Nebraska Football: An Essay On Rivalry

rivalry (noun): competition or fighting between people, businesses, or organizations who are in the same area and want the same things.

Collins Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

I am 53 years old, and have been a Nebraska football fan since my father took me to Memorial Stadium for the first time in 1976. So, yes, it’s his fault.

In that time, I have watched Nebraska be a dominant national power in college football. I’ve watched it rise to the top of its conference, only to be frustrated at attempting to reach the pinnacle of the sport. I’ve watched it reach that peak, and stand astride the mountaintop for five glorious years. I’ve also watched Nebraska fall back to earth, slowly at first, then faster as the descent steepened.

But in all those decades of watching college football, I never really understood what a rivalry meant. Not until Friday night.

Growing up, Nebraska fans liked to fancy themselves as a rival to Oklahoma. And sure, Nebraska-Oklahoma in the days of the Big 8 produced memorable games and storylines.

But Oklahoma wasn’t ever really Nebraska’s rival. In part, it’s because Oklahoma never really thought of Nebraska as a rival. Sure, things usually came down to beating Nebraska for Oklahoma to win a conference title and play for a national championship.

That was (and is) different, though, than Oklahoma beating Texas. Beating Texas was (and is) everything for Oklahoma. In college football terms, Nebraska was just a side piece for Oklahoma.

I always thought that was the reason why Oklahoma-Nebraska never felt like a rival the way “real” rivalries like Ohio State-Michigan, Cal-Stanford, Ole Miss-Mississippi State, or any other of those rivalries were. But I was wrong, because I didn’t understand the missing piece.

When Nebraska joined the B1G and Iowa took up the Black Friday spot, I remember there being lots of talk about how Nebraska-Iowa could become a natural rivalry. In my hubris at the time, I remember saying that we’d only know if it was a rivalry when Nebraska had a losing record and was still overjoyed to beat Iowa to keep the Hawkeyes from a conference title.

How silly, I thought at the time. How impossible that scenario seemed a mere decade ago.

We know where Nebraska football has been since then. Losing season after losing season. Losing to Iowa again. And again. And again. And after each loss, living with friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers wearing black and gold and reminding us (some more politely than others) of the scoreboard.

When I was younger, I thought winning nine or ten games then losing just before reaching the pinnacle was pain. I thought I understood what that frustration and anger was having to settle for “minor” New Year’s Day bowl games.

That wasn’t pain. Husker Fan. You know what pain is now. You’ve lived it for the last half-decade.

(To be clear, we are talking pain in a sports-fandom context. It’s obviously not real pain, and to confuse it as such is an insult to the truly suffering. But the joy of sports is to be able to invest such passion in something so utterly meaningless. And in that context, Nebraska fans’ pain has been searing).

That’s what made the fourth quarter so gut-wrenching. A 24-point lead going into the fourth quarter should have felt insurmountable. But we’ve seen this movie before. We knew when Rahmir Johnson fumbled that Nebraska had found oh, so many creative ways to lose games and break hearts. At some level, muscle memory kicked in and we were ready for yet another preposterous, mind-boggling, soul-melting ending that would see the Heroes Trophy in Iowa’s hands yet again.

And then it didn’t happen. When Chris Kolarevic intercepted Alex Padilla with 42 seconds left – and when Casey Thompson executed a victory formation snap without fumbling – Nebraska fans finally got to feel what it is to end seven years of misery and frustration against your neighbors who would have gladly smashed their metaphorical boot in your face forever.

I can only speak for myself. I’ve watched Nebraska try to get past Oklahoma for years. I’ve watched Nebraska get oh-so-close to titles for years and come up short. I’ve watched Nebraska finally win national titles.

But I’ve never felt the way I did when Thompson’s knee hit the Kinnick Stadium turf that one last time on Friday.

Because now I finally get it. Rivalries are born out of pain. They’re forged in the crucible of all that defeat and frustration that comes from watching your neighbor experience the joy you ache for, and remind you about it every day for the following year.

The University of Nebraska has played college football since 1890. Nebraska has been nationally famous for football for over half a century. But Nebraska has never truly had a rival, at least not in the modern era of college football. It does now. That’s how a sloppy victory to end a 4-8 season can reduce a grown man to tears.

Thanks, Dad. Without you, I never would have experienced any of this.

GBR, baby.

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