in style as one of the winningest quarterbacks in NCAA history.

At the same time, Phillips had been brought back, and he started the game. The Huskers did not need him to win. The fourth string running back on the team was a freshman by the name of Ahman Green, who would go on to have a long NFL career. To those who supported Osborne, it was proof that Dr Tom really cared about his player, and not winning. To those who were critical, it seemed especially excessive to give a violent abuser a second change when it made no difference to the team's prospects. Phillips declared a year early for the draft, and would go on to have a troubled and violent life, until killing himself in prison in 2016. As the years passed and Phillips made more headlines for bad behavior, Osborne's decision became harder to defend.

The Huskers went from the top of the world in 1994 and 1995 to more uncertain territory in 1996. Tragedy struck in the off season, as backup quarterback Brook Berringer, who had won several games when Frazier went down in 1994, died in a plane crash. He was actually getting some attention before the NFL draft, rare for a Husker quarterback. The new starting QB was Scott Frost, a figure of some controversy. He was a local boy, from Wood River, and was by far the most touted in-state high school quarterback in my lifetime. He spurned Nebraska, however, to go to Stanford while Bill Walsh was the coach. Many Nebraskans considered this a betrayal, and when he transferred to Nebraska, he was not welcome with open arms. It did not help that he struggled early on, especially in a shutout loss to Arizona State. I remember screaming and throwing my Huskers cap, especially after he got sacked in the end zone. After that game, though, I wondered if I was taking Nebraska football too seriously. I also began to question the people who were so critical of Frost for having signed with Stanford, and by extension the expectation that being a true Nebraskan meant blind loyalty to the football team.

1996 was also a strange season since it was the first of the Big XII, which was the old beloved Big 8 with four teams from Texas added. The Big 8 had four teams in the top ten the year before, so Nebraskans resented it when the Texas squads acted like they were equal partners in the endeavor. The Big XII, part of the supersizing of conferences to make money that still plagues college sports, also destroyed one of the most important aspects of Nebraska football: the Oklahoma rivalry. Nebraska and Oklahoma were now in different divisions, meaning they would not play each other every year anymore. Something was lost in that year that never came back, and now that Nebraska is in the Big Ten, it never will.

After getting embarrassed in Tempe, the Huskers won the rest of their regular season games, including the season finale against Colorado, now the team's "official" rival and the permanent occupant of the slot on the schedule the day after Thanksgiving. I went to the 1996 game in one of the great adventures I ever had with my father. I was home from college visiting my family for Thanksgiving, and my sister was a student at the university with season tickets. She wanted to make the long drive back to Lincoln to go to the game, and my dad and I thought we would try to get some tickets at the stadium, and failing that, watching the action at a local bar. That day brought freezing rain, something all too typical on the Nebraska prairies in late November. Luckily for my father and I, it meant that the scalpers had to drastically reduce their prices. We got seats behind the north goalposts, and stood pretty much through the whole game and the rain pelted us. My coat, which I had thought was water resistant, really wasn't, and by the end I was soaked to the bone, unable to feel my feet. It didn't matter. Despite a struggling offense, Nebraska beat the hated Buffs through the grace of the Blackshirts, who wreaked havoc on their opponents. Nebraska got the lead in the first quarter on an interception return, and never gave it back. It was a tough win in a tough season without Tommie Frazier and it gave me hope for the end of the season.

Somewhere in here you can see me freezing my nuts off

In the old days of the Big 8, winning that big game the day after Thanksgiving meant Nebraska had won the conference. However, now they would have to play an extra championship game for the conference title, which they lost to Texas, and thankfully I did not see. (Yup, I was at a debate tournament.) That game seemed to imply that the days of Nebraska's conference dominance were over. In another such sign, the second-place prize for the Huskers was the Orange Bowl, once the Holy Grail of the Big 8 season. Just as conferences were changing, the bowls were too. The game was played on New Year's Eve, rather than New Year's Day, and while the setting left something to be desired, the Huskers crushed a very good Virginia Tech team, 41-21. I remember it well because it was part of a New Year's Eve tradition. My parents were close friends with two other couples, and every eve one of the families would host the other two, the adults drinking and playing cards upstairs, us kids running around and playing downstairs. That year I was 21, and I and some of the kids were having beers, too. I didn't know it at the time, but just as my New Year's Eve holiday tradition was soon about to end, my connection to Husker football was going to be frayed.

But that didn't happen quite yet. 1997 would be one last golden season for Nebraska, for Tom Osborne, and for me. It was my last football season living in the state, which I never would have imagined when it started. It was only appropriate that Nebraska boy Scott Frost would lead that team with a season worthy of Tommie Frazier, and perhaps even better. He rushed and passed for over a thousand yards, the first Husker quarterback ever to do so in a single season. He ran the complicated option like a well-oiled machine, and more than once followed a pitch to Ahman Green -another Nebraska kid from Omaha- with a punishing block on defender. Despite a very odd throwing motion, he was more dangerous as a pocket passer than most option quarterbacks I'd seen behind center.

Nebraska won all of their regular season games, but one was truly miraculous. Nebraska was behind late against a tough Missouri squad on the road, down by a touchdown. Frost threw a last ditch pass into the endzone. It looked doomed, but bounced (some say kicked) off of a Nebraska player's foot into the diving hands of Matt Davison. The "Flea Kicker" has got to be one of the most amazing plays in college football history, the NCAA equivalent of Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception." The game went into overtime, and Nebraska won. Again, I was at a debate tournament, and in those pre-cellphone days had not heard the score. We went back to our hotel room to watch Sportscenter, and the highlights of the game had me jumping and hollering with my teammates in exuberant, joyful disbelief.

As if to dispel the demons of the last season, Nebraska went in the Big XII championship game in San Antonio against a local team, Texas A&M, and blew them off the field by a score of 54-15. Despite that, Nebraska yet again had to deal with doubters in the media. The Huskers were only #2 in the AP poll, despite such dominance. Michigan was also undefeated, but had won its games much less convincingly. Because the Rose Bowl still locked in the Pac 10 and Big 10 winners, the Huskers and Wolverines would not be able to settle it on the field. Instead, Nebraska needed a big win in the Orange Bowl against Tennessee to ensure at least a share of the title by holding on to the top spot on the coaches poll.

The Blackshirts made Peyton Manning make Peyton Manning Face

In case you don't know, the Vols' quarterback was none other than Peyton Manning, by far the most hyped college quarterback I'd ever seen. Of course the hype was not misplaced, as he would go on to greatness in the NFL, but at the time I resented the adulation he received. The Blackshirts must've too, because they held the vaunted Manning to only 131 yards passing. He found himself constantly harried by Nebraska's blitz, unable to get the ball down the field. In fact, he was pulled out later in the game in favor of Tee Martin, who would lead the Vols to the championship the next year, something Manning never managed to do. Nebraska's explosive offense blasted through the Tennessee defense. It wasn't even close, the Huskers won 42-17. Even better, the coaches poll gave the Huskers the number one slot, though the media did not. I still think Nebraska would have crushed Michigan had they played that year. Was Brian Griese honestly going to be able to do what Peyton Manning couldn't? In any case, Osborne went out on top. My ill feelings about his handling of Lawrence Phillips subsided a little bit.

Witness the domination

Little did a I know at the time, 1997 would be my last true season as a Husker fan. In September of 1998, I moved to Chicago to start my master's program. Before leaving, I wentto a Husker game against UAB, who Nebraska beat handily 38-7. It was a day after my birthday, and like my first Husker game in the flesh, it was a birthday present. Fittingly, it is also the last Nebraska game I have attended in person. It was a beautiful day late summer day, so different than my last trip to Memorial Stadium in the freezing rain. 

While that game had all the hallmarks of the past, from the fans releasing their balloons after the first Nebraska touchdown to the sea of red, the 1998 season felt different. The new Nebraska coach was Frank Solich, who had been Osborne's consigliere for years. Like Osborne, Solich was quiet and stoic in ways that reflected the ideals of Nebraskan masculinity. He was a short, slight person who had played fullback for the Huskers in the 1960s, a testament to his toughness. In true Nebraska respect for tradition and stability, Osborne's hand-picked coach followed him, just as he had been tapped by Bob Devaney back in the early 1970s. But that circle would get broken, like some of the Husker streaks. Nebraska's consistency had been one of the team's hallmarks, and it also reflected the state's values system. We were very proud of the fact that while the championships had not come until recently, Nebraska had been 9-3 or better in every season since 1968. That streak was broken in Solich's first year, as the team went 9-4 and lost a bowl game to Arizona in the Holiday Bowl. The team did not even make a New Year's Day bowl, which was embarrassing enough. The Huskers did not even win their division, much less the conference. For other fans a 9-4 season would not be such a disappointment, but for Husker fans it seemed that the immutable laws of the universe had been challenged. Some began talking that Osborne knew that this team was not capable of maintaining the streak, which was why he decided to retire.

There were other streaks, too. Husker fans took perverse delight in beating up on certain teams year after year after year. Kansas State had not managed to beat the Huskers since 1959. The Wildcats had traditionally been one of the worst teams in top division college football, but even after coach Bill Snyder had come in and magically transformed the team into a winner, the streak remained. In 1997, as the Husker offense truly hummed as Scott Frost hit his stride, K-State got shellacked 56-26. In 1998, the Wildcats finally got their revenge, winning 40-30. It would be Kansas State, KANSAS FREAKING STATE playing for the conference title while the Huskers sat at home. This was impossible, it was not supposed to happen. The lion had lain with the lamb, the seal had been broken, and judgement had been loosed upon the once unstoppable, arrogant Cornhuskers. I saw some of that game in my Chicago studio apartment, so far from the windswept prairies of my home state. Things had changed now for good, both for the Huskers and for me.

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