LINCOLN, Neb. — When quarterback Noah Vedral takes the field during his first tunnel walk as a Husker at Nebraska’s spring game, it will be special for a number of reasons.
After transferring from Central Florida in early January, the Nebraska native now joins a family legacy to play for the Huskers. Wearing his full pads, helmet and No. 16 Nebraska jersey will only make it that much sweeter.
There’s something magical about a player’s first tunnel walk at Nebraska. For most, they typically have to wait until September to experience it in all its glory. In Vedral’s case, he and the other new faces on Nebraska’s roster have a rare opportunity to experience it more than four months before that.
Vedral — who currently has to sit out the 2018 season due to NCAA transfer rules — has played in Memorial Stadium before. He helped lead Wahoo (Neb.) Neumann to the Class C-1 state championship title as a senior on Tom Osborne Field, but he knows that doesn’t hold a candle to what he’s about to experience.
“That’s not Memorial Stadium [at capacity],” Vedral said. “That’s not the same atmosphere, even though it was still special at that time. It’s a whole different ball game at a spring game in front of a sold out crowd.”
Nebraska has never sold out the spring game — until 2018. There were years it came close, but stadium renovations and other external factors prevented the entire stadium from being fully available. Now, every seat is available and fans scooped them up in little more than 24 hours.
As for the history of the annual spring game itself, the university began keeping record of the scrimmage with the creation of the Varsity-Alumni series in 1950. However, the Huskers were known to conclude spring practices with a scrimmage in game-like conditions as early as 1922.
With this year’s spring game set for 11 a.m. CT on Saturday, fans are eager to see coach Scott Frost and his staff in action for the first time. It may not function exactly like a game day, but the stadium at capacity will make it feel that way.
At least it will for the new faces on the roster, which running backs coach Ryan Held can appreciate. As a former Nebraska split end who played on three Huskers national title teams — 1994, ’95 and ’97 — he also understands the tunnel walk from a player’s perspective.
“When I was here as a walk-on, being able to experience that and running out in front of the crowd is something that you never forget,” Held said. “I know these guys will really love it. I think it’s the best introduction in college football and I think these guys will really embrace that, enjoy it and it’ll be something that once they do it, they’ll say, ‘OK, this is pretty awesome.'”
Offensive line coach Greg Austin still remembers his first tunnel walk experience like it was yesterday. It was Aug. 30, 2003.
Austin was a freshman guard from Cypress, Texas. He had just been moved from his worn down locker in north stadium to the south stadium locker room. Nebraska was set to face Oklahoma State to start the season, and that day was a whirlwind for Austin.
Adding to his nerves, Austin had yet to learn the Husker Prayer.
“I didn’t know the prayer,” Austin said. “These guys are giving the prayer, but I didn’t know the prayer because it’s something you just kind of learned as the season went on, so I was mumbling the prayer.”
As the prayer ended, the music inside the stadium began. Players started departing the locker room and Austin followed suit. There was a walk through the former south stadium tunnel and hand slaps with fans.
Before he knew it, Austin was on the field looking up at more than 70,000 fans.
“It’s crazy. It’s this legit [thing] and something so surreal,” Austin said. “I’ll always remember the Oklahoma State game, the tunnel walk and my first experience ever being a Nebraska Cornhusker.”
There’s something to be said about experiencing the tunnel walk in the fall, before an actual game. Yet, Nebraska’s spring game is giving the new faces on the roster an opportunity to experience it all a little early.
The coaches believe it’s an opportunity that can benefit the players in the long run.
“You hope that it motivates them to play well and win on Saturdays when it actually is for keeps,” Held said. “It’s a heck of a lot more fun when you get to do it and go out and win football games, so hopefully there will be some intrinsic motivation.”
For Austin, he still remembers former Nebraska coach Frank Solich telling him to take it all in. Austin wasn’t going to play against Oklahoma State that late-August day in 2003, so Solich wanted him to remember every moment.
Fifteen years later, Austin now wants the same for the current Huskers. He sees the spring game’s tunnel walk as a good experience for those that have never been through it before.
“There’s certain things in life [you’ll always remember] like the birth of your kid, getting married, but when it comes to football, you’ll always remember [the tunnel walk] for the rest of your life and I always do,” Held said. “I can’t wait to be out there as a coach and see that again because I know that’s going to be pretty awesome.”
And on the other end of the spectrum, the players are looking forward to it just as much as the coaches. After all, it’s not every day — or everywhere, for that matter — that a spring game is sold out.
So when those new faces take the field Saturday, they’ll be looking up at the more than 90,000 fans and making a memory they won’t soon forget.
“It’ll be a lot of fun,” Vedral said. “I’m really looking forward to that day.”