On the screens one scene blended into another, a short life set to music. The quarterback, number 18, running for a touchdown. The quarterback visiting a hospital. Throwing for a score in the 1995 Orange Bowl, Reading Dr. Seuss to schoolchildren in Lincoln: Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am. Hunting with his two dogs, a matched set of shaggy, brown-and-white Brittany spaniels. Running again with the ball. Wearing cap and gown, graduating. Smiling. Laughing.
On opposite sidelines two teams of Nebraska players watched solmnly, including redshirt freshamn-to-be-Jeff Perino, who wore jersey number 5. He had been assigned number 18 for the upcoming season, but on Saturday morning he asked permission not to wear it. "It just didn't feel right," Perino said. "That's his number."
The video screens fell dark, and for a full minute the people in the stands cheered. Then they stood in silence, remembering.
Last Saturday was also draft day and it held a special promise for Brook Berringer. Unlike many Nebraska players who are drafted each year, Berringer had not been an unqualified star. Except for eight terrific games in the fall of 1994, when he saved the Cornhuskers' perfect season, Berringer had been the understudy for Tommie Frazier, one of the most productive quarterback in college football history. But now it seemed likely Berringer would be drafted into the NFL-if not on Saturday, perhaps on Sunday-finally with another chance at recognition. "He was looking at it as a fresh start," said center Aaron Graham. In Berringer's hometown of Goodland, Kansas, his widowed mother, Jan, had ordered food for the party that would accompany Brook's selection and had arranged to rent a satellite dish so that she could tune in the later round of the draft.
Awaiting all of this last Thrusday afternoon, Berringer drove with Tobey Lake, the 32-year-old brother of Berringer's girlfriend, Tiffni Lake, to a private grass airstrip north of Lincoln. Flying was Berringer's hobby, and he often took pleasure rides over the flatlands around Lincoln. On this day he borrowed a 1946 Piper Cub owned by Harry Barr of Lincoln, a plane that Berringer had flown often. He and Lake flew 250 feet into a cloudless sky before the aircraft, according to eyewitnesses, shuddered, banked sharply to the left, crashed into a dormant alfalfa field and exploded. Berrigner and Lake were killed instantly.
In Goodland, a hidebound farming community of 5,600, townsfolk piled roses on the high school football field and drove with their lights on. In Lincoln, a celebration for Nebraska's national-championship football and woman's volleyball teams was canceled. Nebraska's departing football seniors went on with their annual dinner last Friday night, and it became a night long tribute to Berringer. "It was supposed to be a night of celebration, and instead it was a night of mourning." said linebacker Phil Ellis, who lived off-campus with Berringer's for three years.
Even through the grief, Berringer's death told another story. In these past two autumns, as Nebraska rolled to consecutive national titles, much was made of the school's troubled athletes. Berringer was the antithesis of that. "All season we read about what awful people were up in Lincoln," says Marty Melia, owner and general manager of two radio stations in Goodland and a friend of the Berringer family. "We couldn't figure it out, because we knew Brook was totally different from that."
He was a talented athlete (6'4", 220 pounds, 4.6-second speed in the 40 and a strong, accurate arm) who endured a trying role-the back up who believes he is good enough to start, and has proved it-with enormous class. But he never complained publicly about sitting behind Frazier. Berringer earned his degree in business administration in December, graduation in 4-1/2 years while ably handling the demands of football and volunteering numberous hours to youth groups.
Beyond all of this he left memories, moments for his friends to cherish. Three years ago he took Graham on a flight one night in Cessna 152. "He flew us over the staduim," says Graham. "Then he called the Lincoln airport and asked if he could come over and do touch-and=go's, where we would just come down and skim the runway. It was just amazing. He was a good firend. Just a great guy."
Two roses are braided together on a strand of barbed-wire fence along a dirt road in the hamlet of Raymond, Nebrasaka. Beyond the fence are rolling hills and thin patches of wild grass. Six hundred yards in the distance sits a ring of scorched, rutted earth. Late Saturday afternoon a succession of Nebraska fans drove past the crash site before heading home to the corner of the state. Now there is no one near. A warm wind blows through the bare trees, and then there is a sad stillness. A mother's words come to mind, bringing comfort, however small. "Brook lived his lfe with incredible zest, and we'll miss him terribly," Jan Berringer has said that morning. "We were going to watch him get drafted; everythng was ready. Well, on Thursday he was drafted by a higher team. I believe that, and that is the only was I can get through this."
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