Nebraska football: Holding onto dead traditions since 1999

Helium shortage suspends, but doesn’t end, Cornhusker balloon celebration

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Nebraska’s balloon tradition is on hold.
Nebraska’s balloon tradition is on hold.
Image: Getty Images

One of the saddest traditions in college sports is on hiatus as Nebraska football suspended its home game custom of releasing balloons after the first Husker score. For a long time, children could barely get to their seats before letting go of the plastic, red helium-filled orbs. Now, Big Red faithful can’t get rid of the balloons fast enough as first quarter scoring has gone from an inevitability to please god just kick a field goal so I don’t have to lug this thing around the tailgate at halftime.

I was at an Oklahoma State game years ago when fans sarcastically released the balloons after the team’s first first down late in the first half of a game which the Huskers found themselves down 35-0 at the break, and I have to say, that had to be sweeter for the Pokes than stunning the crowd into silence.

Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts said a helium shortage, and not ecological worries or a despondent offense, was the reason the program let the air out of the tradition.


“Acquiring helium in today’s day and age, some of the production of it is really challenged, and it’s been hard to get,” Alberts said during his radio show. “So we’ve been asked by the university, the helium that we are getting as a university, we need to use for medical purposes at [University of Nebraska Medical Center] in Omaha. And so we are this year not going to be providing the red balloons for the first time at Memorial Stadium.”

Sanctions on Russia, one of the world’s foremost helium suppliers, due to its invasion of Ukraine have caused supply chain issues, and I’m sure many of the Republicans from my home state will find a way to blame Joe Biden for this development. Alberts’ assertion that the university is saving the gas for patients at UNMC is commendable. Sick people obviously take precedence over an aesthetically pleasing visual at a football game; and I’m glad that the school found a line it won’t cross for its football team.


The thousands of bits of garbage that are literally littered a handful of times each year are a biohazard with lasting effects unlike the steaming pile of refuse that’s been run out on the field over the past decade. The student government voted to end the tradition in November, and that was treated with as much concern as the lawsuit a Nebraskan filed against the school in 2016 over the health hazard of the balloons.

To me, it’s one of those things, like the option offense. It should have ended years ago. I’ve been to Memorial Stadium countless times, and not once do I remember releasing a balloon. (I’ve been going to games as long as I can remember so I’ll have to consult my dad to see if a young Sean ever participated.) Merely suspending the practice tells fans that, “It’s OK, it’ll be back as good as ever some day,” and it’s a logic applicable to other aspects of Nebraska sports.


Husker traditions have been falling by the wayside since Tom Osborne retired in the late ’90s, and as sad as it is for fans, what’s more depressing is holding onto the last vestiges of the glory years like that guy who peaked in high school. We all look like bloated ass-clowns wearing decades-old letter jackets, and it might be time to wipe the slate clean as no one is impressed by an immaculately upkept trophy case that hasn’t seen a notable addition since the Big 12 conference title in 1999.

The sellout streak, currently sitting at 382 games, only continues because “generous donors” buy up tickets that wouldn’t otherwise be sold. Never mind the fact that the stadium was empty — or attendance was scaled back — during the COVID years. It’s a charade that gets Nebraska laughed at as much as Scott Frost’s worst fourth quarter collapse. How about taking that money used to prop up a dead tradition and doling it out in the form of NIL deals?


Trust me, I know how good of an offseason the team has allegedly put together. The transfer portal has been kind to Frost, and it might be what earns him more than three wins this year. Traditions unaccompanied by victories are just empty gestures. If Osborne had rested on his laurels after getting beaten by Miami in all those Orange Bowls, he never would’ve revamped the way he recruited and won three titles in four seasons. (And, no, editor, don’t insert a note here about the unsavory characters Osborne overlooked; that college football practice isn’t specific to Nebraska.)

Is it a leap to say Alberts’ refusal to end the Big Red release outright is evidence of a program exhaustingly stuck in the past? Yeah, absolutely, but my god, look forward, not skyward because those balloons come back down to earth eventually.