LINCOLN — Before we start, let me sit down. I'm out of breath. I'm pale. I need to see a photo of my wife and kids.
Is this 2012? Or 1997?
For a minute there on Saturday, I thought I saw a ghost.
I thought I saw Tom Osborne jogging onto the field with the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Can a computer get the chills? The goosebumps ran down my forearms and into the keyboard.
I was there for the two-point try at Miami in 1984. Saw the 1994 win over Colorado. All three national championships.
But now I have a new favorite Tom Osborne image.
You knew something was up. You knew they would find a way to honor Osborne, in his last home game working for NU. This was his 500th home game as a Husker. Five hundred. More than anyone ever at Nebraska, Osborne is attached to that field, the field named after him, the field where he graced us with his presence for so long.
So here comes the Tunnel Walk. Sure enough, on the video screen, there's Osborne, leading the team out of the locker room with head coach Bo Pelini. Osborne wore a red hat and a red coaching jacket. It's 1973 all over again.
And then it happened.
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He actually ran out onto the field, leading the team out.
“It broke me when he came out of the tunnel,” said longtime assistant coach Ron Brown.
Brown wasn't alone. When Osborne started jogging, I got the chills. No cheering in the press box. But tears allowed Saturday.
There was that gait. That Osborne gait. Did you see it?
The coach always had a distinct way of running, straight up, chugging along, shifting that weight from leg to leg, the arms moving back and forth. You saw it as he led his teams out for 25 years. The handful of us who covered Husker practices saw it every day. After answering every last question, Osborne would take off on a jog around the field. Sometimes in the rain. Sometimes in the dark.
It was a day of big emotions. Senior Day, Osborne Day, parents and families and last goodbye hugs. Osborne's run was the eye of the emotional hurricane.
It was a day of fine tributes. On Nebraska's first offensive play, a toss sweep, the receivers lined up in three-point stances. There were countless video tributes, everyone from Jim Delany to Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez to Barry Switzer. But the opening jog stole the show.
Those old enough to remember Osborne the coach surely shed some tears when they saw that jog. It brought so much rushing back. You started to look for Tommie Frazier and Grant Wistrom.
For the generation who never knew the man, well, there you go. Find that puppy on YouTube and replay it. That's the classic Osborne, the man running out, chugging along, leading young men to victory.
For that, everyone should thank Bo Pelini.
“I asked Coach to do it,” Pelini said. “He was reluctant to do it. But it's the way it should be. It meant a lot to me and the football team. I think the fans wanted to see him walk out there one more time.”
Bravo, Bo. What a wonderful, perfect touch, a move that touched young and old, former players and current players who got a moment to savor.
It was a highlight reel come to life is what it was.
“I thought he was going to break away and get out of the way of the players,” said Jeff Jamrog, a former player for Osborne and now assistant athletic director. “But he kept going.”
Jamie Williams, another former Osborne player and also an assistant A.D., smiled at Jamrog's line and said, “I heard him say he just hoped Eric Martin didn't run him down.”
Over on one end of the interview area, assistant offensive line coach John Garrison, class of 2002, said, “It was awesome. I couldn't control my emotions. It was really like watching him when he was coaching, what it would have been like to play for him.”
On another end of the room, senior deep snapper P.J. Mangieri said, “It was a great experience to watch coach Osborne lead us out there. It gave you the feeling of what it would have been like to have played back then.”
Pretty eerie, huh? Pretty cool.
Osborne's Senior Day was the talk of Senior Day. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis overheard senior Cameron Meredith refer to Osborne as “Tom.” Papuchis laughed and said, “Did he just call him Tom?”
Brown made himself, and others, feel old with a funny story.
“I asked Ameer (Abdullah) and some of the other young guys what year they were born and they said 1993,” Brown said. “I told them, we were preparing to play for a national championship that year. I wonder how kids like that know about Nebraska. I think things like ESPN and the Big Ten Network help, showing those old games.”
These kids are showing how much they know about Nebraska football with every game they play.
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It's five in a row now, for those counting. They're almost there. The seniors, and this team, have two more wins left and then they can hoist a Big Ten championship flag.
Along the way, they've shown guts and a resiliency that is oh so familiar in a lot of ways. It has to be very familiar to the old jogger himself, who took several punches in his career and got off the mat swinging again.
What these Huskers are doing now is their own tribute to Osborne, and Nebraska football. It was what seniors like Will Compton and Rex Burkhead talked about before the season, the deep need to pave their way by honoring the past, notching their own history.
They're almost there.
“Resilient,” Papuchis said of this senior class. “No matter what has happened to them, they've come back swinging. There was the loss to Texas and they came back strong against Arizona. After last year's bowl game, we had our best offseason. They get beat by Ohio State and we see how they have responded.”
What a Senior Day we witnessed on Saturday. The end of one era, with Osborne walking off the field, his field, for the last time. And perhaps the return of a championship era, if these seniors can close.
The connection, Brown said, is no coincidence.
“Bo and Tom are very much alike, in spite of the very different ways they express themselves,” Brown said. “Core values. Family. Integrity. Discipline. Work ethic. Competitive spirit. They are very much alike.
“In some ways, because of that connection, the players are getting both Bo and Tom. They're getting the good stuff from both.”
Brown was standing against a wall outside the Husker locker room. People rushed to and fro, players and families. Osborne was long gone. He and wife Nancy didn't stop to talk to reporters after the halftime tribute. Osborne looked emotionally spent.
To this observer, down on the field at half, it appeared something Brown said to Osborne as they embraced jolted the coach.
“I told him 'thank you for taking a chance on me,'” Brown said. “Here was this 35-year-old coach from the Ivy League (Brown University). I'm a long shot, and he took a chance.
“I told him I love him and he's going to be missed.”
Brown stood there and talked for a good 20, 25 minutes about his mentor and colleague. His eyes were red and welled with water. His voice occasionally broke as he told story after story.
Of how Osborne's greatest trait was his grace and ability to forgive and forget anything. Why so many players and coaches wanted to win for him, Brown said. He always had your back.
Brown told this wonderful story about the team flying home after the UCLA loss two months ago. Brown said Osborne got up during the flight home and did something he used to do as a head coach.
“He walked up and down the plane and touched every one, on the head, shoulder, back, whatever,” Brown said. “He just touched them, patted them. Let them know things were going to be OK, things weren't out of control. They were going to come back.”
He talked about the loyalty, how Osborne had had offers from the NFL and other colleges, and always stayed, even with fans on his case. And now, finally, he was gone.
“I know he announced his retirement awhile back,” Brown said. “Reality kicked in today.”
You could see it on the faces of thousands of Nebraskans. Lot of tears, lot of lumps in throats, as Tom and Nancy waved and left the building.
It's 9:06 p.m. I'm looking down on Memorial Stadium. The lights are still on. I'm looking for that jogger, going around and around the field. He's not there.
Contact the writer:
402-444-1025, email@example.com; twitter.com/tomshatelOWH
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