LINCOLN — At 6 years old, Tanner Miller cried after Nebraska's Tom Osborne coached his last football game in the 1998 Orange Bowl.
And dressed in red like hundreds of other young Husker fans, he would line up along the rope underneath Memorial Stadium to get a glimpse of Nebraska players during the Tunnel Walk. He'd get their gloves or wristbands and wear them.
“The coolest thing ever,” Miller said.
Growing up in Superior, Neb., Miller had every intention of playing football for NU. Maybe he'd walk on like his dad, Brian, and uncle, Kevin, did in the 1980s. His 6-foot-2, 201-pound frame fits the profile of a Husker free safety. So, too, does his 3.56 grade-point average.
But Miller starts for Iowa. How'd that happen?
A move to Kalona, Iowa, just 15 minutes south of Iowa City, after Miller's seventh-grade year was the catalyst. A standout career at Mid-Prairie High School, which led to a last-minute scholarship offer from Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz, had more to do with it.
After rushing for 4,100 yards in his career at Mid-Prairie, Miller committed to Northern Iowa, but was strongly considering walking on at Nebraska. He took a late December visit to NU's campus and liked it. And, of course, there were all the memories of his youth. On Feb. 1, 2010, the choice remained between a UNI scholarship or a walk-on spot at Nebraska.
But something caught Ferentz's eye about Miller. He'd taken in-state kids at the last minute before and watched them blossom into NFL players. He saw the same potential in Miller.
“He was just a good all-around athlete,” Ferentz said. “We had a spot open.”
Iowa told Brian Miller his son would be getting the offer. Brian called Tanner, who was with his Mid-Prairie basketball teammates. You'll be getting a big call later, Brian told his son. Tanner got the call from Ferentz while he was on the team bus. His teammates — “all Hawkeye fans,” Tanner said — exploded in excitement.
Miller had a new coolest moment. Although he'd initially resisted being an Iowa fan after the middle school move, trips to Kinnick Stadium changed his mind. Hawkeye fans, Miller said, have the same kind of passion that Husker fans do.
“It started slow, but I fell in love with it,” Miller said.
Miller made sure Ferentz didn't regret the scholarship offer, either. He played in eight games as a true freshman and started as a sophomore, returning an interception 98 yards for a touchdown versus Northwestern. He had 76 tackles last season and 63 this year. He also fulfilled a lifelong dream, he said, by playing at Memorial Stadium last year in Nebraska's 20-7 win over the Hawkeyes.
Now NU comes to Kinnick Stadium, and all 4-7 Iowa can do is spoil the Huskers' run toward a Big Ten title. The Miller family, which typically splits its loyalties between Nebraska and Iowa, will be clothed entirely in black and gold on Friday.
“It'd be huge,” Miller said of a possible Iowa win. “We need it. It'd be something to build off of for next year.”
But should the Hawkeyes pull the upset, Miller wouldn't mind one bit if Ohio State beat Michigan on Saturday to still send Nebraska to the Big Ten Championship game.
“That'd be cool to watch,” Miller said.
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