Tuesday, September 29, 2009

College Football Nirvana

There's no crying in baseball.

But for Nebraska football fans, reading this blog post by Louisiana-Lafayette's radio play-by-play announcer may have brought on some misty eyes. May, hell.

WHAT JAY WALKER wrote did cause more than a few of us to well up a bit:
I've been to nine SEC stadiums. (I'll go to a tenth next season at Georgia.) I've seen the grove at Ole Miss, experienced the Gator Chomp, the Mississippi State cowbells, been a part of Alabama football in both Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. I've been called "Tigerbait" in Baton Rouge and experienced some pretty good hospitality in South Carolina.

I've said hello to the folks at Illinois and Minnesota. Felt September heat in Tempe, AZ.

Been to Manhattan, Lubbock, Austin, Stillwater and College Station. College Station was probably the best. Folks say "Howdy" when they see you. And they say "welcome."

Haven't been to the Horseshoe, the Big House or Happy Valley. Nor have I seen Touchdown Jesus.

But I've been to College Football Nirvana.

It's located in Lincoln, Nebraska.

From the time we touched down ("Welcome to Lincoln," the police officers doing the escort said) to the time we left the stadium ("Thanks so much for coming, have a safe trip home. We hope you'll come back again") every Cajun fan felt like a guest.

That's right. A guest. Not the opposition...not the enemy....a guest.

Check into the Cornhusker Marriott, not far from campus. Fans of Big Red Nation are already there. Smiles, handshakes....welcome to Lincoln. Good luck tomorrow.

Board the bus for dinner. Arrive at Misty's, Lincoln's famous steakhouse (I mean, you gotta eat a steak, right?). There were about 25 in our party. We had to wait about twenty minutes for them to get everything ready. No problem. As soon as the patrons saw the Cajun gear, they wanted to talk...introduce themselves....welcome to Lincoln....thanks so much for coming. Hope you enjoy the game.....

Is this for real??

And, it continued throughout the evening and into the night. We made lots of friends. We Cajun people make friends pretty easily, but it's even easier when folks want to be friends.

In Lincoln, they all want to be your friend.

Gameday is different in Lincoln. They tailgate, sure....but it's tougher because, well, there's just not a lot of tailgaiting spots. But they do open the soccer field next to the stadium. Families can let the kids roam free. Nebraska radio does a pregame show there. And, a band plays during the commercial breaks.

I did an interview at the soccer field with the Nebraska radio folks. And then, had a pretty good trek to the media entrance. At each gate, the sight was the same. Hundreds lined up, waiting for the gates to open so they could get into the stadium and watch their team warm up.

By the time Nebraska came out, about 45 minutes before kickoff, the stadium was about 65% full. There was no "hey, let's stay outside and pound a few more beers."

Because it was gameday. And they came to see football.

By the time the band was ready to come out, 86,000 strong were in their seats. They stood and clapped along when the Cornhusker Band played "Fight on Cajuns" to honor their guests. And when the band played "There is no Place Like Nebraska" I knew that the statement was true.

WALKER GETS IT. Nebraska is a special place, and game day in Lincoln is something akin to the concentrated essence of a state.

And, at least in Nebraska circles, the Louisiana blog post has gone viral. It's even featured on Huskers.com.

I think I know what came over the Cajuns' radio guy. It happened to me in 1983.
Actually, it really started in high school in Baton Rouge, when a Nebraska-native buddy would sing the praises of his home state at every opportunity. And it built a few years later when -- as a student at Louisiana State -- I started following the Cornhuskers in addition to my LSU Tigers.

I was hooked in Miami at the 1983 Orange Bowl, when the Huskers beat LSU 21-20 and I couldn't quite decide who the hell to pull for. But I was awfully happy Nebraska won and knew I had to get to this special place out on the Plains.

THAT YEAR, I took some time off from college and -- somehow -- landed a spring and summer reporting job at the North Platte Telegraph. There, I made friends for life and got the equivalent of a graduate degree in community journalism before I even had finished by BA at LSU.

Out in the Sandhills, I fell in love with Nebraska and knew this place would someday be home. It didn't hurt that I fell in love with the Telegraph's wire editor.

And one fine day in early August, I asked her to be my wife. In Lincoln. In the shadow of Memorial Stadium. At NU's football picture day.

So, I married the pretty wire editor in North Platte on the day we packed up a red Nissan Sentra with Nebraska 15-county plates and a red Chevy Vega with a Louisiana plate and an NU window decal. We then headed south for my final 27 credit hours at LSU and her introduction to culture shock, Tiger football . . . and a year of lame jokes about the state tree of Nebraska being a telephone pole.

Sometimes in Baton Rouge, life can be one big "Tiger bait!" when you're "not from around here." Even when you're nowhere near Tiger Stadium.

SOME 26 YEARS LATER, Nebraska is home. Has been for the last 21 of them -- just like I knew it would. And it all started with Big Red football . . . and with the classy fans who so love "dear old Nebraska U."

As folks say today, Nebraska fans "represent." No matter where they are, they make present what is so special about this place we call home.

And you never know where something like that will lead.

Thanks for coming, Cajun fans . . . happy to hear y'all passed a good time.

Come again soon; bring andouille. I'll get the gumbo started -- best in Omaha.

And because your play-by-play man is such a stand-up fella, this LSU grad will never call UL-Laf(ayette) "You'll Laugh" again. Nebraska is wearing off on me.

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