Football and free food help fans of all ages leave Huskers’ inaugural Fan Fest satisfied

Husker fans attend a fan night before a Friday Night Lights camp at Memorial Stadium. 

LINCOLN — A short stroll down Stadium Drive was all it took to get a feel for how Nebraska’s inaugural Fan Fest was going.

Whether Husker fans or not, those present — through a very unscientific poll — all spoke enthusiastically about the Friday evening event that felt, looked, sounded and tasted like something they would attend again.

Wander to the parking garage across the street from West Stadium, and sisters Marlene Ellis and Sheryl Crooks are sitting in the shade enjoying free Chik-Fil-A sandwiches, hot dogs and cans of soda. Ellis has a son, Connor, who will be a junior running back at Abraham Lincoln High School in Council Bluffs this fall, attending the Friday Night Lights camp following the fan festivities.

Crooks, who lives in Omaha, considers herself an Iowa or Iowa State supporter. But there’s no serious rivalry when face paint, balloon animals and bean-bag toss are among the options.

“The Hawkeyes, the Cyclones, we’re just here for the kids,” Crooks said.

Head a few paces toward the stadium, and there are Andrew and Kati Smith, a young married couple from Omaha openly shocked at the variety and quantity of free food. No need to pick between chicken sandwiches, pizza, ice slushies and soda when it’s all there for the taking.

But Andrew isn’t really there for the music and football ticket raffle. He wants to see recruits in action, particularly 2019 quarterback prospect Max Duggan of Council Bluffs Lewis Central, whom Nebraska offered earlier this month. He also embraces being part of the Huskers’ efforts to help sway talented players to Lincoln — “They use us as a tool,” he said — which is why he and Kati are regulars at the spring game.

This is their first FNL experience, but agreed it probably wouldn’t be their last. And it’s a good way to get geared up for the season.

“Vegas said six (wins), which I think they’re going to lose money on,” Andrew Smith said. “I’d like to say we at least win seven or eight, but who knows. A lot will come down to the Oregon game — if we leave there with a victory, we’re sitting pretty good.”

Near the pizza and water-bottle giveaways, Curt (71) and Peggy (68) Kuster are biding their time for the camp as well. Curt was part of the university faculty for 35 years as a professor in the College of Dentistry. He helped make mouth guards for Nebraska sports teams, including football, and retired in 2011.

The couple said they will be back again “when the real studs show up” at the June 23 FNL camp. There’s also a Fan Fest that day from 5-7 p.m. as well as June 30 (no camp on that date).

Might as well enjoy the “side benefits” leading up to the football drills, Curt said. They went to the camp last year when Tristan Gebbia wowed the crowd with pinpoint passing and liked watching the battles between wide receivers and defensive backs.

“I guess the key thing is to have a big crowd to impress the recruits,” Curt said with a smile.

“That’s his thing, recruits are everything,” Peggy interrupts.

Fresh off a tour in the “Blackshirts” adorned team buses, 9-year old Lillian White of Lincoln said there were all kinds of fun things to see and do. Her dad, Larry White, a Virginia Tech fan, said the event made for a family night and football fix all crammed into one. His son, Larry Jr., will be a freshman at Nebraska this fall and is good friends with incoming offensive lineman and Lincoln East graduate Chris Walker from their middle school days.

Nearby, NU students Kylie Gunderson (a 21-year-old senior) and roommate Dana Handke (a 20-year old junior) are walking quickly down the street toting pizza and Mr. Goodcents subs. They saw an online ad for free food and took a study break to come over.

“We couldn’t afford to feed ourselves tonight, so we’re here,” Handke said.

Added Gunderson: “We like the spirit of football more than the actual sport, but this is cool. And there’s nothing like Memorial Stadium.”

Over by the inflatable setups offering football, baseball and basketball skills challenges, Margaret Krieser (68, of Lincoln) was watching her granddaughter, Vanessa. She doesn’t go to football games — she can’t name one current Nebraska player — but also couldn’t say no to a short drive for free food and games. She didn’t know about the football camp later in the evening, but said she might just change her plans to attend.

“You know why I think they’re doing it?” Krieser said of the Fan Fest. “Because they need to sell out all their football tickets. The football program has kind of been disappointing the last few years, so we’ve got to build an interest in our fan base again.”

Perhaps the most out-of-place person there was 32-year-old Will O’Hara, who lives in Tampa, Florida, but was in Omaha for work all week. On a whim and without knowing of the event, he drove to Lincoln to add the home of the Huskers to his list of Division I stadium’s he’s seen in person. This is No. 45.

“Free pizza was nice; everyone is very friendly,” said O’Hara, a Georgia fan. “I like the history of the place. It’s kind of unassuming and historical. It doesn’t seem as commercialized.”

Activities wrapped up about a half hour early with ominous storm clouds looming to the north. But NU coach Mike Riley capped it off by briefly addressing a gathering crowd underneath the “Stadium Drive” and “U Street” cross signs.

“One more thing: Come back next week,” Riley said. “We’re going to do it again. We have two weekends like this, and these are for you. Have fun, and we’ll see you at the ballpark.”

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