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
"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. …