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Band, cheerleaders and mascots bring 'Nebraska Spirit' to NET documentary
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Band, cheerleaders and mascots bring 'Nebraska Spirit' to NET documentary

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Nebraska Spirit - Lil Red

Lil' Red entertains a Husker crowd in this image from "Nebraska Spirit: Go Big Red." 

Annette Hudson knew she had to be much better than the other 200 girls trying out for three spots on the Nebraska cheer squad. That, she says, is just how things were for African Americans in the 1960s.

Hudson, who grew up in Lincoln and was a cheerleader at Lincoln High, was, in fact, better than the rest, landing a spot on the cheer squad in 1969, the first African American to do so.

Hudson is at the center, literally, of “Nebraska Spirit: Go Big Red,” a new documentary from NET Nebraska that looks at the history and functions of the Cornhusker Marching Band, cheerleaders, dancers and mascots who have fired up Husker fans at sporting events for well more than a century.

The documentary from NET producer Brandee Weber is roughly split into thirds, opening with the band, then the cheerleaders and concluding with the mascots. It’s framed by the work of former cheerleader Debra Kleve White, who recounted that history in her book “The Spirit of Nebraska.”

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Each of the segments that spin together archival footage, interviews and contemporary clips is enlightening, even for someone who has been around Nebraska athletics, the band, cheerleaders and mascots for decades.

The Cornhusker Marching Band, for example, grew out of a military band, was male-only through much of its existence and wrote one of its most famous songs on the train trip to perform at the 1941 Rose Bowl.

The cheer squad's history is even more compelling. Begun in 1903 as a male-only squad, Nebraska became the first college in the U.S. to add women, when, in 1917, Louise Pound, one of the most influential figures in the university’s history, added three females to the group.

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The cheer squad eventually went all-female before men, and stunts, returned in the last decade. That story comes from Kleve White, her ‘70s cheerleading partner and later Husker cheer coach Chris Lofgren, who also talks about how stunts work and how cheerleaders try to fire up the crowd.

Today, the cheerleaders are part of the Nebraska spirit squad, and a part of the athletic department. Their coach is former Scarlets dance team member Erynn Nicholson Butzke, the department's only African American head coach.

She turns up throughout the documentary, telling her story of coming to Nebraska because she saw a black woman on the yell squad during a televised competition, delineating the steps of the squad during the fight songs and talking about the qualities required of squad members.

The latter includes being big Husker fans. And the biggest of the lot are the guys inside the mascot costumes.

Fans crowd the streets in 1930 outside a Lincoln hotel before a key Nebraska game

They include Antone Oseka, who was one of the first people inside the first inflatable college mascot, Lil’ Red, and Aaron Wyatt, a band member who became Herbie Husker and is now the proud owner of the giant fiberglass head of “Mr. Big Red,” better known as Harry Husker.

That mascot was weird and kind of creepy.

But, as the documentary briefly shows, it wasn’t even in the same stratosphere with the strange, ridiculously funny Corn Cob Man, the first Nebraska mascot.

That good-humored segment wraps up a documentary that would have been embraced by Husker fans in any year, but has, by coincidence of timing, a special role to play in 2020. That is bringing the “Husker Spirit” from the band, cheerleaders, Scarlets, Herbie and Lil’ Red to fans in a sports year where they aren’t at games.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or On Twitter @KentWolgamott  


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Entertainment reporter/columnist

L. Kent Wolgamott, the recipient of the 2018 Mayor’s Arts Award, has written about arts and entertainment for Lincoln newspapers since 1985, reviewing thousands of movies and concerts and hundreds of art exhibitions.

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