was born on the prairie and the milk of its wheat, the red of its clover,
the eyes of its women, gave me a song and a slogan.
- From Prairie, a poem by Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) in his book, Cornhuskers
Dear Coach Callahan,
I thought the allusion above an appropriate way to open this letter for a variety of reasons. Carl Sandburg is arguably the most important poet from your home state of Illinois, and the poem Prairie is a part of his appropriately named book, Cornhuskers. Most importantly, that portion of Prairie speaks to the way a person’s place of origin forms their identity. This sense of identity is why I write to you today.
I want you to truly understand that for many Nebraskans University of Nebraska football is not a sport, pastime, hobby or thing of interest. It is truly a part of their identity. Collectively, those individuals make Cornhusker football an indelible part of the state’s identity. The rest of the country sees the rabid enthusiasm, (a Sports Illustrated nationwide survey of sports fans shows Nebraskans are the most enthusiastic). And, you correctly described Nebraskans as fanatical in an August 30 Associated Press article. But, those are just outward behaviors or measurements. While good indicators of something, they do not explain why. The answer to why we behave that way is found in our shared sense of identity, and the way the football team effects our state’s self esteem.
Put frankly, Nebraskans have little else. It is not just the lack of other major college or professional sports teams. Nebraska has an agricultural economy. Suffice to say, that doesn’t translate as either rich or interesting for much of the country. When family farms are in peril or jobs are being lost, having a quality football season offers a self-esteem boost, no matter how tight times might be. Many Nebraskans are not rich. Yet, they spend money, time and energy to follow the Cornhuskers on the road. Look up when you are in Pittsburgh or in Norman. Those aren’t just big boosters in the stands; they are average folks spending their vacation money.
The identity bridges gaps, unifies, and knows few boundaries. It doesn’t matter if a person went to UNL or not. I went to Nebraska Wesleyan, for example. And from North Platte to South Omaha, people can talk about the Cornhuskers, regardless of race. I’ve seen fractured families who literally have not spoken in years, but when confronted are able to muster a few sentences about the Huskers. And “Husker Nation” is not just a nice marketing slogan. From coast to coast, Husker fans gather not just to watch the games, but also to surround themselves with other Nebraskans. They do it to feel more at home, no matter where they might be in the world.
The state sense of identity, not an administrator or University president, will ultimately hold you accountable. If your team plays poorly, Nebraskans feel bad about our state and our selves, and respond accordingly. If your team does well, it helps us have a good sense of our collective self, and you will be loved like family. As a native of Hastings, Tom Osborne understood Nebraska’s identity. Your boss, Steve Pederson, understands it because he is from North Platte. I hope this letter has helped you to understand it as well.
I genuinely wish you the best for the upcoming season. Make us proud.