‘Unique Fan’ Says NU Program Still on Solid Ground
Lee Fletcher, a rather devout Nebraska football fan for 35 years, saw his first Husker game last Saturday night in person, and he was still talking about it Monday in one of his offices in Herndon, Va.
He was talking about the experiences he had, the people he met and the sheer beauty of Memorial Stadium, even after his favorite team had suffered its first loss at home to Missouri in 30 years.
“My goal coming in here was not to watch Nebraska win. My goal was to watch Nebraska play, and let me say this – the shrine that’s Memorial Stadium looks great on TV, but it’s even more beautiful than I ever imagined in person,” said Fletcher, 47, who lives with his wife, 13-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son in Ranson, W.Va.
Longtime Nebraska football fan Lee Fletcher lives in West Virginia and made his first trip to Lincoln last weekend. Tom Osborne is one of Fletcher's favorite role models.
“I didn’t leave the stadium feeling cheated and thinking ‘Oh, my, we lost . . . what a bummer!’” Fletcher said. “I left the stadium thinking this program is still on solid ground because 1) Tom Osborne is the athletic director; and 2) Bo Pelini is the man he picked to bring the program back to where we once were.
“Coach Pelini will bring us back,” Fletcher promised. “He’s just going to need time to get it done.”
While the pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity, Fletcher sees opportunity in every difficulty.
If you didn’t know Lee Fletcher, and no Nebraskan did until last weekend, you’d think he has a twisted sense of loyalty, if not a downright warped perspective. Who else can find a silver lining in the black cloud of a Cornhusker loss?
What Fletcher saw, of course, depended mainly on what he was looking for, and he was looking for one thing only – a rewarding experience to reinforce his inexplicable fervor for Husker football on his first-ever trip to Lincoln.
He’s a Cornhusker Fan, and No One Can Figure Out Why
For more than three decades, his dad, Dick Fletcher, the executive secretary of the Masonic Service Association of North America in Silver Spring, Md., has tried to understand the logic behind that fervor. “This is my son,” his dad often would say while introducing him. “He’s a Nebraska Cornhusker fan, and no one, including his entire family, can figure out why.”
Lee Fletcher knows why. “The answer,” he said, “in two words is Tom Osborne. I grew up in Vermont, and I went to college (Norwich) in Vermont. We had no major college football team, so I adopted one after watching Nebraska lose to Oklahoma. There was just something about Tom Osborne when he became head coach. It was his demeanor, the way he carried himself. I can’t really put my finger on it.
“Even when his teams kept losing to Oklahoma, I enjoyed watching the way he responded and the way his team responded. They didn’t over-celebrate when things went well, and they didn’t hang their heads when things didn’t go well. The more I watched, the more I realized, that has to be coaching. With Coach Osborne on the sidelines, you knew you were in good hands – win, lose or draw. You just knew the world was going to be right because he was there.
“I’ve been hooked on Nebraska since junior high school. But I was a Tom Osborne fan before I was a Nebraska Cornhusker fan. It’s hard to believe that I’ve connected with Nebraska football 19 years longer than I’ve been with my wife.”
Fletcher has to be one of the most unique Husker fans in the country. He has no ties to the state of Nebraska or the University of Nebraska. Until last Friday, he’d never stepped foot on Nebraska soil. The only Nebraskan he’d communicated with was the one who invited him to Lincoln, met him at the airport and handed him his first game ticket within minutes of his arrival.
Russ Reno, communications manager for the Lincoln Electric System, met Fletcher’s dad at a Masonic meeting in South Dakota earlier this year. The more Dick Fletcher talked about his son’s addiction to Big Red, the more intrigued Reno became. “If he ever wants to come to a game, we’ll get him a ticket in the South Stadium and put him up at our house because lodging, especially for big games, is almost impossible,” Reno told the elder Fletcher.
‘On Solid Ground’ Reinforced Fletcher’s Own Power Points
The accidental Husker father knows a perfect storm when he sees one. He said he’d buy his son a plane ticket to Lincoln, if Reno would work the rest of the logistics. In early September, Reno and his wife, Julie, sent Fletcher a Big Red care package that included a Nebraska shirt, cap and Tom Osborne’s book “On Solid Ground.”
Osborne, the coach with the nation’s best winning percentage, felt compelled to write the truth about a program that withstood intense media scrutiny. “On Solid Ground” is his personal story about Nebraska’s back-to-back national championship seasons. “I read the book from cover-to-cover in two nights,” Fletcher said. “I couldn’t put it down. Everything that drew me to Coach Osborne in the first place was chronicled in that book. In a very dignified way, Tom reminds me of my father.”
Fletcher, an agency manager who oversees 13 independent Avis Budget stores, remembers watching Nebraska “break my heart” while losing seven straight bowl games. “I never wavered in my support then, and I’m not about to waver in my support now,” he said, acknowledging that “if there’s one game that still sticks in my craw, it’s probably the (22-15) loss to Clemson in the (1982) Orange Bowl.”
He remembers the Huskers beginning the ’83 season with a 44-6 win over Penn State in the Kickoff Classic and then reeling off 11 more consecutive wins before Miami ended a perfect season with that classic 31-30 triumph in the Orange Bowl.
“I sat in my chair for an hour-and-a-half after that game was over – almost unable to move,” Fletcher recalled. “I wanted Coach Osborne to win that game so badly. I was so accustomed to his style, I never once thought about kicking the extra point either. I was in total shock, but also in total support of his decision to go for a two-point conversion. I’m glad he didn’t kick it and back into a national title. Clearly, he operates on different ground than almost all the other head coaches in the country. He has standards, and he never deviates from those standards.”
Finally, poetic justice was served in the 1995 Orange Bowl when the Huskers overtook Miami in a 24-17 slugfest. It was one of the most poignant moments of Fletcher’s life. “I watched the whole game holding Sarah, my 2-day-old daughter, in my lap in the Mary Fletcher Hospital in Burlington, Vermont, while my wife, Amanda, slept through the whole game.”
Enjoying Your First-Born and Cory Schlesinger at the Same Time
Amanda had undergone a C-section on a Friday after 16 hours of labor. By Sunday’s Orange Bowl, the whole family was exhausted, but content. “Amanda was out of it,” Fletcher said, “so the nurses brought in a rocking chair for me to watch the game. I remember holding Sarah and watching Cory (Schlesinger) burst through the middle (on 15-yard and 14-yard runs to score the game-tying and game-winning touchdowns) in the fourth quarter. I must confess I shed a tear or two that night in the hospital room.”
Fletcher shed a few more tears when Osborne decided to retire. “I didn’t watch Nebraska when Bob Devaney was head coach,” he said, “but I know how much he meant to Coach Osborne. I think Coach Pelini has a little bit of both of them in him, and I’ll say this: Coach Osborne knew the qualities he wanted in a head coach. The fact that he hired Bo is testament enough to me that we’re on solid ground.”
Last weekend was a “full-meal deal” for Fletcher. Friday night, he saw the Homecoming Parade and attacked a large plate of prime rib at Misty’s in Havelock while an NU pep band, cheerleaders and Herbie Husker paraded around him. Saturday, he toured the Osborne Athletic Complex and met ex-Husker standouts Jeff Kinney and Doug Colman, linebacker coach Mike Ekeler, chaplain Matt Penland and former NU basketball standout Bill Jackman.
He and his hosts, the Renos, stayed to the end of the game. “I enjoyed us scoring on the last play,” Fletcher said. “We never quit, and I enjoyed seeing so many players kneeling down and giving thanks when it was all over.”
Surprisingly, it was only the fourth major college football game Fletcher has ever seen in person. The other three were West Virginia at Maryland, Army-Navy in Baltimore and Dartmouth at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass. Lincoln was a runaway, winning experience. Seeing an empty stadium become another full house of 85,000-plus a few hours later “was an amazing transformation,” Fletcher said. “I was transfixed trying to find everything I’d always seen on television. I could have stayed up there forever.”
Joba, Darin and Alex: A ‘Real Trifecta’ for Husker Fans
Besides Husker football games on TV, Fletcher’s favorite events are New York Yankee games, especially now that he can take his son, Ethan, with him. Getting a chance to help welcome Yankee pitcher Joba Chamberlain back to Lincoln was another Saturday night live highlight. Fletcher called joint recognition of Chamberlain, Houston Astro Darin Erstad and Kansas City Royal Alex Gordon “a proud moment and a real trifecta” for Nebraska baseball and football fans alike.
Watching Outland Trophy winner Will Shields wave to all four sections of the stadium was equally moving for Fletcher, who points out that Shields came from Oklahoma to Nebraska for one reason – the chance to play for Tom Osborne.
“When the Washington Redskins brought Joe Gibbs back as head coach, they said it was like getting your dad back, and that’s the way I feel about Coach Osborne coming back to direct Nebraska’s athletic program,” Fletcher said. “Things are going to be just fine because he’s in control. I thank him not just for winning football games, but for everything else he brings to the game.
“I’ve never met Tom Osborne, but he’s had a profound effect on me and how I approach my life. I trust his leadership and have the distinct feeling that down the road, what Nebraska was, Nebraska will be again. Who knows how long it will take? In my opinion, the simple answer is ‘however long it takes to do it right.’”