LINCOLN — Nebraska’s weight room turned into an auxiliary locker room less than an hour before kickoff Saturday night for the first group of Huskers to take the field.
That rowdy bunch was the 1997 national championship teamcelebrating the 20th anniversary of Nebraska’s last national title.
The former players gathered in the North Stadium weight room prior to their tunnel walk intro. For most of them it was the first time they had taken a tunnel walk from the north end; the Huskers’ locker room was still in South Stadium in 1997.
Among the loudest and most prolific back-slappers and huggers was linebacker Carlos Polk. The defensive and offensive units gathered for group pictures that included former coach Tom Osborne, defensive coordinator Charlie McBride and defensive backs coach George Darlington.
At times the assembled players were so worked up they seemed ready to suit up against Wisconsin. There was even some cursing that caught Osborne’s attention; he shot a few disapproving looks toward the offending groups.
Former defensive end Grant Wistrom entered the NU locker room to lead the 2017 Huskers in their pregame chant before they left for their tunnel walk that was broadcast on the video boards throughout the stadium.
Of all the players introduced, Wistrom received one of the loudest ovations from the 358th consecutive Memorial Stadium sellout crowd.
Both Wistrom and Jason Peter briefly contemplated turning pro after the ’96 season. Those thoughts didn’t last long; Wistrom said they wanted to atone for the two losses from the previous season, especially the 19-0 loss at Arizona State.
“It was an easy decision,” Wistrom said. “I think it just kind of epitomized that whole team. Everybody was selfless on that team. Everybody had a job. Jason and I could have put ourselves first, but we put our family team above our own needs.
“Throughout the season it was just a common thread. Nobody’s egos got in the way. Everybody knew their job. It was just on us to go out and execute it every Saturday.”
Wistrom, Peter and other team leaders also wanted to reset the personal expectation levels for the younger players — expectations that at times were missing during the ’96 season.
“There were just some attitudes that kind of permeated throughout the team and infected a few players that weren’t all in,” Wistrom said. “Our senior season, we weren’t going to let that happen. We had sacrificed a lot, potentially, to put our careers on the line to come back for one more year.
“We felt if we were giving something up, everybody needed to sacrifice as well, and everybody did. It wasn’t like (we had to) force anybody to do anything. Everybody was all in every Saturday, every practice, every session in the weight room. It was selling out for one common goal.”
That ’96 losses to the Sun Devils and in the first Big 12 championship game to Texas in St. Louis were part of why Wistrom believes most outside the Husker program dismissed NU as a contender in the ’97 title race.
“People kind of felt we’d had our day winning two championships and losing the year before,” Wistrom said. “Had an opportunity to go out and prove them wrong.”
Wistrom said Osborne ending his career with a third national championship was the most important part.
“If anybody ever deserved it, it’s him,” Wistrom said. “He would probably disagree with that statement because we all know the type of man he is, but that was the only fitting way to send him out.”
At Friday’s reunion dinner, Wistrom said, plenty of memories were shared about the rugged practices and fights that occasionally would break out.
“It would be fights out at practice, and just like brothers out in the yard, bloodying each other’s nose, scrapping, and just fighting, not practicing at times, fighting,” Wistrom said. “But when we walked off the field we were all brothers. We put all that stuff aside and we were family.”
That family feeling filled the room at the dinner.
“It was awesome. It didn’t miss a beat,” Wistrom said. “Jason was on. Jason was Jason. It was a great night last night.”
Wistrom was fairly certain no noses were bloodied before, during or after the meal.
“Not that I know of,” he said. “None that we’ll tell Coach about.”
Nebraska fans were asked to wear black shirts to Saturday’s game, and most of the nearly 90,000 people complied.
There were patches of red shirts in the sea of black. Nebraska’s coaches wore not only black polo shirts but also black dress slacks.
Crystal footballs — a good look
The Tunnel Walk video for the ’97 national championship team was the 1998 production that featured all three of NU’s Sears Trophies with the crystal footballs.
After the ’97 team members took the field, they lined up to be part of the sea of people the 2017 team ran through on its way to the east sideline.