By Tom Shatel
OMAHA WORLD-HERALD COLUMNIST
It's been 15 years. And Tom Osborne can still see the remnants of the Piper Cub plane, in a small pile, burning. He can still recall that awful smell.
"That wreck was hard,'' Osborne said. "I went out there and it was still burning. Pretty hard.''
Fifteen years. Osborne remembers that they had to retrieve Brook Berringer's mouthpiece, the one he used as a football hero, to make the dental identification.
"There was a fire,'' Osborne said. "There was no hope of recovery.''
April 18, 1996. Osborne doesn't remember where he was going that Thursday afternoon. But he was in his car. This was before many had cell phones. He had the radio on. This just in: there's been an accident, a plane down, near Raymond, Neb. A Nebraska football player may be involved.
Osborne turned the car that way. He found a phone. He remembers calling Jan Berringer, Brook's mother, in Goodland, Kan. Osborne doesn't remember what he told her.
Fifteen years later, Jan remembers exactly.
"He told me there had been an accident," she said. "He wanted me to be prepared in case Brook was involved. My first thought was, 'He didn't throw out his elbow, did he?' He'd been throwing for NFL scouts. It was two days before the draft.
"Tom said, 'No, I'm out here in the country.' And I said, 'Was it a hunting accident?' Tom said, 'No, there was an airplane involved.' When he said that, my heart sank to my big toe.''
Fifteen years. I was at the Scorecard, in west Omaha, appearing on a sports talk show with Gary Java and Randy Eccker. It was a Thursday afternoon. The Nebraska spring game was two days away. So was the NFL draft. The Huskers were coming off back-to-back national championships. Berringer was among those waiting to be chosen in the draft. Life was good. And then all of a sudden it wasn't.
I drove back to the World-Herald to start writing. But what? The words didn't flow. Tears did. Hardest column I ever had to write.
Two days later, the spring game turned from festival to wake. No one knew what to say. If Nebraska football is a family, it became tightknit that day. Lots of hugs. Crying.
Then, before the game, they played a tribute video to Berringer's career at Nebraska. The Wyoming game, where he suffered a collapsed lung. The Colorado game, where Bill McCartney dared Tommie Frazier's backup to beat his No. 2 Buffs and Berringer did just that. The Orange Bowl against Miami.
Finally, there was a video of Brook, making one of his many grade-school appearances, reading "Green Eggs and Ham'' to a circle of first-graders. That's how the tribute ended. People in the press box were sobbing. Nobody there that day will ever forget that video. Nobody around then will ever forget this kid from Goodland, Kan.
The question is, why?
Why is there a statue of him outside the Osborne Athletic Complex? Why is there an annual citizenship award in his honor? Why are athletes who never met the young man and never saw him play honored to get the award? Why does Jan Berringer still have people tell her that they named their baby after her son?
What is it about Brook Berringer's legacy that's worth preserving?
Start with death. Right or wrong, tragedy has a way of immortalizing an athlete or celebrity, especially one in his prime. Berringer was two days away from a bright future in the NFL. He was taken far too early, but the timing was especially cruel.
If you listed the top 10 all-time Nebraska quarterbacks, he doesn't make the list. But he certainly was one of the most important quarterbacks in NU history.
Berringer was the boy next door. Handsome, quiet, polite. He hailed from western Kansas, but this was a kid close to every Nebraskan's heart. He was an avid hunter and fisherman. He had a pilot's license. The son every Nebraska mother wanted. He had permission from every father in Nebraska to marry his daughter.
Mostly, I think that some of us still gravitate to Berringer because of his selflessness. He bounded off the bench and took the wheel of the 1994 national title season when asked and then handed the wheel back to Frazier in 1995 without a fuss. The portrait of the team player. Not the first or last to be a team guy at Nebraska. But he was the highest profile team player on the greatest teams of that era.
And he resonated with so many because, well, that's how we would like to think we would have done it. There was an ideal there, a standard, that most preach about. Berringer lived it. Until the end.
"His senior year was truly an indication of his character,'' Osborne said. "He certainly was as deserving as Tommie. Tommie won the job in fall camp. It was close. Tommie was given the ball and we had a great surrounding cast. I think we would have been undefeated no matter which one of them played.
"He (Brook) could have been divisive. He could have led a revolt. He always said the right thing, did the right thing, played his role. I admired that. For that reason, I've often referred to him as maybe not the best player we ever had here, but a player who really stood out in my mind representing what team play and teamwork is all about.''
Most people knew that Berringer was one of Osborne's favorites. That apparently included the sculptor hired by former Athletic Director Steve Pederson to do a statue of Osborne for the new facility.
During construction of the Osborne Complex, Osborne was told about the statue. "I said, no, no. I don't want any statues. And then, I think the sculptor was fairly clever. He said, 'What if we put up a statue of Brook Berringer?' I think he thought I might go for that.''
Clever indeed. And, as it turns out, a fitting choice for the identity of a Nebraska player to be immortalized with Osborne.
"In some ways, you'd like a statue that was kind of generic,'' Osborne said. "Someone that represented all the players. The reason I went along with it was I thought his spirit and his attitude and character had really represented the essence of so many of our players who enabled us to be successful.
"I think of him quite a bit, irrespective of the statue.''
Osborne stopped to gather himself. Fifteen years later, he still has a hard time talking about Berringer. But he smiled when he pointed out that if everyone who claimed to have hunted and fished with Berringer actually did so, Berringer never would have made it to class. Osborne talked about the bus ride to the funeral, in Goodland, and how people were standing on the side of the highway, waving Nebraska flags.
More than once, Osborne teared up talking about No. 18.
"I'm not a big weeper or wailer,'' Osborne said. "But, yeah, I cried. I still cry thinking about him. I think it was at that spring game, they had a tribute to Brook on the big screen. That was a very emotional moment for me.''
Jan was back in Lincoln on Saturday, helping give out the Berringer Award. She says she gets goose bumps every time they give out the award. Driving around Lincoln, with the memories swirling in her head and the images coming back, she says, "I get knots in my stomach.''
Fifteen years. Her husband, Warren, died 30 years ago on April 15. Fifteen years before Brook. Tough lady. Great lady.
I asked her what Brook would be doing today if he were still alive. She paused and said, "Well, he would have played for the Broncos. He wanted to play for them. I remember one time we were talking about what he would do one day. He got out a map and drew a line from Kansas City to Omaha to Lincoln, a triangle. He pointed to a spot and said, "That would be a good place for a Cabela's. With my connections, I could open one up.''
Both Jan Berringer and Osborne said they thought that Brook probably would have been a commercial pilot, his real dream. His dad's twin brother had been a pilot for Delta. Osborne said Brook would have gotten married and become a good family man and father. And Brook Berringer would have been living the life, the only way he knew how.