Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Congregation

(Published July 2005)

RANDOLPH, Neb. -- The sun has begun its descent in the western sky like a spiraling punt when the first pickup truck pulls in.

Each afternoon, a group of men old enough to remember Devaney walks into a Sinclair station in this map dot of 955. They fill their coffee mugs and gather at the booths toward the back.

Sometimes three or four show up, sometimes 10 or 11. Sometimes they argue about who got more rain. Many times, they hash out Cornhusker football.

"I think they can win 'em all," one gray-haired farmer says.

"Look at their schedule. If he doesn't win seven or eight games this year, there'll be an uprising, I think," another man says of Bill Callahan.

And so it goes in towns from the Sand Hills to the Missouri. During the past week, I sought to discover why.

I found farmers who have counted on Lyell Bremser and Kent Pavelka to breathe life into a combine cab; knot-holers who emptied their piggy banks at the end of the week to see Bobby Reynolds; fans who applauded overmatched opponents as they limped through the North Stadium tunnel, men who wouldn't leave a 52-0 game in the fourth quarter if their wives were in labor -- Gotta see that fourth-string I-back, you know.

I talked to teachers and old Huskers, a preacher and an elderly woman; men who grew up perfecting the option pitch in their living room, who taught their kids to hate Oklahoma, then basic arithmetic. I sought counsel from the red-headed legend himself.

A year after the worst Husker football season since JFK and a week before NU starts an important fall in its history, I talked to Nebraskans about their impenetrable love for a team and its game, a tradition as woven into the state's fabric as dirt clods and corn stalks. I listened as they pondered the future.

* * *

Dave Watters pulls a chair to a booth at the convenience store. His hair is white as a preacher's robe. Watters, a 65-year-old retired school administrator in six Nebraska towns, now delivers sermons on Sundays.

"I wish people would talk about their relationship with God as much as Nebraska football."

When Watters was a boy, he was student manager for the Guide Rock High School football team. The team used to pack "an ole rattly bus and trek down to Lincoln to watch the Cornhuskers."

"How can you grow up in Nebraska and not be a Nebraska football fan? I don't know of another thing besides agriculture that holds this state together in a social atmosphere."

"I honestly believe that if the Big Red program goes down the tubes, kids in Nebraska will go other places to school. But I don't think it'll ever happen and I'll tell you why: People in Nebraska care too much. They're not gonna take many years like last year. I know it, and you know it, too."

* * *

I called a fullback, the one position where you could always pencil in a native son. If anybody can explain Nebraska football, surely it's a man who repeatedly slammed his skull into linebackers.

This one grew up at 648 E. Macarthur St. in Grand Island. He wound up catching passes from Joe Montana in Super Bowls. As a kid, Tom Rathman rounded up the neighborhood kids and imitated Huskers in his front yard.

"I remember Johnny Rodgers was outstanding when he put the white shoes on. That's the one thing that stood out. Once he put the white shoes on, baby, it was on."

I call another fullback, a 10-year NFL veteran from Duncan, a man as strong as Chimney Rock who blocked for Barry Sanders during some of those Hall of Fame highlights. The fullback's career highlight: The 1995 Orange Bowl, when he scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns.

"It's kind of funny. I could win three Super Bowls, Pro Bowl 10 years in a row. People here in Nebraska just associate you with that game. I was just talking to a gentleman last weekend, and he's like, 'Oh my goodness, you're Cory Schlesinger.' And he asks me: 'What did you do after you graduated?'"

* * *

I drove through railroad towns whose water towers display the high school colors, through counties where power lines are man's tallest creation and an empty gas tank means a 20-mile hike.

I found fans who would rather talk about Zac Taylor than their Honor Roll kid. Some see Steve Pederson as a visionary; some wouldn't let him use the phone if he'd run out 20 miles down the road.

I found DJ Dave, who works 30 weddings a summer.

"I don't even need a Husker schedule," said Dave Triplett, a Lincoln disc jockey. "I know in the fall when the games are, and when they're not. I'm always booked when they're not."

"If we didn't have so many Husker games, we'd have more marriages."

I sifted through the Lincoln phone book, past 57 listings that start with "Husker" or 

"Cornhusker" - who knew there was Cornhusker Bingo?

I found a Texan who doesn't get the obsession - the poor guy works at "Husker Trucking" in Greenwood. A few years back, he lived in Lincoln. He listened to games to avoid traffic.

"If it was an 11 o' clock game, I'd try to be to work by 6. And then with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, I'd go home before the place went nuts. I hated it. Man, I hated it.

"It's the people that discuss every down of every game and they know all the stats, you know, get a life. And the people that remember the score of every game the last 20 years…Big deal."
Still, he develops opinions - "I really think Pederson should've hired Bo Pelini."

* * *

I called a 43-year-old from the Polish capital of Nebraska. Loup City's biggest fan hasn't missed a home game since Mike Rozier embarrassed UCLA in September 1983. He hasn't missed one quarter in 11 years.

"I've been everywhere; from Seattle to Miami, from San Diego to University Park, Pennsylvania," says Wayne Blazey. "I've seen the Mount Everest of the football team down to the Marianas Trench, which was last year's losing season."

His favorite fall Saturday: a 69-7 annihilation of Oklahoma in 1997, Tom Osborne's 250th career win.

"It was a day we were playing our greatest rival. And it was a day you saw all types of weather, a typical Nebraska day. And when the game was getting over, you had a rainbow over the stadium. And then the fireworks show. It was an experience you'll probably see once in a lifetime."

Blazey loves to store the dates and numbers and pictures in his head. Each home Saturday, he travels 143 miles to the old wooden bench in the East Stadium's fourth row, 32-yard-line. He savors that moment 77,000 roar in unison as the I-back breaks through the line, that ovation when the Blackshirts stop on third-and-1, those November afternoons when you huddle next to a stranger for warmth.

"From Harrison to Rulo, and from Benkelman to Dakota City, from Cody clear down to Superior, we're all part of Nebraska. It's a birth rite. If you're from Nebraska, you should be for Nebraska."

* * *

Here's one you gotta hear, says preacher Watters. There's an 86-year-old Bohemian widow from Superior straight from "the school of hard knocks."

But leukemia killed Ruth Geiger's only son at 15. She never had much use for football.
Geiger's kids and grandkids used to crowd around the TV on Saturdays, but Grandma was cooking or serving desserts. Then, maybe 10 years ago, the family convinced her to watch.

"I haven't missed one since then," says the retired teacher.

Every Saturday, she grabs a bowl of pretzels and fills her thermal mug of non-alcoholic drink. She snags a red sweatshirt and lays before the TV a 3-by-5 foot rug - a miniature replica of the Memorial Stadium field. She rolls it up Sunday afternoon and brings it back six days later.

Between kickoff and the final play, "she would no more go out to eat with you than the man in the moon," said Watters, her sonin-law. "I'm not sure she knows what a first-and-ten is, but ...

"I try," she says.

A year ago, she couldn't find the game on TV - Watters said she was "irate." After a Husker loss, Geiger doesn't let her visiting son-in-law out of the basement unless he's wearing a black tie.

"Needless to say, she's a fine Christian lady who would never criticize, but she discussed thoroughly some of Callahan's positions," Watters says.

"She thinks they ought to bring Tom Osborne back to straighten things up down there."

* * *

So I called the slender doctor who walked the sideline for a quarter of a century and squinted into the sun and weathered Sooner Magic and rode atop shoulder pads after Schlesinger's touchdowns. Surely he can explain why men of faith and grandmas hold their breath during every deep pass.

"I can't tell you for sure," Osborne says. "It just seems Nebraskans tend to identify with the football team. When the team does well, you feel better about things in general, and maybe about yourself. With some people it becomes pretty extreme, where Nebraska loses a game and they really go into almost a depression."

There's only one Division I football school here. Forty-two consecutive non-losing seasons and five national championships doesn't hurt interest, either. The passion intensified because rosters featured homegrown Huskers who became community celebrities, Osborne says.

"Almost every little town in Nebraska can point to somebody in the last 15, 20 years that played at Nebraska."

The Huskers always reflected the character of the state, said the congressman. Those pioneer pillars of work ethic and integrity were evident on the gridiron. Osborne said tradition can change, though.

"Human beings can only stand so much pain. If you go through years and years of bad football and frustration, obviously you're going to turn your interests to something else. But I don't think it would die easily or quickly."

* * *

Last stop: Husker Bar II in Brainard, a few blocks from where the Makovica fullbacks played eight-man high school football.

Jody Gans has owned the place since 1979. Her parents had owned the first Husker Bar in Dwight in the '60s.

Her dad attended games before the stadium was full every Saturday. Sometimes she tagged along. One Christmas, the family followed the Huskers to El Paso for the 1969 Sun Bowl. Her dad wore a Santa Claus hat and made the newspaper.

"When we talk about this, I get tears in my eyes," says 55-year-old Jody.

Ten months after Gans delivered a baby boy, cancer killed her dad in '82. She took her boy to his first game in '86, using Dad's old tickets. His feet were so cold by the end that her husband had to carry him to the car - the kid wouldn't leave early.

"My husband can talk Nebraska football back to the '50s and '60s. My dad could do it. My son can do the same thing."

Years ago, they had parties in the bar the night before games. Everybody wore red and sang the fight song. A dusty red hat her husband used to wear still hangs over the bar. Hasn't moved since the late '80s. A stack of NU media guides sits on a shelf to settle arguments.

She's noticed fewer debates lately. This generation's not as intense as the older one, Gans said. Maybe these coaching and offensive changes lately will work out someday, but it's hard to see right now, she says.

"There's been that tradition through Devaney, Osborne and Solich. It's hard to break that. I'd hate to see football go down the drain. It's something we've been proud of for 50 years."

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