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The North Stadium lobby and hallways outside Nebraska’s football locker room Wednesday morning were overflowing with 120 kindergarteners from Lincoln’s Kooser Elementary, a school ready to celebrate its third birthday this summer. Named in honor of U.S. Poet Laureate and Nebraska’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Ted Kooser, the school was making its third straight visit to the Osborne Athletic Complex. That means everyone went home today with a better understanding of what it takes to be a Nebraska football player and a sizable number of young visitors left with a keener sense of their daily dream intact. “Oh my gosh, these kids are in awe,” said Melissa Christensen, one of five Kooser kindergarten teachers pairing up with five Nebraska tour guides leading each class on separate but adjacent tours inside the complex. “Even the kids who have been to a Nebraska game are completely shocked when they get inside this building and see everything in it.” If the 40-foot waterfall doesn’t get their attention in the North lobby, Bo Pelini’s booming voice does when he introduces the popular “This Is Nebraska” GameDay video that triggers the emotions and starts the journey. Once kids get outside, their favorite thing to do is run up and down the same field Johnny Rodgers did and Rex Burkhead still does. The first thing they notice is how different a stadium feels when fans aren’t squeezed into all available seats. That sight helps kids see football in a completely different light. “The minute they leave here,” Christensen said, “they’re telling each other on the way back why they’re going to play here someday.”
No wonder Nebraska offers a football version to its annual rite of spring to accommodate school buses carrying passengers from across the state to a parking lot that welcomes them with a Tom Osborne/Brook Berringer statue. Full busloads of school kids account for most of the 12,800 visitors who have toured Memorial Stadium in the last three months. That’s 2,300 more visitors from the same three months a year ago, according to Karen Cook, who organizes Memorial Stadium’s tours. Cook agrees with Christensen that running on the field is the No. 1 experience for boys and girls alike whenever they take the same Tunnel Walk route leading past the locker room, underneath the North Stadium stands and into the blue sky and bright sun shining down on a stadium getting yet another makeover. Once that’s complete late next summer, the East Stadium will become the most iconic view of Nebraska’s campus.
Just like a tour of Lincoln’s State Capitol Building, “This really is an educational experience, even for 5 & 6-year-olds,” Christensen said. “They’re amazed when they think they see a swimming pool inside the training room and then realize that’s where athletes go to heal their bodies or exercise their injuries. We always get a lot of questions about the hot tub, and everything it takes to keep an athlete healthy.” Christensen said the tour demystifies the perception of helmet-wearing players blocking and tackling each other on TV. Instead of seeing them as action heroes, they become real people. “This helps a kindergartener realize that football players are people just like everyone else,” she said. “They just need to practice playing football like we need to practice reading and writing. Seeing all of this helps them to understand the whole game day experience a little differently. They realize that football players are also students who become doctors, lawyers, teachers, parents and everything else.”
Kindergarteners weren’t the only ones getting wowed in the hallways Wednesday. I spotted two equally fascinated young ladies checking out the training room, the weight room and the glass-encased painted portraits alongside the hardware won by Nebraska’s major award winners. These two young women were negotiating their way through the hallway traffic so they, too, could slap a horseshoe hanging over the exit door and walk the red carpet into the stadium. Jessie Pflug and Dominique Edwards seemed so excited I had to ask them why. “We’ve never been down here by the weight room and locker room,” Pflug said. “It looks so much different in person than on TV,” Edwards said. “Seeing it makes you want the season to start.” I finally got to the root of their eagerness. Pflug (Omaha Westside) and Edwards (Omaha Central) are just graduating from high school, but both made Nebraska’s Spirit Squad, proving that cheerleaders can be just as excited about an inside tour as a school full of kindergarteners. “I can just see both of them in that situation,” said Erynn Nicholson, the head coach of the Nebraska Spirit Squad. “This whole experience is exciting for them. They’re like kids in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for the first time.”
Noting how many kindergarten parents were taking the tour along with their children, I couldn’t resist asking how many moms and dads showed up Wednesday. The collective answer was as funny as it was true: “Too Many”. Knowing you’d do what they were doing, you can’t help but laugh. Why not take a half-day of vacation to capitalize on such a golden opportunity? As tour organizer, Cook compiles a list of all the villages, towns and cities bringing in groups to see why Memorial Stadium is such a state treasure. Her list since last March includes 91 communities, and they include: Adams, Alma, Amherst, Anselmo, Ansley, Arapahoe, Arlington, Axtell, Bartley, Battle Creek, Beatrice, Bellevue, Bennington, Bertrand, Broken Bow, Cairo, Cedar Rapids, Ceresco, Columbus, Concord, Conestoga, Creighton, Crestridge, Dakota City, Dorchester, Elkhorn, Elwood, Emerson, Fairbury, Falls City, Florence, Franklin, Fremont, Fullerton, Genoa, Giltner, Gothenburg, Grand Island, Grant, Greeley, Hastings, Henderson, Hubbard, Juniata, Lakeview, Laurel, LaVista, Lexington, Lincoln, Louisville, Malcolm, McCool Junction, Milford, Minatare, Nebraska City, Norfolk, North Bend, Omaha, O’Neill, Papillion, Pawnee City, Paxton, Pleasanton, Ponca, Raymond, Red Cloud, Schuyler, Scribner, Shelby, Silverlake (Iowa), Snyder, Springfield, St. Bernard, St. Edward, St. Paul, Stanton, Superior, Sutton, Syracuse, Underwood (Iowa), Valley, Wahoo, Walnut Creek, Wayne, West Point, Western, Wood River and York. If you can’t find your favorite town on this list and have a group that wants to see what it’s been missing, please feel free to contact Karen Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 402-472-3333. Kids no doubt will consider such a gesture heroic.
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Voices from Husker Nation
Just read the article about the elementary school students getting the tour. My wife and I tagged along on a tour the Friday before the Ohio State game that you were leading last year, and boy were we glad, amazed, excited and thankful. We still talk about it as we watch games on TV. We’ve shown the pictures my wife took last year to friends who are Auburn, Alabama, Georgia and Georgia Tech fans, and all have been very envious of what they saw. I read your articles every day and really look forward to them. Don Kleiber, Sky Valley, Georgia