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Husker fans may be disappointed, but Nebraska still stirs excitement in its opponents

Husker fans may be disappointed, but Nebraska still stirs excitement in its opponents

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Husker fans can’t believe their team lost to Illinois with a backup quarterback. But zoom out. Move about 1,500 miles east. Fordham fans are thrilled to be playing Nebraska. “They were legendary."

Sam keeps it simple and optimistic for his three keys for the Huskers against an FCS opponent.

LINCOLN — Here, where the city revolves around its football team, people are panicking.

They can’t believe their team lost to Illinois — with a backup quarterback. They hate watching one of the state’s heroes struggle to revive the program. The national championship celebrations have never seemed so long ago.

Zoom out. About 1,500 miles east, where the football team is merely a subsect of the city's vast culture, the people are thrilled.

They’ve never seen football in a stadium so large. They’ve rarely shared the field with a powerhouse. The hero from 1997 is standing right there on the sideline, and he doesn’t look so old.

Nebraska might not be Nebraska at the moment, but its football program still carries cache in the Bronx, where Fordham Athletic Director Ed Kull hasn't heard a single person mention Adrian Martinez’s turnover problem, Scott Frost’s record in close games or Nebraska’s 24-year drought.

“Nobody has been saying, ‘Oh, wow, it’s been awhile since (Nebraska) has won a national championship,’” Kull said. “I know that’s your world on a daily basis. That’s none of the feedback I’ve gotten.”

Many Fordham fans remember Nebraska like Kull does: Dominant, high-scoring, historic. The Huskers won two national championships during Kull’s teenage years, including the Frost-led title that culminated with a 42-17 drubbing of Tennessee.

Fordham coach Joe Conlin, who played on Pittsburgh’s defensive line during the late ’90s and early 2000s, remembers the Blackshirts, the Peter brothers, Tommie Frazier.

“They were legendary,” Conlin said. “They were right up there with Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama in terms of historically significant college football programs.”

But just as Conlin graduated from Pitt in 2002, Husker football started to slip. After Frank Solich won 11 games in 2001 — the Huskers' seventh 11-win season in nine years — they haven't met that threshold since.

Husker fans know the story too well. Solich got fired. Bill Callahan and Mike Riley peaked at nine wins. Bo Pelini peaked at 10 — and not nearly enough big ones.

By the time Fordham linebacker James Conway, a 2021 Millard West graduate, started watching Nebraska football, Husker magic had diminished. Conway watched games with his family, and owned a Taylor Martinez jersey. But “wasn’t a huge Husker fan.”

Despite living 40 miles from Memorial Stadium, Conway never attended a game. Only camps. He heard the tales of glory and played Little League with Frazier’s son, but never joined his friends on tailgate trips.

When Conway left Nebraska for New York, he brought one Nebraska crewneck with him. And when he told his new teammates where he was from, no one asked about the football program. Instead, they asked how a kid from Omaha ended up in the Bronx.

“I'm assuming most of them are aware (of Nebraska’s history),” Conway said. “But they didn’t mention it to me.”

The Rams made their Husker knowledge clear to Conlin in April, however. That’s when Nebraska called to inquire about Saturday’s game. Kull asked Conlin, who asked the players, who were “overwhelmingly” in favor.

“They may not be able to name the players,” Conlin said, “but they know the history of college football. They know the kind of success Coach (Tom) Osborne had during his time as coach.”

“Had” is the operative word.

No matter what happens at Memorial Stadium this weekend, Husker fans will continue stewing from the trip to Champaign.

But the block red “N” still stirs enthusiasm in at least one corner of college football. Kull expects between 750 and 1,000 Fordham fans to invade Lincoln on Saturday. He compared the matchup to a bowl game and, selfishly, he’s excited to tour Nebraska’s facilities as he prepares his first athletic plan as Fordham A.D. (Kull earned the title in February.)

Conlin has played in South Bend against Notre Dame and in Blacksburg against Michael Vick-led Virginia Tech. But he’s not sure either matches the history embedded at Memorial Stadium.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Conlin said. “It’s going to be an unbelievable atmosphere, I’m sure.”

Even Conway is feeling the bustle coursing through Fordham’s locker room.

Texts have flooded his phone all week. Friends and family will attend the game. And last week, he watched Nebraska’s season opener with a scout’s eye for the first time.

Back home, they couldn’t believe the Huskers lost. But back east, Conway couldn’t help but envision himself playing against the uniforms he’d watched on TV growing up.

So no matter what happens this weekend, he and the Rams will return home with memories that neither time nor Husker frustration can erase.

“Who would’ve thought Fordham was going to play Nebraska, you know?” Conway said. “It’s going to be nuts. I’m so excited.”

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