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For Nebraska Expatriates - Huskerville: A Story of Nebraska Football, Fans, and the Power of Place

The North Platte Telegraph recently did an article about 'A Sea of Red' which included the following quote:

"I liked Nebraska football a lot while I was at the University of Nebraska," he said. "To really appreciate it, you need to leave the state."
When Johnston left Nebraska he realized he was among people who had no concept of the level enthusiasm for college football and the fervor of football fans in Nebraska, something he took for granted.
"Until I left the state, I never knew how much I loved Husker football," Johnston said. "I never knew how much it meant to me."

Since the article came out (and was subsequently linked on Huskerpedia), I've heard from a number of expatriate Nebraskans who feel the same way - if you ever want to discover how much you love Nebraska football, leave the state.

The following is from Roger Aden, who contributed to 'A Sea of Red' and also published the book 'Huskerville: A Story of Nebraska Football, Fans, and the Power of Place' last year. Roger was so bothered by his yearning for Nebraska football that he wrote an entire book about it.


My mind’s playing tricks on me.

You see, I’ve been at our county fair in southeastern Ohio the past few days where I’ve seen many of the sights of summer: sno-cones dribbling down the chins of little kids, teenagers acting (and dressing) in ways that make me wonder where their parents are [insert old-before-my-time “harrumph/snort” here], and elderly folks fanning themselves in the few shady spots available. Yet, whenever I take a break from carting ice bottles out to cool the rabbit and checking on the box fan above the lamb (I’m no farm parent, trust me…we live on a cul-de-sac…long story), I smell fall. That’s because, in Huskerville, the first depth chart and pre-season poll have been released and fall camp has begun.
Even more strangely, as I notice that the season opener is at the end of this month, I feel a bit like a kid on Christmas Eve. Remember the anxious, excited feeling you used to get wondering what was wrapped in the packages you had been staring at for days, even weeks? We’ve been staring at the newly-packaged football team for even longer, knowing something good is inside while wondering just exactly how good it will be. Of course, what’s inside the football package is—for many of us—much more meaningful than anything we might have received under the tree. That’s why Bo Pelini and his staff have been barnstorming the state this summer; Bo knows Nebraska.

Like my friend Jon (aka Corn blight), I learned just how important Husker football was to me after I moved out of the state. At first, I thought it might just be me. Fortunately, I have a job that demands that I ask questions and find answers about what we humans find meaningful, so I had the perfect excuse to watch Husker football games, talk to Husker football fans, and read what fans and former players have said about our devotion. Their insights are represented in my book, Huskerville: A Story of Nebraska Football, Fans, and the Power of Place (McFarland, 2008). As the book’s title suggests, I think the whole “Husker Nation” thing is an inappropriate moniker for who we are and what we do. Although the phrase “Husker Nation” accurately captures the sentiment that who we are transcends the state’s borders, it does not reflect what we are. We are largely small town, rural folks who live and value three central qualities: working hard, being neighborly, and staying down-to-earth. In my research, these qualities emerged time and time again when fans and former players talked about what makes Nebraska—the state and the football team—unique. That’s why we have so wholeheartedly embraced the walk-on program, applauding the opponent, and the humility of Tom Osborne, respectively.

These ways of Nebraskans are not just reflective of what we value—they embody what we value. Perhaps “value” is even insufficient to describe the depth of our attachment to these ways. They are rooted in our shared cultural history, our landscape, and even our literature (Mari Sandoz, Willa Cather, etc.). We hold them so close to our heart not just because they represent our traditional ways of living, but because they remind us of our roots when those ways are not as prevalent as they used to be (i.e., the declining population of rural Nebraska, the reduction in family-owned farms, and so on).

Being a Cornhusker football fan, then, is a way to say—to ourselves, to other Nebraskans, to non-Nebraskans—“what we do works and how we do it matters.” Our testimony, whether offered to others in deed, word, or through the action on the football field, demonstrates this belief. “There is no place like Nebraska,” isn’t just some cheesy refrain but a genuine, deeply-held belief that we enact every day and then celebrate on football Saturdays. For us, it’s not just a game; it’s a way of life. Huskerville is where we live—even when I’m at a county fair in southeastern Ohio.

The following is a collection of excerpts from:
Huskerville: A Story of Nebraska Football, Fans, and the Power of Place
© 2008 Roger C. Aden
by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640.

“Is this some sort of nostalgia thing?”

The question hurt. My soon-to-be-fiancée (now wife), Christie, had just responded to my brief and unfocused explanation of why I wanted to take a short leave from my teaching and service duties at Ohio University to work on a project about Nebraska Cornhusker (Husker) football fans.

I stumbled through an incoherent, defensive answer. My gut said this was not exactly a “nostalgia thing” but darned if my brain and mouth could work together to articulate exactly what it was.

Not that I should have been surprised. I had never been successful in explaining to Christie exactly how Nebraska football, and its fans, were—from my perspective at least—”different” than other dedicated fans of sports teams. “It’s more intense” seemed a pathetically insufficient answer. That Christie grew up within an hour’s drive of South Bend, Indiana (home of Notre Dame University) and earned her PhD degree from the University of Oklahoma didn’t help. She knows sports fans, and she is a sports fan. “It’s more intense” wasn’t especially persuasive to her, and rightfully so.

It’s not that compelling of an explanation for other sports fans, either. Even with the 2006 expansion of Nebraska’ Memorial Stadium, another 11 universities host their home football games in stadiums that hold more people. Even with Nebraska’s dedicated alumni watching games around the country, no university can compare to Notre Dame’s international fan base. Dedicated sports fans are everywhere, not just in Nebraska.

So, yes, Nebraska football fans are, in all kinds of ways, just like sports fans around the globe. We know that, of course, but our knowledge of that fact doesn’t keep us from believing that we are somehow different from everybody else, too. To answer Christie’s question, I had to figure out what exactly makes us think we are different.

Sam Elder, a friendly, retired Husker fan living in the Seattle area was one of over 500 Husker fans who helped me figure it out.

“‘They Know How to Plow.’ That’s what you can call your book,” Sam told me. “You got to stay in that furrow. You got to stay centered.”

He emphasized that the phrase didn’t mean just expertise; it also encompassed the idea that Huskers know “a right way” to do things.

 “Right” means correct, of course, but it also implies “should”; that is, IF you want to do this the right way, THEN you should do it this way. The “right way” is rarely, if ever, the fast way, the easy way, or the selfish way.

The “right way” also implies the existence of a moral code known by those who understand “how to plow.” Sometimes referred to, in softer language, as “a way of life,” a moral code provides a behavioral compass of sorts.

Huskerviller Wayne Hastings, for example, moved out of Nebraska in 1961, yet when asked why he still followed the Huskers, he simply said, “The team projects a way of life that I am very comfortable with.” Similarly, when asked to describe Nebraska and its people, Doug Bottger of the Seattle area, observed, “It’s more than a state, but a state of mind and a way of life.”

So, what exactly is this “way of life?”

As I asked Husker fans questions about how to define a Nebraskan, what characteristics a Nebraskan possessed, and how these characteristics are evident in the football team’s performances, the implied “should’s” emerged.

Donna Love of Louisville identified these “should’s” in terms of what Nebraskans “do”: “They’re very hard-working, very up-front, who you see is who I am, very honest, very loyal, very friendly people. They’re very caring, everybody works together. If you move into the state, you’re just like somebody that’s lived there forever. There’s no little cliques or anything. Nebraska people are just very hard-working, down-to-earth people.”

Perhaps this way of life is best described in the words of the University of Nebraska fight song. Written in the 1920s by homesick ROTC commanders Deitrich Dirks and Harry Pecha, “There is No Place Like Nebraska” offers these observations about Huskervillers:

There is no place like Nebraska
Dear old Nebraska U.
Where the girls are the fairest,
The boys are the squarest,
Of any old school that I knew.
There is no place like Nebraska,
Where they’re all true blue.
We’ll all stick together,
In all kinds of weather,
For Dear old Nebraska U!

As unfashionable as the lyrics of the song might seem, they provide a moral compass for Huskervillers. “When I think of a Nebraskan,” notes Strat Warden of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, “I think of a lot of the corny stuff that’s in the Nebraska fight song. It’s honesty and simplicity, and truth and those kind of things. Now that might be a little hokey, but I’ve lived all over the country and all over the world, and I’ve found that to be true. . . . I think that’s manifest in the fans.” Confirms C. Bair Van Dam of Washington, D. C., “‘true blue’ as well as ‘square’ get to the heart of what it means to be a Nebraskan.”

Importantly, adds Walt Fulton of Lexington Park, Maryland, Huskervillers “live the creed of doing the right thing, ‘even if no one is looking.’” Enacting the moral code, in other words, depends less upon fear of what others might think and more upon following what you know to be right.

Huskervillers, I discovered, focus upon three “should’s” in particular: one should work hard, be neighborly, and remain down to earth.

Each of these “should’s” points to a way of doing something. Working hard refers to what individuals should do on our own. Being neighborly tells what we should do in our interactions with others. Remaining down to earth reminds us of what we should do as we live our lives.

Together, they form the moral code of Huskerville: work hard, share, and don’t get too full of yourself. Together, Husker fans and Husker players attempt to enact this moral code in what we do.