The back-up quarterback often ranks as the most popular player with football fans. When the starter makes a bad play, there’s usually a “fan” who screams for the backup to take over. Instead, he stands on the sideline signaling plays or listening to them being called on his headset, ready to take the field in case the starter suffers an injury or plays ineffectually. But, in the end, there’s usually a talent gap between the starter and the back-up.
Brook Berringer, however, was about as good as the starter. Tommie Frazier, a four-year quarterback who made his debut as the Husker starter in the fifth game of the 1992 season, was the highly-recruited star Nebraska needed to get back to the national championship level. Berringer, a redshirt freshman from Goodland, Kansas, appeared destined to spend his college career as the clipboard-holding back-up. But, Coach Tom Osborne knew he had two special players.
Husker fans loved Berringer. He was a special person. They loved him almost immediately. He was one of them. A religious young man, who enjoyed hunting and fishing. He fit the mold of a Nebraskan perfectly. After all, despite being raised in northwest Kansas, he was born in Scottsbluff. Thus, he was a Husker from birth.
Following his NU career, Berringer was expected to be chosen in the 1996 National Football League draft. But, two days before the draft he died in a small plane crash, alongside his longtime friend Tobey Lake. The two had taken a plane up for a ride and crashed when a gust of wind forced the plane’s engine to cut out. The plane crashed in a farm field north of Lincoln. Most Nebraska fans can tell you where they were when the news came out. I had to pull to the side of the road, as I was driving when I heard the news. Shocked like most people, I sat in my car, holding the steering wheel, numb at the news.
Berringer’s death traumatized Nebraska and his hometown. In talking with Goodland residents, they remember the day they heard the news and how the community turned out for the funeral.
Today, people show their respect for Berringer at a special exhibit at Goodland’s High Plains Museum. The exhibit, which features artifacts, uniforms and memorabilia from Berringer’s playing days, was supposed to be a short-term exhibit, ending in mid-September. But, because of its popularity, the museum extended the exhibit through Dec. 1. The local visitors bureau advised that the exhibit attracts a lot of Nebraskans, who continue to pay respect to Berringer.
From a piece of Memorial Stadium turf to his conference and national championship rings, visitors get an up-close look at a heartfelt homage. More than 22 years following his death, Berringer remains a beloved figure in Nebraska sports history.
Michele Ivans was a senior at Goodland High School. With only weeks left in her high school career, the news of Berringer’s death first caused disbelief, followed by a deep sadness. Her family knew the Berringers. After all, with a population of around 4,000, Goodland is a small town and most everyone knows each other.
In visiting the exhibit, alongside her dad, memories came back to the Spring Hill, Kansas, resident.
“It was neat to see everything,” she said. “But also sad. Jan (Berringer’s mom) and everyone had to live through the sadness again.”
Ivans recalls attending the funeral at the town’s Max Jones Fieldhouse. Nearly the entire community attended the joint service for Berringer and Lake. She remembers starting late, because the Husker football team hadn’t arrived. As they walked in together appearing from the arena’s tunnel, she recalls how quiet the players were.
The next day, as she and a friend walked down a hallway at school, Ivans told her, “the service renewed my faith in Christ.”
As an adult, Ivans has suffered her own loss. Losing a child, her family committed to honor the memory by raising money for children’s bibles. Nearly five years later, they have distributed about 6,000 bibles. That, she said, may not have happened had it not been for Berringer.
The young man had an effect on people during his life and afterwards. Berringer’s memory lives on at the University of Nebraska with a statue outside Memorial Stadium, as well as an award honoring players’ community service involvement.
During his playing career, Berringer appeared in 37 games over four years. Berringer played sparingly his first two seasons. Appearing in 15 games, he completed 17 passes for 222 yards. Hardly, Heisman-worthy stats.
Berringer’s star took off during the 1994 season, when Nebraska went undefeated, winning Tom Osborne’s first national championship with a win over Miami in the Orange Bowl. Frazier, who had lost only two games as the starter in the 1992-93 seasons, suffered from a blood clot. With Frazier sidelined, Osborne looked to Berringer to keep the Huskers’ title chances alive. He answered like a true professional. He made his first college start against Wyoming, leading the second-ranked Huskers to a 42-32 victory.
As Nebraska rolled to the Big 8 championship and the national title game against rival Miami in the Orange Bowl, Berringer passed for 1,295 yards in 12 games, starting eight. Frazier started the Orange Bowl, but the QBs split time during the game. It worked, as the Huskers finished 12-0 and national champions with a 24-17 victory.
The following season, as a senior, Berringer understood his role as a back-up and prepared to step in if called upon. He played in nine games, as Nebraska rolled to another national championship to cap 1995.
Berringer showed enough talent that NFL teams were interested in him. Projected as a draft pick, Berringer and Lake decided to take an airplane up April 18. Meanwhile, in Goodland, it was reported that Jan was busy preparing for a draft party when Berringer’s high school coach rushed to the house. Later that evening, the news was released that the Husker star had died.
In Goodland, Berringer’s memory lives on in many ways. Pictures of his basketball team’s state tournament bid hang on the wall of Max Jones Fieldhouse, not far from the state hoops championship his dad and uncle won during their high school careers. A poster featuring the Husker quarterback is prominently displayed at the Crazy R restaurant.
The High Plains Museum – which doesn’t charge admission – provides a beautiful tribute to the person, as well as the player. People can read articles related to the accident, as well as personal notes and letters to the family. One painting stands out among the others – it features Berringer with his hand on the back of Sam Foltz as they take their “last Tunnel Walk” together under the words “I play for Nebraska.” The Ashley Spitsnogle creation honors the two Huskers who died 20 years apart. Foltz died in a car accident the summer of 2016, prior to the start of his senior season. The punter was also projected to enjoy a pro career.
The Berringer exhibit brings back fond memories as you always want to remember people in their best light. We recommend making the trip to Goodland, about a six-hour drive from Omaha. I believe it should be on all Husker fans’ lists.
For additional information on the museum, please visit highplainsmuseum.org.