Neither person realized it, but this was goodbye. Maybe that’s why it lasted a half hour. It’s strange. The high school football coach never talked with the quarterback that long before. Both were busy people. Time always seemed against them and conversation.
But that one particular day, they talked and the clock hand turned and no one cared. They discussed the NFL scouts and their crazy questions — What’s Brook’s favorite vegetable? They laughed and talked about the good ol’ days and the better days to come.
It was not two weeks later when Mike Johnson stood on the high school track in Goodland, Kan., and heard the news from his wife. Brook Berringer was dead. He’d crashed a small airplane, killing him and another local man, Tobey Lake.
Johnson, now the football coach at Waverly High these 10 years later, didn’t have time to process all the memories on the spot.
If he had, he wouldn’t have first thought of football. When most Nebraskans think of Brook Berringer, they think of No. 18’s savior right arm and his steely insides. They think of the day he played with a bad lung and how he once made a pack of Buffaloes whimper.
When Johnson thinks of him, he thinks of a friendly, goofy, prankster, loveable high school kid. He thinks of the time he looked out at a room of teenagers to see Berringer … asleep in class.
He thinks of the time he made a deal with his Goodland High senior football players. They could cut his hair if the Cowboys knocked off No. 1-ranked Colby High in the last game of the season.
You can be certain Berringer had the scissors in his hand that night.
The day he died, Johnson ran across the Goodland track, hopped the single fence which separated it from the Berringer house and knocked on the door.
Jan Berringer was there. Brook’s mother had been getting food ready for an NFL Draft party. It was just two days before the draft and Berringer’s stock was pointing up.
Johnson remembers Jan telling him, “I think he’s still in the air. I think he’s still in the air.”
He remembers Husker coach Tom Osborne calling Jan and telling her he was checking out the situation. He’d get back to her as soon as he knew what happened.
He remembers it all hitting him in the gut at the memorial services: Brook and Tobey were actually gone.
He thinks about it every year the NFL Draft comes along. It’s then that he and his wife allow themselves a few Brook stories.
You know, Johnson tells you, “At first, I was going to put him at tight end.”
You know what else? Hardly any Division I schools seemed too interested in Berringer until rumor spread that Osborne was recruiting him. If Osborne liked him, suddenly, so did everyone else.
But, for some reason, it’s a phone call that sticks out the most. Berringer had just gained the starting spot at Nebraska after a Tommie Frazier injury. He finally had his opportunity. Just as quickly as it came, it seemed to collapse.
A collapsed lung had Berringer’s 1994 season in jeopardy. The quarterback dialed Johnson and told him, “Coach, I finally have a chance to play and I can’t even breathe.”
If the story ended there, that line would be one to throw out with the trash. But the setback would eventually just add to his Nebraska legend.
For all his gridiron heroics, a star football player is not how Johnson chooses to remember him.
“I lost one of my favorite kids,” he says. “To me, he wasn’t the Nebraska quarterback. He was just Brook Berringer. He was a Cowboy.”
Reach Brian Christopherson at 473-7438 or email@example.com.