For the past 15-plus years, Nebraska Cornhuskers fans have agonized, second-guessed and anguished over the caretaking of the Blackshirts. Prior to the retirement of Coaches Tom Osborne and Charlie McBride, they kept it simple - 11 starters, 11 black practice jerseys, if someone else started, they got the jersey.
The succeeding coaching staffs couldn't ever seem to keep any continuity in tradition on a year-to-year basis, let alone in the face of regime change. To watch them try and figure out which players were getting them and when was akin to slipping a beagle a roofie and putting food dishes in four corners of the house.
Whether it was bestowing a Blackshirt on anyone who saw the field in a dime package or leaving everyone confused by handing them out on Halloween, fans, or players for that matter never seemed to know what to expect. Well, that's not completely true - starting with the 63-point debacle in the face of Craig Bohl's spread-defensive-line-with-a-LB-lined-up-over-a-center, they did come to expect an annual shellacking at the hands of Missouri/Oklahoma/Wisconsin/Ohio St./whomever.
Naturally, then, people are wondering how that process will shake out this season under the new staff. I took it upon myself to give Coach Riles a call and being the chummy, engaging fellow that he is, he invited me down to Lincoln to meet with himself and Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker. My curiosity was definitely peaked as I headed to North Stadium, made my way around some sketchy roadies unloading cameras from MTV trucks and headed up to the offices.
We met for about an hour initially and Coach Banker revealed that the Huskers would be going back to handing the jerseys out in practice the week before the opening game in the old tradition. I asked how many would be given out and he confirmed that they would be going back to giving them only to the base starters, but he had a weird gleam in his eye when he said it.
"Eleven of them?" I asked.
"Twelve, actually," said Banks.
As he explained the twelfth jersey, my jaw started dropping. But that was nothing compared to how close it came to hitting the floor as he and an always smiling Riles explained the new process. They laid it all out for me step by insane step. When I asked why they decided to tell me all this, they said simply that their respect for Corn Nation was without limit and they could think of no finer organization to break the story of their "unconventional" approach. This time, they both shared that odd twinkle.
"It will test the players on a variety of levels and help bring in a new generation of Husker fans," beamed a grinning Riley.
I took it all in and gave them my reaction.
"You've got to be shitting me."
Riley just laughed and smiled bigger (He does that a lot). "Why don't you head on over to the Hawks Center with T.J.?"
It was then that T.J. Lavin walked in and moved to shake my hand. At that moment, I realized that they were most certainly not shitting me. These crazy bastards were serious. I reached in to pull my camera out of the bag. T.J. began cursing at me, Banker yanked the camera out of my hand and Riley poured himself a whiskey and grinned even bigger.
"Sorry," said Banker. "No pictures. Can't have any of this getting out before the show airs."
Riley knocked back half of his Jamo shot, poured me one and just fucking beamed as I began to sputter in protest. "Here, shuttup and put a smile on your face and enjoy the tour. This will make them kids forget about Alabama. Roll Tide, my balls. Jesus, who wants to play for that pissy little gnome? And a chance to be a reality TV star AND get a Blackshirt?? Please. Let Phil Knight shove all those lime Jello unis up their collective feathered Duck asses."
I drank the damn shot - I mean, I didn't want to be RUDE - and decided to play along. After all, this was big news and, besides, I was seeing a side of Mike Riley that few probably had.
"This is the chance I've been waiting for. I mean, I love Corvallis, but this is Nebraska. If it means WINNING, the people in this state would gut-punch a neighbor's child and mace beagle puppies for a chance to play in a BCS bowl again. This will kickstart a new era. These are SERIOUS times and I mean to put this place on top fast. Here have another."
Riley filled each of our glasses and knocked his back. While slowly coming to an understanding that drinking like Blackbeard was greatly responsible for his near-permanent sunny attitude, I told myself that I needed to find ways to spend more time in these offices.
As I polished off my glass, T.J. took me by the arm and whispered that we should go. "Let's get to video center. Production is about to break it down in segments for the PARTICIPANTS."
So it was on. Folks, this is GOING to happen. Bo Pelini might have been a Jack of spades and 10 clubs short of a deck at times, but the true loons are running this asylum now. Don't let those big smiles, Up With People platitudes and NFL pedigrees fool you for a stinking second. They're all mad as goddamned hatters and come this Saturday at 7pm CST, the whole world will know it.
So here's what will be coming to you this weekend on MTV mere hours after the Spring game. The production team with all guest celebrities and most of the players gathered for a rundown of the coming festivities. As best as I can remember through a staff-induced whiskey haze, here's how it will break down:
THE CHALLENGE: BLACKSHIRTS!
An MTV/NCAA Joint Venture
TJ Lavin lead-in: Something about how winners must bring a diverse set of mental and physical skills to the table if they want to take their abilities to the highest level. TJ makes it clear he is taking this VERY seriously. If it works out ratings-wise, something-something-something other college teams and a multi-sport year-end challenge with lots of flames. TJ drinks a shit ton of Red Bull.
Challenge #1: Taser Sumo
Location: Impromptu Sumo Ring - Hawks Center
Blackshirts on the line: DT (2)
Participants: Maliek Collins, Vince Valentine, Kevin Williams, Kevin Maurice
Special Guest Referees: Gilbert Brown & Katy Perry
Synopsis: TJ explains that this will be a basic 4 man single elimination tournament, best 2 of 3 falls to win each match. You win by pushing your opponent out of the ring or putting him on the ground.
If no one wins after 20 seconds, two tasers will be thrown in the ring. A too slow participant may "tap out" so to speak by calling out "DON'T TASE ME, BRO!"
Katy giggled and talked about teenage zits and Gilbert added that he loves watching fat bastards do stuff like this.
Maurice: "Um, this sounds dangerous"
Valentine: "Who's he calling 'fat bastards'?"
Challenge #2: Wildlife Monkey Wrench Challenge
Location: Henry Dorley Zoo
Blackshirts on the line: DE (2)
Participants: Greg McMullen, Jack Gangwish, Freedom Akinmoladum, Joe Keels
Special Guest Referees: Howie Long, Billy Dee Williams and CT from The Challenge
TJ explains this will sort of be a combination of Let's Make a Deal and the human will to survive. Each of the participants will be handed a monkey wrench and be asked to select from one of four doors. They will then enter a spinning door and be thrust into a room with one of the following:
1) The pissed-off cousins of Jack Gangwish's raccoon.
2) Four irritable full-grown gorillas
3) Dog the Bounty Hunter, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Jet Li and Jordan Burroughs
4) 85 field mice and an anaconda
Whoever remains conscious the longest wins with a max possible score of 60 seconds. Any ties will be resolved with the contestants being thrown into the gorilla room with their wrenches for a Last Man Standing contest.
"Saucy," purred Billy Dee.
Gangwish: "This is total bullshit."
Keels: "This really isn't safe at all. Can I forfeit now?"
Challenge #3: Ultimate Risk
Location: The Lake Behind the 17th Green at Quarry Oaks
Blackshirts on the line: LB (3)
Participants: Josh Banderas, Michael Rose-Ivey, David Santos, Marcus Newby, DedrickYoung
Special Guest Referees: Steven Tyler and Justin Timberlake
Synopsis: TJ says the rules are simple. It's one big game of RISK but it will be at a gaming table extending from the top of the quarry out over the lake. If the chairs look a little like death row electric chairs, that's because they're set up to deliver various degrees of electro-shock for losing pieces, battles and countries. Take control of a continent and the other players each get shot in the chest with a riot bean bag.
If you are eliminated, you get a just-below lethal level jolt and are flung out of your chair into the lake. TJ said every episode of The Challenge has to have someone chucked in water. Steven Tyler made a hooting noise and tried to snort a salt shaker. Timberlake just grinned and spit sunflower seed shells on the floor.
Challenge #4: The Rocky 2 Chicken Surprise
Location: The Alley Behind Sandy's near 14th and O Streets
Blackshirts on the line: CB (2)
Participants: Daniel Davie, Josh Kalu, Avery Anderson, Byerson Cockrell, Jon Rose, Boaz Joseph, Trai Mosley
Special Guest Referees: Steven Tyler again and Sylvester Stallone
Synopsis: Everyone remembers that Mickey trained Rocky for speed in Rocky 2 by having him chase a chicken around in an alley, said the Teej. Well, this time, we'll be dressing these guys up in moth-eaten, piss-stained, gray Rocky sweat suits and do a little chicken-chasing re-enactment.
The twist is that we tell the players that the "Surprise" is going to be blindfolds on them and a beeping tracker attached to the chicken. The actual "Surprise" is that once the blindfold is on, we'll replace the chicken with a porcupine. Since they're basically going to scream a lot, drop it and bleed some (Tyler will scream along), they'll just play rock, paper, scissors for the Blackshirts after everyone's had a turn.
No quotes = this will truly be a surprise
Challenge #5: Nessun Dorma Mike Tyson Punch-out Challenge
Location: Holland Center for the Performing Arts
Blackshirts on the line: S (2)
Participants: Nate Gerry, Kieron Williams, Leroy Alexander
Special Guest Referees: Sugar Ray Leonard, Luciano Pavarotti, Tom Izzo
Synopsis: The hook on this challenge, TJ said, was that he expected athletes to be well-rounded and show that they have intelligence and an appreciation for culture and the arts. Therefore it was his idea to have an opera challenge featuring the solo made famous in recent years by the three tenors and ugly singing reality show contestants.
The challenge for the safeties will be simple. Sing a stanza of Nessun Dorma with a three strike limit. Miss three notes and former Undisputed Heavyweight World Champion Mike Tyson punches you in the dick. Anyone making it past that stage will have a 3 minute dance off final while wearing the Guardians of the Galaxy Star Lord costume. Winners of the Blackshirts will be determined by applause level from patrons of the Omaha Symphony.
Tom Izzo asked what in the blue hell he was doing there.
Gerry: "Can I wear three cups? I can't sing."
Alexander: "Is that CaraMaria chick coming?"
Final Challenge: 12th Blackshirt Death Match
Location: Someplace Far Away From Nosy Damned Cops
Blackshirts on the line: 1
Participants: Any member of the student body with a dream and a non-gunpowder weapon
Special Guest Referees: Bill Goldberg, Chuck Norris and Lionel Messi
Synopsis: TJ said this one is simple. Any UNL registered student may show up with their bladed or blunt force weapon of choice and hop into the pit. The lone survivor gets a Blackshirt and a nation now recognizes Texas A&M's "12th man" as a pussy.
(As a further bonus, the band, The Killers, will be tossed into the pit unarmed. Anyone killing a "Killer" will receive a 5-minute "Untouchable" status.)
So there you have it folks. In the words of Duke in Rocky 4, your Blackshirts will go through a hell worse than any nightmare they've ever dreamed. But in the end, they'll be the ones standing.
As for me, it's time for a half gallon of water and 7 Advil to recover from the weirdness and depravity of this "process" which apparently involved Mike Riley giving me enough free whiskey to make a pig wear a green plastic hat on St, Patty's Day. Cheers and GBR all!