No matter how the outside world might judge him, Steve Bruce is convinced of one thing: He isn't crazy. If he were, then how do you explain the hundreds of people he knows who are similarly obsessed with University of Nebraska football?
Bruce, a Nebraska native now living in Rosemount, cheerfully admits he's changed his phone number to HUS-KERS. He once drove nearly to Albert Lea to pick up a radio broadcast of a Cornhuskers game. He bought four season tickets for Gophers football -- and made an additional contribution to the U athletic program -- just to guarantee good seats for Saturday's game at TCF Bank Stadium, when the Huskers play the Gophers for the first time as a member of the Big Ten.
But Bruce also knows Ashley LeClaire, who has broken up with boyfriends who don't understand her devotion to her home-state team. And Brad Carlin, who celebrates both of his religions -- he's a Methodist on Sundays, a Big Red disciple on Saturdays -- through music. Not to mention the guy who got questioned by a police officer because he kept moving his car back and forth on a hilltop to hear a game on a barely audible Omaha radio station.
About 300 Huskers loyalists turn the Joe Senser's sports bar in Bloomington into Little Lincoln every Saturday, for game-watching parties that include Carlin's pep band. This week, with the Huskers coming to them, their magnificent obsession will be on full display in Dinkytown.
"You would not believe the number of people who told me they bought season tickets just for this game," said Bruce, who works in marketing for a global-technology firm. "The things I've done might sound crazy, but there are lots of like-minded people who have done things that are just as crazy. It's great comparing stories with everyone else, because even if they don't go to the same extreme, there's that shared passion for Nebraska football."
Booster club active
Many of them are part of Minnesotans for Nebraska, a booster club Bruce revived in 1989. An official affiliate of the university's alumni association, it counted more than 1,000 members in its last official census a few years ago.
The group has organized game-watching parties at all four Senser's locations for about 19 years. This weekend, in addition to those gatherings, it will host parties Friday night at the Mall of America; Saturday morning in Roseville, with buses to the game; and Saturday at Campus Pizza.
Most Saturdays, LeClaire watches from her lucky chair at the Bloomington Senser's. She will be at the stadium Saturday, but she still will follow another superstition: no eating until halftime, so as not to upset her nervous stomach.
A native Nebraskan whose parents indoctrinated her from birth, LeClaire doesn't go home for holidays so she can save her time off for trips to Huskers games. At her St. Louis Park apartment, she flies a Nebraska flag from the balcony and has fully outfitted the place with Big Red paraphernalia. Her roommate, from Iowa, has agreed to confine her Hawkeyes gear to her bedroom.
Fans form community
Though Nebraska's entry into the Big Ten means all of its games are now televised locally, attendance at the game-watching parties has not dropped off. Several fans said the Huskers inspire such fierce, enduring loyalty because they are the state's only big-time team, and their long record of success is a source of immense pride for all Nebraskans. To be a Big Red fan is to be part of a unique community, and sharing the love is part of the fun.
"Most of my friends are people I met at Senser's," LeClaire said. "The first time I walked in there, it was standing-room-only, and everyone was wearing red. It was like walking into heaven."
Staying tuned in
For that, she has Bruce to thank. When he moved to the Twin Cities in 1988, he looked in vain for a radio station carrying the Huskers. There weren't any, so he contacted the University of Nebraska, got a list of Twin Cities-area alumni and made hundreds of phone calls to gauge interest in funding a local broadcast.
Bruce easily covered the $500-per-game cost to buy time on a station, as scores of fans sent $20 or $25. They did so for 17 years, until most of the games were televised. The game-watching parties he organized outgrew two smaller bars before landing at Senser's, where Carlin heads the pep band that has played there since the parties began.
The group ranges from eight to 12 musicians and includes tuba, trombone, trumpet, drums, alto sax and piccolo. This weekend, it will perform at the Friday night and Saturday morning parties, then attend the game. Carlin, a professor of biostatistics at the U, will store the instruments in his campus office; after the game, the band will play outside the stadium.
Being there in the flesh will beat the time he took his kids to a Halloween party on a game day. Carlin spent the entire afternoon walking sideways, so he could pick up the Huskers' radio broadcast.
"People were wondering why I was always facing the left wall," Carlin said. "It was pretty silly. But that's typical of a Nebraska fan's devotion."