Husker Football: More than a Game

by Drew Guiney

 

I don’t want to mince words, but I’m not sure how else to say it. Sometimes it can be hard to be a Husker fan.

See, I was spoiled as a kid. I was one of the lucky ones who got to grow up in the greatest era of Nebraska football. Sure, you could argue that this team or that team was the best team in the impressive history of a storied college football program, but in my first 10 years on this planet, the Cornhuskers won three national titles. We were unstoppable.

Then, my world came crashing down. I specifically remember watching the Nebraska-Arizona State game at a family friend’s house in the fall of 1996.

We went undefeated in 1993, before losing in the National Championship to Florida State. Then, we won 25-straight games, including two National Championships. So, when my beloved Huskers, the top-ranked team in the country, lost to Arizona State, I simply didn’t understand. How could this happen? We didn’t lose football games. So, I did what I’m sure many of my young fellow Huskers did in houses just like that one across the state. I threw a fit. I caused a scene. I was a brat. But, in my defense, I had been spoiled.

That night, my dad literally gave me the, “We Can’t Win ‘Em All, Son” speech, which, in retrospect, was a lesson I needed to learn, but one I never wish I had.

Since Tom Osborne’s retirement as Nebraska’s head Football Coach, the program has seen its share of ups and downs. From Frank Solich to Bill Callahan to Bo Pelini, Nebraska fans saw more new coaches in the first 10 seasons after Osborne’s retirement than they had in the previous 35.

The program reached its low point in recent history under Bill Callahan. In his four seasons at the helm, Callahan had a losing record in two separate seasons, the program’s first and second since 1961.

However, after Pelini took control of the program in 2008, the Huskers have experienced relative stability. In the four years since he started at Nebraska, Pelini has never won fewer than nine games in a season and never failed to reach a post-season bowl.

After a 9-4 season in 2011, hopes were high going into 2012. The Huskers had a much more favorable schedule, playing both Wisconsin and Michigan at home. Taylor Martinez had gained a lot of attention for his commitment to becoming a better passer in the offseason, and was back to lead an offense loaded with weapons, including senior I-back Rex Burkhead. On the other side of the ball, the Blackshirts were loaded with experienced upperclassmen, returning six players who had started 10 or more games.

The Huskers started off strong in their first game of the season. Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez had a career day passing, and although they beat Southern Miss convincingly at home, many people were already looking ahead to their next game on the road against UCLA.

In a star-studded matchup between two Top 25 teams, the Huskers ultimately fell to the Bruins 36-30 in the fourth quarter of a slugfest in Pasadena.

The Huskers went on to win their next three matchups, including a nail-biter against Wisconsin. The Huskers made up for several first half miscues to erase a 17-point third quarter deficit—the second largest in school history. After the emotional win, fans were excited to take on the 12th-ranked Buckeyes the following week.

The Huskers raced out to an early 17-7 lead, but once the wheels of Ohio State’s offense got rolling, they were difficult to stop. The Buckeye’s 63 points was the fourth highest total allowed by a Nebraska defense. Nebraska also had four turnovers on offense, which came back to haunt them in the blowout loss in Columbus.

Although many fans were dejected by the loss, the Huskers seemed to turn things around quickly. Nebraska won the next six games, earning them a spot in the Big Ten Championship against a 7-5 Wisconsin team whom they had already beaten during the regular season.

Husker fans were ecstatic. We were back where we belonged—playing for conference titles. Many fans were already smelling roses, booking flights and hotels to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.

This time, however, there was no heroic comeback. Wisconsin beat us. Badly. It was embarrassing. The impressive running back trio of Monte Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon led the way on the ground for the Badgers. Nebraska surrendered an all-time high 539 rushing yards and allowed the second-highest point total, giving up 10 touchdowns to the Badgers.

Despite the loss, Nebraska still had a 10-3 record and earned a spot in the Capitol One Bowl against SEC powerhouse Georgia. The Huskers lost another big game that afternoon in a dogfight against the Bulldogs, ending the season on an even more sour note.

The Huskers ended the 2012 season with a two-loss streak. To make matters worse, the final loss marked the third consecutive year that Nebraska had failed to win a bowl game. Again, I don’t want to mince words. Football is a big deal in Nebraska. So, having to wait nine months for an opportunity to get that bad taste out of your mouth doesn’t sit well with most folks.

However, retribution came a few months early for most due to a special moment at the annual Red-White Spring Game.

The Spring Game is really a glorified practice, but that doesn’t stop thousands of fans from heading to Lincoln to catch a glimpse of their Huskers. After a few months to regroup, fans were excited about the possibilities of next season. It was time to start fresh, to get the bad taste of last season out of our mouth and breathe in the virility of our young up-and-comers.

But it wasn’t Martinez, Kenny Bell or Jamal Turner who impressed fans the most that day. In fact, it was someone no one expected, someone much younger. In an emotional moment, Husker fans and football fans everywhere experienced one of the better moments in sports as Jack Hoffman took the field for the Red Team.

Hoffman, a young man battling pediatric brain cancer had been more or less adopted by the team via his relationship with running back Rex Burkhead, trotted onto the field wearing the number 22 jersey of his friend and favorite player. He took the handoff from Martinez and then reversed field before running 69-yards to the end zone for the final score.

On a Saturday afternoon in early April, Husker fans found the hope they were looking for. It was a little boy sprinting towards the end zone. And, although the team was there with him every step of the way, hoisting him on their shoulders after he crossed the goal line, it was young Jack Hoffman who was lifting the spirits of the entire country that day, putting everything into perspective.

Watching Hoffman cross the goal line that day reminded me of when I was eight years old. It reminded me of a lesson my dad had taught me, one that I hadn’t wanted to learn at the time. Football, like life, is not always about who wins and who loses; it’s about how you play the game. And that day, no one played it better than Jack.

I’m not sure how else to say it, but it is truly great to be a Husker. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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