The state of Nebraska loves its football
By Murray Evans
Oct. 18, 2000 3:10 p.m. ET
LINCOLN, Neb. Imagine playing basketball on Tobacco Road, wrestling in Iowa City, kicking a soccer ball at Wembley Stadium or swinging a baseball bat in Cooperstown. Then you might understand the feeling high school football players here have whenever they don their pads.
This town of about 200,000 people in southeast Nebraska is located near the center of the college football universe. Think college football, and a few elite programs spring to mind Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida State, Michigan. Then there's Nebraska, which lays claim to five national titles in its storied history, including three championships in the 1990s (although one was shared with Michigan).
Simply put, Lincoln is famous for one thing: being the location of a university which fields a dominant college football program, one which is ranked No. 1 in both major polls heading into this week's game against Baylor and next week's showdown at highly ranked Oklahoma.
"Football is a big thing around here," Lincoln East High School senior quarterback Jesse Shaw said. "Everybody takes it really seriously. A lot of people come out to watch. It's what a lot of people like to do around here. The Huskers create a lot of hype."
All over Nebraska, you see signs of Husker mania. A small private college, located about 50 miles west of Lincoln, held its homecoming last weekend and one of the prizes at its alumni golf event was a Husker jacket. Numerous business in Lincoln (and around the state) use the "Husker" moniker. On game days, you'll see red-and-white Nebraska flags flying from many a home. When the game comes on this time, the opponent was Texas Tech activity doesn't quite cease, but most of the state plays close attention.
Nebraska is a college football state, no doubt, and Lincoln is a classic college football town. It would be easy for the college team to overshadow the considerable exploits of local high school players who, like most kids in Nebraska, dream of growing up to play for the Cornhuskers.
"If you're in athletics, that's always a dream," Shaw said. "It's the big thing. It's what everyone wants to watch."
John Gingery was one of those kids. Gingery attended Lincoln East as a teenager during the glory years of the 1970s, when the Spartans won five state football titles. He was one of the relatively few Nebraska kids able to live out his gridiron dream, as he suited up for the Huskers during the mid-'70s. He understands the passion so many here feel about football, particularly Nebraska football.
"There's pressure, because everybody knows your job better than you do on Friday night, and that's no joke, because we have a lot of educated football people here," said Gingery, who is now the Lincoln East head football coach. "We are in a state in which kids want to perform well in football. I don't think there's any added pressure from the university, but just because they're from Nebraska, they want to play quality football."
That passion used to translate in a significant way to high school football. Secrest Field in Lincoln, which was built in the mid-1960s, regularly hosted crowds of 10,000 or more fans for regular-season games involving two Lincoln teams during the '70s. Crowds have shrunk somewhat in recent years, just because there are more things to do and athletic events to attend than there were three decades ago.
Still, a big game will draw a sizable crowd. East's game on Friday against Lincoln Pius X qualified as a big game. The schools one public, the other private are located about a mile apart, but hadn't played each other since 1973. A fierce thunderstorm with plenty of lightning delayed the kickoff 45 minutes and probably scared off numerous fans, but 2,679 people (they still count the gate at Secrest Field) showed up to watch the local squads battle on the facility's FieldTurf.
The FieldTurf is the same surface used across town at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium and that's not by accident. Secrest Field is shared by a half-dozen schools, and the old natural-grass surface regularly wore out each year under the duress of numerous football and soccer games. Prior to the 1999 football season, when artificial turf was to be installed at Secrest, former NU coach Tom Osborne as esteemed a person as you'll find in this state, and likely soon to be a member of the U.S. House of Representatives encouraged the use of FieldTurf.
The game figured to be interesting not only because of the series' history and the proximity of the schools, but because it pitted a Class A school (East, which competes in the state's highest classification) against a Class B school (Pius X, which entered the game unbeaten and ranked third in its class).
East threatened to run away with the game in the first half, jumping to a 14-0 lead on two big plays a 52-yard touchdown pass from Shaw to Jason Woody and a 33-yard scoring run by Jason Watson. Pius X rallied after halftime, though. The Thunderbolts marched smartly down the field and scored on a 17-yard run by Matt Reinke, cutting East's lead to 14-7.
The Spartans answered with the game's decisive play, a 33-yard touchdown pass from Shaw to Dwight Williams. Shaw led Williams perfectly and Williams outraced Pius X defenders to the end zone. Pius X eventually closed to within 22-14, but the Thunderbolts couldn't overcome mistakes which ended two drives inside the East 20.
Gingery told the Spartans afterwards that he'd been on the East team which lost to Pius X in 1973, which made beating the Thunderbolts this time around doubly sweet. He reminded them, though, that the Spartans who improved to 4-3 had a ways to go to compete with elite Class A schools like Creighton Prep of Omaha and crosstown rival Lincoln Southeast, both of which are ranked in the FOX FAB 50.
Still, the next day, the Spartans received top headlines in a town known for winning football. In Nebraska, that's something to be proud of.