Conner's Burnt Orange Glasses: Nebraska

We buried Gayle, the one-legged mailman on Friday. Gayle fought in Viet Nam, gaining two Purple Hearts but losing the bottom half of his right leg. It annoyed him to put long pants over his prosthetic limb, so he wore shorts every single day of the year, even in the dead of winter when biting South Plains winds make it colder than a cast iron toilet in the Yukon.

In the Bible class I teach, Gayle was my "go-to receiver" – that is, whenever I would get stuck or the class lagged, I could say, "What do you think, Gayle?", and the discussion would get rolling in a positive direction again. Gayle passed suddenly at the age of 61 from a cardiac condition indirectly related to his war injuries; I guess some wounds never heal. He was funny and abrupt and brutally honest and wise and knew everybody, so I was flattered when his family asked me to be a pall bearer. I'm gonna miss my one-legged mailman.

But there are just some things in your life you can't let pass without comment. Like the word "Nebraska," which makes me think first of Big Red, the Power I, Blackshirts, and "Roll Left," but second of the Bruce Springsteen album of the same name from the 1980's. When the record came out, I was working as an assistant manager in a music store in Abilene to help with college costs. Even the album cover startled me. There was no picture of the Boss smiling and holding a Telecaster, but only a stark, haunting black and white photo of the flat, frozen Midwestern winter skyline taken through a dirty windshield from the front seat of a sedan. The songs, recorded on acoustic guitar and four-track cassette recorder instead of with a band in a professional studio, were just as grim and serious and profound.

The first time I ever put a turntable needle to the vinyl of "Nebraska," I was vacuuming the music store before opening. I guess I was expecting "Everybody's Got a Hungry Heart, Part II," but the first lines of the title song, a retelling of the Charles Starkweather homicides, literally knocked me to the ground, where I sat transfixed, cross-legged on the floor, unable to move, liner notes in hand, compelled to listen to the entire album from beginning to end. The store opened late that morning, but I didn't give a rat's rear. "Nebraska" went on the short list of albums that changed my life, along with the Clash's "London Calling," Tom Petty's "Damn the Torpedoes," Miles Davis' "'Round About Midnight," Bruce Cockburn's "Humans," John Coltrane's "Blue Train," and Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks."

Saturday afternoon, the Texas Longhorn football season looked as bleak and hopeless as the "Nebraska" album cover. Down 17-3 with no momentum, a ghostly quiet home crowd and the humiliation of trailing a team we were favored to blow out by 21 points, this bunch of scrappy underachievers did the seemingly impossible. They reached down deep inside themselves, pulled together all their heart, courage, and moxie – and kicked a field goal. Then another field goal. Then Jamaal Charles ran for, like, 300 yards, we dodged another bullet, and Coach Mack won his 100th game in burnt orange.

Still, because our win was so listless and ragged (at least for three quarters), the Haters on Inside Texas message boards will have a field day. Yes, this was in fact an ugly win. This win was uglier than having to shave James Gandolfini's back hair with a straight razor. It was uglier than lancing a boil on Sean Penn's butt with the pin on the back of your grandmother's favorite broach. It was uglier than Britany Spears removing her own episiotomy sutures with a pair of tweezers and a compact mirror.

May I take the liberty of anticipating some of your comments after the NU game?

"Our defense is terrible." I won't go that far, but our players and coaches did an extremely poor job of adjusting to Nebraska's money play – the deep seam route up the middle, splitting the safeties in Cover Two. The Huskers scored with it just before halftime, just after halftime and I'll be danged if they didn't run it again for good yardage in their final scoring drive in the fourth quarter. The defensive statistics from this game will be brutal, but holding NU to multiple back-to-back three-and-outs in the second half gives the defense a passing grade – but just barely.

"We play down to the level of our competition." This statement is absolutely true, provided we're honest about the level at which our competition was playing. On Saturday, Nebraska, a once-proud dynasty, fought to stave off a four-game conference losing streak and salvage something from a humiliating, demoralizing season. There is nothing more dangerous and unpredictable than desperate men with their pride on the line and absolutely nothing to lose, especially when they have your name circled in red on their calendar. I don't know if this was the best game the Huskers played all year, but they certainly became feral, acting like instinctive, wild animals with their backs against the wall. So, yeah, that was about the level of our play, too.

"We're not a very good football team." O.K., you have me here. This is the point I'm now ready to concede. Before the game, I was talking to Clendon Ross (who accurately predicted Saturday's contest would be a close dogfight), who was only half-joking when he said, "Jeff, you're such a homer!" I prefer to think of myself as a pragmatist, patriot and incurable optimist (if those aren't oxymoronically contradictory) who doggedly believed the 2007 Horns could coalesce into a strong top ten team. It can still happen, but even I have to admit we're rapidly coming to the end of the runway and our plane hasn't yet reached take-off velocity. We're a "good" team, but we most definitely are not a "very good" team.

"Oklahoma State pounded a Nebraska team on the road we barely beat at home. Oklahoma State's gonna kill us." That's a definite possibility, especially considering the weird vibe we've had in Stillwater over the years. But if we were in court, I'd say, "Objection, Your Honor, calls for the witness to speculate. Objection, Your Honor, assumes facts not in evidence." I'd get both objections sustained.

But mark it down because you heard it here first: this version of the Longhorns may not be as good as we had hoped, but they have something you can't buy, rent, borrow, steal or coach: the guts and the stones to win tough, close games. If Okie State isn't more than two touchdowns ahead with seven minutes left in the game, we'll find a way to pull out a W. Arkansas State, the first half of TCU, Central Florida, Oklahoma, Baylor (at least, according to some Posters) and NU were all games that came right down to the wire. All that intensity (not to mention a well-polished, real-world-experienced on-side kick-off return team) has taught this bunch not only that they can win close, but how to do it. We may lose because of poor coaching or execution, but it damn sure won't be due to lack of testicular fortitude.

And like a one-legged mailman who never missed a delivery or an under-produced record album that sounds terrible but has amazing songs, sometimes ugly is beautiful.

Hook ‘em.


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