When it comes to the Big Ten West, everybody seems to be looking for an edge with the Man upstairs these days. In Madison, there’s the Sisters of Chryst, a trio of fans dressed in red nun habits, the canonesses of Camp Randall Stadium. They’ve even rubbed shoulders with Lee Corso, yo:
— Badger Nuns (@BadgerNuns) October 15, 2016
— Badger Nuns (@BadgerNuns) October 14, 2016
“Oh, my,” Sister Mary Hlas says from her apartment in Omaha, Neb. “Interesting. Well, I’ll be glad to see that. You know, they must just add to the spirit.”
Amen. Amen, amen, amen.
But while the No. 11 Badgers (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) have faithful dressing as, well, faithful, the No. 7 Cornhuskers (7-0, 4-0) are blessed with the real thing.
Sister Mary, in her 60th year with the sisters of Notre Dame in Omaha, has been waving the Big Red flag for more than four decades. Now 79 years young, she’s a chaplain at Methodist Hospital and with the A.R.C.H. Men’s Halfway House, a giving soul dedicated to a life of service and faith.
Saturdays, she admits, things can get a little … bonkers.
“Even though we do live in groups here, when I watch the game, I scream and holler,” she chuckles. “I’m down here where no apartments are really close to me, (so) I can yell and scream and holler.”
“I do that, yeah,” she laughs. “I call on God. I say, ‘Yeah, you’ve gotta help them.’ And I do it real loud.”
Hallelujah. A native of Chelsea, Iowa, 45 miles west of the Hawkeyes hotbed in Cedar Rapids, Sister Mary came to Nebraska to attend college, got bit by the Big Red bug, and never looked back.
“You move to Nebraska, you’re just red all the way through,” she says. “You don’t have much of a choice.”
From 1973-2006, Sister Mary attended every home game, thanks to season passes a friend scored from a pal on the university faculty.
“They were all very quiet and reserved,” Sister Mary says of the folks who used to sit around her, mostly professors’ spouses. “The women would be filing their nails and reading a book. We would jump up and down. We would yell. They would plug their ears.”
After said professor retired in 2006, her attendance has been a bit more sporadic, although she plans on hitting the home finale against Maryland on Nov. 19.
The letters, her weapon of choice, have slowed down, too, but only a little. Sister Mary penned a note to Tommy Armstrong to offer support after he wasn’t voted a captain this fall. She wrote coach Mike Riley, in part to thank him for not being Bo Pelini. Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook remains a frequent pen pal.
Mostly, she writes the Omaha World-Herald’s editorial page, “usually two or three (letters) a season,” she notes.
And sometimes, they write back. Sister Mary has a letter from Tom Osborne, the former coach and athletic director, framed reverently and hanging on a wall, just to the right of an autographed portrait of the Nebraska icon.
“Tom Osborne wrote to me or emailed me every single time,” Sister Mary says. “And Frank Solich. Bo Pelini didn’t.”
She laughs again, louder this time.
Sister Mary’s apartment is awash in Big Red memorabilia, a Husker man cave on steroids. Pictures. Blankets. Footballs. Teddy bears. Clocks. A shrine to former Huskers quarterback Eric Crouch, the 2001 Heisman Trophy winner. Men’s and women’s basketball posters.
She still does the pick ‘em football contest in the local circulars every week — “We usually get about 24 out of 29,” Hlas says — and keeps a handwritten copy of the Coaches Top 25 and the current standings nearby.
“I went on the Tom Osborne cruise to Alaska and Nancy (Osborne) and Tom and Frank Solich and his wife would come to our table,” Sister Mary recalls. “We talked to him about championships and he talked about championship people. And I think that’s what we’re trying to develop right now with Riley.”
As in Mike Riley, the Huskers’ second-year coach.
“He just doesn’t get shook,” she says. “I think he’s another Tom Osborne.”
“Well, yeah,” Sister Mary replies. “He deserves every bit of that. He’s good with the players. They trust him. They respect him.”
She respects the heck out of Riley, too. Pelini? Pelini, not so much.
“Well, three years ago, I was OK with the record, but not with the media,” Sister Mary says of the former Huskers football coach, whose tenure was marked by a series of unsavory incidents — including a profanity-laced tirade against fans in 2011 and, later, against athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
“We did not reflect well as Nebraska. That’s totally against (precedent). I’ve been going to games since 1973, and I have never seen anything like that. It’s not only wins and losses, but how the coach reflects Nebraska and how he treats the players. We had that in Bob Devaney and we had that with Tom Osborne and we had that with Frank Solich but then it kind of fizzled away.”
And Bill Callahan?
Another laugh. Sore subject.
“I really don’t have too much to say about that,” she replies, then pauses as if to ponder. “I really don’t want to say anything about Callahan, because I can’t think of anything that’s a positive.”
She’d rather focus on the now, especially given that the now is so awesome. The Huskers were 1-5 in games decided by seven points or fewer last fall, a series of soul-crushing almosts — game-winning field goals, Hail Marys, you name it — that marked Riley’s 6-7 debut campaign. In seven-points-or-fewer games this fall: 2-0.
Clearly, Someone upstairs is listening.
“That’s the reason I knew this year would be different,” Hlas says. “It wasn’t like anybody really ran over us. They were close games. And you know, you have to give first-year coaches some space and time. Tom Osborne, they were going to get rid of him because he couldn’t win the big one.”
Once you’re in the family — 352 straight sellouts strong, a love passed from generation to generation — the Big Red are an awfully hard habit to break.
“There are a few people who just say, ‘Oh, they make too much of a fuss,’” Sister Mary says. “I said, ‘Well, they’re worth every bit of it.’”
And the fuss over the Badger Nuns?
“I hadn’t heard about that,” Sister Mary says. “But I don’t know. I am a nun and I dress in full red regalia from head to toe, top of my head to the bottom of my feet. Huskers shoes, Huskers socks, Huskers pants, Huskers jacket, everything. People don’t know that I’m a nun and they don’t have to know. I’m just a person who loves sports, and especially the Huskers.
“We have the capacity to beat Wisconsin. If we play like we do at times, we should whip them.”
Heaven help her neighbors.
Heaven help the Badgers, too.