Buckle your chinstrap, Bevo.
This isn't the Nebraska you laid eyes on 12 autumns ago.
On Halloween 1998, underdog Texas marched into Memorial Stadium, edged Nebraska and erased its 47-game home winning streak.
Husker fans, fat and happy from one of the finest five-year spurts in college football history, saluted Texas, even chanting “Heisman” as Ricky Williams left the field.
“There's never been a better sportsmanship moment in my life,” said Mack Brown, a first-year Texas coach in 1998.
Since then, the programs have traded positions in the Big 12 football hierarchy. They have bickered over conference rules — and over a Big 12 trophy. They have pointed the finger at each other as the league lay on its deathbed.
Nebraska bolted. Texas stayed. And on Oct. 16, the 'Horns are scheduled to make one final visit to Lincoln.
Mild-mannered flat-landers need no reminder. They're spewing so much rage these days, you'd think a dust bowl was brewing.
Long before Nebraska's athletic marketing department poked the bully with a rah-rah video, a father from Elmwood posed for pictures with a dead animal. A youth football coach in Lincoln begged for a day off. A retired fan from Omaha pinched pennies to save up for a ticket.
A 91-year-old woman nurtured tomatoes in the summer heat, thinking about Mack Brown and wondering what ever happened to integrity.
Not since Oklahoma in the 1980s have Nebraska fans focused so intently on one opponent before the season. But Texas 2010 may be even bigger. It's cultural. It's political.
“You can't walk around Lincoln and have a conversation about football season without hearing Oct. 16 in the first sentence,” says Troy Terwilliger, a Lincoln hotel sales director. “I want to play it right now.”
All 231 rooms at Terwilliger's Holiday Inn are sold; the cheapest ones went for $299 per night. Terwilliger says he could've set the rates at $500 to $700, and he would've sold every room.
Tickets? A seat in the north end zone, row 93, is running $228 on stubhub.com. That's the cheapest in the house.
On Monday, Nebraska returns to Dallas — scene of the 2009 Big 12 championship controversy — for conference media days, the unofficial start of football season. A conference championship is on the Husker agenda. Maybe even a national title.
But for many fans, the priority is Oct. 16.
Says Adam Offner: “This Texas thing is like a war.”
Off with its head
Offner is a proud father of three. He works at a state park. Helps his elderly neighbor with her yard. Coaches T-ball — and buys each kid a medal at season's end.
A month ago, he pulled into the meat plant in Elmwood, Neb., where he picks up a few hours on the weekends.
Near the cattle chute, he noticed a massive steer head, its horns stretching five feet tip to tip.
Would you believe it: a real longhorn!
A farmer from Seward had brought it in to be slaughtered.
“The lightbulb went on immediately,” Offner said.
He ran home, grabbed his Husker hat and camera and called over the meat plant owner for assistance. He turned the 150-pound head toward the camera, knelt behind it, grabbed the horns and smiled.
He's thinking about printing the photo on a T-shirt and wearing it Oct. 16.
“I don't know if the animal rights people would approve of it,” he said.
Offner's dad was a former Husker. Mike Offner carried Tom Osborne off the field after Osborne's first bowl game, the 1974 Cotton Bowl, where Nebraska drubbed Texas.
NU didn't see the Longhorns again until the Big 12 Conference. Didn't take long for Nebraska and Texas to snipe over key conference rules, like academic standards.
Texas seemingly won every fight, contributing to the Huskers' demise after Osborne retired.
They met in the inaugural Big 12 championship game, and that duel began a string of dramatic finishes.
See if you can spot the pattern:
In '96, James Brown rolled left and converted the fourth down that ruined Nebraska's chance at three straight national titles. NU lost as a three-touchdown favorite.
Then the home upset in 1998, when Major Applewhite rolled right and floated a pass on third-and-goal with 2:47 left. Touchdown. Texas wins.
Then the '99 defeat in Austin, Nebraska's only setback that season. The Huskers saw five drives stall out in Texas territory.
Then the 2002 gut-punch, when the Huskers mounted a furious fourth-quarter rally. Frank Solich could've kicked a field goal and gone to overtime. Instead, Jammal Lord was intercepted in the end zone with 10 seconds left.
In 2006, Offner was at Memorial Stadium when the skies opened up and dropped snow just after Nebraska took a 20-19 lead.
“The whole stadium was jumping up and down and we thought, ‘This is it.' Then Terrence Nunn fumbled that ball.
“It just seems like God won't let us beat 'em.”
Three years after the snowstorm, the clock was pushing 11 p.m., when Adam Offner's neighbor darn near lost her manners.
Lucile Laughlin fell in love with the Huskers in Osborne's day. She wears an old Herbie Husker T-shirt. She doesn't miss an article in the paper, let alone a game on TV.
So you should've seen her that Saturday night when officials at the Big 12 championship game put one second back on the clock — after 91-year-old Lucile had begun celebrating victory over Texas.
“My neighbor is the same age as I am and we both just about died over that,” Lucile says. She turns 92 in August. She can't wait for October.
“I try not to have ill will; it don't do you any good. I just feel ashamed of them. I'm ashamed they had to go to that depth. ... I would go down in defeat before I'd do that.
“You reap what you sow. If you do a dirty thing like that, you'll somehow get a slap back in your face. Don't you believe in that? When you do something like that, it's going to come back and bite you in the butt. Now you know what I feel.”
Actually, Lucile's not quite done.
“They put that second back up, and you thought you had seen the last of the good people. When people do things like that to win, they might as well all fall in the ditch, hadn't they?”
Lucile has a one-acre garden in Elmwood, and come fall, she shares the goods with friends around town. This season will be something to behold, she says. The finest tomato crop she's ever had.
Lucile grabs her gloves and heads back to the garden. But first, an invitation. Come down to Elmwood and see the tomatoes, she says.
“I'll even give you one when they get ripe.”
Dave Cisar doesn't have time for tomatoes. He travels the country for work. On weekends, he coaches a football team in Nebraska's largest youth league.
Ninety teams. Half play on Saturday, half on Sunday.
Oct. 16 is a Saturday.
“I've been praying daily we're not on the schedule that day,” said Cisar, whose family has had Nebraska season tickets since 1964.
The league schedule comes out in two weeks. And Cisar isn't the only one nervous.
The day after Nebraska announced its decision to leave the Big 12, the youth league president started getting e-mails — five, 10, 25 — from parents and coaches proclaiming Oct. 16 a state holiday.
Cisar has coached youth football for 21 years. He missed a half when his wife went into labor. Never a full game, though.
He's already made a decision about Oct. 16. If his team draws the short straw, it'll play for a different coach.
No streak lasts forever.
No welcome mat
Scott Whitehill graduated from Omaha Benson in 1975. Moved to Texas in 1984.
One of his first memories upon reaching the Lone Star State was a bumper sticker: “Welcome to Texas — Now go home!”
Whitehill persevered. Worked for American Airlines in Dallas for 24 years.
He was at the arrival gate in 1996 when Texas fans returned from the inaugural Big 12 title game sporting burnt orange championship T-shirts and toothy grins.
“The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I'm sure my face turned 12 shades of red. Being on duty, I couldn't say much. ... It was eight hours of seeing that damn T-shirt over and over and over.”
That was the day he fell in hate with Texas football.
Last year, Whitehill retired and moved back to Omaha. He's had his eye on Oct. 16 much longer.
He sees ticket prices hovering around $500.
He's offered to sell his 1970 national championship banner, or his 1979 Chevy Blazer — he calls it an antique. He's even considered parting with Beau.
“A good dog,” Whitehill says, “but I don't know if he's worth $500.”
Whitehill sees Oct. 16 as a watershed moment. A springboard for the next two decades, a day that propels Nebraska to national championships. He compares this period to the first few years under Bob Devaney.
“We are at the same point of possibility.”
Which is why, even if he doesn't get a ticket, Whitehill may drive to Lincoln on Oct. 16 and soak up the atmosphere, just so he can be there the night the Huskers welcome Texas.
And tell them to go home.
Adam Offner already has a ticket for Oct. 16. He says the game isn't about trophies or BCS bowl games or national rankings.
It's about a way of life. It's about who's right.
To him, it's about humble, hard-working, small-town Nebraska standing up to arrogant, greed-infected, politically potent Texas. It's about saying, “We don't care how big you are. We'll mess with Texas. Because we're Nebraska.”
Offner will watch five Husker games before Oct. 16. He'll watch seven or eight more after that day.
But 2010 feels like a one-game season, he says. One chance to amend 14 years of frustration.
“Otherwise, they get the last word.”
A week after Offner posed with the horns, he returned to the meat plant. Went back to work, bagging 22 pounds of longhorn jerky. Before he placed it in the cooler, he sampled a few bites.
Wonderful, he said.
“It was like I was eating Bevo.”
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