The year 1968 began innocently enough, but 12 months later the entire country would be shaken. In January and February, North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive, turning the war in Vietnam in its favor and putting America into a war on two fronts — that in the Far East and that which was embroiling on the domestic front. As Lyndon Johnson promised more troops, the nation grew more outraged. Blood pressures continued to rise through the spring. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis on April 4 and just two months later, Bobby Kenneday was shot and killed after winning a California primary. The 19th summer Olympics in Mexico City were also embroiled in controversy. Three-hundred youths are killed days before the opening as a protest turned into a riot, while two of America's top sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were booted from the team for giving the Black Power salute during the playing of the national anthem.
The Sunflower State was far-removed from Memphis, California or even Vietnam, but the ramifications of American culture gone awry stretched to Kansas as well. The only shining star that touched the state was Debra Dene Barnes, crowned Miss America that year.
Certainly, nobody expected a 2-5 Kansas State team that hadn't had a winning season in 13 years to be a bright spot, especially when they traveled to Lincoln to play in front of more than 67,000 against Nebraska. The Huskers had won Big 8 titles four of the previous five seasons, and had a 5-2 record rolling into the Nov. 9 Homecoming game. Legendery coach Bob Devaney, who would compile a 101-20-2 record between 1962 and 1972, had lost just two games that season, to No. 6 Kansas and No. 20 Missouri.
But K-State was led by a a scrappy right-handed quarterback named Lynn Dickey, and a second-year coach named Vince Gibson, who had won just three of his first 17 games but had faith nonetheless. It was cold that Novemeber day — bleak. But four quarters later, a Homecoming crowd was sent home with blank stares and long expressions, as K-State's defense stood tall against Devaney's team which, two years later, would win its first of back-to-back National Championships. For one bright, shining weekend, K-State and the state of Kansas had the nation's admiration.
Thirty-five years later, K-State returns to Nebraska. The Wildcats haven't won at Memorial Stadium since, the closest call coming when a 4-4 team nearly upset the second-ranked Huskers in their last trip to Lincoln, a 31-21 loss in 2001. K-State led 14-13 at the half before the Huskers scored 18 unanswered points to seal the win. Defensive end Andrew Shull said he remembers that day vividly.
"I remember we had an okay first half and then coming out we just layed an egg and they got the best of us," he recalled. "We've had this date on our calendar, the seniors, since we've been here. It'll be important for us to have a good game."
But that's been important to 17 teams that have traveled up US-77 for a shot at the vaunted Huskers. Seventeen teams have been sent south, hung with another loss, two more season of waiting for another chance and the utter disappointment of seasons gone awry. For the most part, scores have been lopsided: 51-0 in 1976, 55-8 in 1980, 48-3 in 1988 and 56-26 in 1997, K-State's only loss that season. In fact, Nebraska handed K-State its only loss in 1999, too, a 41-15 loss once again in Lincoln.
Coach Bill Snyder realizes the amount of success — or lack of — that he and his teams have had amidst the sea of red. He knows the high hopes and heartbreak that have accompanied so many teams to Lincoln so many seasons.
"I can think back to some ballgames we played pretty well," Snyder said, "and maybe better than we were supposed to be capable of playing. That has happened. Nebraska is a tremendously storied program, so it highlights the emotion."
Junior wide reciever Antoine Polite was born in 1982, 14 years after K-State's last win in Lincoln. In fact, Polite has only been alive for three wins against the Huskers, all of them coming in the last five years. Still, he said the ramifications of Saturday's game transcend the individual players.
"It would be a tremendous victory for this program," he said. "To get that vicotry would mean a lot to Coach Snyder."
To say it wouldn't mean anything to K-State players isn't accurate, though. Even Snyder realizes that. But a win for the players is also a win for the program, all of those teams that made the trip and didn't get the win. Snyder said those hundreds upon hundreds of players will walk on the field Saturday with the Wildcats, if only in spirit, and Snyder, too, will carry them with him.
"Obviously there's been such a drought," Snyder said. "It would be an important step for all the youngsters that played here and had the opportunity but didn't have success. I've never asked for more than that out of our players, to give their dead-level best. If they give the very best effort they have, then I can live with that."
Providence may be in the cards for K-State on Saturday, but one thing remains certain: there's a football game to be played, and despite the history, the pomp and circumstance, and the mystique of Husker football, it will be played on a field 100 yards long, with goal posts at both ends, and nothing can change that.
"It's a great atmosphere to play a football game," Shull said, "but we just have to know it's still a football field and we're still playing with a brown ball."
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