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Friday, August 11, 2006

Husker Urban Legends - Part I

During my time as a Husker fan I have come across several apparent “urban legends” concerning players, coaches, or the outcomes of games. The prevalence of these seems to have increased with the advent of the internet and fan message boards, which allow news with varying degrees of truth to spread quickly. is a website devoted to urban legends of all sorts. They posit that, “a tale is considered to be an urban legend if it circulates widely, is told and re-told with differing details (or exists in multiple versions), and is said to be true.” In other words, a Husker urban legend would refer to statements or anecdotes that are passed along as facts, without credible evidence, that can then work their way into our fans’ conventional wisdom.

In Part 1 of this post, I will examine several of these Husker urban legends and attempt to get to the bottom of the origin and veracity of these tales.

#1 - Irving Fryar threw the 1984 Orange Bowl

I didn’t become aware of this story until some time after the 1984 Orange Bowl and it doesn’t seem to be all that common. Because I was still a day shy of seven years old when the game took place, I do not remember all of the details involved. As best I can tell, the origin of this legend stems from the belief that several gamblers made a great deal of money on the outcome of this game given that Miami was an 11-point underdog. Right now, I cannot find an internet citation that discusses the gambling allegations, but I do remember reading about this angle in the past.

The Irving Fryar connection is based on his apparent poor play in this game. During the 1983 season Fryar had amassed 1,267 all-purpose yards and 10 TDs. In this game, however, he was less visible. For instance, in this write-up, the following quote is found:
“Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill was having an average game. Kosar was outplaying him, but Gill wasn't getting much help, as his all-everything receiver Irving Fryar was nowhere to be found.”
In addition, with 1:12 to play in the 4th quarter with the ball on the Miami 25, Gill threw a perfect pass to a wide-open Fryar in the end zone, but the normally sure-handed Fryar dropped it. Although Nebraska scored a few plays later, I don’t remember ever seeing Fryar drop a pass prior to that moment. Fryar finished the game with 2 carries for 4 yards and 5 catches for 61 yards.

Given the dropped pass and his less than stellar stats, I suppose one could argue that Fryar could be linked to possible gambling allegations. But I remain very skeptical. First, just how much money would it have taken to buy off Fryar? This is a guy who was soon to be a first round NFL draft pick and actually became the #1 pick overall. The average salary of an NFL player in 1984 was $225,600. Given that, how much would it take for Fryar to consider losing the biggest game of his life? In addition, after dropping the pass in the endzone Fryar fell to his knees like he’d been shot. in obvious disgust and disbelief. I also remember vividly the shots of Gill and Fryar on the bench after the game with their heads buried in their hands in disappointment. I guess we will never know the actual status of this tale, but my gut tells me it is probably a myth. While his stats don’t abolish his involvement a la “Shoeless Joe’ in 1919, they also don’t directly implicate him. I feel bad that I have so little to offer about this story, but wanted to examine it given that Fryar was probably my first favorite Husker. If you have more information about the origins or details of this legend, please let me know as I would love to hear about them.

Status: Undetermined, but it looks to be false.

#2 - Doug DuBose’s career was hindered by a substance abuse problem

This is one of those claims that has taken on a life of its own. It seems as though any conversation involving DuBose’s name eventually turns to a discussion of his alleged drug use. The tale is that his career was spoiled not only by a serious knee injury, but also by some sort of drug habit. Generally, when this topic comes up someone first mentions the clever nickname “Doug DuNose” implying that cocaine was his drug of choice. Next, continued anecdotal evidence is usually offered in the vein of “my older brother’s college girlfriend’s roommate knew the guy that sold drugs to DuBose.”

The last time this legend came up on a Husker message board I did some digging and couldn’t find anything on the internet to substantiate these claims. I then went back to the message board and asked whether or not we had any hard evidence to support the discussion or if it was all hearsay and innuendo. I was curious as to whether I had missed DuBose failing a drug test in college or the pros, or if he had discussed his struggles with drugs publicly. The answer I got was that DuBose served some suspensions while at Nebraska for “undisclosed reasons” and that at the time, word on the street was that they were due to failed drug tests. After that my hunch became that DuBose might actually be the victim of the “cocaine 80s” and the “Len Bias era” that associated every superstar black athlete with drug use.

When I decided to write this piece I did a little more research. I eventually came across this article from 1988 in the New York Times archives. It states that Doug DuBose was one of four players suspended by the NFL for 30 days for violating the league's rules on drug and alcohol abuse. As a result, I guess that could count as at least partial support for this Husker urban legend. Again if you have more information about this story please let me know.

Status: Some supporting evidence of truth.
#3 - County Scholarships

This might be my favorite Husker urban legend. The idea is that Nebraska has been able to circumvent NCAA scholarship limits by awarding so-called “county scholarships” to talented local athletes. This has supposedly freed-up additional scholarships for out-of-state talent and can help explain some of our past success. I first heard about this concept while I was going to school at UNL. The first person to mention it was actually a high school friend who had decided to attend Kansas State. He explained that everyone at KSU was talking about Nebraska’s unfair recruiting advantage and these folks had actually managed to convince him of this notion. Keep in mind this is someone who was born and raised in Lincoln before drifting away to Manhattan. However, beyond the discussions with this unfortunate Wildcat, I did not know the actual origins of this legend.

Fortunately for us, this myth has become so prevalent that a semi-academic paper has actually been written about it by Steve Siporin of Utah State University (I know, I couldn’t believe it either). This paper points out that apparently even Tony Barnhardt of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and ESPN, was not above falling for the county-scholarship claim. So while it is difficult to trace its actual origins, it clearly has far reaching effects, despite there being absolutely no truth to it. I can’t believe people actually bought this! How would Nebraska have gotten away with this and why wouldn’t other teams just do the same? Where would the counties get the money to provide these scholarships? Who would decide which players received them? The holes in this story are countless.

I think the best description of the county-scholarship legend comes from the Siporin’s piece.
“The so-called "county scholarship" makes a fitting symbol for the grass roots interest and energy that people all over the state focus on their one outstanding (college or professional) sports team. Notice that the belief does not speak of a secret state scholarship or a conspiracy of private donors; money comes from the counties, the governmental unit most closely identified with the local, the grass roots, the average (or perhaps idealized) citizen in a rural state.”
I like this description and think it is one that aptly describes our fan base while also clarifying how an idea like this can get started. Good work Mr. Siporin and thanks for clearing up a Husker urban legend for us.

Status: False

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Husker Urban Legends.