You always remember your first

We were prepared for fall weather, packing sweatshirts and jackets. Instead, we were greeted a cloudless sky, temperatures in the 90s and not a hint of a breeze.
It was a beautiful day. However, it felt more like an August baseball game as we crammed into Memorial Stadium’s north end zone, among 90,000 of our closest friends.
It was about an hour before kickoff and my sons needed to relieve themselves of the extra fluids they had consumed while battling the heat. Apparently, everyone had the same idea.
After a stop at the restrooms and replenishing our water supply, we were swallowed by the Sea of Red as we began to make our way to our seats. We followed the slow-moving mass towards daylight. I held Camden’s hand as he trailed behind, and clasped the back of Bryce’s Tommy Armstrong jersey while he led the way. With everyone dressed in scarlet and cream, there is no telling how long it would take to find each other if we got separated.
The heat and claustrophobia began to set in for all of us as I wondered if we would make it to our seats in time to see the Tunnel Walk. I was sure that I would never be able to convince Camden, who is not a football fan, to ever come to game again. He didn’t complain much, but as I looked back at him, I could see the look of panic in his eyes. Apparently, so could the older gentleman beside him.
The man, wearing a once red, now pink cowboy hat with 50 years’ worth of ticket stubs tucked in the band, tapped my son on the shoulder.
“Your first game?” he asked.
Camden confirmed with a nod.
“Don’t worry, I’ve done this 350 times, and survived every one of ‘em.”
Eventually we made our way back to our seats, and were reunited with my uncle who had been holding our spot. The man in the hat took his seat a few rows ahead of us. Our arrival coincided with the Tunnel Walk. The look of fear in the boys’ eyes was overtaken by awe as fireworks went off overhead, smoke filled the stadium and Alan Parsons filled our ears.
I glanced down at the man in the hat, trying to make out the ticket stubs on display. Think of the games this man has seen. I wondered if he remembered them all. There is no way.
I thought back and tried to remember all of the Nebraska football games I have attended. The total is somewhere around a tenth of what that man had seen. I remember the Fiesta Bowl, Texas in 1998 and 2007, Wisconsin in 2012 and Miami in 2014. Sometimes proudly, sometimes with resent, I look back and say, “I was there.” But lost in the catalogues of my memory bank are the Louisiana Lafayettes and Arkansas States of the world.
As time marches on, and my memory worsens with age, I point to one game that I will never forget - my first.
Like all people born in Nebraska, being a Husker fan was innate. At least it was when I was growing up. From Scottsbluff to Omaha, whether your parents were UNL alumni or they didn’t go to college at all, the common bond in the state was the Cornhuskers. The two most common topics of discussions at coffee shops around the state are the weather and Nebraska football.
My family was certainly no different. My grandfather graduated from UNL, as did my mom and uncles. My dad moved around often as a kid and Nebraska finally provided stability. It didn’t take long before Oklahoma was ruining his Thanksgivings as well.
Despite being big red fanatics, I was in the fifth grade before ever attending a Nebraska game. Our home in Hemingford, was a good seven-hour drive from Lincoln and taking a family of five across the state involved time and financial resources.
But, in 1991, sometime after the first game of the season, dad pulled me aside and showed me two tickets to the September 21 game against Washington. I don’t know if I was more excited by the fact that I was going or the fact that my younger brother wasn’t. The latter would have been the case, had local insurance agent, Husker fanatic and overall good guy Steve Engelhaupt not found us a third ticket. While I found my brother’s happiness very disappointing, I got over it when I realized Steve’s seats were near the 50-yard line, while dad’s were in the south end zone nosebleeds.
We left for Lincoln the night before in a big, grey van with no tape-deck and spotty radio reception through the Sandhills. About an hour into our journey dad asked my mom about the tickets, which were still sitting on the dining table. Tack on two more hours of driving!
We arrived at my great aunt and uncle’s house very late. However, my brother and I were fueled on Twizzlers, Coca-Cola and anticipation. That, combined with a damn Chihuahua caused for little sleep that night.
The Huskers and second ranked Huskies were set for one of the rare night games at Memorial Stadium, which at the time, didn’t have lights. ABC had to bring them in on boom trucks for the national television broadcast.
It was a beautiful fall evening, though as the sun sank low I was prompted to put on my black Herbie Husker sweatshirt. The kind lady sitting beside me helped me put it on over my jacket as to not obstruct the view of Herbie, should the television cameras flash our way.
Before the game started, I thumbed through the program dad had purchased for me before entering the stadium. I compared the sizes of players to see how our offensive line matched up with Washington’s vaunted defense. I marveled at how much I thought Nebraska quarterback Keithen McCant looked like Eddie Murphy. Fittingly, he listed “Eddy Murphy movies” as his favorites in the program.
The stadium was electric as the Huskers jumped out to an early lead on a 27-yard run by Derek Brown. Then Jon Bostick made a diving 42-yard reception from McCant as the Huskers led 14-6 at intermission.
The Blackshirts were playing great and the offense was doing enough, but it was a special teams player that stands out in my mind. Nebraska punter Mike Stigge was blasting punts that I could swear were destined for Wahoo. In fact, Washington return man Beno Bryant mishandled a punt and the Huskers recovered on the two, resulting in another Brown touchdown to give Nebraska a 21-9 lead midway through the third quarter. With 76,304 in attendance for the 178th consecutive sellout, Memorial Stadium was deafening.
The old, grey battleship wasn’t as big as it is today. Other than pixilated peanuts (“Nutz!) and rats (“Rats!”) shuffling across the scoreboard when a call didn’t go in Nebraska’s favor, there wasn’t much in the form of sideshows. There were no videoboards, Huskervision, or piped in music. Like I said, Memorial Stadium didn’t even have lights. But it had atmosphere.
I was dancing on my seat, chucking foam footballs into the air, high-fiving strangers and screaming along with the “Husker Power” chant. The party was short lived, however. Washington went on to score the game’s final 27 points, making a long drive home even longer for my family. But really, the loss didn’t ruin my experience. I had gotten to see the Mecca of college football.
I have returned several times since – as a student, as a fan, as a photographer. But the Saturday, September 17 match-up with Oregon was my first sitting in the bleachers since 2012. One of the benefits of working for the press, is getting paid to attend sporting events and receiving the best seat in the house. The disadvantage is I hadn’t been able to take my family to a game.
I recently started a new career. No more press pass, but I can now take my kids to games – the duty of any responsible Nebraska father. A couple of weeks before my boss offered me four tickets to the game. I really only needed two. Camden could care less, my daughter Emmy can’t sit through dinner much less a game and my wife doesn’t see the luster of driving across the state, hanging around for four hours then driving home. But surely I could find a home for the two extra tickets.
Well, my nieces birthday fell on the day of the game, so that ruled out my brother. My friend in Texas had a prior commitment and my friend/neighbor is a high school cross country coach and had a meet that morning.
I asked Camden, figuring I already knew the answer. The 2012 spring game was scheduled on Cam’s sixth birthday. What a great opportunity for him to receive his first Husker experience. Well, the weather had other ideas. We spent the afternoon in the Arby’s near campus. I fashioned him a poncho out of a trash bag and we ended up running to our car to avoid the oncoming tornadoes. I point to that moment as the reason Cam has no interest in sports. But he surprised me when he said he wanted to go.
We left Friday after work, spending the night in Grand Island. The entire journey to Lincoln evolved around Bryce’s bladder and stomach. There are few places to stop along Highway 2, so several weeds were watered along the road and we enjoyed the fine dining experiences of small town truck stops and convenience stores.
After a few stops the next morning to find a video game that Cam had been searching for, we were off to Lincoln.  The heavy game day traffic caused me to miss my usual exit off of I-80 and ended up on dreaded Cornhusker Hwy, jam-packed with cars. It was about this time that Bryce informed me that he needed to “go.”
I turned off on a backstreet, looking for a restaurant or convenience store . . . something. What I found was an elementary school parking lot. Close enough.
We inched toward the stadium, arriving near the Haymarket. I turned into the first lot I found that said, “Parking $10.” It was still a considerable walk to the stadium, but it beat white-knuckle driving for the next hour.
Stepping out of the air-conditioned vehicle, the heavy, hot air of Lincoln made its presence felt. As I locked up the vehicle, I looked across the lot and found Cam peeing on a dumpster, not at all trying to be discrete about it. I started to yell at him, but stopped myself, figuring he wasn’t the first to pee on that dumpster.
Red-clad fans streamed from all directions as we walked toward Memorial Stadium. After about a two-mile hike and a stop at the Sam Foltz memorial, we arrived at Gate 14 where we met up with my uncle Monte. He is probably the individual singularly most responsible for my Husker fanaticism. He’s a proud NU alum, attending school during Nebraska’s glory years of the early ‘80s. Even years of living in Kansas haven’t wavered his loyalty.
We took in the pregame festivities – the Tunnel Walk, the band, the cheerleaders, the mascots. The countdown to kickoff was visible on the scoreboard. When it reached 0:00 Cam asked if the game was over.
“No, it hasn’t even started,” I replied.
Terror once again filled his face. I knew this was going to be a long afternoon if I didn’t find a way to keep him entertained, so I handed him my phone. I was pleasantly surprised when he tapped me on the shoulder midway through the first quarter to show me that he had found live scoring of the game. Never mind that he could look to any corner of the stadium and find that, I figured he was searching for Pokemon the whole time.
Meanwhile, the heat was getting to Bryce. He was sitting on his knees with his head resting on the bench. Nebraska trailed 20-7 late in the second quarter. I was about ready to join Bryce in his misery, but the Huskers rallied to score just before halftime to pull within six points.
I beat the halftime rush to the drink vendors and made it back with an arm full of Gatorades and waters. Either it was the water or the late touchdown, but we all started to feel better about things.
Nebraska opened the second half with a scoring drive to take a 21-20 lead. Everyone watching the game was a bit befuddled by Oregon’s decision to continue to go for two. They were successful on their first attempt, but failed thereafter. Had they just kicked the extra-points, Nebraska would have still been chasing them.
Once the Huskers gained the lead, there was a little electricity in the stadium. Even Memorial Stadium’s blue hairs, notorious for asking those in front to sit down, were on their feet. Heck, Cam even began to take interest.
“Do we get points for that?” he would ask after a first down.
“No,” I replied.
“Then why is everyone cheering?”
Football is a complicated game.
Nebraska scored again on their second drive of the half, and appeared to have momentum. But things began to look bleak toward the end of the third quarter. The Ducks scored on a 41-yard run to pull to within two points, then drove 97 yards to start the fourth quarter and take a four point lead.
My sons are too young to remember when Nebraska was a dominant force in college football. Throughout their lifetimes, the Huskers have lingered on the edge of mediocrity. Even I was getting accustomed to the big game flops, chokes and hiccups.
Camden said, “Dad, I don’t think we are going to win.”
“Have faith buddy. There is a lot of time left.”
I was probably consoling myself more than Cam, as I began to dread the long drive home. But Nebraska’s defense held and the Huskers took the ball with a little over four minutes remaining in the game. The ground game was gashing the Oregon defense for big chunks. But after a penalty and a dropped pass set the Huskers behind schedule, they faced fourth-and-nine from their own 48.
Anyone who says they were confident Nebraska was going to win the game at this point is lying. We had seen it six times last season, where the Huskers managed to pull defeat from the jaws of victory. But quarterback Tommy Armstrong possesses a necessary element that everyone at his position needs – a short memory.
Armstrong fired a perfect pass to Jordan Westerkamp, for 14 yards and a first down. The Huskers were still alive. Then, Armstrong, who had been battling cramps the entire day, outran Oregon’s defense for a 34-yard, go ahead touchdown. The stadium erupted. Bryce ripped his shirt off and started waving it over his head, whipping those within reach. No one seemed to mind.
The PA started blasting DJ Kool, and everyone in Memorial Stadium lost their collective minds. Those who have visited Madison, Wisconsin say Camp Randall shakes when “Jump Around” blasts between the third and fourth quarters. Well this is the first time I have felt Memorial Stadium shake. Even my uncle – a conservative Midwestern agronomist in his mid-50s – was hip-hop dancing.
The noise continued long after Kool had cleared his throat. The only problem with Armstrong’s touchdown was that it happened too quickly. Two and a half minutes was a lifetime for Oregon.
Camden kept saying, “I think we’re going to win dad!”
All I could say was, “I hope so.”
The Blackshirts’ play was spotty throughout the game, but when it mattered, they stepped up. Oregon faced fourth and long near midfield and visions of last season’s BYU Hail Mary filled my head. But this time the defense didn’t give the quarterback a chance to throw up a prayer. Oregon quarterback Dakota Prukop tried to scramble, jumping into the arms of Michael Rose-Ivy who slammed him to the turf.
Game over! Nebraska won!
Even at Nebraska, fans usually begin to filter out of the stadium late in the fourth quarter. After the final tick, it appeared as if no one was leaving. We all got another round of “Let Me Clear My Throat.” This time, shirtless Bryce was on my shoulders and Cam was doing his best Patrick Swayze impression. Before filing out, we randomly high-fived everyone in our section (might have hugged some strangers as well).
What a game. What a first game for my boys. I hope they remember it forever. I certainly will.


  1. Great article Aaron. Be sure to have copies for the boys scrap books!


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