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LINCOLN — Chris Franks hoped to introduce daughters Lucy and Stella to the tradition last year.
Husker spring games are always more family friendly. And Franks, an Omaha native who now lives in Kansas City, wanted their first experience inside Memorial Stadium to be the annual showcase that’s as much about the fans as the team.
“They’d see me leave for the games — ‘Bye Dad’ — as I take a friend or my dad to the game, but because they’re little I don’t think they appreciate the gravitas of Memorial Stadium,” Franks said. “How big and how impressive the players will be, how big and fast they are.”
COVID-19 canceled Nebraska’s 2020 spring game, along with a million other events last year. Aside from a handful of family and friends, NU’s three home games last season were closed to fans like Franks. An open practice earlier this spring featured roughly one-tenth of what Nebraska will welcome Saturday, likely 40,000 mask-wearing, socially distanced fans.
Husker football is open for business again.
“I know it won’t be full on Saturday,” coach Scott Frost said, “but it’s going to be great to have some people back in there again.”
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Franks and his family will be there. He wants to show Lucy, 9, and Stella, 7, his season-ticket seats. They’ll tailgate a little bit, throw a football around and hopefully be able to see some of the sights in and around the stadium. He’s slightly more excited than they are.
“I kind of hyped it up a little bit — Spring game! Spring game! — and it settled in,” Franks said. “Then my 9-year-old asks: ‘So they either beat or lose to themselves?’”
The Red and White teams will battle Saturday and one will win, usually the Red. A modified, medium-contact first half for veterans will give way to a live-tackling second half for reserves. The typical storylines will take hold — young quarterbacks, some standout walk-on, hope and handwringing for the future.
Nebraska has a super-seasoned defense full of super seniors. The offense, led by fourth-year starting quarterback Adrian Martinez, has a group of receivers Frost called the best he’s had and a group of running backs so unproven that all healthy bodies should see action in the first and second halves.
“Every day I come out there I’m earning my money, there’s no doubt about it,” running backs coach Ryan Held said.
There is also competition for backup quarterback, punter, right and left guards, and No. 2 cornerback. NU has conducted such a physical spring that more than a quarter of the team was on the injury report at various times. Saturday’s scrimmage will be more of a “showcase,” Frost said, and less of an evaluation tool for coaches.
The Huskers announced the rosters for Saturday's Red-White spring game, which kicks off at 1 p.m.
Most of all, it’ll be a step toward the big-tent, fan-first environment. Throngs of people meandering on Stadium Drive. Spontaneous “Go Big Red” chants in the air. Children navigating large triangles of pizza and meat pockets bigger than their hands. A dull roar growing louder in delight as a Husker breaks away for a long touchdown.
Athletic Director Bill Moos loves all that. He — along with NU administrators and coaches — fought to have fans in the stands last fall, like schools in the ACC, Big 12 and SEC. The Big Ten said no, citing safety concerns amid COVID.
This spring the league has allowed individual schools to make decisions in conjunction with their local health departments instead of following a standard conference rule. NU will have nearly full baseball and softball stadiums this weekend, along with the crowd at the spring game.
Moos said he appreciated the guidance and advice of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, led by Pat Lopez. The department had officials at Nebraska’s April 17 open practice, which was kind of a dry run for Saturday’s spring game.
“Nebraska needs football,” Moos said. “And that’s everybody. I’m excited because we’re going to see some smiles on faces, we’re going to see some people who are going to be able to cheer, and our kids are going to be able to hear them. People having Runzas and hot dogs and pizzas, and getting back to what we’ve missed.”
Moos expects Nebraska will have 100% capacity come fall, provided COVID-19 cases stay low and vaccination efforts stay consistent. Saturday’s game won’t be the full Memorial Stadium experience, but it’ll be more than some Husker players have ever seen — especially those who signed in the 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes.
“I just can’t wait to see the look on our young guys’ faces who really haven’t actually experienced it yet,” nose tackle Damion Daniels said. “It’s going to be real fun.”
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Papillion resident Brian Svoboda is ready to get back, too. His tailgating group of 20 will be closer to seven, but they’ll gather in their usual spot, a field near Haymarket Park. Svoboda and his friends are vaccinated, and it’s one of the main reasons they’re attending Saturday’s game.
“Honestly, there’s probably going to be a little bit of apprehension,” Svoboda said. “It’s going to be foreign to be around that many people at once. You almost have to retrain yourself to how to talk to people, what distancing means. So it’s going to feel weird, but I’m sure once everything kicks off it’s going to feel normal again.”
The expanse of red in the stands. The roars. The football itself — even if it’s just a scrimmage. Even if it’s just spring. Even if 40,000 isn’t 80,000.
Saturday’s spring game feels like a step toward what Husker football has long been: A tie that binds.
“One thing we were deprived of in 2020 was a lot of the connections outside our friends and family,” Svoboda said. “And there are very few things in society that can bring things together, and I have to say that Nebraska football is that thing for this state. I hope for everybody the team does well and becomes that unifying thing again. We’ve been missing out on that for a while.”