November 23, 2011
As promised back in July, the trophy is here for Friday's "Heroes Game," the first edition of a new annual rivalry between Iowa and first-year Big Ten mate Nebraska. And it is… well, as Tiny Elvis would say, that sucker is huge, man.
Pros: It's traditional, tasteful and inoffensive. You know, it's hard to screw up a silver football sitting on top of a wooden ziggurat, and Iowa knows well that these things are a lot easier to screw up than you'd think.
Cons: It's big. For victory in a single game, way too big: Can this thing even be taken on a victory lap?
More to the point, it's just not weird enough. Because they sprung up organically decades ago, usually for reasons no one can even remember, the truly iconic rivalry trophies are all bizarre curios: The Big Ten alone is littered with inscrutable but hotly contested artifacts in the form of buckets, jugs, turtles, battle axes and pigs that are meaningless outside of the context of decades of cross-border feuding. They're hotly contested in large part precisely because they're bizarre curios, distinct from anything else in sports. There can be only one owner of the Illibuck. It's going to be an awfully long time before anyone yells, "Let's go take back our generic take on the classic football on a platform presented by Hy-Vee!"
Fortunately, the "Heroes Game" is beginning another unique tradition: Each game will honor two local "heroes," one from Iowa and one from Nebraska, nominated by friends, neighbors or co-workers for an "extraordinary act." This year's official heroes are Kathy Griess of Fremont, Neb., who pulled over when she saw smoke coming from a nearby trailer park and rescued two young children from a fire, and Gary Launderville of Storm Lake, Iowa, a local sheriff who has served as a foster parent to 125 children, seven of whom he and his wife have eventually adopted. Last December, Launderville was hit by an SUV while attempting to help a mother and child stranded in a snow storm. Both will be honored during the game.
As for the game itself, with both teams already bowl eligible but eliminated from the Big Ten title hunt, there's little at stake beyond inter-state pride. It will be the first meeting between the old "rivals" since a home-and-home between the Hawkeyes and 'Huskers in 1999 and 2000, itself a rare renewal of a series that had been an annual affair for most of the first half of the 20th Century. The first time Iowa and Nebraska met, in 1903, it wasn't entirely clear yet which team would be known as the "Cornhuskers." Now that would be something to play for.