The neighboring Nebraska towns of Omaha and Lincoln are home to Fortune 500 companies and one of the most revered college football programs in the country. But as these snapshots of local day-to-day life prove, they’re also close-knit communities where midwestern values still reign.Three hours before kickoff, a river of red runs west on the 57-mile stretch of Interstate 80 between Omaha and Lincoln, Neb. Pickup trucks plastered with Huskers bumper stickers hurtle toward destiny, with Go Nebraska! flags sprouting from windows and fluttering madly in 70-mile-per-hour freeway wind. Morning broke cold, barely above freezing, but it is past 50 degrees now and on the way up, with a clear-blue-sky promise of shirt-sleeve weather come game time.
Outside the stadium, a manhole cover forged with an N in the center and University of NE Athletic Department around the perimeter bears witness to just how serious this is. There are more than 66,000 people here, making Memorial Stadium the third-largest city in Nebraska — a week before Easter, for a scrimmage game that doesn’t count.
The crazy-loud roars of autumn and its capacity crowds of 81,067 will arrive soon enough. For now, a low murmur prevails as fans, some wearing corn-on-the-cob hats, study a team at a tipping point.
Folks here know the history; just look at the T-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with Bugeaters, a moniker the university abandoned more than a century ago after a few losing seasons. The University of Nebraska has won more football games than any other NCAA Division I school since 1960, when a streak of home-game sellouts began that now stands at 311, an NCAA record. But the Cornhuskers, five-time national champions, haven’t captured a conference championship since 1999. The upcoming fall season will be the first in the Big Ten Conference for Nebraska, a move that resulted in concern for the future of the Big 12.
For one day, at least, it doesn’t matter which side wins, and so the crowd cheers at a touchdown pass and cheers again when the extra-point kick is blocked. The loudest applause goes to six survivors of the Doolittle raid who have come to Nebraska to observe the 69th anniversary of the daring World War II mission. For the record, the game ends up a 32–29 would-be thriller, with the side dressed in red winning on a 39-yard field goal as time expires. As if leaving church, fans file quietly for exits.
“It’s still a game, you know,” says Nebraska fan Janelle Byam of the preseason fanfare. “You get to feel it out, see who the new players are and how they’re doing. The tickets are cheap. You still get all the atmosphere.”