Twelve hours before the season starts, a Nebraska dental student sleeps outside Memorial Stadium on a bed of wood chips.
Well, sort of. There's actually a Husker sleeping bag between Paul Favela and the ground — Lil' Red's big head is his pillow.
It's 7 a.m., and the UNL campus is quiet. Stoplights cycle through without a single car. A feral cat wanders the sidewalks. The sun wakes up just before Favela, who doesn't claim to be your average Husker fan.
He grew up in south Texas, earned a scholarship to UNL and headed north. He's always been a big college football fan, even though he stunk as a player.
“I was a long-distance runner. If football fields were like two miles long by one mile wide, I think I'd be a lot better — maybe by the third quarter when everyone was tired.”
When Favela arrived in Lincoln, he had a choice — embrace the Nebraska culture or fight it. Soon he and a few buddies were showing up before home games at 1 or 2 a.m., assuring their spot in the front row.
“It's easier to get up off the ground than it is to get out of bed,” Favela says.
He wears double-flip sunglasses and a moustache that he waxes and curls into handle bars. Next to him is a plastic bag with a white Sombrero, a red sport coat, a fake corn cob that functions as a seat cushion, real corn ears he slides into his black vest like grenades and, of course, a toothbrush.
“I have an endless supply,” he says.
For many, the 12 hours before a Husker season run like clockwork. Every routine — every movement — is etched in their long-term memories. For others, game day is a new beginning.
You'll experience both on this day. You'll meet an Italian belly dancer, a man who installed kegs in his ambulance, a scalper covered in tattoos, a 73-year-old parking attendant, an 86-year-old event staffer, even a coach's wife.
At 7:40, most of Husker Nation is still sleeping. The sun dips behind the clouds and a few sprinkles dot the concrete. Michael Murphy and his family jog by Favela's sleeping bag, stopping at the new entrance to East Stadium.
Murphy lives in Indianapolis, but for the second straight year, he brought back his wife and four girls — ages 6, 9, 11 and 13 — to the season opener. A new family tradition, he says. Last year, his oldest even wrote an English paper about the trip (making note of the helium balloon shortage).
“It's a passion that draws you back,” Michael says. “It's part of you no matter where you go.”
Friday night, they stayed at the Embassy Suites downtown. At dawn Saturday, they put on their running shoes and headed north. With a new arena and a stadium expansion, the place has changed a lot in 12 months.
“Who's that,” says wife Brenda, looking at the bronze statue.
“Bob Devaney,” Michael says. “The coach before Tom Osborne who won two national championships.”
Forgive her. She went to Ohio State.
“I'm trying to help her appreciate Husker tradition,” Michael says. “It's hard to convert a Buckeye.”
The northeast gate of Memorial Stadium is wide open.
Fifty-six paces forward, your feet hit the brand new FieldTurf. Walk out to the 50-yard line, where thousands of moths are bouncing off the turf. Listen to the sound of silence.
Eleven hours from now, this place will be packed with 92,000 people. But right now, it's a ghost town. Nobody in sight. Extraordinary.
Steve Torske, building and grounds supervisor, appears, pushing a cart behind the west sideline. He's had a long weekend already. Here last night 'til 11. Slated to be here 'til 3 a.m., Sunday cleaning up.
Torske is fighting a bug; his voice is scratchy. The Adidas tennis shoe on his right foot has a hole. His shorts are torn at the bottom. And he's a bit anxious, not just because of the heat, but the stadium expansion.
Think of all the new toilets and lights. Think of all the bottlenecks. All the fans on the south, north and west sides who will try to visit the east addition. People move slower when they don't know where they're going. Oh boy.
“The old girl is gonna kick today,” Torske says. “She's not happy. She has a new facelift and she doesn't know if she likes it.”
On R Street, just west of the union, a parking attendant cooks breakfast on a grill. Egg sandwiches.
Robert Bray has been gatekeeper to the administration lot since 1997. He's not good with names of chancellors and regents. But he doesn't forget a face.
It's not a bad gig — if you're patient. Eight bucks an hour and two tickets to the game. Of course, Bray can't abandon his post until kickoff. He tried one time — the 2003 Penn State game — and got caught. It's the only time he's seen the Tunnel Walk in 16 years.
“We can usually hear it,” he says.
Who's “we?” Bray's 73-year-old mother handles the parking lot across the street. They'll spend 12 hours today 50 yards apart. Twyla is sitting barefoot under a green awning, reading her papers and holding her cane.
She records every Husker game on her VCR. “I keep taping over it until the darn thing wears out,” she says.
Her love for the job, however, isn't what it used to be.
A year ago, the university tore down the frat house on the corner and turned her post into another administration lot. She used to fill her 32 spots by lunchtime. Now she only gets 12-15 cars all day in a lot with 50 spaces. None show up 'til late-afternoon.
She misses the red and black Lincoln with the Husker flags — that family always took the first spot. She misses the couple in the corner who tailgated every week. And, of course, she misses the guy who drove the blue dune buggy.
“He had one of those 'Uga-uga' horns. Like a Model A.”
Moments later, a woman pulls into Twyla's lot hoping to park and walk to the farmer's market. Sorry, Twyla says.
“It's just for the chancellor's guests.”
“I NEED TICKETS”
The 41-year-old man with tattoos down both arms holds a sign that says it all. He's scalping tickets on Q Street. We'll call him Joe — he doesn't want his name in the paper.
Joe makes money on game day flipping tickets. Buying low, selling high. But he isn't like those guys who come from out of town and get rude, he says. He's a Husker through and through. And he's not out to make a fortune — he owns a tattoo business.
“Believe it or not, I do have a conscience,” he says.
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So why is standing here mid-morning while the streets are mostly quiet? Because growing up, Joe's father was a parking attendant for the administration lot. The Lincoln mayor used to play catch with him every Saturday.
Dad made $25 and received two tickets. Walking to the stadium one day, Joe was offered $25 for his ticket. What do you wanna do, his dad said.
Joe accepted the $25, walked to the bookstore and bought a No. 22 jersey — Doug DuBose. His favorite player.
Almost 30 years later, the jersey hangs in a frame in his hallway. From that day on, he scalped tickets, a violation the Lincoln police usually don't enforce.
The past few years, he's found it's hard to get face value for any ticket. But no matter how low the demand, there's still money to be made.
A woman pulls into a parking stall in front of Joe and — after a little bargaining — he agrees to buy two tickets in North Stadium for $112. Face value. Five minutes later, a Husker fan from Texas approaches. Joe sells the exact same tickets for $200.
Enough to buy a new jersey, if he wants it.
The sun is blasting. The moths are gone. So is the Wyoming football team.
The Cowboys stopped by Memorial Stadium for a quick walk-through. Into the locker room, across the field, that's it. Just something to break up the long day.
Their departure makes way for the Nebraska marching band, which looks a lot different out of uniform.
Rehearsal starts at 11:30, but the drummers are here early, stretching and doing push-ups in the end zone. Shirtless trombone players, almost 15 of them, share a football along the east sideline. One goes deep, then another — the spirals aren't quite as tight as Taylor Martinez's.
About 100 band parents sit in the West Stadium, baking in the sun. At 11:30, the 290-member band spreads across the field in neat lines. They stretch. Before their instruments make a sound, Doug Bush, assistant director of bands, runs them through the fundamentals.
“You never know when someone is going to photograph your section or you personally,” Bush says over the microphone. “Posture is important.”
Behind him on the sideline, an 18-year-old in a red Nebraska T-shirt twirls a baton. Morgan Miller, who moved to Lincoln 15 days ago, is from a town of about 500 in Pennsylvania.
The biggest crowd to ever see her twirl? Take a guess.
Time for food.
Enter the West Stadium, open the steel double-doors behind the elevators, head north down the hallway until you run into 35,000 hot dog buns.
This is concessions headquarters, orchestrated by Rox Rasmussen and Janell Hall. This is where the kids who hock candy, peanuts and popcorn start their day — and return when they run out of grub. Same for balloons and programs — see the 3,000 souvenir books in the corner.
The only football Rasmussen will see is on two old TVs, mounted on the walls.
“My whole job is troubleshooting,” she says.
She coordinates staff and assignments. She makes sure the 1,300 people working concessions have what they need. When the sweet-tooths in South Stadium eat all the Skittles, one of nine stockers should be there with more.
Back to those hot dogs, though. Rasmussen estimates selling about 22,000 tonight. So why 35,000 buns?
Because it's better to be safe than hungry.
Across the street, a 5-year-old boy is grumpy.
Last fall, while his dad was finishing a three-year Army deployment in Europe, Eli Schrock spent Saturdays with his grandpa. That's how he became a Husker fan. Actually, that's not quite specific enough.
“He got into football watching Rex Burkhead,” his mom, Melissa, says.
For Christmas, Eli got a No. 22 jersey. A few months later, he was told Rex was no longer a Husker. He's still not over it.
But he did go to the Spring Game. And Saturday afternoon, the same day Burkhead made the Bengals' 53-man roster, Eli is preparing for his first real game. Just before 2, he walks out of Huskers Authentic with a new gray “N” hat on his head.
His dad, walking next to him, is wearing one just like it.
The Italian woman sits in the shade outside the Lied Center, scribbling in her notebook. It's an assignment for her composition class.
Where does Mary De Luca's story begin? Three years ago, she met an American man in Cairo, Egypt, where she trained and worked as a belly dancer. They fell in love and, over the next two years, took romantic vacations to Rome, Amsterdam, London.
Then Glenn Williams returned to his native America, landing at UNL a year ago as a finance professor. Mary moved here two months ago. Soon they'll be married.
She's still learning the language — and the customs. She got her Memorial Stadium introduction on a Nebraska visit last November — “It was freezing cold” — but it's still strange to see all the red.
Americans are much more individualistic than Italians, she says. They don't have tight extended families. They don't go to dinner in groups.
Husker football, Mary discovered, is the exception. Football fan bases are America's version of tribes. Game day is their expression of community.
Her fiance pulls up in a car. Williams isn't new to college football — he went to school in SEC country — but he sees something different at Nebraska. Civility.
“It's not so much of a drunken brawl here.”
Civilized? Depends where you look, Professor.
Across 10th Street, beneath the interstate overpass, the party is cranking. Grills are smoking. Beer is flowing. Music is blaring. In the middle of everything, there's an ambulance topped with a giant inflatable Bud Light bottle.
“The Big Red Meat Wagon.”
Eight years ago, Rick Schroeder and a few buddies had an American dream to build Nebraska's ultimate tailgating machine. Could they mount a grill on a trailer? How 'bout coolers and chairs?
Why not just buy a bread truck? Or a school bus?
Finally, destiny intervened. Schroeder's dad suggested an ambulance. They found the perfect one — a 1983 model with 26,000 miles — in the weeds behind a Lincoln car lot.
They tailored it to hold three kegs — the “kegzilla,” Schroeder says. Added red carpet. Mounted a TV on the outside, which showed Johnny Manziel Saturday afternoon. Courted ex-Huskers to sign the ceiling.
The best part? The Big Red Meat Wagon has inspired half a dozen more Husker-themed ambulances under the overpass.
Schroeder's is likely the only one, though, where you can lay on a red and black stretcher and drink alcohol from an IV bag.
A mile southeast, a state trooper pulls his bus away from the Cornhusker hotel with half the Husker football team.
Ken Dahlke works part-time at Arrow Stage Lines. Seven years ago, he got an assignment to pick up a team on a Friday night. He assumed it was a high school team.
Turned out, it was Nebraska. He's been escorting the Huskers ever since. Dahlke picks up the team at the airport after road trips — usually at 3 or 4 a.m. On home weekends, he drives the Huskers to the movie theater on Friday night. And to the stadium 2-3 hours before Saturday's kickoff.
He follows a police escort down 10th Street, wraps around the north side of the stadium and enters the east horseshoe, passing thousands of fans who see the red bus and go a bit crazy. Does Dahlke ever honk at them?
“Just to get them out of the way,” he says.
Players and coaches are focused inside the bus. But defensive coordinator John Papuchis does reserve a few minutes to call his wife. It's his own little tradition.
By 4:40, Billie Papuchis is in space 14 in the North Stadium lot, surrounded by five family members — her three kids are home with a babysitter. During the season, Billie doesn't see John much, especially on weekends.
He skips the Friday night movie and comes home for 45-50 minutes. That's it until after the game Saturday.
But John Papuchis is a man of strict routine. “O.C.D.,” Billie's sister says. Which means on the way home — every time — Billie will call the sitter and ask her to take the Target tray of chicken wings from the fridge and put 'em in the oven.
John likes the hot ones.
Dick Stansbury waits for showtime in the north tunnel. He's been working game days at Memorial Stadium since 1964. Fifty years!
“I don't look my age,” Stansbury says. “I'm 86.”
In the mid-'60s, he directed Pontiacs and Chevys into parking lots. Then he chased drunks in the bleachers. In 1969, he joined the chain gang for freshman games. You know who was a freshman?
“Johnny Rodgers,” Stansbury says. “He was awesome.”
In '85, he graduated to varsity chain gang. He moved to sideline security for a while. Now he has a job that puts him in the spotlight. If he screws it up, 92,000 people will notice. It's an adrenaline rush.
“You go down there and you're kinda tired,” he says. “When you hit that field, there's the energy.”
Within the hour, the stadium gates open. And the east balcony welcomes its first four residents. When they reach the top, more than 150 feet up, Timothy and James Peoples are in awe.
“This is cool,” Timothy says.
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He and his brother are 8-year-old twins from Louisville, Neb. Correction: “Almost 9,” Timothy says. Grandpa had season tickets in row 99 of the South Stadium last year. These are one step from the tallest row in the whole stadium.
“It's not bad for $1,500, I guess,” Grandpa says.
“Worth every penny,” says his son, Ken.
The twins are focused on the field for about 3 minutes. Then they spot an exotic animal behind them, in the absolute top row.
Let's go get something to eat, Grandpa says.
The largest crowd ever to see Morgan Miller twirl a baton? About 1,000 — that was at a Friday night high school game.
Right now, as she and senior twirler Rachel Foehlinger lead the band into the stadium, the crowd is probably 90,000 — and growing by the minute.
This is Miller's dream. She's been twirling since she was 5 and wanted to attend a Big Ten school. But twirling scholarships aren't easy to find. She walked on at Nebraska, without any connections to the state.
“I came out here all by myself,” she says.
The band kicks off “There Is No Place Like Nebraska” and Miller tosses the baton. Like a jazz player, she improvises most of her routine. She starts conservatively.
But by “Mr. Touchdown U.S.A.,” she's showing off for South Stadium. Neck rolls. Elbow pops. She kicks the baton into the air with her foot. She throws it, does a cartwheel and catches. He juggles three at a time.
She finishes pre-game with just one drop. Good enough to make her want to come back next Saturday.
“I can't even put it into words,” she says later.
Just before 7 p.m., Miller and the marching band form their perfect lines for a moment Husker fans have waited nine months to see — the Tunnel Walk. The first bass note rumbles through North Stadium. The video board shows highlights of Huskers past.
The Italian woman and the finance professor are home — they'll check the score later. The bus driver is watching on TV. The jogger from Indy is with his oldest daughter in North Stadium, row 78. The dental student with the Lil' Red sleeping bag is front row East Stadium, a sombrero on his head, his moustache perfectly curled.
Just before the big screen flashes to the glass barrier separating the Husker locker room from the red-carpeted tunnel — the moment before the roar — 86-year-old Dick Stansbury fulfills his game day duty.
He opens the door.
* * *
Video: Rich Kaipust breaks down NU's win over Wyoming:
Video: Nebraska fans enter Memorial Stadium: