Friday, August 25, 2017

Memoirs Of A Lapsed Husker Fan, Part Two

Part one is here

Despite having my heart broken by the Huskers losing to the Sooners in November of 1987, my devotion to the team only increased. This is the kind of Stockholm Syndrome that most sports fans are familiar with. I still remember watching a big game as an adult with a group of friends, and as our team started losing and the curses and oaths started flying, a friend who was there to socialize and not as a fan simply asked "Aren't you supposed to like this?" to which another friend replied "Pleasure has nothing to do with it."

Like Job, the next few years would test me. In 1988 Nebraska lost early in the season to UCLA, giving up 41 points in a game where I spent a lot of time throwing a novelty foam brick that my sister had just bought at the screen. (After this game she declared the brick to be bad luck.) With national title hopes out of the way, however, the Huskers managed to go undefeated for the rest of the season. The best moment came at the end, when Nebraska beat Oklahoma on the road in Norman. The rain poured down, turning the astroturf into a slip n slide. Both defenses dominated, but Nebraska pulled out a win in a brutal slugfest, 7-3. It wasn't pretty, but it was the visiting fans in red that got to throw the oranges this time.

But then the Orange Bowl happened. Returning for the first time in five years, Nebraska had to play Miami again. The ghosts of the failed two point conversion haunted Huskerdom, and there was hope that the demons of Miami could be exorcised like those of Oklahoma. It was not to be. Miami won 23-3, but it might as well have been 63-3. They dominated the game, Nebraska never even threatened. This was the second bowl loss in a row, with five more to follow. This game was when the doubts began to be sowed in the minds of many a Husker fan. Was Osborne's running offense a relic of the past? Could Nebraska actually compete in recruiting with schools like Miami? Was the game passing Nebraska by?

The next season brought a new shock, namely the end of the old Big 8 order. For years it had been Nebraska and Oklahoma and six also rans. 1961 was the last time that neither team had won or tied for the championship. In the off season journalists and the NCAA uncovered a massive level of wrongdoing at Oklahoma, leading to the team getting put on probation for three years and Barry Switzer resigning. During the height of the War On Drugs it was especially damaging that Oklahoma players were using and dealing cocaine. For a Nebraska fan, this was vindication. We were good and moral, Oklahoma was degraded and evil, and they were now facing their reckoning.

While Oklahoma looked to be eclipsed for the forseeable future, the Colorado Buffaloes stepped into the breach. Their coach, Bill McCartney, had made defeating Nebraska the raison d'etre of his program. In 1986 the Buffs shocked the Huskers with an upset win, and he crowed that this was "our bowl game." (Remember, back then getting to a bowl game was actually difficult.) Nebraska had won in 1987 and 1988, but 1989 would be different. Colorado beat Nebraska, and looked confident in doing so. That was the hardest part to watch. The fact that they were running an option offense better than us was particularly galling. I still remember sitting on my aunt and uncle's shag carpet, the smell of tobacco and chili in the air, thinking that things were never going to be the same.

They weren't, for the Huskers or for me. I started high school in the fall of 1990, and my fall Saturdays were spent at marching band competitions and debate tournaments. This meant brining my Walkman along and stealing some time to listen on the radio in those pre-cellphone days. The Huskers played Colorado that season on the day of my very first debate tournament. A friend of the judge in one of my rounds sat in the room with us and listened to the game on his headphones, giving us updates on the score between speeches. This time around Colorado beat Nebraska on our own ground, and did it pretty handily. It seemed that McCartney had replaced Switzer as my chief tormentor. Things got worse when the Huskers traveled to play Oklahoma, and Husker quarterback Mickey Joseph broke his leg while being tackled out of bounds on the Oklahoma sideline. Rumors flew that it was a dirty Sooner player who pushed him into the bench.

The Sooners put up 45 points on Nebraska, as did their bowl opponent that year, Georgia Tech. Georgia freaking Tech! The Huskers finished the season ranked #24, barely in the top 25. 1991 had its high points, especially seeing former third stringer Keithen McCant rise to the top and do a capable job at quarterback. But this season also seemed to cement Nebraska's second rate status, and Colorado's ascendancy. The Huskers tied Colorado on the road, but should have won. The Buffs returned a blocked extra point for a safety, and the Huskers missed a game-winning field goal at the end, as snowballs rained down on the field thrown by Buffs fans. The refs did not call a penalty. Buffaloes fans were known for pelting Husker rooters with cups full of piss and snowballs with rocks inside of them. At least Oklahoma and Nebraska fans had a level of mutual respect in their rivalry, this was something else. Nebraska fans had always prided themselves on their decorum. There was a longstanding tradition that when the opposing team left the field at the end of home games, Husker fans would applaud them. The rivalry with Colorado brought out the worst, most soccer hooligan aspects of fandom.

The season ended cruelly, with another Orange Bowl against Miami. The Hurricanes were number one team in the country, the Huskers were merely a scrappy bunch happy to be there, and the 'Canes eviscerated them, winning 22-0. Getting shutout in a bowl game was pretty embarrassing, especially after four previous bowl losses, the last three lopsided. As I mentioned in the last installment, this game put me in a depression for about a week. I was a very lonely kid in high school, Nebraska football was one of my few escapes, and it had let me down. Even in my escapist pleasures I was a loser.

And then lo, in the off season, a star in the southeast led Tom Osborne to Bradenton, Florida, where he found Tommie Frazier, the chosen one destined to finally bring Nebraska to the Promised Land. Frazier was a quarterback with a cannon arm, strong legs, and the smarts to run Osborne's deceptively complicated offense. He managed to be recruited from Florida, home to the two teams -Florida State and Miami- that had been shellacking Nebraska on a yearly basis in bowl games. The new messiah was actually allowed to play starting quarterback as a freshman, something that the by the book Osborne never would have done in former times.

Even though the Huskers went 9-3 that season, which was not as good as their 9-2-1 the previous season, I could feel the winds of change. After an early hard loss on the road against Washington, the Huskers played with verve and fire. And then, on Halloween night, 1992, I experienced a level of schadenfreude that will never be topped in my life. Colorado came to Lincoln for an evening game, and Nebraska completely and utterly embarrassed the Buffaloes, winning 52-7. Frazier ran the offense to perfection, even pulling off a fumblerooski with the great lineman Will Shields. This would mark the beginning of nine straight wins against Colorado.

Of course, the Huskers still found a way to kill my buzz. They inexplicably lost on the road to Iowa State, a traditional doormat for Nebraska. I remember getting the news while at a debate tournament and assumed that I was being punked. Alas, it was true. While the Huskers still got to go to the coveted Orange Bowl, they had to face a powerhouse Florida State team. Nebraska was not blown out this time, but they looked overmatched, and never threatened to win. This was not a team that ever seemed capable of competing against the new powers of college football.

This is why what happened next year came as a complete surprise to me. Nebraska simply refused to lose. After a year under his belt, Frazier was even more competent. The defensive adjustments by coordinator Charlie McBride, criticized by Husker fans for being old-fashioned, starting paying off. He prioritized speed over power, turning defensive backs into linebackers and linebackers into defensive ends. The Blackshirts' blitz struck fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks. The season ended with a rematch, facing Florida State in the Orange Bowl, site of so much Husker misery. If Nebraska won this game, it would give them the national championship, their first real shot at the title in ten years.

Florida State had defeated Nebraska in bowl games after the 1987, 1989, and 1992 seasons. It felt like more of the same. It seemed like we didn't have a chance. This game also inflamed the Husker fan sense of self-righteousness like no other. The media said we didn't have a chance, and even seemed to dislike us, not giving the Cornhuskers the kind of scrappy underdog narrative that they would give other teams. Rather, they sneered and acted like Nebraska didn't actually belong there. What happened in the game only made things worse. It was a tense, low scoring affair, but late in the game some crucial officiating calls went against Nebraska, allowing FSU to score to go ahead late. With very little time left Frazier managed to get the team into field goal range for a winning shot, but the futile kicker line-drived his chance short of the goal posts. After the game FSU coach Bobby Bowden was gracious, saying that Nebraska had played the better game.

This was cold comfort. Nebraskans were anguished and enraged. A tee shirt making the rounds with a referee on a red background read "We Refuse To Be Screwed." A story circulated that Trev Alberts, an All-American linebacker who played the game with a cast on his right arm, was asked by referees to "take it easy" on Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward. (Alberts, a killer blitz artists, had sacked Ward three times.) Did this actually happen? Were those calls really botched? Did the national sports media actually dislike Nebraska? I do not have the objective standpoint necessary to answer those questions. All I can say that as a true devotee of the Husker religion my sect felt harried and persecuted.

The next year, 1994, would take all of that anger and resentment and turn it into a kind of righteous will to win. It also happened to be the year I started college, at Creighton University in Omaha. Although I had elected not to go to the University of Nebraska, I was still surrounded by Husker fandom. I also stayed with competitive debate, meaning that I was still having to find ways to keep up with the games in between arguing with other people while wearing a suit. One of the highlights of the season was going to a debate tournament at Colorado College, and breaking away to go to the student center to watch the Huskers manhandle the Buffaloes. Oh the glee I felt watching the Colorado fans squirm!

That game, however, came after a great deal of drama, the kind of drama that felt written by Hollywood. In the fourth game of the season, Frazier went down with a blood in his leg. This was shocking, not just for the season, but for how it threatened Touchdown Tommie's life. Remember, this was not long after Hank Gathers' death on the basketball court. It didn't help that there was a total bro on my debate team from Wyoming, Nebraska's opponent in their first game without Frazier. He would taunt me by holding his leg and saying "ooh, I got a blood clot." He also had sex with and then slut shamed a young woman I was in love with, so my dislike of this guy was off the charts. When backup Brook Berringer came in and led the Huskers to victory, I felt personally vindicated somehow.

Berringer would do a great job at quarterback, but more as a drop-back QB and less as an option quarterback. Unfortunately, he would suffer a collapsed lung during the next game against Oklahoma State, and Nebraska would be forced to call on Matt Turman, who would make his own Husker legend. Turman was an undersized walk-on from Wahoo, Nebraska. He looked so ridiculously small on the field, and had to start against a resurgent Kansas State team on the road. It was an ugly, rainy game that Nebraska won by riding its defense and its starting tailback, Lawrence Phillips, who would rush for over 1800 yards that season. (More on him later, obviously.)

Berringer came back, and the team never looked back. It was he who crushed number two ranked Colorado, humiliating them with one of my favorite all time Husker plays: a fake option then long bomb thrown for a touchdown. People had derided Nebraska' offense as slow and plodding and simple, but in that one play Berringer showed Tom Osborne's creativity and love of trickeration. I may have strayed from the Husker religion, but seeing that play has the same effect as playing "A Might Fortress Is Our God" for a Lutheran.

At one hour eleven minutes you can see the play that sums up Brook Berringer's brilliance in 1994

All of this lead to the bowl game. Once again, Nebraska was in the Orange Bowl. Once again, Nebraska was going to have to play Miami on their home turf. Like after the 1983 season, Nebraska was ranked number one and Miami number three. There is no way that a script writer could have conceived of such a situation. It was like something out of the movies. To make it even more theatrical, Tommie Frazier had recovered from his blood clot. Would he come in to play? This was a hard decision, considering how well Berringer had performed, and how high the stakes were for Frazier's health.

It was a fraught game for me personally, since I was not able to see it in Nebraska. I was at an international debate tournament being held at Princeton University. We arrived on January 1, game day. I wore my Husker gear out to dinner, and some waiter walked by me and said "Go Penn State." That year Penn State was also undefeated, and there was some controversy over the national championship, since there was no playoff or even championship bowl game. Nebraska was in the Orange as the Big 8 winner, Penn State in the Rose as the Big Ten winner, and nothing was going to change that. I saw the waiter's imprecation as a sign that I was in hostile territory. It also added to that prodigious Husker fan chip on my shoulder, which was inflamed by the thought that people in the rest of the country didn't like or respect my team.

Being 19, I could not watch the game in the hotel bar, and so watched it with two of my debate teammates in our hotel room. One of them was exhausted from New Year's Eve partying the night before, and when the Huskers fell behind, he decided to go to sleep and save himself the pain. The Huskers were down ten to nothing after the first quarter. Tommie Frazier started the game, but could not seem to do anything against the Miami defense. Osborne then brought in Berringer, who was able to hit some key passes and throw for a touchdown. Miami scored again, though, and Berringer also threw an interception in the endzone. That's the point when my friend went to bed, and the point that I thought that I was going to see yet another Nebraska embarrassment. I kept watching out of obligation, more than anything else.

Then, somehow someway, Nebraska's style of play, which I had lost faith in, was vindicated. McBride's aggressive blitzing paid off, as the Huskers sacked Miami quarterback Frank Costa in the endzone for a safety. Tommie Frazier came back into the game in the fourth quarter after Berringer's interception, and you could feel the game shifting. Nebraska had always prided itself on its offensive lines and their sturdy endurance. At the end of the game, Miami was wore out, and the dam broke loose in a very Husker way. Frazier moved the offense down the field, and they scored two touchdowns by running fullback Cory Schlesinger up the middle on a trap play. The 'Canes seemed powerless to stop the line's push, and caught flat-footed by the trickery. For a Husker fan it was as if the trumpets had sounded and the walls of Jericho had come crashing down. I could not believe my eyes.

My fandom has faded but I can't rewatch this game because the emotions are too strong

But neither touchdown was the most dramatic moment. After the first score, Osborne decided to go for two, to tie the score at 17. The ghosts of the 1984 Orange Bowl were hard to avoid, even if the stakes of this conversion were not as high. When Tommie Frazier connected on a pass to Eric Alford, I went nuts. It was a very similar play to the one in '84, but this time it worked! Turner Gill, who threw that pass back in '84, was on the sideline as Nebraska's quarterbacks coach. It was almost too perfect. I KNEW at the moment that there was no way that Nebraska was going to lose.

Alright, now I'm crying

Right after the game ended I got a knock on my hotel room door. It was one of my team's coaches, who had been watching the game in the bar. We jumped up and down and hooted and hollered. I was over a thousand miles away from home and wanted to be back there so bad. When our tournament was over and we went to the airport, I snagged the most recent Sports Illustrated, and basked in the victory, so long in coming. The national sports media seemed to actually be happy about Osborne finally winning. That chip on my shoulder suddenly shrank.

Little did I know that Nebraska would somehow better the 1994 season the next, or that the 1995 season would also begin my much more complicated relationship with my favorite team. More on that next time.

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