Fans swamped Kenny Bell after Nebraska's annual Fan Day event ended. Omaha World-Herald Photo
Photo by Omaha World Herald

Nebraska’s Tradition Draws Raving Reviews

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York’s N-Sider

Last year, Kenny Bell was so steeped in Nebraska tradition he was asked to lead this video tour of the Huskers’ fabulous football facilities.  Now a proud, proven senior, Bell last Friday was as accommodating as ever at his last Husker Football Fan Day. 

Fifteen minutes after the scheduled end of the event, Bell was still swamped among autograph and photo seekers in the northwest corner of Tom Osborne Field.  I climbed a flight of Memorial Stadium steps, stood next to someone with a much larger camera than my smart phone, and yelled “Kenny” just to see if Bell could hear my voice.  He did, looking immediately skyward to pinpoint our presence.  Somehow, that moment in time helped me understand how Bell can connect so swiftly with a spiraling kickoff or a long-distance pass that requires his kind of heat-seeking instincts.  Fortunately, I was standing next to Omaha World-Herald photographer Sarah Hoffman, who snapped a great photo that captured Bell’s million-dollar smile (above) in the midst of obvious chaos.

Kenny Bell: Poised to Break Two Career Records

As Bell begins his final season as a Husker – a season where he is poised to break Nebraska career records for receptions and receiving yards – let the record show that he wants only what’s best for the team and how it can lead the Huskers to places they haven’t been lately.  The 2014 Big Ten Conference Championship Game in Indianapolis could be tied to something infinitely and historically bigger.  Summer dreams are gigantic and optimism is sky-scraping as elite programs jockey to qualify for the first Final Four in collegiate football history.  Believe it or not, the first College Football Playoff begins in 149 days and everybody who’s anybody wants to be a cornerstone in the inaugural four-team format that launches a new era.  Preseason expectations find Nebraska ranked No. 22 in the first 2014 national coaches’ poll.  The Huskers rank behind No. 6 Ohio State, No. 8 Michigan State and No. 14 Wisconsin.  It’s enough for a Big Red optimist to point out that Florida State, college football’s 2013 national champion, was ranked 12th in last year’s first coaches’ poll, so if the Seminoles can beat monumental odds, why can’t Nebraska?

In the meantime, as fans brace for daily practice reports leading up to the August 30 season opener against Florida Atlantic, The N-Sider serves up an appetizer featuring equal amounts of raving reviews about Nebraska's tradition from devoted fans and their talented heroes.  The goal is to remind everyone about Nebraska football's lofty status.  We count the blessings of leading the nation in wins over the past half century and write this N-Sider to thank fans for loyalty that enables Nebraska to continue its NCAA record of 333 consecutive home game sellouts dating back to 1962.  On Friday, more than 5,000 loyalists attended NU's annual Fan Day, and we were there, too, searching for stories that feed our minds and touch our hearts. We have several stories this week that will focus on Nebraska's incredible tradition and begin today with the three Husker players who were most sought after on Friday. Our featured views of Kenny Bell, Ameer Abdullah and Randy Gregory are designed to heighten your anticipation of Nebraska’s historic 125th season.  But make no mistake.  Interest surrounding this team is high, and we will feature more players who are competing and more fans who are supporting this historic season.

Ameer Abdullah: Humble Heisman Candidate

We all know the Ameer Abdullah Story.  For those who didn't watch his heartfelt keynote speech at last week’s Big Ten Conference Kickoff Luncheon in Chicago, take the time to listen.  “Ameer’s speech was a walk-off home run to start his last season,” Grand Island’s Gary Jeurink told me before explaining why that's so meaningful.  “The weaknesses in his speech, the hesitations, reiterations, and pauses of emotion, ended up being his greatest strengths,” Jeurink said.  “As I listened, I knew his speech did not come from his note card; it came from his heart.  I am so proud to be a Nebraska alum.”  Jeurink has a pretty good idea of what it takes to give what Abdullah gives every day in practice, in the weight room and in study hall, plus the beating he so willingly absorbs on football Saturdays.  Abdullah inspires Jeurink, a four-year letter-winning gymnast for legendary Nebraska Coach Francis Allen from 1974 to ’78.  He’s been coaching in Grand Island since 1981, even after being paralyzed in an accident in 1983.  Talk about attitude, resolve, and commitment.  Jeurink relishes the power of positivity, and Abdullah is a compelling motivational role model.

Julian Castillo, a 10-year-old Lincoln resident, puts Ameer in the same category.  He was one of the last to get Ameer’s autograph well after last Friday’s Fan Day was declared over.  Ameer did not scramble out of his seat.  Like Kenny Bell, he stayed and patiently tried to accomodate everyone who had been in line to get his autograph for more than an hour.   If there's a better candidate for the Doak Walker Award, for first-team All-America honors and for the Heisman Trophy, good luck trying to convince a Nebraska fan.  The nation's active career leader in all-purpose yards, Abdullah will begin the season ranked third among active players in career rushing yards.  If the nation's top awards give style points for heart and Ameer can stay healthy, he will begin the season second to no other.

                                                                                                           Lincoln Journal-Star Photo

Randy Gregory: Big Red Fans Humble Me

Randy Gregory, all 6-foot-6 and 248+ pounds of him, led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks for 69 yards in losses last season.  Nine of those sacks were against conference teams, including three at Michigan's Big House.  Gregory finished with a team-leading 19 tackles that resulted in 101 yards in losses, plus a team-high 18 hurries, including four against eventual Rose Bowl Champion Michigan State.  He closed the season with a sack and two tackles for loss in Nebraska's Gator Bowl victory over Georgia.  Of course Gregory is a hot All-America candidate and NFL prospect. He's added eight pounds of bulk and changed his jersey from 44 to 4, the same number that sent a Husker All-America role model linebacker to the next level.  "Lavonte David wore it, and he did real well in it," Gregory said.  "Sprinkle a little bit of his gifts on the jersey and help me out this year."

All of that sent Big Red fans of all ages chasing Gregory as their No. 1 autograph target at Fan Day.  The first three fans in the early-morning line were regulars...Mark Parker, 65; Chad Phillips, 64; and Gary Weyers, 59.  All three had the same priorities  Gregory  first and Corey Cooper second because they already had Abdullah's and Bell's autographs from previous seasons.  "Gregory's a big player, and he's going to have a great season," predicted Parker, who doesn't have tickets to attend games but watches the Huskers on TV, follows them on radio and buys DVDs to break down at home.  Weyers is a first cousin of Husker All-American Dean Steinkuhler, so a certain fumble-rooskie always will rank No. 1 on his favorite play chart.  Phillips has had season tickets since 1962.  "I'm optimistic," he said.  "I think we have a legitimate chance to make it into the Top Ten this year."

                                                                                                           Lincoln Journal-Star Photo

Gregory: We Have the Best Fans in America

If you're interested in Gregory's thoughts about this season, check out the video at the top of this column when he sat comfortably answering the media's questions last Friday morning about 90 minutes after he'd been spotted parking his car near the stadium.  The second he stopped in the street to shake a friendly hand, Gregory was surrounded by a dozen Husker fans who know how to seize a moment four hours before the gates open.  "I was okay with that," Gregory told me.  "I love Nebraska fans...I love them a lot.  I've said from Day One when I got here, we have the best fans in America, and you never have to wonder why because they prove it every day and at every game, home and away.  I couldn't believe so many people camped out on the south entrance just to get an autograph or two.  When you see that kind of love and that kind of support, it really humbles you.  How can it not humble you when they know you and want to honor you?"

It was a difficult task just moving Gregory from the tunnel entrance to the South Stadium end zone.  He was a popular man and an accommodating one, trying to move every step he could after signing an autograph.  "I haven't been a part of the culture as much as everyone else has," he told me.  "I just know it's a great honor to play here.  We want to keep that sellout streak going, and we want to live up to the expectations of our tradition.  Nebraska fans have standards they hold themselves up to.  They've done what no one else ever has sold out the stadium every game for more than 50 straight years.  We have one of the best programs in the nation and definitely the best fans in the nation.  Their expectations are high, and they should be for what we have here.  The biggest thing for us is to work hard every day and do everything we can to compete for a Big Ten title and a national championship.  That's our standard at Nebraska, and it always will be."

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