Randy York's N-Sider
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For Mike Rucker, Saturday's last scheduled game in the longstanding Nebraska-Missouri football series is a homecoming of sorts.
The former Carolina Panther is flying to Nebraska from Charlotte, N.C., to hook up with his high school buddies. He says 90 percent of them are Missouri fans, and all will celebrate this rivalry like they always do ... together and with fervor.
For Grant Wistrom, Saturday's NU-MU game is important and historic, but not enough to move a recent College Football Hall-of-Famer from his Springfield, Mo., home where he's gearing up to spend Halloween with his family.
"My daughter's going to be a Berry Fairy and wear strawberry wings, and my son is going to be a robot," Wistrom said. "That's our priority for the Nebraska-Missouri weekend, and I don't want to miss anything."
So Wistrom will watch the Huskers and Tigers on television from home, reflecting on a series that was always lopsided for him and for Rucker, his college teammate and understudy.
Lopsided, that is, until one incredible 1997 afternoon in Columbia.
You remember that day. A 29-point favorite, Nebraska had to cover 67 yards in 62 seconds without a timeout to tie the game, 38-38, before winning it in overtime, 45-38, on a 12-yard run by quarterback Scott Frost.
"Corby Jones (Mizzou's quarterback) had his way with us that day," Wistrom recalled. "If Scott's pass doesn't come off Shevin's ( Wiggins) leg and into Matt's (Davison) arms, we lose. My career would have ended on a bad note because Missouri would have pulled off one of the biggest upsets of all time."
Wistrom, Rucker Never Lost to Mizzou
Fortunately, that did not happen, and Nebraska went on to win its third national championship in four seasons. It also meant that Wistrom and Rucker - two of the Huskers' greatest recruits ever from the Show Me State - never had to endure the indignity of losing to their home-state university.
You might recall that Wistrom and Rucker came to Nebraska in the same 1994 recruiting class. Rucker redshirted that fall as a freshman, but Wistrom played and lettered on Tom Osborne's first national championship team.
"We played each other twice in high school, and I was fortunate enough to catch Nebraska's eye when we beat Grant's team as sophomores in St. Joe," Rucker said.
"They cheated that year," Wistrom said, referring to St. Joseph Benton's upset win over his Webb City High School team. "They knew we were faster, so they watered up the field, got the tractors out and took away our speed."
Rucker laughs at the explanation. "Grant never would give us credit for beating his team once," he said. "Of course, we went to Webb City as seniors. They beat us in the state semifinals and won the state championship."
That was an important game because it enhanced Wistrom's football version of a trifecta - two state championships in high school, three national championships in college and a Super Bowl title with the St. Louis Rams.
Wistrom and Rucker, who also started in a Super Bowl with the Panthers, became legendary Husker defensive ends, but they had different opinions about Nebraska before they landed in Lincoln.
Rucker Dreamed of Playing at MU; Wistrom Didn't
Rucker dreamed of playing at Mizzou, and Wistrom never even gave MU a thought in the recruiting process.
"All of my friends wanted to go to Mizzou growing up, and so did I," Rucker said. "If I hadn't had a good game against Webb City as a sophomore, I don't know if I would have even thought about Nebraska. That's when Coach (Ron) Brown and Coach Osborne started recruiting me."
The year before Wistrom and Rucker arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska just missed a national championship when a last-second field goal sailed wide in an 18-16 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State.
In his first three games against Mizzou, Wistrom was a key part of 42-7, 57-0 and 51-7 wins, so there were solid reasons why he and his teammates didn't envision the Tigers rising up and knocking off the Huskers in that '97 overtime thriller.
The year after Wistrom left for the NFL, Missouri gave Nebraska another battle before losing 20-13 in Lincoln. Rucker was a senior that season and remembers how all of his high school friends had remained Mizzou fans but also became accustomed to watching Nebraska dominate the national stage with a close friend in the lineup.
"They always rooted for Mizzou, but they rooted for Nebraska, too," Rucker said.
Both Little Brothers Became All-Americans
There is one more interesting corollary between two Missouri natives who became legendary rush ends at Nebraska as well as in the NFL.
Both Wistrom and Rucker have little brothers who not only followed in their footsteps, but played in sizable spotlights of their own.
Tracey Wistrom, Grant's brother, became a First-Team Academic All-American after becoming Nebraska's all-time tight end receiving yardage leader - a record that coincidentally now belongs to another Missouri native, Mike McNeill.
And Martin Rucker, Mike's younger brother, ended up at Mizzou where he became a First-Team All-America tight end.
"With my brother in Columbia, there was a stretch there where I would root for both Nebraska and Missouri, just like my friends have been doing for years," Mike said, leaving no doubt where his heart will be Saturday when he joins at least a dozen Mizzou friends for a pre-game tailgate party.
"The script could not have been written any better at Nebraska," Rucker said. "I had great coaching and a great experience, and my life before, during and after football could not have gone any better than it did."
Not only that, Rucker said, "but Lincoln was closer to home than Columbia was."
Wistrom Has Only One Small Regret
Wistrom agreed that Lincoln was and still is the most solid decision a student-athlete can make.
"I loved going to Columbia and watching games when I was in high school, and I loved playing there in college, but I never once thought about playing at Mizzou," Wistrom said.
"When I was in high school, Missouri wasn't very good at all, but they're a lot better now," he said. "My mind was set on winning national championships, so once Nebraska started recruiting me, I never wavered. I'm glad I chose Nebraska. It was one of the biggest and best decisions I've ever made."
Wistrom figures there's only one way his Nebraska experience could have turned out better. "I guess," he said, "we could have won four national titles in four years instead of just three."
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