Good news, Husker fans! The score of Saturday’s Nebraska-Oklahoma game won’t matter.
OK, technically it will matter a little. It will be an official college football game and the score will determine the winner and the loser, which will then be reflected in the standings.
But this will be just one of a thousand college football games that will be played on a hundred different fields this season. The score will be forgotten (the sooner, the better).
The game means a lot, though, for a different reason. It’s the 50th anniversary of college football’s original Game of the Century, the epic 1971 Nebraska-Oklahoma battle. It was the the most anticipated college football game in years and somehow lived up to the hype. Other schools and TV networks and Paul Finebaum have tried to manufacture new games of the century since then, but math and reality always got in the way. There can only be one game of the 20th century, and it happened 50 years ago.
Don’t take my word for it. The great Bill Connelly (who studies college football analytics much more than you or I do) has spoken:
Numbers can't touch the 1971 Nebraska-Oklahoma game, however. It was as great as everyone says it was. In terms of combined percentile ratings, it was one of the five most high-quality games ever…Nebraska beat OU, 35-31, and beat its other 12 opponents by a combined 472-87. That list of victims includes Alabama (No. 2 in Est. S&P+, lost 38-6) and Colorado (No. 4, lost 31-7). This was an amazing team, the best of the 1970s. It's almost a shame that our collective memory of the '71 Huskers is either one game (OU) or one play (Johnny Rodgers' amazing punt return).
After the Game of the Century, Nebraska-Oklahoma became a fall fixture for a couple of generations of Husker fans. The matchup still resonates deeply, a Ghost of Thanksgiving Past. “Nebraska-Oklahoma” still sounds large and important even though these days the teams are on terribly different trajectories (Oklahoma is 2-0 and has National Title aspirations, while Nebraska lost to Illinois which lost to the UTSA Roadrunners).
When this year’s shiny commemorative game was scheduled in 2012 it seemed like a fine idea, but now Husker fans (and maybe even Scott Frost) aren’t so sure this is the best time for the teams to get together. The good news, though, is that anniversaries are about three things, and none of them involves the present.
Anniversary Purpose #1: Making you feel old
Until age 24, hearing “you’re getting older” is a badge of honor. It reinforces that you’re progressing on your path to the magical land of adulthood where an apartment, a real job and legal liquor consumption await.
Once you’re 25, though, aging becomes less glamorous. Having a birthday always beats not having one, but being reminded that you’re getting older starts to feel like an insult, even a warning.
You begin to notice that when an anniversary arrives, it whispers “you’re getting older” into your ear. You respond by blurting out “my God, that was XX years ago? That’s not possible!” But of course it was, and it is. And so you have no choice but to acknowledge that another year has passed, that your train has brought you one stop closer to your final destination.
If you remember watching the Game of the Century when it happened, you probably find it difficult to believe that it was in fact 50 years ago. Doing 50th anniversary math is no fun because the answer is always YOU’RE OLD. But the consolation prize is that you’re still around to celebrate it, so congratulations.
Anniversary Purpose #2: Celebrating the original
The second purpose of an anniversary is to revisit and celebrate the thing that gave rise to the anniversary in the first place. This focus on the past is convenient for Husker fans this week, because even though they might be dreading the 2021 installment of the Nebraska-Oklahoma game, this weekend is all about the original.
Look at it this way. A married couple’s 50th anniversary party isn’t about Year 50, it’s about all the graduations and vacations and babies and birthdays that made the marriage worthwhile. The happy old couple and their surviving wedding guests and weird Uncle Ed gather in a present-day back yard to sip gin and tonics, but the stories they tell are about the memories and the milestones. The anniversary party is just the excuse to get together.
And so it will be for Nebraska and Oklahoma tomorrow. The 50th anniversary of the Game of the Century is not about the 2021 game. It’s about the first one and the 10th one and the 26th one and all the rest, the stadiums and the fumbles and the fight songs (including the “Boomer Sooner” abomination that fueled my childhood nightmares).
It’s true that Nebraska football isn’t what it was 50 years ago or 25 years ago or even 10 years ago. But so what? Success is cyclical, even when the cycles are long and slow. This game lets us remember a different time, a Big 8 time, before the Big 12 and the Big Ten and the SEC changed everything, when passing was simpler and TVs were blurrier and somehow we liked it that way. Change is what validates that the past is special.
Sure it would be fun if Nebraska had the squad to make this a better game. But really, that’s like grandpa wishing he was still hot. The point of a 50th anniversary party isn’t that you still got it; it’s that you always had it.
Anniversary Purpose #3: Time travel
There are a handful of moments in life that carve permanent hiding places in the center of our brains. Unfortunately many of them involve tragic events (assassinations, accidents, attacks) but some are exhilarating (having babies, walking across a stage or down an aisle). The sights and sounds and even the smells of these moments are archived in their hiding places, and we are free to access them at any time, like a personal DVR of big life experiences. They are our Stories.
When we tell a Story we usually begin with “I remember exactly where I was when… .” These words summon the Story from its hiding place, and we are transported back in time and re-inserted into the moment. We feel the room again, see our friends’ young faces and hear their young voices again. Sometimes the people in that room aren’t with us anymore, and so even the happy Stories can have a sadness to them, but while we tell our Story, for that moment, everyone is with us.
That’s why grandma tells the Story — over and over and over — of the time grandpa slipped on the ice in front of everyone on their first date. She’s not just sharing a memory; she’s visiting it. For a moment she is standing on her front porch again, with her family and her dog Sadie, touching her mother’s arm with one hand and covering her mouth with the other as she laughs at the clumsy but intriguing guy sprawled on the driveway who has come to walk her into her future.
Anniversaries are a great time for Stories, especially when they involve football games.
There’s one play — the biggest moment in the biggest game — that has created a million Stories:
Every Husker fan of a certain age remembers exactly where he was when Johnny Rodgers tore them loose from their shoes. Ask one of them for his Story about it tomorrow. It’s probably his favorite. I bet he remembers who was sitting next to him and the color of the carpet and what beer he was drinking. Go back there with him.
The 2021 installment of the Nebraska-Oklahoma game will not be the game of any century. It won’t even be the game of the day. Oklahoma should win by a lot of points, if you’re into that kind of thing. But while you’re watching, remember that this is really just a fun anniversary celebration and the game will be a tiny blip in college football history.
So Husker fans, don’t worry about the score tomorrow. Most football programs don’t have 50 years of success to celebrate in the first place.
And at least we’re all still here.