In Nebraska, Football Is More Than a Game to Diehard Fans and Dedicated Players, the Cornhuskers Are a Way of Life: In a Rural State with No Professional Sports Teams, All Eyes Are on Big Red

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RED jackets, pants, caps, scarves, glasses, banners, and coolers are converging on the University of Nebraska's Memorial Stadium. Some fans have come from the far end of the state, driving eight hours to the stadium, to cheer for four quarters of football, then head home again. They'll make the same trip for home games as long as the season lasts - and Nebraska keeps winning.

Longtime fan Lois Failin hopes her son will play for Nebraska. "When Mark was born he weighed 9 lbs., 8 oz.," she says. "The doctor picked him up and said, 'Why you're big enough to play for Nebraska!' And Mark stopped crying right away."

Nebraska has been one of the most dominant teams in college football. Every time the 76,000-seat stadium fills, it breaks a record. This homecoming game marks the 178th straight sellout.

Many fans arrive early, to take up positions for tailgate parties running for blocks around the stadium before the 1 p.m. kickoff. Thirteen high-school players waiting to tour the athletic center have arrived even earlier. These potential recruits and their parents are ushered into the red-carpeted locker room, where they are invited to touch the equipment and seek out the lockers of former All-Americans and Heisman winners.

Staff in the adjoining equipment room assure would-be players that their helmets will be checked and waxed every week, new lines painted before bowl games; and clean underwear will be back in lockers every morning: "We're here to take care of you."

Next stop - via the red-carpeted tunnel the players pass through on their way to the stadium - is the shrine to "Husker Power," the glassed-in weight room. Surrounded by state-of-art equipment, strength and conditioning coach Boyd Epley launches into a crisp account of Husker basics.

"Football is a game of short bursts," he says, hence the need to develop "powerful, explosive athletes." As he speaks, video images overhead show players jumping, reaching, lifting, 40-yard dashing, and ever increasing individual "performance indexes."

"Usually players need to get bigger, stronger. Anyone can be faster," Mr. Epley says. "We think you have some potential to help us win some football games. Maybe the NFL is in your future."

The scene shifts from video to live "red-shirts," players who have deferred eligibility for a year in order to train. Matt Shaw "came in at 195, now is 235, on his way to 250," says Epley, as the young Husker squat presses 390 lbs. "He will be a strong tight end for us." By Matt's eighth repetition, the recruits are shifting uneasily in the front row.

"You're never sure whether you've scared them off," says Epley, after the tour files out. "But they have to be willing to pay the price. It's hard work. We hope to motivate them."

The video presentation in the academic counseling center down the hall has similar elements: Nebraska players make implausible catches, decisive blocks, dazzling open-field runs. But the emphasis is clearly away from a career in the National Football League.

"We're proud of progress made on the field," says Associate Director of Academic Programs Dennis Leblanc, "but we're equally proud of accomplishments off the field."

In an interview, Director of Athletic and Academic Programs Roger Grooters makes the point starker. "The average length of a pro career is about 3 1/2 years; 50 percent of all the kids that play professional football end up flat broke when they're done, no matter how much money they make; 85 percent are divorced; and the average life expectancy of a pro-football player is 56 years. It's not a good career choice."

Nebraska, he says, was the first university to have career counseling for athletes, "to see what they want to do professionally for the rest of their lives." The 30,000 square-foot academic center also provides a computer lab, study carrels, orientation, advising, tutoring, and close monitoring. …


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