Cornhuskers in the City of Roses, Oregon

Between September and December, if you stop into The Refectory in Northeast Portland on a Saturday morning you will most likely be seeing red – Nebraska Cornhusker red.

The organization called “Oregonians for Nebraska” has met for the past six years at The Refectory. Prior to that, they met at Claudia’s on Hawthorne, but the group became too large for the venue.

A Nebraska fan named Steve (whose dog is even named Husker) attends every “watch party.” He invited me to experience the culture of transplanted Nebraskans. He gave me a ride to the watch party, and I noticed a color dominating his life. He owns a red truck and his wife drives a red Volkswagon beetle.

When we arrived at The Refectory, almost half of the cars in the parking lot were red, and most vehicles had a bumper sticker that blared, “GO BIG RED!” The splashes of Husker paraphernalia were everywhere. At least I wore a red t-shirt, which apparently passed for admission into the lair of Husker fans. Steve urged me to hurry up so that I could get to the breakfast buffet and back to my seat before kickoff against Pitt.

A DJ struck up the Nebraska fight song and everyone in The Refectory began to sing, except for me. Before kickoff, the fight song played three additional times, and many more times during the game. By the fourth quarter, I knew the lyrics to both “Hail Varsity” and “There’s no place like Nebraska.”

Steve assured me, “You picked a good game to watch because Pittsburgh shouldn’t be that tough.” The players lined up for kickoff. The crowd in the bar cheered as if they were in the grandstand at Pittsburgh instead of three time zones away. I was drawn into the fold, and my hashbrowns became cold.

The “Oregonians for Nebraska” is just one of hundreds of organized Cornhusker fan clubs around the nation. Every state has an enclave of Nebraskans that gather during college football season. For example, there is the “Alaskan Nebraskans” and the “Arizonans for Nebraska.” California has three clubs: the “Bay Area Nebraskan Alumni Association,” the “Californians for Nebraska” and the “Northern Californians for Nebraska.” And expect the clubs to be around for a long time; the “Oregonians for Nebraska” schedules watch parties three years in advance (www.or4ne.com).

Thus, Cornhusker fans seem to have an embassy in every state. Nearly every major city in the U.S. has proof of what might be called the “Nebraskan Diaspora,” of a migration from the middle of the country to every edge.

This level of dedication encouraged me to find out if my own alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, had such clubs, but I found far fewer groups dedicated to Badgers. I asked Steve why Nebraska fans stick together so well.

“In Nebraska, the Cornhuskers are the professional sports team. We don’t have major league baseball or NFL, so without different teams to focus on, everyone who is a sports fan in Nebraska tends to watch football. And it’s even in the song, remember? ‘We’ll all stick together, in all kinds of weather, for dear old Nebraska U!'”

Yes, the song. Before I knew it, the song was playing again. “There’s no place like Nebraska, where the girls are the fairest, the boys are the squarest…” One more time and I could sing it without the cued music.

At halftime, Steve and the others around me grumbled. Nebraska has not had such an easy time with Pittsburgh after all, and the score is close.

“It’s this new West Coast offense,” said Steve, speaking as if the words, “West Coast,” were painful for him to associate with Nebraska football, referring to the implementation of a run-and-shoot offense by new coach Bill Callahan, former NFL head coach of the Oakland Raiders.

“Nebraska has been a running team since the beginning of time. Now we have a new coach and a green quarterback and all that tradition is being tossed away.”

Quarterback Joe Dailey is a first year starter and has the added pressure of selling the non-traditional offense to the Husker faithful.

Another man at my table said, “If Callahan could just call the offense something else. Like maybe ‘The North Platte offense,’ then I think I could get used to it. But Nebraska and West Coast are like a square peg and a round hole.”

On the screen flashes a picture of legendary coach Tom Osborne who led the Cornhuskers to three National Championships. The crowd, attentive even at halftime, cheers wildly merely on sight of Osborne, who is now serving as a U.S. Congressman for the state of Nebraska. Another picture flashes on the screen of Frank Solich, Osborne’s successor. The crowd cheers a little less for Solich. Lastly, a picture of Bill Callahan takes over the screen, and there is no cheering. Callahan has big shoes to fill.

“Callahan is still in his first season so we have to give him some slack,” Steve says. “But he had better be able to get things on track quickly.”

Before halftime ends, I realize that if I am going to talk about anything other than the game, now is the time.

So what is it about Nebraska that is so special?

One man says, “It’s the people. You can talk to anyone and they will be on the same page. Being here with fellow Nebraskans feels like home. It’s not quite the same here in Oregon where you have a broader mix coming from so many different places and backgrounds.”

Steve says, “We will always love Nebraska, but our lives are here now. In terms of places to go, there really is a lot more to do here in Portland than back home. The longer I am in the Pacific Northwest, I love living here. But during football season I wish I was in Lincoln.”

They go on talking about their home state and recite a list of famous people who grew up there. Johnny Carson, Buffalo Bill, the ‘sage of Omaha’ Warren Buffett, Henry Fonda.

“Did you know that Andy Roddick is from Nebraska? Number one tennis player in the world.”

I know now, and I won’t forget it.

The game resumes with Nebraska maintaining the lead, but the game is close. I find myself getting caught up in the game right alongside the others around me. The air becomes electric when the defense needs to make a big stop or the offense has a third down and short yardage.

Late in the game, Joe Dailey throws an interception that is returned for a Pitt touchdown. The grumbling around me indicates that the game is much closer than the fans expected. Pitt has one more chance to win the game, but in the end the famed Nebraska ‘Blackshirts’ defense holds out and the Cornhuskers win, 24-17.

I get the feeling the crowd is less happy than simply relieved about the win. Being accustomed to Cornhusker dominance, Steve laughs nervously. “That was way too close.”

The crowd files out of the bar, most of them still talking about the game or discussing next Saturday’s watch party. Steve invites me to the watch party – the big one – the Oklahoma game on October 29th. I promise that I will try to make it.

As I get in my car I realize that I am humming “There’s no place like Nebraska” and quickly turn on the radio to hear something else, concerned that the song is just the first step toward Cornhusker addiction.

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