You never forget that night you fell in love at a truck stop.
It was late on Saturday night, Nov. 18, 1978. I left Memorial Stadium for the first time. Tenth Street was one way and confusing. I made a wrong turn and lost my friends.
When you’re on the road for your student paper, your accommodations are simple: You stay on another scribe’s floor.
When you lose said scribes, and it’s near midnight, you head home. Kansas City.
I was an hour into the drive on I-29 and needed to stop. I saw the bright lights of a truck stop, and 39 years later, I’m guessing this must have been Nebraska City.
There, outside the main door of the truck stop, was a beautiful sight. A fresh pile of Sunday Omaha World-Heralds, black and white and splashed with bright red.
I can still see the massive photos, showing holes in the line of scrimmage, arrows pointing toward specific players. The columns, the quotes, the reaction. Magical stuff.
The one story that has stayed with me all these years was the sidebar on Nebraska I-back Rick Berns, who always ran like he was going through a burning house. World-Herald scribe Larry Porter described in vivid detail the “red claw marks” on Berns’ back as he peeled off his jersey in the training room.
Yeah, I think I want to do this the rest of my life.
This journey actually started a year earlier, in 1977. Forty years ago. I was a sophomore at Missouri, covering MU football for The Maneater, one of the school papers.
I don’t know where you were in 1977, but I know where some of you weren’t. Last week at Big Ten media days in Chicago, I was describing a Husker football story from the 1980s to a reporter and the wise guy cracked, “I wasn’t born yet.”
After I wiped the red off my face, I started thinking about how long I’ve been following Saturday’s Game. Man, I’m old.
Say this: I remember when every college football game east of Colorado started at 1 or 1:30 p.m. When there were only two or three games on TV every week. None at night. And every game was played on Saturday.
I remember when Tom Osborne threw the ball, couldn’t win the big one, went for two, couldn’t win the big one and then won a bunch of big ones.
You get my drift. Anyway, a colleague suggested I go back and list my favorite games, people, places from the last 40 years. Naturally, I include press box food.
Don’t worry. I don’t live in the past. I’m a time traveler.
» Five favorite coaches I covered (in order): Osborne, Barry Switzer, Pat Jones, Jim Walden, Jim Dickey.
It’s hard to beat Switzer, but Osborne was such a fascinating character, with a sense of humor that you had to listen for, and his career track was great material.
» Worst piece of equipment: The telecopier. This was essentially the first fax machine back in the 1978-81 era. Only worse.
This contraption had a slot where you put the typewritten pages in, it had to catch just right, and then you dialed the phone number back at the newsroom, you hit a button and the paper spun over and over as it was transported to the newsroom.
Some schools had a telecopier you could use. Some didn’t. The thing came in a giant black suitcase and weighed like 500 pounds. I still have nightmares of the paper sliding out in mid-transport.
» Favorite ritual: Going to Nebraska football practice in the early ’90s. It was usually me, World-Herald scribe Lee Barfknecht and Ken Hambleton of the Journal Star. Occasionally there was a fourth.
When I see today’s postpractice scrum, with 30 to 35 media types smothering Nebraska’s seven- and nine-win teams, I think: Man, a few of us had that NU dynasty all to ourselves.
The best part: After he had answered the last question, Osborne took off on his nightly jog around the football field. I can still see that tall figure going round and round.
» Best assist: One of my jobs in college was as correspondent for the United Press International wire service. I sent daily practice reports to UPI and wrote a feature once a week.
In 1978, I sent in an interview with Russ Calabrese, Missouri’s brash cornerback. Calabrese was an Italian kid who grew up in Chicago. The week before MU traveled to play Joe Montana and Notre Dame seemed a good time to check in.
Well, “Brese” went off on the Irish, saying he never liked ND, didn’t like Irish people.
Would that pass inspection today? Who knows?
UPI sent it out and both Chicago dailies ran it days before the game. Guess who read it.
Late in the game, the score was 0-0 but Montana was driving. He hit his favorite receiver, Kris Haines, beating Calabrese at the 3-yard line. On his way back to the huddle, Haines slapped Calabrese on the helmet, no doubt spurred on by his comments in my story. Haines got a 15-yard penalty. The ball went back to the 18. ND missed a field goal. Missouri drove for a field goal and had its upset.
I should have lettered that year, right?
I handed the bill to first-year quarterback Scott Frost, who didn’t have a great game but certainly wasn’t alone. Never mind ASU planned brilliantly and quarterback Jake Plummer played great and NU was reloading after back-to-back titles.
My old friend Milt Tenopir, Nebraska’s offensive line coach, grabbed me and told me I was out of bounds. He pointed out all the things his rebuilt line had done wrong.
It was a good lesson in Football 101: Teams usually win and lose as a team. It’s never one guy’s fault. That was a lesson I never forgot.
» Best players I saw (in order): Marcus Dupree, Tommie Frazier, Billy Sims, Kellen Winslow, Dave Rimington
» Greatest game I covered: The 1984 Orange Bowl. For the stakes, the history and the moment at the end, it was everything a great game should be. Even in defeat, Nebraska and Osborne won.
» Second-best ending to a game I covered: In a close race, I’ll give it to the 1987 Kansas at Kansas State game, the aptly named “Toilet Bowl.” They had one win between them, and they were each other’s last chance for a victory that season. The game ended 17-17 with a game-winning field goal being blocked and both teams diving after it as it bounced out of bounds at the buzzer.
» Best story that never made the paper: Before the 1984 Orange Bowl, I did a lengthy profile on Osborne that was to run in the Kansas City Star’s p.m. edition after Nebraska won. Oops. I still wrote a fresh story on Osborne’s legacy, but it was now intertwined with Miami. Tom’s life story would have to wait.
» Best introduction to a coach: The first time I met Osborne, it was the morning of 1988 Nebraska at Kansas State. Osborne wanted to talk to me about a story I’d done and sought me out. It was in the middle of the Manhattan Holidome. I was sitting in a hot tub.
“Hi, Tom. I’m Tom Osborne.”
» Favorite way to spend a Friday: Sitting in Switzer’s office, the day before Oklahoma 77, Missouri 0. As his team went through a walkthrough down on Owen Field, Switzer sat in his office, boots propped up on his desk, puffing on a cigar and telling me about his rough childhood.
» Best prediction: Based totally on a hunch after reading Osborne’s body language at a press conference after the 1997 Big 12 title win, I wrote that the coach sounded like someone who was about to retire from coaching. The next day, Osborne did it.
» Best free meal: In the 1970s and ’80s, schools in the Big Eight often had a press party the night before the game. Nebraska hosted at the Lincoln Legion Club on O Street. It was a great place to talk with school officials and athletic directors (like Bob Devaney), and occasionally a coach would show up. The last press party I attended was in 2002 at Penn State. Joe Paterno was on hand and entertained us with stories about Bear Bryant.
» Best press box food: Every year Kansas State would have the Kansas Pork Queen show up at a game and serve the Kansas pork meal in the press box. She even wore her crown and sash. How can you beat that?
» Best proofreader: One year after doing his postgame radio show in the press box, Osborne walked past press row. Suddenly, I felt someone looking over my shoulder.
» Favorite bowl trip: I covered 13 Orange Bowls and it was like an annual trip. I always loved the old Orange Bowl, which was so quirky and loud it was like a basketball barn.
» Longest trip: Nebraska and Kansas State, separated by a couple of hours in the car, took Eric Olson and me to Tokyo for the Japan Bowl in December 1992. When Nebraska scored, fans waved purple pom-poms. When K-State scored, they waved the red.
» Best group of players to cover: The 1993-95 Nebraska teams, all three of them. Characters with character.
No. 2: Why Lawrence Phillips should not have been brought back to play. I believed in my heart in this one. But knowing how it would play in this state, I can’t lie: That was a tough one.
» Favorite traditions: There are so many in the Big Eight. Nebraska balloons. Ralphie running on the field. But I’ll never forget my first trip to Iowa State in 1977. They used to have a giant bell in the end zone that rang when the Cyclones won. In the days of Earle Bruce, it rang a lot.
» Coolest venues I visited outside the Big Eight: There have been several, including Florida State at Auburn when I worked in Dallas in 1990. But at the top have to be the two Ohio State-Michigan games I covered in 1996-97.
» Best atmosphere: Oklahoma-Texas in Dallas, and I recommend this to every college football fan everywhere.
» Favorite player interview: Kansas quarterback Kelly Donohoe, a native of O’Neill, Nebraska, talking about playing against the Huskers. I showed Donohoe a photo on the cover of the Nebraska media guide of him getting sacked. He said, “I always wanted to be on the Nebraska media guide.”
» Favorite postgame interview: After Alabama beat Mizzou in 1978, we were told that Bear Bryant would do his postgame interview on the ’Bama team bus. The writers boarded the bus and sat in all the seats. Finally the Bear himself climbed up into the bus. He stood at the front and talked into the driver’s microphone, answering questions and discussing the game in a gravel voice while puffing on a Marlboro. Outstanding.
» Best mascot fight: In 1978, I looked down at the end zone at Faurot Field at Missouri during a timeout and saw Truman the Tiger squaring off against Cy the Clone. The Tiger mascot was a black belt in judo and was karate kicking the giant bird. Don’t know why, but this was a serious tussle. And hilarious.
» Best play I never saw: At the end of the 1997 Nebraska-Missouri game, I stood on the Husker sideline on the south end, next to longtime Nebraska writer Mike Babcock. We were discussing how the loss would impact NU in the polls. We watched Frost take the snap on the last play and throw the ball into the far north end zone. All we could see was a mass of bodies and a ball popping up in the air.
Nice catch, Matt Davison. Could you describe it for me, please?
» Favorite sports writer hangouts: All of them. P.O. Pear’s before a game in Lincoln, Barry’s after the game.
» Best engagement announcement: I proposed Dec. 31, 1997. The next day at the presser before Osborne’s final game in the Orange Bowl, a writer told him about my news. I asked the last question, about how the coaches poll might treat him if he won.
After his answer, he said, “By the way, I understand that Tom got engaged last night ...
It’s probably an upset that I’ve lasted 40 years. So much has changed in college football, from wacky conference alignments to spread offenses to the influence of TV and TV revenue, stretching the game and fans so thin.
There’s more media than ever, more interviews seem to be staged, it’s almost unheard of to have a lunch or drink with a coach and relationships are harder to build. But still possible. Even in this world of texting, one thing that will never change is effort and passion. Coaches still respect that.
I think about all those people covering Husker practice, and everyone on message boards and Twitter and all that stuff. They’re there because they love college football. Forty years later, a common thread to the past.
You can stretch college football and pull it and toss it around the realignment machine. And it’s still a great game. The greatest.
There’s something about it. I still get excited about driving to practices, still get juiced Saturday mornings, whenever they kickoff. Still love writing the games and stories and hope you still love reading them.
I look forward to the next 40 years. College football might be a video game in 40 years, played in the ESPN and Fox Conferences by cyber bots who still aren’t getting paid.
See you at a truck stop in the future.
Sign up for Big Red Today news alerts
Get a daily Husker news roundup, recruiting updates and breaking news in your inbox.
1 of 59
No. 1 Tanner Lee: The Tulane transfer has been given the keys to Nebraska’s offense, and much is expected as a result. His ability to make the one or two passes that most quarterbacks can’t should come in handy. You can read more here.
No. 2 Chris Jones: Jones tore the meniscus in his left knee over the summer and will likely miss at least half the season. Could he miss all of it? Possibly — he has a redshirt season left. You can read more here.
No. 3 Nick Gates: He started every game in 2016, but Gates was much more effective before an ankle injury at Indiana. You can read more here.
No. 4 Joshua Kalu: A competent corner for most of his career, Kalu’s smarts and tackling talents should serve him well at safety, where coaches plan to keep him despite the injury to Chris Jones. You can read more here.
No. 5 Stanley Morgan: It’s Morgan’s turn and his time to be NU’s No. 1 receiver. The stats from first two seasons combined — 58 catches, 757 yards, five touchdowns — would be a good year in 2017. You can read more here.
No. 6 Aaron Williams: He has been a jack of all trades the last two seasons, finding the field in nickel and dime packages as well as on special teams. Now the Atlanta native appears to have parlayed that work and experience into a starting spot at safety. You can read more here.
No. 7 De'Mornay Pierson-El: Coach Mike Riley was openly excited about Pierson-El when he took over after the 2014 season, but injuries before and during the 2015 campaign have kept Riley from getting the best of what he envisioned. You can read more here.
No. 8 Carlos Davis: Voted the Huskers’ most improved player after the 2016 season, Davis gets the chance to take a bigger — and more important — step with a starting job at defensive end in the new three-man front. You can read more here.
No. 9 Jerald Foster: It’s not a reach to trace some of last season’s offensive line issues back to last August, when Foster injured a knee midway through fall camp and Nebraska had to scramble. Foster recovered in time to start the last four games, and that experience will be big heading into his junior season. You can read more here.
No. 10 Chris Weber: It’s an important season for Weber. It’s his first stint as a full-time starter and the defense wants a smooth transition for Bob Diaco. You can read more here.
No. 11 Tanner Farmer: The former state champion wrestler from Highland, Illinois, offers a strong and agile blocking presence, and that versatility will be tested along with that of his line mates this fall while protecting a pro-style quarterback for the first time. You can read more here.
No. 12 Tre Bryant: Nebraska still hasn’t settled on a starting running back, but Bryant might be the closest to the do-everything feature back coaches are looking for. He ran for 172 yards and one touchdown on 43 attempts last year and showed his ability to catch passes out of the backfield. You can read more here.
No. 13 Dedrick Young: Young already proved himself to be one of Nebraska’s best tacklers at outside linebacker the past two seasons, when he started 20 games and made 121 stops along with four quarterback hurries. You can read more here.
No. 14 Lamar Jackson: How confident is Nebraska that the sophomore from California can be a standout cornerback? Enough so that coaches tried accomplished senior Joshua Kalu at safety this spring in an effort to get Jackson on the field. You can read more here.
No. 15 Mick Stoltenberg: He showed up for spring practice with nearly 20 additional pounds of muscle in preparation for his new role as the starting nose tackle on Nebraska’s three-man front. And his positive impressions that first day were just the beginning as he settled in and stood out at his new position. You can read more here.
16. Freedom Akinmoladun: Few players expressed more excitement about their potential in the new 3-4 defense than Akinmoladun, whose four sacks were second on the team last year. You can read more here.
No. 17 Drew Brown: Brown connected from 35 and 33 yards in the spring game and was 12 of 14 last fall while hitting all 38 of his PATs. His consistency should give the Huskers a little more flexibility and margin for error as their schedule toughens and tight games abound. You can read more here.
No. 18 Cole Conrad: Nebraska felt strongly enough about Conrad to award the former walk-on from Fremont Bergan a scholarship in January and — in a surprise development — move him into the mix at center this spring to get him on the field. You can read more here.
No. 19 David Knevel: Knevel and Husker coaches were ready to see what he could do over the course of a full slate of games at right tackle last season before an ankle injury against Oregon hampered his play in multiple contests, forcing him to miss three games late in the year. You can read more here.
20. Khalil Davis: The redshirt sophomore might not be a starter as he learns a new position at nose tackle, but he’ll provide valuable depth behind Mick Stoltenberg and be a big body who can clog running lanes and get after the quarterback when necessary. You can read more here.
No. 21 Mikale Wilbon: This spring — kind of a put-up-or-shut-up period for Wilbon — he made strides as a pass blocker and in learning Nebraska’s pro-style playbook. You can read more here.
No. 22 Tyler Hoppes: Lincoln Southwest graduate, Wayne State transfer and Husker walk-on Hoppes picked the perfect time to be a senior tight end at Nebraska: He’s No. 1. You can read more here.
Husker Camp Countdown: No. 20 Khalil Davis
23. Luke Gifford: He has gone from safety in high school to playing close to the line of scrimmage. Between defense and special teams, Gifford is in line for a breakthrough season. You can read more here.
24. Marcus Newby: The fifth-year senior from Maryland has done a little bit of everything in his NU career, and this season he’ll be in a natural outside linebacker role that will generally suit him. You can read more here.
No. 25 Eric Lee: The top-rated prospect from Nebraska’s 2015 recruiting class, found his footing — in a big way — this spring under new cornerbacks coach Donte Williams. You can read more here.
No. 26 JD Spielman: He ostensibly will be a slot receiver for the Huskers, but he’s capable of many things. He can be a jet sweep guy. He could even run the ball out of the backfield. You can read more here.
27. Keyan Williams: He’ll be an immediate factor in the slot, where he’s shown the ability to get open and run good routes. He can catch the ball, too. You can read more here.
No. 28 Alex Davis: He has a real shot to be NU’s starting boundary outside linebacker, but that role requires run-stopping and pass-rushing skill sets that Davis hasn’t quite shown yet. You can read more here.
No. 29 Kieron Williams: NU’s No. 3 safety in spring after Joshua Kalu moved from cornerback to be paired with Aaron Williams. You can read more here.
30. Devine Ozigbo: He is a bit of an enigma — a big back with nimble feet who may be No. 3 headed into training camp. You can read more here.
31. Mohamed Barry: He’s now in position to play behind Chris Weber and Dedrick Young at inside linebacker as the Huskers launch their 3-4 scheme under Bob Diaco. You can read more here.
32. Antonio Reed: It appears he will start the season as a backup safety again — with Aaron Williams and Joshua Kalu emerging as the No. 1s after spring practice — but Reed offers important value on special teams. You can read more here.
33. Avery Roberts: Nebraska appears to be stockpiling some good youth and talent at linebacker, and Roberts is among those at the forefront. You can read more here.
34. Bryan Reimers: He has proven to the coaches that he can go up and get it, so his size and length are tools that can help the Huskers at receiver. You can read more here.
No. 35 Tyjon Lindsey: Lindsey isn’t very big but comes in with the kind of explosiveness and open-field danger that concerns opposing defensive coordinators. What NU won’t know until August, however, is how the former Ohio State commit handles the grind and demands when fall camp starts. You can read more here.
36. Michael Decker, C: Decker is smart and athletic, and he added needed size through his first two years in the program. It has been awhile since Nebraska has featured a multiyear starter at center. Can the Omaha North graduate with a winning background become that player? You can read more here.
37. Luke McNitt, FB: Nebraska again will utilize McNitt in power sets, and he will continue to be a physical, hard-nosed and versatile force on special teams. You can read more here.
38. DaiShon Neal, DE: Is Neal somebody who benefits from the move to a 3-4 scheme? The next few months will start telling the story. You can read more here.
39. Tyrin Ferguson, LB: He was ultimately believed to be a best fit at outside linebacker. He is considered versatile enough to play either spot, however, and should push for some playing time as the Huskers go forward. You can read more here.
40. Matt Snyder, TE: Opportunity won’t be a problem for Snyder, who now just has to make the most of one. Nebraska lost three four-year lettermen at tight end, and former walk-on Tyler Hoppes is the only returnee with any sure inroads to playing time. You can read more here.
41. Patrick O’Brien, QB: The redshirt freshman competed for the starting quarterback job with junior Tanner Lee all the way through spring practices before coaches named O’Brien the backup. You can read more here.
No. 42 Caleb Lightbourn, P: Lightbourn moved past his infamous punt last November against Minnesota that traveled -2 yards with a strong spring and is tracking to again start as a sophomore. Thrust into duty last season after the death of Sam Foltz, Lightbourn averaged 39.7 yards per punt on 65 kicks, 21 of which settled inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. You can read more here.
No. 43 Peyton Newell: Newell is still looking for his first official college tackle entering his fourth year in the program, but it could be on the horizon. A former top recruit from Hiawatha, Kansas, he has gone from defensive end to tackle and back to end in the Huskers’ new 3-4 defense. You can read more here.
44. Deontre Thomas, DE: If Thomas ends up redshirting his true freshman season, it won’t be for lack of ability. His frame and speed (he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds) are ideally suited for Nebraska’s new 3-4 scheme. You can read more here.
45. Boe Wilson, OG: Nebraska coaches felt good enough about Wilson in fall camp last year that they worked him out at first-team left guard following an injury to starter Jerald Foster. You can read more here.
No. 46 Matt Farniok, OT: Farniok will have his chance to alleviate concerns about the offensive line’s depth in the coming months. The redshirt freshman from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is plenty valuable if he does nothing more than serve as a quality backup to returning starters Nick Gates (left tackle) and David Knevel (right tackle). You can read more here.
47. Wyatt Mazour, RB: Mazour earned a spot on Nebraska’s travel squad to Indiana last year and may have taken off with the opportunity if not for a concussion suffered during practice. But the walk-on, who coach Mike Riley calls “our Danny Woodhead” showcased his skills with a dominant spring game that featured quick bursts and broken tackles. You can read more here.
48. Ben Miles, FB: An Andy Janovich-style breakout would be a lot to ask from the son of former LSU coach Les Miles as he enters his freshman season as a rare scholarship fullback. But it isn’t out of the question, either. Read more here.
49. Jack Stoll, TE: The redshirt freshman hasn’t done anything to take himself out of consideration for the leading role at tight end, and that alone is encouraging for a redshirt freshman competing at one of Nebraska’s most unresolved positions heading into fall camp. Read more here.
50. Collin Miller, LB: The redshirt freshman was named defensive MVP of the scout team last fall while lining up as a defensive end. Coach Mike Riley said Miller had been playing inside linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme, but then the product of Fishers, Indiana, missed the entire spring with a toe injury. Read more here.
DiCaprio Bootle, honorable mention: A redshirt freshman, Bootle is probably one injury away from playing a lot. He’s the No. 2/No. 3 field corner, he could play some nickel, and he’ll definitely appear on special teams.
Damion Daniels, honorable mention: The precocious, explosive defensive tackle is a trendy pick to be one of Nebraska’s best recruits from its 2017 class. Daniels has great potential; he’s also 17 years old until just days before the season kicks off.
Boaz Joseph, honorable mention: Backup corner and special teams guy for his fifth-year senior season, Joseph should make his share of tackles and play in a few games.
The 4th tight end, honorable mention: Nebraska may very well need four tight ends for their offense, and the No. 4 guy last season – Tyler Hoppes – is likely to be the No. 1 guy this year. That means a whole slew of guys have a shot at playing time. One is senior walk-on Connor Ketter (pictured), who didn’t practice in spring because of an injury but might have been the No. 2 guy heading into spring camp. Others to watch are redshirt freshman David Engelhaupt and true freshmen Austin Allen (pictured) and Kurt Rafdal. Engelhaupt, at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, is more of a H-back type while the taller Ketter, Allen and Rafdal are downfield receiving threats.
Sedrick King, honorable mention: An outside linebacker competing for playing time, King is roughly in the same spot he was last season: Trying to put all the pieces together. He’s at that boundary linebacker spot, which is more of a pass rushing spot, competing against Alex Davis and a few other guys.
Jordan Ober, honorable mention: Nebraska’s starting long snapper for a third straight season, Ober’s job is make clean snaps on field goals, extra points and punts. He’s done a good job in his first two years.
John Raridon, honorable mention: After redshirting last season, Raridon, No. 50, appeared ready to take a shot at the starting center job in the spring. Since NU’s starting guards are Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer, and Boe Wilson is at guard, too, Raridon is perhaps a year away from significant playing time.
Austin Rose, honorable mention: A walk-on running back from Lincoln North Star, Rose flashed some power and some good cuts in spring camp. He looked every bit as spry as scholarship back Devine Ozigbo.
Deiontae Watts, honorable mention: Another 2017 recruit, Watts is on the other end of the age spectrum from Daniels; he’ll turn 20 this year. His academic eligibility is still a bit up in the air; he hasn’t arrived on campus yet.