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After 30 years as a Nebraska assistant and teacher, George Darlington receives his Blackshirt

“Coach Darlington is almost here. Everyone, get ready.”

On a cold November night, a church activity center in Elkhorn prepares for a party. Steam rises from a catered buffet. Old photos shuffle on a video screen. Circular tables anchor balloons — red, black and white.

At one table, three silver-haired church ladies await the 83-year-old guest of honor like smitten school girls. They’re reflecting on his eight-week class: “Football Facts for Novices.”

We got to touch a Heisman Trophy, Nikki Riley says.

He let me try on his national championship ring, Gail Wood brags. “I don’t know which one. He has three.”

“Well, I’ve never asked him if I could wear it,” Deborah Fowler says.

“Actually, he wanted to go steady,” Gail jokes. “He told my husband to divorce me so I could make key lime pie for him. Oh, he loves key lime pie.”

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We’re a long way from the locker room at Memorial Stadium, aren’t we?

George Darlington devoted 30 years (from 1973 to 2002) to coaching Nebraska football, more than any Husker assistant in history. During the glory years, he stormed the West Coast, selling teenage recruits on a faraway football utopia where he showed them how to cover, tackle and win championships.

But a decade after he coached his last game, Darlington’s students aren’t future NFL defensive backs. They’re mostly senior citizens. And they’re here tonight to honor their teacher, who wasn’t supposed to survive another football season.

Darlington spent seven weeks this summer in a Lincoln hospital. He planned his funeral. He wrote his obituary. He made arrangements for burial.

All while cancer attacked his esophagus and his heart failed.

“But he’s like the Energizer Bunny,” says Nikki Riley, who attends Darlington’s church. “Just can’t keep him down.”

He rallied, Darlington says, largely because of the people in this room. “When I was ready to kick the bucket, one of my goals was to get well enough to teach the class.”

He has done it since the 1970s.

Every semester concludes with a little banquet, typically highlighted by a couple of current Huskers. This time, considering the circumstances, the class had a better idea: surprise Coach with a celebration of his teaching career.

“Time is precious,” said Darlington’s video assistant, Ed Sealock. “We don’t know if we’re going to have a class next year.”

Just after 6:30 p.m., Sealock makes an announcement to the crowd of about 60: George has arrived. The Tunnel Walk music begins. The crowd stands and claps in rhythm. Darlington enters the room, discards his old Nebraska coat and grins ear to ear.

There’s one more surprise waiting for him.

Teaching Football 101

If you spend enough time reflecting on the old days of Nebraska football, you’ll notice a paradox.

The program casts a shadow from coast to coast. It felt big, bold and resolute. Like an old oak next to a farmhouse.

And yet, somehow, Husker football was also more quaint. More approachable. Nebraska exuded an old-school charm and humility, perhaps best epitomized by Tom Osborne’s blue-collar assistants.

It’s hard to imagine a better example than the defensive backs coach teaching Football 101 to women 48 hours before national showdowns against Colorado or Oklahoma. It would never happen today.

Back then, it happened every fall.

Darlington has taught the class for 40 years, with a short break in the 2000s. Many of his students have enrolled multiple times. One woman attended until she was 96. One commuted from Chicago, sticking around for Saturday home games.

Upon his retirement from coaching, Darlington often taught one section of the community college class in Omaha, one in Lincoln. No big fees. No college credit. And no tests. “Thank goodness,” Gail Wood says.

Said Nikki Riley: “I have wanted to do it for years and just never signed up.” 

Just this fall, Riley learned the difference between a weakside and strongside linebacker. “My son used to play linebacker and I never did figure out what the difference was.”

Asked Wood: “Which one was he?” 

“He was a weakside linebacker. Now I know he lined up opposite the tight end.”

Darlington’s textbook “Football 101” is a 150-page paperback he wrote 25 years ago. He takes his students through the basics of offense, defense, special teams, rules, training methods, officiating signals, recruiting tips, etc.

“It’s an interactive class. That’s what I like about it,” Riley says. “If he’s demonstrating offense, he makes us stand up and be the players. You’re the tailback. You’re the tight end.”

One night at Memorial Stadium years ago, Darlington called out 22 students and led them through one of Tom Osborne’s go-to plays.

Let George take it from there.

“I line these people up and say, ‘OK, we’re going to do a 41 pitch. We’re going to pitch it to this 60-year-old lady. Defense, take two or three steps, let the offense block.’

“Well, we had two ladies in a 5-2 defense, young gals, they thought they were Butkus and Nitschke. So we pitched the ball and they knocked the living crap out of this 60-year-old lady.”

So badly, in fact, that “Gladys” ruptured her ACL.

More often, though, Darlington prefers to keep it simple and fun. Class highlights include a Memorial Stadium tour, postgame film sessions of the most recent Nebraska game and previews of the upcoming game.

In 1983, Darlington demonstrated how Nebraska’s next opponent, Syracuse, occasionally punted on third-and-long. Two days later, one student was in the stands when on third-and-10, she predicted aloud the Syracuse quarterback was going to punt.

Bingo. Fans around her were so impressed they asked her to call the next play, too.

“She came in the next week,” Darlington said, “and said the cost of the class was paid for at 1:45 p.m. on Saturday.”

The unexpected teacher

Darlington didn’t plan on teaching until 83. Or teaching at all.

Born in West Virginia, he played college football at Rutgers in the 1950s before earning two graduate degrees at Stanford — history and physical education. He was coaching at San Jose State in 1973 when he attended an FCA convention in Chicago. That’s where he hit it off with Nebraska’s new coach. Osborne hired him to coach defensive ends.

Darlington knew his X’s and O’s. But his unique value to Osborne was recruiting the West Coast.

Tireless. Fearless. Darlington never met a stranger. Didn’t matter age, race or culture.

“The first time I met George out here, I took him to a wedding,” a Honolulu high school coach said in 2000. “He ate everything. You have just got to like a guy like that. It’s obvious he fits right in anywhere where goes.”

But George couldn’t travel during game weeks. And on Thursday nights, he couldn’t call his West Coast recruits until 10 p.m. So when former Husker Jim Huge suggested a side gig — “Football Facts for Women” — Darlington said yes to teaching.

During the ’80s and ’90s, the class boomed, topping out at 125 students, where George capped it. KLIN even sponsored and broadcast the course. The radio station did have one demand.

Because of Title IX guidelines, Darlington couldn’t restrict the class to women.

“I was discriminating against men,” George says. “Of course, I laugh my tail off about that.”

He changed the name to “Football Facts for Novices,” but his target audience remained overwhelmingly female.

Darlington always warned them: Be sensitive when you share these lessons with your husband. He joked that his class averaged four divorces a year “because the women go home and know some things their husbands don’t.”

Football instruction is the hook, but what keeps students coming back is Darlington’s treasure trove of stories. He seemingly keeps hundreds of tales on the tip of his tongue.

When someone mentions New Orleans, for example, Darlington remembers Sugar Bowls in the 1980s. Coaches and their families enjoyed a pleasant holiday carriage ride down Bourbon Street, until they looked up and saw dancers swinging from the balconies.

On the Huskers’ first night in the Big Easy, they always welcomed a police presentation. A cop told players where they could go and which neighborhoods were off limits. One year, the cops left and New Orleans native Neil Smith raised his hand.

“Coach,” the future Pro Bowler said, “the cops just told me I can’t go home.’”

Darlington’s best stories shed light and laughs on his morally centered boss.

On a recruiting trip east of Los Angeles, Osborne couldn’t find a hotel room near the Ontario airport. Everything was booked. Darlington offered a bed at his aunt’s, but Osborne didn’t want to impose. Finally, the coach found a very shady inn where he slid his money through a bulletproof window.

“I think it was more of a brothel than a motel,” Darlington said.

Osborne frequently split his nonsalary earnings among his assistants. One year at football camp, his secretary mistakenly omitted Osborne from the revenue pie, prompting a few jokes from Darlington in coaches meetings.

“We ought to take a little collection,” George suggested, “so Tom can get paid for the Tom Osborne football camp.”

Receiving a Blackshirt

When Darlington takes the microphone at the banquet in Elkhorn, he shares all kinds of stories like that. His audience consists of friends and family, current students and their husbands. One guest stands out: William Reed, who drove all the way from Falls City to attend.

The former Omaha Central coach met Darlington at a Husker summer camp decades ago. George treated William like an equal. No ego.

“There’s not a whole lot of people I would’ve been driving on the highway two hours to get to,” Reed said. “But I just had to.”

Too often we celebrate a special life at a funeral, Reed said. He prefers to honor Darlington on this side of the goal line. Which is why Reed savored every story.

“He would never ask for it,” Reed said. “But the event touched his heart. He did not want to leave there, man.”

The evening ended just shy of 9 p.m. with a special presentation, made possible by Trev Alberts and Nebraska.

Darlington opened a gift bag and unfolded a personalized jersey. The No. 82 represented his college number at Rutgers. But what stood out was the color.

For 30 years, Darlington shepherded Husker defenders through college football’s most dominant program. He watched them live out their dreams, working their way up the depth chart and into the starting lineup. Eight days before every season opener, the first-stringers opened their lockers and found a black practice jersey. A tradition that made Nebraska unique.

Now, at 83, the author of “Football 101” and the narrator of 1,001 stories had received the special designation, too.

George Darlington received his Blackshirt.

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