Oh, those crazy Cornhusker fans. I had heard before that the largest population centers of Nebraska are, in order, Omaha, Lincoln, and Memorial Stadium on game days. No other cities can compete with the 81,067 screaming fans who pour into town decked out in red. Seeing it with my own eyes, I had no doubt that this was, indeed, the third largest gathering of people in the state. And honestly, I was a little bit frightened.
It was cold, being November, but not as bad as I thought it might be. I had two layers on my legs, three up top, plus a hat and mittens. I was doing pretty well, body temperature-wise, standing around the tailgate party (which, again, showed the craziness of these Husker fans . . . a giant flatscreen television in the back of your truck to watch the pregame show? for real?), and the people of Nebraska were so darn nice and welcoming. I just love Midwesterners. I know people on the East and West Coasts think Midwesterners are a little slow, but by golly the people are good. You betcha.
Mr. Nebraska and I, along with his friends, joined the crush of people going into the stadium and wound our way up, up, up, to the upper deck. I had been to a couple of college football games before, but they weren’t like this. I didn’t know if it was because Nebraska had no pro teams or if there just wasn’t much else to do in Nebraska, but I swear that there must be some rule that you had to be a Cornhusker fan to live in the state. They held the NCAA record for the most consecutive stadium sellouts, having a to-capacity crowd at every single game since 1962. That’s just crazy. And it wasn’t like the stadium was small. It was huge. And the marching band covered the entire field. It takes a lot of horn tooters to cover that much space. The team came roaring out of the tunnel and the game began. The crowd hooted and hollered, but I started to relax. I was afraid everyone would be able to tell I wasn’t a fan since I wasn’t wearing red, but no one seemed to care. Balloons were released when the Huskers scored their first touchdown. (And why the marketing campaign to call them Huskers instead of Cornhuskers? Is that really an improvement? I mean, at least with “corn” up front you know what exactly it is they’re husking . . . what’s a Husker on it’s own? How is that better?)
“Ooh, he’s so cute,” I said, pointing to the mascot.
“That’s Lil’ Red,” Mr. Nebraska’s friend Paula said.
“Lil’ Red?” I clarified.
“Yeah, like Lil Wayne,” she said.
“Except Lil’ Red hasn’t been to prison lately,” Mr. Nebraska added.
Paula and Matt walked back to the tailgate party area at halftime. Besides the giant flatscreen TV, they also had one of those big heater things you see on restaurant patios. They were going to go warm up and then come back. Mr. Nebraska was happy for the chance to get a word in. (Sorry, but if two women sit together during a football game, they’re going to chat. Paula was like an old friend and we chattered away.) So my actual date and I had an actual conversation during halftime. We talked about life and love and growing experiences and hopes for the future.
“I bet you haven’t had a conversation this deep during your trip,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it seems like on most first dates you don’t talk about marriage and kids and serious stuff like that.”
“You’d be surprised. Most of my dates on this trip have,” I told him. I thought about it for a moment or two. “I guess I’m probably a safe person to talk to. I mean, there’s no need to impress me, you know? I’m going to be driving away in an hour or two, so guys can tell me anything without worrying about whether or not they’ll get a second date.”
It hadn’t seemed unusual at the time, but maybe it was. Driving around the country, I’d heard guys talk about getting their hearts broken, losing their jobs, hoping for twins, and more. Maybe it was because they didn’t have to impress me, or maybe it was because deep down we all really want to be heard, and I was willing to listen.
Things were going great until the fourth quarter. I choked. Not in a “I didn’t know what to say” sense (come on, I could have a conversation with a tree) but in a very real, I can’t catch my breath, my eyes are watering, my nose is running, I might pass out if I don’t get some air in my lungs soon sense. And not on food. No, no. That might be normal. No, my body just decided to let me know that I didn’t have a cold. I, perhaps, had something a bit more serious. I couldn’t think about it right then, though, because I was coughing up a lung. And I had nowhere to go, really. The Huskers had a big lead, so lots of people were leaving. If I tried to go to the bathroom, it would take me ten minutes just to get down the ramp, and who knows if I’d ever find my group again. All I could do was lean back (the people behind us had already left, thankfully) so I wouldn’t be coughing in Mr. Nebraska and Paula’s faces.
“Are you okay?” my date asked. I kind of nodded. And continued to cough violently.
“Need something to drink?” Matt offered. But we had nothing. And the concession-hawking kids had stopped coming around early in the third quarter. I shook my head. I couldn’t even get enough breath to reassure them I’d be okay in a minute.
“Maybe she’d just like us to stop looking at her,” Paula said. Thank you, thank you, for a woman being present and understanding. I gave a weak thumbs up, then wiped away some tears.
I recovered eventually, but it kind of put a damper on the festivities. The game ended and we were carried along, down, down, down the ramp and out into the street. We headed back over to the tailgating area. The friends with the giant flat screen TV were still there, having watched the game in the parking lot. I personally would have watched the game from my warm living room, but I guess I just don’t understand the superfan concept. They were all so nice that I hated to be the first to leave, but I was honestly pretty much feeling like crap by that point. I needed some Nyquil and a pillow, stat. Mr. Nebraska took me back to my car. I thanked him for a fun date and apologized for nearly dying.
“Would’ve made a great story,” he suggested.
But not the kind of ending I’m hoping for.