Warren Nelson is a classic example of why college sports always has been and always will be better than pro sports. The 90-year old Nebraska Cornhusker fan has attended over 400 straight Husker home football games starting in 1947 and straight through to last Saturday. He is the embodiment of all that makes Nebraska one of college football’s elite programs and the game special.
The streak ended for him when the Spartans came to town. I caught up with him recently and spoke over the phone with the living ICON from his home in Bellevue, Nebraska. He had this to say, “I try to attend them all (games). I sure have enjoyed it all these years. I don’t want to let my team down. I had to quit this past week because I had a pacemaker. I had a long tenure. I have seen a lot of great Husker football. I will be back. I have my tickets for next season.”
This born and bred Husker is proud of his school and his state. He told me, “Yes. I love it here. I was raised here all my life and attended South High School in Omaha. After school I went to work in Omaha at the stock yards for 41 years and retired in 1982. I know there is no one that has been at all the Nebraska games as long as I have. This is home. Couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.”
So how did this diehard develop this amazing devotion with the game? “I just fell in love with football. I played a lot of sandlot football. I didn’t get to play in high school. Mother didn’t want me to play. I know that I could have played. I took it on myself to love the sport and that is what it has been to me. I still love it after all of these years.”
So with years of dedication and loyalty I had to ask him what being a part of the Big Red Nation meant to him. “Being a Cornhusker means a lot to me. I am a well-behaved person and that is how I wanted it. A lot of nice folks who attend in Lincoln are that way. Even more than a win, it means something that we represent Nebraska in a certain way; in the stands and on the field. Coaches and players from opposing teams say that there is no other place like this and that there is not a better place to play than in front of these people. I think that should mean something to us. We act a way and play a way. I am so proud of that.”
Nebraska is an elite college football program with some of the greatest fans anywhere in the world. Some would say that Husker football is a religion in Nebraska. Nelson doesn’t go that far, he thinks the two go hand in hand. “I attend church every Sunday with my wife. It makes no difference what times I get home from the game; we get up and go to church. It’s Nebraska football on Saturday and the Lord on Sunday, that’s just the way we live.”
It takes a diehard wife to achieve this amazing feat of endurance and Mrs. Cecelia Nelson loved sharing that time with her beloved husband. “Yes, I went to the games until I fell and broke my arm and leg. I can’t anymore, I couldn’t do steps without a railing and they don’t have them. So he goes with my son now.”
For fans like this, it sure would seem the Nebraska faithful will speak up to find a way to accommodate Mrs. Nelson.
This is a great story no doubt. So much so that while I was riding to Nebraska a media member, who I follow on Twitter, sent this story out. As I read it, it touched me. Mr. Nelson is exactly why I do what I do; why I love college athletics and I retweeted the story out.
Well, one of my followers shares the love that Mr. Nelson and I do for college sports. He read the article and was moved. That man is MSU Director of Athletics Mark Hollis. He had to talk to this living ICON of football.
Hollis told me, “I actually read your retweet. I tried to put myself in his (Nelson’s) mind and what I would be thinking. He wasn’t doing what he loved most: being at a college football game in Lincoln. Sitting at breakfast I read that tweet and I felt compelled to call him. I just thanked him for supporting the Husker program and college football for all those years. I just felt a lot of compassion. What would I be feeling if I had to miss that game?”
So how did the Nelson’s take the call from the head man of MSU athletics?
Mrs. Nelson said, “I was so surprised and he was so nice to me. Just a kind young man.”
Mr. Nelson opined that, “Oh, I sure was surprised. That is one of the most terrific things that has ever happened to me. That is a man who appreciates what sports is about. I never would have dreamed an athletic director would call me from any school, and it was from an opposing school, and he did that. That just (long pause) meant a lot.”
He went on to say about Hollis and his call, “He is such a great man. Why would he call? I mean it. Why would he call? He had no reason to call me and thank me. I just couldn’t believe it. He just has to be a wonderful person. I would have to say to you he really touched me. I have had a lot of fine things happen to me and that was one of the best, ever.”
Moments after Hollis hung up the phone with the Nelsons, Warren got on the phone. He called his son John who I spoke to from his business in Minnesota. John told me, “I just thought that was a very class act for an opposing Athletic Director to get involved in something that was bigger than I thought it was. For him, I realize how busy he is and for him to take time out of his schedule to call my dad. What it meant to my father really meant a lot to me. My father called and said, ‘You won’t believe this I got a call from the MSU Athletic Director.’ It really touched dad and me. What an amazing and kind thing.”
There is no way that Nelson would ever change his loyalties from his Huskers and Hollis wouldn’t want him to, but Nelson says the Spartans have a new place in his heart. “After Nebraska I would have to say that the Spartans and Michigan State are my second favorite team now.”
The Nelsons made it clear to Hollis how thankful they were, but that their loyalty was all red. Hollis recalled, “They told me thank you and that they would be cheering loud for the Huskers. It was really great.”
So what touched America’s #1 Athletic Director in the Spartans’ Hollis? “It takes me back to my dad; a guy that was a minister and a public school administrator. The Nelsons are the reason I got into this business. Sometimes we are so busy negotiating TV deals and conference expansion and we can’t ever forget what this game is about. We can’t take the fans for granted. It is very grounding to go back to those reasons why you love this business. While we all are blindingly trying to fight to stay competitive, it just gave me kind of a personal opportunity to step back and I read and remembered why college sports are so important to me. It was why I got started back in the 80s.”
Readers of Spartan Nation know that I consider Coach Tom Osborne one of the Mount Rushmore of college coaches. It was Osborne who impacted Hollis to make that call. Hollis shares my respect for Osborne and recalled to me how the legendary Husker field general inspired him and that call.
Hollis said, “Tom Osborne is a guy you look to and the kind of person you try to pattern your decision-making after as an administrator. Some of that call (to Nelson) was because of some comments he made to me. When Nebraska joined the Big Ten he told me what was so great about the Nebraska vs. Oklahoma rivalry. He said both institutions respected each other; on the field and off. He told me, ‘that is what makes a true rivalry over something that is bitter or brings anger. You want to be competitive and beat your rival, and if you can do that with respect that is what makes a real rivalry.’ I always remember those words. I want that and that was a call Coach Osborne would have made.”
So after so many years following and attending the games of one of college football’s elite schools, I had to ask Nelson what his greatest moment he has ever seen in Memorial Stadium. I thought he would pull out some great play from long before I was born. I was wrong.
So what was his greatest moment inside Memorial Stadium? “Oh I would have to say a couple of weeks ago against Northwestern.” Nebraska won that game on a last second Hail Mary play. “They had five or six of those opposing players in (the) endzone and the ball was tipped and we got the score. I would say that was terrific moment. There are a lot of them. Some of the best moments maybe not even football. Just being with my wife and all the wonderful people.”
Warren Nelson is not only a perfect example of what makes the fans in Nebraska special, but also what makes college football special. Just like Mark Hollis is the perfect example of what a Spartan happens to be and what good administrators are.
Of course touching moments like this take two people and for a 90 year old fan it was an opposing athletic director who he didn’t know, that loved the same game like he did, that made this one. Even if Hollis wasn’t born when the streak started, he was old enough to see part of Nelson in him. Hollis saw his dad. Nelson saw a young version of himself in Hollis and we all get a reminder about what the game really means.