Donning a large foam corn cob hat on Friday evening among throngs of University of Nebraska fans in Fresno, Fred Franco of Hanford wasn't ashamed to say that while he graduated from Fresno State, he'll be rooting for the Cornhuskers on Saturday.
His friends don't understand. How could this 43-year-old Fresno State season ticket holder not root for his alma mater when the Bulldogs take on Nebraska on Saturday at Bulldog Stadium?
Franco says they don't understand his roots. He was born in Nebraska, and that means Husker loyalty sticks with you, no matter where you go.
"Nebraska football is a way of life," Franco said. "It's embedded into you from your very first day ... I still remember my first birthday, watching Nebraska football."
"Don't get me wrong," Franco adds -- he loves the Bulldogs. But when it comes to college football, there's no team above Nebraska.
Franco was one of hundreds of adoring Husker fans overflowing Dog House Grill on Friday evening for a lively gathering complete with beach balls, Mardi Gras beads and bushels of camaraderie.
Derek Engelbart, director of alumni relations for Nebraska, said he's heard that as many as 20,000 Nebraska fans are expected at Saturday's game.
Engelbart said that with no professional football teams in Nebraska, Husker football is the "show for the state" and fans are "notorious for traveling." Nebraska alums from as far as Alaska will be at Saturday's game, he said.
"Our state has more cows than people," Nebraskan Lori Hallowell, 45, said at Dog House Grill. "And football is one of the things that holds us all together. And that's why we do what we do -- that's why we travel. It's so fun."
Native Nebraskan Steve Mendyk, 53, said Husker football is a "real unifying, social phenomenon, I guess -- and it's always been that way ..."
"I think generally people in Nebraska like to think of themselves as straight-shootin', hard-workin', Midwestern types -- and more often than not, I think in years past the football team has personified that."
Mendyk and his daughter, Katherine, 13, both played the trumpet on Friday at Dog House Grill, leading hundreds in a "Go Big Red" chant -- accompanied by Mendyk's youngest daughter, Caroline, 9, shaking a tambourine.
Mendyk now lives in Fresno and his daughters were born and raised here. Does Katherine feel her football loyalties stretched? "NOOO," she said.
Fresno State fan Bridgette Williams, 48, said she got a "wow factor" surprise when she walked into Dog House Grill on Friday. It costs a lot of money to travel -- especially in this economy, Williams said, "so to be able to sacrifice to support their team like this is awesome. I'm impressed -- even though we hope that we beat them down."
A.T. Greer, who works for Nebraska's alumni relations, said of the number of Huskers fans: "We get underestimated a lot."
Rick Roth, 63, of Nebraska said when the Huskers have a home game, the population within the stadium becomes equivalent to the third-largest city in his state.
Franco added, "Nebraska fans are the classiest fans in college football." Even in defeat, they applaud the winning team and do things like support the Team Jack Foundation to fund research for pediatric brain cancer, he said.
"It's not all about football for Nebraska fans. It's about life."
Nebraska officials said former star Cornhusker athletes are also expected to attend pep rallies Saturday.
Jamie Williams, who played on the San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl XXIV championship team, and Bob Brown, formerly of the Oakland Raiders, will be at a pregame "Husker Huddle" at the Save Mart Center on Saturday afternoon. Williams is now an associate athletics director for the school, and Brown was inducted into the pro football and college football halls of fame.
Willie Harper, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers, and Vince Ferragamo, formerly of the Los Angeles Rams, are scheduled to appear at another Nebraska gathering Saturday afternoon at the softball stadium across from Bulldog Stadium. Harper is the father of Josh Harper, Fresno State's leading wide receiver.