Ask most kids who grow up in Nebraska and you’ll find that college football is just a part of life. As a child, I lived and died with the Cornhuskers like most others did, though I didn’t refrain entirely from testing out my contrarian bent. I once wanted to play for Texas because I liked their orange (really?) and there was the time I informed my dad that I wanted to play for Ohio State because I liked the fact that they were wearing red shoes. If uniform color choices were the yardstick today, there’d be a new school every week.
When I was a kid, televised sports weren’t nearly as prolific as they are today and depending on which side of the line you fall, plus or minus fifteen years or so from the thirty-eight that I’ve survived, you’re either laughing or rolling your eyes at my “backwhenIwasakid” intro, but its somewhat essential to the anecdote.
Not counting the annual spring scrimmage, I was treated to my first live Nebraska game in 1983 when I was 9. My dad made a point of taking each of his kids individually to a game. Back then, the gold standard for a fall Saturday was a trip to Gas ‘N Shop for a newspaper, an attempt to guess Harry Husker’s predicted game score, and tuning in on the radio to hear Kent Pavelka’s homer-friendly play-by-play call. To actually walk into Memorial Stadium felt surreal. It was massive, it was RED, and it was loud. I remember vividly, before the game, my father taking me to the area beneath the endzone seats (the tunnel), where the players exited the locker room before taking the field. I don’t get starstruck now, not even a little bit, I only try to respect people for their God-given talents, but I was only nine then. It was magic, those guys really existed and they were giants.
We played Syracuse and I was concerned because I didn’t know much about them. If memory serves me, Nebraska dispatched them 63-7. I’m sure there’s a game program with ticket stubs taped to the front cover still sitting in my parent’s basement. Later that season, Nebraska would lose the National Championship game to Miami. I cried myself to sleep that night, but I was only nine.
…Fast forward from 1983 to 2005. I was still guilty of letting the outcome of an occasional sporting event get under my skin. In July of that year though, I was walking through the parking lot of the Scripps Green Hospital in San Diego on my way into surgery for removal of a cancerous tumor. My parents were there and I just happened to be walking next to my dad. In a thinly-veiled effort to be brave/funny, I quipped to him that “this is the longest tunnel walk I’ve ever had to make.” Without missing a beat, he simply replied that he “…would trade places with me in a heartbeat,” if it were possible. [Sidebar: I’m certain my mom would’ve challenged him for that spot, if we actually lived in a world where frightening moments can be allocated according to our own desires.] I’m blessed to still be around today and the outcomes of sporting events no longer affect my emotions. I still follow various teams, but the results are nothing more than that, “results” of a game.
…and into 2012. I was recently listening to The Jim Rome Show at my desk one morning when he interviewed Rex Burkhead, current running back for the University of Nebraska football team. He was on to discuss the season but also a courageous young boy named Jack Hoffman, 7, a child with pediatric brain cancer. In a now well-documented story, Jack Hoffman along with another young boy, Isaiah Casillas, 6, was able to lead the Nebraska football team down the tunnel and out onto the field before a Nebraska home game. Burkhead is responsible for initiating a chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a non-profit that affiliates college football teams with rare diseases. Young Msrs. Hoffman and Casillas were an inspiration to the 80,000+ fans present, in helping to launch the Nebraska chapter of Uplifting Athletes. Although I’ve never met either of them, I’ll humbly offer a prayer for their well-being and for both of them to have more brighter days than dark ones as they continue making a long, unenviable walk down the tunnel.
Football won’t cure any rare diseases. Of course it won’t, it’s “just a game”. But maybe, just maybe there’s a little magic in the tunnel. I’m sure it’s different for everybody…a first experience, a shared moment that keeps people connected over the years, a thrilling moment…It doesn’t cure anything but maybe its meant to offer a small bright spot that can be filed away for a time when its needed most. Have you ever made a “tunnel walk”? What was it about? Who was there? Nebraska’s memorial stadium and football in general just happen to be the setting for this particular post, but I’d be curious to hear about “tunnel walks” from wherever they’re taken. I know they exist in all shapes, sizes, times, and places. Please feel free to post your own experiences or share this with someone who might care to share.
Thanks for reading and…GO BIG RED!