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Ex-Husker Ron Douglas, 100, leaves legacy steeped in Nebraska tradition

First-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley went out of his way to meet up with Ron Douglas, who played for the '36 Huskers. Douglas died on Sunday, but not before leaving a lasting legacy at Nebraska. Courtesy of Nebraska athletics

CRETE, Neb. -- On the morning of the second Thursday in May, I visited this town of about 7,000, 30 miles southwest of Lincoln, to meet Ron Douglas, the oldest living former Nebraska football player.

The idea was to chat with Douglas and his sons, Ron Jr. and Roger, and gather information for an article this summer on the man who received two ovations in the past year at Nebraska sporting events.

I got more than simply a few notebook pages of information.

I got a history lesson and a peak into the mind and spirit of Douglas, who celebrated his 100th birthday six weeks before we met. The character and class of Douglas, a humble man inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1995, was evident, even as age took his ability to articulate fully.

On the position Nebraska coaches asked him to play in its famous 1936 backfield, Douglas said: “I wondered sometimes.”

On my suggestion that perhaps 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers learned a few of his moves from watching tape of the 1936 Huskers, Douglas fired back with sarcasm: “Oh, I’m sure.”

On what he remembered most about his time as a college player: “I enjoyed all the train trips.”

Douglas died Sunday at his home in Crete, surrounded by family. He leaves a legacy steeped in Nebraska tradition. His sons attended the university. Both played baseball, and Roger earned a spot on the football team as a sophomore.

Ron Sr., a native of Crete, spent two years during World War II at work in California for an aircraft company. Otherwise, he devoted his life to family and his home state. Douglas married his college sweetheart, Jean, after her graduation in 1939, helped run the family’s manufacturing business and coached at Doane College in his hometown.

According to his sons, Douglas talked little of his football career. They learned about it from a scrapbook kept by his mother. And there was much to know.

He played in Nebraska’s single-wing attack alongside Sam Francis, the 1936 Heisman runner-up and No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, Lloyd Cardwell and quarterback Johnny Howell. Nebraska has enshrined all four in its Hall of Fame.

Dana X. Bible coached those teams. He later spent nearly two decades as coach and athletic director at Texas and was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.

“As far as I know, we all respected him,” Douglas said last month. “Still do.”

Douglas also played defense and punted for Nebraska. Against powerhouse Minnesota in his senior year, he outkicked the coverage in a scoreless game. Future Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson caught the ball, and the Golden Gophers ran a reverse on the return, scoring the game’s only points.

“It haunted him his whole life,” Ron Jr. said last month during our visit.

The Douglas sons showed me a message from Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch, the 2001 Heisman winner who sent well wishes on Douglas’ 100th birthday. Roger held tight to a game program from Nebraska’s 1935 win over the University of Chicago and Jay Berwanger, who won the first Heisman later that year.

Ron Douglas was honored on the field during the Nebraska-Minnesota game last November.

When he was introduced again this year during a Nebraska basketball game, the crowd showered Douglas with applause. First-year football coach Mike Riley, in attendance, went a step further. He set out to find Douglas in the arena. They talked for a few minutes, and the coach later signed a photo of the moment for Douglas.

Ron Jr. and Roger spoke in Crete with great pride about all of it, including the Huskers’ 1936 win over Indiana, in which their dad served as captain and scored the decisive touchdown. As boys, the Douglas brothers played in the streets with the game ball -- autographed by the team -- from that win over Indiana.

They damaged it badly. Their father didn’t get angry though. It’s a ball, he said. You’re supposed to play with it.

“We’d give $1,000 just to get that back,” Ron Jr. said.

Until 2013, Ron Sr. regularly attended Nebraska games at Memorial Stadium. His status as a former player afforded him one season ticket, and Douglas purchased a second every year.

At age 96, Douglas received a phone call from the ticket office. A school official questioned that he was still alive, assuming that a family member instead used the seats. Douglas, angry, drove straight to campus.

“They apologized vociferously,” Roger Douglas said.

The brothers laughed about it in May. This week, they celebrated 100 years of their father’s life, remembering a Nebraska football legend lost but not forgotten.