I grew up in a small suburban town on the southernmost tip of Omaha, where the rolling hills of the Missouri valley meet the flats of the Platte River basin.
To the north of our modest home was the largest city in Nebraska: almost a half-million people in a rapidly expanding matrix of communities gobbling up the unlimited real estate of the western plains. To the south, only a bike ride’s distance over the hill, were majestic cornfields planted in one of the few remaining reservoirs of rich black topsoil on earth.
A Thousand Miles from the Rest of the World
If you look at a map of the United States, Nebraska is about as far away from New York, Los Angeles, Texas, or any foreign country as you could possibly get in the United States. Glitz, fame, and fortune were just things that we saw on TV.
Even though we didnâ€™t have all the attractions of a major metropolitan area, we made the most of what we did have. As soon as we were old enough to go outside, we learned to play in the dirt. It made us tough. It made us aware and proud of the space we lived in.
It’s in the Blood
As soon as I could grip a football with two hands, I aspired to run the triple-option. I’d fake the handoff to my mom, get my dad to commit to the run and pitch the ball to my best friend who would run it in for a touchdown.
If you haven’t heard, Nebraska is football country. The heartbeat of the state lives and dies for Saturdays in the fall when Nebraskans from all over the nation flood the aisles of Memorial Stadium to create the state’s third-largest population center (behind Omaha and Lincoln).
Without another nationally recognized sports team to compete with, college football gets the undivided attention of Nebraskans. The collective hopes, dreams, and pride of the state are focused on one team.
The Roots Run Deep
The lure of Nebraska football runs deep. It’s hard to explain to an outsider because it’s intangible, instinctive… almost spiritual. It’s the fourth most-motivating factor to Nebraskan’s behind food, water, and shelter.
…and it’s not just because weâ€™ve won five national championships. Nebraskans connect to the football program because of the way the winning was done.
Character has always been extremely important to the football program. Likewise, character has always been extremely important to Nebraskans. Whether the football program influenced the character of Nebraskans or Nebraskans influenced the character of the football program might just be a classic chicken-and-egg scenario.
One thingâ€™s for sure: the synergy between the football program and the people of Nebraska has powerfully strengthened the character of all whoâ€™s lives have been touched.
I was lucky enough to have three father figures as a child: My own father, my grandfather, and Nebraska coach Tom Osborne. Each taught me lasting lessons about how to live my life.
Osborne took over the coaching job in 1973, just two years before my birth. He coached for over thirty years and capped off an inspiring career by winning national championships in 1994, 1995, and in 1997: his final year. Even though I never played football for Osborne, I was lucky enough to be a student at the University of Nebraska in each of his championship years.
You didn’t have to be a football player for Osborne to be your coach. The strength of his message was so strong, it resonated with all of us.
Tom Osborne the coach symbolized the character of Nebraska. He wasnâ€™t flashy or big-headed. He was humble. He expected hard work without complaint from his team. He was competitive, yet respectful of his opponents.
He was steadfast in his approach, never wavering from his goal. Option football was declared dead long before he finished his career with three championships. Even when his approach came under scrutiny, he held strong to his principles and rode them to victory.
The football team under Osborne was living proof that anything could be accomplished with hard work and character. As a whole, his teams were never the most talented in the nation; but they were the most hard-working and cohesive.
It was common for a walk-on player from a small town in Nebraska to work his way into a starting position. Year after year, the most talented players in the nation would pass up Nebraska for flashier teams in Florida, California, or Texas; only to get beat by the hungrier walk-ons and work horses that chose Nebraska for the love of the game.
It was immensely inspiring. Iâ€™d have to say that I owe my belief in self-determinism in large part to these kinds of examples.
Even at the top, Nebraskans expected the highest standards of their players. While other teams were filled with trash-talk, endzone dances, and individual displays; Nebraska players were strictly business.
Ahman Green on Jim Rome
The impact of this philosophy was made crystal clear to me a few years ago when I heard former star Husker running back Ahman Green on a radio interview with Jim Rome. Ahman is roughly my age and went to high school in Omaha not far from me. After college, he went on to play for the Green Bay Packers.
I like listening to Jim Rome because even though he’s tough, he’s one of the few remaining commentators who sticks up for character and responsibility in sports. I wish I had a transcript from the interview, but to the best of my memory it went something like this:
Rome asked Green why he never got overly excited after scoring a touchdown like most of the other guys in the NFL. Green said that it went back to his playing days at Nebraska. When guys would get cocky after scoring, Tom Osborne would tell them:
â€œAct like youâ€™ve been there before.â€
That infinite wisdom stuck with Ahman Green even after making millions in the NFL.
A Simple Man
The video at the end of this article includes Tom Osborneâ€™s last speech as a football coach. If you didnâ€™t know who he was, you might have expected more fire, flash, shock and awe from a coach’s speech; but to those whoâ€™s lives heâ€™s touched, it shows the strength of his character.
At the time of this speech, his team had just gone undefeated; however, there was still some question as to whether or not theyâ€™d win the vote for the championship (for those who donâ€™t know college football, there isnâ€™t a playoff like every normal sport in the world, and it causes a lot of headaches).
Instead of campaigning to the voters with a flashy speech declaring himself the victor, he simply said:
â€œI donâ€™t know that a whole lot of talking now is going to do any good, we did it out there on the field. Letâ€™s just tell â€˜em hey, let â€˜em vote.â€
Instrument of Communication
Football is how Nebraskans communicate with the rest of the world. We donâ€™t have a massive film industry, or financial markets, or vacation destinations for everyone to get to know us. Our voices are heard when ESPN Gameday broadcasts live from Memorial Stadium.
We know our message is getting out when, time after time, opposing coaches interviewed after the game confess how impressed they were when their team was cheered off the field by victorious Husker fans.
On November 3, 1962, Nebraska played Missouri at home in Memorial Stadium. Every seat was sold and Nebraska went on to win its first bowl game that year.
This game wasn’t especially significant, except for the fact that it marked the beginning of one of the most amazing streaks in College Football. Every seat in every game for the next 35 years, continuing to this day, has been sold-out; an NCAA record of 283 consecutive sellouts.
To put this record in perspective you have to consider that Nebraska has the smallest population of any state in the Big XII (1.8 million vs 23.5 million for Texas); yet the average game attendance is 85,044 (second to Texas’ 88,505).
Nebraska fans are known for their propensity to travel. When the team goes on the road, the fans follow; sometimes overtaking the stadiums of their opponents. The message is loyalty and respect. Most people who have come into contact with Nebraska fans commend them for being respectful.
Sports and Life
I’m not sure if I completely grasped the significance of Husker Football on the lives of Nebraskans when I was younger. Even though I was a huge fan, I think I started to believe, like many people, that sports weren’t important in the grand scheme of life. It was easy to write off the past-time of following football as a hobby, or inconsequential to anything else but entertainment value.
In reality, sports are a metaphor for life. Each of us lives in a constant struggle between competition and character, and sports can provide a roadmap for how to navigate life. Some people favor competition at all costs. Others favor character at the expense of competition.
The model that I grew up on is a balance between competition and character. A football team provided that example to me and it stuck. I’m not ashamed to admit that I view the world through scarlet glasses, and it has helped to make me who I am today.
It’s been over ten years since I’ve lived in Nebraska, but I still carry it with me. I’ve since lived in Europe, New York, Texas, and now in Los Angeles. My perspective on the western world is fairly rounded, and I have to say: there’s something special about Nebraskans and those who respect the Nebraska tradition.
Mac Brown is the head coach for the Texas Longhorns. His team won the national championship in dramatic fashion during the 2005 season. I saw him in a press interview before taking his team into Lincoln during the following season. The reigning champion was humbled going into Nebraska and credited Tom Osborne and the Husker tradition as the model he used in building his championship dynasty.
It’s no mistake that so many people from this little state have gone on to achieve great success: Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando, Warren Buffett, Gerald Ford, Willa Cather, and Johnny Carson just to name a few.
Even today, a whole new generation of Nebraskans are leaving a mark on the world including Oscar-winning director Alexander Payne (Sideways), and the band 311. I wouldn’t be surprised if Husker football left an impact on their lives as well.
To those outside of Nebraska, it might seem a little strange to think that a sports team could have this much impact on a community; but every Nebraskan considers him or herself a Husker. Membership to such an elite legacy comes with great responsibility. Every Nebraskan holds him or herself to an extremely high standard.
As the world becomes increasingly connected, more and more Husker fans are moving away from their homeland in search of jobs and new adventures. As we blend into the rest of the world, I sense a vast yearning for the character that Nebraska tradition represents.
In this increasingly complex and violent world, each human would do well to consider the characteristics of ancient Nebraska tradition:
Until that day comes, you can find me with good friends watching the Husker game.
Husker Page on ESPN
Husker Football on Wikipedia
(Featured photo by Katrina J Houdek)