SEATTLE — A Big Red tide is about to wash across car-congested, caffeine-crazed Seattle.
The first Nebraska football fans flooding into this Pacific Northwest seaport arrive Wednesday for the weekend game with Washington. The trickle will build to a surge by Saturday, when an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 red-clad Nebraska fans pour into Husky Stadium.
The reinforcements will be greeted warmly by several hundred Huskers — true believers who have kept the embers of the faith burning in this damp, cool region since NU's win at Washington during the 1997 national championship season.
These transplanted Nebraskans call themselves the Washington Cornhuskers. They are a group of alumni and friends of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and they have been working on plans to paint Seattle red since the game was scheduled 3½ years ago.
“The response has been overwhelming,'' said Jason Grotelueschen of West Seattle, past president of the Washington Cornhuskers. “I've been fielding questions and requests for tickets since 2007.''
The Nebraska Alumni Association's 450 tickets and tour packages sold out in July, earlier than any previous migration game, said Diane Mendenhall, the group's executive director.
Interest has intensified because of Nebraska's strong finish last year, with a Holiday Bowl shutout over Arizona, and because Washington quarterback Jake Locker is a top-rated pro prospect.
“It's a big game,'' said Grotelueschen, a 1998 UNL graduate who grew up on a farm near Columbus, Neb. He is a website manager for Microsoft Corp.
Visiting fans will be wined and dined.
The Washington Cornhuskers arranged a “Nebraska Night'' at a Seattle Mariners baseball game, tee times at a public golf course with scenic views of the Space Needle and downtown skyline, a walking tour of historic Seattle, restaurant discounts and a variety of pre- and post-game events for visiting fans.
These Husker fans in a foreign land even licensed a Washington winery to sell a line of red and white table wines with a souvenir “Battle in Seattle'' label. The label features a Jeff Koterba cartoon of a big red N flag flying from the top of the Space Needle. Koterba is The World-Herald's editorial cartoonist.
The Seattle-based Husker organization — with about 225 households as members — is among the most active of the Nebraska Alumni Association's 63 chapters.
The group started in the 1970s, when a group of faithful NU alumni and fans gathered to watch the few nationally televised Husker football games each year. Now two football watch sites in the Seattle metropolitan area attract hundreds of Husker fans every game day for pay-for-view or network broadcasts. Thousands more listen to radio broadcasts.
“They fill us to the brim,'' said Mike Heelan, who operates O'Blarney's Irish Pub in Olympia, Wash.
“Washington is about the worst place to live if you own a sports bar,'' Heelan said. “The Mariners are miserable. The football team (Seattle Seahawks) is bottom-tier. The basketball team (Seattle SuperSonics) left town for Oklahoma. The Huskies were 4-5 last year in the Pac-10. Our biggest fan base is the Huskers.''
Heelan — whose parents, John and Eileen Heelan, are from Valentine, Neb. — said he quickly learned to admire Nebraska fans.
“They get here early. They watch every down,'' he said. “They don't leave when the team runs the score up or in the fourth quarter, whether it's close or not. I've never seen such loyalty to a football team.''
Nearly 300 Nebraska fans pushed the fire code occupancy limit at the area's other watch site — the Lucky 7 in Kirkland, Wash. — during a broadcast of the season-opening victory over Western Kentucky.
The sports bars tug at something deep in displaced Nebraskans.
“When I'm there, I'm around people from home,'' said Jim Burkhardt of Everett, Wash. Burkhardt, vice president of the Washington Cornhuskers, grew up in Grand Island and worked as a law enforcement officer in Minden and Fremont. He is a special agent for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and flies an N flag from a 20-foot pole in his front yard.
“When you live in Nebraska, you don't think much about the quality of people in Nebraska, but when you move away, you realize how true that is,'' Burkhardt said. “It's just like being back home.''
John Utecht, a medical helicopter pilot from Normandy Park, Wash., moved to the Seattle area in 1988. Utecht grew up in Lincoln and was a student manager for the Lincoln Southeast High School football team coached by Frank Solich, before Solich joined the NU staff.
A few years after arriving in Washington, Utecht noticed in the newspaper that a local radio station was broadcasting Nebraska games. He tuned in and heard a radio advertisement that a local sports bar featured televised Nebraska games. Utecht showed up the next week.
“I walked in and saw all this red,'' he said. “Oh, my gosh, I thought, this is where I need to be. ''
Now Utecht helps the Washington Cornhuskers raise money by raffling Husker football memorabilia at one of the sports bars during games.
During the season opener, all but one of the 20 televisions at the Lucky 7 were tuned to the Nebraska game. One screen above the bar featured the Washington loss at Brigham Young. Husker banners hang from the wall. Servers wear Husker shirts.
“We bring him a lot of business,'' Burkhardt said.
The sports bars flourish during Nebraska games, even though the Washington Cornhuskers have arranged Husker Sports Network radio broadcasts of all regular-season football matchups over a local station, KKNW (1150 AM).
The Washington Cornhuskers group pays about $18,000 a season to the radio station to broadcast the games, recouping the money by selling advertising to local and Nebraska-based businesses and individuals, most with Nebraska roots.
Among them are Jeff and Tricia Raikes and their Alderbrook Resort & Spa in Union, Wash. Raikes is from Ashland, Neb., and is a retired Microsoft executive. He now is chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Other sponsors include Dick (Schuyler, Neb.) and Helen (Curtis, Neb.) Asche, owners of Bremerton, Kitsap Airporter Shuttle, and Irene Bjorklund (Greeley, Neb.), an owner of T-Bar Construction Co.
Max and Jeannette McLean of McLean Beef near Benedict, Neb., have advertised their mail-order meat business during the broadcasts in Seattle.
For Saturday's game, the Washington Cornhuskers improvised to scrape together tickets. Some members had spouses or friends with seniority in the Washington alumni association, and the Huskies fans placed orders for more than 400 tickets on behalf of their Nebraska friends. The Washington Cornhuskers then sold the tickets to the group's members.
“They were gone in 48 hours,'' Burkhardt said.
The Washington Cornhuskers take their game off the football field, too.
The group participates in local food drives. It also sponsors golf tournaments, taste-of-Nebraska dinners — shipping in frozen, half-baked Valentino's pizzas and serving Dorothy Lynch salad dressing — and other activities to raise money for scholarships for Washington students attending UNL. The current recipient is Maddy Grahn of Kent, Wash., a junior majoring in nutritional science and dietetics.
Utecht, whose Ford Expedition carries “HUSKERS” license plates, said the Washington Cornhuskers organization gives far-away Husker fans a link to their roots.
“This is the time of year I want to wear red and be with like-minded people.''
Contact the writer: