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March 6, 2020 Nonfiction

Goodbye Big Red

Paul Hansen

Goodbye Big Red photo

We were ninety-thousand strong. Everyone in red, with pink dusk in the Nebraska sky, mid-September. The fifteenth game of the Scott Frost era: Nebraska vs. Northern Illinois. This was supposed to be our year. Starting 1-1 wasn’t how it had been written. The Huskers came out for an extra point, up two scores. We stayed standing. They had it blocked. I spiked my Husker cap. The guy behind me handed it back. We didn’t say anything. No thank you or too bad or Go Big Red. There was nothing left. Though Nebraska won 44-8, things didn’t feel right. Two days later I was on a flight back to Florida, strung out on counterfeit speed, trying to mask how drunk I was. My travel budget for the year was gone, blown on a trip to Lincoln. During my layover in Atlanta, I was politely cut off at Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace. The bartender suggested I buy some eye drops and gum, though, it’s up to them if they let you on. I rinsed my face, eyedrops in. Was seated in the very last row, where I fell asleep to the sound of the lavatory toilet flushing. Suspended somewhere in the uterine sky, thirty-thousand feet, I dreamt we were national champs. Then our pilot two-hopped the landing. My mouth was dry, scent rank, back in the Sunshine State.

Over the last ten years happenstance has allowed me to live in some of college football’s hotbeds. From Nebraska to Louisiana to Tallahassee—in close proximity to a few programs whose mythologies and traditions have helped shape the game into what it is today: an era where Dr. Pepper’s Fansville commercials are better than most movies I saw last year, where Taco Bell is spending mad cash to align themselves with student sections because nothing encapsulates Live Mas like a bunch of red-blooded Americans going batshit in primetime. An era where football-only facilities are the new norm, the average cost of which could provide free Taco Bell soft shells to every student at that university for the next ten to fifteen academic years—three meals a day, assuming people don’t go to town on seconds and thirds.

But this isn’t a critique. I love the game. By the time summer rolls around every year, the anticipation gets so unbearable that I do something rash. Like buy a new smoker. Or place a bunch of futures bets. Last May, I made a construction paper countdown chain at one-hundred days out—the kind I made for Christmas as a little Husker fan in Nebraska. Except this time, I assembled it the morning of my thirtieth birthday, a day I spent alone, having managed to keep that date a secret from the few pals I’ve got in Tallahassee, where I’m two years into an English Ph.D. at Florida State. Anyways, I made my chain—scarlet and cream—spent the rest of the day writing and reading and then I got drunk, kept telling myself I was happy. That I’m the one who made the decisions that got me to this place. Besides, there was no reason for self-pity. I’ve always hated birthdays. Simply put, they cause me a great deal of shame. Like I’m inconveniencing people into forcing a positive spin onto the fact that I spent another year accomplishing little, cultivating no serious relationships, and going further into debt. Guilt plays a role in it all, no doubt. Though, I suspect the underlying characteristic is cultural, something known well by those of us brought up in the Midwest, where above all other traits, the most commonly shared is that we don’t want to inconvenience others. I live in constant fear of it. As do many of my hometown pals. Having to make a left turn against traffic is a daily phobia, all those drivers behind me, inconvenienced, thinking: is this asshole really trying to make a left turn here?

We are proud in the Midwest. Friendly. Eager to help. There is genuine camaraderie. Every year we have to tough out a brutal winter. We go through it alone, but emerge with a slightly better understanding of each other. And for the past fifteen years, we’ve had to live through the nightmare that Nebraska Football has become. Our passion can’t be turned off. Husker Football isn’t the most important thread in our cultural fabric, it’s 90% of the quilt. Sure, we’ve got Warren Buffet and Conor Oberst and the rich kids that own the Cubs, but none of them inspire an ounce of the amount of pride our football program once did.

And as Nebraskans we are loyal to them. Detrimentally so. I fear the emotional toll it has taken on my life is close to irreversible. The promises and expectations and ups and downs have pushed me to the brink. This is me raising the white flag and trying to say goodbye. I can’t do it anymore. I’m afraid that if this relationship doesn’t end, I’ll turn into a person that trusts no one, experiences little joy. Or if there are moments of joy, I won’t appreciate them, constantly waiting for a last minute interception or fumble or etc., etc., etc.

Now, it’s not like I’ve been through tons of rough shit, but I’ve had my fair share of failed relationships, seen people leave without explanation. I’ve spent days and then weeks and then months doing nothing but getting drunk. Full truth—and I don’t care to know what this says about me—but this breakup with Husker Football is the most emotionally tumultuous thing I’ve gone through. I desperately want it to end, though I know a clean break just isn’t possible. They will always be in the back of my mind, causing suffering and pain and embarrassment, but with the possibility of greatness.

Maybe I’m spoiled. My earliest memories of Husker Football are of the ‘94-97 run. Listening to the radio broadcasts in my neighbor’s garage, the streets deserted. Omaha is a ghost town during games. If you’re out and about, someone’s liable to get your ass Baker Acted. I vividly recall the whole neighborhood trudging into the frozen streets to bask in communal triumph after the ‘94 Orange Bowl. People lit off fireworks. It was snowing. Strangers hugged. A different neighbor busted out a trumpet and blew beautiful music, National Champs for the first time since 1971. I knew then what it meant to be a Nebraskan, surrounded by so much nothingness, but holding onto something that could never be taken away. And they repeated in ‘95. Fell off a bit in ‘96. Returned to glory in ‘97. Had I not come of age during an era of such dominance, maybe things would be different. It’s hard to say. The one thing I am certain of is that their continuous failure over the past fifteen years used to pack a punch, but that punch turned into depression. And that depression has turned into something more concerning—it feels like I deserve this. On a personal level. That bad as it may be, it should be worse. What’s more is I'm beginning to enjoy it. Watching Nebraska lose has become this vaguely sexual experience. I want to be embarrassed. Badly. In front of a national audience. That is how I get off.

It’s weird.

My days playing competitive football didn’t last long—age seven to fourteen, at the behest of my folks. It wasn’t my cup of tea. In the sixth grade I was at quarterback and this dude who already had sideburns sacked me, fracturing the growth plate in my shoulder. I fumbled. They recovered. We lost. That dude went on to play for Nebraska, like his father before him. My shoulder still makes a popping sound when jimmied the right way. A decent party trick. Our coach was the personification of all my fears—this brute of a man who talked without enunciating, wad of chaw always in cheek. He was a linebacker at Nebraska in the ‘80s, the record holder for most cracked helmets—seven in one season. The guy had us bookending each practice with bull-in-the-ring drills. Our candy asses ran a lot. The joke amongst our parents was that Coach had taken too many shots to the head. Knowing what we do now, the dude must’ve been suffering from something serious, though we didn’t know that back then. By the time I hit junior year of high school, my playing days were through. Turns out I was way more into punk rock and pot. For several years I carried a moleskine and detested football. It’s not a phase I’m proud of.

***                          

In 2014 I left Omaha for Lake Charles, LA, where people are into LSU, though the fandom is much less intense. They’ve got the Saints to fall back on, duck hunting, gumbo. For the last two years I’ve been living in Tallahassee. Older Nebraskans might not like this, but Florida State fans are decent people. They’re passionate, respectful, into having a good time. Though I’m at the university out of luck and coincidence, I’ve got to think part of me always hoped I’d end up here after Coach Martin signed my baseball at the 1999 College World Series—Prov. 3:5-6, he wrote under his name. Trust in him. I’ve still got the ball in one of those shoeboxes that I go through in moments of nostalgia.

But boy oh boy, Tallahassee turned on their football program this year. Taggart was fired, barely eighteen months into his tenure. Attendance took a massive hit. The paper reported 46 thousand at this year's Louisville game, but take a look at a still-frame and if you can tell me 46k with a straight face, you’re a better liar than I.

Nebraska fans are different. We are too proud and loyal and stupid. Despite consecutive losing seasons, Memorial Stadium remains packed, upwards of 90k—a sell-out streak that dates back to 1962. I’d say there’s simply more to do in North Florida on Saturdays in the fall, but according to Tinder, that’s not necessarily true.

Before moving away, I spent a decade working food service in Omaha. Unless you work at a sports bar, there’s no sense in showing up on gameday. For my last five years of employment, I refused to work Saturdays. There just aren’t enough customers. And the ones that do come in aren’t the type you want to be around, referring to all sports as sportsball, talking about how anti-intellectual everyone is. Not the kind of person you want to bring home to meet the folks.

If I’m going to be honest, my life has been running at something of a parallel to Husker Football for the last ten years, over which time I’ve tried to hack it as a musician, restaurateur, and writer. Each time showing signs of promise and then failing. Thirty years old and all I’ve got to show are a couple manuscripts I’m too ashamed to share, a screenplay I’ll never finish. The pain Nebraska Football brings is unpleasant, but it’s better than all this wheel spinning, constantly tricking myself into thinking I’m on the cusp of something, forever drunk on the adolescent dream that I can make it as a writer or musician or left-handed pitcher in the big leagues.

Or maybe we keep packing Memorial Stadium because we all crave public shame. To get a feel for it all, look no further than our de facto spokesman, Larry the Cable Guy—a character created and played so convincingly by Dan Whitney (b. 1963: Pawnee City, NE) that I didn’t know he wasn’t real until I was well into my twenties. He’s the dude that says Git-r-done. Rocks a camo hat and cut-off flannel. Is a devoted Husker fan.

When he is us and we are him, who doesn’t want to be ridiculed?

***

It’s just a game.

I’ve heard that before. But it’s not. For those of us who call ourselves Huskers, it’ll never be just a game. Now that I’m five years removed from Nebraska, they are the last thing connecting me to my past. Through all my reinventions and personal crises—from earrings to faux artist to this current version: emulating the head coach, trying to be a man—Husker Football has been the one constant. And I was always proud. To a fault. In 2014, during my first year of graduate school at McNeese State, I was teaching a section of Composition in which a handful of students were on the football team. They’d be trekking to Lincoln for the Husker’s opener. I took that as god telling me I’d made the right decision in moving to Southwest Louisiana. These kids from my new school would go to Lincoln, collect a massive check and get the shit kicked out of them on national television. And oh the smack I talked. In retrospect, it was remarkably unprofessional. Sure, I wished them luck. But only in the sense that I didn’t want them to come back injured. Or dead. That game was scheduled for 11AM. Being new to Louisiana, I didn’t yet have a TV. Rather than stream the radio broadcast, I went to my neighborhood bar. When I requested they turn the game on, the bartender—bless her heart—looked at me and said, “McNeese has a football team?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “And they’re about to get the shit kicked out of them.”

I ordered my beer and flipped my Husker cap backwards, ready to watch my students take an absolute smack-down, for which I’d offer condolences on Monday, telling them it took courage to go into Memorial Stadium and get their asses handed to them—even if they were being compensated to the tune of 800k. As hubris has it, Nebraska nearly lost. It took a last minute act of divine intervention on a catch and run by Ameer Abdullah. It was a magnificent play. One that still gets aired. I was fraught, but also in awe. I proceeded to drink the emotion away, engaging in a contest with the bar owner to see who could be the first to drink every bottle of beer they offered—and for a dive their selection was top-notch. The contest was supposed to last a few days, maybe a week. I did my best to win it right then and there. What did I give a shit? Another Husker season had arrived. I was at the beginning of a new life chapter, full of hope and happiness. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the beer alphabet that I remembered: the English Department was throwing it’s opening meet-and-greet for grad students and faculty that evening, hosted by the ranking professor. Again, being new to Louisiana, I did not yet have a drug connection. No uppers to straighten out. I stumbled home, showered. Tried to sleep for an hour. Opted to bail on the party. My new friends wouldn’t let that happen, though, claiming it would be bad form. They came to pick me up and upon realizing the condition I was in, they were all perplexed. Why would I get so drunk when we had a major obligation?

The Huskers, I giggled. Abdullah.

Now, I know the only thing more uninteresting than the really drunk guy at the party is the really drunk guy later trying to explain being really drunk at the party, so I’ll keep this brief and just say I was ill-behaved. Got into a super-soaker fight with the professor’s young sons, which ended in a draw after I knocked over an unopened bottle of wine on the back patio—glass everywhere. Proceeded to eat etouffee without any rice. Like it was soup. To which a concerned woman took me by the arm and said, “That’s traditionally served over rice.”

I looked at her, smiled.

The Huskers.

Such began my career in academia.

For many years I was that way, telling myself I was tragic, having moved to the middle of nowhere in the name of art. I watched on the internet as my friends got married, quit drugs, had kids. The few folks close enough to keep in touch with had only a vague understanding of what I was doing. Something about graduate school? A little art? It’s only recently that I’ve grown comfortable enough to tell inquisitive pals that I like to write—a hobby that causes great shame. Upon returning home for the first time after moving to Louisiana, a few of the regulars at my go-to told me they’d assumed I’d gone to rehab.

“Nope,” I said. “Graduate school.”

“Oh.”

***

Since moving to Florida, I’ve taken to doing my heavy drinking alone. Having long been prone to blackouts, it’s easiest to avoid social situations. That way I can drink my fill and not have to spend the next morning convincing myself I didn’t commit some horrible fuck up. That I didn’t treat someone awful. Burn another bridge. Or whatever it was that made everyone leave.

But 2019 was going to be different.

The Huskers were pre-season top-25. Reports out of Lincoln were that the team was good. Potentially great. September came and I tore the last link of my anticipation chain with such hope. Husker Football was back. They’d conquer the Big Ten West and I’d write something worthwhile, quit getting drunk so much. It didn’t work out. They missed a bowl game for the third consecutive season. I became a sadist of the lowest rank, putting weekly money against them. If they’re going to implode, I wanted them to implode. At least when I collapse, it’s in the comfort of my own solitude. And when people ask, I say I’m okay. Not drinking as much. That the new draft of my manuscript isn’t just another goddamn book about some asshole coming to terms with shame.

Enough was enough.

On a Saturday in early November, I took my first step toward change. Nebraska had Purdue, a noon kickoff. I put two-hundred on the Huskers covering, going against my only bet against them principle. But this was Purdue, one of the year’s worst teams. Besides, if Nebraska lost and I was out that amount of cash, there’d be no going back. Here’s the kicker: I promised myself I wouldn’t watch any of that game. I left my house at noon, went to Doak Campbell to see Florida State take on Miami; 3:30 start time. I held true, didn’t watch any of Nebraska. Though admittedly, I streamed the radio broadcast on my way to Florida State, but that’s it. When I parked my truck at 12:15, Nebraska was up 10-0. I made it to the tailgate by 12:30. It was a beautiful day, 75 degrees, the air smelling of grilled meat and lawnmower exhaust. I copped a twelve pack and sat in the sun with some pals, enjoying the atmosphere. It felt good to have friends. And every few minutes some frat kid would shout: FUCK MIAMI; each time bringing the alumni back to better days. Days when they thought they could be anything, full of hope on the college campus. Back to when Bobby was God, before Jimbo took the crown and split. Back to when Osceola was more than just a white kid in red face. By the time I felt compelled to check the Nebraska score, there were too many people around; my phone was without service. It was the best purgatory. Two-hundred bucks is two-hundred bucks, though. After a few minutes I asked my buddy to check.

“I thought you were done with them?” he said.

I gave him a shrug. He knew I had money on it.

“Hey-hey,” he checked the internet. “Nebraska’s up three in the fourth.”

That was the last I asked. We had another beer, made way into the stadium.

As it goes, Nebraska proved unable to hold, allowing Purdue’s third-string QB a winning touchdown drive. I did the postmortem in bed that night, where nobody would know what I was doing. I read the recap, the national commentary, what the Omaha writers were saying. Tore through the 24/7  board. Watched video of the postgame conference, in which Scott Frost once again promised to turn it around. The bill of his ballcap had the perfect bend. His face was rugged stubble, chest made of steel—the type of man I want to be. Though deep in his voice there was a waver, like maybe he knew he’d taken on the impossible. Even as I sat there swearing them off, I desperately wanted to believe him when he said things would get better.

Florida State ended up losing to Miami, 27-10. A game in which they gave up nine sacks. Attendance was reported as just above 63k. On my way out, ten minutes left in the fourth, this old guy behind me got all irritated and said, “It’s not over yet.”

But it was.

***

I woke the next day and the world was still spinning. My neighbor and her young son were in their backyard, playing with their dog. I wanted to apologize to them. Not for any one thing. But for everything. I wanted them to know I’m trying. That I won’t spend any more Saturdays aroused by embarrassment. I will be healthy.

I’ve had intense relationships end. Ones I thought bound for longevity. And they fell apart. In those moments I always claimed to wish them nothing but the best. That our love was such that I was able to acknowledge that this was the best decision for them. Now that I’m going through another breakup, I’m wondering: did I ever actually mean that? I mean actually actually. Part of me probably did, though part of me probably hopes there will always be something missing in their lives. Something small and inconsequential. But missing. And I’ll say it here with what I think is sincerity, this time regarding Nebraska Football: I wish them nothing but the best. I hope they return to glory, masters of corn-fed power and strength, not taking shit from anyone. I hope the streets are once again filled with trumpets as Scott Frost hoists Dr. Pepper’s College Football Playoff Trophy over his head. I just can’t be along for the ride. Walking away is all that’s left. It’s the best decision for me.

 

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