Nothing can keep Nebraska fans away
Warren Nelson Sr. laughed about it then, but he laughs even harder now. Cornhusker football tickets. Good seats. Free. No takers.
He tells you about the time his boss convinced him to tag along for a trip to Lincoln, Neb., for a home game at Memorial Stadium. This was in the late '40s or early '50s, B.D. (Before Devaney), The Bill Glassford Years. Nelson's boss knew some of the Nebraska coaches; heck, he'd even helped to provide shoes for the players.
"And this one day I went with him," recalls Nelson, now 89, retired and living in Bellevue, Neb., his voice rising with astonishment. "And he could not give his tickets away. Nobody would take them."
With that, Warren pauses. Then he chuckles again.
"So things," he says, "have changed tremendously."
On Saturday, Nebraska will honor 50 consecutive years of home sellouts at Memorial Stadium, a streak of 323 games in a row, a celebration of the perfect union of a program and its people.
It's a tradition so proud, so treasured locally, that when the Omaha World-Herald this summer asked readers to vote on their favorite Husker memories in a 64-team, NCAA-tournament-styled bracket, the sellout streak trounced every challenger — even beating the beloved "Blackshirts" defense in the bracket "final" by a voting margin of nearly 2 to 1.
The last time Memorial Stadium wasn't at capacity, the Cuban Missile Crisis was reaching its apex. The streak started Nov. 3, 1962, during a 16-7 home loss to Missouri. Paul McCartney was 20 years old, and most of the world hadn't heard of him yet; the Beatles had just released their first single, "Love Me Do," in the United Kingdom. The price of gas was 31 cents a gallon.
The state population is 1.82 million; university officials estimate that 24,048,577 have attended Huskers games since 1962 — or roughly 486,000 per year.
"There (are) no other fans like Nebraska fans. There's no one on the planet," offers Roger Craig, the former Huskers running back and three-time Super Bowl champion. "If we had a game on Mars, I guarantee you, our fans would try to find a way to get to Mars to watch us play. I swear to you, they would. They would do it. Man, they are committed."
Memorial Stadium: Come for the hot dogs. Stay for the football.
Warren Nelson Sr. has always been partial to Fairbury brand wieners, a Lincoln staple that was so beloved that when then-Huskers athletic director Bill Byrne attempted to replace it during the 1994 season with a national brand, the faithful wrote letters and called radio stations to complain.
To them, it wasn't just about the taste. It was about losing an old friend.
"It's kind of like a family deal up there," Warren Sr. says.
Neighbors in red, united in one heartbeat, one voice. Nelson hasn't missed a home game since 1947. You'll find him in his usual spot this weekend when Michigan comes to town: Section 7, Row 40, Seats 13 and 14.
Most years, his wife Cecilia sat next to him. These days, it's his son, Warren Jr., who played clarinet in the Huskers Marching Band back in the late '60s.
"I wore my wife out," Warren Sr. says.
Given a half century of commitment, Nebraska faithful's loyalty to the Huskers has lasted more than six times longer than an American's first marriage, according to a study in 2009 by the US Census Bureau, that set the median length of initial marriages at roughly eight years.
Which begs the question: For richer or poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, in rain and in snow (lots of snow), why have they kept coming back?
"Nebraskans are very loyal," offers Willis Regier, also of Bellevue, and a Huskers season-ticket holder since 1950. "If they are native Nebraskans, they've got it in their blood."
Regier is 93, a Big Red lifer in every sense of the word. He and his wife attended the university; so did their four children. He grew up in Hastings, Neb., the same hometown as Huskers coach/athletic director/Congressman/icon Tom Osborne.
"The interesting thing is, we live in Bellevue, which is full of military people," Regier says. "These military people come from all over the world, and they have their own sports interests. But they seem to adopt the Cornhuskers' attitude and the Cornhuskers' excitement, and it's amazing how many of these military people from all over the world have adopted the University of Nebraska."
John Hyland caught the Big Red bug as a kid in 1957 or '58. Admission for kids was 50 cents, and they could join "The Knothole Club." As he remembers it, girls sat on the north end and boys on the south end. Memorial Stadium was for football, serious football, not prepubescent flirtations.
"When you play football for Nebraska," says Hyland, who was a defensive end on the Huskers' 1971 national champions, "it's kind of a bigger-than-life experience."
For some, it starts as early as Thursday, as the line of red trickles into downtown Lincoln. By Friday night, O Street is a crimson Mardi Gras. Hyland remembers, growing up, how his uncle and aunt used to drive in every weekend from their ranch in north-central Nebraska, a four-hour pilgrimage, to witness the Huskers in person.
"You understand that it's a special place, and when you run out on the field on Saturday, that there's something different about it," Hyland said. "I played in the (Los Angeles) Coliseum, and I've been to (Oklahoma). I did see (that) Norman had a very similar kind of feel and atmosphere surrounding it. But they don't have the 50 years of sellouts, either."
Hyland — whose son, KC, is a walk-on receiver with the current Husker squad — has four seats on the west side of the stadium, passed down from his grandfather on his mother's side. In 2001, some Notre Dame alums happened to get a hold of a few spots adjacent to them during one of the Irish's rare visits.
"They always picked an away game, a guys' weekend trip," Hyland recalls. "They said, 'This place is absolutely the best place to come to a football game. Not just the game, but everything going on in and around downtown. People are so friendly and nice and inviting. We just don't see that in most venues we go to.'
"It's hard to explain. But it's more than a football game. It's an event."
Memorial Stadium: Come for the football. Stay for the rest of your life.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com