The last Cornhusker to score a touchdown at Ohio Stadium was (and still is) an actual husker of corn, a lanky farm kid named Jerry Petersen from rural Cambridge, Neb.
The year was 1956. The photos were black and white. The haircuts were high and tight. Ohio State, under coach Woody Hayes, was a national powerhouse. Nebraska was not. And the game showed it: Ohio State won 34-7. Petersen prevented a shutout by blocking a Buckeye punt and recovering it in the end zone.
The Huskers have not returned to Columbus since that Sept. 29, 1956, contest. Fifty-six years later, the 76-year-old Petersen took a break this week from farming to drive with a buddy from Cambridge to Columbus, 1,027 miles to the scene of his football prime.
“He wanted to go see the stadium one more time,” son Tim Petersen, also a former Husker, said by phone during a pause from combining corn this week. “One of my friends said Dad ought to lead them onto the field and show them the end zone, so they know where it is.”
That made Jerry laugh. He's confident the current Cornhuskers will find the end zones on their own.
“It'll be a good game,” Petersen said. “They've got a shot.”
In 1956, Ohio State opened the season No. 8 in the nation, despite having lost 1955 Heisman Trophy winnner Howard “Hopalong” Cassidy to graduation. Like this year, the Buckeyes were in trouble with the NCAA over outside benefits to players.
The Nebraska game was Ohio State's first of the season. A year earlier, the Huskers had almost upset the Buckeyes in Ohio Stadium, losing 28-20 in the first-ever game between the Big Red and Ohio State University. The 1956 game was never close.
“I don't recall anything about that game,” said Jim Murphy of Lexington, Neb., who was a standout lineman in the 1950s. “Because we just got our butts kicked.”
He prefers to recall 1955, when the Huskers went up against future NFL Hall of Fame lineman Jim Parker, and Ohio State didn't secure the victory until intercepting a pass at its own 10-yard line late in the game.
“The guy I played against ended up being Johnny Unitas' blind-side tackle,” Murphy said. “I gave up 100 pounds to him.”
More than any game action, Murphy most clearly remembers running off the field at halftime, looking around at the Horseshoe filled with 80,000 fans, more than twice the size of any Lincoln crowd, and thinking, “We might actually beat these guys.”
“The biggest thing I remember is that huge, beautiful stadium,” said Murphy, 77, the brother-in-law of legendary coach Monte Kiffin. “It seemed like it was twice the size of ours. It was the most beautiful stadium I've ever seen.”
The Horseshoe made a big impression on Petersen, too. The day he played there, a record crowd of 82,153 rocked Ohio Stadium.
“It was awesome,” he said. “That's quite a place. A lot of noise. A lot of wild fans. You think Nebraska fans are wild, but they aren't as wild as those. It was a big thrill to play there.”
In 1956, overmatched Nebraska was on its way to a 4-6 season in head coach Pete Elliott's first and final season. Meanwhile, Hayes was perfecting his three yards and a cloud of dust offense, and Ohio State rushed for 416 yards.
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“They had some big old boys,” Petersen said.
Petersen stood 6-foot-2Ĺ. He weighed 193 pounds. He played tackle on offense and defense, in those days when they played both ways. He wasn't heavy, but he was strong from working on the family farm. He quipped to a Lincoln Star reporter in 1957 that he had spent the offseason “working on dad's farm. Keeping in shape by killing rattlesnakes.”
“I did the same thing, killed rattlesnakes on my dad's farm,” Tim Petersen said, laughing. “My son Gus did, too.”
Jerry Petersen was a junior in 1956. He had been a sophomore in 1954, when Nebraska qualified for the Orange Bowl. But he had missed the 1955 season, and thus the first Ohio State game. Why? Well, in case you were wondering just how throwback this story actually is, here's the reason: He was caught with his fraternity on a panty raid after his sophomore season.
“I had to lay out of school for a semester,” Petersen said. “Then I went back and played two more years.”
There's one part of the 1956 game that Murphy does remember well, as of course does his old friend Petersen. In the third quarter, Ohio State led Nebraska 27-0. The Cornhuskers stopped the Buckeyes on their own 24. As the ball was snapped back to OSU punter Frank Kremblas, Petersen sprinted free of Buckeye blockers.
“I don't remember that we had a block on,” Murphy said. “I think Jerry just did it on his own. He thought he could beat his guy to the inside, and he took a perfect angle. If he wouldn't have blocked it, he wouldn't have hit the punter.”
Petersen ran through the man blocking him. He dove in front of the punter just as the ball left his foot. The ball hit Petersen in the stomach and bounced back toward the goal line. Petersen popped up and raced after it. He grabbed it and fell into the end zone.
“There were a whole bunch of us guys chasing it,” he said. “I didn't want someone else to get the darned thing after I blocked it.”
More than a half-century has passed since then. Many of Petersen's and Murphy's teammates have passed away. They've stayed in touch with a few, including Omahan Bob Berguin, “a heckuva center,” Petersen said.
Jerry and Tim still raise corn, soybeans, wheat and cattle on the family farm. Jerry also has a feedlot.
A friend of Tim's from Cincinnati came up with some tickets for today's game he couldn't use. He offered them to Tim, who gave them to his father. Tim stayed home to combine corn. The crops wait for no one.
And even though it's 56 years later and more than 1,000 miles away, Jerry Petersen will make this a fast road trip down memory lane. Back in Nebraska, there are cattle that need to be fed. And he wants to make it to McCook for a cattle sale on Monday.
Contact the writer:
402-444-1057, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/chrisburbach