Huskers fever burns throughout Nebraska
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Every year, the Nebraska football team sends a poster of its seniors to the state's high schools -- those in the north, the south, the east and the west, like tiny Wauneta-Palisade. Tonight, Wauneta-Palisade will play in the six-man football state championship.
The team's young men have come across that poster in their locker room every day. They can look at it and see one of their own: walk-on Nebraska wide receiver Taylor Dixon. He graduated from the school in 2009.
"It was always a dream of Taylor's to play at Nebraska," said Wauneta-Palisade coach Randy Geier.
Nebraska football is like nothing else, and the first half of that sentence would come across as pretentious if it weren't true. When Penn State travels to play the Cornhuskers on Saturday, it will encounter an unconditional love not from an alumni base or a city or a section of a state, as is the case for most sports teams. It will encounter devotion from an entire state, one that covers 77,000 square miles and whose populace feels as much a part of the team as anyone on the roster or staff.
Most people don't understand. Pittsburgh lawyer Robb Bunde knows this. He earned his bachelor's degree at Nebraska in 1987 and his J.D. in 1990. He moved to Pittsburgh afterward.
He said Steelers Nation comes close to matching the passion, but, being fans of a pro team, the fans get too cynical and, being a Pittsburgh diversion, the widespread adoration for Nebraska as the lone big show in the state isn't matched.
"It's just so ingrained in the culture for Nebraska that Saturdays are for football," Bunde said. "They are for the Huskers. You can't get married in the fall for a home game because nobody will come to the wedding."
So, how to best explain? For starters, remember this about Taylor Dixon: No one in his family attended the University of Nebraska or had any real ties to the school in any form, and he grew up in Wauneta, population 650-ish.
The town was small but not Burr, Neb., small. Now that's small. Nestled 50 miles southeast of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Burr is home to 60 people on a good day. It is where Dean Steinkuhler grew up.
Steinkuhler's name is known to hard-core football fans as an Outland Trophy winner and No. 2 overall pick in the 1984 NFL draft. In Nebraska, his name is royalty.
He went to Sterling High School. His senior year, the eight-man football team struggled, and Steinkuhler wasn't even named first-team all conference. Still, coach Tom Osborne and the Nebraska staff had seen enough of the stringy teenager at its summer camp to offer a scholarship.
It was a typical Osborne move. He coached from 1973-97 and scraped the far corners of the state for talent.
These villages and towns lived Huskers football. Bunde grew up in the eastern part of the state. Geier grew up on the far western side of the state. Each one recounted the story of hearing radios tuned into the Huskers every Saturday, from the garages where parents worked to the backyards where the kids played football.
"It's kind of an incredible experience," Geier said. "It's hard to describe."
Times changed earlier this decade. The love was still there. Most of Dixon's family vacations were 41/2-hour drives to Lincoln for Huskers games. The stadium continued to sell out.
But the communal aspect had declined. Former coach Bill Callahan reduced the local recruiting and the walk-on program, and the small towns lost a crucial connection to the team.
When coach Bo Pelini took over, he pledged to reinvigorate the promise that had long ago been made to the kids from inside the state. He would find a place for someone like Dixon.
Dixon impressed the staff at summer camps with his athleticism and speed and with his toughness. When he broke his hand his junior year of high school, he switched from quarterback to running back so he could still play.
Dixon, a redshirt junior, played as a reserve in his first game last year. In front of a large contingent of family and friends against Idaho State this season, he played several snaps.
Sometimes the small town boys develop into stars. Offensive guard Spencer Long walked-on out of Elkhorn and was named a candidate for the Outland Trophy this summer. Other times, they practice hard for five years and contribute on special teams. Either way, the Nebraskans don't forget.
They know that they'll always be able to point at the team and see one of them, a Taylor Dixon from a tiny town who played football for his community and dreamed. And Dixon will feel the attention from all around the state, from the people just like him.
"It just gives you that much more motivation and that much more incentive to go and do your best to work hard," he said. "You have so many people watching you, having your back no matter what happens. There's always somebody that's there who cares about you."
First Published November 9, 2012 12:00 am