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If you grew up in a big, loud — and sometimes overbearing — Italian family, you understand the special relationship cousins share.

They are out-of-the-house siblings — sometimes closer than siblings because you saw them every weekend for Sunday dinner and there was plenty of time to hang out afterward as our parents overindulged in the table wine.

Cousins are privy to everything from the trouble you're in for missing curfew to the girl you're thinking of asking out soon. They're quick with a playful jab and sometimes make you the butt of every joke, but there's never any doubt that the sarcasm and fun-poking is done with unconditional love.

I have more cousins than any man deserves and each served a different role in my life. David was the logical one. College-educated, hard-working and dependable. He was a high school quarterback who would play a year of junior college ball at the College of San Mateo under the late Tom Martinez, who would go on to become Tom Brady's personal quarterback coach.

When David spoke, I tended to listen.

So when my phone rang one day in May, I picked up.

He was telling me that Sheri, another of our cousins, had suddenly died of natural causes at the age of 49. After the shock wore off, we grieved and talked things through.

It sounds cliche, but moments like that remind you that life's too short. Tomorrow is never promised. And that family matters. 

It had been five years since we'd seen each other on my last trip home to San Francisco. And David told me he wanted to come to Lincoln.

Any time, I said, expecting the invitation to be open-ended and never acted upon.

I was shocked when he pulled out his calendar on the spot and chose this weekend for the visit.

Did I mention he was dependable?

That said, I knew he would be here. There would be no last-second cancellation. I told him a trip to Lincoln wouldn't be complete without a day of tailgating and four hours among the masses at Memorial Stadium.

He was suddenly reminded of Jim Carrey in "Yes Man," where a spur-of-the-moment trip to Nebraska led to a day of Husker football. 

"I want a day like that," he said.

I'm not sure that I delivered that kind of magical made-for-Hollywood perfection, but I know we had a blast. He took in every moment and I loved watching this newfound fascination through his eyes.

"I love the thought of going to a place where football is such a community thing," he said. "This is amazing."

He said that as he and wife Kelly, both clad in red after a Haymarket shopping spree the night before, stood in line to enter the stadium for Saturday's game against Northern Illinois. He said that after walking the streets of downtown, trolling the parking lots around campus and partaking in every morsel and beverage offered.

"I've never seen anything like this," he said. 

In five hours of tailgating, we ate, drank and learned the stories of a handful of previous strangers — people we now can consider friends.

My cousin and Kelly experienced puppy chow — not the kind made by Purina — and it was love at first taste (not mere puppy love). They learned the football history of one family, which has had NU season tickets for more than 65 years, and we watched the Huskers walk into the stadium through the Memorial Loop as the Cornhusker Marching Band played the school's fight song.

"It was so much fun," said Kelly, who had never been to a college football game. "I get excited by new experiences and this is one of those that lived up to expectations."

It's hard to explain the passion of Husker fans to someone from the San Francisco Bay area. Sports are big there, but college sports aren't. 

We broke bread with people who traveled hundreds of miles to be there, people who wear their odometers like a badge of commitment and a sign that they believe in something far bigger than themselves.

That they are willing to openly share their commitment and passion with newcomers only speaks to this sense of community.

"That's the difference," David said. "There's so much to do out there, you have so many options. It sad that college football doesn't matter there as much as it does here."

That's what makes Lincoln special. And this trip will be remembered — by all of us.

Photos from the game

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7391 or psangimino@journalstar.com. On Twitter @psangimino.

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