Charlie, if your wife died and her funeral had to be on a Saturday when Nebraska was playing football, would you go to her funeral or to the game?" "I'm a decent man," sniffs Charles Winkler, 53, of Grand Island, Neb., "and that's a stupid question. Certainly I would go to her funeral. Of course, I wouldn't have time to go on out to the cemetery."
And with that, Charlie and a few friends start slapping their knees and carrying on, which spurs Charlie to new depths: "Once my wife was crying and she said, 'You love football more than me.' And being honest, I said, 'Well, that's true. But I love you more than basketball.' "
Assuming none of this is true—likely, since a lot of what Charlie says isn't—the one indisputable fact is that-Winkler loves University of Nebraska football more than anybody. And it's odds-on he's the No. 1 fan in the nation. Says Charlie, "When that team comes running on the field and the band strikes up Dear Old Nebraska U the tears damn near scald my cheeks. It's life's ultimate experience."
Even in Nebraska, Winkler stands out as a fanatic. His wife, Doris the Non-Fan, says, "Charlie is proof that all the fools aren't dead yet."
Last weekend Doris' fool was in Columbia, Mo., dressed in his $150 red polyester suit and his $3.50 red cotton shorts, going bonkers as usual. "That's a beautiful tie Charlie," says an onlooker. "That's not my tie. It's my tongue," says Winkler. And everyone goes to slapping knees again. "Sometimes," says a Winkler watcher, "Charlie has more momentum than the Nebraska offense."
"Part of being a fan is to work at it, to sacrifice," says Winkler. Charlie's credentials are unchallenged, starting with the 210-mile round trip between his Grand Island home and the NU stadium. He'll drive it four times a week. Winkler also:
•Goes to all home and away games and has since the early '60s, except when his health dictates he stay close to indoor plumbing or when a certified genuine family crisis erupts.
•Goes to all home and away freshman games. Once he drove to a varsity game in Lincoln, then to McCook to see the freshmen and back to Grand Island that night, a journey of almost 500 miles. Was it worth it? "Oh, my God, yes. You mean it wouldn't be to you?"
•Attends all intrasquad scrimmages in the spring and fall. There usually are about a dozen each year, and Charlie's attendance, except at the big spring game, can double the size of the crowd.
•Sometimes drives to Lincoln just to sit in Memorial Stadium alone with the wind and dream about the good times.
•Tape-records radio broadcasts of all Nebraska games and files them. But he always keeps several tapes in his car so he can relive perhaps a great Johnny Rodgers run while driving from his home to his office. He also tapes the audio of telecasts (his hope is to get his own library of video tapes) and also the broadcasts made by the opposing teams' announcers. "I'd just hate to miss anything," he says.
•Wants to have a heart attack at a game, then recover just long enough to see the Big Red score one more touchdown before he finally succumbs.
•Wants his ashes scattered over the stadium, preferably during a game so the 76,000 disciples can enjoy him. Told health statutes might preclude such frivolity, Winkler is disconsolate. But a friend, F. M. (Mitch) Mitchell, comes to his rescue: "Don't worry, Charlie. We'll smuggle you in there somehow, if we have to put you in a popcorn box." That makes Charlie very happy.
In fact, Winkler thinks the road to heaven is paved with AstroTurf and is sure life's end zone has a big NU painted on it. But if he runs the risk of being considered a blathering buffoon ("Charlie is a great guy," says a friend. "Of course, you spend an hour with him and that's enough of a dose for, well, I'd say a couple of years"), he is not considered excess baggage by the coaches. Tom Osborne says, "Charlie helps us. Honest."
What Charlie does to help, other than chatter, is write letters. He sends off at least 250 a year to young men who might be persuaded to pursue their higher education at NU, and, oh, by the way, play a little football Saturday afternoon. Usually he says things like he "hopes and prays" a top prospect will come to Nebraska, and he signs his pleas, "Big Red-ily yours."
While Charlie refuses to take credit for any one player showing up in Lincoln, all the players know him. Of course, not knowing him would cast serious doubt on a player's eyesight. And his hearing.
Why write those letters? Says Charlie, "If you show a recruit the scenery around Lincoln, what the heck is he supposed to say? 'Isn't it beautiful?' If he does, he's too dumb to play for us. So I write about the great opportunity here."
Charlie's strength is that whatever the coaches say or do, he's for it. If NU starts kicking on second down, Charlie will proclaim it "smart football, brilliant." Further, for all his bluster, Charlie is not a meddler, not a complainer, not a favor-asker, not a ticket-requester. And he was the same way when Nebraska was losing a lot, which was back about the time of the invention of the wheel. He just likes to shake hands with the players, tell them they are credits to their towns and be close to the howls of victory and, infrequently, the silence of defeat.
"I have no vices," insists Charlie, "except Big Red football." He doesn't drink and he says with all-conference accuracy, "I can make a fool of myself sober." In a smoky Lincoln club Charlie is exultant: "All these people will be drunk for three days. Isn't that great? I mean even though I don't-drink, that's what college football is all about." Winkler holds six season tickets, spends $2,000 a year following NU (he almost always drives) and would gladly pay 10 times as much, yea, 100 times as much, for the privilege.
Charlie came down with the fever in the '30s when a player named Hub Boswell went to Nebraska. Since Boswell and Winkler were both from the Ravenna, Neb. area, Winkler (who never attended NU or any other university) started paying attention. Charlie has lost track of Boswell, but the hook set by Hub has been firmly in Charlie's mouth since, not infrequently sharing the space with a Winkler foot.
A real-estate salesman when Nebraska football doesn't interfere (his office is decorated with old NU football schedules), Charlie admits folks could and do consider his devotion silly. But he says, "Some guys chase women, some shoot ducks, I believe in Big Red football. What's the difference? I do it because I love it."
He remembers defeats and bad times, too. Like his honeymoon, which he planned so he could stop off and try to recruit a player in Sturgis, S. Dak. Says Winkler, "The honeymoon was ruined. He went to Colorado."
WINKLER, AS ALWAYS, IS RED-ILY YOURS