"Yeah you can interview me but only if I can drink a beer during it."
Then he hung up the phone.
That was the first time I spoke to Milt Tenopir about interviewing him for a film I was working on called, "Through These Gates". A friend of mine knew his wife from work, so I weaseled myself into a phone call by playing the "buddy card".
That sounds slimier than I intended it to.
I pulled up to his nice but modest house in South Lincoln, with a 12 pack of Busch Light, which I had heard was the only beer he would drink, and I knocked on his door. His wife Terri answered. She is one of the sweetest ladies I’ve met in a while, as if she knew she needed to offset the intimidating presence of Coach.
I’m not a nervous guy but three people I interviewed for the film made me shake a little. Dr. Tom Osborne out of pure childhood admiration, National Champion defensive end, Jason Peter out of pure fear and Milt.
Why did Coach Tenopir make me a little uneasy? I’m not sure. He’s admittedly the guy I knew least about going into the day and the least smiley of all the interviewees as well. Plus, in my head, O Line players and coaches are just monsters, big, beefy, earth-moving, monsters that could crush me with their calf muscles.
Coach watched us set up our lights and cameras. He never seemed to take his eyes off us, constantly trying to figure out what exactly we wanted from him, making sure we were fighting the good fight and not making some weird Southern California, hick-hit-piece.
"Tell me why you are making this film."
"Because I love Nebraska and I want to celebrate the fans."
It’s like I said some magic word and Milt turned into a happy kid, getting his picture taken by Time magazine. We talked on camera for a solid hour, and he told us stories about trying to play slot machines around Dr. Tom, and going helmet to helmet with Coach McBride. We talked about his love for his ex-players, and the fans and the state of Nebraska.
We weren’t best friends and I don’t want to pretend like we had these deep life-changing discussions. We didn’t. Sometimes, though, just having someone who doesn’t know you trust you with their stories or even just trust you with their words is enough to make you feel like you matter to them. Milt always made me feel like I was his friend. Truth be told, I was just some wanna-be filmmaker with a cheap camera and shitty lights, but he treated me like I was Steven Spielberg. Milt made me feel important and that’s something everybody needs sometimes.
Milt was loyal. Once he let you in, you had to earn your way out. When Jon Johnston, our fearless leader here at CN, had a heart attack, Milt signed a book for him while fighting cancer himself. When I dropped the book off we sat in his living room and talked about Coach Riley and what he thought of him and the trajectory of the team (the day after the BYU loss). And in case you haven’t heard yet, he said, "He’s the closest person to being like Tom, that I’ve ever met."
The "Big Red N on the side of the helmet", as Milt once referred to it as, meant something to him. It represented something that surpassed football or the university. That N wasn’t just a logo to him, it was his wife and kids and friends and fans and everything inside Nebraska, or in my case, even things outside of Nebraska. For guys like me who left for greener pastures (or greyer concrete as the case may be) the "Big Red N" represented home. Coach Tenopir would tell his players that they were carrying a state on their back when they went out on that field and they were. We all know it and so did Milt.
It’s weird how something can be just a game and also so much more at the exact same time. It’s weird how you don’t see someone very often, and then they’re gone, and you wish you could see them more. It’s weird that someone so scary can be the least scary man you’ve ever met. It’s weird how life is just so... weird.
Death makes me uncomfortable. It makes me frightened and sad. As does cancer and saying goodbye to family and friends. I sat with Milt a few times, had a few beers and tried to keep up with his football brain. I never could. He’d laugh if I didn’t understand or he’d humor me and act like I made sense. Milt was honest and he was kind, two things that the world needs more of.
I think sometimes you can tell as much about a person by what they don’t do as you can by what they do. You know what me and coach never did? We never talked about cancer. It never came up. It almost seemed like he just had more important stuff to talk about. That’s why I don’t think leukemia beat him. He was a champion. Champions don’t lose, they go find the next thing. I’m not a scholar or a particularly religious man, So, I don’t know what that is.
But whatever it is I bet he’s drinking a beer during it.