NORMAN, Okla. — At the south end of Owen Field on Saturday, a few steps from where Johnny Rodgers crossed the goal line 50 years ago, two old titans shook hands.
“Go Big Red,” said Ray Hamilton, a 1971 all-Big Eight defensive tackle for Oklahoma.
“Go Big Red,” said Rich Glover, who recorded 22 tackles here on Thanksgiving Day ’71.
“This Big Red,” Hamilton bantered. “Not that Big Red. The real Big Red.”
The legends of the Game of the Century had just gathered at halftime, lined up and reveled in the cheers of the Oklahoma crowd, culminating a week of nostalgia for (arguably) college football’s greatest-ever game. Seeing crimson jerseys and scarlet pants on the same field still stirs the butterflies, no?
But Saturday wasn’t just a history lesson. Once the legends departed the field, the strangest thing happened. A reunion nearly became a revival — not only of a grand rivalry, but of Husker football itself.
Oklahoma-Nebraska will never be the same, but down here in the red dirt, the Sooners and Huskers staged a legitimate fight over the best “Big Red.”
When Adrian Martinez found Omar Manning for a 21-yard touchdown with 5:38 left, cutting the Sooner lead to 23-16, an earth-shaking, program-changing, narrative-defying upset seemed within Nebraska’s grasp.
For a few moments, Husker chants of “Go Big Red” drowned out the Sooner nail-biting and you couldn’t help but wonder if Glover and Rodgers had woken the old spirits. Not since Scott Frost beat Washington in 1997 had the Huskers played a Top 5 opponent on the road within a touchdown.
Ultimately, the Huskers couldn’t force a punt soon enough. Unlike 1971, they couldn’t mount a game-winning drive. They still need a difference-maker like Glover or Rodgers. But their effort — especially on defense — turned a potential humiliation (23-point underdogs!) into a potential turning point.
The hype for OU-NU began a week ago, but Frost didn’t really educate his players until Thursday night when he started taking them through his childhood memories. On Friday, the Husker legends rolled into Norman and met at Joe Washington’s cigar bar.
Quarterback Jerry Tagge greeted teammates he hasn’t seen in 50 years. The stories of Thanksgiving Day ’71 are a little “embellished,” Tagge said, but they still satisfy the soul, like turkey and mashed potatoes.
“The Game of the Century changed my life,” Tagge said. “We won the game and my life took this path. We’re still talking about it 50 years later. If we lost that game, where would I be? I certainly wouldn’t be here. Who knows what my destiny would be? Ninety-nine percent of everything anyone ever asks me is about this game.”
Two hours before kickoff, former OU coach Bob Stoops engaged in call-and-response with the partisan crowd.
“Boomer!” Stoops shouted from the stage of Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff show.
“Sooner!” the crowd responded.
“Texas!” Stoops hollered.
(On that point, Huskers and Sooners would most certainly agree.) Inside, fans with nose-bleed tickets circled the brick wall behind the team benches, hoping to absorb pre-game warmups.
There was a college-age Oklahoma fan wearing a white T-shirt, “Beat Nebraska like the good old days.” And a teenage boy wearing a vest and cowboy hat made of rattlesnake skin — in honor of OU quarterback Spencer Rattler. There was NBA standout and former Sooner Trae Young walking around in his backward OU hat.
There was Joe Martinez, a 41-year-old Husker fan from Childress, Texas, attending his first Husker game. He fell for the Huskers’ option offense in the ’90s — “I don’t know if I jumped on the bandwagon or what” — and stayed true all these years.
There was Tim Hamilton of Stromsburg, Nebraska, dressed in his crimson No. 7 jersey. Wait, what? That’s right, Hamilton grew up in the ’70s and ’80s — an hour from Memorial Stadium — cheering for Barry Switzer! (Blame his mother, who grew up in Boomer country.)
“I wanted Nebraska to win every game but one,” Hamilton said.
For all of his passion, the Oklahoma season-ticket holder had never been to an OU-NU showdown until Saturday.
“This game just gives me goosebumps,” said Hamilton, standing next to his spunky 9-year-old granddaughter, also wearing crimson. “This has been on my bucket list my entire life. I couldn’t sleep all week in anticipation.
“I tell you what, this game is gonna be closer than people think.”
Who believed him? Certainly not the college kids behind the Husker bench. To their generation, epic OU-NU battles are like old wives’ tales.
Noah Batson showed up Saturday largely because his parents told him to. “It’s a big game, an epic rivalry, you need to go see it.”
Next to him, Jacob Fires studied old NU-OU games on YouTube during the week to get ready for the Huskers. The small-town Oklahoman explained it like this: “It’s like when your family doesn’t like another family, even though you don’t know why. That’s how it is with Nebraska.”
“Sounds like the mafia,” Batson said.
On paper, Saturday’s game didn’t look like much of a street fight. But these aren’t the 2017 Blackshirts. They rattled Rattler Saturday, drawing praise from another famous former Blackshirt, Trev Alberts.
At halftime on the west concourse, the Nebraska athletic director hurried Rodgers and Glover through the crowd.
“I kinda had a Johnny Rodgers move right there,” said Alberts, dodging an OU fan. “I shuffled in traffic and I didn’t slow down.”
To Alberts, “everything comes rushing back” returning to Oklahoma. Frozen oranges on the turf. Option pitches down the sideline. Mickey Joseph breaking his leg against a bench on the cramped visiting sideline.
But ’71 is where Nebraska football — and the rivalry — reached mass consumption.
“These guys laid the foundation and created the expectation that we were all trying to live up to,” Alberts said. “(Oklahoma athletic director) Joe Castiglione said it (Friday) night. College football got created on this rivalry. Think about how many people grew up watching that game.”
As Alberts lined up for an elevator with NU President Ted Carter, Rodgers and Glover, Husker defensive coordinator Erik Chinander joined the scrum waiting to get back to his press-box perch. Tick ... tick ... tick. Chinander was getting antsy. How do you make halftime adjustments when you’re stuck waiting for an elevator?
Instead of grumble, Chinander spotted the author of 22 tackles and got his attention. “Rich.” Chinander didn’t have anything to say. He just shook Glover’s hand.
That’s the kind of respect you witnessed everywhere Saturday. And nobody, aside from maybe Lincoln Riley, wanted this reunion to end.
When the clock finally hit zeroes just after 2 p.m., the blazing sun had burned a few Nebraska cheeks but not their pride or memories.
“That was our bitter rival for so many years,” Frost said. “We’re trying to get back to that level. I think we showed today that we’re close. I root for Oklahoma every time they’re playing, unless they’re playing us.”
One of the last Huskers to exit this legendary field was JoJo Domann. The grass-stained senior recorded 12 tackles, 10 fewer tackles than Glover in ’71 but still remarkable. Before reaching the south end zone, the linebacker turned back for one final look at Oklahoma-Nebraska. Like all of us, he wanted to soak up the scene a little bit longer.
Domann said it perfectly.
“That’s why we play.”