The Nebraska football tradition of Big Red balloons has been placed on an indefinite hiatus.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Helium Shortage Puts Touchdown Balloons on Hiatus

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York's N-Sider

One of Nebraska's top five football traditions will be altered for the 2012 season opener and then go on indefinite hiatus until and unless a global helium shortage is solved. The odds of that happening any time soon appear rather prohibitive, so Husker fans who love watching Big Red balloons go up, up and away after Nebraska's first touchdown every home game will have to be understandably patient, if not appreciatively creative when the air temporarily comes out of a tradition that dates back to Memorial Stadium games in the 1940s.

Before going on hiatus, the release of red helium-filled balloons will get at least one final curtain call in Nebraska's season-opener against Southern Miss on Saturday, Sept. 1. But instead of expecting 4,000 to 5,000 balloons celebrating that first touchdown, expect 2,000 to 2,500 balloons, giving Nebraska fans one last traditional touchdown release. That way, Big Red fans can take pictures with both their cameras and their minds while media and staff photographers commemorate the occasion with photos that just might define an historical footnote.

Fortunately, Nebraska's four other major football traditions will go into extra gear to compensate for one that Nebraska Sports Information Director Emeritus Don Bryant says has been around since a student-based women's group "hawked" red helium-filled balloons on "O" Street in the 1940s. "They would sell those balloons downtown hours before kickoff and then sell whatever they had left inside the stadium, along with food and popcorn," Bryant said.

Priorities: Hospitals and Industrial Construction

What that group started will now be temporarily on hold. Nebraska's traditional provider of helium for touchdown balloons has no current supply and will not have any until late September or early October, at the earliest. Even more importantly, when that helium becomes available, there are higher causes for its use. Hospitals are the No. 1 priority for available national helium (for MRI machines). Industrial construction (for arc welding) comes next. Even the staunchest fans would favor helium for those two causes ahead of football games, weddings, birthdays, babies and product launches.

Janell Hall, the director of Concession Operations in her 33rd year with Nebraska's Athletic Department, coordinates Big Red Touchdown balloon sales. She's helped make each home game's flight of balloons a time-honored tradition. The costs to produce the helium on Game Day has been part of the Concessions Department's responsibilities, and that first touchdown sight is every bit as important to Hall as a pre-game flyover.

"A student organization used to handle the balloons from the Student Union," Hall recalled. "As the costs went up, the Athletic Department took over sales. We started charging for balloons, but changed our policy, thanks to First National Bank's sponsorship that allowed us to give balloons away because they're such an important part of our game day atmosphere. Releasing balloons before that first touchdown is a tradition that's been important to us, so we did our due diligence before we made any decision."

Ethan Rowley, director of Athletic Marketing, agrees. "We've exhausted our possibilities to continue this tradition at this point in time," he said, pointing out that Hall has checked every available option, and nothing looks promising. "We're not necessarily permanently shelving this tradition," Rowley said. "We're just putting it on hiatus until the helium inventory is replenished."

Although the shortage might take months, it's more likely to take years. "We want to be good stewards," Rowley said. "We don't want to take away helium from hospitals and industries that need it more than we do right now."

First Game: Last Chance for a Long Time?

In the interim, Athletic Marketing still has a few tanks from last year that will produce 2,000 to 2,500 balloons for the first game. After the season opener, Nebraska's plan is to hold one tank of helium back for the remaining six games and then come up with a way to symbolize the balloon tradition for the rest of the season.

One idea is to feature a "Touchdown Balloon Kid of the Game". Each honoree would release a small batch of balloons (no more than a dozen) from either the field or a corner of the stadium. "That would allow us to keep a small measure of the tradition through the hiatus," Rowley said. "Whenever helium supply is restored, we can explore the opportunity to restart our tradition, which seems to be a fan favorite and one of our most visible."

Meanwhile, Nebraska fans will cherish their other four primary traditions more than ever:

1) The Marching Band's pregame spectacular;

2) The Husker Power chant just before The Tunnel Walk where half of Memorial Stadium yells "Husker!" in unison while the other half answers "Power!";

3) The Tunnel Walk entrance that blends psych-up videos of Husker legends with highlights of current players while the song Sirius seriously stirs the emotions through the magical music of Alan Parsons Project ; and

4) "Throwing the Bones", the fans' exclamation point that celebrates a Blackshirt making a big play and then crossing his arms in an X across his chest, affirming the skull and crossbones logo that has been used by the Blackshirts since the 1960s.

Mural Celebrates the Touchdown Tradition

Whether Nebraska loses one of its unique football traditions temporarily or for a much longer period of time, Husker fans will find a way to pick up the slack. Personally, all I intend to change is the tense when I describe why balloons are featured in a Mike Sullivan Mural that was unveiled before Nebraska consecutive sellout No. 300 just three seasons ago.

The mural hangs in the North Stadium lobby. It is the largest mosaic tile mural in North America. At the top of the mural are four banks of stadium lights and 21 red balloons, depicting another sold-out Memorial Stadium with players celebrating while red balloons take flight to signal Nebraska's first touchdown of the game.

That mural is still historically accurate, but an eight-decade tradition is winding down through the fault of no one. So make sure you appreciate the red-helium balloon release in the season-opener. It may be the last big batch of balloons you see for quite some time.

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