Forty-four-year-old Jeff Wilch is a heating-and-cooling service
manager from suburban Omaha whose scratchy voice, baggy eyes and
brush cut suggest a beleaguered cop on a TV show. Wilch grew up in
Ashland, Neb. (pop. 2,136), consumed by Nebraska football. At eight
he saw his first Big Red game. At 20, as a helicopter gunner in
Vietnam, he let loose a grateful whoop upon seeing a bumper sticker
on a military vehicle that bore news a fortnight old: NEBRASKA 1970
NATIONAL CHAMPIONS. At 43, at a party in Omaha on Jan. 1, 1994, he
flopped on the floor in front of 35 friends and promised to attend
Mass every Sunday if the Cornhuskers' Byron Bennett would make a
last-second field goal to beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
''Everyone loves to watch a Nebraska game with Jeff,'' says his wife,
Sally, a nurse. ''He's very entertaining.''
But Jeff Wilch had long felt a void in his life. ''Ever since I
can remember, I'd dreamed of going to an Orange Bowl,'' he says. So
at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 30, 1994, he stood with Sally in the
parking lot of an Omaha hotel, decked out in Husker sweats, white
socks and moccasins. A knot of men wearing red caps, holding coffee
mugs and shifting on their feet in the gray cold was listening to
Jeff hold forth on the Nebraska running game. A few feet away, their
idling chariot awaited: a 51-seat bus that had left Grand Island,
Neb., at 5:30 a.m. and was making its fourth and final pickup along
I-80 as it headed to Miami.
You want to quantify notions like hope, faith and loyalty? Here
were four dozen souls piling into a 20-ton metal crate for a 33-hour
trip to see a 60- minute football game. Here were empty-nesters, frat
brothers, Beef Clubbers and high schoolers doling out nearly $400
apiece to Eagle Eye Tours of Henderson, Neb., for a game ticket, an
invitation to a New Year's Eve party, two nights at a motel in Fort
Lauderdale and the privilege of barreling through eight states and
1,636 mind-numbing miles -- and back again. Here were folks from ages
13 to 71, out of towns from Wahoo to South Sioux City, subsisting on
upright naps and leaden fast food to witness what might have turned
out to be the Huskers' eighth straight loss in a bowl.
''If Jeff were to die on Monday, he would be totally fulfilled --
if the Huskers win,'' Sally said. ''If they lose, he says he's going
to throw something red out of the bus every 50 miles.''
Lose? The riders, like cockeyed astrologers fudging their
calculations so that the planets would line up just right, figured
the Cornhuskers couldn't lose. After all, Nebraska was No. 1; the
team finally had speed on defense; this was the last season of the
Big Eight's automatic bid to the Orange Bowl; and coach Tom Osborne
was long overdue to win his first national championship. Jason
Brummund, 35, an electrical-parts salesman from Columbus (pop.
19,480), was going halfway across the country to watch the Big Red in
person for the first time. ''They won't lose; they can't do that to
me,'' Brummund said, fishing a cigarette from a pack kept under the
sleeve of his Cornhusker sweatshirt. ''I've waited for this my whole
This pilgrimage drew a disparate crowd: a pair of buddies who had
planned a similar bowl excursion a decade ago, only to cancel when
one of their party came down with appendicitis; a widower of three
weeks who ached for a change of scenery; a retired septuagenarian
farmer and his wife, who said, ''You can't leave all the good stuff
to the kids''; an Omaha maintenance man making his third Orange Bowl
bus junket; a ponytailed health inspector from Bellevue (pop. 30,982)
about to chuck his job and take his chances in Hollywood; and another
health inspector, who said he was making the trip because ''my wife
and I just separated. She took the big screen.''
For four upperclassmen from Beaver Valley High, the ride
constituted their ''senior sneak trip.'' Since their freshman year
they had sold magazine subscriptions, spices and cookies to come up
with more than $2,500 for a class junket. At a meeting in December
the class had settled on Miami as its destination. How did they
decide which seniors would get to go? ''They all got to go,'' said
their chaperone and science teacher, Sabrena Clinebell of Lebanon
(pop. 75). ''There are only 15 kids in the whole school.''
After some 500 miles of rolling along, most of the passengers on
the Big Red Express seemed to have reached their limits on eating
Cheetos, playing Gameboy, tossing a red plastic football in
truck-stop parking lots and reading out-of-state sports sections
(each paper echoed the refrain ''Nebraska can't win the big one'').
Said Jeff Wilch, ''We've only got a million-and-a-half people, and
we're competing on a national level. I don't understand it. Why
aren't we ever thought of as a Cinderella?'' The occasional blaring
of the Cornhusker fight song over the bus's P.A. system lifted a few
spirits -- as did the lifting of a few spirits. There was also the
scenery for distraction: The arch was sighted in St. Louis!
Somewhere in Georgia, Julie Wilson of Wilsonville (pop. 137), the
lone female in Beaver Valley's class of '95, sounded a cheery note:
''I think the bus ride has been the best part.''
''Sure,'' Sally Wilch snapped. ''That's because so far it's been
the only part.''
But shared suffering for a righteous cause breeds camaraderie. By
the time the bus arrived in Fort Lauderdale, shortly before 6 p.m. on
Saturday, there was a connection among the passengers, a feeling of
accomplishment. After all, they had just weathered an odyssey that
stretched from their doorsteps in the heartland to the tip of
Florida. Their reward was blue skies and rejuvenating warmth -- made
even warmer by the knowledge that half a foot of snow had fallen upon
Nebraska since the bus pulled out.
About 24 hours later, after a night on the town and a day at the
beach, the group would pile back onto the bus for a jaunt to the
Orange Bowl itself. The Wilches' tickets put them a dozen rows up
from the field, where Jeff turned his $10 souvenir game program into
a pulverized wad of sweat. Most of their fellow riders were seated at
the top of the lower level in a corner of the stadium. They swooned,
cheered and fretted almost as one. The view wasn't great, but that
didn't matter. The thing was, they weren't just dreaming about being
at the Orange Bowl. They were there.
By 12:09 a.m. they were all pinching themselves. Nebraska had just
beaten Miami 24-17 to seize its first national championship in 23
years. Melvin Simms, the Omaha maintenance man who was at his fourth
Orange Bowl -- his third by bus -- looked down on the field and
smiled. Said Simms, ''This is going to be a short ride home.''
Forty-four-year-old Jeff Wilch is a heating-and-cooling service