In a Chevy Traverse zooming past endless rows of green, 11-year-old Addisyn Parks turns to her dad and asks an existential Nebraska question: "How come they're not good like they used to be?"
Cliff Parks tells his daughter something thoughtful, that football is cyclical, that this is just Nebraska's time to be down, and they'll work their way back up. But that's not the question I want to ask Parks on Sunday afternoon, after he'd just driven 14 hours round trip with his daughter to watch a football game between Nebraska and the Fordham Rams, an FCS school in the Patriot League.
Why do you do this?
The Parks family lives in Chadron, a panhandle town in a different time zone near the backdrop of buttes and canyons about as far away as you can get from the University of Nebraska while still existing within state lines. The Cornhuskers have had just one winning season in the past six years, and their 2021 opener last week at Illinois did little to inspire hope. A host of errors led to a 30-22 loss and serious concerns that for the first time in 59 years, tickets for a Nebraska game at Memorial Stadium (capacity 85,000) would not be sold out.
About 15 years ago, the Parks family had to be put on a waiting list to acquire season tickets. Cliff Parks still recalls the excitement he felt when he received the email, after a year or two of waiting, that the coveted seats were theirs.
But that was forever ago. Now Addisyn is part of a generation of young people, from toddlers to 20-year-olds, who have no memory of the Cornhuskers' dominance, of their team embarrassing others en route to five national championships. Cliff Parks can remember when Scott Frost the quarterback led Nebraska to a national title in 1997. This generation is left with visions of Scott Frost the coach imploring Huskers fans to not give up on them.
So while tickets were being peddled on StubHub for $11, Parks did what he has done for more than a decade. He left for Lincoln with unwavering hope.
"It's never crossed my mind to give them up," Parks said. "Hopefully my kids take the tickets some day after we're done.
"It's what you look forward to in the fall, going to Husker games. It's just what you do."
MY EARLIEST MEMORIES of Cornhuskers football always involved losses. There was a New Year's party for the 1979 Orange Bowl game in which Nebraska played Oklahoma, a night rife with four-letter adult words that I'd probably already heard before, probably on a football Saturday. It was the first and last time I saw my dad drink. Oklahoma 31, Nebraska 24. There was the 1984 Orange Bowl, when the Huskers, ranked No. 1 and winners of 22 straight, trailed by 7 in the waning seconds against Miami, and scored on fourth-and-8. An extra point would have tied it at 31, but there was no overtime in college football back then, so Tom Osborne, the tall, red-headed symbol of Nebraska valiance, went for two. Turner Gill's throw to Jeff Smith fell incomplete, and that night my diary contained just two sad sentences, that Nebraska lost, and that my older sister Teri's mascara smeared down her face.
We never went to Nebraska games; that always seemed to be a luxury afforded to the blue bloods, or at least families without four kids crammed into a one-bathroom house. Years later, when I landed the Nebraska football beat, it was a big deal, not because I could go to the games but because it was the most important writing gig at my hometown newspaper.
I'd always wondered if it would be boring to cover a team that rarely lost and blew out its opponents by video-game numbers. I never found out. That first season, in 2002, the Huskers were coming off a trip to the national championship game. But they lost back-to-back games at Penn State and Iowa State, and fell out of the AP Poll for the first time since 1981. They finished 7-7, marking the end of 40 straight winning seasons.
Over the next few years, the milestones continued to fall like temperatures in a Nebraska November. Frank Solich was fired after the 2003 regular season, after winning nine games, after he'd just claimed an emotional victory at Colorado. The athletic director at the time, Steve Pederson, would sum up his decision in one infamous quote: "I refuse to let the program gravitate into mediocrity."
In 2004, Texas Tech hung 70 points on them, their worst loss in 114 years. The 35-year bowl streak ended that season. For Nebraskans, that was probably the most excruciating record to fall.
Eventually, the only thing left was the home sellout streak. It started in 1962 during the Bob Devaney era and has endured economic recessions, wars, hirings and firings, and teams that at the end of the season might have wished they could be considered mediocre. Yet the streak still stands, now at 376 games. There's a T-shirt that sums up Nebraska's precarious grip on history, and relevance. It says, "Sellout Streak Champs."
Trev Alberts, a former NU All-America linebacker who was hired as Nebraska's athletic director in July, conceded last week that there were a few times in the program's recent years that a booster, or a corporate sponsor, would buy a portion of unsold tickets in the days leading up to a game. But Alberts said he wants to be transparent.
He said that a few weeks ago, Fordham sent back 2,400 of its allotted tickets, and that previously in those situations, if held tickets weren't sold, it was still considered part of the sellout.
"And I didn't feel comfortable about that," Alberts said. "So I just said, 'What are we gonna do? What's our plan? Does anybody have any ideas?'"
In a Tuesday meeting, Dr. Lawrence Chatters, who was recently hired as a senior associate athletic director for diversity, equity and inclusion, said he was interested in an initiative that would expose the Nebraska brand and experience to young people who haven't had those opportunities because of economic challenges. "Tell me more," Alberts told him.
That weekend, Alberts was talking to a booster about the idea, and the next day, two anonymous donors offered to buy all the unsold tickets. They created the Red Carpet Experience, and Chatters had just a few days to pull it all together. They wound up with about 2,000 recipients.
"These are a lot of young people whose parents possibly didn't attend college," Chatters said. "So they might be first-generation college students in the future.
"They may not have an understanding of the previous greatness of Nebraska, but what I do want them to experience through this is the generosity of Nebraska."
Alberts said winning, or lack thereof, has been an obvious contributor to sluggish ticket sales. He also cited the COVID-19 pandemic. While student tickets are sold out, he anticipates that it will continue to be a challenge to sell the rest of the seats. Nebraska hosts Buffalo on Saturday.
"This isn't a season-long announcement," he said. "This is a week-to-week grind, if you will, to continue the sellout streak."
He has tried to wrap his brain around why the sellout streak is so important, and he's come up with this: Nebraska is a school that embraces tradition, and when the program, and the records, fell, they had no control over it. But they can control this last vestige to the past. He knows how the streak can make a difference in recruiting competition against other schools. Alberts is from Cedar Falls, Iowa, and was raised a die-hard Hawkeyes fan. But then he went on a recruiting trip to Nebraska. "The place was full, and it was all red," he said. "And there wasn't any other place like that."
CHRIS SAYRE STOOD outside of Pound Hall about two hours before kickoff Saturday and played his accordion near the stadium as fans streamed in. He's been doing this for 39 years. Sayre used to play a selection of songs, but listeners seemed to want to hear only two: "There is no Place like Nebraska" and "Hail Varsity."
The sky was slate-gray Saturday morning, and the flow of fans often moved at a trickle. He didn't seem too worried about it. It's morning, he said. Because of the Huskers' record of the past few years, they've had a lot of these morning starts. Sayre takes tips, which usually amount to enough to buy his wife dinner. He has had fans drop $100 bills in his accordion case. That hasn't happened in a while.
"We're gonna win today, right?" Sayre said between songs, and the reaction varied from sarcasm to forced enthusiasm.
"Nebraskans are always so hopeful," he said. "But I think that a lot of people are kind of waiting for something to change. For it to get better."
The crowd was late-arriving for the 11 a.m. kickoff. Joel Schafer, a 42-year-old mortgage broker from Omaha who came with his 75-year-old father, said the stadium was oddly quiet at the start of the game. The family has four seats roughly on the 45-yard line, club level in west stadium. But he couldn't get anyone to take the other two tickets. His daughter is a junior at NU; his youngest son isn't into sports. The older son loves football but was working Saturday, and seems to be more interested in the Seattle Seahawks than the Cornhuskers. Schafer wonders what that says about his beloved home-state team.
"[Nebraska football] meant everything to me," he said. "I grew up in the golden generation, right? My freshman year college was '97 when they won a national championship. You compare what I saw to what my kids see and it's sad."
Schafer, who was NU's student body president two decades ago, vividly remembers attending his first Nebraska game. It was his 10th birthday. The Huskers were playing Kansas State, and it snowed. The '84 Orange Bowl was probably Schafer's first Nebraska memory. It was the first time he saw his dad cry.
Saturday, they watched Nebraska sputter for much of the first quarter, against a team that was paid $500,000 to come to Lincoln. Nothing surprises him anymore. Yet they still watch.
"I'll listen to [sports radio] and you'll get callers who try to place blame on a fickle fan base that's living in the '90s," he said. "And I'm like, 'You've got to be kidding me.' The fans are the only thing that's kept this thing going. You've had inept ADs, egomaniac ADs who'd done their best to ruin the program. You had coaches caught on tape disparaging the fans and being a horses a-- on the field and embarrassing the university.
"But the fans are still here. I can't look around and find almost anywhere else in college football where the fans would've stuck around to extent that Nebraska fans have through the last 20 years of crap. And they're still there."
WHEN MARCEL BLACKBIRD heard about the Red Carpet Experience, he quickly banged out an email to Chatters. Blackbird coaches youth football on the Winnebago reservation in northeast Nebraska, and figured that for most of his players, it would be the only chance in their lifetimes to see a Nebraska football game in person.
Twenty-six years ago, a mentor took Blackbird to a Nebraska football game. He was 12 years old, and it was one of the best days of his life. Giant linemen, heroes to Blackbird, stopped near the stadium tunnel to high-five him. It made him believe he could do anything. "It's something I'll always remember," Blackbird said.
He found out midweek that they'd be able to attend the game, and Blackbird surprised them with the news after practice. They left early Saturday morning in four vans and arrived in Lincoln around 9. The children and chaperones got a free hot dog and a bottle of water, and took their seats early, before most of the crowd arrived. They didn't want to miss a thing.
Blackbird's son Angelo, who's 11, has heard his father's story of the time he went to a Nebraska game numerous times. He was so amped up Friday night that he had a friend stay over so they could get on one of the vans early Saturday. By the end of the day, they left with memories of their own.
Alberts said that in the days since the Red Carpet Experience was announced, the university has been flooded with emails from fans who want to donate. And the plan came from Chatters, whose family couldn't afford football tickets when he was growing up in Bellevue, Nebraska, who watched the games by doing errands in the press box with his high school ROTC.
"We were all sitting there talking about the future," Alberts said. "How do we create new fans? We have an aging fan base. How do we create new traditions, how do we get more people exposed to the Husker experience. And it just made more and more sense."
AN HOUR AFTER Nebraska's 52-7 win against Fordham, the beer was still flowing and the hot dogs -- Fairbury reds, of course -- were grilling under a bridge near the stadium. A table of snacks had just been knocked over, the true sign of a good party, and for a moment, it seemed like old times. Sixty-four-year-old Tom Bonnichsen put down his koozie, scaled a ladder on the back of his RV with surprising speed and agility, and upon reaching the summit, bellowed out a chant:
"GOOOOOHHH BIIIIIIG REDDDDDDD."
The crowd chanted back. "Go. Big. Red."
Bonnichsen and his wife, Meg, bought the 1996 Fleetwood Flair more than a decade ago, and a polite way to describe the drab, beige-colored vehicle with chipped-away Nebraska logos is rustic. It was purchased exclusively for tailgating, and has taken them from Ashland, Nebraska, to Texas and Wisconsin and Iowa, through victory and, more recently, defeat.
The couple plunks down $1,100 a year to park in this spot for six or seven home games, and considers it money well-spent. From the driver's seat, you can actually see the scoreboard. In 2011, when Nebraska fell behind to Ohio State by three touchdowns, Tom was so upset that he left the stadium and headed to the RV to drown his sorrows. Then Rex Burkhead led a furious Cornhuskers rally, which Bonnichsen watched from behind the steering wheel.
The Fleetwood Flair is showing its age these days, and the Bonnichsens have pondered whether they should retire it. There are no eagerly anticipated road trips, and likely no conference championship games to attend. At one point Saturday, as they reflected on the sellout streak, and their own fandom, they asked themselves what it would take to get them to stop coming, and the answer was clear.
"I don't care how bad it looks in there," Bonnichsen said, staring at the stadium. "We're never going to give up because we love them. We ain't giving up. This is our team."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN and former Nebraska football beat writer for The Omaha World-Herald. She can be reached at Elizabeth.Merrill@espn.com.