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Tread Lightly When Measuring “Toughness”

Be careful where you tread, unless you just want it to fit your narrative.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Toughness is a character trait lauded in completion. Be tougher than the other team. The tougher team wins. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Aphorisms abound. There’s an indefinable quality to it. What makes a team tough? In sports is it a team that makes the most plays when the game hangs in the balance? Is it the team that is physically stronger or in better condition? Is it the team that has players willing to call out another? It might be.

In the case of the 2016 Nebraska football team, it goes way beyond that.

The story of the Huskers 2016 season will be told for generations, an unusual fate for a 9-4 team. The circumstances this team faced this season were anything but. We all know the story of Sam Foltz, the gregarious punter killed in a car accident in July. His impact was vast and his loss felt well beyond the field of play.

The Husker football team carried the grief of Foltz’ death throughout the season. They relived it on national television 13 times: 11 Saturdays and two Fridays. Privately, most of them relived it way more often than that. Some of them are just now entering into the grief that comes when the downtime after a long season hits. For others, that time is still to come. For fans, most of whom never knew Foltz, #SF27 was something of a rallying cry, but when the game was over, it had little bearing on their lives. For the team, Foltz’ death was bigger: it was a legacy to live up to; an image to uphold.

They saw a program legend, a man who had become close with the program, Milt Tenopir fight cancer that would take his life.

They saw a beloved coach humiliated when he was arrested for allegedly getting behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated.

They saw a teammate take a knee for what he believed is right. A few of his teammates, a few feet away, stood to hold the flag, also standing for what they believed was right. That was a moment that could, and perhaps should have divided that locker room with a chasm too wide to bridge. But it didn’t. They rallied around each other.

They watched their senior quarterback, a week after they stared down their nemesis, only to come up a play short, strapped to a cart and whisked off the field, immobilized, a cruel metaphor.

Despite all this, they got off to the best start this program has seen in 15 years.

There were talent deficiencies on this team. That is not in dispute. There are leadership gaps, no question. There are any number of ways this team can improve. To question this team’s toughness, is not one of them. They faced more adversity than most teams face in a decade. Let’s not compare them to one of the most talented basketball teams NU has had in 30 years. They’ve had a good week, for sure, but much of their story is yet to be written.

The football team faced off with an imposing foe and went toe-to-toe and came up one play short. They poured it all out for eight weeks, not to mention the six before that, then faced an avalanche in Columbus, Ohio where they watched their senior quarterback get carted off the field, only to return a week later and lead them to victory. When they played Iowa, he and his back-up were both arguably too injured to play, the tank was empty.

Let us tread carefully when being critical of the toughness of the 2016 Nebraska Football season. You won’t find many tougher.