Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Walk-on

(Published September 2009)

Andrew might know.

Why a kid who didn't crack the all-district football team as a high school senior drops his Division II scholarship to carry Mace and handcuffs around a Target parking lot.

What prompts that 19-year-old living with Mom and Dad to rise before dawn and punish his muscles and joints because, six months later, there's a 2 percent chance he'll win a walk-on spot at Nebraska.

How this man, a husband with bad knees and tuition bills, returns to the practice field every day to watch hot-shot recruits steal his chance again and again.

When precisely a Husker career destined to end quietly turned a corner.

Where to start in telling Matt O'Hanlon's story.

Yes, Andrew would know. Best friends are good at knowing that kind of thing.


Maybe start here, in a northeast Ohio steel mill, where Matt O'Hanlon's father burned scrap metal. At 26, he decided he didn't want to grow old with a torch in his hand.

So he joined the Air Force and became an intelligence officer. Moved the family to Denver, where Matt was born, then Germany, then Bellevue.

He taught his son to chase what he wanted. Don't settle.

Competitive drive? Matt had it from the day he put on a uniform.

On the soccer field, he had a propensity to draw an official's red card. On the T-ball diamond, he once fielded a ball in the outfield and sprinted to home plate to tag out a runner.

As a sophomore at Bellevue East, O'Hanlon started at quarterback against eventual state champ Millard West. On a third down, he kept the ball on a play called “6G Keep.”

West's all-state lineman, Nick Leaders, flattened O'Hanlon before he could reach the marker.

O'Hanlon staggered to the sideline and East coach Jerry Lovell checked on his quarterback. “He had snot bubbles running out his nose,” Lovell said.

You OK?

Uh-huh, O'Hanlon said.

Well, what play do you want to run to start the next series?

“6G Keep,” O'Hanlon said. He wanted another shot at Leaders.

No, no, Lovell said, that's probably not a good idea.

O'Hanlon planned to walk on at Nebraska, but Steve Pederson hired Bill Callahan midway through his senior year, and O'Hanlon didn't receive any attention from the new coaching staff.

He reluctantly accepted a scholarship to South Dakota. A few weeks of fall camp crystallized what was in his gut: He was going to be a Husker whether they wanted him or not. So he packed his green Escort and headed home.

“I just didn't want to go through my whole life with what-ifs.”

That fall, as his friends started college, O'Hanlon was working 30 hours a week as a Target security guard.

“I got to wear the whole outfit. I had my Mace, my handcuffs. Never got to use them, unfortunately.”

At 5 a.m., he awoke daily to train. He polished his 40-yard dash and vertical jump. He waited.

In January 2005, he enrolled at NU and inquired again about walking on. Assistant Scott Downing directed him to a tryout. O'Hanlon called every few days to double-check time and place.

On a February night at Cook Pavilion, O'Hanlon got in line with 50 or 60 other wannabe Huskers. They were competing for one roster spot.

He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds. He finished a pro-agility drill in 3.91 seconds. He jumped vertically 38 inches. He walked away satisfied, but unsure.

“I had put about six months of my life into a 20-minute tryout.”

A week later, he was driving home from church when the call came. He walked in the house, concealed a grin and said to his family, “Well, I made it.”

Not exactly.

Backyard ball

“When we first met, he didn't know how to tie his shoes,” Matt said. “He came over to me and asked me to tie his shoes. We just hit it off.

“We were walking home that same day and just kept going the same direction. I was like, ‘Dude, you live right behind me.'”

Only a chain-link fence separated them.

Andrew's mom remembers on occasion looking out her back window and seeing a grade schooler hanging upside down. Climbing from yard to yard, one of the boys had gotten a foot stuck in the fence.
Sometimes it was Matt, sometimes Andrew, sometimes you couldn't tell.

When they weren't prying each other free, they were playing backyard football.

“We'd play until the sun went down,” Matt said. Sometimes we'd play in the streetlights.”
Andrew wanted to play for Florida State someday. Matt set his sights a little closer to home.

Scout team

He walked onto the Nebraska practice field in March 2005 and didn't know a soul. He didn't know the schemes or the coaches. And everybody was bigger and faster than he anticipated.

What had he gotten himself into?

That spring, he barely practiced. All that time. All that work. For what? To stand on the sideline for three hours and get two or three snaps?

“I didn't know if it was something I wanted to do for the next five years.”

O'Hanlon left the team for one day. He talked to Dad and future wife Abby. He decided to go back. Things didn't change much.

Each time he worked his way up to third string, a new recruit jumped him. His role was “just scout (team) stuff. You just see where you're supposed to go from the arrows on the cards. I was just kind of a body out there moving around.”

By the fall of 2007, Callahan's program was crumbling. So, too, was the will of a walk-on safety. O'Hanlon had made the kickoff teams, but he suffered from tendinitis in both knees. He'd go straight from the field to a half-hour ice bath every day.

“I could barely walk after practices.”

He told Andrew that he couldn't do another season under the same coaching staff.

It was hard investing energy in conditioning and practice and meetings. But harder still to sit the bench believing that you were as good as the players on the field.

It was time.

Taking a toll

In December 2002, Andrew went to the hospital with a nasty cold.

The illness activated his immune system. Trouble was, his immune system didn't stop. It attacked his normal blood vessels, causing inflammation.

Wegener's Disease ravaged his sinuses, his lungs, his kidneys. On Christmas Eve night, doctors told Andrew that he had to go into a drug-induced coma the next morning.

Two weeks passed. He missed the holidays. Missed the bowl games. Missed the start of school. Missed the dozens of friends who stopped to see him.

“It was hard,” Matt said. “He was just lying there.”

When Andrew left the hospital in January, he had lost about 50 pounds. Slowly he gained strength. He rejoined the Bellevue East football team that fall; he was long snapper on a state playoff team.

Of course, he missed a week to hobnob with Bobby Bowden, a gift from the Make-a-Wish foundation.

The next two years, Andrew kept the disease under control with medication. He completed high school. He worked at the zoo. He took college classes.

But his kidneys deteriorated. As Matt stewed over playing time, Andrew toted around a dialysis machine that did what his kidneys couldn't.

Didn't stop him from sporting a tux for Matt's wedding in May 2007. Andrew was best man. He swallowed his Seminole allegiance and joined the groomsmen in donning Husker hats as they walked away from the altar to “Hail Varsity.”

That fall, Andrew's spirit waned. He had goals, too, and they were feeling further and further away.

“There were times when he'd call me and I could just tell by his voice he was just feeling terrible,” Matt said.

The football season ended, Callahan was fired and Bo Pelini hired. Matt decided to stick around and see what the new guy was like.

In January, Andrew got an infection in his left arm. On Wednesday, he went to the hospital with a high fever.

Friday morning, the day before he turned 22, he died.

Family and friends didn't get much out of Matt those next few weeks. Tom Osborne called to check in. So did Pelini.

But Matt kept his grief inside — and his promise quiet.

Second wind

Every starting job was open, Pelini announced. Didn't matter if you were a four-year scholarship player or a first-year walk-on.

Pelini was talking to a lot of people when he said it. He was talking to Matt O'Hanlon.

When spring ball started the month after Andrew died, O'Hanlon actually got reps. He learned safety techniques he'd never been taught. He felt reinvigorated.

He took another step after spring ball, when he had surgery on both knees, relieving his chronic pain.

Tuesday before the season opener, Marvin Sanders named him starter at free safety. The same week, he learned he was eligible for 2009 — he never enrolled at South Dakota, so the NCAA didn't count 2004 against him. The next week, he got a scholarship.

His first season as a starter came with adversity. He had never before played defense in a real game. He had a lot to learn. His education culminated in the last few plays of the Gator Bowl.

What was he thinking on third-and-goal when he saw Clemson speedster C.J. Spiller streaking down the seam against linebacker Tyler Wortman with the Huskers leading 26-21 and two minutes left?

“Oh sh--.”

At the last moment, O'Hanlon knocked away the pass. He saved the game.


Remnants of the past accompany him each day. On the back of his gold keychain, engraved is 2-20-05, the day he made the team.

Most game days, O'Hanlon sticks eyeblack on his cheek. Under one eye, he writes in white marker “AP.” Under the other, Andrew Pawlak's football number, “24.”

Growing up, Matt had another dream. This one, Andrew shared. The boys carried it through the high school hallways. They spoke of it often.

They wanted to be teachers at Bellevue East. They wanted to coach football under the lights.

Playing days are almost over now — only four months left in an odyssey that started in a Bellevue backyard.

But a silent vow to an old friend endures.

Keep going.

The Legend of Bubba

(Published December 2010)

The stories rolled across the Kansas prairie like a summer thunderstorm.

At first, they sounded like tall tales. Concocted in some Main Street coffee shop. But they kept coming.

Could it be true?

That a small-town boy with a name straight out of American folklore bounced off a gymnasium floor, caught an errant pass, turned 180 degrees in the air as he got fouled and dunked the ball over his head.

That his baseball coach made him use a wood bat at practice so he wouldn't blast the elementary school parking lot beyond the left field wall. “You don't wanna kill somebody,” the coach said.

That his own football coaches routinely gathered before each game to predict how many plays it would take him to score. Usually, one. He'd cross the goal line and point at his 98-year-old great grandmother.

Kansans young and old call Bubba Starling the greatest high school athlete they've ever seen. A major conference Division I athlete in three sports — if he wanted to be. A 6-foot-5, 200-pound winning lottery ticket. You simply do not find 18-year-olds with his combination of size and speed.

As word spreads, autograph requests from Vermont to California hit Bubba's mailbox — “Sign here, please.” Strangers who haven't seen a high school game in years show up to study his every move, wondering what the folk hero does next.

But this was McPherson, Kan., an old railroad hub 160 miles from the legend's origin. And before that October night, few in McPherson had ever seen Bubba.

Starling's team, Gardner-Edgerton, was No. 1 in the state's second largest class. McPherson was No. 3. Both were undefeated. The bleachers were full.

A McPherson sportswriter, 36 years in the pressbox, calls it the greatest game he's ever seen, featuring the greatest player he's ever seen.

Final score: 49-42. Bubba's team got the ball seven times. It scored seven touchdowns. He finished with 273 rushing yards, 118 passing yards and five scores.

Time and time again, defenders had Bubba's jersey in their hands, only to watch him break free. By the second half, McPherson fans were calling third down “Bubba time.”

There's one play they remember most.

Starling took a shotgun snap, rolled left when he found nobody open, almost got sacked, danced a little farther left, got cornered on the sideline by five McPherson defenders, stiff-armed one, looped 15 yards into the backfield to avoid the other four, turned the corner, started running downhill toward the goal line, cut back to the left, broke three more tackles, ran out of fuel at the 10-yard line and got dragged down.

The play gained only 30 yards, but it lasted 19 seconds. If only the quarterback would've cut toward the right sideline, he probably would've scored.

“I know,” Bubba says with not a hint of sarcasm. “What was I thinkin'?”

Better question: What was Bo Pelini thinking? The Nebraska coach was in McPherson that night, along with his offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson, and Husker baseball coach Mike Anderson.

Bubba Starling has committed to play quarterback in Lincoln in 2011. And if you listen to the people who've seen Bubba play, he has a chance to be the next Tim Tebow or Vince Young. The difference between 10-3 and 13-0.

Just one problem.

Bubba Starling is the nation's top high school baseball prospect, according to Baseball America. A potentially rare five-tool center fielder. And if you listen to the people who've seen him play, he has a chance to be the next Josh Hamilton or Carl Crawford. The difference between winning pennants and taking October vacations.

So there's a drama brewing. Chances are, it'll go something like this:

In January, Bubba will play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, his first taste of all-star football.

In February, he will sign a national letter of intent to play for Nebraska.

In March, he will make another run at a state basketball championship.

In April, dozens of baseball scouts will tote their radar guns and clipboards to every game Bubba plays. They'll study his reaction to a called third strike. They'll note whether he runs out a ground ball. They'll look for the tiniest flaws in his swing.

In May, Bubba will graduate from Gardner-Edgerton High School, leave the only town in which he's ever lived, move three hours north, start summer classes and work out with the Huskers.

In June, he will be drafted by a major league baseball team, almost surely in the first round.

In July, the kid who hasn't gone more than a week without organized sports since elementary school will return home to his dogs and his dock. For a few days, he'll embrace the sound of silence.

Then in August, after starting preseason practice with the Huskers and wearing a red jersey to fan day, he will hole up with his parents in some Lincoln hotel room.

Aug. 15 is the deadline for major league teams to sign a drafted player.

If Bubba declines to sign, he'll suspend pro baseball for three years and focus on college football and college baseball.

As the midnight deadline approaches, Starling's agent, the famous Scott Boras, will use every bargaining chip he knows to secure a signing bonus close to $10 million. No way Bubba gets offered less than $5 million, experts say.

On one phone line, Bubba will have a general manager twisting his arm to give up college for a shot at the big leagues.

“And then I'm going to have Pelini and Watson telling me they really want me to stick with football,” Bubba says.

“It's going to be crazy.”

Aura of Bubba

Yes, you've heard it all before.

You're numb to the hype. Sick of superlatives.

How many times have you read an article about a wunderkind who was going to be a star? And then wasn't.

You have every right to stop reading right now, because this story starts like so many before it.

But something strange is happening south of the state line. Why else would all these grown men start babbling like teenage girls at a Jonas Brothers concert?

“I have seen the future star of American sports, and his name is Bubba.” That's from a New York columnist who watched Starling play a few baseball games this past summer.

A former big leaguer, Brian McRae, says, “You don't see a guy that big run that fast and be that athletic. And he's got a lot of room to grow. Projecting where he's going to be when he's 22, 23 years old, it's kind of scary.”

An ESPN recruiting expert says, “He really gives you hope again about today's youth, because you hear all these stories about kids getting into trouble and it's so few times where you have a guy like Bubba Starling where everything is so special about him.”

The legend begins when Derek Starling leaves the womb weighing 10 pounds. His aunt sees his chubby little legs and stamps him with a nickname.

In first grade, his teacher asks what he wants her to call him. He weighs the pros and cons in his mind. The nickname, he decides, fit his ornery personality better.

Each day after school, his grandma picks him up and drops him off at the ballpark, where he's bat boy for the Gardner-Edgerton Blazers.

Bubba dreams of eating up fly balls like Jim Edmonds. He dreams of hitting laser beams to all fields like Joe Mauer. The images come mostly from his imagination — his family won't get cable TV until he's 17. No video games, either.

“If you want something to do,” his father, Jim, says, “go out and find a ball. Or I'll find something for you to do.”

Those early summers, he plays on a coach-pitch team. Friends celebrate when they get a single. Not Bubba. He makes a habit out of inside-the-park homers. The third or fourth at-bat of every game, he switches to the left side and damned if he doesn't smash another.

The competition in his small town is too easy, so he joins a traveling team in Kansas City. Of course, he isn't going to give up his other sports. One day he tells his coach, former Kansas City Royals catcher Mike Macfarlane, he's going to be late to practice because of a basketball game.

Coach Mac jokes, “Don't even bother showing up unless you score 40.”

The final horn sounds, Bubba looks at the stat sheet and, Yes! Forty on the nose.

His freshman and sophomore years, he leads Gardner-Edgerton's varsity basketball team in scoring. He averages about 18 points, 10 rebounds and two dunks. (He has a chance this winter to break school records for career points and rebounds.)

“He just has an aura about him,” said basketball coach Jeff Langrehr. “You can feel it when you walk into the gym. The whole gym is looking at him and whispering, ‘That's Bubba Starling.' ”

If he wanted to play college basketball, Kansans say, the best coaches in the country would gift-wrap a scholarship. But if you think he should play for Bill Self or Frank Martin, you haven't seen him on a diamond.

As a freshman, he's topping 90 mph on the mound, even though his coach calls his mechanics “horrible.” He throws a perfect game: six innings, 15 strikeouts.

Sophomore year, with the temperature barely above freezing, he starts the season with back-to-back homers.

“Add them to together,” coach Jerald Van Rheen says, “and it was really close to 1,000 feet. He just hit the crap out of both of 'em.”

Bombs like those prompt Van Rheen to institute a wood-bat-only rule for batting practice to protect the kids walking out of Madison Elementary.

A year later, Bubba is late joining the baseball team because of basketball. After just two bullpen sessions and a handful of practices, Van Rheen puts him on the mound in the season opener. The scouts in attendance “were foaming at the mouth wanting to see him throw.”

Bubba pitches one inning. Throws 11 pitches. Hits 95 on the radar guns.

A few weeks later, Bubba's standing in the left-center gap when a power hitter crushes a ball to right-center. Bubba takes off, covers 40 yards, leaps off one foot at the warning track and snatches the ball before it clears the chain-link outfield wall.

Sitting in the stands is an old doctor who played against Nolan Cromwell in high school. For 35 years, Brian Sorell believed Cromwell, a world-class hurdler and former NFL All-Pro, was the best high school athlete he'd seen in Kansas. Until now.

Baseball. Center field. This was Bubba's calling. He knew it. Everyone knew it.

Then something unexpected happens. Bubba turns into a football player. As a junior, he makes defenses look silly, leading the Blazers to the state championship game.

He can vertical jump 34½ inches. He can run a 40-yard dash, electronically timed, in 4.36 seconds. He can throw a football 55 yards with two knees on the ground — and 80 yards from two feet. But no number describes his greatest asset.

He'd rather be hurt than be a loser.

When his junior season ends, assistant coaches from the top football programs in America pack his voicemail like an undersized suitcase.

Alabama. Oklahoma. Notre Dame. Miami.

Bo Pelini's no-nonsense style suits Starling's values. His mom works at school as a secretary and one teacher says, “If he got out of line, she'd beat his butt.”

Pelini and Mike Anderson get together and make a pitch: Bubba can play both football and baseball, sure. He commits.

“You could make all the promises about playing both sports in college and he could say all the right things,” said ESPN recruiting analyst Jeremy Crabtree. “But everybody knew that the big elephant in the room was baseball.”

Then the elephant grows.

In June, Starling makes the Under-18 national team. But just barely. Twenty players make the cut. According to a coach, Bubba is No. 18 or 19.

Then he starts hitting. He moves from the bottom of the order to the heart of the order. He stretches doubles into stand-up triples. He shows scouts and coaches what he can do when he focuses on baseball.

There are six future first-round picks on the team, Team USA hitting coach Brian McRae says. Kids who'd grown up in Florida and California playing year-round. By summer's end, McRae says, the three-sport athlete from the prairie is as good as or better than all of them.

Bubba becomes a national hit — just in time for his senior year of football.

He'll finish the season with 2,417 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns, averaging 14 yards per carry.
In October, a week after his 391 total yards at McPherson, Bubba travels to Lincoln for a Nebraska game. Gets goosebumps on the sideline. He comes home and tells a teacher, “I know I can play there.”

“It's such a different level of competition,” Bubba says, “but I felt like I could easily see myself playing right now or playing next year on that same field and doing as good as them. If not better.”

A week later, ESPNU brings the big cameras to Gardner.

Against rival St. Thomas Aquinas, Bubba runs for 309 yards on 19 carries. In the third quarter, he absorbs blatantly late hits on back-to-back plays. When Gardner-Edgerton scores again to go up 48-17, Starling starts jawing. He points at the scoreboard and draws a penalty.

“I just wanted to say some (expletive) to them,” Bubba says. “We don't like each other, us and Aquinas. We do not like each other at all.”

In November, Gardner-Edgerton meets Blue Valley in a state semifinal. Jeremy Crabtree goes to watch.

Crabtree, 36, is a Kansas native and one of the nation's most prominent recruiting insiders. He's evaluated hundreds of high school studs you've never heard of — and a few you have.

Adrian Peterson. Vince Young. Mark Sanchez. No one, Crabtree says, has dominated more than Bubba.

“He dictates what happens on every single snap. You can put all 11 guys in the box, but you're not going to stop him.”

That night, he fights calf cramps. He needs an inhaler on the sideline. But the Blue Valley fans cheer when Bubba is tackled after 8- and 9-yard gains. He rushes for 395 yards. It's not enough. Gardner-Edgerton loses, 45-42.

As he walks off the field, it's hard not to wonder: Has Bubba Starling played his last meaningful football game?

What's he going to do?

Last week, Bubba's baseball coach received an e-mail request from a prep school basketball coach in Wisconsin. The man has two sons and they want Bubba's autograph.

Wednesday, he went Christmas shopping in his letter jacket. Two women approached him.

“You're Bubba!” one said.

Then she asked Bubba to sign the back of a blank check.

Gardner, 30 miles southwest of downtown Kansas City, had about 3,000 residents when Bubba was born. But Kansas City keeps moving south. Now the number is approaching 20,000.

It still feels like a small town. And small towns don't always cherish their star athletes, football coach Marvin Diener says.

“A lot of times, people like to see those guys slip and fall. That's not the case here.”

One teacher recalls receiving a phone call from Bubba at 11 p.m. after a football game. He'd just opened his ACT results and wanted to share the good news.

Another teacher recalls taking his 8-year-old son to a football practice. Bubba sneaked away from the team to play catch with the kid.

Three weeks ago, Gardner-Edgerton's student body surprised Bubba with a pep rally when he was named Kansas City's best football player. In his speech, he recognized his 98-year-old great-grandma who rarely missed a game (she passed away last week).

Two weeks ago, Bubba heard about a girl in the hospital who'd been in a car accident. Her sister had died. Her mother, who worked at Gardner-Edgerton, was in a different hospital. Someone told Bubba after a Friday night basketball game that the girl wanted to see him.

The next morning, he skipped practice, went to the hospital and held her hand.

Bubba knows everyone's watching him. He can handle expectations. But the fanfare wears on him.
He recently changed his cell phone number to get a little more quiet time.

His father, Jim, says a Nebraska website recently misquoted Bubba talking about the draft. Persuading the Starlings to accept an interview for this article was not easy.

When somebody in Gardner suggests they know his future plans, Bubba rages like he did after those cheap shots from St. Thomas Aquinas.

“They say, ‘Yeah, he's going straight to the draft. He's taking the money.' They have no clue what I'm doing. I don't know what I'm doing yet.”

Bubba is very close to Shawn Watson and talks to him about once a week. He sighed relief when Watson didn't get the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. And again when Pelini didn't go to Miami.
Bubba considers himself a Husker.

But the future is hazy, and Bubba knows it. Part of him wants to hide out for a few months, not play a sport at all, wait out the storm.

There's a perfect spot a few miles west of Gardner, where you can turn toward the setting sun and see nothing but open fields.

An acreage where the Starlings moved when Bubba was 6. One of the main selling points was a pond a couple hundred yards from the back door.

A dock marks the west side, reaching 15 feet into the water.

When Bubba was 10, he and his cousins built a ramp at the end of the dock. They rode their bikes off the edge and made a splash.

He's not that young anymore. In the summer, he sits on that dock with his dogs, Tex and Bo. He sticks his feet in the water and casts a line.

“I just like to get away.”

Soon after the family moved in, they stocked the pond with small catfish from nearby lakes. Then a friend brought over a 20-pound flathead. The last decade, Bubba hunted that fish.

Then last summer, he'd just come home from a baseball game when he saw his bobber — a milk jug — submerge.

This is the big one, he thought. Could it be true?

He reeled it in and, Yes! Forty pounds.

Bubba remembers another night last summer, too. His uncle pulled up to the pond, beer in hand. They started talking baseball.

Uncle Gary said, “Man, what would you do with all that money?”

Bubba Starling had thought about it too many nights to count. He thought about it when fish were biting. He thought about it when fish were sleeping. He thought about it as cicadas sang lullabies under starlit skies.

Months have since passed. The seasons changed and the temperature dropped and the pond froze over.

But legend has it that an 18-year-old boy is still sitting on that dock, two dogs and a fishing pole at his side, watching the city lights creep closer.

Wondering what a folk hero does next.

The Barber

(Published January 2011)

AUBURN, Neb. — On a Thursday in November, at a nursing home just before dawn, a 97-year-old man took his last breath.

Elly Ingersoll hunted pheasants and chased golf balls. He loved Lawrence Welk and Golden Gloves. Before dinner, he drank a vodka and Coke.

For 68 years he cut hair on the same block downtown. Businesses came and left. Faces and names changed. But hair keeps growing.

Start with the clippers. Outline around the ears. Taper it up. Scissors the top. Kick 'em out.

Five steps, 15 minutes. But that's not why they came from all over southeast Nebraska to the shoebox of a shop in a 19th-century brick building.

They came for the Ingersoll shortcuts.

The unwritten tufts of wisdom. The unspoken clumps of truth. The strands that bind fathers and sons.
Elly didn't have brothers or sisters. His wife, his dogs and his job were long gone.

But there was someone sitting beside him that Thursday morning. His business partner, his only child, the boy who followed Elly from the fields of Nemaha County to the islands of the Pacific Ocean and, finally, to the smallest storefront window at the busiest intersection in Auburn.

The next morning, just before Friday dawn, Joe Ingersoll climbed on his motorcycle and rode three cold miles. He unlocked the shop door and flipped the sign in the window.


Ingersoll shortcut: Predictability pays

Elly lived four blocks west of the shop. Walked up the hill to work, then back home for lunch. Up the hill in the afternoon, down at day's end, into the setting sun.

People drove by and offered rides. No, thanks.

Winter came and the weather turned cold, but he showed up at 8 on the dot and left at 5:30. Home only on Sundays.

Remember, every time a customer sees a “closed” sign, he looks for another barber.

Saturday morning in December. Bright and brisk.

The shop door opens at 8:04 and the day's first customer discards his coat and plops down in the lone barber chair.

Joe spins him toward a 3-by-5-foot photo of a pheasant hunter on the south wall. 1963.
That's when Elly moved in and the photo went up. Same for the mirrors, cabinets and lights, even the hydraulic chair.

Nothing has been replaced. Everything still works.

No phone — walk-ins only.

No women — too picky.

There's a milk-house heater on the floor, a 20-inch TV in the corner, combs and brushes for sale on a shelf, starting at 50 cents.

After each cut, Joe squeezes the used neck strip into a ball and puts it in a plastic container. At day's end, take the number of neck strips times $11.

“That's bookkeeping.”

Ingersoll shortcut: Don't talk money

A fella asked Elly how many heads come through the shop each day. Twenty? Thirty?

“Why?” Elly fired back. “You work for the IRS?”

When a customer who headed for the door forgot to pay, he used another trick.

“Hey, I think you forgot your change.”

Outside, trucks rumble. Listen close and a bell rings at the drugstore.

Joe dishes on the shake-up at the Police Department; three cops got fired. On the Christmas program at school; Joe's got two grandkids. On hunting season; Joe likes to shoot birds, but he's too soft for deer.

He offers suckers to two kids. “You know where they're at,” he tells a boy in boots.

Black-and-white photos adorn the walls. Grand Central Hotel in 1898. Downtown Auburn in the '20s, with Model A's lined up on the barbershop's street.

Old motorcycle photos are Joe's favorites. Customers bring 'em as gifts.

Joe has four bikes. His 500 Honda Shadow is a second barber pole. See it out front, you know he's here.

By 11 a.m., the linoleum floor looks like a calico cat, a medley of black and blond and brown and gray. A lot of gray.

Customers line up five deep, waiting more than a half-hour.

“You're next,” Joe says.

A man with thick salt and pepper on top sits in the chair and describes what he wants.

Dead giveaway. He's new in town.

Ingersoll shortcut: Go the extra 10 blocks for the customer

Some nights Elly and Joe took their clippers and scissors to the hospital, some nights to the nursing home. Occasionally the mortuary.

One Saturday, Joe was at the shop when he heard a crash. He ran outside to an 85-year-old customer on the ground next to his walker. Joe skinned him off the pavement. Helped him back to his car.

“I'll come by your house after work, and we can do it there.”

1922. That's when “Ingersoll Barber Shop” first appeared on a sign downtown.

Maurice Ingersoll started it.

His only child, Elly, joined him in '33. Competed with 17 barbers in town. Charged 35 cents a haircut, a dime a shave. In June 1943, Elly went to war. He cut hair on a ship in the Pacific.

He came home to the barber boom: Postwar America liked its hair short. Elly gave 'em their money's worth. High and tight.

He juggled long days at the shop with his new boy at home. Joe was Nemaha County's first baby of 1947.

Joe didn't see Elly much in those days, especially on Saturdays.

That was social night. Farmers came to town to sell eggs and cream and eat popcorn across the street from Elly's shop. Sometimes he cut hair 'til midnight.

Joe remembers one vacation — a trip to Colorado in a '52 Chevy.

The old man sure was snug with a buck. He'd sooner miss a meal than eat at a restaurant.

But Elly and his wife, Babe, caught every big band performance at the Eagles Club. Lawrence Welk's band came to Talmage, and the couple didn't miss a song.

On Sundays, Elly, Joe and the German shorthairs jumped in a '64 Chevy pickup and went hunting.
They hit the Golden Gloves in Omaha — Joe Tess' to eat fish, then to the fights. Fifty years straight.
Business slowed in the '60s. Damn the Beatles and their long hair. A lot of shops closed.

“We 'bout starved to death,” Joe says.

Elly moved a few times but didn't lose his job. He never even left the block.

Ingersoll shortcut: Or go the extra 10,000 miles

An Auburn soldier in Iraq received a care package stocked with beef jerky.

Adam Wenzl dug a little more and found a bottle of Kessler whiskey. Wenzl shared with his friends, then wrote a thank-you note home.

His unit, Wenzl wrote, had voted Joe Ingersoll the best barber in Nebraska.

Elly was bugging Joe that summer of 1968. Join the Navy. Better than being on the front lines in a jungle.

Finally, Joe gave in. He drove to Omaha and enlisted. He came home and opened the mail to find his draft notice.

He spent a few months in the Gulf of Tonkin, cutting 40 to 50 heads a day. He never set foot in Vietnam.

Joe wasn't much of a sailor. His best friend, Doug Boldt, cut hair in the same barbershop on the USS Arlington.

Doug remembers Joe ducking a brawl one night in Guam because, as he put it, “I'm a lover, not a fighter.” He recalls Joe getting misty in his barber chair reading “Where the Red Fern Grows.”

“Lifer,” Doug called him, because Joe was anything but.

“Boar-ass,” Joe fired back, because, well, Doug liked to eat.

In December '70, Joe came home. He walked into Elly's shop wearing scruffy sideburns. When he walked out, they were on the floor.

“Dad put the whitewalls on me.”

Joe took over the shop's second chair, but picking up clients wasn't easy. Elly knew what they liked. Joe didn't dare ask a customer for direction.

So when a regular sat down, Elly flashed signals to help.

One finger for the No. 1 guard. Two fingers for the No. 2.

At 65, Elly retired to give Joe most of the work. Elly went out to the golf course. Three days later, Joe walked in the shop and Elly was cutting hair.

“What the hell are you doing?” Joe said.

So much for retirement. Elly worked another 23 years.

But slowly, the son took over.

He learned to shoot the breeze. Memorize names, where a customer lives and where his kids go to school. Some nights Joe got home and felt more like petting the dog than talking to his wife and daughter.

He learned to perform through adversity. There used to be apartments above the shop. Occasionally a toilet flushed and dripped on Joe's bald head. “It wasn't near as funny then,” he says.

He learned to deal with weirdos. Like the guy who hadn't seen a barber in 18 years. He walked out with a big plastic bag full of hair.

He learned to welcome new faces. Like the day a boy hopped up in Joe's chair, the same place his great-great-grandfather once sat. Five generations.

He learned to appreciate old faces. One guy told the best hunting stories. Joe went out and bought a tape recorder, stuck it under his chair and asked for his greatest hits.

The guy died a few years ago. Every once in a while, Joe finds the recorder and pushes “play.”

Ingersoll shortcut: Bite your tongue

In 68 years, Elly never ran anyone out of the chair.

Not worth it in a small town. About the time you make an enemy, you're sitting next to him at the firemen's social.

Most of the time, Joe listened to his dad.

One time a husband came in with his wife.

Joe pulled out the clippers and outlined around the ear. The wife started pacing, sighing and groaning each time a hair hit the floor.

Finally, Joe had heard enough.

“I grabbed the cloth off the guy and said ‘Hit the road.'”

We will not recommend you to any of our friends, the woman declared.

“If they're all like you,” Joe said, “I don't want 'em.”

When Elly started, customers were talking about the New Deal. When he finished, they were talking about the new millennium.

Downtown changed. Stores started closing early on Saturday.

The industry changed. Fathers don't take their boys to barbers anymore. Mothers take their boys to beauticians.

About that time, Elly likely hit a milestone. Do the math: 25 heads a day, 300 days a year, 68 years. That's just north of half a million haircuts.

In 2001, Elly was closing in on 88. He started working just two days a week.

One Saturday he walked into the shop to find a customer in Joe's chair, and another five or six waiting.

Who's next, Elly asked.

“I'm gonna wait for Joe,” said the man in the first chair.

Elly looked at the second man. Waiting for Joe, he said.

Elly went down the line and each young face said the same thing. He walked past his empty barber chair, went into the backroom and took off his smock.

“Guess you don't need me anymore,” he told his son.

And he walked out the door.

Without the shop and without Babe, who died the same year, Elly found a new routine.

He drove his white Park Avenue to Casey's for coffee and doughnuts. At 1 p.m. he walked to the first tee at Auburn Country Club. He liked to fish balls out of the lake. Golfers worried he'd fall in and drown.

Every night Joe finished at the shop and stopped by the house. He fixed Elly's dinner, paid his bills, mowed his yard, gave him a trim once a month. No one cut Elly's hair but Joe.

Last winter, Elly ventured out and got stuck in a snowdrift. He got a room at the nursing home.

In October, 60 years after Elly and Babe and a 3-year-old boy moved into a new house, Joe sold it. He didn't tell Dad.

One night at the nursing home, Elly fell. Broke his hip. He took more pills the last three weeks of his life than he did his first 96 years.

The first Wednesday of November, Joe closed the shop. He walked into Dad's room at 10 a.m.

He sat in the recliner next to the bed. All day. All night. Into Thursday morning.

2 a.m. Elly labored to breathe.

3 a.m. Joe held his hand.

4 a.m. I love you, Joe said. “I probably hadn't ever told him.”

5 a.m. Elly was gone.

But hair keeps growing. And the next day, just before dawn, Joe went to work.

Start with the clippers. Outline around the ears. Taper it up. Scissors the top. Kick 'em out.

Sunday afternoon, a table at the visitation displayed Elly's old razors and shavers. “In the Mood” bounced off the chapel walls.

Monday morning, Joe put on his only suit. At the chapel there was barely an empty seat. Joe sat front row. Two old friends sang “How Great Thou Art.”

At Sheridan Cemetery, sunshine hit the fallen leaves, a medley of brown and blond and red.

At the minister's cue, Joe's old partner on the USS Arlington fulfilled his duty. He walked to Joe holding a folded piece of fabric.

“For Elly's service to his country in World War II, the United States government and a grateful nation present to you the flag for which our comrade served.”

Then he saluted Elly Ingersoll's only son.

When it was over, after the tears had dried and the crowd had gone home and the light started fading, Joe turned to his old shipmate, who drove five hours to the funeral.

“Well, we didn't do too bad, did we, Boar-ass.”

Ingersoll shortcut: Sometimes hair can wait

Joe used to work six days, like his dad. Not worth it. On Mondays and on Saturday afternoons, now he schedules grandkids.

Elly spent too many days in that shop, he says. He missed too much.

“But that's just the way that generation worked. Every buck counted.”

A few weeks after the funeral, Joe didn't show up for work. One day, then the next.

Down at Darling's Cafe, a rumor started: He had called it quits. Locked up for good.

When Joe came home from his hunting trip, he started getting questions.

“Kinda ticked me off.”

He found the source of the rumor and straightened him out.

When he retires, he'll let you know.

Joe pulls the apron off of a middle-age man, and thick brown tufts fall to the floor. The day's last customer hands him a check.

Joe balls up the neck strip and puts it in the bowl. One for each head. Times 11. Open the cabinet. Write the total in a pocket notebook.

Into his dustpan he gathers strands of Auburn. Dumps them in the garbage can.

Off goes the smock, on goes a jacket and camouflage hat. He changes shoes and pours out his cold coffee.

As he walks to the door, he tugs one light string, then another, then a third. Dark.

He flips the sign on the window. “Closed.”

He locks the door behind him. 5:01 p.m.

Winter's coming and the weather's turning cold.

He straps on his helmet and climbs on his bike, turning right at the light and accelerating down the hill.

Dad's road home.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Other Kiffin

(Published July 2009)

The garage door opens at 5:15 a.m., and Chris Kiffin steers his Lincoln Aviator north toward Highway 2 and Memorial Stadium.

At this time of day, the summer sun is still sleeping, the air is still cool. At this time of day, there isn't much competition for the road. He can cover the nine miles in 13 minutes — “I've got all the lights figured out.”

Over the railroad tracks and left on green.

He's 27. He's a paid coaching intern for Bo Pelini's football program. He's brother to Lane Kiffin, the publicity magnet at Tennessee, and youngest son of Monte Kiffin, one of the finest defensive minds the NFL has ever produced.

Chris is just a wee bit less famous. But he has spent most of his life on the football fast track. He's got a story for every stop.

At 7, his dad came home with a surprise. C'mon. Lane and Chris jumped in the car, and Monte drove them to a hotel. They sneaked in a back door as Herschel Walker — Herschel Walker! — was breezing through his first press conference with the Minnesota media. The Cowboys fleeced the Vikings on the trade, but Chris got a new favorite player.

By the old apartment complex on his left.

In high school, one of his unofficial duties as a ball boy in Tampa was signing some of Warren Sapp's fan mail. Big W, big S, big 99. “I had it down pat,” Chris said. In exchange, Sapp ordered Nike warmup outfits for him.

Past the spot where the old diner used to be.

In college, he spent summers at USC during the Trojans' span of 45 wins in 46 games. He was living with Lane, working out with Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, observing staff meetings and film sessions. He played pick-up basketball with Pete Carroll and his assistants.

“He gets those head coach's calls, just like Bo does here,” Chris said.

Fast track? Shoot, the youngest Kiffin had seen more football before his 24th birthday than most coaches see before their retirement parties.

Then, just as he was getting a chance to show it, he slipped. One night of partying in Tampa three years ago altered his course.

As 31-year-old Lane was riding the Trojan horse to an NFL head coaching job, Chris was trying to figure out how to defeat a foe that had nothing to do with football.

In the end, an underdog team of 10-year-olds gave him a lift.

Now he's here, pulling into the parking lot at Memorial Stadium for players' 6 a.m. workouts, which he helps oversee. That's part of a job devoid of glamour.

Summer camps for high school kids. Conditioning runs. Position drills. Transferring game plans to the playbook.

Defense has always been his thing, but at Nebraska he works with the running backs. NU has four interns, in addition to two graduate assistants. They don't say much, but they're always around.

Chris knows the scene. He was born in Raleigh, N.C., during the only head coaching stint of his dad's career. Monte got fired before Chris' first birthday, and the first moving truck arrived.

On to Buffalo, then Green Bay — “I don't know if that's the right order,” Chris said.

Then Minnesota, where Chris cheered from the seats as the Twins won the World Series in 1987. He had birthday parties on the Metrodome turf.

To New York, where he remembers rats in the house.

Back to Minnesota and another World Series. The Twin Cities felt like home, so the next move, in 1996, was hardest.


Chris showed up before his freshman year of high school. Monte interviewed prospective high school coaches.

“I didn't really have a choice where I was going,” Chris said.

Dad settled on an all-boys Catholic school. It wasn't easy making friends. The Kiffin name didn't buy him a seat at the lunch table, nor did the Bucs tickets he'd try to give away to peers. Nobody wanted to see the dreadful franchise.

But there was a ton of coaching talent on Tony Dungy's staff: Herm Edwards, Mike Tomlin, Lovie Smith, Rod Marinelli. Along with Monte, they laid the groundwork for a team that eventually won a Super Bowl.

Chris could explain Monte's famous Cover 2 in his sleep. And he studied the pieces: Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Warren Sapp. Those guys practiced 'til it hurt.

Seeing it up close was Coaching 101, and Chris didn't even have a diploma yet.

On to Colorado State, where a scholarship from Sonny Lubick awaited. He played four years at defensive tackle between those summer trips to USC.

In Los Angeles, he watched Carroll, whose style contrasted Dungy's, build extraordinary bonds with players. He resurrected the downtrodden Trojans in just two years.

That was Coaching 202, and Chris didn't even have a degree yet.

On to Moscow, Idaho — home of the Vandals — and a student assistant position. “Smallest town I've ever been in,” Chris said.

Then back to Tampa.

Finally, after six years away from home, Chris was going to spend fall weekends with his dad.

Destination: Lexington

The job title was assistant to the director of quality control. Didn't fit on a business card, but it was a big gig for a 24-year-old. Chris was still a few days from signing his contract.

On July 22, 2006, he and Monte went to a Devil Rays' game. They came home, and Chris walked to a bar to have a few drinks. He ran into some old friends from high school. Saturday night turned to Sunday morning.

They sang karaoke. They emptied shot glasses. They left for a buddy's condo and drank some more. A few hours later, Chris was walking home in the rain. Drunk. He opened an unlocked minivan door, sat in the passenger's side for a few moments.

A cop caught him walking away from the van.

Chris was in trouble.

He eventually pleaded no contest to misdemeanor trespassing and paid a $340 fine. Not before the damage was done.

Not before the state charged him with burglary, alleging he entered the vehicle with the intent to steal — nothing was missing from the van.

Not before the whole thing hit the media — he lost his chance with the Bucs.

Not before strangers on message boards blamed Monte.

“They made comments like, it makes sense when you have a workaholic father that works 24 hours a day and doesn't give you a father figure,” Chris said. “Stuff of that nature was just totally untrue.”

Ed Orgeron, the Mississippi head coach and Lane's former colleague at USC, flew to Tampa to meet with Chris. He started reading the Alcoholics Anonymous book and suggested Chris go to rehab. Chris didn't want to tell Coach O no.

He spent 28 days in California. He bought in to the idea of sobriety, but couldn't shake the question: Is this for me?

Where could he go to figure it out? How 'bout Denver?

His cousin's wife had died while Chris was at Colorado State, so it was just Danny Murphy and his three kids. Chris could help. He watched the kids after school. Took care of the house.

“He's got maybe the biggest heart of all the Kiffins,” Danny said. “And I know them all pretty well.”

Every night they played a different game: basketball, Wiffle Ball, cribbage. Chris loved Stratego, the capture-the-flag board game in which he could assess personnel and call the plays.

When he wasn't at home, or working golf course maintenance, Chris devoted himself to staying dry.
He attended AA meetings almost every night.

But there was time to think, too. And Chris wondered sometimes why Lane, almost seven years older than him, was on the fast track to stardom and he wasn't. It wasn't envy or jealousy, Chris said — “I'm his No. 1 fan.”

But did Lane have something he didn't?

Orgeron called in 2007, asking Chris to come to Mississippi as a graduate assistant.

On to Oxford, where men at the spring game dressed in blue blazers and women wore long, white dresses and big hats.

The Ole Miss coaches' offices bustled and Chris thrived. Players gravitated to him, seeking his technique tips. Assistants laughed at his wit.

Then came July and a short coaching vacation. Suddenly there was no task. Chris felt bored. Worse, he felt alone.

“A lot of pressure builds up when you don't know if you're an alcoholic or not, and you're trying to stay sober, and you don't know if you're doing it for other people or not,” Chris said.

Driving home from a workout one afternoon, he stopped at a gas station and picked up a 12-pack of beer. He took his first sip in almost a year, then finished six or eight beers.

The next day, he stopped at Applebee's and drank again.

He was never a “drink-from-the-bottle guy like you see on TV.” He didn't wake up with the shakes and ease it with a shot of vodka. But once he started drinking beer, he kept drinking.

Those few days scared him. He hadn't done anything illegal, he said. Hadn't gotten into trouble.

“I thought that it could get out of control.”

So he went to see Orgeron, who looked at Lane's little brother like a son. Chris didn't want to tell Coach O no. He didn't want to waste another chance. But he didn't trust himself.

He quit. Packed his bags and headed north.

“A lot of thinking goes on when you're driving across the country,” Chris said. “Am I making the wrong decision? What's the future hold? Where am I going?”

After 900 miles, he stopped at Johnson Lake outside Lexington, where Danny and the kids were staying at the family cabin.

He pulled up and received a consolation prize:


172-pound tank

He went back to Denver with the Murphys, back to playing games. He got a job at an elementary school tutoring homeless kids. He stuck to the routine.

But the questions still ate at him. Am I an alcoholic or not? Am I any different than a 25-year-old in Denver or Boulder or Tampa who likes to go to bars? If so, how? Why?

There were alcohol problems in his family tree. He had started drinking in high school, like a lot of kids in Tampa. But it never interfered with where he wanted to go. Now it was like meeting a linebacker in the hole.

The guilt of drinking — and wanting to drink — was crushing his spirit.

He decided to change strategy.

“I wanted to see if I could do it like the average person, and still live my life in other areas the way I wanted to.”

Instead of abstaining from alcohol, Chris felt he was better off to focus on drinking responsibly.
Instill self-discipline. Identify potential problem situations. Surround himself with positive influences.
Fill his time with activities.

Like football.

Days after he showed up at Johnson Lake, Danny recruited him. His 10-year-old son had a youth football team and Danny was head coach. But the Warriors needed an offensive coordinator.

It was a good team and the kids thought it was cool to have a 25-year-old coach. The Warriors made a run all the way to the Super Bowl, and that's about as far as anybody figured they'd go. Their next opponent, the Spartans, had beaten them 35-7 in the regular season.

The key was the Spartans' defensive tackle, a peewee version of Warren Sapp, a kid named Hayes. He wore No. 72, Danny said — “and he weighed 172 pounds.”

A few nights before the game, Chris and Danny skipped a Stratego match, sat down at the table and formulated a battle plan.

Chris would call the play, wait to see where Hayes lined up, then signal to his troops at the line of scrimmage. If the tank lined up right, the Warriors went left, and vice versa.

First play, it worked for a touchdown. Second play, it worked for another touchdown.

Hayes eventually got his revenge. He injured Chris' quarterback. He took down the running back, too. Danny keeps a photo of the play on his living room wall.

“Hayes just engulfed him. The only part of our guy you see in the picture is his little foot.”

In the fourth quarter, the Warriors trailed, but still had a shot. Three failed running plays into the line brought up fourth down, 20 yards from paydirt.

Chris called time out. His quarterback couldn't throw. His running back couldn't run.

He called a trick play, a distant cousin to Eric Crouch's touchdown catch against Oklahoma:
 “I left, 27 power, Z reverse, Y throwback.”

The 10-year-olds didn't really understand the lingo, so Chris dumbed it down: Sweep to the halfback, who reverses the ball to the wide receiver. The tight end on the back side is going to slip behind the defense. And the wide receiver is going to throw deep.

He rehearsed it in the huddle with each kid.

“You couldn't put the whole thing together in a movie,” Danny said.

As soon as the quarterback handed off, Hayes crushed him. As soon as the running back handed to the wideout, he got smushed, too. But the wideout had just enough time to let it fly.

“Not one person,” Danny said, “was covering the tight end.”

Final score: 22-20. Super Bowl champs.

Chris had never called plays for any team before that season. He hasn't since.

Later, there was a team banquet. Each kid received a big trophy. Danny wanted Chris to stand up in front of parents and speak about each player. No way, Chris said.

Danny forced him. You want to be a big-time head coach someday, this is the kind of thing you've got to do.

Lane's a former quarterback. He could do 1,000 press conferences, Danny said. Chris is more like a lineman, quicker to deflect attention. Like Monte.

OK, Chris said. So he brought a chalkboard. Before a crowd of 75 or 100, he drew up Xs and Os and mapped out the final touchdown, then he explained each kid's responsibility.

His first press conference. It took about 15 minutes.

“Talking football's a lot easier for me than talking about other stuff.”

Film session

His cousin was begging him: Chris, send your résumé to Lincoln. Get back in the game.

By December 2007, Bo Pelini was starting the Nebraska football reclamation, and Chris had “a little more spring in his step,” Danny said.

He was harnessing his drinking problem. He was filling his time. This was a smart move, especially with a network of relatives in Lincoln. And it was a full-time coaching job.

“I just have a hard time seeing Chris putting on a suit and tie and going to sell copiers or something,” Danny said.

Chris' only memories of Lincoln were attending football camp in high school. The trains outside Harper Hall kept him awake.

“I was like, there's no way I'm going there,” Chris said.

He finally applied. Then he asked his dad to make a recommendation. To call Pelini, whom Monte had recommended to Frank Solich in 2002.

“I know my dad knows deep down my qualities as a coach. He's seen me work.”

Bo did his homework and liked what he heard. Chris got the job. He's had it for 16 months.

“Chris is a natural-born coach,” said Husker offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. “You can tell it's in his bloodstream. It comes really easy for him. It's been a real blessing for us.”

At Nebraska, Chris found a boss whose leadership ability reminds him of his dad. Pelini tells players about his days as an assistant with the 49ers in the 1990s, when nobody knew who he was. He tells stories about Jerry Rice, just as Chris remembers Warren Sapp.

“It just reassures me,” Chris said. “I'm on the right track. I can do this.”

He still treats alcohol with caution, but he doesn't attend AA meetings. Occasionally, he has a few beers. He has proven to himself he can impose limits.

It comes down to this, he said: When he climbs into his Lincoln Aviator after work, where is he going? To a bar, or to the tennis court?

“Today, sitting here right now, I don't think I am an alcoholic. I think I need to manage my life in a way where I don't put myself in situations to get in trouble or harm anybody or harm myself.”

After this season, Chris intends to send out his résumé again. He wants to be a Division I position coach. He wants to recruit kids. To advance, he'll have to move again, which won't be easy: “I'm the happiest I've ever been.”

He won't leave Lincoln alone.

Angela Timmons is a former Creighton basketball player and an NU assistant coach under Connie Yori. On her first date with Chris Kiffin, she listened to him detail the places he'd been. And why.

Next weekend in Lincoln, they're getting married.

It's going to be a small party — Chris didn't want anything big — but Lane will be there. Monte, too. Their visits to Nebraska are rare.

In fact, Monte hadn't been to Memorial Stadium on game day since 1976, his last year coaching the Huskers. But last fall, the Buccaneers had a bye week, and Nebraska had a date with Kansas. Monte climbed aboard a plane.

He grew up in Lexington. Listened to the Huskers on the radio, then went out to the backyard and pretended to run like Bobby Reynolds.

Kids didn't go far from home in those days, so when the Kiffins approached Lincoln from the west, Monte anxiously awaited the moment when he could spot the state capitol on the horizon.

“I thought it was the Empire State Building,” Monte said.

When he got to Lincoln, he waited some more, two hours in line for a spot in the south end zone, the knothole section. Entry fee: 25 cents.

Last fall, 60 years later, Monte didn't pay a dime.

Chris showed him the Osborne complex. He introduced him to the Tunnel Walk.

Before the game, Chris took him to the field, where the howling wind tousled Monte's thinning hair and made him growl that he'd forgotten his hat, where a sea of red can still tweak the nerves of a 68-year-old man, even one with a Super Bowl ring.

“It made me so proud of my son,” Monte said.

A few months earlier, Monte had passed through town en route to a class reunion. Chris drove him southeast on Highway 2 toward his new house.

They were coming up on 27th Street when Monte pointed to an old apartment building, a post pattern from the highway.

“Oh my gosh, that place is still here.”

You know, Monte told him, when I was exactly your age, I was a graduate assistant helping coach Bob Devaney's defense.

After games, I drove out to Johnson's Cafe on 14th and Highway 2 and had dinner with your aunt and uncle. Then I'd go back to the office, pick up the can of film and drive home.

To that apartment building.

I'd shut off the lights, point the projector at the living room wall and study every play deep into the night.

This was the road I traveled.