This was Nebraska football.
It was 1996, and I was a high school junior in Watkins Glen, New York – halfway across the country from Lincoln, Nebraska. It was the Fiesta Bowl, and the Nebraska Cornhuskers were about to go after their second consecutive national championship.
I remember watching Lawrence Phillips walk out of the tunnel, the camera strategically placed to look up at him as if he were a giant. And in the eyes of a kid like me, he was.
I was aware of Phillips' off-field transgressions, but this was the mid-1990s. The internet was just getting going, social media didn't exist. We didn't have all of the dirty details – or maybe I just didn't want them. All I knew was that he looked like a stud, played like a stud and was the type of running back I wanted to be. I watched his magnificent performance – which was overshadowed by that of the legendary Tommie Frazier in the same game – and sat in awe afterward. I wanted to be Phillips, I wanted my line to be Nebraska's line and I wanted our defense to be the Blackshirts.
The following fall, I wore No. 1 during my senior year as a tailback, all because of Lawrence Phillips.
Six years later, the Huskers would appear in the last national championship game they have played in. In stark contrast to that 1996 Fiesta Bowl, Nebraska was dominated and pushed up and down the field by the Miami Hurricanes. Only Eric Crouch, Nebraska's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, appeared up to the task. There were no Blackshirts, no dominating offensive linemen and no Phillips.
This team was different. The program was different.
Ever since that loss to Miami, as Nebraska fans are far too painfully aware, the trajectory of the program has been downward. It's been a roller coaster of ups and downs, hope and disappointment and general inconsistency and mediocrity.
Fast-forward to this past Saturday. Through a series of what I would call fortunate events, I'm now a Nebraska resident, married into a family with Husker season tickets. As he does a couple of times a year, my father-in-law invited me to go with him to the Nebraska game.
I jumped at the chance.
With all that had been going on with the program over the last couple weeks – both on and off the field – I was curious to see how this game against Rutgers would go. I wasn't as interested in what was going to happen on the field, as I had a pretty good idea of how that would pan out. I wanted to see the Sea of Red, the fans – the heart and soul of Husker football. I wanted to see their faces, watch their body language and listen to the conversations before, during and after the game.
Let's just say I was constantly utilizing the "notes" application on my trusty smartphone.
At first glance, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. We parked in our normal spot south of the stadium and made our way up 10th Street, across the narrow bridge that goes over the railroad tracks.
And then, it began.
"GOOOOO BIIIIG REEEED!!!" one fan shouted. Normally, a thunderous chorus of "GO BIG RED!" is returned from the thousands of fans within earshot of the rally call. Today, however, only a smattering of half-hearted "Go Big Red" calls were returned. It reminded me of the forced applause received by Randy Watson in the Eddie Murphy classic Coming to America.
"The 90s were different", my father-in-law said quietly.
Almost across the bridge, I hear two students behind me talking about a couple of things, including the party they were heading to later. Then one asks the other, "who are we playing today?"
"Rutgers," his friend replied.
"What color are they?" he then asked.
His friend didn't know. So I turned around and said "red." Then he asks me "Where's Rutgers?" Stunned, I inform him of Rutgers' location in Piscataway, New Jersey. I had to bite my tongue to withhold giving him a lecture on the history of college football and Rutgers' place in it. Instead, I kept walking, stunned that a Big Ten student attending a Big Ten football game at a Big Ten stadium did not know where one of the Big Ten schools was located. I filed it away into my "Pssh, millennials" drawer.
We made our way into the stadium and everything went as it usually does. And then, during the Husker marching band's pregame performance, the public address announcer says to the crowd something to the effect of "please welcome our visitors from Rutgers" as the band begins to play Rutgers' fight song. Almost on cue, a man a few rows behind us yells "Please don't beat us!"
Nervous laughter ensues.
After all, this is Nebraska. Never in the wildest dreams of most of these fans could any of them imagine a must-win game against Rutgers, complete with the possibility of their head coach losing his job based on the outcome. But here we were.
The game quickly turned into a slugfest, and the emotions of the fans could be seen, felt and heard. As the Scarlet Knights methodically moved down the field on the opening drive, I saw heads shaking, heads hanging and faces in hands.
When Nebraska safety Aaron Williams was ejected for targeting on the drive, you heard boos and disappointment, but you also could feel the air come out of the crowd. Rutgers took the lead, and the dogfight was on.
A back-and-forth defensive tilt commenced, with Husker fans remaining relatively quiet. Then, a little over a minute and a half into the second quarter, Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee tossed his nation-leading eighth interception of the young season via a throw that didn't need to be made. The boos rained down and the mood in the Sea of Red got worse.
The roller coaster of emotions continued moments later in the quarter, when Nebraska's DeMornay Pierson-El returned a punt to the Rutgers four-yard line, setting up a go-ahead Nebraska score.
Halftime came, and though the Huskers led 14-10, there was little applause from the fans. It was hot, and their team was in a tough game, again, with Rutgers.
Less than a minute into the second half, Tanner Lee tossed his ninth interception of the year – this time a pick-six. The boos rained down again, as fans within earshot yelled "Get him outta there." When Lee took the field on the ensuing drive, the entire student section erupted into the loudest chorus of boos all day, some sadly directed at their fellow student, some directed at the coaching staff's decision to put him back in the game.
An old man in the row behind me says "Anybody want two season tickets for the rest of the year?"
Then and only then did it seem like Nebraska head coach Mike Riley and his staff knew what needed to be done if they were to win the game. From Bill Callahan to Bo Pelini and now Riley, the Nebraska offense has evolved from a powerful and dominant rushing attack and into a hodge-podge of West Coast spread, zone read, bubble-screen then chuck it downfield madness. It wore on the fans. That's not how Nebraska wins. It's never been how Nebraska wins.
Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf then leaned on the only power back the Huskers had healthy on their roster – Devine Ozigbo. Fans had been calling for him all season, as up until the Rutgers game you could count his carries on one hand. Ozigbo's size and running style are the embodiment of everything that was once great about Husker football. He ran with power, anger and violence – just like Lawrence Phillips once did.
Nebraska rode Ozigbo to a couple of clock-killing drives that gave the Huskers a 10-point lead, essentially sealing the deal. That would be enough, as Rutgers’ offense hadn't done much all day that indicated they would be able to overcome that deficit.
With six minutes left to go in the game, a visibly exhausted fan base began filing out of the stadium, relieved – not satisfied – that the home team had secured victory.
My father-in-law stayed right to the end, as he likes to do, both to watch the team gather for a postgame prayer and to applaud the visiting team as they left the field – a once great Nebraska tradition. Nobody near us in the 63rd row of the southwest corner of the stadium stayed to applaud. Maybe a dozen or so fans below us, right above the Rutgers tunnel, were applauding.
We left the stadium and it was once again time for the narrow bridge walk over the tracks on 10th Street. Heads hung, girls took selfies and quiet conversations could be heard. My ears were wide open, and I did not hear a single fan mention anything that had to do with the game. Instead, it was as if these fans had come to Memorial Stadium on this day just to make sure the train didn't roll completely off the tracks. There was again, a sense of relief, but also the feeling of anxiety.
The fans had learned very little about their team on this day. After all, this was a slugfest with Rutgers, a game Nebraska had to win and almost didn't.
As we rode back to Omaha, I tried to imagine a high school kid halfway across the country watching this Husker game. What would he see? What would he want to emulate? Would he even know the game was on?
This is Nebraska football now.