"Hell, I even thought I was dead 'til I found out it was just that I was in Nebraska."
-Little Bill Daggett
For better or worse, we are a people in love with our frontiers. The coasts and mountains and deserts draw us. The great middle tends to be forgotten. After all, who ever said "Let's fly to Omaha for a weekend"? For whatever reason, that's not part of the American psyche. We don't fly to Nebraska. We fly over it.
I am as guilty as anyone of this sin of omission. I've never been to Nebraska in my entire life. So, I went to Nebraska.
The decision was easy, come down to it. It's just under 200 miles from my door to Memorial Stadium. A quick note to fellow OTE "Writer" Jesse Collins was all it took to rustle up a line on two club level tickets for a paltry sum. Sometimes, the universe just flat out tells you to go to a football game.
Getting to Lincoln is blessedly easy. Interstate 29 handrails the Missouri River from Kansas City to Sioux City, arcing over and around the low hills on the Iowa side. Like all interstates, it ensures that Americans of even modest means can transit the country without seeing anything of note.
A quick stop for gas at the aptly-named Nebraska City exit meant walking into the jaws of what I imagined would be a throng of hostile Huskers. The sign may say Percival, Iowa, but the Nebraska line lies a scant 10 miles to the west. Lincoln is only 30 more beyond that. I was certain that I was firmly in Husker country. Not so. I quickly found myself on the receiving end of icy glares from a half dozen elderly ladies in Iowa garb. They obviously thought little of my handsome prairie gold Minnesota hoodie. Of note, Iowa City is nearly 300 miles to the east. What the Midwest lacks in creative city names, it more than makes up for in state loyalty. Proximity be damned. Borders are taken seriously.
Heading west across the river and into Nebraska, one begins to confront the full expanse of the Cornhusker state. For those from who hail from other parts, the flatness of the heartland must be unnerving. My New Hampshire cousin always derided us, his midwestern kin, as "flatlanders"--a pejorative I never quite understood. After all, the roads are straight. The land is well-surveyed. No one ever slid off a mountain in a Nebraska blizzard. What's so bad about that?
Beyond the practicalities of topography, there's a unique beauty to the Nebraska landscape. Endless ribbons of horizon and wide open spaces let the mind wander while hurtling down Hwy 2 on the last stretch to Lincoln. The American steppe lies ahead in all its vast ruggedness, like it did for so many of our hardy forebears. This is not just the heartland of America, but of our entire continent. These are fields that feed the world, and the connection to that endeavor is not derided here. It is venerated. Even today, the cities seem more like giant small towns than sprawling urban centers--a trait that pays great dividends when your destination is a downtown stadium.
Arriving swiftly in the Haymarket District per Jesse's instructions, I buttoned my coat so as to avoid drawing the ire of Nebraska fans on my walk to Longwell's bar. Sadly, my yellow hood gave me away. I was immediately targeted by multiple Husker fans. "Welcome to Lincoln!" they said. "Hope you enjoy the game!" they shouted. "Great day for football!" they beamed. Who are these people? Finally, in the crowded bar, things got real. A tall brunette looked across the room at me, smiled, and gave me a thumbs down. For one, I'm pretty used to that reaction out of women...though the smile was admittedly a new touch. Secondly, these are the people who called for Frank Solich's head?
The experience in the stadium was no less pleasant. The clouds evaporated, the temperature soared, and Jesse had nabbed two of the best club level seats in the house. Every time we walked past the door usher, she patted me on the shoulder and said "I hope you're having a nice time." Even after 3 hours of watching Bo Pelini turn their hopes and dreams into bits of broken chair, Husker fans offered hearty congratulations on a Gopher win. Numerous Nebraskans were truly in awe of GoAUpher's Zubaz pants. More than one friendly corn-belter requested a photo with our giant Minnesota ambassador, including a woman cloaked head-to-toe in a handmade cob costume. Welcome to Nebraska, where people dress like corn and sincerely hope you're having a nice day.
The outcome of the game wasn't the high point of the day for me. Sure, I was happy to see a historic Gopher win, but my investment only goes so deep in the B1G West. For this wandering Buckeye fan, victory came in edible form. Anyone who's been around OTE for a bit is no doubt familiar with the term "Runza." If you've not made the trek to Nebraska, you might think Runza is the name of a second-string Iowa punter (as I did). Allow me to enlighten you.
A Runza is a sandwich. Or rather, it's more an expression of what a sandwich can be. A soft envelope of bread. Greasy beef & cabbage. Each one weighs about 4 pounds. If they shot these from the weiner cannon, they'd punch holes right through the stands. A Runza is the ultimate stadium food. It's delicious, it's terrible for you, and it's a unique reflection of the people who've made Nebraska their home. Wash it down with a Wimmer's hot dog and you've achieved stadium nirvana: basking in caloric glory until you sort of hate yourself.
After sharing one more beer with our victorious contingent from the DailyGopher, our merry band parted ways. November means darkness falls early. With the last sliver of sun sinking below that distant horizon, I headed for home. Years ago, I didn't want Nebraska in the B1G. I can't believe how wrong I was. Nebraska is everything we love about football in the midwest. "Heartland" is well-earned title.