Friday, April 19, 2013

The Quarterback

Stand inside a well-lighted room. Peer out a window into the distant black. Strain to see someone. You can't. Have you ever noticed that?

Hundreds of people, thousands, could be watching outside and you would never know.

Sit inside a plane on a bright spring day. It's the best seat in the house. Have you ever considered that?

It's why pilots love that ascent into the pure blue. It's why a tall, dark and handsome 22-year-old cowboy boot-wearing, prank-playing, touchdown-tossing, soon-to-be uncle from the middle of nowhere jumped in that tiny plane 10 years ago today.

He enjoyed other things. He kept photo albums of his Brittany spaniels. He read Dr. Seuss to kindergartners and spoke to teenagers about perseverance and held cancer patients' hands. He regularly woke before dawn to cast a line or wade through the prairie grass. He even played a little football.

But maybe most of all, Brook Berringer loved to fly. As he rose toward the sun that April afternoon, toward the heavens he often thought about, did he know how many were watching?

* * *

Wise men could argue all day about the first time someone looked in his window.

Perhaps the winter of 1981, after Brook first fired a shotgun -- he saved the shell. A month later, his father, who bought Brook a fishing license three days after birth, checked into the hospital. He never came home.  

Perhaps the fall of '94, when the obscure backup quarterback was thrust onto the national stage against Wyoming. He sparked a come-from-behind win with three touchdowns. Back home, a farmer was listening on the radio. He hopped off his tractor and ran to meet the mailman. Are you listening? "Brook is on fire." Berringer suffered broken ribs and a collapsed lung that fall but didn't lose a game.

Perhaps the fall of '95. The Huskers won their second straight national championship that year, but No. 18 had little to do with it. On the field, anyway.  

Berringer lived 22 years, nine months and nine days. When the gentle plains he knew so well destroyed his plane and ended his life, thousands stopped to listen.

"In Nebraska, if you mention the name Brook Berringer, it stirs up all kinds of things, " said Wes Wilmer, a 34-year-old who never met the quarterback. "Not because he was a great football player, because they know his story."

Mom knows it. Jan Berringer received 10,000 letters after the accident. She talked to the old farmer who wanted to hear the funeral on the radio. Reception failed in his house, so he walked to his field, climbed into his tractor and listened for three hours.

Michele Ivans knows it. The 28-year-old was a high school senior when she dressed in black and walked into a packed field house. The next day, she decided to change the reason she lived.

Al Domina knows it. The Lincoln doctor met Berringer as a patient in 1992. They chatted for maybe 10 minutes. Doc went home and told his wife he'd met "the neatest kid today." Brook's picture now hangs on his den wall.

Chris Wilson knows it. The high school buddy fished all night with Berringer after a Nebraska football game. Now he watches over Brook's prized possession.

Scott Weber knows it. The Texan wears red on fall Saturdays. He never knew Berringer. Now his son wears No. 18.

Berringer started seven games for Nebraska. Seven. Yet of the more than 2,000 players Tom Osborne coached in 35 years, none, he said, affected others more than the quiet, confident quarterback.

"You just couldn't say no to him, " Mark Miller said. "If you take the most charismatic person in your life, that's what he had."

Miller, lead singer of country band Sawyer Brown, met Berringer after a Lincoln concert in 1992. The quarterback had sneaked backstage.

The two became friends. Berringer persuaded Miller to pick him up when the band was in Kansas or Iowa or Missouri, so he could experience tour life. It's only a few hours out of the way, he told them.

He arranged a Sawyer Brown concert at Memorial Stadium for April 19, 1996, the night the Huskers were to receive their national championship rings. He asked Miller to write a song for the event. The morning of the 18th, the day he died, Brook asked Miller to sing it over the phone.

I grew up in Goodland, Kansas. I turned 18 today. I'm college bound for Lincoln. Nebraska's where I'll stay.

* * *

Jan Berringer points toward the backyard. That's where Brook used to throw footballs through a hanging tire. He asked her to play catch a few times. She asked him to throw softer. One time, the ball hit her right in the chest.

"OK, dad gummit, " she told him. "That's it. I'm going in."

Berringer's hometown of 5,000 people is 16 miles from the Colorado border. Brook's dad, Warren, bought the brick, ranch-style house because it backed onto the football field.

Jan and Warren grew up here. They were high school sweethearts. Their only son was born in Scottsbluff, Neb., in 1973. Warren bought Brook a fishing license before he left the hospital. A year later, the two were spending days hunting in the wilderness. Jan made sure Warren took diapers and a bottle.

Brook bagged his first pheasant in January 1981. Dad helped. Brook was "a spittin' image of his dad, " Mom says.

Three months later, Warren lost a five-year battle with cancer. The date of his funeral: April 17.

Mom flaunts Halloween pictures of her four grandkids; the oldest was born eight days after the accident. She was an elementary teacher for 36 years. She can talk for hours about good kids and bad. Sometimes, she gets lost on a tangent. "You'll have to tell me where I was."

This past fall, she had a double mastectomy and surgery to remove a malignant colon tumor. A card from Bill Callahan lays on her counter.

As afternoon shadows lengthen, the light shines in the window on Jan's right cheek; the left is dark. It's a beautiful, warm April afternoon, except for a gusty north breeze. Just like that day.

Jan was preparing for an NFL Draft party. Brook was projected to be a midround pick. "I wanted to drive down Main Street screaming, 'Guess What!' I couldn't have been higher when that phone call came."

It was Osborne. There had been an accident. Oh, no, Jan said, Brook hurt his shoulder throwing. No, Osborne said. Oh, no, he'd been hurt in a hunting accident. No. Airplane, Osborne told her.

"My heart hit my big toe."

* * *

He had a mitt-popping fastball and could dunk with either hand. He earned academic All-Big 8 and could strum the guitar. And he was a good pilot.

Brook's dad was in the Air Force during Vietnam. Warren's twin brother was a commercial pilot for Delta. Brook began taking lessons in high school. He had piloted the twoseat 1946 Piper Cub more than a dozen times.

Just before 2:30 p.m., Berringer took off from a 2,600-foot airstrip three miles east of Raymond. His girlfriend's brother, Tobey Lake, sat next to him. After climbing over a pine shelter belt, the plane hit a 25 mph northwest wind. It wobbled like a bad pass.

Instead of dropping the nose, instead of setting the plane down in the field before him, Berringer tried to turn back to the airstrip. Experts called it a lapse in judgment. The plane stalled. The left wing dropped quickly. The descent began: 250 feet, then 100, then 50, 45, 40, 35, 30. . . . The plane hammered an alfalfa field at a 45-degree angle.

* * *

You pass Prairie Dog State Park and collapsing barns older than the New Deal. You pass Norton, where a speed trap often delayed Berringer. Then Colby, the team he beat to finish his high school career. Brook and some others shaved Coach's head after the win.

There are dozens of ways to get from Goodland, Kan., to Lincoln, each equaling about 350 miles. No road is well-traveled.

Berringer's football path led nowhere his first three years at NU. Then came '94, when Berringer replaced Tommie Frazier, who had to sit out because of blood clots. Frazier, with whom Berringer never got along, won the starting job back before the Orange Bowl.

The next fall, Berringer thought he had a good chance to start. Osborne announced his decision at a team meeting. Brook walked out quietly afterward. His Bible study leader, Art Lindsay, showed up at his house that night.

Lindsay asked Brook outside. He started reading Bible verses. Berringer grew up in a Christian home. But that night, friends say, changed his life. He committed to worshipping Jesus Christ. That was Aug. 24, 1995, Warren Berringer's birthday.

Ron Brown called Berringer the most important Husker during a tumultuous '95 season. Many teammates thought he should be starting.

"The one thing that football team had was a sense of togetherness, " said Brown, the former receivers coach. "That's what kept us going. That unity could've been totally abolished if Brook, all he had to do was start opening his mouth.

"And at the end of the day, when that plane crashed, I think that's what people realized."

* * *

Michele Ivans requested Brook's signature the day he graduated high school. Ivans was in junior high at the time. She placed the autograph against her TV during the 1995 Orange Bowl.

A year later, she was sitting at Brook's funeral. Jones Fieldhouse was packed that morning. She came to mourn. Something changed her mood as she listened to Art Lindsay's testimony. She listened to him repeat the daily devotional that Berringer would have read the morning of April 18: "Be ready for the sudden surprise visits of God."

Ivans was walking the halls at school the next day when "it really hit me."

"His death led me to redirect my life to Christ."

Three days earlier, a 24-year-old real estate agent was driving through Fremont. He flipped to a rebroadcast of a Fellowship of Christian Athletes banquet the night before, the night Berringer died. The quarterback was supposed to speak.

Wes Wilmer, a Husker fanatic, never met Berringer. But his death shook Wilmer. Made him think about his mortality, his place. Wilmer had a fiancee. He had a college degree. Something still wasn't right.

He kept driving. He listened to Lindsay speak of Berringer. He heard about sin and forgiveness, love and hope. He started crying. He pulled into a Mexican restaurant parking lot. He whispered a prayer: "God, give me life like you gave Brook life."

Wilmer went back to school. He started mentoring kids. He volunteered. Six months ago, he moved to Wisconsin.

He's starting a church.

* * *

The 67-year-old Doc has four kids. Each time, he ordered a boy. Each time, he got a girl. "Wasn't meant to be."

The short, bespectacled retiree was the Husker team urologist for 30 years. After meeting Berringer, they started talking regularly. Brook started coming over to hang out.

One time, Brook got an idea for a joke: He tore up his bedroom, stuffed jeans and a shirt with pillows and blankets and laid the fake body on the floor. His roommate got home and called 911. Doc grins at the floor. No, he was no angel.

The last time Doc talked to him, they were contemplating a fishing trip to Canada. Berringer would've taken the fishing pole Doc made for him. He only used it twice. Doc keeps it in his basement shop now.

"I can't quite bring myself to use it."

For seven or eight years after the crash, Doc thought of Brook every single day. A couple years ago, he had lunch with a chaplain, a fishing buddy, who told Doc he should write a letter to Brook. So he did. He wrote that football never mattered to him. He said goodbye.

Doc went to a Nebraska baseball game at Haymarket Park in March. He saw newcomer Andrew Brown. The kid wears No. 18. Brown came up to bat and Doc got teary-eyed.

He whispered: "Come on, Brown. Make him proud."

* * *

Brook had two orange-spotted Brittany spaniels, a father and a son, Juke and Bodie. He took them hunting all the time.

Juke was the jumpy one. Brook once spent a whole afternoon fixing a backyard pen. Five minutes after Juke went in, he escaped. Those skills didn't help Brook on Interstate 80. A storm was rolling in, so he found a rest stop and jumped out of his pickup to cover some furniture in the bed. Juke was sleeping.

When Brook softly closed the door, Juke woke, jumped against the window and locked the door. The downpour arrived before Brook got back inside.

Brook came home from the NFL combine in February. He called for Juke. The dog limped out of the kennel, dragging its back legs.

"That just about killed Brook, " Jan said.

Brook decided to put him down. Before he did, he sat on the floor and talked to Juke about pheasants and quail. He held him while the vet put him to sleep.

A month later, a few days after the accident, a friend hung Brook's hunting coat on the dining room chair. Bodie spotted it from the patio. He ran to the table. He bit the coat and pulled it to the floor. There he laid the rest of the day.

Brook's pup turns 11 next month. A high school buddy watches him now.

Chris Wilson and Berringer did everything together. Basketball. Football. Flying. Brook hardly watched TV. He rarely slept. With the morning light, he was up. He routinely invited Wilson up from Kansas to hunt grouse or pheasants or coyotes, often before classes or football practice. Most times, Wilson turned it down.

Now he gets out as often as possible. He took Bodie hunting in December. He dropped the tailgate, and the dog jumped in like a 10-year-old at the swimming pool.

"Every time I look at him, I think of Brook. I love hunting with him. I just wish it wasn't by myself."

* * *

Jan knows Nebraska geography better than most politicians. She toured the state for months after the accident, speaking and signing Brook's biography. She thought it would help her grieve. Most times, though, strangers cried while she comforted. Not until she came home for good did death stain her.

It leaves the house quiet, far too quiet, on nights when memory desperately seeks snapshots of bright days gone. It slows the hands of that living-room clock. It saps the energy from legs and arms and renders dishes and laundry meaningless.

People tried telling her how she feels. How she would feel tomorrow and a year from now. She didn't want to hear it.

Sometimes she made a vow simply to get through the day. The next morning, she did it again. Ten years feels like a week. It feels like a century. She still feels an emptiness when she wakes up.

"I know that Brook is with his dad. And I know he's with his heavenly father. And I'm so happy for him. But I'm so selfish that, you know, I can hardly stand having him gone."

It's nearly dark, so Jan flips on a light. She wants to show a video, the same one they played at the spring game in '96, the same one they played at Brook's funeral two days later.

"I've watched it hundreds of times."

Toward the end of the tape, which is filled with highlights and hunting clips and readings of "Green Eggs and Ham" to little ones, there's an interview clip.

Brook is talking about his dad. He says he knows he's watching. He says Dad has the "best seat in the house."

"Watch his eyes, " Jan says. "You see the pain in his eyes?"

* * *

The Goodland cemetery sits at the north edge of town, just a few Hail Marys from the airport where Berringer first took off. On an April night at dusk, the gates are locked.

On the horizon, the purples and pinks and reds and oranges converge into one glorious shade, illuminating hundreds of tombstones. Fixed in the spring soil, a red flag lays beneath the breeze next to an ordinary stone. A tumbleweed latches onto it.

Four years ago, Scott Weber and his son came to this spot. Weber, 50, grew up in South Dakota, just a few miles from the Nebraska border. He listened to Cornhusker games on the radio as he hunted pheasants. Now he lives in Texas.

Weber remembers first seeing Brook Berringer in a game and wondering, "What kind of name is that for a football player?" When Berringer took the helm in '94, Weber started reading stories and quotes. He still watches the old tape of the Colorado game in 1994.

A year and two days after Berringer's plane went down, Weber's first child was born. The boy turns 9 on April 20. He wears No. 18 on his flag football team. He wants to play for Nebraska.

Above his bed hangs an FCA portrait painted in 1981. In the picture, a little boy holds a football while watching a group of older kids talk about Jesus. The boy is wearing a red jersey, No. 18. Several copies of the portrait, titled "Influence, " were to be distributed as gifts at the FCA banquet the night the plane crashed.

Weber and his 5-year-old son stopped at the cemetery during the blazing July heat. They walked to the red flag. The boy pointed at the tombstone. He listened to Dad explain what happened. Then the boy left a red, foam football helmet.

First he signed it: Brook Weber.

* * *

Wilson wouldn't listen to country music if you threw in a free cowboy hat. Then Brook called him one night. Told him to come up to Manhattan for a Sawyer Brown concert. Wilson had class the next day, but Brook convinced him. He's been a fan ever since. He's been to maybe 20 concerts.

Not once has Sawyer Brown played the ballad off its 1995 album, the one in which the piano replaces the drums, the guitars soften and Mark Miller croons about loss; the one Brook sang during those road trips with Juke and Bodie back to Goodland, through the wheat and the speed traps, past Pizza Huts and John Deeres; the one Sawyer Brown played the day of his funeral.

The song Brook called his favorite: "I Will Leave the Light On."

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