LINCOLN — It’s standard procedure at the Blue Water Bridge crossing for Canadian border patrol to ask a motorist like Mark Miller where he is going.
Before Miller can advance from Sarnia, Ontario, into Port Huron, Michigan, he pays a few bucks for his toll and tells the agent that he is headed for Nebraska.
If they ask why, Miller will say to watch his son play football, and a very brief conversation generally will follow.
“They ask what position he plays or how big he is,” Miller said. “They get excited. And they let you go through.”
It’s part of the journey. One that Miller knows well by now. So he transitions from Highway 402 to Interstate 94 — just below where Lake Huron forms the St. Clair River — and resumes the long drive.
The father of Nebraska offensive tackle David Knevel doesn’t mind being a travelin’ man for Husker football. He accepts the 14-hour trip, which usually takes closer to 16 or 18 for him, as part of what goes with Knevel picking NU out of high school in Brantford, Ontario.
Here’s what is about to change, though: After three seasons of making the 1,000-mile trek despite knowing Knevel would be playing little or not at all, Miller on Saturday night will get to the see the junior make his first career start as a Husker.
“That’s a big one,” Knevel said, beaming as he thinks about it.
“I don’t know how to describe that,” Miller said. “It’ll be incredible. It doesn’t feel real.”
Miller appreciates the commitment Knevel has made to become the No. 1 right tackle beginning this season. It goes well with the one that just seemed to happen for Miller, a family physician who can actually trace his interest in American football back to watching old Husker bowl games from the Canadian provinces.
Knevel has come a long way from redshirting in 2013 and then seeing action the last two seasons as a backup tackle and special teams player. Miller has kept coming a long way since first driving down for NU-UCLA three weeks into the 2013 season.
“After that UCLA game, I got the bug,” Miller said. “You think, ‘This is exciting.’ And even though your son is not playing much, it’s the whole atmosphere.”
The scratch for the itch, however, would involve money, time, vacation and miles upon miles on the open road.
A familiar route
Miller saves vacation for football season so that he can take Fridays off. After working his Thursday office shift, he jumps in his 2012 Range Rover about 6 p.m.
It’s about two hours from Brantford to Sarnia, and Miller knows he’s in Big Ten country when he passes East Lansing, Michigan, about two hours later.
The usual route takes him from I-94 to I-80 south of Chicago, and the last leg through Iowa is always the hardest.
The stops are mostly to break the monotony or grab something to eat or drink. A quick rest-area nap can sometimes be the tonic if Miller is making the trip alone.
Miller heads out with a little Beethoven on his iPod before switching to his popular music playlist to perk himself back up. Then maybe some podcasts related to Husker football to get in the mood for Saturday.
Knevel will start wondering about Miller’s progress as it gets close to lunch on Fridays, knowing the drive well from his own travels.
“When I’m about two or three hours out, I’ll start getting these texts: When you getting here? Where should I meet you? What’s taking so long?” Miller said.
Knevel laughs. He wants his dad to be careful, but ...
“Sometimes I get on him because, to be honest, he makes a 16-hour drive about 20 hours,” Knevel said.
Better to fly in November
The time behind the wheel never bothered Miller.
In fact, Knevel recalled one trip where Miller took his sons down to New Orleans for an NFL preseason game. Another was a 28-hour haul to Miami to board a cruise.
Miller has made some road trips via the air, like the 2014 game at Fresno State. Same goes for some November home games — Miller drives 90 minutes to Toronto, then goes Toronto to Chicago to Lincoln — because the northern roads can be a little unpredictable and tricky if the weather turns.
He just doesn’t think much of it.
“When you say you’re from Canada, everybody thinks it’s far, but there’s some parents from Texas who drive up and that’s maybe about the same,” Miller said.
Miller has had just one problem on the highway, which he said happened last year going through Illinois around 5 a.m.
“A pickup comes up behind me, hits me, and just kept going,” he said.
Miller actually will fly down this week because of a fender-bender that happened when he came to visit Knevel at the start of fall camp. The Range Rover was in a Lincoln shop for some work, but will be ready for the return trip — and the rest of the 2016 season.
That most recent visit was supposed to be a week, but got extended because of the vehicle issue. Miller stayed with Knevel for the extra few days after his hotel reservation had lapsed.
Knevel knows how much Miller likes to be around, and Miller has become well-known among his friends. Although Miller loves the games, his favorite trips might be during spring practice and fall camp, when everything isn’t so hurried.
“You’ll see him after practices, and just a big smile on his face,” Knevel said. “He loves this. Ever since I committed, he became a huge, die-hard Husker fan.”
Nowhere he’d rather be
Knevel might have been redshirting in 2013, but Miller said not seeing him play on Saturday was maybe offset by Friday nights.
Because Knevel wasn’t sitting through meetings or staying at the team hotel, they could catch a movie or hang out. Then see each other Saturday morning before Knevel would need to be at Memorial Stadium.
Knevel even warned Miller the following season that his playing time would be iffy — or very brief at best.
“It didn’t matter,” Knevel said. “He wanted to come. He wanted to see me, and he wanted to support the team.”
Miller said he has spent so much time at the Courtyard Lincoln Downtown that some staff know him by name. He used to just say hi to some of the other parents, but now has started to develop some bonds and appreciates sharing the experience with them.
That’s why Miller keeps coming back — no matter the trouble.
“Once you get there, you feel like it’s worth it,” he said. “Once you get to Lincoln, it’s kind of like a second home. And especially once you’re in the stadium, you think, ‘Where would I rather be this weekend?’ ”
Dedication a ‘big deal’
Saturday night will be different, especially when the Nebraska starters are announced on HuskerVision. Miller knows exactly when that will be from sitting through so many previous games.
Michelle Knevel also will be there to see her son make his first start, and David said that will be cool because it’s always been a little harder for her to make games. Although living apart, Mark and Michelle have traveled together in the past to Lincoln.
Growing up in North Bay, Ontario, Miller said his first memories of Nebraska football were watching bowl games over the holidays. So when former Husker head coach Tom Osborne was one of the first people he met on Knevel’s recruiting trip, his eyes lit up.
When Knevel signed with Nebraska — the first Canadian to do so since Patrick Kabongo in 1999 — the challenge was laid out for Miller.
“His dedication and his devotion to his son and the Cornhuskers is unbelievable, I think,” said Dave Nabity, father of NU fullback Graham Nabity. “He may not make it sound like it’s a big deal, but, man, I think it’s a big deal.”
Knevel said it’s just always been the routine for Miller to make sporting events for him and his twin brother, Michael. Miller recently made an eight-hour drive to see Michael Knevel play a game for Wilfrid Laurier University.
“You know in life, if it’s worth it, you’ll do it,” Miller said. “You make choices, right? I don’t go on trips the rest of the year.
“You have kids play sports all their life, and so you go watch all their games. It’s the same thing now. What else would I be doing? This only happens once.”
It just happens to be almost a thousand miles away. And with a Saturday night kickoff, the postgame get-together might just be a few minutes behind the Husker bench or outside the locker room.
Then Miller will be back on the road about 6 a.m. on Sunday, and back in his office by Monday morning, surrounded by his Husker posters and other mementos.
But NU has been good for the 6-foot-9, 315-pound Knevel, and Saturday night will just be a great bonus to it all. Even if Miller has to sneak a yawn or two watching.
“Nebraska was his choice,” Miller said. “The last few years he’s grown up a lot. I’m really happy where he is.”