Here's the deal. I've been a Husker fan for most of my entire life. I was born in Seward, but moved at the ripe age of 6 months to the warmer climes of St. Louis, and have trekked all over the Midwest map since, eventually ending up in Minnesota. I was a bit too young to enjoy the salad days of 1993-95, but one of my earliest and fondest memories is curling up on our polyester green-and-tan checked sofa and watching the Scarlet and Cream carry an emotional Tom Osborne off of the field after crushing Peyton Manning and his Vols roughly 167-3 (actual score may vary.) Growing up in 'sota, my favorite college players were luminaries such as Eric Crouch, Jamaal Lord, Bobby Newcombe, Dan Alexander, Correll Buckhalter, Jared Tomich, and others from the Solich era. For most of my life, Frank Solich, Bill Callahan, and Bo Pelini have been THE Husker coaches.
From 2006-2010, I attended UNL, and experienced the canyon lows of the Callahan years (Sam Keller, Cortney Grixby anyone?) and the near-greatness of Ndamukong Suh and the 2009 team. I spent many of my fall Saturdays at dear ol' Nebraska U rowing or playing rugby, but I managed to attend about 75% of the home games in those 4 years. My friends and I saw bad football and great football, and generally loved every minute of it except for the last 2 minutes of the 2006 Texas game and the entire 2009 Iowa State game.
Despite growing up a Husker fan, I never EXPERIENCED where the devotion came from. I saw one national championship, although the books said that there were five. I heard names like Tommie Frazier, Mike Rozier, Johnny Rodgers, even saw some videos of them beating the piss out of Oklahoma or Colorado occasionally in the pre-Youtube era. That being said, I never GOT it. I didn't understand. Until Saturday.
I'd hope that every oxygen-breathing humanoid who puts eyes on this blog has seen last week's game. Many of you were probably there with me. I don't need to describe the fresh idiocy of the obnoxious Wisconsin fans in section 34. Don't need to describe how awesome those all-scarlet alternative uniforms and Darth-Vaderish black helmets looked in person. (I hated them when they first came out). Don't need to describe the depression of seeing Big Red trip over itself and try to bury its face into the concrete coming out of the gate. I'm not about to say anything that's going to put a new spin on what you saw. If you watched, you were there with me, riveted in place as the final seconds ticked away. If you listened, you heard the shake and roar of the stadium, the concrete-bending madness that can overcome the best offensive game plans and noise-filtering technology.
I'd also hope that everyone who was there noticed how the energy of the game shifted sometime in the middle of the 3rd quarter. I don't have tape of the game, DVR failed to record it for some reason, but there was a point, with the score 24-27, that I knew that, like Napolean at Waterloo, Montee Ball had just run out of win. I knew that Martinez would suddenly gain some accurate zip on his passes, that Rex would cut his picture out of the media guide, glue the backside of it, and put it into the dictionary next to the word "manliness," that the defense would continue to lock it in. I knew, and it wasn't anything that statistics could measure. I knew, and it happened. I'm not sure that's ever happened to me before.
After the game, Stadium Drive was nearly silent, and it was packed. Old men in red corduroys and fishing caps smiled like they had just eaten the greasiest, most satisfying leg of the Thanksgiving turkey. College co-eds in "Team Ryan" t-shirts bounced in place, texting their frantic joy. Everyone walked slowly, in no particular hurry to find their cars. There was a full moon, and a heavy, warm satisfaction with the events of the evening hung over everything. With everyone in red, the only fast way to pick out Wisconsin fans was to watch their eyes, which inevitably gazed directly into the ground as they shuffled through the slow and silent mob.
Often I've wondered why so many derive so much pain and pleasure over the antics of oversized testosterone factories who play games that have no direct effect on much of what goes on in the world. Sharing three hours like that game with 85,000 Nebraskans (whether actual or at heart) is all the answer I need. It is about these kids. On a personal level, they don't deserve the hatred that rational people reserve for figures like Stalin or Hitler when they fail to perform. Similarly, they aren't demi-gods when they do reach the highest heights of athletic performance (except for Ndamukong Suh, who, for about 14 games from 2009-10 was Hercules incarnate). They're just kids. Kids way, way bigger and faster than you or me. But what they do together brings together an entire state, and that's bigger than them as individuals, bigger than their coach. They do it for you, Husker fans. And that's pretty great.
They say there's no place like Nebraska, and most who think about it probably think that that's a bit of a jingoistic, provincial cliche. And that's ok. But damn it if sometimes it isn't true.