LINCOLN — The sunlight hit Christian Peter’s green eyes and he squinted beneath his tweed cap.
Above him, Sirius blared from a scoreboard that didn’t exist when he played here. Fans cheered from seats that didn’t exist when he played here. This tunnel wasn’t even Nebraska’s tunnel.
But his adrenaline is pumping.
Behind him, 100 former teammates in matching black and red pullovers wave to fans. Some record the scene on their phones. Peter can’t; he’s holding the Big 8 championship trophy.
He stands at the tunnel gate, next to Tommie Frazier and Tom Osborne and Milt Tenopir, waiting for their introduction from the P.A. announcer.
“The unbeaten, the untied, unquestioned best team in college football history. The 1995 national champion Cornhuskers.”
Twenty years ago, Peter would’ve heard those words, smashed an ornament over his head and raced onto the field. Saturday he walked.
Better to make this moment last as long as possible.
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Seventeen hours earlier, they put on slacks and sport coats, walk into the stadium and take the elevator to the third floor. When they exit, it was like stepping back in time.
“Twenty years goes by and you get with all those guys and it feels like it’s been maybe 20 days,” Jared Tomich said.
Said Mike Rucker: “It feels like we’re just kinda in the offseason and we’re just coming back.”
Peter listens to the stories, several focused on him.
You’ve probably heard the one about Peter’s pregame speech at Michigan State, when he busted a green Christmas ornament against his forehead. It fired up the team. It also punctured his skin.
Center Aaron Graham tried to wipe blood off Peter’s face. Christian grabbed the towel, threw it down and ran out of the locker room. NU won 50-10.
Here’s one you haven’t heard.
“They used to check on us when we were going to classes,” Peter said. “And the guy that used to check on me was Johnny Rodgers. So before school started, I went up to Johnny, I said listen, you know the deal. You were in my spot once. I show up, I check in, I leave through the back door. Everything’s cool. Right, Johnny? Yeah, yeah, yeah.
“Johnny was the biggest rat there ever was! He got me every single day. I’d go back to that defensive meeting room and there’d be a stack of green slips on Charlie’s desk. And every time I’d walk in there, (defensive coordinator) Charlie (McBride) would go, ‘What the hell is this? Why aren’t you going to classes? Now I gotta answer to Tom!’
“And one day he took his teeth out and threw ’em at me. And I didn’t know what the f--- to do. I’m like, holy s---. This guy’s f----- crazy. I got his false teeth sitting on my belly. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I should put ’em back in his mouth. So I just left ’em there.
“So after that, I used to always plead with Dennis Leblanc. I think I even tried to bribe him. I’m like, Dennis, I’ll give ya 100 bucks. Please do not hand in those green slips. He’s f----- crazy! He’s gonna kill me!”
Co-captain Tony Veland is one of five players to speak at the banquet. He reprises a speech from 1995, which played on the video screen during Saturday’s Tunnel Walk. He presents the case for Nebraska as the greatest team of all time.
Best quarterback in the nation. The toughest I-backs. Offensive linemen who make more pancakes than Aunt Jemima. Rush ends who take quarterbacks’ heads off ...
“Tony stole the show,” Eric Warfield said. “He got the crowd hyped.”
Graham speaks. So do Peter and Phil Ellis. Then it’s Frazier’s turn. He impresses teammates with his eloquence and grace.
“A very humbled Tommie Frazier,” Graham said, “which is not what we’re used to seeing.”
Frazier concludes by asking Peter to stand and recite their locker-room prayer.
One problem: It’s been 20 years! Peter can’t remember it. So Vershan Jackson steps up and takes the lead. One hundred men rise. The captains throw their arms around each other. They say it together.
“Dear Lord, the battles we go through life, we ask for a chance that’s fair, a chance to equal our stride, a chance to do or dare ...”
Imagine the faces in the room. Imagine the number of Alpha dogs. Yet somehow, each man feels just a small part of something big. It’s almost magical, Peter says.
“If we should win, let it be by the code, faith and honor held high. If we should lose, we’ll stand by the road, and cheer as the winners go by.”
It’s the highlight of the night. Saturday afternoon, they’ll still feel the goosebumps, especially thinking about that last line.
“Day by day, we get better and better! The team that can’t be beat, won’t be beat!”
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Frazier is the last captain to speak. He is not the main attraction, though. That honor is Osborne’s. He stands and the room goes as quiet as it’s been all night.
He runs through statistics, scoring offense, scoring defense, average margin of victory, turnover margin. Then he does something that Tomich calls “very, very, very rare.” He references questionable calls in the 1994 Orange Bowl against Florida State. He chokes up.
“He said if they had instant replay, you guys would’ve won three in a row. I don’t think we’ve heard him say that type of thing in public. He said, ‘You guys were a 17-point underdog. You won that game by 10 or 14 points. The record book shows that we lost; otherwise you would’ve been 38-0.’”
When Osborne is finished, he leaves his players with the same message he left them with 20 years ago.
If there’s anything you guys ever need from me, you can give me a call.
Osborne’s emotions shook the room Friday night. But according to old Huskers, the biggest surprise might have been Peter.
They expected the crazy 23-year-old with the bloody forehead. Instead, they get a calm 43-year-old New Jersey businessman.
He hadn’t been to Memorial Stadium in almost a decade. Wife. Kids. Work. Life gets in the way. Has he calmed down in 20 years? “I mean, I would hope so,” Peter said.
We’re standing on the sideline in Saturday’s third quarter, watching Nebraska 2015 lose to a team that Nebraska 1995 would’ve beaten by 30. Brandon Reilly drops a pass right in front of him.
“Almost, right?” Christian tells his brother, Jason. “We’ll get it.”
His purpose here isn’t to grind over the present, it’s to embrace the past. As a 20-year-old, you don’t realize what you’re achieving, Peter says. You don’t realize the impact it has on fans. On history.
That’s why the bonds are even stronger now. If you were in the room Friday night, Peter says, you understood why Nebraska went 60-3. You could feel it.
“We had the same exact feeling every time before we went out on that field. Every day we walked off the practice field.
“You’ve got 100 to 150 guys coming from all walks of life. Some of us came from the most undesirable areas. Some of us grew up privileged, the best schools, amazing families. Some of us didn’t have families. Some of us went from home to home. But when we came together, as one, it didn’t matter.”
For a moment, he’s the old Christian again. He’s shaking his fist. His eyes are green lasers beneath his cap.
“It was the team. It didn’t matter what you had, how much money, where you came from, none of that meant s---. What meant anything to us was the brotherhood ...
“I love the guy I lined up next to. And he loved me.”
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