Coach Eric Taylor, Dillon Panthers, 2006 State Championship
“When Jason Street went down the first game of the season, everybody wrote us off.
And yet here we are at the championship game. 40,000 people have also written us off. And there are a few out there who do still believe in you, a few who’ll never give up on you. You go back out on that field, those are the people I want in your minds. Those are the people I want.
IN YOUR HEARTS.
Every man at some point in his life is gonna lose a battle. He’s gonna fight and he is gonna lose. But what makes him a man is that in the midst of that battle, he does not lose himself.
This game is not over. This battle is not over.
So let’s hear it one more time together. Clear eyes, full hearts.
So I’ve spent the last few days reading the recaps, the articles, the opinion pieces, the occasional social media post, etc. etc. following the debacle in Champaign a few days ago. I sat in front of the keyboard the previous night after working late, running some stairs to get ready for some hiking in the Rockies next weekend and making a grocery run for my parents who are hanging tough after my father took a nasty tumble a couple weeks ago. My brain locked up as my eyes fought to stay open and I realized there was just nothing in the tank from the asshole who likes to crack wise, have some fun and pull back a shot of Sailor while channeling my inner Cobby and rip into the rest of the Big 10 while convincing myself we’re near that corner we need to turn.
And realized the only thing to do was pound out a love letter to the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team. Hopefully in under 1000 words. Okay 1500.
Why now? There was something about this gut punch which seemed so much worse than all the rest. Was it the fact things seemed to be looking up? The last remnants of Mike Riley players and high-star recruits who wanted playing time given not earned seemed to have cleared out or been jettisoned.
Whereas the previous era was typified by horrendous ass-kickings against talented squads, the Frost teams were becoming known for being competitive but finding new and inventive ways to suddenly run into that picture of a tunnel on the mountainside. We were our own Road Runner to the hapless Wile E. Coyote wearing a cream helmet with a scarlet “N” who shattered it as he slammed headfirst into that cliffside or found himself on the 1-yard-line hugging that ACME explosive as someone on Iowa/Northwestern/Illinois/Michigan/Minnesota yelled BEEPBEEP and cruised 99 yards the other way with the ball.
(Deep breath time. Most love stories don’t start with this much blood leaking out of one’s eyes.)
Columnists from the Star to the World-Herald to The Athletic to the national level all seem to be writing the same story about the best way to drop Scott Frost into the casket and move on to finding our next coach. (Tom Herman - Jesus, why? He couldn’t make it in the Big 12 with a barrel of Texas talent. Matt Campbell? Dream on. Even if he does bail with the Big 12 on life support, he’s moving up, not down. And sorry, we are down compared to the Cyclones these days)
So anyway, I cruised the internet, YouTube, some old magazines and papers and my own memories and popped in the earbuds to watch and read. In the midst of all that, I kept running into Friday Night Lights excerpts as well from both the movie and the TV show. Coach Eric Taylor especially seemed to be the coach everyone would design on paper if they could. A master of motivation. Always there for his players when they needed him. Three state championships in five years at two different schools. And did it all with amazing background music backlighting his memorable lines and monologues.
As a hockey coach, I absolutely stole the “Clear eyes, full hearts” line in multiple seasons with varying ages because I felt like applied to hockey even better than football. Hell, even helped me out a few times in life when that life anvil was getting a little heavy on my back.
And in the midst of all that reflection, I realized Husker football has been more than just the games, the wins, the highlights or the championships. It is all of us, the fans, our buddies, the coaches, the players, the former players and that connection we all have. I’ve gone from being a student in the stands and enjoying winning seasons that weren’t quite enough to the breakthrough years which saw three national championships and probably culminated in the Eric Crouch Heisman season.
This was followed by the steady decline and slight recovery as Bo took us back to the pre-championship diet of 9-10 win seasons which once again weren’t good enough. Unfortunately, the era of giving him another several years to figure it out was long gone and bus soon went off the cliff.
Through all of that, I still look forward to every Husker football gameday and apologize to no one for that. Age teaches one the ability not to let the losses ruin the rest of the day - and yes, there’s been so many more chances to practice and hone that skill lately, but still. Whether it’s a basement with a few friends & a widescreen & some wings, Memorial Stadium after a tailgate or the friendly confines of Tiger Tom’s, the days are always magical despite the most recent few years.
There are many now who are flat-out done and others who sound like they’re on their last legs. For them maybe, Husker football has always been a more solitary experience to where the pain of losing is much stronger than the joy of the camaraderie and community which goes hand in hand with the gameday experience.
“Everybody wrote us off.”
There are some who are still watching but seemed to have gravitated into camps turning on the venom or just flat-out leaving/flipping off the TV at the first sign of trouble. The are others who stay in but either unleash the outright negativity from kickoff to finish even in victory and still others who only crack wise and sarcastic - still on board but refusing to invest emotionally until the corner is turned again.
“40,000 people have also written us off.”
Illinois came and went, I watched some movies with good friends later that evening and Sunday rolled around just fine. And I realized that loss stunk as badly for me as any of the past however many years, probably because I read about Ty Robinson and I read about Cam Taylor-Britt and Damian Jackson and Ben Stille and Omar Manning.
And Adrian Martinez. The guy who buckled down when he lost his job and fought to win it back instead of scrambling for the transfer portal. Who graduated in three years. Who after Saturday’s crushing defeat took the time leaving the field to go out of his way and give his wristband to a little girl whose family stayed after to cheer the players as they left the field.
I want success for a guy like that in the worst way and if he never finds it is a young man who has my respect for constantly displaying effort and class in the face of behavior and actions that often fall short of that.
“Every man at some point in his life is gonna lose a battle. He’s gonna fight and he is gonna lose. But what makes him a man is that in the midst of that battle, he does not lose himself.”
And I realized I had a really good time last Saturday. I spent the day and evening with friends and the smiles outweighed the gut punches and eventually the loss. (Of course, fate had throw in losing to friggin’ BERT again, just had to get that last little twist in there.) I had a couple good meals.
And dammit, I saw some positive things. I believed we were ready to turn a corner before Saturday and in the face off all history and logic, I still believe it.
“And there are a few out there who do still believe in you, a few who’ll never give up on you.“
And I saw some quotes from the players who seem to be doubling down, not giving up. And this from their coach - “I believe in my heart this team can still have a special season.”
I believe it too.
I finally realized I’m in 100% all the way to bottom of the damned Missouri if it goes that way. Poke fun if you will, I don’t care if it makes me sound like Captain America telling Iron Man we’ll do that together too.
I still believe there’s a good possibility of this turning into a great comeback story over the next few years and I already know the feeling when it happens is so much stronger when you stayed all in instead of being one who jumped back on board.
“You go back out on that field, those are the people I want in your minds. Those are the people I want. In your hearts.“
So there is. I’m not naive enough to believe my jaw, stomach and balls are done eating proverbial shots. But in a way, I don’t care. I know I can take the losses and even if they pile up again, I’m still going to wake up on football Saturdays excited for the day. Yeah, the L’s will still come hard. But I’m going to spend most of those games cheering some great kids with good friends while enjoying some delicious food and good beverages.
If anyone has decided it’s not for them anymore, I wish you great times with whatever you decide to do on those Saturdays.
These games are not over. This battle is not over.
Clear eyes. Full hearts.