Published Saturday, October 12, 2013 at 8:36 pm / Updated at 8:45 pm
FOOTBALL
Chatelain: Easy win comes with painful loss

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Jake Long didn't leave his twin's side.

Not after trainers helped Spencer off the field. Not when Spencer lay on the sideline under examination. Not when Spencer hobbled to the bench, his left knee wrapped in ice, his buzzed head draped with a towel, his No. 61 jersey squeezing shoulder pads he may never wear again.

Jake knows his brother and he knows the human body — next year at this time, he'll likely be in med school. But “there's not much you can say in that situation.”

Nebraska won a football game Saturday. But it lost one of its best players, likely for the rest of his senior season.

Spencer Long went down on the Huskers' fifth snap of the game. On first-and-10, he shuffled away from the line of scrimmage and shoved a Purdue defensive tackle out of the way, opening a hole for Tommy Armstrong on a zone-read keeper. But when defensive end Ryan Russell dove to tackle the quarterback, he crashed into Long's knee.

Spencer never saw it coming. He curled into the fetal position at the 45-yard line, yelling in pain. He spent most of the next three hours on the sideline, wondering what a Sunday MRI will reveal.

“I just hope to God it's not as bad as it could be,” Bo Pelini said. “... But it doesn't look good.”

Four years ago, nobody knew who Spencer Long was. He was just another walk-on defensive lineman who spent childhood Saturdays in North Stadium. He'd probably scuffle on the scout team a few years, recognize his place, then give up football to focus on med school.

Now he's an All-Big Ten guard, a captain, the quiet leader of the offensive line.

“He's earned everything he's gotten,” Pelini told me. “To me, he's what Nebraska football is all about. He is the poster child. Everything he is represents everything that's right about college football.”

Spencer and Jake juggled football and homework the past four years. But after taking the MCATs in July, they cleared their academic load so they could focus on their last season.

Jake, the tight end, missed Saturday's game with a minor hamstring injury. He wished he could've played. It would've distracted his mind from Spencer. He wasn't the only one.

After NU completed its first scoring drive, teammates approached Spencer one by one to pat him on the back. First Kenny Bell approached and patted him on the back, then Colby Starkebaum, then Tyler Evans, then Wil Richards.

We got you, they said. We're here for you.

Spencer limped 30 yards down the sideline, where the offensive linemen were standing. They circled him and listened to his pep talk.

“When it happened,” offensive line coach John Garrison said, “the guys didn't want to leave the field. They didn't want to come to the sideline.

“You could see the look in their eyes. Their leader, the guy they count on emotionally and physically for a lot of things — it could have been a moment where we kind of fell. Where the Goliaths took the fall and crumbled. But I was really proud of the guys for stepping up. The initial thought was: Let's go play for Spence. We owe it to him.”

The Huskers will move on with Mike Moudy at right guard. He's been a pleasant surprise this year and he's certainly capable, but NU needs its offensive line to shine in November and Long's absence would make the task more difficult.

Halfway through the first quarter, Long climbed into a cart and headed to the locker room. When he came back to the field with 12:04 left in the second quarter, he'd shed his uniform for red shorts, a T-shirt and a hat. He moved on black crutches.

Three hours later, Spencer was leaning on the same crutches outside the Husker buses, talking to his family. Garrison stopped to pat him on the back, then Tim Beck, then Barney Cotton.

His mom wore a red jersey with two numbers on the back — Jake's 41 and Spencer's 61 — hoping she hadn't seen them together on the field for the last time.

Senior seasons are supposed to highlight a career. Too often, they disappoint.

Two years ago Oct. 8, Jared Crick's career ended with a pectoral injury. Last year, an MCL sprain sabotaged Rex Burkhead's dream season. Now it's Long.

And of all the places for it to happen, 600 miles from home? Against the worst team in the Big Ten? In front of thousands of empty seats?

“I feel for him,” Pelini said. “He's a great kid and he's meant so much to this program.”

Knowing Spencer, he'll make it back and have an opportunity to play in the NFL, Bo said, “but I know how much this means to him.”

When Long finally pointed his crutches for the buses, I asked him if he had a minute to talk. He declined.

There's not much you can say.

* * *

Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Purdue game:



Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:



Video: Husker fans at Purdue:

Contact the writer: Dirk Chatelain

dirk.chatelain@owh.com    |   402-649-1461    |  

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments.

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