Photo Credit: Eric Francis

A New Nebraska Fan Generation and Their Longing to Be a Winner Again

October 21, 2022

There’s a rhythm to downtown Lincoln on game days. Hearty laughter over patio seating, sizzling grills and, of course, cracking of cans not quite bubbling over. Tailgating families sprawl across parking lots for games of cornhole and catch. And when the game inevitable starts Memorial Stadium fills with fans of all ages. It’s a game and a place for everyone.

In this equation, however, lays dormant an orphaned generation of Husker fan. Nebraska won its first National Championship 80 years after the game came to Lincoln. Baby boomers born into the idea of the American Dream and raised on Vietnam turmoil raised the first title high. Then came another. When their children inherited this immense joy it was accompanied by the most dominant football dynasty of the 20th century.

Today’s young Husker fan knows those titles through legend. The kind passed down from those who lived it and bronze statues lining their walks to the field from which the legends were born. Current traditional students at Nebraska weren’t born the last time Nebraska won, or even competed for a National Championship. College football transformed during their lifetime. Like most circumstances impacting their lives, a few powerful decision makers changed Nebraska with the best of intentions and equal parts ego. This put the once powerful, innovative program behind the pack, perhaps dooming a new generation to pay the pendulum penitence for the years of football supremacy their fathers enjoyed. After all, nothing lasts forever.

Pop artist Carly Rae Jepsen releases her new album this week. In anticipation, I returned to her 2015 album, Emotion. It’s an album sculpted by the idea of longing — of others, of self, of memories. About how the only thing sweeter than getting what you want is the want itself. And in another listen of this album I’ve heard countless times came the realization: Husker football fans are longing again.

A specific beauty exists there. In the ritual of the Tunnel Walk, a slice of pizza from the concourse and watching a potentially heart-aching result only to return the next week. Husker fans stayed for the duration of the Georgia Southern loss, returned with renewed spirit for the lopsided Oklahoma loss and, inevitably, gathered again two weeks later for the Indiana game and were rewarded with a win. One win isn’t the Husker dream as much as the “six-win and a bowl game” metric isn’t a lofty step towards the program’s potential brighter future. Older Husker fans don’t stand for this. The program, and them as fans, are entitled to success, they believe. Now they’re chasing Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and the monoliths like everyone else.

Nebraska used to stand at the front of the line for National Championships. The program was always in the room or at least on the phone. Dr. Tom Osborne sat on the first College Football Playoff Committee as the program drifted further away from the playoff. Now the Huskers can’t get in the building, left pounding at the door to be taken seriously again and acknowledged like the bronze ghosts lining their walks to the stadium. Carly Rae Jepsen sang that essential theme on songs like “Gimme Love,” “LA Hallucinations,” and “Your Type,” the latter of which is an introspective look, asking if the subject is worthy of what’s desired. Desire becomes the purpose. The author Hanif Abdurraqib summarized Jepsen’s thesis on Emotion as this: “Once you’ve caught that which you desire, the story is less interesting. She gives us, instead, a never-ending chase where the only thing to fall in love with is the idea of falling in love.”

That’s what this new generation of Husker fan knows. Not the glory, the love or the reciprocal, but the idea. They know it’s possible because it’s happened before. But they haven’t rubbed it between their fingers or shared a blanket that doesn’t quite cover three sets of feet in the Midwest winter. Still they believe. After all, there’s a dynasty across the street in the Nebraska volleyball team — epitome of excellence, toughness and class. Hope exists that whoever is hired to lead Husker football can emulate John Cook and create a new era of formidable Nebraska football. A hope that dwindled but never died during the three-win Scott Frost season. In that last season Nebraska epitomized the plight Carly Rae Jepsen put into stereo on Emotion: to be close but not close enough. Love, but not in love.

Fans returned to Memorial Stadium for each game during that stretch and since. They returned in the face of improbabilities and national perception. Outside of the game itself came the reminder of past games. Another retelling of Johnny Rodger’s return, Tommie Frazier’s run, Eric Crouch’s catch even Ron Kellogg’s miracle heave to Jordan Westerkamp. This is because hope in something nearly entirely unattainable is better than hopelessness. Despite the weekly shattered dreams every Sunday, like gospel, brings something anew. Every bye week a day of rest. And roughly six Saturdays every year a new sermon bellows from the red cathedral on Memorial Drive. Each game could be a building block. The foundation for a future that resembles its past.

“Over the weekend we could turn the world to gold,” Jepsen sings on the first track of Emotion.

The album starts with that definitive optimism because that’s where a better future starts: belief it can be done. Even belief among those who’ve never experienced it.

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