Growing up in the Midwest as a fan of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers football team, my life was filled with countless Saturday afternoons listening on the radio to broadcasts of the games. My parents had gone to school there, as did a grandparent and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was only natural for me to be a fan of the “Big Red.”
I had the privilege of playing in the Nebraska Marching Band for all five years of my undergraduate life, and that was a thrill as we marched into Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium each week with (then) 76,000 fans going crazy.
One of the “Husker highlights” of my life, though, occurred before I went to college; in fact, it was something that didn’t happen on the football field at all.
The year was 1974 and I was a skinny and awkward thirteen year old who was taller than he probably ought to have been at the time. I was still a year away from discovering that I needed to wash my hair everyday to avoid being ticketed by the Grease Police, and it was that stage in my life where sitting next to a girl on the bus ride to school in the next town over – eight long uncomfortable miles – was a terrifying experience.
Though I lacked confidence in most things, the one thing I knew I could hang my hat on was my football team. As the ’74 football season got into gear, all eyes were watching to see about how well the Cornhuskers would do in Coach Tom Osborne’s second year as head coach.
Coach Osborne had served under legendary coach Bob Devaney from 1967 through 1972, including taking the role of assistant head coach for the ’72 season. Osborne already had quite a following when he took the helm in 1973, being credited as the genius behind Nebraska’s powerful offense that had dominated college football in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The Huskers had recently won two national championships (in 1970 and 1971) and the Nebraska fans were hungry for more.
In 1974, my family somehow managed to get tickets for the game against Northwestern. Tickets were so difficult to find – they still are – and every home game has been sold out since the early 1960’s. Prior to that season I had been to one Nebraska game, going with Dad to the ’72 game against Oklahoma in Lincoln. Seeing a game in Memorial Stadium in Lincoln had been a real thrill for me, and I eagerly looked forward to going again. The stadium, a sea of red, is fondly referred to as the third largest city in Nebraska on game day.
So in 1974 we went to the Northwestern game. Nebraska dismantled the Wildcats by the score of 49-7, and I thoroughly enjoyed the game. Our voices were hoarse from cheering all afternoon, our noses turned red in the bright Nebraska sun, and our face muscles were worn out from smiling. However, the game itself was not the highlight of the weekend for me.
We stayed in Lincoln overnight, and on Sunday morning our family got up early and had breakfast so that we could go to church. Mom and Dad wanted to go St. Paul’s United Methodist, the church where they were married.
I don’t remember a lot about the service itself, though I’m sure it was fine. I was probably thinking quite a bit about the game, replaying the day’s events in my mind.
When it was time for Holy Communion, the ushers were leading the congregation up to the altar two pews at a time. Finally it was our turn. I was sitting at the end of the pew, furthest from the aisle, so I was the last one to reach the altar from our pew. The way we were directed to the front, that meant that I ended up right in the middle of the altar. Dad was to my immediate left.
As the minister handed out the wafers, Dad elbowed me. I thought Dad wanted more space, so I scooted over a little to my right. Then he elbowed me again. I tried scooting a little more, but I couldn’t because somebody (from the pew across the aisle) was kneeling to my right.
I looked up at Dad, who was looking at me and pointing to my right. Confused, I looked to my right. My jaw dropped.
There, kneeling next to me at the altar, I saw none other than Coach Tom Osborne!
I came this close to asking him for his autograph and telling him how much we had enjoyed the game, but Dad raised a finger to his lips, indicating that I needed to remain silent.
So there I was, in the presence of greatness. I don’t remember anything about the rest of the Communion or the church service for that matter, but I know I was in a daze.
Years later, as a tuba player in the band, I talked with Coach Osborne several times, but I never mustered the courage to ask if he remembered having Holy Communion with me. Of course he wouldn’t remember, but it was an experience I will never forget!