There is No Place like Nebraska

With the Ohio State game this coming Saturday, I have Nebraska football on the brain. Here's an oldie but goody.

         “It’s football Saturday in Memorial Stadium and there is no place like Nebraska!” The crowd exploded, cheers of “GOOOO BIIIIIIG REEEEED” filled the air, and the marching band made their way onto the football field to play the Nebraska fight song. As I stood up and clapped along, shivers ran up and down my spine – this was the loudest the crowd had ever been (at least since I got here two years ago). It was the night that every Husker fan had been waiting for – the night that we would prove to Oklahoma that we were a force to be reckoned with. The crowd was fired up, and so was the team. The sweet smell of victory was in the air, and we wanted it more than anything.
       Memorial Stadium was packed full – it was the 303rd consecutive sellout game, which meant that over 86,300 fans were present. Nebraska fans have come to be known as the best in college football, and they are the reason that game day in Memorial Stadium is such a big deal. Fans from all over the country travel hundreds of miles to spend four hours inside Memorial Stadium cheering for their team. What is it about this place that makes it so special? Why is it that, upon walking through the gates into the stadium, a person changes from a student, doctor, lawyer, or teacher into a die-hard football fan?
On football game days, Memorial Stadium undergoes a significant transformation – it changes from a football field to a place of excitement and wonder. It goes from being completely empty to being more packed than a can of sardines in a matter of minutes. There seems to be something in the air in Memorial Stadium on game day that, once inhaled, changes the way a person feels about Husker football. It’s something that can only be understood by those who have attended a Nebraska home game – it’s something that can never be fully explained or put into words, but I will attempt.
       Unlike many of the students at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, I was not raised to be a Husker football fan. In fact, I remember the first time I saw Memorial Stadium. I was coming into Lincoln for my first college visit. My mom and I had just gotten into town, and Memorial Stadium was the first thing that really stood out to me. I was jamming to some Justin Timberlake on my iPod as we were driving down US Highway 34, and then I saw it – I was completely dumbfounded. I looked at the façade of the stadium in pure astonishment, and took note of the five national championship titles the Huskers had acquired. I wondered who Tom Osborne was, and why the playing surface had been named after him. At that precise moment, I began my journey toward becoming a part of Husker Nation. Someday I, too, would be infected by this Big Red fever.
            I spent the majority of my freshman year watching the Husker games on television (I hadn’t signed up early enough to get season tickets) and learning as much as I possibly could about the program. I learned that the current coach, Bill Callahan, was the worst coach Nebraska had seen in forty-six years (He won a whopping twenty-seven out of forty-nine games), and that, as of November 2007, he would no longer be the head coach of the Cornhuskers. I figured out who the new athletic director, Tom Osborne (affectionately known by his fans as T.O.), was and why he was so important. I realized that, under his reign, the Cornhuskers never won less than nine games in a season, and earned three national championship titles. As I learned the history of my team, I began to understand why everyone in Nebraska seemed to live for football. In fact, I became one of those people – I couldn’t bear the thought of missing a game.
            After my year of Nebraska football enlightenment was over and I had made the complete transformation from ignorant and oblivious out-of-state student to informed and enlightened football fan, I bought season tickets. During the 2008 season, I didn’t miss a single game. I was overwhelmingly happy every time my team pulled off a win, and completely devastated when they lost. I was ecstatic that the new head coach, Bo Pelini, was bringing the program back to its former glory. After the season was over, it was almost painful for me to wait eight more months to see another Husker game.
            It was the next year that I really noticed the atmosphere of Memorial Stadium on game day. As I walked into the sea of red in Memorial Stadium on Saturday, November 7th, 2009, I was overcome with a feeling of pride and love for my team. It was one of the biggest games of the season – Oklahoma vs. Nebraska is one of the oldest rivalries in college football, and it had been eight years since the Huskers were able to pull off a win against the infamous Sooners. Just a year before, we lost the rivalry game by an embarrassing forty points. That was NOT going to happen again. We wanted our revenge, and we were going to get it. It was the second year of the Bo Pelini era, and every Husker fan in the stadium was praying for a win.
       I joined my friends in the East Stadium student section just in time for the tunnel walk – a Nebraska tradition since 1994.  As the HuskerVision screen lit up with the words, “Not the goal but the game; Not the victory but the action; In the deed the glory” and the image of the Huskers making their way out of the locker room, The Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” began to blare over the loudspeaker. Everyone in the stands began to clap to the beat of the music, and as the coach and players stepped onto the field, the roar of the crowd could be heard from at least a mile away.

       As I sit in the stands of Memorial Stadium now, on a brisk February morning, it is difficult to believe that it is the same place. There is no one else around, and the air is thick with ominous silence rather than acclamation. Football stadiums aren’t supposed to be this quiet – I shouldn’t feel so alone here. There should be tens of thousands of other red-clad people surrounding me, shouting with excitement, serving as a distraction from the worries and concerns of everyday life. But today, from where I’m standing, it is hard to imagine the stadium as that sea of red that I have come to love so much.
       When I walked into the stadium this morning I was not overcome with pride, and there was no sudden transformation from student to avid football fan. I was just… me.  I was not greeted by vendors yelling, “HOT AND FRESH VALENTINO’S PIZZA, COME GET YOUR VAL’S PIZZA,” or, “MOUNTAIN DEW, PEPSI, WATER! COLD AND REFRESHING, ONLY $2!” I was not trampled by fans rushing to get the best seat, or members of Husker nation fighting to get to the restrooms before kickoff. I didn’t hear the overly zealous (or perhaps just slightly tipsy) UNL students cheering and screaming as I approached the student section.
       Instead, I am surrounded by steely gray rather than Husker Red; the sky, the bleachers, the walls – everything is just a bland and somewhat gloomy shade of gray. I find that my mood begins to match every shade of gray around me. I begin to feel emotionless and indifferent. My mood suddenly brightens, however, when I look down at the bright green field. Not only is it the most colorful and stimulating part of the otherwise lifeless stadium, but it also conjures up images in my mind. I imagine our football team running drills at an early morning practice. I wonder what it’s like when all 150 of the guys are on the field at once. I smile at the thought – it amuses me to envision a hundred and some odd guys lined up doing tackling drills, jumping jacks and push-ups.
       I suddenly snap back to reality when I hear the campus bells start to chime the song, “No Place Like Nebraska.” I stand up and start to clap along, then realize that I am completely alone and probably look absolutely ridiculous. I sit back down and take another look around, hoping to notice something that I had missed before. I don’t notice anything, and instead let my imagination wander back to the Nebraska-OU game that took place three months ago.
       I can almost hear the screams and cheers of the crowd as I close my eyes and remember the game. I can remember it like it was yesterday; the crowd was so overwhelmingly loud that I could not even hear my own cheers. The first play that comes to mind is the pick-off by Prince Amukamara in the second quarter – his interception got the Huskers to the one-yard line and gave them the opportunity to score. As Alex Henery’s kick for the extra point sailed through the uprights and the band began to play “No Place Like Nebraska,” everyone began to scream even louder. Everywhere I looked, people were hugging and high-fiving complete strangers, but it didn’t matter – we were all members of the die-hard Husker football fan family.
       The rest of the game was just as amazing as the second quarter had been, even though we only scored three more points. The Huskers played astonishingly well, and even though the Sooners had nearly twice as many total yards as us, we were able to beat them by seven points. As the game clock ran out, and the final score flashed on the big screen, I was overcome with emotion. Even now, when the game is just a memory, I feel an enormous smile begin to form.
       As I think about the outcome of the game, I recall the quote etched into both the southwest corner of Memorial stadium and the western façade – coincidentally the same one that was featured in the tunnel walk. I feel a kind of reverence for the words as I contemplate their meaning. I have heard them a hundred times before, but, until now, have never thought about their origins, or what makes them so memorable. I, like most Husker fans, can only ever remember the last five words of Hartley Burr Alexander’s infamous quote – “in the deed the glory.” However, as I sit in the stadium today, it dawns on me that, in order to fully comprehend the meaning of those five words, one must first hear the preceding twelve. “Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory.” I finally understand why those words are there – to remind the Huskers to play with heart, to leave everything they have on the field. It does not matter if a game is won or lost; all that matters is how it was played.
       I look at my watch and realize that I only have five minutes to get to my 10:30 class; I spent more time here than was intended. I gather my belongings and make the walk out of Memorial Stadium. As I walk, I think. I think about the atmosphere of this place, and how it can be so magical one day, and so plain the next. I remember how it felt to enter the stadium this morning, and have a sort of epiphany.
For some reason, taking the step through that big red gate today just wasn’t the same escape from reality that comes with game day. Perhaps it was the absence of all the people that inhabit Memorial stadium on game day, but the vivacious and energetic atmosphere that I had become so familiar with upon entering the stadium was nowhere to be found. I could not distract myself from my responsibilities of everyday life – I was still worried about classes, work, and relationships.
            While I sat in the stands of a completely empty Memorial Stadium, I found the answers to all of my questions. I didn’t know it then, but now, walking through the bitter cold, it dawns on me why, exactly, game days in Nebraska are so special. I know exactly how Memorial Stadium comes alive on football game days. The extraordinary atmosphere surrounding the stadium on game days can be completely attributed to the tens of thousands of Husker fans. As I said earlier, Husker fans are the best in the nation, and they are the reason Memorial Stadium is so exceptional.
       Without the fans, Memorial Stadium would just be another college football stadium. Without the fans, Memorial Stadium would lack character. Without the fans, Memorial Stadium’s big red gate would lack the power to change a person from a student, teacher, doctor, or lawyer to die-hard football fan. Without the fans, the air in Memorial Stadium would be filled with the stench of stale popcorn, pizza, and the body odor of fifty football players instead of being filled with team spirit and Big Red “Fever.” Without the fans, there would be no reason for the football team to play.