Review of Forever Red

Smith, Steve. Forever Red: More Confessions of a Cornhusker Fan. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. 256 pages. $24.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Jorge Iber

The recent passing (via suicide while serving time in a California prison) of legendary Nebraska Cornhusker running back Lawrence Phillips at the young age of 40 makes this a more than appropriate moment in time to review Steve Smith’s updated journal (with the original work having appeared in 2005) of the author’s love/hate affair with his alma mater’s football team; Forever Red: More Confessions of a Cornhusker Fan explores the significance of fandom for the many who worship upon the altar of “Big Red.” While this reviewer is not among this devoted and select congregation (though I sure did root for them against the Miami Hurricanes back in January of 1984 only to be let down by a failed two-point conversion), this book’s journey through Smith’s childhood, high school and college years, and, finally, young adulthood’s infatuation and heartbreak with the Huskers, provides readers with delightful personal stories as well as wide-ranging and significant social commentary concerning the impact of how “our” football teams’ success and failure alter the meaning of daily lives. Further, Smith also provides thoughtful analysis of just who can be part of “our” team and its fans. Thus, it is possible to break down these stories into the personal, the communal (Nebraskan), and an examination of how the composition of how Cornhuskers (both the team and fans) change over time, and the historical significance thereof.

Cornhusker

University of Nebraska, 2015

The majority of Smith’s work is a recounting of individual games, and how he and his family reveled in victories and agonized with often crushing defeats. The tales begin with Smith’s first visit to Memorial Stadium back in 1980. Through this, and subsequent visits over the years, Smith transports his reader to the “imagined community” of Nebraska and how it plays out in the mind and soul of a native son from the heart of “flyover country.” In covering various games over a span of more than three decades, Smith discusses a myriad of topics: from going from a small town to the “big city” of Lincoln affects him and his family’s existence; what makes for “real” Cornhusker fans, and, more importantly, how the squad and individual players personify the essence of the home state: particularly through the reliance on the ground game (working the land) and being hardworking, diligent, loyal, and honest (as all natives supposedly are). Through these stories, Smith conveys his ever-increasing awareness that not all in Nebraska (both on the field and off) is as it should be. The key question Smith eventually confronts is whether the supposedly sacred traditions of Nebraska football (and its supporters) really do have meaning, or whether the entire atmosphere is simply prepackaged spectacle that is little different from what is experienced in other states (even in, perish the thought, the less honest and forthright locales such as Norman, Oklahoma and, gulp, Miami and Tallahassee, Florida). When even the Cornhuskers begin to shed traditional uniforms for “alternate” black jerseys, for example, is there really any difference from the outrageous antics of the Oregon Ducks? Not surprisingly, as Smith becomes more and more aware of such faux pas, he becomes a bit jaded and disdainful of football, though, like a “true” Nebraskan, he cannot ever completely sever the ties that so bind him to Big Red. Even through all of the muck, the overpriced gear, and the disappointments on the field and in the Athletic Department, Smith argues that the “Cornhuskers are, in a way, my family. They can be exhausting and infuriating and annoying and embarrassing. Sometimes I try to disown them, and I denounce my own name. But then in the blink of an eye…all is forgiven” (p. 83).

A second area that Smith examines at length is even more important in the grander historical scheme of things. As football becomes a different game, in other words, as the “ground and pound” strategy of the 1960s and 1970s begins to give way to new offenses based more on speed, deception, and athleticism in the 1980s, will the Cornhuskers be able to change with the times and begin to recruit, attract, and accept different types of athletes (read that to mean African Americans from outside the “homeland” of Nebraska) in order to be able to compete with the likes of the Hurricanes and the Seminoles? At first, Smith notes, this is a difficult transition for the fans of Big Red. He states that, as “Bresmer announced his (Turner Gill’s) arrival into the Husker huddle, some…{in the} crowd weren’t in the consecration mood. They wondered, in tones laced with skepticism and maybe just a tad of racism, if Turner possessed the smarts to run Tom Osborne’s offense” (p. 21).  As Smith focuses on this topic, we see how fans eventually come to realize that, whether they “approve” or not, the game has changed. Perhaps African Americans (and others) can be part of the Husker huddle after all. If these young men help “us” win, they can be part of the “community.” Starting with 1984, and the shocking loss to Miami in the Orange Bowl, the necessity of moving beyond state borders become ever more apparent. As long as “they” are still the “right kind” of young men (with limits to the brashness, we don’t want to become another Miami or Oklahoma, right?) all will still be well. The Huskers will win, but in the “right way.”

Enter Lawrence Phillips in 1994. How to deal with someone so talented, yet so flawed and so violent? Does winning a national title excuse dragging a young woman down a flight of stairs by her hair? Does winning also allow the Huskers to begin to work with “boosters of substance” and offering high priced club house seats? Wasn’t Nebraska football supposed to be different, just like Nebraskans are different from Floridians or Oklahomans? Wasn’t “our coach” supposed to be brilliant, religious, and a leader of good young student athletes, or can we live with the likes of men like Bo Pellini? All of these are subjects that are ripe for discussion and consideration because of Smith’s excellent analysis.

Not all hope is lost, however. In regard to the acceptance of “others” in hope of maintaining the winning Husker tradition, Smith details the impact that a young South Korean player had on both the squad and the author’s family (married into the clan of Smith’s wife). Certainly this can be seen as a sign of coming together, both on the field and off. In this reviewer’s own experiences, he recalls how a Cuban family, in the Orange Bowl no less, actually held up a sign emblazoned “Cubans for Nebraska” in support of a young running back named Omar Soto (graduate of Miami High School, no less) who wore the red and white in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Perhaps Nebraska can only gain from becoming a bit more like Miami? Possibly.

In summary, Smith’s work is a wonderful ride of emotion and history, both personal and communal. It gives readers a sense of the uniqueness of the culture of Nebraska Cornhusker football, and all that surrounds it. Yes, there is a there, there. But if Big Red is going to be able to compete with the Ducks, the Trojans, the Irish and others of that ilk in the future, traditions will have to accommodate players (and fans) of different backgrounds and ethnicities. Perhaps, after all, Nebraska is becoming more like the rest of the country, both on the field and off. Smith’s work is an excellent introduction to this transformation that is occurring right before our eyes in the state’s demographic make-up, as well as on the field of Memorial Stadium.

Jorge Iber is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His area of specialization is the study of Latino/a participation in the history of American sports. He is the author/co-author/editor of eight books. His most recent work, a biography of former Major Leaguer Mike Torrez (he of the pitch to Bucky “Bleeping” Dent in the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees) will appear in the Spring of 2016 and is being published by McFarland.

 

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