Native Nebraskans ready to play against old rivals

Kyle Oppenhuizen

The last time the ISU football team traveled to Nebraska, Cornhusker recruit Phillip Bates watched as the Cyclones took a 13-10 lead into the fourth quarter.

As the two teams traded leads on the scoreboard, Bates, who was then a junior at Omaha North High School, found himself cheering against Nebraska.

“I was looking down at my friend and I was like ‘Ooo, they’re gonna get beat,'” Bates said.

Iowa State eventually lost a double-overtime thriller, 27-20, but in February gained a recruit in Bates. As the Cyclones shoot for their first win in Lincoln since 1977, Bates will be one of six players Saturday returning to his home state.

For Bates, the homecoming means not only a chance to play in front of his friends and family, but a chance to play against high school friends in Nebraska wide receiver Niles Paul and cornerback Cortney Grixby.

“It’s not every day that you get to go back home and play a game, playing with Cortney Grixby and Niles Paul, it’s like playing street football again,” Bates said. “I grew up with those guys, playing with them, watching them play. It’s going to be pretty exciting.”

Bates went to high school with Paul and was a natural rival to Grixby, who played at Omaha Central High School. When Bates decided he was going to Iowa State over Nebraska, it created a new rivalry between Bates and Paul.

“We always go at it,” Bates said. “He used to burn my Iowa State books in front of my locker, he used to do a bunch of crazy stuff, because, I mean, everybody is a Nebraska fan [in Omaha]. It’s all in love, it’s no big deal.”

Junior center Brandon Johnson is from Rushville, Neb., and is getting tickets for 15 friends and family for the game. Johnson was also recruited by Nebraska, but said he knew Iowa State was the place for him when former ISU offensive coordinator Barney Cotton invited him for a visit.

Johnson was on Iowa State’s roster in 2005 as a freshman, but did not get in the game. From the sideline, Johnson described Memorial Stadium as “one of the greatest crowds” in college football. Now, he is ready to go play in front of them.

“I know a lot of people there, a lot of good people there. I know some of the players on the team,” Johnson said. “I’m real excited about it; it’s going to be fun for me.”

While Johnson wants to do well in front of his home fans, he said he anticipates the rest of the team will step up as well.

“It would be enjoyable [winning in Nebraska], you know, it would be . I think it’s a whole team thing really, it means a lot to everybody,” Johnson said.

Bates said he was trying to get tickets for at least 20 friends and family. Although he has only been in a handful of plays this year, his eyes lit up when thinking about the prospect of scoring a touchdown in front of 70,000 Nebraska fans.

“It’d be crazy,” Bates said. “Memorial Stadium is so many people that it is so ridiculously loud. I would love to score a touchdown. I mean, if it helps this team win, I’ll do it.”

Six players on the ISU football team are from the state of Nebraska:

Phillip Bates, Fr., QB, Omaha

Caleb Berg, Sr., DB, York

Brandon Johnson, Jr., OL, Rushville

Luke Pinkelman, Fr., OL, Cozad

Derec Schmidgall, So., LB, Lincoln

Joel Zitek, So., WR, Ulysses