Images appeared on the giant video screens at two corners of Memorial Stadium. In the seats below, the fans fell silent. This is where people sit each autumn, giving voice to their passion for Nebraska football, and it is where 48,659 gathered last Saturday, completing long-made plans to watch their Cornhuskers in a spring scrimmage, but mostly now to grieve.
On the screens one scene blended into another, a short life set to music. The quarterback, number 18, running for a touchdown. The quarterback visiting a hospital. Throwing for a score in the 1995 Orange Bowl. Reading Dr. Seuss to schoolchildren in Lincoln: Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-Am. Hunting with his two dogs, a matched set of shaggy, brown-and-white Brittany spaniels. Running again with the ball. Wearing cap and gown, graduating. Smiling. Laughing.
On opposite sidelines two teams of Nebraska players watched solemnly, including redshirt freshman-to-be Jeff Perino, who wore jersey number 5. He had been assigned number 18 for the upcoming season, but on Saturday morning he asked permission not to wear it. "It just didn't feel right," Perino said. "That's his number."
The video screens fell dark, and for a full minute the people in the stands cheered. Then they stood in silence, remembering.
Last Saturday was also draft day, and it held a special promise for Brook Berringer. Unlike many Nebraska players who are drafted each year, Berringer had not been an unqualified star. Except for eight terrific games in the fall of 1994, when he saved the Corn-huskers' perfect season, Berringer had been the understudy for Tommie Frazier, one of the most productive quarterbacks in college football history. But now it seemed likely Berringer would be drafted into the NFL—if not on Saturday, perhaps on Sunday—finally with another chance at recognition. "He was looking at it as a fresh start," said center Aaron Graham. In Berringer's hometown of Goodland, Kans., his widowed mother, Jan, had ordered food for the party that would accompany Brook's selection and had arranged to rent a satellite dish so that she could tune in the later rounds of the draft.
Awaiting all of this last Thursday afternoon, Berringer drove with Tobey Lake, the 32-year-old brother of Berringer's girlfriend, Tiffini Lake, to a private grass airstrip north of Lincoln. Flying was Berringer's hobby, and he often took pleasure rides over the flatlands around Lincoln. On this day he borrowed a 1946 Piper Cub owned by Harry Barr of Lincoln, a plane that Berringer had flown often. He and Lake flew 250 feet into a cloudless sky before the aircraft, according to eyewitnesses, shuddered, banked sharply to the left, crashed into a dormant alfalfa field and exploded. Berringer and Lake were killed instantly.
In Goodland, a hidebound farming community of 5,600, townsfolk piled roses on the high school football field and drove with their lights on. In Lincoln, a celebration for Nebraska's national-championship football and women's volleyball teams was canceled. Nebraska's departing football seniors went on with their annual dinner last Friday night, and it became a nightlong tribute to Berringer. "It was supposed to be a night of celebration, and instead it was a night of mourning," said linebacker Phil Ellis, who lived off-campus with Berringer for three years.
Even through the grief, Berringer's death told another story. In these past two autumns, as Nebraska rolled to consecutive national titles, much was made of the school's troubled athletes. Berringer was the antithesis of that. "All season we read about what awful people were up in Lincoln," says Marty Melia, owner and general manager of two radio stations in Goodland and a friend of the Berringer family. "We couldn't figure it out, because we knew Brook was totally different from that."
He was a talented athlete (6'4", 220 pounds, 4.6-second speed in the 40 and a strong, accurate arm) who endured a trying role—the backup who believes he is good enough to start, and has proved it—with enormous class. But he never complained publicly about sitting behind Frazier.
Berringer earned his degree in business administration in December, graduating in 4� years while ably handling the demands of football and volunteering numerous hours to youth groups.