By Randy York
In a half-century era where Nebraska has won more games than any other major college football program and sold out every home game since 1962, it’s easy to dismiss Husker student-athletes who did not experience that kind of success or feel the momentum that Big Red football could have on an entire state. Instead of winning conference championships, national titles and bowl games with the consistency of a well-tuned clock, Husker football players from yesteryear struggled mightily just to stay above .500. But they had their magical moments, and they had their chance to be the talk of college football on any given Saturday. Go all the way back, for instance, to Sept. 24, 1955, in Columbus, Ohio. Nebraska had lost its season home opener in Lincoln to Hawaii, 6-0, even though a year earlier, the Huskers demolished the Rainbow Warriors, 50-0 in Honolulu. After that woeful performance, Nebraska Sports Information Director Emeritus Don Bryant told me that Husker football fans everywhere were expecting a major blowout when NU traveled to sixth-ranked Ohio State for its second game. The Buckeyes, after all, were the defending AP national champions and featured my all-time favorite-named player, Howard “Hopalong” Cassady, who would go on to win the 1955 Heisman Trophy.
Cassady rushed for 170 yards and three touchdowns that day in front of 80,171 Ohio Stadium fans. But Don Erway, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound quarterback from Lincoln High School, did not panic or lose his poise. He ran for a 9-yard first-quarter touchdown and connected with Jon McWilliams, a senior end from Sidney, Neb., on an 11-yard touchdown pass to give the Huskers a 20-14 third-quarter lead. Yes, Nebraska flirted with history that day, but lost its opportunity in a scoreless fourth quarter. Final score: Buckeyes 28, Huskers 20. Having his hand and feet (he was the team’s kicker) in 14 of Nebraska’s 20 points that day, Erway battled hard and came back with resolve, helping lead the Huskers to five wins in their next eight games – all against what would become longtime Big Eight conference rivals. Nebraska finished 5-5 in 1954, and that was more than acceptable for Nebraska Football B.D. (Before Devaney).
Don Erway: A Gifted Prep and Collegiate Athlete
Donald G. Erway, 78, died peacefully at his Lincoln home on Oct. 10. His Celebration of Life service was Tuesday at Lincoln’s Christ United Methodist Church. Jim Miller enjoyed doing the research to memorialize a life-long member of the church he pastors. That research helped Reverend Miller understand the trail Erway left, athletically and professionally. So this N-Sider is dedicated to the legacy of Don Erway, who was the 1953 Nebraska State High School Athlete of the Year in both the Lincoln Journal-Star and the Omaha World-Herald. That high honor was based on Erway’s first-team all-state status in both football and basketball. He starred on back-to-back state championship basketball teams, averaging nearly 20 points a game his senior season after being selected to play in the East-West High School All-Star Football Game in Memphis.
Erway also was a catcher in baseball, a second sport in which he lettered as a Husker before a knee injury forced him to the sidelines. Erway is well etched into Nebraska’s rich athletic history and even served as president of what was then called the Varsity “N” Club, which welcomed all letterwinners across all Nebraska sports.
A Prep Hall-of-Famer with Many Fellow Huskers
Eight years ago, Erway was inducted into the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame. Fellow Lincoln High grad and Nebraska football All-American Mike Fultz was in the same induction class, along with former Huskers Todd Brown, Ken Geddes, John Kirby, Joe Orduna, Randy Reeves and Charlie Toogood. All were accomplished Husker players, but none did what Erway did – quarterbacked Nebraska to its second-ever bowl game and its first in 13 years when the Huskers lost to Duke (34-7) in the Jan. 1, 1955 Orange Bowl. The postseason game was the reward for a 6-4 regular season. Even though the Huskers finished second in the Big Seven Conference that year and were steamrolled by Oklahoma, Nebraska received the ’54 bowl bid because Oklahoma had gone to Miami the year before, and the Orange Bowl enforced its no-repeat rule.
Erway’s Orange Bowl performance against the 14th-ranked Duke Blue Devils was, in a word, forgettable. But he helped Nebraska get to Miami and deserves credit for his leadership. A friendly guy by all accounts, Erway left a legacy and wished for memorials to go to the Humane Society, his church and the UNL Foundation that supports Nebraska Athletics. He is survived by a son who lives in Bennet, Neb., a daughter who lives in Clarksville, Md., and a daughter who lives in Lincoln, plus all three of their spouses and their families.
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