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While the spotlight focuses on Saturday's football and volleyball doubleheader - two events that will draw almost 100,000 customers - another Lincoln doubleheader deserves attention and respect of Nebraska fans everywhere.
What we have here are Jay Dirksen's last home meet as the Husker men's and women's cross country coach Saturday at Pioneers Park and John Walker's soccer team officially launching Nebraska into a new era of intercollegiate athletics Sunday against Northwestern - the first ever Big Ten Conference contest for the University of Nebraska in any sport.
Those are the headlines, but hardly the storylines.
Dirksen, in his 29th year as a Nebraska head coach, suffered a heart attack last June 28th that required bypasses for five arteries, four of which had blockages of 100, 90, 80 and 70 percent. "I don't know what the blockage was in the fifth," he said. "I just know there wasn't much oxygen in my heart."
It was a distressing, uncomfortable experience for Dirksen, a driven 66-year-old who was planning to coach through the 2012 track-and-field season before hanging up the clipboard and putting his stopwatch in the top dresser drawer.
Straight from the Airport to the Hospital
"The heart surgeon told me I probably had a heart attack two years ago, another one the week before the last one while running and then the third one for about seven hours while I was flying to Lincoln from Little Rock and Chicago," Dirksen said. "I wasn't sure I was going to make it."
A car was waiting at the airport to take him straight to the hospital. "I was in surgery very quickly," Dirksen said. "The amazing thing is after all those bypasses, the surgeon told me I had 'no damage'. I feel better today than I've felt in 15 years. I'm a Christian who happens to be coach, not a coach who happens to be Christian. I feel the Lord's hand was all over this, so I moved my retirement up, and we were able to hire David Harris (as his successor). He's a great head coach, and I've known him a long time."
Dirksen is at peace making this weekend his last home meet and this season his coaching farewell. "It's been a tough year in our office," he said. "My wife and I built a house in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas. It's a gated community with 12 lakes and nine golf courses. She just retired and is already there. I'm retiring in December and joining her so I can be there before the warranty's up on the house."
Friday night, at the Devaney Center's indoor track, fellow coaches, alumni members of the Relay Club and longtime track officials will host a retirement party for Dirksen. Saturday afternoon, he will be honored during the Nebraska-Washington football game. Even though Dirksen disdains the spotlight, he deserves Saturday's recognition in front of another Nebraska sellout crowd.
Walker is Hoping History Can Repeat Itself
Turn the clock back 15 years, the first season for the Big 12 Conference and a breakthrough season on the national stage for Nebraska women's soccer. "I remember how exciting that was for our program and for our athletic department," Walker said, recalling how the Huskers upset Texas A&M in their first ever Big 12 game en route to a 19-0 regular season and a repeat conference championship.
Nebraska's entire first season in the Big 12 was a magical ride for soccer. "I remember all the huge crowds and beating a highly ranked A&M team while we were still an emerging program at the time," Walker said. "We won, 1-to-nothing, and that first-ever Big 12 win definitely propelled us forward as a national program. We ended up playing A&M again in the first Big 12 Championship won, 1-nothing again in overtime."
Speaking of overtime, how long does Nebraska's 15-year run in the Big 12 seem to a coach that has become a consistent threat both in his conference and nationally?
"I just remember a very exciting time, and we would love for history to repeat itself and have a strong start in the Big Ten Conference as well," Walker said, admitting that as solid as the Big 12 is in soccer, the Big Ten is probably even stronger.
"Last year, the Big Ten had six teams in the NCAA Tournament, and the Big 12 only had four," Walker pointed out. "Ohio State made the Final Four last year, and Penn State has been to multiple Final Fours over the last decade. I think they've won or shared the Big Ten championship for about 13 straight years with three different coaches ... amazing!"
Now, Nebraska joins that elite league. "The Big Ten has so much tradition and history that it's definitely an honor to be a part of it," Walker said. "I remember 15 years ago when we thought we were going to be in the Big 12 forever. One can never imagine the changes in college sports. It's completely different now."
But still fun, still competitive and still entertaining. Kickoff Sunday at the Nebraska Soccer Field is set for 12:05 p.m. The game will be streamed live on BTN.com and will be shown on tape delay Sunday at 3 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.
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