Barry Moore gives about 100 tours a year at the Osborne Athletic Complex. One of his favorite stops is the Lettermen's Wall under the North Stadium where he points to a name on an 1892-inscripted brick before walking about 15 yards and showing a full-scale replica of that player on one of six metal-sculptured doors that "usher" players to the field via the Huskers' Traditional Tunnel Walk. Because those doors open and more than 85,000 fans roar their approval every football Saturday, Moore finds it interesting to ask how many have heard of the Nebraska Hall-of-Fame players honored on those six doors:
Brown and Reynolds ring a bell with most fans, while Sauer, Chamberlin and Francis are recognizable to many. Rarely, however, is anyone bold enough to answer Moore when the retired Lincoln school administrator asks his most unanswered tour question: Does anyone know who George Flippin is?
Moore says that question is greeted with universal silence with one notable exception. A few years ago, while leading a tour of Nebraska alums from Las Vegas, Gary Mouden stepped forward when Moore asked the question. "George Flippin was the first African-American athlete in Nebraska athletic history. And not only do I know who he is, I grew up in Stromsburg, and he delivered my dad when he was a baby."
Mouden didn't stop there. He had an anecdote to go with his answer. "I remember my dad telling me a funny story about George Flippin," Mouden said. "After George went to Chicago to earn his medical degree, he returned to Nebraska, set up his practice and established the first hospital in Stromsburg."
A Creative Answer to an Important Question
Years later, a young man in Stromsburg heard that Flippin played football when the Huskers were called the "Bugeaters".
"Did you play football at Nebraska?" the kid asked.
"Yes I did," Flippin answered.
"Were you any good?" the kid asked.
"Was I any good?" Flippin repeated. "Why, yes. In fact, one time, I was so good I beat the University of Missouri all by myself."
Flippin didn't explain how that happened, but Mike Babcock, author of The Nebraska Football Vault: The History of the Cornhuskers, knows why it happened. "In 1892, because of Flippin, Missouri refused to play Nebraska in a game scheduled in Omaha, and instead forfeited," Babcock wrote.
In his 145-page Vault book, a treasure chest of historical photos, crisp writing and creative surprises on almost every spread, Babcock calls Flippin "Nebraska's first football star" and explains how he was the son of a freed slave who brought his family west from Ohio before eventually settling in Nebraska. Both of Flippin's parents were physicians, and he would follow in their footsteps by earning a medical degree at the University of Illinois' College of Physicians and Surgeons in Chicago.
Babcock wrote that Flippin owned land, served on the town's board of education, sold sporting goods, raised and showed Plymouth Rock chickens, and even represented himself in court, claiming a café in nearby York had violated his civil rights by refusing service.
Moore uses Babcock as the historical source for many of the "gems" he includes in his athletic tours, but he felt Mouden deserved some on-the-spot recognition. So when the visitor from Vegas regaled his fellow tour-mates, Moore took off his "tour guide" lanyard, put it around Mouden's neck and said: "That was great - one of the best stories I've ever heard. Why don't you just lead the rest of the tour?"
Anthony Blue a Part of The Flippin Project
Sadly, Barry Moore doesn't just wonder whether Nebraska fans know about George Flippin. He wonders whether Husker players - past, present or future - will recognize his name or understand what a trailblazer he was.
Fortunately, we know of at least one player who is well aware of George Flippin because he inspired Anthony Blue, one of 12 talented student artists who participated in The Flippin Project, a public unveiling of a four-by-six-foot mural-style portrait of the iconic Flippin standing proudly in his Nebraska football uniform. Flippin is wearing a white sweater emblazoned with a red 'N'. The art was the culmination of a dozen student volunteer workers and the brainchild of Jon Humiston, the creative director for University Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
For the past five months, Humiston coordinated the project, giving each student - from Nebraska, California, Oregon and Texas - the opportunity to create art for a permanent collection and to gain exposure for their talents. A scholarship recruit from Cedar Hill, Texas, Blue is no longer on Nebraska's official roster, but he remains in good standing with coaches and teammates. The one-time president of Your Degree First, a student-athlete organization, Blue had ACL surgery on both knees and was forced to concentrate exclusively on succeeding in academics and in life.
"George Flippin inspires me because he was able to achieve in such hard times," Blue said. "That just goes to show that there is opportunity and there is a chance for you to do something great in life and make a difference." Blue, an art major, also has painted a portrait of Husker teammate Jermarcus "Yoshi" Hardrick. "He's had his ups and downs," Blue said of Yoshi, "but his future's bright, and he's someone I really look up to." Blue, of course, has someone else now to look up to ... the George Flippin portrait that now hangs in the Gaughan Multi-Cultural Center adjacent to NU's Student Union.
"George Flippin was a man with determination and fortitude," Humiston said at the public unveiling. "During his four short years at the university, it was his drive that not only won football games, but also won the respect of his teammates and the community. This bond with his peers and the public could be identified as the genesis of Husker pride: a piece of Nebraska DNA that unites us all, undefined by color and gender."
Standing in front of Flippin's life-sized portrait, Humiston believes visitors can easily identify that the painting is a man. But, like any piece of art, at first glance the observer makes a judgment call on whether they like the piece or not. It wasn't until they took a few moments to study each individual canvas, and examine the complexity of the body of work, that they began to truly identify with the subject.
"Each person found that one canvas that would draw them in, and their perceptions about the piece as a whole began to change," Humiston said. "I believe if we had the privilege of meeting George Flippin, we, too, would marvel at his complexity. But I don't believe George saw himself as a complicated person. From his time playing football, studying to become a doctor, opening a hospital and traveling to Europe to learn more, he had one core value. It was simply to DO THE RIGHT THING."
12 Artists, 12 Descendents Deserve 12 Emails
Humiston believes Nebraska alumni, fans and friends can thank Flippin and his Bugeater teammates for teaching all of us that beyond prejudice is pride ...Husker Pride. It's interesting that 12 student artists would bring Flippin's legacy to life and that 12 of his descendents would honor his contributions at last weekend's public unveiling.
In honor of those 12 artists and those 12 descendents, maybe we all should send the The Flippin Project to 12 friends, so the next wave of those touring Memorial Stadium will know the answer to a Nebraska football question that no true fan should ever miss. After all, George Flippin ... the football player, the trailblazer, the doctor, the man ... is one of the greatest legends for a school that's now in the Legends Division of the oldest conference in intercollegiate athletics.
Doesn't that make this the perfect time to bring his history to life?
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