The game where I learned the truth about life
I do not think I will ever care about anything the way I once cared about the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers football. My absolute, fervent devotion to the Husker religion was such that when I finally got to go to a game at the age of 12 I considered it the highlight of my life up to that point. Four years later when they lost yet another bowl game in embarrassing fashion after a promising 1991 season, I fell into a depression for about a week.
Since then, things have changed. Like the lapsed Catholic who goes to mass only on Christmas and Easter, I have retained only a nominal membership in the Church of Husker. I will put no other football gods before it, but my connection is more a matter of identity and memory than any true devotion. Just as many of those at Christmas mass need assistance in reciting the Nicene Creed, I cannot tell you much about the team's starting lineup. At one time I could recite the entire roster down to the third string, now I can't even tell you who the starting quarterback is. Like Holy Week for Catholics, the beginning of the college football season is a heightened time for Husker fans, even the lapsed ones. Games start on Saturday, and every year, without me even trying, the memories of my Husker past will flood my mind.
Those who have never lived in Nebraska will have a hard time understanding the cultural significance that college football has in that state, and how much the Nebraskan identity is wrapped up in the university football squad. On gameday Memorial Stadium is the third largest city in the state, and every game has been sold out since 1962. In the 80s, at the height of shopping mall culture, they would pipe in radio play by play of games on Husker Saturdays over the PA instead of Muzak. I have been to many fall weddings in Nebraska where the attendees rushed out of the church to turn on their car radios and get the score.
Unlike in states like Texas and even Kansas, there is only one Division I team. Unlike Ohio and Michigan, there are no professional football teams. In fact, there are no pro teams in any sport whatsoever. In a sparsely populated and regionally diverse state that stretches almost 500 miles end to end, from the biggish city of Omaha in the east to the western rangelands of the Panhandle in the west, Cornhusker football has long been the state's one fixed commonality.
It was even more so in my youth. I was born and raised in Hastings, a town of 24,000 in south central Nebraska surrounded by farms. It also happens to be the hometown of Tom Osborne, and when I was a student visitors to the high school were treated to two giant Soviet cult of personality icons of Osborne in the front stairwell, one of him playing basketball, the other playing football. (He was throwing a ball in the latter picture, which was always the source of jokes considering Osborne's offensive philosophy.) The road from Hastings to nearby Grand Island was called Tom Osborne Expressway. All of this iconography was put in place well before he had even won a national championship.
Tom Osborne in his youth
I began my Husker fandom at a time when it seemed that a championship would never come. Not because of ineptitude like those sad sacks rooting for K-State, but due to the cruel whims of the football fates. In 1982 Nebraska went 12-1, winning the conference and the Orange Bowl against LSU. The one loss came against Penn State, and was enabled by a highly contentious pass interference penalty that Husker fans of a certain age will still grab your arm and bend your ear about. The whole off season all anyone seemed to talk about was how the refs cheated us out of a championship. (I was too young to follow the team in 1981, when it lost the national championship against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, another torturously just short of the line season.)
The following year in 1983 Nebraska had one of the most explosive offenses in the history of college football, blowing out the opposition en route to an undefeated regular season. Tailback Mike Rozier won the Heisman Trophy. Quarterback Turner Gill ran the option offense like a football magician. Wingback Irving Fryar would go first in the 1984 NFL draft. The season ended, however, with an infamous loss in the Orange Bowl against a rising Miami. After storming back from a halftime deficit, the Huskers scored a late touchdown, and could have tied the game with an extra point. If Nebraska had tied the game, the AP voters would still have elected the Huskers national champions.
At that point Tom Osborne, in a decision that was second-guessed more times than Napoleon's invasion of Russia, decided to go for two and the win. He thought that winning the national championship with a tie just wasn't honorable. The conversion failed, and the moment would replay itself in the minds of Husker fans for over a decade. While we wailed and gnashed our teeth, this decision also made Osborne into a Nebraska hero.
Nebraskans place an outsize emphasis on honesty and honor. In my experience, they tend to put a lot less stock in material "success" than people in other parts of the country. Cornhusker fans felt that winning "the right way" was the most important thing, and Osborne choosing an honorable loss over a cheap win made him the avatar of what many Nebraskans thought of as their best selves. That did not, however, dull the aching pain of a true gut punch loss. Rozier, Gill, and Fryar were all gone, and we all knew that it would be a long time before the planets would ever align like that again, if they ever did.
The next three seasons were full of frustration. Even though Nebraska had failed to win national championships after coming very close in 1981, 1982, and 1983, it had at least won the Big 8 conference and defeated hated rival Oklahoma. Back then the Nebraska-Oklahoma game was something like a high holiday, often scheduled the day after Thanksgiving. My abiding memory of those games is being at my aunt and uncle's house, the smell of my aunt's chili and uncle's pipe tobacco in the air. Both teams dominated the Big 8 conference, and the championship inevitably came down to this game every year. Fans of the winning team would throw oranges on the field, since in those days the winner of the conference automatically went to the Orange Bowl. (Stadium security was a lot less lax back then, too.) The sight of bright oranges flying through the chilly November air was always a surreal one, bringing happiness when tossed by Nebraska fans, and blinding rage when tossed by Sooner fans.
In 1984, 1985, and 1986, Nebraska lost to Oklahoma. This was not merely being defeated in a rivalry. For Nebraskans, this was a matter of good and evil. Tom Osborne was the ur-Nebraskan, quiet, steady, honest, doing things the "right way." Oklahoma was coached by Barry Switzer, the loud, brash, bootlegger's son whose program had been rung up for NCAA rules violations in the 1970s and who seemed like he would have shot his dog if it meant winning a championship. The most famous player on those teams was The Boz, Brian Bosworth, an even more brash athlete whose constant disrespect for authority somehow won him fame and adulation. There was nothing more dishonorable to a true Nebraskan than that.
I have never hated an athlete like I hated The Boz (glad to see in his 30 for 30 that he's gained some humility)
After three seasons of good but not great teams, the 1987 Cornhuskers suddenly seemed like the team of destiny. It was that year that I went to my first Husker game, against a Utah State team led by future Detroit Lions disappointment Scott Mitchell. Even though our seats were in the corner of the top row, probably the worst in the house, I had the time of my life. The Huskers returned two punts for touchdowns, and rushed for over 500 yards. Steve Taylor looked like the second coming of Turner Gill, running the option to perfection. In the next game, against UCLA, Taylor PASSED for five touchdowns. It seemed like there was nothing that could stop the Husker juggernaut from cutting through the Big 8 like a combine through a corn field.
Oklahoma was also undefeated that year, but before the big game was to happen, their quarterback Jamelle Holieway, a master of the wishbone offense who had led the Sooners to a national championship, got injured. He was replaced by a freshman, (something almost unheard of in those days) Charles Thompson. The Huskers had the Sooners at home that year. Broderick Thomas, future NFL linebacker and leader of the Blackshirts (the nickname for the Husker defense), had started a trend by proclaiming Memorial Stadium to be "Our House." (This led to some enterprising person making giant cardboard keys with the slogan printed on them that sold like hotcakes.) There was no way that we were going to lose.
Then, in what I thought was proof of the existence of God's grace, I was able to go to the game. My best friend Danny's father managed a local bank, meaning that he had the right connections to get tickets. We took the 100 mile trek to Lincoln with our dads on a brisk November day, but I spent the week before preparing my soul, as if I were about to go on pilgrimage. The local video stores starting renting tapes of Nebraska's glorious win over Oklahoma in 1971, the so-called "Game of the Century," which put the Huskers on the road to their last national championship. I watched that game multiple times, thrilling at Johnny Rodgers' amazing punt return, and Jeff Kinney just barely managing to stretch over the line for the winning touchdown. I believed with the belief that only a 12 year old sports fan could have that I was about to witness a similar moment of world historical importance.
Our seats were fantastic. My friend brought binoculars, and I was able to get a closeup view of the great Steve Taylor warming up before the game. In my eyes, he was invincible. Before the game my friend and I asked our dads if we could rush the field and help tear down the goal posts after Nebraska won, a statement that I should have understood to be a terrible jinx.
Neither team seemed able to get an edge until late in the first quarter, when Keith "End Zone" Jones busted loose for a 25 yard touchdown run. The Huskers went into the locker room at halftime up 7-0, and as he walked off the field Broderick Thomas led the crowd in the "Our House" chant. I have probably never been more innocently and naively happy in my entire life as I was in that moment. I say innocent because despite a constant stream of schoolyard bullying life had not yet taught me yet that pleasure is fleeting, that I should always expect the worst, and that disappointment is life's default setting. I first learned those truths in the second half of that football game.
Amazing that thirty years later I can watch this game on my computer
Nebraska never scored again. Oklahoma's offense moved down the field slowly but pitilessly. Every time their running backs got hit by a defender they seemed to fall forward for just enough extra yardage to keep the chains moving. It was like a kind of football crucifixion, a slow death. After grinding out a touchdown, Oklahoma scored a 65 yard touchdown on an outside run, making it 14-7. It might as well have been 70-7, since Oklahoma's defense shut Nebraska down and Steve Taylor threw three interceptions. In the fourth quarter I actually joined the other fans calling for Osborne to put in his more pass-happy backup, Clete Blakeman. In my anger and frustration I had, like some kind of football Judas turned on Steve Taylor, the player I was marveling over just a couple of hours before.
The game ended in darkness, literal and spiritual. Walking dejected from the stadium after the game, my friend Danny slammed his game program to the ground and gave it a swift kick down the street. We barely talked on the two hour ride back to Hastings. In a moment that every sports fan has at some point in their lives, I did not understand how something I loved so much could cause me so much pain.
[Editor's Note: Part two will soon follow, when I will discuss the seeming vindication of my love for my favorite sports team]