Cowboys at Husker Games

The best use of a toothpick I ever saw

Husker Stadium. Credit: Brian Mahnke

Before I moved to Nebraska, I’d never heard of the Huskers. Granted, I didn’t care about football (blasphemous confession: I still don’t), but considering I grew up only five hours from their headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska, it’s rather amazing that I was so oblivious to their existence.

Oblivious, that is, until I moved to Nebraska.

People here love the Huskers. If you don’t care about football, you can plan your shopping trips during Husker games on Saturday afternoons the fall. You’ll have the store to yourself. 90% of the people in Nebraska will be at the game or glued to the television until the final minutes have ticked off the clock. Win or lose, Husker fans are there for it from start to heart-breaking finish.

There’s a reason the Huskers have the longest sell-out streak in all of college football: it’s because the people here are absolutely crazy.

When they lose, there’s almost a tangible pall hanging over the entire state. Everyone is sad for at least the next 24 hours; sometimes, it can take days for the fog to lift. It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. It’s true even when they’re having a terrible season, and losses are expected. Their fans are ever hopeful and dedicated to the Huskers above all else.

My husband, Brian, is a big fan. He grew up loving the Huskers. He goes to as many games as he can each fall, and every once in a while I’ll go with him. No, I don’t really care about football, but I also relish the idea of getting away from my children for eight glorious hours and eating Armadillo Eggs at Buzzard Billy’s in downtown Lincoln before the game. Attending the game is a small price to pay for freedom and Armadillo Eggs.

Why does watching a football game take eight hours? First, you have to drive to Lincoln in game-day traffic. Huge headache, trust me. Then you have to park a mile away from the stadium and walk.

You have to eat somewhere and wait forever for your food because 70,000+ other people have to eat somewhere too. Either that or tailgate in the parking lot, which also takes a long time because you have to meet up with all the people you know who are at the game. At least half of your friends are going to be there, guaranteed. Even if they don’t have tickets, they’ll bring a TV and watch the game from the parking lot. True story.

Then you get to your seats early to make sure you don’t miss anything. Four hours later, when the game is finally over, you have the long walk back to the car and heading home in game-day traffic again. It’s a very long, time-honored tradition that attending a Husker game takes at least eight hours of your day.

One such Saturday, Brian and I were sitting in the stands at a game, along with his brother and our sister-in-law, packed in like sardines in the sea of red. The crisp air of fall and the sun's warmth combined to produce glorious game day conditions, and the stadium was filled with fans holding helium balloons.

Traditionally, balloons are released after the first Husker touchdown. It happened just a couple of minutes into the game, and for a few moments, the sky, as well as the stands, were filled with red.

Everyone in the stadium let go of their balloons, except for one little girl sitting two rows ahead of us. She was maybe six years old, sitting on her mom’s lap and chatting in between bites of Valentino’s pizza. Her balloon hovered a few feet over her head, swaying listlessly in the breeze, grasped tightly in one sticky little hand.

Sitting directly behind this little girl was a cowboy, outfitted with the fashionable cowboy style of tight jeans and a cowboy hat.

Cowboys are a pretty common scene in Lincoln. It’s the second-largest city in Nebraska, but that’s not saying much. Lincoln is surrounded by rural farmland, and the lure of game day attracts people from all over the state.

This particular cowboy was not thrilled about the balloon blocking his view of the game. He tried pushing the balloon out of his way, but it floated right back to its position directly in front of his face. The mother and little girl were completely unconcerned about his growing exasperation, talking and eating snacks as though they couldn’t see the man behind them struggling to see around the balloon.

He said loudly, “It’s hard to see!” No response from the girl or her mom.

I watched him, fascinated, wondering what would happen next as his agitation increased. This was so much more exciting than the game!

To his credit, he made several attempts to remedy the situation, but he was foiled at every turn. Finally, in a stroke of angered genius, he produced a toothpick from the brim of his cowboy hat. Why was there a toothpick there? What else is he hiding in that hat? These are the things that keep me up at night!

He reached out with the toothpick and deftly jabbed it into the balloon.

Photo by Wojtek Mich on Unsplash


Only a few people noticed. I gasped and then laughed out loud, and Brian cheered the cowboy and his courageous act. The cowboy turned and grinned, thrilled with his tiny victory. Brian was so excited he offered to buy the cowboy anything he wanted from the concession stand.

The little girl was crestfallen about her balloon, and the mother turned and gave the cowboy a look that could peel paint off of a John Deere once she realized what had happened. Part of me felt a teensy bit sorry for the girl, the other part of me was amazed that no parents had intervened in the Case of the Annoying Balloon before it had to meet its demise so abruptly.

The cowboy, unperturbed by the mother’s anger and enjoying his unhindered view, continued watching the game.

I can’t tell you what happened in the rest of the game. They probably lost. But the MVP of the game was the toothpick-wielding cowboy, whose selfless courage provided entertainment for me during an otherwise completely boring football game.

Freelance writer, distance runner, lifelong learner. Let’s chat!

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