The lot was mostly empty Saturday afternoon when two old friends pulled in and parked illegally. They climbed the steps and approached the front door of Nebraska football headquarters. They didn’t bother going inside to see the trophies.
They stopped at the statue.
“It’s breathtaking,” Dennis Frazier said.
Frazier had come from western Iowa to visit Mike Bonham. You can’t come to Lincoln without seeing the stadium, Frazier said.
In 1968, Frazier was a band teacher in Decatur, Nebraska, when the high school football coach offered him two Husker football tickets one Saturday. Frazier didn’t care about the Huskers, but he said OK.
“Been a fan ever since,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I can look at my calendar and tell you how many days it is until Sept. 5. Right now, I think it’d be about 140.”
Frazier was right — 140 — but he didn’t know he was standing here April 18, the 19-year anniversary of a plane crash that rocked the football program and its fan base. His friend didn’t realize it, either. Bonham considers Tom Osborne a family friend.
“It took a chunk of his heart when that kid died.”
The coach and the quarterback have stood bronzed in this place since 2006. The statue is the most popular photo location at Memorial Stadium, which may make it the No. 1 picture spot in the state.
The irony? No. 18 wasn’t intended to be part of it.
Saturday afternoon, before he posed for a picture, before he descended the steps and climbed into the Toyota Avalon, before he and his friend headed for the next stop on their tour of Lincoln, Dennis Frazier recognized a hole in his memory.
“Tell me the first name of Berringer. I know it started with a B.”
* * *
The blueprint was finished. Construction was underway. Nebraska was getting its new football complex north of the stadium. The statue? That was another story.
Athletic Director Steve Pederson wanted to name the building after his former boss, Tom Osborne. He also wanted to dress up the palace with bronze.
Osborne said no. Nebraska pitched it various ways. Osborne said no. What if we ... Osborne said no.
Then one day, Fred Hoppe invited Osborne to lunch at the Cornhusker.
Hoppe grew up in Schuyler. Attended the university in the late 1970s and majored in business. But he wanted to be an artist. Morrill Hall’s associate director questioned him. None of you kids today has the mental discipline to become great artists, he told Hoppe.
“Well, I think I do,” Hoppe replied.
He honed his craft for 20 years before he sold anything. His breakthrough came in the form of a 5,000-pound prehistoric mammoth at Morrill Hall. Later he sculpted the Husker Legacy, the statue of the Blackshirts swarming a Kansas State running back.
In the early 1990s, a friend introduced Hoppe to Berringer. They shared a passion for the outdoors. Brook loved Hoppe’s stories of traveling into the Alaskan wilderness and encountering bears. Hoppe loved Brook’s stories of Christian Peter’s fiery pregame pep talks — Brook had a greater chance of being trampled in the locker room, he said, than by an opposing defense.
The weekend after the 1996 NFL draft, Hoppe and Berringer were scheduled to hunt turkeys. In June, they had planned a trip to Alaska. Berringer never made it. The afternoon of April 18, he and his girlfriend’s brother lifted off a grass airstrip seven miles northwest of Lincoln when the engine sputtered and stopped.
Rather than drop the nose and land immediately in a field in front of him, Berringer attempted to turn back to the airstrip. The J-3 Piper Cub plunged into an alfalfa field and burst into flames.
Ten years later, Osborne sat in the Cornhusker with a man he’d known for years.
“I know what you’re going to ask, Fred. My answer is no.”
Then Hoppe pulled out his wife’s sketch of Osborne and Berringer, standing side by side. What if the statue looked like this?
“He looked it and he was very silent,” Hoppe said, “Finally he said, ‘I would allow that.’”
* * *
It’s a complicated process, Hoppe says. Usually it takes five to six months. You start by building a wooden armature, a skeleton based on the approximate size of the subject. Install it upright on a platform and start heating up clay and putting it on by hand. Up to 300 pounds. That gives the sculpture a human shape.
Once you get it the right size, you begin sculpting in all the details. Little by little, for weeks. Sometimes I find myself overlooking details. The next morning, I’ll turn on the lights and see something new.
When the sculpting is almost complete, I turn the lights off one at a time. Just to see how light and shadows affect the piece from different angles. Sometimes I see something really nice and I leave it. Sometimes I see something wrong and I fix it.
* * *
To some, the statue represents Osborne’s relationships with his players. To some, it’s about service and stewardship. But for countless more, the statue is a monument to Berringer, the most tangible tribute to a Kansas kid who epitomized Nebraska football.
Every year since 1996, Matt Brawner’s parents give him a hardbound book for his birthday, Dec. 24. Every year, they write a note about the year that passed and the year ahead.
Brawner’s dad was often sick when Matt was growing up in Omaha. He battled cancer and autoimmune diseases. Husker football was their bond. The first book 12-year-old Matt received was “One Final Pass: The Brook Berringer Story.”
Mom and Dad’s note focused on what he could learn from a quarterback. “In all you do, remember there will always be obstacles — but like Brook you have the tools to do it.”
Now Matt is 30. He lives in Austin, Texas. About once a year, he travels to Lincoln for a game. And before he enters his football cathedral, he stops at the statue.
* * *
Now you start the mold process. Divide the sculpture into sections with metal shims. Osborne and Berringer were done in about 36 sections. Cover the entire piece with three layers of silicone rubber, which picks up all of the detail. It’s floppy, so you have to cover that with a thick coat of plaster. Then we move the piece to the foundry.
We pour hot wax into each of the 36 sections of the mold. Once the wax cools, remove it. Chase the wax pieces to remove any defects or seams. Then dip the pieces into a ceramic slurry. It looks like pudding or oatmeal. Pull that piece of wax out and hang it up to dry for 24 hours. Repeat the process eight times. That builds up a large ceramic shell around each of the wax sections.
* * *
The afternoon Berringer died, Joel Bergmeyer was headed to an FCA banquet in Lincoln with his sons. On the road to the Devaney Center, they heard on the radio that Berringer’s plane had gone down in a field near Raymond.
Brook was supposed to speak at the banquet. So was Osborne. When the Bergmeyers arrived at Devaney, many people hadn’t heard the news. Should everyone go home? Osborne said no. Together, Brook’s friends and strangers mourned him and honored him.
“I think that was one of the hardest nights of my life,” Osborne said.
Bergmeyer remembers a painting on display in front of the podium. A young boy wearing a red No. 18 jersey, holding a football under his arm. The title: “Influence.” Apparently it was scheduled to be given away that night.
A few days after the banquet, after the spring game in Lincoln and the funeral in Goodland, Bergmeyer bought a print of “Influence.” To this day, it hangs in his office.
His boys are grown up now. He has a 3-year-old grandson. One day, Bergmeyer says, he’ll take him to the statue and tell him the whole story.
* * *
Then you take the 36 pieces, one at a time, and put them in an oven that reaches 1,200 degrees. The ceramic shell has an opening at the top and the bottom, so the wax runs out like water. It’s called the “lost wax” method, the same method they use to pour wedding rings or gold teeth.
While the ceramic shells are still hot, take molten bronze in at 2,300 degrees and pour it into the top opening of the shell. The molten bronze fills all the space the wax had occupied. That’s how you capture the image of the sculpture.
Let it cool for 24 hours, then take a hammer and bust off the ceramic shell. It’s like breaking a big egg shell and exposing a detailed section of bronze. Once you do that for all 36 pieces, start putting them together with a welder.
* * *
If the bronze could talk, it would tell funny stories.
Like the time in 2006 when an elk showed up in the parking lot. The security camera preserved the footage. There’s equipment manager Jay Terry standing next to the statue, watching the furry visitor with massive antlers. Now the elk, maybe 50 yards away, turns toward him. Terry sprints for the door.
A few years ago, a football player had his face buried in his cellphone and walked right into the statue. Osborne clotheslined him.
In October 2012, a farmer from Laurel dropped to a knee in front of the statue and pulled out a ring. Nathan Abt’s girlfriend was so stunned, she jumped backward.
“I’m on my knee thinking, where are you going?” Abt said. She eventually came back to him. They married July 5, 2014.
Abt was 10 years old in April 1996. Frankly, he doesn’t remember much about Berringer. Nor do the 5,000 fourth-graders who tour Memorial Stadium every spring. Nor do the new recruits who walk through the door each fall — this year’s freshmen weren’t even born. Nor did the sorority girls who posed Saturday afternoon during a run.
They were statue-searching all over town. First at Sunken Gardens. Then at the State Capitol, where they posed with the 16th president. Then Memorial Stadium. One girl, sweat beads dotting her forehead, confessed she didn’t know who Osborne and Berringer were.
“I think it’s more important that we knew Abe Lincoln.”
* * *
This is where the process really drags on. Because you have to weld every joint. So this thing looks like a big quilt. Everywhere you weld it, whether it’s right down the middle of Osborne’s forehead or a sleeve, there’s a weld bead like you’d see on a piece of farm machinery. Those all have to be ground out. That takes days and days and days.
Then it’s time to sandblast the sculpture. Look for any impurities or cracks. Make sure there are no sharp details or edges. You can’t have people run their hand across the surface and slit their fingers. You make sure the entire thing is just right, like a new penny.
Then you take patina, which is a colored acid. Spray it on the sculpture and burn that color into the metal with a torch. It makes a permanent color. When you’re all done, you seal it. The best sealers are similar to what you’d put on a car’s surface.
* * *
The morning Berringer died, he spoke to his friend from the country band Sawyer Brown.
Mark Miller was scheduled to play a concert the next night at Memorial Stadium, where the Huskers would receive their national championship rings. Miller had prepared a song, which he played over the phone to Berringer for the first time.
I grew up in Goodland, Kansas. I turned 18 today. I’m college bound for Lincoln. Nebraska’s where I’ll stay.
Scott Weber hasn’t heard that song in years. He grew up in South Dakota listening to Husker games on the radio as he hunted pheasants. In 1994, he wasn’t sure about a backup quarterback from Kansas — what kind of name was Brook?
Berringer won him over. First on the field, then off. On April 20, 1997, Weber smuggled in a piece of old Memorial Stadium turf and placed it under his wife’s hospital bed. He wanted his first child born over Nebraska soil.
His name: Brook.
When the kid was 5, the Webers visited Berringer’s grave in Goodland. Brook autographed a foam football and left it there. As he grew up in Texas, Brook wore No. 18. The “Influence” portrait hung over his bed, along with a Berringer poster.
Brook didn’t hide his Husker pride at North Forney High School. The school allows seniors to decorate their parking spot and Brook covered his with a red “N.” Right in front of the school.
His college destination? You guessed it. A week ago, Brook walked right past the statue. He had an interview in the Osborne complex, where he’s been hired to work in media relations this fall.
But first, there’s a bigger milestone on his calendar. It’s April 20, 2015.
Brook Weber turned 18 today.
* * *
The foundry was in Oregon. One of my helpers drove it all the way across the mountains on a pickup. We just pulled up to the stadium and strapped it on a forklift. There was already a circular pad for it near the building.
We drilled holes in the concrete and matched up the stainless steel bolts protruding out of the bottom. Just lowered it to the hole. It’s about 700 pounds. We took a hose and washed off the dust and that was it. We were wiping it off and people were coming up from all over and taking pictures.
I check it often when I go to football games. We have something that’s not normal. The patina is wearing off between the two of them because so many thousands of people stand and get their picture taken. The shoes are kinda wearing off.
The only other similar wear that I’ve heard of is the sculpture of St. Peter at the Vatican. People traditionally kiss the toe of St. Peter, so they’ve had to replace the toe over the years. That’s an extreme case. In this case, we’ll eventually come back in with a torch and touch up the base.
In Europe, Fred Hoppe says, they find bronze statues that are 6,000 years old. If they’re that old there, they’re gonna last that long here.
* * *
Nine years. Think of all the football history that’s happened near the statue.
Think of all the coaches and players who walked by victorious and defeated, energetic and weary, before dawn and after dusk, in blizzards and in heat waves.
In October 2007, Osborne walked past the statue his first day as athletic director — he was running late because of traffic. He walked past it when he cleaned out his office five years later.
Sometimes you see statues and think it doesn’t bear any resemblance, Osborne says. This one looks good.
“Unfortunately, I don’t look that way anymore. I’m a lot more beat up around the edges.”
Berringer’s image, meanwhile, is frozen at 22 years old. Osborne knows more and more people don’t remember him. He also knows that when people die young, “there’s a tendency to lionize them and make them larger than life. Greater than they really were.” That wasn’t the case with Brook.
“There wasn’t a phony bone in his body.”
On Spring Game Saturday, one week before the anniversary of Berringer’s death, Husker fans did what they always do. Wait your turn. Pose. Click. Pose. Click.
They came in all shapes and sizes. A couple of buddies, 73 and 74, from Grand Island. A pack of young girls. Lots of fathers and sons.
Ninety minutes before kickoff, a 28-year-old man wearing an old No. 7 jersey (the Eric Crouch era) approached the statue.
David Swetson lives in Salina, Kansas, just a few hours down I-70 from Berringer’s hometown. Last year, David attended his first Nebraska game. Last Saturday, he brought his 6-year-old son.
He dropped to a knee, put his arm around Justin and pointed at the bronze.
The man on the right, David said, is Nebraska’s old coach.
“What happened to him?” the boy said.
“No, he’s still alive. The football player, though, he did die. He’s from Kansas.”
“I hope he will come back alive.”
“No,” David said. “He won’t come back to life. But he’s in heaven.”
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