Monday, April 18, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Brooks Berringer, April 18 1996

Brooks Berringer had one of the toughest jobs in college football in the 1990s, that of backup quarterback for Tom Osborne’s Nebraska Cornhuskers.  Berringer had rode the pine for most of three seasons behind Tommy Frazier, who won two National Titles for the Huskers and also was three-times MVP of the national title game.  In 1994 he had started eight games due to Frazier’s struggles Crohn’s diseasebut he never displaced Frazier from the starting role.  Together, they had fueled the triple-option offense to three trips to the national title game (against Florida State, Miami, and Florida) and back-to-back Cornhusker titles (for the 1994 and 1995 seasons). 
Berringer was never really the starter, but he was a draft prospect.  Images of him reflected the ideal of Nebraska football promoted by Saint Tom of Osborne  -- happy, hearty, humble, performing community outreach and playing hard for the team.  As such, he stood in contrast to the obnoxious nature that had recently infected Nebraska football and its players. He finished his degree on time. And he didn’t complain that his talent was squandered sitting on the bench behind Frazier. His talent and playing time didn’t make Berringer a top draft pick, but the prospects of a double-digit first round or second round pick loomed.  Back in Kansas, his family planned a party to watch the draft on the weekend of April 20 – the same day as the Red and White spring scrimmage at University of Nebraska.
Brooks loved to fly. Teammate Aaron Graham recounted flying with him to Sports Illustrated’s Tom Layden: “He flew us over the stadium . . .  Then he called the Lincoln airport and asked if he could come over and do touch-and-go's, where we would just come down and skim the runway and go back up. He talked them into letting us do three of them. There we were, shoulder to shoulder in this little plane on this big runway. It was just amazing. He was a good friend. Just a great guy.”
The Thursday before the draft, Berringer went flying in a Piper Cub owned by Harry Barr.  It was a calm, cloudless day with mild temperatures.  Accompanying him was Tobey Lake, the older brother of Berringer’s girlfriend.  Berringer had about 125 hours of logged flying time, and had previously flow the craft.  Flying without a flight plan, the two took off at about 2:30 in the afternoon for a pleasure flight over central Nebraska.
The flight was short-lived. According to the NTSB summary of the accident, “Witnesses reported that after departure from a grass runway. The airplane reached an altitude of about 250 feet, then it departed controlled flight, and descend into the terrain.” The plane crashed into an alfalfa field and caught fire. The more expansive probable cause assessment by NTSB attributes a combination of pilot error and weather conditions, combined with what we see as an idiosyncrasy of the plane. NTSB notes that the “failure of the pilot to ensure that the fuel selector was properly positioned to the full ‘on’ position before takeoff, which resulted in a loss of engine power due to fuel starvation during the initial climb after takeoff.” The report then goes on to indicate that fuels starvation contributed to the “pilot's failure to maintain control of the aircraft. The gusty wind condition was a related factor.”  However, the owner of the craft also noted that the fuel selector was always in the “on” position though it was found in the “off” position when the wreck was examined. 
The irony of Brooks Berringer’s death is that the public came to know him far better than when he had played.  His virtues – dedication to family, friends, hard work, God – were lost in the negative PR surrounding Tom Osborne’s last great team. Said SI’s Tom Layden:

[Berringer’s] qualities would scarcely have been publicized had he not died, because it is de rigueur to lump college football players together as brainless, lawless mercenaries serving a corrupt system. Berringer played for a Cornhuskers team that in 1995, when a number of players were involved in criminal incidents, was regarded as a chain gang dressed in red. But no institution is all good or all evil. College football is full of Brook Berringers. I see them every day, talk to them, listen to them and marvel at the manner in which they juggle adult responsibilities and pressures while surrounded by peers who have few worries beyond schoolwork and social life. Only the most jaded soul could get to know Florida State senior running back Warrick Dunn and not come away feeling good . . . the same was true of that generous Cornhusker who crashed and burned on a field last April.