The North Bend Eagle


The Pilgrimage of the Red

From the Banks of the Maple Creek by Nathan Arneal
Published 8/29/12

The moment conciseness washes over me, before I even open my eyelids, I can tell something is different about today.

My bed rests about 20 yards from Highway 79, and it’s common to hear the occasional car cruise by while I lie under the covers.

But on this day something is different. The tempo has increased. A car zips by every few seconds: “Shroomp, shroomp.... shroomp.”

Eventually the time for frivolity is over. The pulsing, swirling mass of scarlet humanity develops a pattern.

It’s game day.

Instinctively, I know the increased traffic load is made up of carloads of red-clad fans from points north heading south.

My heartbeat intensifies as I gather my wits and whip the covers off. Today is the day. It’s been eight long months without Husker football. Eight months of debating theoretical depth charts, chewing over third-hand reports of who was looking good in summer workouts. Eight months of wondering if the new recruits were going to live up to the hype and if the new tweaks to the offense were going to be effective. Eight months of overreacting to every sliver of news because there was no real football to dissect.

No more. In a few hours, all the questions will be answered. Did the quarterback really improve his throwing motion? Are the young linemen ready to step up? Answers, just hours away.

I jump out of bed and step over to the closet to assess my options. Red t-shirt? Husker polo? Maybe the red Husker baseball jersey? Or do I go with the classy look and a red button-down shirt?

A short while later, the tough decisions have been made and the DVR has been set so I can watch the game again as soon as I get home. Finally, the garage door opens to a beautiful late summer/early fall day. As I leave the driveway and join the procession south, I do a quick check of the glove compartment to make sure the parking pass I put in there three weeks ago is still there. Check.

About a quarter mile into the trip, I pull over. After waiting for an SUV with a Blackshirts flag fluttering from the window to pass, I do a U-turn and quickly retrace my path back home. Pull in, leave the car running and dash in the house. I find the booklet lying on the dining room table and bend the correct page back and forth until I can tear neatly down the perforation.

Now that I have my game ticket safely in my back pocket, it’s time to begin again.
After a quick stop in North Bend at the ATM and the Mini-Mart for something to drink, I am back on the highway, crossing the Platte River, setting a course for Lincoln.

Flip on the radio to KFAB to see what the pregame show is talking about.
A commercial for Dorothy Lynch. Flip on the satellite radio to find some music to set the mood. Need something driving, something to yell along to... maybe some Disturbed or Godsmack. Or... Korn. How appropriate.

I am now in the midst of the gently rolling hills of the Bohemian Alps. Golden-green cornfields marbled with wooded gullies. Patches of prairie pasture dotted with cedar trees. This is true Nebraska.

I switch back and forth between KFAB and music. Listening to the pregame when something interesting is on, like Matt Davison’s keys to a Husker win, or what it will take for the Husker offense to break out. Switching back to music when something boring is on, like analysis I could have come up with myself after reading the internet for eight months or Adrian Fiala is speaking.

I pass signs on the side of the road urging me to stop at the Kolache Korner. If the empty stomach is growing, maybe I stop at the stand outside the Prague Quick Stop for a fresh kolache.

Through the small towns with score predictions on every marquee. Down the length of Saunders County and into Lancaster until the Tower of the Plains peeks over the horizon, the Nebraska capitol with its golden dome topped by a statue of a quarterback running a naked bootleg.

Approaching the outskirts of Lincoln, the traffic thickens. Mere miles to Mecca now. At some point the highway morphs into Interstate 180. I fly by the Superior Street exit and the apartment complex my brother lived in during law school. Approaching Cornhusker Highway, I see pass apartment building I partially moved into before my roommate and I found out we couldn’t break the lease at our old apartment. Under the Cornhusker Highway bridge and there on the left is the apartment complex I actually did live in for two years of college, practically in the shadow of the stadium.

Through the North Bottoms and onto the I-180 viaduct, and there it is. Looming ahead is Memorial Stadium, flags flying, banners hung, facade shining, horizon dominated. What a welcome to Lincoln.

About then traffic crawls to a stop. No problem. I just crank the music a little louder and nod with confidence to other drivers caught in the stop and go. Maybe throw the bones if necessary. People are perched on the barriers lining the edge of the interstate with signs asking for tickets.

Traffic finally spills off the viaduct onto Ninth Street. I see my parking spot right at the bottom of the viaduct, but you can’t get there from here. To gain access to my spot mere yards away I must do a complete circle around the block, during which I attach my pass to the mirror. I weave patiently through the throngs of excited fans, some with faces painted, some with fingers raised asking for tickets, all in red.

I park the car and hop out with a nod to the tailgaters in the next stall. They offer a beverage. I accept. Before locking the door I check my back pocket to make sure the ticket it still there. It is. I judge the weather to see if I should take my sweatshirt. Nope, it’s only going to get hotter.

Pregame choices are myriad. I could head to a variety of tailgates being put on by friends. I could wander around the bars of the Haymarket, perhaps chat up a few fans of the opposing team to make sure they go home and tell their friends how wonderful and friendly the people of Nebraska are.

Eventually, the time for festivities and frivolity is over. The pulsing, swirling mass of scarlet humanity slowly develops a pattern. The seemingly random paths of the faithful begin to look less like an colony of red fire ants and more like an army marching to the a single destination. At the center of this vortex is the monolithic Memorial Stadium.

Crossing 10th street toward the stadium, the crowd is now packed shoulder to shoulder. The anticipation is growing.

It’s an election year, so a free roster is easy to find. Names and numbers on one side, the smiling mug of a prospective state treasurer on the other.

I find my gate and march up the steps, ticket in hand. At the top a yellow-jacketed usher scans my ticket. For a brief moment of panic, I wish I had double checked to make sure I grabbed the right game. The scanner beeps and I am waved through with a friendly, “Enjoy the game!” Panic gone.

On the concourse I seek out a Runza and a Mountain Dew. Going to need to keep that energy level up.

At last, it’s into the bottleneck of the tunnel to my section. As we shuffle along like cattle, I recall my youth, when Dad and I used to scalp tickets once a year. I remember how the thrill of this moment, here in the tunnel, was my favorite. One second you’re taking baby steps surrounded by people and concrete. Then you step over the threshold and before you opens up a panoramic Memorial Stadium in brilliant color and 3-D like no high-def flat-screen TV can deliver. As a kid I knew the red N in the middle of the field and the bright green of the Astroturf so well. To get to experience it in person once a year was a fantasy come true.

Now, I reflect how fortunate I am to experience that feeling seven or eight times a year. My 10-year-old self would be insanely jealous.

I make my way down to my seat, slapping high-five to the wise-cracking fan who sits across the aisle to me. I wave to Tom Osborne, who sits a few seats down the row from me. This particular Tom Osborne lives in Battle Creek. When I first met him a few years ago, he introduced himself by saying he shared a name with the old coach, Tom Osborne. “Which one? First or last name?” I asked. “Both,” he replied.

As the band finishes, up the aisle walks old Joe, who sits in seat 2 right next to me, except for the year he had to take off after bypass surgery. Joe has a little mustard stain on the corner of his mouth from the hot dog he just devoured, but he’s pumped and ready for the new season.

Finally, the field empties and the clock counts down past seven minutes. The big screens go black. The east and west stadiums chant “Husker!” “Power!” back and forth.

My heart is racing. What is the new tunnel walk going to be like? Awesome, most likely.

Finally, after a long, long eight months, a deep bass note pours out of the speakers and the crowd goes nuts. Images of Husker legends sweep over the big screen. Johnny Rogers, man, woman and child. Cory Schlesinger stumbling into the end zone. Tommie Frazier, how many tackles can one man break? Coach Osborne being carried off the field on the shoulder of his team after No. 5. Eric Crouch blowing through an Iowa defensive back like a sixth grader playing red rover with the third graders.

Not going to lie. It gets a little misty up in Row 14.

There is no place like Nebraska.

And it’s Game Day.

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