At an airport in Charlotte, N.C., last Sunday afternoon, a proud father waited outside Gate E20 next to his wife and daughter as their flight kept getting pushed back — first an hour, then another half-hour.
Mechanical problems, a voice on the speaker explained, perhaps a little too cheerfully.
Larry Chapek didn't mind the setback as much as others because his son, just a day before, had lived a moment that would forever go in the family storybook.
Larry killed the time by conversing with a couple of men dressed in red, all of them going home from the same game — Nebraska’s 23-20 overtime win against Penn State.
During the discussion, it came out that Larry’s son, Brandon Chapek, was a senior offensive lineman for Nebraska, a walk-on from Wahoo whose name will be announced on Senior Day, a name many Husker fans won't recognize when they hear it.
And so Larry asked something of those men at the airport.
“I said, ‘No one really knows who Brandon is. Could you do me a favor? Could you at least clap for him when he runs out because nobody really knows who he is?’”
“Yes, we will,” one of them responded. “We’ll be the loudest ones there.”
It made a father feel satisfied, perhaps at the same level as that day in Iowa City three weeks ago when his son walked out of an interview and saw a text message from Nebraska assistant athletic director for football Jeff Jamrog.
“Call me ASAP,” it read.
For Brandon Chapek — future dentist, son of a farmer — five years of diligence were about be rewarded.
* * *
Give some credit to the elf.
Brandon was like a lot of kids who grew up watching “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
He used to jokingly walk around the house quoting Hermey the Elf: “I want to be a dentist.”
Eventually, that line was no longer a joke but an actual pursuit.
And so that’s why he found himself in Iowa City two days before NU's game at Michigan, interviewing for the chance to attend dental school there.
He had never been on the Husker travel roster for a game and didn’t expect to be on one now. Brandon had long ago accepted he was a scout-teamer, and embraced the role with the same zeal as a 305-pound version of Rudy.
“I realized that’s what I was called to do here,” he says. “My code is give everything you've got when you’re invested in something, because it’s not worth half-assing it.”
His plans for that week were to drive home and spend Saturday on the family farm harvesting corn while he listened to the game on the radio.
It is what the Husker senior had done just two weeks before when his teammates traveled to Minnesota.
But now there was this mysterious message from Jamrog.
“First thing I think is, ‘Oh, crap, what did I do wrong?’”
But when Brandon made the call, an excited Jamrog greeted him. The team, running low on bodies on the offensive line, wanted him to make the trip to Michigan as a backup for protection on the field-goal unit.
"Can you make it back to get on the plane Friday morning?"
“I’m going to put the phone down so I can drive a little faster,” Brandon answered.
His scout-team friends joked with him. "Mr. Big Time," they called him.
In all seriousness, they couldn't have been happier for one of their own — a guy who had been putting his body on the line on practice fields against the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Eric Martin and Randy Gregory since 2009.
He had passed up NCAA Division II football opportunities and even the chance to go to Ivy League schools for this.
Coming out of Bishop Neumann High School, he gave fair consideration to the latter.
"Then I started thinking about it and didn't know if a farm boy with boots and a hat and a diesel truck would fit in the greatest on the East Coast or not," he says.
He found a fit on the scout team, where he bonded with those other guys who kept showing up to practice each day knowing there were long odds they'd ever see the field come Saturday.
And so he returned to the daily collisions when others would have long before abandoned the sport.
"Part of that is just kind of my upbringing," he says. "My dad has always been one of those who pushed me. It didn't matter what it was I started, whether it was little league T-ball or it was the band. … It was, 'You're going to finish it out all the way through.'"
So that is what he's doing — finishing.
And the last lap has been all sorts of special.
* * *
The trip to The Big House is not the exclamation point to this story.
With the offensive line even more battered two weeks later, Chapek was included on the 70-man travel roster for the Penn State game.
His parents, Larry and Nancy, and sister, Kelsey, couldn't make travel arrangements in time to see him play at Michigan. But they weren't going to miss this trip.
Even in the midst of harvest season, they left the corn and soybeans and those nearly 1,500 acres behind.
"The way you kind of look at it is, those are dollar signs hanging out on those stalks sitting out in the field," Brandon says. "You're not guaranteed you're going to get everything back. … Weather could hinder your yield. … It's kind of a risk of livelihood type of situation. That's what my dad does. He farms. He's in agriculture. So that's basically leaving his paycheck sitting in the field with 10-degree weather, and possible snow and wind and all that kind of stuff.
"For him to say, it's more important to make the trip to Penn State and support me, and be there for me after the game, it's huge, it's really touching. And it's inspiring, too, because that's what I aspire to be someday, is have my priorities in line and really be able to understand the call to be a parent."
What they received on their trip was snow, wind and overtime. It came down to a kick.
Brandon was called on to block. He didn't even lift his arms in celebration after Pat Smith first made the field goal.
"I was right next to the individual who false-started, so I saw it right away," he says. "First thing I thought was, 'Crap, I'm going to have to hit my head twice.'"
So he prepared to hit his head a second time. He noticed some well-respected D-linemen from Penn State, each lined up in a sprinter's stance, ready to come hammer him.
Then he remembered those collisions with Suh. He remembered Martin once saying those practice days going against scout-teamers such as Chapek were often tougher than the games.
"It's not really different than any Tuesday practice," he thought.
He held firm. Smith's kick sailed true.
Better to see it in person than hear it on the radio.
* * *
Larry Chapek was a Husker once — back in 1981. It was his first and only year on the team.
Frank Solich coached him on the freshman team.
And then … that was it.
Those were difficult years for farmers. Larry decided his best course of action was to take 21 credit hours a semester and get his degree as fast as he could.
That meant giving up football.
"Do I have regrets? Yes, I do. Do I wish I would have stuck it out? Yes, I do," he says. "That's why I told Brandon, 'You're not going to do what I did.'"
The father jokes: "It's the one time out of a million he actually listened to his dad."
It's just another reason Friday will be so special to this family.
Brandon says it'll be bittersweet. He says he's ready to attack the next phase of his life but he'll actually miss those 5 a.m. wakeup calls for workouts.
He'll miss the brotherhood.
"People have no clue the commitment it requires. I'm with these guys dang-near 24/7. You just bond through adversity and create some relationships that aren't going to fade," he says. "I'm going to miss this stuff like crazy."
And when Brandon's name is called before the game, a father will cry and two strangers he met at an airport will cheer a little louder than everyone else.
Brandon will take the field as a man without regret. He finished.