They love football in Lincoln, Nebraska, at least as much as Italians love soccer. But they are good sports about it there, truly good sports, as the large traveling mass of UCLA supporters had an opportunity to find out two weeks ago after crushing the Cornhuskers behind a barrage of 38 consecutive points and winning, 41-21.
Before the game, in fenced off lots at the corners of broad, flat downtown streets, great pre-game parties were rollicking along to the pulse of live music. We wandered into a packed, colorful lot that had Big Ten flags above us around the enclosure of fence which fluttered gently in front of the almost gothic majesty of Memorial Stadium. It is a great, tall stone eminence that symbolizes everything that makes Lincoln what it is in the same way a mighty Cathedral defined a place in earlier days.
But we were talking about the sportsmanship and hospitality. At the morning party it was a great tidal crush of people from both teams living the moment together, without the menacing undertones of hostility that can be felt in the darker sporting corners of the earth. It was a bright morning and nearly 70 degrees. The beer came quickly and cold from one tent while the bloody mary's came strong and spicy with pickles in them from the next tent over.
The band playing on the stage took a pause between nearly every song to toast three things: Nebraska football, UCLA, and college football overall. The toasts of UCLA were very polite and complimentary. Toward the end they grew slightly apologetic and took the tone of, "For those about to die, we salute you," but retained a note of regret and almost pity for what they believed would happen on the field.
It was not strange—after a while—to knock a smiling cheers with a passing Cornhusker, a complete stranger then and forevermore. They are still not used to losing much in Lincoln and the people, sincere and without any pretension or assumption in their voices—have an almost Homeric dedication to polite interaction with travelers they find in their midst. We wondered, before we came to accept it as they way things were, if it was some underground campaign from the Chamber of Commerce to charm visitors into spending more of their money in Lincoln.
But it is real, and this was the original point. The teeming, ocean-like red masses rolling along the blocks of downtown Lincoln had every inducement—after setting an attendance record of 91,471 at their 90-year-old stadium—to turn bitterly against the visiting minority from Los Angeles. They had blacked out the student section of the stadium for effect. The team had worn black jerseys for the first time in 123 years of football—a mystical attempt to summon the violent magic of their mighty defensive teams of the 1990s. At half-time they put Tommy Frazier, one of the ten greatest college football players of all time, into their Hall of Fame. The video highlight reel played before Frazier's introduction put goose bumps up and down your arms.
And right in the face of all of this UCLA rolled the Cornhuskers like a worn out sparring partner. After a steady first half from Nebraska and an awful first half from UCLA, one where the Bruins had clear opportunities but could not find the rhythm or summon the execution to capitalize on them. A half where UCLA's freshman punter let a perfect snap hit him in the face just yards outside of Nebraska's end zone, and Brett Hundely—a rising star in college football—threw an interception that a pure option quarterback wouldn't dare throw—leading to a 21-3 deficit that was cut down to 21-10 at the half.
The 28 consecutive points in the third quarter came naturally enough. There was a tangible sense of inevitability about it as the Bruins came into their rhythm like a well rehearsed band would, and suddenly there were openings everywhere and time to get to them for an offense with very talented athletes at ever position. They went straight down the field again and again and again.
To then see the seizure—the locked up like a screw effect—it had on Nebraska's offense, was a stark demonstration of what a race horse offense can do to an opponent and its game plan. This allowed UCLA's defense, which had played well but with obvious inexperience on the edges and back-end of the defensive backfield, to settle in and begin squeezing the vice. A Cornhusker offense that scored 21 first half points scored exactly zero in the second. The route that took place in the second half was complete and absolute and thorough.
This changed the mood in the stands the same way a thunderstorm affects fishermen on a flats boat when it is their only day to out. The massive stadium decks filled with Cornhuskers were mad at the Bruins, sure, but no more than they could be at a force of nature, and seemed more than anything sad that their day had been ruined. They never snapped, despite their great numerical superiority, or took it out on the UCLA people, who grew louder and happier as the points piled up.
The group around us left the stadium like a lot of others did that day, I imagine.
"Hey! . . . Hey!" a man shouted from behind us.
In front of us, a glum, bearded face with dark sunglasses over the eyes turned slowly around and looked between us.
"We're gonna get outta here, go drink some beers. C'mon," said the voice.
"What?" came the slow, sad reply.
"We're gonna go drink some beers. C'mon, let's get out of here."
There were six minutes left in the fourth quarter and UCLA was bleeding the play clock down to less than five seconds on every snap. What was left of the game was a mere formality.
He looked at his friends and shrugged.
"Might as well."
He tapped a friend next to him who had not even bothered to follow the conversation and told him they were leaving. The whole group shuffled quietly down the row and were gone.
The relationship between the fan bases certainly had changed. I think every Bruins fan felt a little bit like their brother brown bears on Kodiak Island after an elk goes down, because the program badly needed a big kill like Nebraska on this return march to national relevance. But there was the slightest tinge of sorrow for these people who loved their team so much. The home game sellout streak, which began, almost unbelievably, with John F. Kennedy in the White House, had reached 327 games.
On the streets afterward there was more. You could see them coming. Men and women, ranging from sober to eventually regretfully drunk, would cut across big streams of humanity to give a high five or shake your hand. No one in our group had ever seen anything like it.
"Great game! You drilled us!" said one, hanging onto the hand.
Another one came.
"Wow, you know, were you laying in the weeds like that for the second half on purpose? That's coaching! I wish we had coaching like that."
It went on like that all afternoon. Hand shakes, high fives, people who wanted to talk about what had happened and how it had happened. They wanted you to know that your team was good like they wanted their team to be good. It was flattering to the point you began searching your mind for complimentary things to say back. There was an urge to console them.
Only once, the littlest pixy of a girl we saw all day, was there anything unpleasant. She came on hard, looking like Tinkerbell with jet black hair and a tattoo all the way around her collarbone, to give high fives that were more like punches and offer a little too sincere, "Good game!"
We kept walking.
"I'm not mad, you know," she said to me.
She was drunk in the way that you knew she would not remember much; her stare was empty and when she looked at you here eyes swam every so slightly.
"I know you're not," I said. "People here don't get mad, you're all too sweet."
She stared at me.
"How would you like a punch in the nose?" she asked.
"I'm fine for today," I said, and ignored her. That is the only thing to do when someone is drunk and confused like that, and luckily it worked—for me.
But she went to two of my friends and began talking. I stood away, waiting to cross at a traffic light, and looked from the corner of my eye. I saw my friends laugh, their eyes getting big, and then walk past her, brushing her easily aside, to cross the street.
"She just she was going to slug us," said one friend, laughing.
I was glad she had, I said, because I thought it had maybe been just me she did not like.
We walked down the hill into a big, Saturday college sports bar. There was an outdoor patio with many tables and chairs and Alabama was playing Texas A&M on the huge flat panel televisions. It was a perfect sunny day in College Station, Texas, too.
There weren't any tables, so we went downstairs to what used to be a warehouse basement and found one. There were hundreds of people, dozens of TVs, and all the happy, soothing noise of college football game day as the pictures came in from across the country—region by wildly different region—a whole class of people invincibly bound by a passionate loyalty to the greatest game on earth.
We sat amongst these hundreds of strangers who had accepted our team's victory that day as well as anyone could be expected to, and who welcomed us without stint into their wonderful city in the middle of the country, and watched the games go by.