|Red alert takes over entire state|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: Page 2's writing staff spent the summer touring every ballpark in Major League Baseball, sampling the beer and the hotdogs along the way. But that apparently wasn't enough fun for our greedy writers. This fall, they talked us into sending them to the best damn places in the land to watch college football. Each week, they'll share their game-day experiences from campuses across the country. The lucky ducks!
LINCOLN, Neb. -- The amazing thing is not that the six checkout lines at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium gift store were a dozen customers deep an hour before last Saturday's game against Utah State. The amazing thing is that anyone in Nebraska still feels the need to buy more red T-shirts.
Have you ever shown up at a formal dinner wearing jeans and a T-shirt? That's how I felt wearing -- gasp! -- a blue plaid shirt to a Nebraska game. I've been to St. Louis Cardinals games in the postseason but I've never seen this many people dressed in red. As far as I could tell, I was the only one not wearing Big Red aside from the visiting Utah State players. In the song "Nebraska," Bruce Springsteen sings, "From the town of Lincoln Nebraska, with a sawed-off .410 in my lap, through to the badlands of Wyoming I killed everything in my path." Even so, it couldn't have bled any redder than the Nebraska campus does every home game when the fans make their way to Memorial Stadium.
The inscription above that stadium's main entrance reads, "Through these gates pass the greatest fans in college football," and the words might not be hyperbole. If these aren't the greatest fans in the game, they certainly are the most conspicuously dressed.
Over the next 11 weeks, Page 2 will visit the best places in college football, the sites that make the game special. We'll raise our arms with Touchdown Jesus at Notre Dame, sing hail to the victors at Michigan, march with the band at Florida A&M, cheer with the song girls at USC, hold that tiger at LSU, boat to Husky Stadium and salute the cadets at West Point.
And our first stop is here in Lincoln, where one team is the focus and passion of an entire state. Play for Nebraska and the whole state becomes your own personal "Cheers" bar. Walk into any town and they'll know your name.
There are no other major college football programs in the state. There are no major-league sports teams. Essentially, there is no other sports competition. Nebraska football is it, the alpha and the omega. On game days, 74,000-seat Memorial Stadium becomes Nebraska's third-largest city. The program lists more than 7,000 donors to the program, filling 12 pages with very small type.
Nebraska has won five national championships and 43 conference championships. Cornhuskers have won three Heisman Trophies and eight Outland Trophies. They've had 76 academic All-Americas. Their last losing record was 42 years ago. The last time they didn't go to a bowl game was 34 years ago. They'll have another sellout on Saturday against Penn State -- but that's nothing new; their last non-sellout was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Is football a big deal in Nebraska?
"Oh my God, yeah," Greg Kohnel said. "Our state goes as football goes. Our economy is quite a bit better when the team wins."
Kohnel is a farmer from the small town of Shelby. He began attending Nebraska games when he was a child and his father carried him in. When he got married and started a family, he brought his son to the games, too.
"My son's named after (former Husker) Jeff Kinney," Kohnel said. "There were a lot of boys named Jeff in Nebraska around then."
Jeff nodded. "There were three in my class."
The family holds a tailgate party before every game, arriving as early as seven hours before kickoff to set up their tent. They have their own Ten Commandments of tailgating, including No. 3: "Thou Shalt Have Plenty ... Never run out of food or drink." This being Nebraska, everyone is invited to stop by, especially opposing fans. When Washington played Nebraska a decade ago, a Husky fan dropped by and joined the party, repaying the Kohnels by sending a school cap a couple days later.
Turns out the woman was Bill Gates' sister. But the Kohnels would have treated her just as hospitably as if her brother was the lowest of the low, the absolute dregs of society -- an Oklahoma fan. That's just the way it is at Nebraska, where they'll give you the red shirt off their backs.
"People are just nice here," former Husker tight end Jamie Williams said. "Nebraskans are just really sweet people. They leave their doors unlocked. They're very trusting, very friendly people."
Williams is from Iowa and he was the first person in his family to attend college. Almost every school worth mentioning recruited him but he chose Nebraska because he said it emphasized academics far more than any other school during his recruiting and because he was looking for a challenge.
He lettered four years for Nebraska, was twice all-Big Eight, helped the Huskers to two Orange Bowls and went on to play 10 years in the NFL. He was the initial screenwriter on "Any Given Sunday" and is currently working on a movie about former Cal player Joe Roth. Last week, he returned to campus to enter the school's Hall of Fame.
"There were 15 or 16 tight ends when I came here," he said. "The competition was stiff. You had to make it on your own. You had to work your way through that. But that's the thing about football. If you're serious about your craft, you learn to compete. You learn to get through the maze."
I once worked as a night watchman with a Cambodian immigrant who wrote the word "Nebraska" on his tennis shoe with a pen. When I asked him why, he said he wanted to visit there. That almost seemed like a strange choice. Out of all the states he could choose, why pick Nebraska?
Watching the red-shirted fans fill Memorial Stadium and chant "Go Big Red," it finally made sense.
Nebraska is Misty's steakhouse, a national champion college hangout. An old haunt of former coach Bob Devaney, the bar is filled with Nebraska football photos, Big 12 conference helmets and a life-sized cement statue of former quarterback Jerry Tagge right in the middle of the bar. The Nebraska band comes in every Friday night before games to play for half an hour.
It's as if the College Football Hall of Fame served alcohol and really good steaks.
"You should have seen it when Bob Milton still owned the place," Lloyd Mimzel said. "The cheerleaders would get up on the bar and dance. The male cheerleaders would throw the girls up and spin them in the air. The girls would do backflips and somersaults on the bar. Bob's wife would get so mad. She'd say, 'One of them is going to end up in the bar.'"
Nebraska is fullback Steve Kriewald, who looks like he was born in the Nebraska weight room and raised on Misty's steaks. He wasn't. He grew up on a dairy farm in Scotia, Nebraska, a town of 380. He played eight-man football. He milked cows twice a day. He was the state and national junior tractor pull champion, pedaling an 800-pound sled behind his tractor at age eight.
Naturally, he dreamed of playing for Nebraska: "Running onto the field and seeing all those fans in red takes your breath away."
Nebraska is Whitie Reed, the head cheerleader in the mid-1930s who returned to Memorial Stadium last weekend for a ceremony honoring Huskers cheerleaders. He graduated nearly 70 years ago but still vividly remembers a loss to Minnesota in 1936. "Sam Francis cried in the locker room," he recalled.
Nebraska is freshman quarterback Joe Dailey, who came all the way from New Jersey to play for the Huskers. "Every day is a struggle back east," he said. "It's not a struggle here. It's so much more friendly here. Everyone is so much more supportive."
Indeed. Dailey was the lead story in the local newspaper last Friday when he was promoted to second-string. He played the fourth quarter Saturday and before the game was over, fans were chanting his name so loudly you could hear them in Omaha. They kept chanting it as he left the field after the game and walked through a tunnel of fans leading to the locker room. "I got a tingling feeling," he said. "I felt like I had an angel on my shoulder."
That's the beauty of Nebraska football. You can grow up in a family that has never had anyone go to college and then wind up making movies with Oliver Stone and Al Pacino. You can be in your 80s and still clearly remember a game from 1936 even if you can't find your car keys. You can raise corn in a small town and feed handouts to the sister of the world's richest man.
And you can grow up struggling in New Jersey, come to Nebraska and feel an entire stadium of red-shirted fans lifting you up by the shoulders.
Before I left Lincoln, I made sure to buy a red Nebraska T-shirt.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.