Dennis Claridge, Epitome of Humility, Dies at 76

By Randy York

For me, there is one simple way to describe the late Dennis Claridge, who became a fabled Nebraska quarterback in the early 1960s. Claridge enabled and elevated Bob Devaney to make an immediate impact on the Huskers and in the process become a legendary college football coach. 

Claridge’s intelligence, leadership and overall spirit personified the wisdom of the late C.S. Lewis, who insisted that humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is simply thinking of yourself less.

Dennis Claridge’s instant connection with Bob Devaney helped Nebraska football create a path to greatness, led by a man who was, in every imaginal way, the epitome of humility.

Claridge deserves a unique place in Nebraska football history. He not only led the Huskers to their first ever bowl win (36-34 in the 1962 Gotham Bowl in New York City), but also spearheaded the Huskers' first major bowl victory, a 13-7 win against Auburn in the 1964 Orange Bowl in Miami.

Claridge embraces the epitome of humility. Nebraska’s first-team Academic All-American and co-captain never saw his 68-yard touchdown run on television against Auburn in the Orange Bowl until his son coerced him to watch it three or four times at home in the last decade.

Dennis Bert Claridge’s obituary describes how the 76-year-old “slipped away peacefully to heaven” while surrounded by his family on Tuesday, May 1, 2018, after a 3 ½ year battle with cancer.

Claridge was born on August 18, 1941 to Helen (Abelman) and Berlin Claridge in Kingman, Arizona. When Claridge was 12, he and his mother moved to Robbinsdale, Minnesota, where she married Leroy Kottum, who became a wonderful father for Dennis, who was recruited by Bill Jennings for which he was forever thankful. He loved everything about Nebraska. He met and married Rhoda Stevens in Lincoln on February 8, 1964.

After his Nebraska stint, Claridge played for the Green Bay Packers and the Atlanta Falcons. During the off-season, he attended the University of Nebraska College of Dentistry. After three years, Claridge was asked by the Dean to make a choice between full-time school and football. Claridge chose dentistry and never looked back. He graduated in 1970 and received his master’s degree in Orthodontics from the University of Iowa in 1972 before returning to Lincoln to set up his practice.

Claridge also had satellite practices at various times throughout his career in Nebraska City, Fairbury and Bellville, Kansas. He loved dentistry because it allowed him to work with his hands and work with young people.

In 2000, Claridge attended a dental mission trip to Honduras that helped his faith grow and changed his life. He made several more trips throughout the years while serving as a faith mentor to fellow travelers and a servant to the Honduran people. Claridge also loved the great outdoors, hunting and especially fishing. He passed his love of nature onto his children and grandchildren. He loved God, his family, church and friends.

Claridge is survived by Rhoda, his wife of 54 years, plus children and their families, including Dave, Dan and Kim Claridge; Nick and Tara, Cody and Anna, and Bo; Denise and Kevin Meyer, Elsa and Owen; and sister-in-law, Becky Stevens. Dennis will be missed by all. His Celebration of Life service will be at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 5, 2018 at Southwood Lutheran Church, 4301 Wilderness Hills Blvd., Lincoln, Nebraska, 68516.

Because of cremation, there will not be a visitation. Honorary pallbearers are Tom Fitchett, Roger Bruning, Harry Tolly, Con Keating, Norval Stewart, and Larry Buchmann. Memorial contributions can be made to Southwood Lutheran Church or to Mourning Hope, 4919 Baldwin Ave., Lincoln, Nebraska, 68504. Condolences are online at Roperandson in Lincoln.

A Celebration of Life service will begin at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Southwood Lutheran Church, 4301 Wilderness Hills Blvd. in Lincoln (68516). In addition to his CoSIDA Academic All-America honor in 1963, Claridge was a Nebraska Football Hall of Fame inductee in 1976 and was the winner of the Tom Novak Trophy in 1963, the same year he served as NU's team captain. 

A Nebraska Football Hall of Fame Inductee in 1976, Claridge spent three seasons in the NFL following his distinguished career as a Husker. He played the 1964 and '65 seasons with the Green Bay Packers and the 1966 season with the Atlanta Falcons. He was the No. 3 draft choice of the Green Bay Packers in the 1963 NFL Draft following his junior season.

In celebration of his 50th anniversary representing college football, I asked Claridge to look back at the game he loves. A season ticket holder for both football and men's basketball, Claridge obliged, pointing out that he had no interest in Facebook or Twitter.

He enjoyed country music, mostly old. Waylon Jennings was his favorite, especially after seeing him in Las Vegas in the early '70s before Jennings was popular. “He was playing in a lounge show at the Golden Nugget,” Claridge remembered. “I was visiting my parents, and when I heard him, I went home, got (wife) Rhoda and took her to see him. That's when I became a country fan. I like most country at least 10 years or older.”

Claridge marveled about the influence football had on his life. “It opened multitudes of doors,” he told me. “If I hadn't been a football player, I might not have gotten into dental school or orthodontics school. The people you meet and the friends you make are just incredible.”

Claridge admits wishing he could have had another year under Bob Devaney. “It was a joy, and I didn't appreciate it enough at the time,” Claridge said. “I was too immature at that age to understand the privilege I had.”

Not surprisingly, his career highlight was the 1964 Orange Bowl. “I say that because that's what everybody recommends,” he admits before adding that “the thing I'm proudest of is being an Academic All-American. I still thank (Sports Information Director) Don Bryant for that. He must have had some IOU's to make that happen.”

Through the years, Claridge stayed in contact with Lloyd Voss, who came to Lincoln to see him and his family about every other year. “We enjoyed that,” Claridge said, pointing out that Voss had a liver transplant and died later. Dennis Stuewe visited Lincoln about every three or four years. Claridge played golf with Dwain Carlson and John Kirby. “Unless there's a reunion or an organization reaches out to you, that's about it,” he said, pointing out that “we all mature and grow and get into our fields of work and gain different friends.”

One of his most memorable moments in football came after Nebraska beat Miami in the Gotham Bowl. “A sportswriter said: ‘Coach Devaney, why don't you kiss Claridge?’” Devaney responded with a perfect quip. “Back in Nebraska,” he said, “we kiss girls."

Claridge remembered how “nobody was there” in Nebraska’s Gotham Bowl win in New York City. “You hear stories about there being 3,000 people there, but I swear there were 500 people there or less,” Claridge said. “That wouldn't show up much in Yankee Stadium. Basically, no one was there except a band. The field was frozen and Yankee Stadium was downhill. There was a slight slope.

“I remember intercepting a George Mira pass and recall Willie Ross returning a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown. When we had the awards ceremony, everything was leading up to it was all about Miami. They were the ones acknowledged first and got all the ‘stuff.’ By the time we got there, they ran out of watches, and I remember (trainer) George Sullivan giving his watch to one of our players because there just weren't enough.”

On road trips, Claridge roomed with Kent McCloughan and Dennis Stuewe most of the time. “Lloyd Voss and John Kirby were very good friends,” Claridge said. Bill Thornton was a guy I always admired. He was one of the two best football players I was ever around, pro or college. The other was Ray Nitschke with the Packers."

When Bill Jennings was fired and Devaney was hiredcontinuity meant abrupt change. "It disrupts the way things are," Claridge told me. "I was scared. I was nervous. I didn't know if this Bob Devaney guy would do something different that I didn't do. You don't know what someone's like until you work with them.

"Fortunately, it turned out great because when Bob said 'I don't know any of you. You're all starting on page one, and those of you who are on the fourth team will be given an opportunity to be on the first team. Those of you who are on first are going to move down and work your way up.'"

Somehow, 55 years later, Nebraska football players and coaches know how great things can be when the deck of talent reshuffles itself and bases everything on overall performance.  

"With Devaney, everyone got an even shot," Claridge told me. "When Coach Devaney and Jim Ross came in, they pretty much told us in a meeting what was going to happen. Bob couldn't have done it without Jim. The personalities of all those guys really mixed well. They were all so different. Mike Corgan. Carl Selmer. They were good people, good coaches, solid individuals."

Sounds like another era did what Nebraska is doing now. 

The biggest differance is way back then. Memorial Stadium held beween 35,000 and 36,000 fans in the early '60s. "The first year for a major game we probably sold seats between the 40-yard lines," Claridge remembered. "I think the fan support was there. They were just waiting for something to get excited about. We sold out the Missouri game for Homecoming in '62 and the sellout streak started. We didn't win that game, but they were seeing enough positive things to keep it going."

More than half a century later, Nebraska is harkening back towards old times.

Time marches on just like it did in Lincoln in the early '60s. Names like Lloyd Voss, Dennis StueweDwain Carlson and John Kirby adapted quickly to a new regime that put a premium on performance, just like Scott Frost is doing now since the National College Football Coach of the Year returned to his alma mater.  

“We all mature and grow and get into our fields of work and gain different friends,” the late Dennis Claridge told me a few years ago.

Somehow and in some way, as the world turns, Nebraska appears to be on the verge of another renaissance in college football.

I can only imagine who might be looking down to see how a dramatically different culture delivers like it did in the early '60s.

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