LINCOLN — Imagine waking up Christmas morning only to find all of the presents had been opened.
Imagine walking into an arena to see your favorite band — only to see them waving goodbye.
Imagine rushing into the kitchen to grab a bowl of homemade ice cream, only to find it melted.
That idea prompted a little homecoming this week. I stepped into an elevator at Harper Hall. I pushed “8.” As I climbed, I heard a familiar beep, beep, beep. ...
The doors opened.
Twelve years ago, I moved into Harper 803 for my freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
I had grown up in rural Nebraska — an hour from Memorial Stadium. During the 1990s, from row eight of the north end zone, I had watched the Huskers dismantle both bad teams and great teams. That view was embedded in my DNA.
In August 2000, when I moved to campus, Nebraska was preseason No. 1 in the country, coming off a conference championship. The world seemed right.
You know what has happened since.
I returned Monday to meet a new generation of Husker fan. To knock on doors. To ask questions that had intrigued me for a long time:
What's it like to be born too late? What's it like to root for Nebraska football when you're too young to remember it on top? Do freshmen in 2012 bleed Big Red the same way freshmen did in 2000?
Those answers mean everything to the future of the Husker fan base. The boys of Harper Hall will soon be the men paying for practice facilities. Sustaining the sellout streak. Passing on the traditions that form the essence of Nebraska football.
First stop: Harper 804.
Andrew Spader is chewing on an ice cream cone as he returns from the cafeteria after lunch.
Spader grew up in Henderson, Neb., not far from my hometown. His birthday: July 6, 1994, seven weeks before Nebraska kicked off a national championship season.
Spader has heard all about Tom Osborne's teams, from his uncles and aunts and sisters.
“I wish I could've been there instead of just hearing the stories,” he said.
He's never heard the sound inside Memorial Stadium when it's the nation's focal point on a fall Saturday. He's never experienced the buzz in his hometown leading up to a showdown; when a national championship shot depends on the final score; when the emotional distance between winning and losing is like Henderson to Moscow.
What he does remember is an analog clock hanging on his wall commemorating the '95 national champions.
“That's my first real exposure to the Huskers,” Spader says, “through that clock.”
Seventeen years later, it's still on his wall back home. Still ticking.
Next stop: Harper 803, my old home.
Here, roaches magically appeared from the cinder-block walls. Here, train whistles woke me every night the first month of school.
Bryan Brunson, a chemical engineering major, doesn't even notice them.
Brunson grew up in South Carolina before graduating from Bellevue West. He didn't immerse himself in Husker football until high school. He remembers the Missouri game in 2009 — before Nebraska's fourth-quarter rally.
“I was sitting at my house, yelling at the TV,” he says. “My mom was telling me to calm down. I was getting so mad.”
In May at Bellevue West, Brunson skipped study hall — and the first few minutes of marketing — to secure his Husker student tickets for the fall.
“I think my teacher understood,” Brunson says. “Those tickets sell pretty fast.”
Not his dad's Huskers
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Harper 8 was my introduction to shower sandals and music piracy, late-night cram sessions in a closet-size study room and early-afternoon naps in a rickety wooden loft, high-speed Internet and high-intensity intramurals.
Before our flag football championship game in November 2000, we watched the battlefield speech from “Braveheart.” We lost.
The eighth floor has improved. New bathroom countertops. New key card locks on the doors. They even removed two rooms and put in a TV lounge.
Tanner Lockhorn doesn't know about the old way. He's new to Harper 802.
Lockhorn's first vivid memory of Husker football was attending a home game during the Bill Callahan era — “We lost.”
Lockhorn, who grew up in Lincoln, sold Runzas and Pepsi at home games. He loved it. But he also recognized what he had missed.
Seemingly everyone he knew had Husker shrines from the '90s. An autographed couch in one house. Red carpet in another. His own father filled the garage with posters.
“I was always told they were so good, so good,” Lockhorn says. “And then the Frank Solich years came and it was just like, ‘Oh.' ”
Does his generation care for Nebraska football like his parents and grandparents?
“Probably not as passionately,” Lockhorn says.
His dad agrees. Roger Lockhorn, 49, grew up on a farm north of Kearney. His television had three channels. His family came home from church on Sunday mornings and watched a college football highlight show on ABC.
“I can remember just sitting there, glued to the TV, just to see 10 plays. ... That's the way I was brought up,” Roger says. “We made sure we were home for that show.”
Tanner was 1 year old — and probably sleeping — when the '95 Orange Bowl ended.
His dad called a friend and they drove through downtown Lincoln, just to watch people go crazy.
Too many distractions?
Maybe Roger's right when he says kids today are too distracted by fantasy football and text messages to build their weekends around the Huskers.
Maybe the world is smaller and allegiances aren't bound by geography, especially when Oregon and Alabama and Oklahoma are winning on cable TV every week. Maybe Nebraska football, as we know it, won't last forever.
Or maybe the Huskers just haven't given the next generation a chance.
The boys of Harper 8 started college this month with big dreams. They're walking 15 minutes to class and eating late-night pizza and signing up for intramural flag football at the end of the hallway. Soon they'll be chasing roaches from their walls.
Before they're gone, they want to see Memorial Stadium at its best.
Tanner Lockhorn was walking to class at Morrill Hall this week when — 25 minutes past the hour — he heard the bells of Mueller Tower, ringing out slowly, the notes bouncing off brick buildings. He knew it right away.
The fight song.
Then Lockhorn had a thought that would've made his father proud: He wished it was Saturday.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/dirkchatelain