This piece was originally published in 2015 with Fare Forward. I’m republishing it here ahead of Saturday’s kick off and because it is no longer online elsewhere.
Any Nebraskan can describe the scene to you: It’s a fall Saturday in Lincoln, the state capital. 90,000+ people have descended on city campus at the University of Nebraska to see a football game at Memorial Stadium, the large stadium built in 1923 to honor Nebraskans who died in the Civil War, Spanish American War, and World War I.
On football Saturdays the crowd is so large that the stadium actually becomes the state’s third largest “city” for those four hours, trailing only Omaha and Lincoln. The crowds, decked out in red, slowly move toward the stadium. The Cornhusker marching band—the “pride of all Nebraska” according to the PA announcer—marches through campus before the game playing the school fight song “Dear Old Nebraska U,” which was written by a homesick Nebraskan in the 1920s. Local food staples Valentinos and Runza can be found inside and outside the stadium, selling their pizza and Runza sandwiches—a hot bun stuffed with cabbage and ground beef that German immigrants to Nebraska made in the early 20th century.
As kickoff draws near, everyone converges on the stadium and finds their seats in time for the Tunnel Walk—a tradition dating back decades that features the Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” playing on the stadium PA as video follows the team from the locker room to the field. Once the game begins, those fans will wait for the first Nebraska score before releasing thousands of red balloons that slowly drift away from the stadium.
For Nebraskans, these are scenes of pride, a remarkable statement about the shared life of this small place. In an era defined more and more by individual freedom, technologies tailored to the distinct taste of each person, and products targeting smaller and smaller groups, to find something that can reliably unite 95,000 people in a shared place at the same time around the same thing is rare indeed—and it’s been uniting us for over fifty years. The last time we didn’t sell out a home football game John F. Kennedy was in the White House.
But for many outside Nebraska, these scenes aren’t the first things that come to mind when we talk about college athletics. Many have raised reasonable concerns about the impact of collegiate athletics on student academics. Cardale Jones, a quarterback for recently crowned national champions Ohio State—a school similarly obsessive about football—famously tweeted “why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.” The concerns don’t stop at academia either.
When 20-something students possess so much power and influence in a place it’s no surprise that other more alarming things might happen as well. Having worked at the school newspaper when current NFL star Ndamukong Suh was starring for our football team I heard more than one story to make me think that Lincoln police looked the other way when Suh did things that would get a normal 22-year-old ticketed or even jailed. In one particular case, there were widespread stories on campus that Suh had crashed his SUV while driving drunk. But he was cited only for negligent driving and had to pay a small fine.
That said, the trouble with these critiques is that, though they have a certain force, they fail to understand the weight Nebraska football holds in the state’s collective psyche and, thus, they tend to treat these problems with scorn and finger-wagging rather than an affectionate attempt to understand why my fellow Nebraskans love this football team so much.
Answering that question, however, requires patience and an attempt to understand the psyche of midwesterners—in other words the kind of qualities almost wholly lacking in the cultural discourse about the contemporary midwest. Moralizing from a distance simply won’t do. So if you want to understand Nebraska football as it is and not simply as it exists in Malcolm Gladwell’s nightmares, you need to understand Nebraskans.
The midwest—and I suspect this applies to the rust belt and southeast as well—is currently in a unique cultural moment in which deep pride about our place blends with a strong awareness of the negative perception about us from outside the region and fears about the future as our small towns shrink and die. There’s pride and fear and a deep, hidden inferiority complex running through my home state. We believe that our way of life is good and beautiful, but we often fear that no one outside of our place, and certainly no one in the halls of power, shares that assessment. And in most cases I don’t think the pride or the fear is misplaced.
My mother tells the story of how her father one day came home from work with several broken ribs. He worked on the railroad in Havelock, a small blue-collar neighborhood in northeast Lincoln, NE, and had been pinned between two boxcars that day. My mom could tell he was in pain, but she never heard him complain. And the next day he was back at work. He couldn’t afford to take a day off because of my grandmother’s many health issues and so he worked right on, continuing to provide for his sick wife and three children.
In my homestate, men like my grandfather aren’t rare. My other grandfather is much the same way, working into his mid 70s on two destroyed ankles (one of which has been fused) in order to provide for his wife who, like my other grandmother, has a number of health problems. In Nebraska that kind of simple fidelity and desire to do one’s duty is normal. I’ve seen the same behavior modeled in my father, the fathers of many of my friends, and today I have the pleasure of seeing it in the friends I’ve known for years. One friend has a seminary degree from a major evangelical seminary but has been unable to find a pastoral job. So he has been working as a manager at Target for two years now while he applies for jobs. Like my grandfather, I’ve never once heard him complain. Are we wrong to feel a certain pride about all this?
Football, as anyone who has watched Friday Night Lights knows, maps onto these values quite nicely. Most of our state’s men grew up playing football and many would play for their high school teams, spending hours after school on the football field before going home to help with farm chores. In the minds of most Nebraskans, there is a natural continuity from the work of the football field to the work of living a good life. The things that our young men—and many of the players on the Nebraska team are native midwesterners—learn playing football are the things that we expect to sustain them through life. And so we feel the same sort of pride in our state’s football team that we feel about our state more generally.
But it’s not just what football means to us that fuels the passion we have for it. It’s that football opens up doors for explaining ourselves to other Americans and, perhaps more important, being recognized by them as equals. We believe our way of life is beautiful and we want others to agree with us. Unfortunately, the rest of the nation seldom recognizes these traits in us, choosing rather to focus on the social conservatism that still marks my state as well as the perceived backwardness of our culture.
Ask a Nebraskan who spends much time on either coast and they’ve likely heard some variation of the “do you guys have electricity?” joke. If we show up in popular culture at all, it’s more likely to be in a Saul Goodman joke on Breaking Bad or as the butt end of a crack about “fly over country.” Mother Jones had a great time mocking one small town that allowed students to have guns in their senior pictures, showing a disappointing but not at all surprising ignorance of midwestern life in the process. And when we show up in bigger periodicals like the New York Times, it’s invariably in something like Mary Pipher’s condescending op ed about how Nebraskans need progressives like her to save us from all those barbaric conservatives and their aforementioned guns. As Wendell Berry noted over twenty years ago, the operative rhetorical principle in social elite circles seems to be that if you are polite in your comments about preferred social minorities you have license to say anything you want about poor people, country people, farmers, uneducated people, and so on. It’s hard to separate that basic insight from the sneering coverage of my home in places like Mother Jones and the New York Times.
This is the context in which Nebraska football has to be understood, indeed in which most college football (which is most popular in the midwest and the southeast) ought to be understood. For Nebraskans our college football team is the main—often the only—way to get the rest of the nation to notice us, to recognize us as something besides the punchline to a joke. When College Gameday is on campus and the streets of Lincoln are seen on a national broadcast on ABC that matters to us. For those few hours we aren’t just uneducated yokels or backwards conservatives slowly being drug into the 21st century by sneering folks like Pipher. For those few hours we’re just ordinary Americans who have something in our place that the rest of the nation cares about and understands.
Most people don’t care to understand the beauty of a farmer waking up every day at 5am to milk the cows, tend to the pigs, and begin working in the fields while most urbanites are still in bed. But most people do understand the discipline and work of a player spending hour after hour in the weight room followed by time on the field with his teammates and then careful film study later in the day. Absent the more direct approval of the specific work most of our state does, we’ve learned to live with approval of the qualities that we value in ourselves—even if they’re being appreciated on a football field rather than a farm. On the football field, our team becomes a public apologia for the Nebraskan way of life, and we treat them as royalty.