TECUMSEH -- Cornfields shaved to stubble surround the highway to the prison where Thunder Collins lives.
He arrived in November 2009, sentenced to life plus 90 to 110 years for murder. They assigned him a number: 70539.
He used to wear No. 1. A junior college All-American who came to Nebraska in 2000 on a wave of hope and hype.
Local sports radio played a decade-old hard rock song over and over that summer in anticipation of the running back's arrival from Los Angeles.
You've been thunderstruck! Yeah, yeah, yeah ... Thunderstruck!
Six miles north of the prison, along that same Johnson County highway, is a woman who has never heard that song and doesn't care to.
Patricia Poppe, a 69-year-old retired school counselor, and her husband, Roger, have lived on his family's farmstead since 1966, the year after they met and married while she was teaching out west.
They watch football on Saturdays in the living room of the brick ranch they built when their two boys were in grade school.
And last year, while visiting their youngest son in Detroit, they even bought Husker gear and sat in the stands for the Michigan game, watching the Big Red lose miserably.
But they're not crazy about the state sport like some fans; they don't fly a flag, don't know a nickelback from a nose tackle.
"I know they're special guys," says Pat, sitting at the big oak table in her dining room. "I watch them on TV like everyone else."
Then, in summer 2010, when the cornfields were green and growing, Pat heard God's voice.
And God kept telling her the same thing: Go see Thunder Collins. Go see Thunder Collins. Go see Thunder Collins!
Nebraska 30, Wisconsin 27
Thunder watches the Big Red in his cell.
"I follow the team all the time," says the 33-year-old, sitting across a visiting room table in loose-fitting khakis and bright orange tennis shoes.
It's Tuesday, and he has watched the Huskers beat the Badgers three times already, the game replaying on cable.
The running back is thinner than he was in his playing days, when he wore nearly 200 pounds on his 6-foot-2-inch frame. Big and powerful, sportswriters called him.
He's growing an Afro now and a small chin beard to go with it.
He is soft-spoken and polite. He has a big smile. He has a temper, too. The girls used to say, Thunder, you're kind of like the sexy bad boy.
His hands and feet are shackled.
He's in segregation, confined to his cell for 23 hours a day for disciplinary reasons.
"I had some problems with authority," Thunder says. "A couple of bumps."
He's working on that, he says. He has a friend he can talk to, and they focus on his faith and his future.
He remembers that first letter from "Miss Patricia."
He was leery.
Crazy people send him letters. People trying to take advantage, women propositioning him. Men, too.
This was different. The writer didn't seem to have an angle -- she was a mother and a grandmother and she wanted to visit.
Someone asked him: Is she a love interest?
Nah, Thunder said. She's got kids older than me!
He wrote back, telling her what she needed to do to see him, and at the bottom of the sheet of notebook paper, he wrote: "Love Always, T.C."
Then he scribbled his signature, like an autograph from his playing days. Thunder Collins #1.
It has been two years since Thunder Collins met Patricia Poppe, soft-spoken and polite, white blonde hair cut in a short bob, hazel eyes behind bronze-rimmed glasses.
They sat in a small room with a wall of glass between them.
He picked up his phone.
She picked up hers.
She had studied up on football in case they had nothing else to talk about.
She didn't need to worry.
"She warmed up to me, and I kind of warmed up to her, too. Basically, it's the highlight of my week."
On God's Team
Pat grew up on a farm north of Lincoln, went to church in nearby Swedeburg, taught Sunday school as soon as she was old enough.
After she married Roger, she joined St. Paul United Church of Christ, its white steeple pointing toward heaven from a gravel road between their farm and Talmage.
She's not hung up on denomination. She was raised in a Mission Covenant church, married at Bethlehem Lutheran.
But her faith, it runs deep.
And it is an active faith.
"She's always wanting to help somebody," Roger says. "That's her. She does more of that than I would."
Pat retired from Johnson-Brock Public Schools in 2005; she had taught before becoming a counselor in small towns such as Venango, Filley, Elk Creek. In those 41 years, she could see the difference she made in children's lives, watched them grow and change, helping them along with nudges of encouragement and love.
Now, that was gone.
She kept busy while she prayed for what God wanted from her next. She visited her far-away sons and twin granddaughters, sewed quilts for people in crisis, cheered up shut-ins from church.
"She's a jewel," says her pastor, Curtis Rieger. "Just about any time something needs doing, she's there."
And that summer, there was something she needed to do.
"There was just a pain in my heart, and Thunder's name was attached to it 100 percent."
She had caught snippets on the news the year before. Two men from Los Angeles, one wounded, one killed in Omaha -- and a former Husker convicted of the crime.
"I didn't pay that much attention," she says, "but it must have stayed with me."
The pain in her heart stayed, too. No matter where she was going –- northwest to Lincoln or south to Tecumseh –- it would not leave her.
She ignored it, prayed about it, talked to Pastor.
It was August when she finally turned her SUV off the highway and into an endless prison parking lot. She walked up to a low-slung brick building, opened the door to the gatehouse.
She approached the counter.
Just what does it take to visit a prisoner?
Who do you want to see?
Because God told me to.
Ohio State 63, Nebraska 38
The last of fall is blowing off the trees along Nebraska 50. Puddles of water dampen the shoulder after an overnight shower.
Roger is out working cattle. "A natural-born farmer," Pat says.
She has been home all morning. Now she backs her red SUV out of the yard, heading south to the prison. The wind buffets the Buick like a boat on stormy water.
She prays on the drive.
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Bless our time together. Bless me with the words I need to be most helpful.
At the gatehouse, she slips off her shoes, walks through the metal detector and inside a small room for a pat search.
Visiting hours are flexible, but she likes to come early in the week when it's quieter.
They can't have face-to-face visits while Thunder is in segregation. She sits in front of a monitor downstairs, talks into a phone; Thunder is upstairs doing the same. Like Skype, he says.
Today, they talk about last night's presidential debate -- they agree Obama won -- and discuss last week's football game, an embarrassing blowout.
They talk about Thunder's latest brief to the Nebraska Supreme Court, alleging mistakes made during his trial and sentencing. Thunder wrote it longhand on the same notebook paper he used for that first letter.
Pat typed it for him, eight pages in all.
Thunder always has maintained his innocence. He didn't shoot anyone, he says, and no drugs were sold -- a factor that led to a stiffer sentence.
Pat listens. She's learned a lot that way, she says. She's learned more typing the documents.
"The judge threw the book at him," she says. "I know I'm biased, but I feel like he was over-sentenced. I feel that deep in my heart."
At the end of each visit, they take turns praying. When this visit is over, Thunder puts his head down while Pat prays.
"I ask God to see him with his pain in his little cell so he knows he's not alone," Pat says on the drive back.
"I ask Him to bless him and guide him as he works in the law library. Bless the judge and the legal people. Then I thank Him for our friendship."
Like always, they arrange a time to meet next week.
You pick, Thunder always tells her. I'll be here.
Thunder through Pat's eyes
During his playing days, and the trouble that followed, newspaper stories called him cocky. A probation officer once labeled him a narcissist.
Pat has never seen any of that in Thunder.
He's considerate, she says. They laugh together. He asks about Roger, her kids.
"He always makes a point to tell me I look nice when we visit."
He worried about her after she had a health scare this summer. He worries about his family -- his mom and siblings, his aunties, his cousins -- and misses them. He misses his daughter, born just as he entered prison. He tells Pat about things that pain him, asks her to keep them private, and she does.
She wasn't sure what to expect that first visit, but she knows she didn't expect what she found.
"He grew up in a rough part of L.A., I really don’t know what part that was. He had to watch his back all the time. For me to uncover this tender heart inside, that was a kind of joy."
They came from two worlds
Thunder was named for his father -- Thunder Gremio Collins Sr. -- murdered when Thunder was 8.
His mom was a teenager when she had him. He lived with his grandparents, ran the streets in foster care. Moved in with his mom after she kicked a drug habit; he eventually had six younger brothers and a baby sister, their names tattooed down his right arm.
He ran with older kids, gangs, stealing bikes, stealing cars. He found his feet, he found football. It saved him.
"I was kind of raised by the village of football."
After high school, he moved in with an aunt who pushed him when those fast feet and good hands alone couldn't get him into a four-year college.
"She was like a gospel gangster."
She made sure he went to church, didn't run the streets, made his grades in junior college.
He was living with her the night a coach from Nebraska knocked on the apartment door. They'd already warned the neighbors: "If you see an old white dude in a nice car, leave him alone."
A year later, Thunder was a Husker. He played a part in the trick play that did in Oklahoma in 2001 -- the Black 41 Flash Reverse. He rushed for 647 yards that same season, caught 19 passes, scored five touchdowns.
He made friends on the team, visited their farms, worked hard on the practice field. He loved Nebraska, he says. Loved the fans.
But there were bumps: an off-field altercation involving a girlfriend, an NCAA violation over money and a four-game suspension. Thunder left the team in October 2002 to take care of a younger brother living with him in Lincoln.
"There was a lot expected of him," says George Darlington, the assistant coach who recruited him. "Of course the name, Thunder Collins, made it worse."
Pat grew up a Nebraska farm girl. She didn't know anyone but other white people. Her family was poor, but she didn't experience prejudice or violence.
She picked apples, walked bean fields, butchered chickens, sewed in 4-H, celebrated New Year's Eve at church.
At Wahoo High, she sang and acted, edited the yearbook, joined the library club. Sports were never her thing.
She became a teacher because that's what women could be back then, a kind of destiny.
Sometimes, Pat is amazed when she thinks about how much common ground she and Thunder have -- politics, strong faith, love of family.
And sometimes, she thinks about Thunder escaping from the gangs and the crime and coming here to a placid place, a state so eager to have him they serenaded him on the radio.
"When he left L.A. to play football, who knew that this would be where he would find trouble?"
Nebraska 32, Penn State 23
The trees along Nebraska 50 are bare, and cows graze under an arc of blue November sky.
At the prison, Thunder wears short sleeves. He laughs about the tattoo on his left arm, the name of an old girlfriend. "That one's coming off."
The Afro is gone and the chin beard, so are the shackles.
He has moved to a new cell, earned more privileges. Little things, such as ice in his cup and more outside contact.
He has a phone list, approved by the prison: cousins, his aunties, his mom, a few friends.
He doesn't like being a statistic. He has distanced himself from most of his old teammates, doesn't want to "drag them into my situation," he says.
He remembers hopping the fence to play on the field at USC. Watching older players walk like gods through the hallways at Manual Arts High School.
He looked up to guys from the neighborhood, the ones who got out by the grace of the gridiron and hard work. Keyshawn Johnson, Chad Johnson, Tyrese Gibson.
"They kind of passed me because their stars kept rising to the top and mine faded a little bit," Thunder says.
But he still has the confidence of his playing days. "Believe it or not I'm up. It's not 'if' I get out, it's 'when.'"
He got news this week that his last appeal was denied. But he expected that. Now he can start the next step, a federal appeal.
Pat will type that, too.
She has become a kind of mother figure, he says. "Kind of an advocate a little bit, and a friend, you know."
Pat's red SUV is at the church today, parked just off the gravel road. She has been here most of the afternoon, cutting cake and making coffee and setting out salads for the funeral reception of an elderly parishioner.
She still sews quilts, visits shut-ins, helps when Pastor needs her, but the pain in her heart with Thunder's name on it is gone.
"I have complete peace," she says. "I think God just knew we needed each other."
Her friends don't quite understand. Pat, how can you do that week after week? Aren't you frightened?
It's no different than visiting someone who is shut-in, she tells them. Thunder is shut in. And she is blessed, she tells them, by knowing him.
Pat is cleaning up now, getting ready to go home. She has been checking the mail for a letter from Thunder to find out when she should come next. If one doesn't come today, she'll write him.
She sends Thunder cards for his birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas. She saves the letters he sends her.
He still signs them, "Love always, T.C."
He often adds three words: "GO BIG RED."
And he still scribbles his signature, like an autograph from his playing days, but after those first few letters, he stopped adding the number from his old jersey, No. 1.