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Since returning to Nebraska in 2007, I've enjoyed having lunch with Dennis Claridge about every other month. We get together on one condition: No interviews. Claridge, Bob Devaney's first quarterback at Nebraska, is the most congenial person you'll ever meet, but he believes rather firmly that whatever glory he and his teammates achieved a half century ago is mostly irrelevant today. Devaney's Huskers hogged the headlines from 1962-72, and Claridge feels that was enough. He'd rather read about today's Huskers in football, basketball, volleyball and any other sport you want to name.
Well, we had lunch again this week, and I could tell that Claridge could sense how much I wanted to ask him about Nebraska's last win in Michigan, which happened 49 years ago when a mere 70,287 showed up to see the Huskers upset the Wolverines, 25-13. It was just Devaney's second game as NU's head coach. Even though 40,000 more fans will attend Saturday's Michigan-Nebraska showdown in the Big House, rest assured the Huskers created some national buzz on that September afternoon in 1962.
Claridge has read some accounts claiming that Devaney, a Michigan native, lit the emotional fire that enabled that upset, but his quarterback doesn't remember a single instance of the fiery Irishman making the Michigan game any more important than the season-opener against South Dakota. Sensing I was dragging him into a mini-interview, Claridge stopped short, wondering if we were about to break our no-interview truce.
All I want, I said, is to set the record straight about how a program that had been in a perennial tailspin for 15 years could rise up and knock off the mighty Wolverines in their own backyard. Knowing full well that wasn't a vintage Michigan team, I still found it interesting how the Cornhuskers could beat college football's all-time winning program on the road when they made a habit of losing time after time at home.
Claridge cut me a break and gave me a surprising two-word answer to my question. "Jim Ross," he said. "He's the one who got the whole team together and told us what that game meant to Bob Devaney. He told us Bob would never ask a team to win one for him, but Coach Ross made sure we knew what was at stake. He told us Bob grew up in Michigan, coached high school there and coached under Duffy Daugherty at Michigan State."
Ross Let Huskers Know How Special Win Would Be
After spending a winter and a spring under Devaney, the '62 Huskers grew to love the shorter practices that yielded crisper preparation, not to mention plenty of pats on the back to complement their new head coach's tough-minded discipline. Devaney was already a bit of a miracle-worker. He had changed Nebraska's mindset and endeared himself to his first team. "We were willing to do anything for Bob," Claridge said, "and when Coach Ross told us how much beating Michigan would mean to our head coach, Bob didn't have to say a word. Coach Ross said everything that needed to be said, and we played well."
Claridge admits he doesn't remember much from that game, but he recalls how Bill "Thunder" Thornton was coming off a shoulder separation and still scored touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters. "I remember he went right through the tackles and could see his mother (who made the trip from Ohio) in the stands right after he scored," Claridge said. "I also remember how well Dennis Stuewe played. He scored our first touchdown (on an 11-yard run) and led us in rushing that day." Claridge would consider this irrelevant, but I checked, and he rushed for 42 yards himself against Michigan and was 6-of-13 passing that day for another 89 yards. He also was the punter.
Interestingly, Stuewe and his wife, Rita, were among the nearly 108,000 fans at Beaver Stadium last weekend when Nebraska joined hands and took a knee with new cross-division rival Penn State in a November football game that was about sportsmanship, support and solidarity as much as supremacy in a down-to-the-wire Big Ten Conference race among league leaders and legends.
A Minnesota native and longtime New Jersey resident, Stuewe, 70, sat in the stands without even a fleeting thought of his place in Husker history or how important his touchdown was while Thornton watched from the sidelines.
"Man, that was almost 50 years ago," Stuewe said in a telephone conversation, adding that he was more interested in talking about his experience as a fan in State College, Pa. "I was really, really, really impressed with the way everything was handled in that game," he said. "Everything was done with such class, and I was so proud to be sitting with a lot of Nebraska fans and a lot of Penn State fans. There was such a bond that it was almost like a family reunion with hope and encouragement all the way around."
As a Fan, He Could Not Have Been Prouder
Stuewe's voice reaches a pause, so he can collect himself. "That game," he said, "showed the world what Nebraska is all about." It showed Husker players, coaches, students and fans sharing empathy with Penn State faithful trying to recover from sorrow and disappointment, so they can heal and get the program back on solid ground."
If anyone knows how to keep fighting through adversity, it's Stuewe, who gave pro football his best shot for six consecutive years after graduating at Nebraska before settling in for 30 years as a full-time high school teacher in South Plainfield, N.J. All three Stuewe children became college athletes. Son Michael walked on and became a starting wide receiver at Virginia Tech. Daughter Denise played basketball at Loyola (Md.) University, and daughter Megan played soccer at Iona (N.Y.) College.
Stuewe enjoyed seeing Academic All-American teammates Claridge and Pat Clare when he returned to Lincoln for the 2008 Virginia Tech game.
"Dennis grew up on a farm and was a very gifted natural athlete," Claridge said. "He wasn't the best athlete we had at any position, but he was the best athlete we had at all positions. He was just natural at everything he tried. I remember him taking up golf and shooting consistently in the 80s that same summer. His high school coach convinced him to try out for track late one season, and he qualified for state in the 400 meters, even though it was only the third time he'd run the race in his life ... great athlete and a great guy, great teammate, great friend."
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