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Lincoln firefighter Mark Eberspacher raises an American flag during the Tunnel Walk prior to the start of Nebraska's 2001 game against Rice.

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Life was in a good spot. So was the football.

A few days had passed since the Huskers, ranked No. 4 at the time, put away No. 17 Notre Dame in front of a thunderous home crowd.

Nebraska had a team built to make a run at a national championship, and a quarterback being talked about for the Heisman Trophy.

And next up was Rice.

A state that loves to talk about football was of course talking about football.

That, however, changed on Sept. 11, 2001, when New York City and Washington D.C. fell under attack.

In the immediate aftermath was confusion, anger, sadness and uncertainty. Jamie Burrow, a starting middle linebacker and a senior that year, didn't even know if a season would continue, if his days in an NU uniform were over.

"We spend so much time, your whole year cycle involves constant thought about football," he said. "I think it was a couple days where we were in limbo and being that structured and a college athlete, you don't like uncertainty."

Postponed Sept. 11 game 2001

Fans in the east stands at Memorial Stadium use cards to flash USA during the pregame show prior to Nebraska hosting Rice on Sept. 20, 2001. The game was one of the first major sporting events after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. 

Though questions remained — Why did it happen? Would there more attacks? Is the country going to war? — the nation was encouraged to move forward. To heal.

For Nebraskans, the healing process took on a life of its own nine days after the attacks. Nebraska and Rice rescheduled their game (originally set for Sept. 15) for a 6 p.m. kick on Sept. 20.

For a few hours, football provided fans, coaches and players some good vibes, something to smile about.

"When the ball was kicked off, everything just clicked back to normal, and I think that was wonderful," said Kirk Hartman, who has been part of the HuskerVision team since 1994. "That was the way it should have been."

Nebraska hosts Buffalo at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, which also marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The Huskers will pay tribute by wearing alternate uniforms. There will be a unique pregame flyover and other tributes.

Twenty years later, 9/11 still resonates. So too does a Thursday night football game and an emotional Tunnel Walk that united 77,000 fans inside Memorial Stadium and thousands more listening via radio (The game was not picked up for national TV or pay-per-view).

***

Burrow was leaving Memorial Stadium when he heard the initial news on the radio.

Wilson Thomas, a junior wide receiver in 2001, was in class when the first plane hit the World Trade Center in New York City.

"Truth be told, I fell asleep in class, so I'm still a little dazed," he recalls. "I'm walking and I see a couple lineman. They said that we were going to war, and I'm thinking it's a reference to the game."

It wasn't, and the country came to a standstill.

Planes were grounded, airports shut down and sports were halted as the country frantically tried to piece together what was happening.

Rice coach Ken Hatfield called up to Lincoln. Goes without saying, but Rice wasn't going to board a plane for a Saturday football game.

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Nebraska defensive tackle Patrick Kabongo sports an American flag on the back of his helmet during a 2001 game against Rice. All the players in the NU-Rice game wore the flags as a tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the men and women who are working on rescue teams.

"It was bigger than football because we didn't know when we'd play," said Wilson, who now runs his own training facility in the Kansas City area. "It was like the breath was taken out of football."

Nebraska practiced that Tuesday — DeMoine Adams recalls watching Air Force One fly over the stadium as it headed to Offutt Air Force Base — but didn't practice the rest of the week.

Slowly, the country pushed toward normalcy, including the Huskers.

Concern remained. What if the United States were attacked again? Would full stadiums be targets?

"Everybody was kind of nervous," said DeJuan Groce, who was a starting junior right corner and punt returner at the time. "You don't know what was going to happen at that point in time. If that happened there in New York, then you just don't know. You don't know if they're going to come after different stadiums. So, yeah, that was kind of nerve-wracking."

Rice was believed to be the first sports team to fly since the 9/11 attacks, and the Nebraska-Rice game was one of the first college football games to be played. South Carolina and Mississippi State also played that Thursday evening.

"It was unbelievable how they pulled it all together," Groce said. "Actually getting Rice down and playing a game. I thought that was pretty big, for them to even be flying into town like that with all that happening."

***

Football was going to be played, so Nebraska's event staff began preparations for the game.

"We were going to be strong and once everything seemed to subside from a safety standpoint that it was our way of saying, 'Yeah, we're going to do this,'" said Heidi Cuca, who was in charge of Nebraska's athletic marketing efforts at the time. "'We're not afraid, we're going to lead on.'"

But this was going to be much different. Security was going to be extremely tight, a bomb squad was going to inspect the stadium. The gates at Memorial Stadium — before Sept. 11, 2001, you could stroll inside Memorial Stadium without anyone stopping you — were now locked.

Because it was the first game after terrorist attacks, the Nebraska Athletic Department wanted to do something special to honor victims and first responders.

Rick Allen Schwieger, at the time a HuskerVision staffer, planted an idea. What if the Tunnel Walk entrance was changed? What if first responders walked through the tunnel instead of the players?

To that point, the Tunnel Walk had never been altered. It was a sacred part of Husker gameday. But nobody in the pregame meetings questioned this.

"It was like that's the way we have to do it," Hartman said. "I just remember when it got to me, I was just like, 'Of course, yes, that has to happen.'"

Nebraska began reaching out to local responders to take part.

Outside of a couple of changes to the intro animation video — a "United We Stand" banner was placed on the Kearney Archway and an American flag on the desert dome at Henry Doorly Zoo — the Tunnel Walk entrance looked normal. But once the animation curled through the bottom of Northwest Stadium and the doors opened, a group of first responders began making their way to the field.

An emotional eruption from 77,000 fans followed.

Hartman at the time was helping man things in the HuskerVision control room. On gamedays, the only thing he can hear is the audio from the stadium mics being piped into the room.

On this night, the crowd was so loud, the noise seeped into the control room.

"That was one of the days, when that door opened, I heard the crowd and it was extremely loud," said Kirkman, who currently is the assistant AD for HuskerVision. "You could tell the passion in the Husker fans and how much they wanted to be a part of what was a horrible situation and be a part of healing."

The group of first responders included Lincoln firefighter Mark Eberspacher, Lancaster County Sherriff Terry Wagner, representatives of the Lincoln and UNL police departments, the Nebraska State Patrol and three Army ROTC officers.

"A lot of times we'll have flyovers and countdowns and fireworks that you'd need to time correctly," said Cuca, who is now a senior account manager with the athletic department. "It's a little bit tense up there (on the sixth floor) anyway but this ... the emotion was higher and your heart was beating for a bigger reason, not just for the excitement of your team coming out of the tunnel.

"It was very loud but it had this reverence to it."

NU's event staff had other ideas. It laid out red, white and blue cards to spell out U-S-A in East Stadium, and more than 70,000 'United We Stand' bumper stickers were handed out. A pre-taped message from Congressman Tom Osborne was shown.

There was still a football game to be played, but before kickoff, the patriotic crowd was buzzing, and more importantly, united.

***

The ball was kicked and Nebraska took quick control. Eric Crouch hit Tracey Wistrom for a 37-yard touchdown, Judd Davies rumbled in for a touchdown and Wilson made a diving TD grab to give the Huskers a 21-0 lead less than 13 minutes into the game.

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NU's Tunnel Walk for the 2001 game against Rice was changed for the first time. Instead of players and coaches running on the field, the ritual featured law enforcement and fire officials presenting the colors. Both Nebraska and Rice players walked on the field during a time of silence to honor the nation.

For Wilson, it was his first touchdown as a Husker. A memorable moment.

But there are other reasons why the Rice game stands out.

"It was just heartfelt," he said of the night.

If the players were not aware of what they were playing for that night, then-coach Frank Solich made sure to remind them.

"Coach Solich did a great job of just relaying the message that we're going to play this game and it's bigger than the game of football," Adams said. "It's for fans, it's for the country. Our fans, they needed this."

When the game was over, Nebraska won 48-3, most of the Husker and Rice players came together at midfield and kneeled as assistant coach Ron Brown delivered a prayer. 

The fans exited the stadium, many of them knowing they had to work the next day, many of them still trying to process the events from a week earlier.

But for a few hours, worries and anxiety were put aside.

A large American flag being held up by a crane was displayed at one side of the stadium. There were donation buckets for the Red Cross, and countless hand-held American flags.

"I felt it just to show how resilient we are," Wilson said.

Said Adams, who is now a CEO for TeamMates Mentoring, "For us to play on that Thursday, we played for the fans. We knew they needed a moment, a moment of entertainment, a moment to somewhat take a break all of the noise, just the anxiety, the uncertainty."

Husker football was already big, but on this night it managed to serve a bigger purpose.

"I would think that for the state of Nebraska, that was a positive thing to help move forward and kind of put everything back together," Burrow said.