The Kickoff Fumble
Fischstick's Dad Awaits
I grew up in Nebraska, so it had to be football, and I thought of several seasons. I thought of 1976, the first season I sort of understood (I was seven), with Vince Ferragamo lobbing bombs all over the place. Then I thought of the Gill seasons of 1981-83 (I was 12-14) when everything came up just short – Nebby lost to the national champion in each of these years in gut-wrenching affairs. Damn you Clemson. Damn you Penn State. Damn you, in particular, Miami.
But the more I thought about it, the more I gravitated to the roller coaster that was the 1978 Nebraska season. As much as we tend to gloss it over now, Osborne was slumping in the mid-70s. He had not yet beaten his bête noire, Barry Switzer, and the ’76 and ’77 seasons concluded with bowl games syndicated on the Mizlou Television Network…never a good sign. Osborne would have likely been canned if Nebraska lost the 1976 Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl to Texas Tech. Yet UNL survived thanks to two missed field goals from a kicker with a prosthetic leg (really). People in Lincoln were increasingly edgy.
The 1978 season started with a 20-3 loss to top-ranked Alabama at Legion Field. Osborne upset the Tide the previous year, and the Bear spent the summer getting ready for the Huskers. It showed. Bama was a tough loss and the adults were not surprised. From there, things started looking up. Nebby tore through Cal, Hawaii, and Indiana in the rest of the non-conference. Nebraska shut out #15 Iowa State at old Cyclone Stadium to open conference play. The wins, yards, and points kept adding up. Apart from an upset scare from Oklahoma State, everything was purring. It was leading up to the annual crescendo – the Sooners.
Battleship Gray Day Number One
It was overcast and cold on November 11. This was the 70s, and I remember little (if any) pomp and circumstance for the veterans. I remember looking at the program and seeing that Oklahoma actually played freshmen. I remember the old bathrooms and faculty lounge in Burnett Hall where my father’s department would meet and eat lunch before the game. I had not seen these adults so fired up before. And then I remember the stadium– it was electric. The Pride of All Nebraska traditionally plays "Hail Varsity" right before it leaves the field before the kickoff. The song ends with the fans repeating "Go Big Red!" Counting how many times the fans chant is an excellent barometer for intensity. McNeese merits 1.5 chants, Wisconsin 3 to 5, etc. I counted ten before this game! The entire team walked out to the numbers, jumping and jawing, for the coin toss. It was on ABC with Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles, so a few portable TVs were brought in by the more prosperous ticket holders. I had seen a couple of "big" games before, but this was amazing to my nine-year-old self. That sense of wonder is what sticks with me.
(As an aside, I have since learned that GoForThree has a deep loathing for Keith Jackson!? I can only ascribe this to some sinister government LSD experiment in the Ohio environs. It would explain so much.)
Oklahoma was undefeated and ranked number one, Nebraska had only one blemish and was ranked fourth. There were more than thirty future NFL players on the field. Oklahoma’s backfield featured Thomas Lott, Kenny King, David Overstreet, and the great Billy Sims. They all ran 4.5 or better. In 1978!
The game itself was fast and brutal. Helmets were flying off. About half of the tackles would be considered illegal today. The crowd was almost always on its feet. And then the turnovers came. The Blackshirts would force ten fumbles on the day, recovering five. The D was particularly focused on Sims, who would fumble five times. Not bad for a group that had about five walk-ons as starters.
Despite the fumbles, Oklahoma was always just a step away. Sims would get his, and he accounted for both of OU’s scores on long runs. He was amazing to watch. The game was close throughout – tied at seven for the half, tied at fourteen after three. Nebraska edged ahead with a field goal in the opening moments of the fourth. Then came the kickoff.
Nebraska's Billy Todd sunk his left foot into the ball and it drifted toward the northwest corner. Oklahoma's Freshman QB Kelly Phelps fielded the ball near the goal line and tiptoed up the sideline. Like a guided missile, John Ruud flew through the wedge. He never broke stride as he launched his shoulder and head into Phelps upper torso. Phelps was instantly rendered unconscious, and the ball squirted away…recovered by Nebraska! It was the first and perhaps only hit where I thought a player might be dead. Oklahoma trainers rushed to the field to extract Phelps’ mouthpiece – he had swallowed it and it was lodged in his throat. I understood what the crowds must have been like at the Colosseum. I was beside myself with glee. I wanted blood, and I was not alone.
The hit is at 1:29 and no, that would not be legal today.
But wait! The hit was so violent and fast that the referees ruled that Phelps was down before he lost the ball. The crowd lost its collective mind. People started pushing over rows of seats to peer at grainy instant replays on portable TVs. Stoic, bookish Tom Osborne threw his headset in disgust. Broyles and Jackson agreed it should have been a fumble. Instead of first and goal for Nebraska at around the Oklahoma ten, it was first down Oklahoma around the twenty. Nebraska’s George Andrews sacked Thomas Lott, trapping OU inside its five. It was so loud. Nebraska would still get a short field! Nope. Kenny King popped a trap for forty yards up to midfield. So it went, punch and counterpunch. Nebraska forced another fumble to stop the threat, but how long could they hold a three point lead?
Long enough, it turned out. Oklahoma got one more solid chance. With about three minutes left, the Sooners drove to the Nebraska twenty. Then it was Sims again. He took an option pitch from Lott and ran by two defenders like they were standing still. As he spun towards the goal line, Safety Jeff Hansen hit Sims squarely and the ball slid free. Monster Jim Pillen recovered the ball at the four (Nebraskans have long memories; it is now University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen). Absolute bedlam. The Huskers ran out the clock, won 17-14, and everyone stormed the field and tore down the goalposts. Multiple players – QB Tom Sorley and RB Rick Berns among them – were carried off the field on students’ shoulders.
It was over. It had happened. WE beat Oklahoma. People partied in the streets. A friend’s dad had a piece of the goalpost mounted on his bar. The Huskers were ranked second behind Penn State and it looked like it would be Paterno and Osborne for the championship in the Orange Bowl. Rick Berns and Jim Pillen were Sports Illustrated players of the week. Nebraska even made the cover. Now we just had to dispose of Missouri. Surely this was our time.
Battleship Gray Day Number Two
Exactly a week later, the Athletic Department scrambled and replaced the goal posts. A palpable sense of optimism hung throughout the crowd. The good feelings turned out to be folly. Missouri was coached by Warren Powers, a former Nebraska assistant who felt slighted when Osborne was tapped to replace Bob Devaney. The previous year, Powers brought in a scrappy Wazzu squad which, aided by Nebby turnovers and Jack "The Throwin’ Samoan" Thompson, had upset the Huskers in the season opener. Now he returned to stick another dagger in Cornhusker hearts.
The game began swimmingly. Rick Berns took a sweep 82 yards on the game’s first play. I have since learned that scoring that easily can lead to a letdown, but I did not know that then. The game was physical and well-played. Missouri had at least three studs that I can remember: QB Phil Bradley (would become an MLB All-Star); RB James Wilder (Future All-Pro); and TE Kellen Winslow (NFL Hall of Fame). It was the perfect recipe for misery in the land of corn.
The Blackshirts were emotionally drained from the previous week. The game went back and forth. Nebraska would get some chunk plays and score. Missouri drove relentlessly. Bradley, Wilder, and Winslow converted third downs up and down the field. Nebraska’s defense died a death by a thousand cuts…the veer series, over and over again.
Eventually, late in the fourth quarter, Missouri scored and Nebraska could not answer. Nebraska fell in hellish fashion, 35-31. But at least we had won the right to represent the Big 8 in the Orange Bowl. Who would be our opponent? It would be Oklahoma…again. Warren Powers had his revenge.
Fischstick's Dad (foreground) in Darker Times
Between the Missouri game and the Orange Bowl, my family went on a great adventure. My father had taken a sabbatical to study alcoholism in New Zealand (conclusion - there is a lot), so the family would be down under from mid-December 1978 until December 1979. We were cut off from the football world. My ten-year-old self was quite unhappy. I would miss the baseball and football seasons over the next year. The family did make some allowances -we received the Lincoln Sunday Journal-Star (by book rate, three weeks late) and we had access to Armed Forces Radio (second hand) through the Air Force Base in Christchurch. Eventually we got the news, Nebby lost to OU in the Orange bowl 31-24. I have never watched the Orange Bowl rematch.
The week of 1 January, 1979, Dad called the air base (OPERATION DEEP FREEZE - the staging point to Antarctica) and got all of the bowl scores from a junior officer. I overheard the conversation, and I was expecting excruciating detail of how Nebby lost. Instead, I was overhearing a story about Ohio State.
As I am thoroughly ensconced in middle-age, the more and more I look upon football seasons as landmarks of my youth. Combine the transition to New Zealand, and I look at pre-'79 as a time when I was still a little kid, while post-'79 marks the beginning of my adolescence. Kids expect gifts, like mystical runs towards national championships. Older kids understand that the rug can be pulled out from under them at any moment. The potential for greatness was there, but my beloved Big Red did not have enough in them to reach the mountain top. Reality can suck. I know this. Lesson learned. But, God, that Oklahoma win is the greatest sporting memory of my life.
All of the childhood anguish over any Nebraska loss, including Missouri in 1978, made the joy of actually watching my team win a title that much more exhilarating.
I love college football.
Oh yeah, it turned out that Woody Hayes punched a guy!