For Husker Fans, Life on the Road Never Dull
Randy York's N-Sider Blog
The Official Blog of the Huskers
It's Saturday morning, nearly five hours before Nebraska and Northwestern kick it off in Evanston. Having stayed at the same hotel where the Northwestern team was taking a nap, four lifelong Big Red fans decide to have breakfast in nearby Deerfield, Ill. KP's, a.k.a. Kevin's Place, is everything it's advertised to be - inviting, exciting and filled with warm food, warm smiles and a warm atmosphere.
Some have wiggled their way onto a long row of bar stools inside the front door. Others have retreated to pack the back dining room where Kevin is as entertaining as he is efficient. A one-time Off-Broadway performer, he runs his own place, taking orders, giving orders, directing traffic, playing traffic cop, hugging every kid and kidding everyone working for him. Within a minute of us sitting down, he comes over and camps out. You have no idea he's the owner and the proprietor of the place because he's Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams and Larry the Cable Guy all rolled into one.
Kevin makes us laugh, and he makes us hungry when he describes, in his own inimitable way, why his place is as good as it gets in Chicago, and the product matches the promotion. The food was great; the entertainment was greater. Kevin is the first waiter we've ever seen burst into a Broadway song before he describes the classic breakfasts in a classic restaurant. The minute Kevin vanished back into the kitchen, two longtime sportswriters and their wives look at each, burst into another round of laughs and decide that his entire performance must be rooted in the Nebraska red we all four are wearing.
But before we can discuss that basic observation, a man wearing a black jacket walks to our table from the back of the room with his wife. "You guys live in Lincoln?" he asks. "We live in Lincoln; they live in Omaha," I reply, pointing to former Omaha World-Herald sports editor Steve Sinclair and his wife, Kathy.
Penn State Fullback Became a Chicago Bear
"I played at Penn State," he said. "We played one game in Lincoln, in 1979, and your team just killed us," he said, remembering how the Nittany Lions led the Huskers, 14-0, at the end of the first quarter before losing, 42-17.
"I'll never forget that game," added our unknown new friend. "We had a young Curt Warner, but you had Jarvis Redwine, I.M. Hipp and another guy, but I can't remember his name. After that first quarter, we could barely make a yard, and we couldn't stop Nebraska the last three quarters. The game got out of hand."
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a light goes off in Steve's head. "You wouldn't be Matt Suhey, would you?" Steve asks.
"Yeh," he said. "Do I know you?"
"No, but Randy and I were sportswriters back then," Sinclair answered. "Plus, I'm a big Chicago Bears' fan, so I recognize you now that I know you played at Penn State. I watch just about every Bears' game that's been on television."
Later, I find out that Suhey played 10 seasons for the Bears as a fullback/running back. He was the lead blocker, a close friend and the executor for his late teammate, the legendary Walter Payton. Steve checks his smart phone to confirm that Suhey did indeed score a touchdown in the Bears' 1986 Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots.
Jarvis Redwine's Name Still Rings in his Head
We all agree it's a small world, after all. Meet a Nittany Lion and a Chicago Bear legend, and he wants to talk about Redwine, a walk-on, who, incidentally, rushed for 124 yards against Penn State that day. We also figure out later that the other Husker back Suhey could not remember was the late Andra Franklin, who rushed for 63 yards and a touchdown against Penn State before eventually going on to play in the NFL himself. Hipp had just 50 yards rushing on a few carries, proving that even Penn State players never forget a name like I.M. Hipp.
Nebraska held Warner to 19 yards rushing and Suhey to 14 yards rushing. Even though Penn State was a Top 20 team, the Blackshirts held the Nittany Lions to 60 yards rushing on 35 carries. Nebraska rushed for 298 yards, and Tim Hager passed for another 232 yards. Nebraska All-America tight end Junior Miller had two touchdown catches in the second quarter, including one of 70 yards.
It's one thing to turn the clock back with players on the winning side. But it's an absolute shock to hear a 54-year-old icon from our designated Big Ten cross-division rival show his respect from a lopsided loss in Lincoln 33 years ago. It's just more proof that life is never dull when you follow Nebraska football on the road, and that's particularly true in what could become Nebraska's favorite road trip - Chicago. The Suhey story isn't the only one in our rear-view mirror of a memorable weekend. Here are five more:
1) Staying at a hotel long on service, but short on full-fledged loyalty, one hotel employee greeted guests wearing a purple Northwestern Wildcat shirt, but by the second day, he was willing to look both ways and when the coast was clear, he revealed a red Nebraska shirt underneath, a shirt that he claimed was closer to his heart. "I'm from Omaha," he said. "Once a Husker, always a Husker!"
2) At a tailgate next to Ryan Stadium, we meet an acquaintance of Tom Ricketts, who was born and raised in Nebraska, but since 1983 has lived in the Windy City, where the University of Chicago graduate is chairman of the Chicago Cubs. When I tell this gentleman the hotel story, he acknowledges that the powerful Ricketts has done the same thing - wear purple over red at a stadium located just three blocks from his home. "Deep down, he's a Husker," the man says of Ricketts. "But he loves the direction that Northwestern is going."
3) Speaking of the neighborhood, Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips lives in the shadow of Ryan Field as well, and he did a very classy thing Saturday - honor Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne for being a Hall-of-Fame coach and a Big Ten Conference icon. Fans from both league teams applauded while Phillips presented Osborne with a new set of golf clubs. Asked Monday how long it's been since he's played golf, Osborne told me "three years" and I was more than surprised. Asked how often he might play golf after he officially retires next summer, Osborne seemed more measured. "I don't know," he told me. "But whatever I play will have to be between fishing trips."
4) Last Friday morning, Andy Schadwinkel of UNL's University Communications staff sent me a text explaining how American gangster Al Capone went to the Nebraska-Northwestern football game shortly before going to prison. Click both links in this paragraph, and you'll find rather fascinating reading about the man who led a Prohibition-era crime syndicate in Chicago and how he handled the jeers of the last Nebraska-Northwestern football game played in Evanston until last weekend. What was even more fascinating was walking six miles on Michigan Avenue in Downtown Chicago that same afternoon and spotting Capone-related memorabilia in three different open-air stores within two blocks of each other. One store had bobble-head figures of the gangster I kept track of on the TV series The Untouchables. Another store had tee-shirts featuring Scarface himself, and a third store was selling a book that chronicled Capone's generosity to charities and Chicago's less fortunate. "He was a 1920's version of Robin Hood," one store employee told me. "Do you think he was a hero?" I asked incredulously. "Not a hero," the employee replied. "But he was definitely a legend ... that's why so many people buy so much stuff with Al Capone on it. It's conversational."
5) We end with self-deprecating humor. Friday night, waiting for the train to take us back to our hotel in Northbrook, we see four Husker fans wearing their red-and-white bib overalls in the same waiting area we are. We saw hundreds of Big Red fans in Downtown Chicago last Friday. They were everywhere, but those four tired guys at Union Station were the only ones we saw in bib overalls. Still, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist couldn't resist going for the cheap slam. "The east and south stands at Ryan Field were filled with red-clad Cornhusker fans," he wrote in Sunday's editions. "You would have thought there was a bib-overall giveaway promotion."
A Vintage Shirt with a Grandfather's Number
Fashion, of course, is always in the eye of the beholder. We walked out of a sold-out stadium behind a Husker fan wearing the most classic white long-sleeved, wool-fabric, home-made shirt with a red "N" I've ever seen. "This is what the 'N' looked like in the late 1920s," he told me, adding that he wears the shirt to honor his grandfather, who played football at Nebraska in 1926 and '27.
"What was his name?" I ask.
"Robert Whitmore," he said.
"Was he No. 24?" I ask, noticing the number on his back.
"Yep," he said, stretching his neck backwards just to make sure. "He was No. 24."
"Where was he from?" I ask.
"Mitchell and then Scottsbluff," he said.
I lost the proud grandson in a shuffle while exiting the stadium to the celebrations outside. I checked out his facts, though, and sure enough, Robert Whitmore was a 185-pound guard from Scottsbluff, Neb., and he lettered two years.
The Last Game Scarface Capone Ever Saw
At the time, I didn't think about it, but just four years after Whitmore's last season at Nebraska, Al Capone watched Northwestern beat the Huskers, 19-7, in the same stadium that enabled Ben Cotton to become a front-page, full-color star-of-the-day for the top half of Sunday's Chicago Tribune sports section.
Talk about an unusual memoir in a prelude to an historic Nebraska-Michigan match-up that hasn't happened in Lincoln in 101 years - 12 years before Memorial Stadium was even built.
I am taken aback that there were only 7,000 more fans inside Ryan Stadium last Saturday when Cotton made his game-winning catch in the South end zone than there were when "Scarface" Capone and several henchmen exited the same stadium 81 years earlier. Three days after that 1931 game, Capone went on trial for income tax violations, then went to prison to serve a life sentence.
Northwestern-Nebraska was the last football game that Alphonse Gabriel "Al" Capone ever saw. And here's wishing that Eliot Ness, the legendary Prohibition agent played by Robert Stack on TV and then Kevin Costner in a modern-day movie, was at that same game. I mean, wouldn't the good guy who brought Capone to justice keep an eye on him three days before the trial that took him down?
Ness was probably nowhere close to the Northwestern stadium on that particular day, but in my mind, he had to be there, incognito, just to make sure that Scarface never would see daylight again.
That NU vs. NU game probably marked Capone's last true sense of comfort, even if he did get booed publicly one final time in a city that never will forget him.
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