The phone rang far too early for a Saturday morning.
Whoever was on the other end of the line was calling with something urgent.
After a couple of tense rings, my mother answered and walked out of the kitchen (and earshot) in one continuous motion. The phone’s cord crinkled and snapped as it untangled itself and stretched behind her.
With Caller ID still an innovation of the far off future, I had no idea who she was speaking to. The over-sized ears my head had yet to grow into were no help. All they could make out were muffled responses that were short and to the point.
After what seemed like forever, my mom returned the kitchen. Her palm smothered the phone’s handset.
Whatever she was about to say was going to be important.
“Your dad wants to know if he can take you to the Husker game today. I told him I’d ask you.”
My brain could barely processes what it was hearing.
You told him you’d ask me? Why, that’s more ridiculous than asking someone if they’d like to have a winning lottery ticket.
I jumped out of my seat at the kitchen table so fast I knocked over my box of Apple Jacks and got to the phone before any skipped across the floor. I yanked it from my mom’s hand with more commitment than a purse snatcher and escaped to the privacy of my bedroom.
“Are you serious?”
“I’d love to go.”
“Of course I’ll wear red.”
“See you soon.”
In the span of 30 seconds, maybe a minute tops, my life had changed. After 12 long years of watching from afar, I was finally going in. I was suddenly mere hours away from joining the Sea of Red.
In my dad’s hierarchy of recreation, going to Husker games was at the very top. Sure, we watched and listened to a lot of games during eight years of sporadic weekend visits but they were all road games. If the Huskers were playing in Lincoln, he was there. The closest I would get to Memorial Stadium would be rescuing a weeks-old program from its new life as a drink coaster or a getting a Herbie Husker t-shirt that I had outgrown by the time he remembered to give it to me.
According to Google, it is a 14 minute, 9.1 mile drive from our old house in Grand Island to the exotic rendezvous point at the parking lot of the hotel formerly known at the Interstate Holiday Inn.
We might as well have been traveling to the other side of the Earth.
I spent the drive anxiously checking my digital Timex and fighting the urge to get out and run. There was no way we could be late.
We pulled in with five minutes to spare.
An hour and a half later, my mother made the painfully obvious observation that it doesn’t take that long to drive over from Kearney.
“Maybe he forgot the tickets and had to go back,” I offered as a perfectly reasonable explanation. Making excuses for the guy came easy, especially when it came to matters of punctuality.
A few minutes later, a big red Cadillac Coupe de Ville glided up next to us.
My dad had finally arrived and there he was in all his glory, hanging out the passenger side door.
“Gooooooooo Biiiiiiiiiiiiig Red!” he yelled.
It was still morning and he was already drunk.
My mom looked over to me, shrugged, and told me to have a good time.
What can I say? It was the 80s.
And before you get all indignant, my mom did check to make sure my dad’s latest girlfriend wasn’t drinking while behind the wheel.
I jumped in and she punched it. Riding in the back with me was one of my dad’s buddies who I’d never met before. He was grandpa old and was apparently a legend in the world of horse racing- my dad’s second favorite past time.
Dad’s new squeeze was a school teacher, a detail that sent my head spinning. If teachers were supposed to be boring, this one broke the mold. We flew down I-80, slowing just long enough for my dad to flirt with a carload of girls bound for the game and hand them a few beers at 60 miles per hour.
Our only pit stop was when a Nebraska State Trooper decided the teacher was going a little too fast. She was written up for speeding we were on our way. Back then, it was way out of the trooper’s jurisdiction to even suggest that we put on our seat belts or that drinking while in a moving vehicle probably wasn’t the best idea.
Not long after the capitol came into view, we arrived at one of Bob Kerrey’s restaurants. I’m pretty sure it had a name but it will be forever seared into my head as Bob Kerrey’s because that’s all my dad was talking about on our final approach into Lincoln.
“We’re going to Bob Kerrey’s restaurant. Before he became governor, he was a pharmacist just like me. I’ve met him before. Wait until you try the onion rings.”
But there was no time for onion rings. Kickoff wasn’t far away so we immediately boarded a shuttle bus and headed for the cathedral that is Memorial Stadium.
It was an incredible sight. I’d never seen it up close and I was in awe to be standing in its shadow. The buzz outside the stadium was off the charts and the band was already rocking on the inside. We’re talking total sensory overload.
Suddenly, my dad spoke with more confidence than the world’s best ketchup popsicle salesman.
“We’ll meet back here right after the game. Remember this spot.”
He quickly dispersed the tickets. He and the horse racing legend would be over in the East Stadium straddling the 50 yard line. Meanwhile, the teacher and I were cast off to the South Stadium, 90 or so rows up.
My dad was taking me to my very first Husker game and the guy wasn’t even going to sit with me, or the woman he was dating.
This came as a bit of a surprise but before a word could be said in protest, he and the horse racing legend vanished into the crowd.
There wasn’t much we could do other than go find our seats. Looking back, I’m glad I was too young to fully realize the awkwardness of the situation. It had to be as subtle as getting blindsided by Broderick Thomas who was somewhere down on there among all the tiny red specks dotting the AstroTurf.
The teacher and I made the best of it up in the stratosphere. Luckily, my mom knew well enough to give me some money just in case which spared the embarrassment of asking a one day acquaintance for a small loan to buy a Runza and warm Coke.
Once the game got going, a fan next to us let me look through his binoculars and pointed out Steve Taylor, Ken Clark, Dana Brinson, and even Tom Osborne as he roamed the sideline. These were guys I’d only ever heard about and saw on TV and there they were barely a quarter mile away. The teacher used the binoculars to spot her parents in her family’s longtime seats in the West Stadium. When I suggested we go over and say hello at halftime, she politely declined.
I can’t imagine why.
Utah State was no match for Nebraska. The game quickly turned into a rout and the Huskers scored just about every time they touched the ball. By the fourth quarter, enough fans had cleared out that we moved close enough to the action to hear Mickey Joseph bark out orders when he came in for mop up duty.
After the final whistle, we made our way back to the rally point. It had been a long game but I couldn’t wait to talk about it with my dad.
There was just one problem.
He and the horse racing legend were nowhere to be found. We waited as long as we could and before we had no choice but to take the last shuttle back to Bob Kerrey’s place.
Before grabbing her car to continue the search, we popped in to use the restroom. We were barely inside when a familiar voice yelled out.
“There you are. Finally!”
It was my dad. He and the horse racing legend were kicking it in a booth. The table was littered with food and they clung to their Bloody Marys as if they were the only thing that could keep them marginally upright.
“Where were you?” the teacher asked. “We waited until the last bus and never saw you.”
“The game was in the bag so we thought we’d beat the crowd getting out. We’ve been here since halftime. I can’t believe you stayed all the way to the end.”
Somehow, someway, the teacher kept it together and didn’t blow a fuse. The rage was there, and justifiably so, but she kept it in check. Maybe years of teaching gave her superhuman powers or perhaps she just knew it was futile to argue with someone who no longer had enough motor skill to eat an onion ring.
They were delicious by the way.
Even crawling at the speed limit, the ride home was quick. My dad and the horse racing legend both passed out the moment they got in the car and melted into the velour seats. The teacher and I made small talk about what was in-store for our respective school weeks but otherwise we kept the chatter to minimum.
Grand Island was a small enough town that I was able to guide her back to our house no problem. When she brought the Caddy to a stop in front of it, my dad snapped awake.
“I had a great time today, champ. We’ll go again soon.”
I climbed out of the car and looked back at him as he pulled the door shut. He reached deep into his pocket and dug out a crumpled twenty- his universal signal for ‘don’t tell your mom what really happened.’
I grabbed it and ran towards our house. The porch light flipped on before I reached the sidewalk.
We never made it back for another game.
Dads, you only get one chance to take your kid to their first Husker game. Don’t mess it up.