In Nebraska, Big Red sea floods Lincoln each Saturday during football season


LINCOLN, Neb. -- My motel is on Cornhusker Highway, if that gives you an idea about this place. I had to say "Go Big Red!" three times to get my room cleaned. But then what can you expect for $25.95, 10 blocks from the football stadium?

Saturday, all roads lead to Lincoln as 74,000-seat Memorial Stadium becomes the third-largest population area in the state for the University of Nebraska's game against Washington.

There is no Nebraska State, no NFL, not much of anything. This is the only game in town. For that matter, it's the only game in the state and in the mind.

In the crowd will be Leona Thompson from Hemingford, a tiny town 420 miles across the state. Leona, 90, hasn't missed a home game since 1949.

"It's crazy, it's fabulous, it's unbelievable," said Susie Nordquist, a Nebraska graduate from Bellevue, Wash. "There just can't be any place like Lincoln for a football game."

Next to Omaha, Lincoln is Nebraska's largest city, with a population of nearly 188,000. Memorial Stadium is a big part of Lincoln's skyline, situated only a few blocks from downtown and the state-capital mall.

But then there is nothing incidental about the campus or the stadium or the football team: It is Nebraska, as much a part of the fabric and soul of the place as the pink pigs and silky stalks of corn that dominate the rest of the state's landscape.

"I've been all over the country -- Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, the Carolinas; I even lived near Seattle," said a man at the Lincoln airport, "and there ain't nothing like Big Red football. Those fans just never give up."

Jon Bostick, Nebraska's senior wide receiver from Bellevue, Wash., enjoyed games at Husky Stadium in Seattle, but said they can't be compared to games played at Nebraska.

"You wouldn't necessarily know there was a game at Washington if you drove into Seattle on a Saturday morning," he said. In Lincoln, "there will be no doubt there is a game" here Saturday, he said. "All the restaurants will have signs up predicting the score. The town will be red from one end to the other. Radios will be on everywhere.

"I dated a girl whose parents are farmers," Bostick said. "They fly the Nebraska flag over their house and invite people from all over to come and listen to the game. Not everyone can get tickets, but everyone can be proud of their football team."

There are other hotbeds for college football: Baton Rouge, La.; South Bend, Ind.; Athens, Ga.; Norman, Okla.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Ann Arbor, Mich.

And while this stadium has been sold out every game since 1962 during a span in which the Cornhuskers have won two national titles and produced two Heisman Trophy winners, it is the civility of the crowd that most distinguishes it; that and the red color that oozes from every shirt, blouse, jacket and heart.

Stan Baldwin, a Cornhusker fan from Hebron, Neb., wrote to me, explaining the phenomenon.

"Our fans are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but you can bring your momma. She won't get roughed up for wearing UW's colors.

"And if your team plays with special skill or courage, as I expect them to, stick around for the traditional "Standing O" as they leave the field at the final gun -- win or lose."

Bostick smiled when I read the letter to him.

"Can you see Husky fans clapping as WSU walks off the field?" he asked. Especially if the Cougars had won.

After underdog Florida State upset the third-ranked Cornhuskers in 1980, the crowd gave the visiting Seminoles a standing ovation. Bobby Bowden, the Florida State coach, responded with a letter thanking the hosts.

The tradition has taken on such a life of its own that Tom Osborne, the Nebraska coach, made an appeal this week for the fans to get a little more excited about Nebraska and show a little less hospitality toward the visitors.

"In no way do we want outlandish incidents," he said. "We want people treated with respect. I admire our fans for that. But I wouldn't mind a little enthusiasm this week."

The crowd is elderly.

"Those people opposite the students have been there forever," said Pat Engelbert, a senior middle guard for the Huskers. "I think the coach would like to get them clapping a little more."

Old or young, there is a basic pride in the Cornhuskers, as just about the finest thing Nebraska produces. Osborne has the best record of any active coach, and the team has not won fewer than nine games in a season since 1968.

"I think people support the Cornhuskers as a way of expressing their loyalty to this part of the country and the American way," Nordquist said. "People have been put down about Nebraska for years as a cow state, a pig state and corn state. Football gives us tremendous recognition.

"There is a spirit here that is missing on both coasts, a lack of glitz and phoniness. It's fun to see men and women wearing red polyester pants."

Wrote Baldwin: "It's college football season, God is good, and the Huskers are playin' at home."

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