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My “Husker Identity” Has Been Challenged

By Robert E. Abel

I am a “Husker Evangelist,” no doubt. For me, being a Husker football fan is, well, very close to “who I am,” as a person. I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1966, and that is where I was raised. My dad was an avid Husker fan, and I was indoctrinated into my “Husker Family” right away. In those early days, being part of the “Husker Family” meant that I was assured to feel good about myself almost all the time, because the Huskers won virtually all their games, or if they lost, it would be a close loss. In essence, my identity was linked to the Huskers’. Today, I am in almost 49 years old. The Husker football team, it’s coaches and the wider game of football have changed, and I have begun to question what my “Husker Identity” really means.

I remember attending my first few Husker games in Lincoln around the age of eight years old. My dad and I would drive from Omaha to Lincoln with anticipation on both our faces. Dad would be listening to the pregame show hosted by Lyell Bremser and Kent Pavelka on KFAB radio. When we finally arrived in Lincoln, I would look around me and think I was in a foreign country. Even Lincoln’s food tasted different than Omaha’s food. Specifically, I was awed by the delicacies of Tastee sandwiches and Valentino’s Pizza. Yum! Finally, we would arrive at anticipated destination, Memorial Stadium, where we would watch our beloved Huskers.

Memorial Stadium, during the 1960’s and 1970’s, was more open to inspection than it is today. For example, you could look up, behind the grandstands and see huge, grey pillars supporting the Husker fans, and there were rustic, brick, little buildings, situated up high, in the four corners of the field. I never knew what these little buildings with darkened windows were utilized for, but they were old, and creepy, and mysterious to an eight-year-old. Oh yeah, I almost forgot a poignant detail of the early Husker games that will never leave my psyche. The smell of cigar smoke as we walked toward the stadium … The best. Dad didn’t like the smell of smoke, but he was good at finding tickets.

My dad never bought tickets ahead of time. Back then, dad would get both of us into the game by purchasing only a single ticket from (what we would call back then) a “scalper,” who would sell it to us at face value or cheaper. My dad would proudly admit that he is “cheap.” We would, then, sit together in the “knothole” section, which consisted of old, wooden bleachers, and rested on the ground level in the four corners of the field. One drawback about sitting in the “knothole” section is that you could not see the entire field, but you could get closer to the “action” of the game. The game.

The game was always incredible, during those early days. We would win and win and win. You notice I said “we” won, not just the Huskers, but “we.” Not just a football team, but “we.” When the Huskers won, we won, for that glorious Saturday and for the rest of the week, and for the rest of the year, and for decades. My identity, and, perhaps the whole state’s identity was secure in the winning. Then, Dr. Tom Osborne retired, and things have never been quite the same.

The head coaches who have followed the legends of Bob Devaney and Dr. Tom Osborne have not been able to win as consistently, nor have they been able to get their players to play as consistently as those Husker “gods” were able to. Frank Solich couldn’t recruit as well, and that caught up with him. Bill Callahan wanted to change the Nebraska culture from a dominant running team to a dominant passing team, and that caught up with him. More recently, Bo Pelini was not able to control himself and that caught up with him. And now, we have a really nice coach, who has lost a lot of games, who could not possibly have understood the Nebraska “family” culture, unless he had grown up here, or had spent a few years here, prior to his agreeing to come and coach. I have watched most of the Huskers’ games played under coaches Solich, Callahan, Pelini, and Riley, which has brought both pain and pleasure to me. As a result, I have had to “grow up” and learn some things about what it means to be a true Husker fan and a whole person.

What I have learned: I am not a Husker football player or a coach. I am sad and upset when my team loses, but it doesn’t mean I am a loser, especially now that I don’t throw pillows at the television, or remain grumpy for days after a Husker loss. I love excellent game play almost as much as winning (sounds like a good motto), even though I don’t see it consistently anymore. I still love winning, even though the Huskers have been losing a lot of games. Ultimately, I am not the Husker football team, but I am still part of the Husker family. I don’t even live in Nebraska anymore. I live in the Twin Cities, where I still wear my Husker gear proudly on game days along with my new, awesome wife from the Iron Range, in Minnesota, who I have successfully “evangelized” into the Husker family.

What I have learned: The actual game being played on the field has not changed much, but the greater college football game has changed drastically, due to different scholarship rules, the mass media, and big money. Today, because of the scholarship rule changes, Appalachian State can beat the University of Michigan. The mass media is primarily driven by profit, and therefore, members of the media will look for sensation in anything, provoking coaches and players into making “mistakes,” on television and on the Internet, so we will watch and then click on their advertisements. Finally, big money helps fund programs, which is good, but it also gets rid of cool things like the “knothole section,” and replaces it with palatial suites for the rich. Yes, I admit, I would love to have one of those awesome suites, but I would give it up, so that parents will still be able to afford to bring their eight-year-olds to the Husker games today too.

What I have learned: I am now 48 years old and I am stunned that 18-22 year olds can play college football and still be able to go to class, do homework, and complete a college degree. College students are young, and young people make mistakes. Oh yeah, and this “older” person continues to make mistakes. This awareness makes me more willing to give the Husker players a break, and maybe, even the coaches (wink-wink), but that doesn’t mean I will stop loving excellent play and winning.

So what is ahead for the Huskers? I am not sure, but for me, at the end of my life, I predict I will still be an avid Husker fan, looking at the possible new recruits, campaigning for my choice of who the best head coach would be, traveling back to Lincoln to watch the Huskers’ football, and hoping for that next national championship season. Lastly, I will always be a Husker fan, because the Huskers are my family, which have given me a plethora of amazing memories and traditions to draw upon and appreciate. There really is no place like Nebraska.