Dan and Caroline Swartz have four tickets to the Game of the Century.

No. 1 Nebraska against No. 2 Oklahoma down in Norman on Nov. 25, 1971.

Back when Bob Devaney strode the sideline in his porkpie hat and Johnny Rodgers ran back punts for acrobatic touchdowns.

Nebraska coach Bob Devaney is congratulated after defeating Oklahoma 35-31 in the Game of the Century in Norman, Okla., on Nov. 25, 1971. Journal Star archives

Back before the college football playoffs, when the winner of that Big Eight Conference showdown and storied rivalry would be king and — barring a bowl game catastrophe — the next national champion.

The Huskers prevailed 35-31 that long-ago Thanksgiving day, and the Swartzes, Lincoln Northeast grads living in Council Bluffs, Iowa, witnessed it.

Except they weren’t in their $6 seats in Section 20, Row 44 of Owen Field. They were 450 miles away in Caroline’s parents’ north Lincoln basement.

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Her parents — Russell and Elinor Merrill — had bought the tickets to surprise them, the couple said Monday. Caroline and Dan had both graduated from UNL and had moved away for teaching jobs.

They had a 6-year-old daughter and not a lot of extra money in the budget.

But Russell Merrill had been a pilot in the Navy during WWII and made a living as an air-traffic controller, and still had access to a four-seater suitable for a trip south to a football game.

“We were excited, because we didn’t have the wherewithal to go to an away game,” Dan said. “They didn’t pay teachers very much back then.”

Early on gameday, they dropped their daughter off at her Grandma and Grandpa Swartz’s house.

They drove to the Lincoln airport.

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The morning was overcast and foggy. Elinor had her pilot’s license, too, but her health only allowed her co-pilot status and neither of the Merrills had instrument ratings that would allow them to take off in those conditions.

Besides, temperatures were low enough there was a chance the wings could ice over.

“And they weren’t going to take any chances,” Dan said.

But they held out hope as the fog lingered. And lingered.

They waited.

And they waited.

Dan and Caroline Swartz hold four unused tickets, souvenirs from the Game of the Century that their family was unable to attend. The UNL graduates retired to Arizona but remain faithful fans. COURTESY PHOTO

“We waited as long as we could,” Caroline said.

Finally, two disappointed couples dressed in red left the airport and converged in a basement rec room.

“You have to understand something,” Dan said. “I followed Nebraska football since I was 5 years old, and if they lost, I was depressed until at least Thursday. There we were watching the game in my in-laws’ basement and holding those four tickets.”

Decades later, Dan found those tickets in an envelope while cleaning out Russell and Elinor’s house after their deaths.

Now they’re tucked away in a safe with their heirlooms in Arizona, where the lifelong Husker fans still fly a Big Red flag on gamedays.

Johnny Rodgers (20) gets a block from teammate Joe Blahak (27) along the sideline on a 72-yard punt return for a TD against Oklahoma in the Game of the Century in 1971. Julie Koch

That flag will fly Friday for the Heroes Game against Iowa, not quite the rivalry Oklahoma was, and with not quite the fanfare.

But the lifelong — and faithful — fans will cheer like always.

“They (the Huskers) will be back,” Dan says. “Just wait.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or clangekubick@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @TheRealCLK