' ' Cinema Romantico: A Digression: The Awesome Pride Of The Cornhuskers

Monday, December 07, 2009

A Digression: The Awesome Pride Of The Cornhuskers

(Note: You knew this was coming. And please be wary of my warning that what follows is quite long and extremely personal. As always, my advance apologies.)

"College football can, on certain Saturdays, feel less like a game than a communal experience. For those few hours that impassable distance between the stands and field collapses and, for a second, we’re all down there together." - Josh Levin

One second. One single solitary second. Go ahead and count it off out loud. Don’t be shy. "One." That’s how close my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers were to being Big 12 Champions, for the first time since Y2K was still considered a genuine threat, and earning a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, the first postseason game I ever saw them play back at a time when bands such as Simple Minds and A Ha ruled the airwaves. I am fairly certain it would have been - at least, to me - the most meaningful championship of any kind they have ever earned. Instead Texas, our perpetual, torturous nemesis, kicked a field goal in that final second and, yes, broke our hearts once again. It’s really getting rather ridiculous. That is seven legitimate heartbreaks at the hands of the Longhorns if you are counting at home.

Roll Left. Applewhite-to-McGarrity. The Nunn Fumble. The Buckhalter Fumble. The Lord Interception. Jamaal Charles running for 200+ in the 4th quarter. But the one on Saturday night in the Big 12 Championship Game was worse than all the others combined. It wasn’t just soul crushing. It was Texas ripping our souls out of our chests, pounding them into finite particles of dust and then casting them into the cruel wind while cackling with maniacal glee.

It was also one of the five greatest Nebraska Football games I have ever seen.

This is not simply because earlier this year was the worst Nebraska Football game I have ever seen. Often these things coincide. Two of the other greatest games I have ever seen were countered in the same seasons by two of the worst games I have ever seen. These are the teams that mean the most to you, teams that stand for something, and so their wins and losses take you that much higher and that much lower. Defeats can help us put things into proper perspective as much as victories. Remember in "Jerry Maguire" when Tom Cruise as the title character calls out Cuba Gooding Jr'.s Rod Tidwell and Tidwell thunders, "I’m all heart, motherf---er!" The 2009 Nebraska Football Team was all heart, motherf---er.

Plagued yet again by a bedraggled offense that has spent a whole season resembling a 16th century merchant ship taking on water and trying to rig sails by employing empty sacks of flour, Nebraska’s valiant defense rose to the challenge. Again and again, series after series, play after play. This was heroism worthy of Gregory Peck and Burt Lancaster. Upon reflection I feel safe declaring this to be the finest Nebraska defense of all time when considering many of the other great defensive units in the team’s sizeable history were aided by offensive units that could score points for themselves, provide the defenders imperative rest and often allow them to take off entire quarters. The 2009 defense was never so blessed.

On Saturday night, with Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson (yearly salary: $375,000) again sticking to a script of no more than 10 plays with slight, ineffective variations that he has served up all season (seriously, I want to sit this guy down before the Holiday Bowl and show him a looped tape of how every option play he called in 2009 went for little to no gain only to watch, of course, as he dials it up five more times for little to no gain in the Holiday Bowl, and he will, mark my words), even though we were in a game where we had nothing to lose and Texas had everything to lose, we barely - and I mean barely - eked out 100 yards of total offense. They gained a mere five first downs (though every single one possessed extreme importance), an unfathomable statistic. It was so repugnant ABC color commentator Kirk Herbstreit was audibly laughing at our comedic ineptitude. I couldn’t blame him.

But there they were with a lone tick of the clock left and on the verge of claiming the conference and consigning the college football world to absolute upheaval and it was due to a defense more lionhearted than Richard. (Nebraska’s defense is nicknamed, year-in, year-out, the "Blackshirts" but I think this year’s edition merits its very own moniker. The Aweless Eleven, perhaps?) It was an honor and a privilege to watch these guys play. Chisel a bust of these dudes, please, paint them a mural, something, and pardon me now as I sing their Saturday evening hosannas.

Cornerback Prince "Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam" Amukamara being tested continually and forever answering. Dejon Gomes' hallucinogenic interception that set up the short lived go ahead field goal. Phillip Dillard and Matt O’Hanlon coming up on the edge time after time to make gallant, textbook tackles. Pierre Allen batting the ball to create the interception to grant us the field goal at the game's start. Barry Turner’s breathtaking spin move around an offensive lineman to get pressure at one point. And, oh yes, the man, the myth, the single greatest player to pass through Lincoln in at least a decade, if not more - Ndamukong Suh. In the most enormous game of his career, on the most significant stage, he showed up, brother. 12 tackles and 4.5 sacks amongst numerous other quarterback hurries and hits and after breaking through a double team coming a half inch away from recording a safety. Those who watched the game and still cling to the notion Texas QB Colt McCoy deserves the Heisman Trophy more than Ndamukong Suh are deluding themselves. Deluding themselves. (It’s important to note I’m not a fan who deludes himself. After they showed the replay of what was almost the last play of the game when Colt McCoy lofted that pass out of bounds and time seemed to expire which would have won it for my team I said aloud - well before the officials were done reviewing it, mind you - that there should have been 1 second left. It was true. I'm unsure why this is generating so much controversy. Sure, I wanted the game to be over but I could see it wasn't and what’s right is right.) Texas won, yes, and the winners get the last word, as they should, but the Nebraska defense was better than the Texas offense, that's the truth, just as in the 1994 Orange Bowl, the greatest Nebraska football game I’ve ever seen, they were better than the Florida State offense but still succumbed by the slimmest of margins in the last second.

In fact, the parallels to the 1994 Orange Bowl are so eerie they kinda freak me out. Consider:

-In both games Nebraska was a decided underdog (17 points in 1994, 14 points in 2009).
-In both games Nebraska’s defense stopped a supposedly unstoppable quarterback (Charlie Ward, Colt McCoy).
-In both games the halftime score was 7-6.
-In both games our opponent recorded its only touchdown where the replay appeared inconclusive as to whether or not the ball actually crossed the goal line.
-In both games Nebraska went ahead on a field goal with under 2 minutes left.
-In both games Nebraska's ensuing kickoff went out of bounds causing a penalty and thereby giving the opponent excellent field position.
-In both games a personal foul penalty against Nebraska on the opponent’s last ditch drive moved them into field goal range.
-In both games time seemingly ran out before the officials conferred and correctly placed one tick back on the clock.
(Except in the 1994 Orange Bowl Nebraska missed the field goal to win and in the 2009 Big 12 Championship Texas made the field goal to win. Alas.)

Look, I know this is just one idiot’s blog and I know that anyone out there on the world wide interweb can hop aboard and read my thoughts and feelings and mock me and that’s perfectly fine. What is the world wide interweb but a province for ridicule? After all, sincerity is dying a swift death in this society. I am who I am, I always have been, I always will be. I am an over passionate, melodramatic moron who wears his emotions on his sleeve and I would never ever want it any other way. There is nothing I hate more than fake people and this is a time for frankness. This is a time to say I have had a difficult fall with a particular health issue from the past showing its unwanted face again and this Nebraska Football team gave me sorely needed solace. And it’s why on Saturday, about an hour after the game, after I unsuccessfully tried drowning away my dismay in a scotch (see photo below), after I had ushered my dear friends who were keeping me on suicide watch out of my apartment, after I had locked the door and turned off the TV, I sat down in the middle of my living room and cried. I sobbed for five minutes straight like the kid who doesn’t receive the racing car set on Christmas morning he so coveted. It’s just the truth. Only this game and, yes, the 1994 Orange Bowl have brought on tears. Tears of sadness? Well, sure, but also tears of unrelenting pride. It hurt like hell and it hurt because it meant so much.

I know, I know, "It’s just a game." I hear you saying it and I will respond by rolling my eyes and sighing very, very loudly. In fact, the night before the game, up the street at Martyrs, over several Sierra Nevadas, listening to a band perform a killer version of Springsteen’s "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" that almost furnished me as much joy as Alex Henery’s field goal to make it 12-10, a friend and I had a debate on this very topic. People who say "It’s just a game" have something they take too seriously, too. Music, stamp collections, their lawn, classical architecture, vino, "Star Wars", Manolo Blahnik shoes, whatever, but we all have passions (I hope everyone does, anyway) and I would never slight someone else’s passion by referring to it as being just (insert your respective passion here). College football, though, is quite visible and the stereotype of sports fans as beer swilling blowhards who can only connect to the human race through a game does not help my cause.

Yes, I can name every starting Nebraska QB since 1986 but I can also have an intelligent conversation with you about the Revolutionary War, enjoy a subtitled film, drink in the finer qualities of an imported lager, discuss the larger implications of life away from the gridiron. My friends and family will always be more consequential than a Nebraska game. For instance, I didn’t see most of the Kansas game this year because my friend Nicolle was in town and I never see her anymore and hanging out with her was far more important. My best friend Jacob’s wedding this fall fell on the one Saturday when Nebraska happened to play instead on a Thursday night (phew) but do you really think I would have missed Jacob’s wedding day for a Nebraska game? Are you fucking nuts? I’ve got my priorities straight, okay, but that doesn’t mean Nebraska Football isn’t important and doesn’t mean "It’s just a game" so please, for the love of Christ, people, retire that tired phrase.

Saturday night was so much more than just a game. It was three-and-a-half hours of nerve damaging tension played under extraordinary pressure for the duration of the contest in which everything was earned and nothing came for free. I think the first few times I underwent that feeling with a Nebraska game I didn’t realize it was happening. 24 years into my fandom now I’m much more in tune to it and I can sense it and do my best to appreciate it. It’s why I had a smile on my face in the instant before Texas kicked the winning score. Even if Nebraska lost they wouldn't lose. They wouldn't. Not this night. I was reminded of what then Nebraska Head Coach Tom Osborne said in the wake of that 1994 Orange Bowl defeat: "People play for rings and trophies, but as far as I'm concerned we won." Amen. This had been glorious guts ball - both sides - that did not deserve to have the undignified end of Nebraska winning on a careless pass Colt McCoy heaved out of bounds with apparently no regard of how much time was actually left. I respect the sport of college football enough to accept that fact.

It's 36 hours on and it still hurts. I can't lie. It hurts bad. After 8 or 9 years of numerous Nebraska losses, so many of them insipid and lifeless, I had honestly forgotten one could do this to me. I'm invested in every Nebraska team but all teams are unique and possess their own personality and my favorite teams are always the ones that transcend wins & losses and potential NFL talent and represent something bigger. That is the 2009 team. They were all heart, motherf---er. All heart to the god damn, gut churning, bitter end. People will want to focus on the woeful offense and Adi Kunalic the kickoff touchback machine having a mechanical breakdown at the worst possible moment and, of course, the clock fiasco at the conclusion. That's not what I would like to focus on.

This team was much too special to ever be defined by one final score.


Wretched Genius said...

Rory and I were at a Buffalo Wild Wings watching the game, trying to predict at what point you had likely broken out the emergency Nebraska boxers.

Rory Larry said...

My brother summed up Suh's performance in these rather graphic but quite funny (and true) terms. Suh dry humped Colt McCoy all night long. 4.5 sacks of a total 9 sacks. He had half the sacks. Colt McCoy probably had nightmares that night about Suh.

All the Iowa Sportscasters with Heisman votes have Suh in their top 3 for Heisman.

Jacob said...

Amen brother, amen. I know how you feel, you Texas is my Ohio State. How do they always manage to beat us, how?

College Football is, religion to those of us so inclined to have faith.