SPORTSTAKE: An inevitable Husker nation
By Faiz Siddiqui
It’s the night of Oct. 8, 2011, and I’m nestled high up in the stands of a crowded Memorial Stadium, with a backwards-facing Nebraska hat on my head, a souvenir cup of Mountain Dew in hand and a vague inkling in the back of my mind that I don’t belong.
‘My’ Huskers have just rallied from 21 down against the Buckeyes of my actual home state, and I’ve just begun feigning excitement. A UNL freshman with no real business bleeding Husker red, I’m now gloating to friends in Cincinnati, smack-talking followers on Twitter, and — in true non-Nebraskan fashion — texting my brother (an OSU grad) something along the lines of “suck on that.”
(Evidently, I hadn’t yet grasped the “polite fanhood” Nebraskans exude. I still think the terms are mutually exclusive.)
As the guy podmates at work still call “the city kid,” I’ve struggled to understand Husker Nation for the better part of 18 months now. I could never fully grasp ‘religious’ worship of a measly bunch of athletes — how the collective psyche of an entire state can rest on the shoulders of a few insipid Hulks. I guess rooting for the Cincinnati Bengals for the better part of 19 years teaches you there’s “more to life than football.”
Recently, I spoke with Karl Vogel, columnist for the Lincoln Journal Star, to address my glaring incomprehension. Mostly, I wanted to figure out why I stuck out like a sore thumb trying to embed myself within the Husker fanbase. Through our email conversation, I learned one valuable lesson: to truly understand Nebraska fans, you first have to recognize their story.
Home to 1.8 million of the nation’s downright nicest – people described as “Nebraska-nice” — Nebraska is an agrarian state where residents still say things like “worsh” and “crick” and “ki-yote.” It’s a place where the only skylines are dotted by corn grain elevators, where city streets abruptly end in treeless prairie, where people like me are what’s considered “diversity.”
But as Vogel put it: in athletes, a hardworking, blue-collar population sees a reflection of itself.
“The Cornhusker moniker conjures images of men and women with calloused hands from working the land and tearing husks off corn just to eke out a relatively meager living.”
Football, you see, is Nebraska.
While 100-or-so men grind it out on the gridiron in Coach Pelini’s practices during the week, another 16 line up on freshly-plowed fields in Hebron, Bancroft, Howells – where high schools are too small to sustain full teams. Meanwhile, thousands work the farm, dirtying their hands as they dig, plant, water, plow, thresh, shuck, dig –
These are Cornhuskers.
And they identify with their team in a way an Ohio State “Buckeye” could never imagine. Even residents of Omaha and Lincoln cling to their farm roots.
Which explains people were surprised when fans started booing and pouring out of the Memorial Stadium gates at halftime in 2007, when Nebraska trailed 38-0 to Oklahoma State. Booing the Huskers during a game? Like booing your daughter when she’s struggling through a math test.
It’s why fans buy up enough seats to turn opposing stadiums red like they did at South Bend in 2000. And why, on a Saturday 12 years later, a stranger in Evanston might have thought he was in a city two states to the West.
Sure, football is all Nebraska has. Vogel agrees. Furthermore, he says, being the sole attraction, the only source of national attention for an entire state, is what makes Nebraska’s program so special.
“There’s not much else to hang our hats on,” he says. “Warren Buffett? Kool-Aid? Dorothy Lynch salad dressing?”
Without the Huskers, restaurants would fail, morale would suffer and — rather than one tightly-knit community, as in scandal-ridden Penn State’s case – an entire state would be paralyzed.
So it’s natural that I sat in a crowd of 85,426 at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln that Saturday night, feeling mostly alone. From my non-rounded bill to my boastful demeanor, I was the furthest thing from a Nebraskan. In a way, I was damn proud of it.
But in another, I oozed with jealousy.