Deployed Booker feels Huskers' love
If the bushel basket filled with red mums outside Jessie and Dion Booker's home in Manhattan, Kan., doesn't offer a clue, then surely the lawn flags, assorted ornaments in the yard and giant piece of corn, adorned with glitter and a red "N" on the front door, answer any questions about the loyalty of those who live inside.
Dion, a former part-time starting Nebraska safety on the Huskers' most recent conference-title-winning football team in 1999, is a half a world away, five months into a deployment that may stretch three years at Camp Carroll Army Base near Daegu, South Korea.
Three days after he married Jessie in 2008, Dion left his wife and their 6-year-old daughter, Kaia, for 13 months of training. He served a year in Afghanistan before a stay at home preceded more training in Virginia, then the assignment in South Korea.
Jessie and Dion, both 34 and married five years ago on Sept. 20, have spent just one anniversary together.
"Wholeheartedly, I feel embraced," Jessie Booker said. "The way they've treated us there, it makes me feel proud to be a Husker fan."
The daughter of western Nebraska ranchers, Jessie took Kaia and Myri to watch the Huskers play Southern Miss in September at Memorial Stadium. They sat with former players and their families. Even without Dion alongside, athletic department staffers whom she had never met treated Jessie like part of a close community, she said. They returned in October for an event to salute U.S. troops, meeting Husker fans and assistant coach Ron Brown, on staff during Dion's career. Jessie introduced Myri to Brown. They called Dion in South Korea for an unplanned mini-reunion.
The second visit this fall, in fact, coincided with Kaia's birthday. She picked the trip to Lincoln over a birthday celebration in Kansas.
"The love and appreciation that I have for the Nebraska football program [for] how they have treated my wife and daughters on my deployments is amazing," Dion Booker wrote in an email this week.
"When you are deployed and away from your family, it really warms your heart and helps you through those tough moments, knowing that people are taking time out of their hectic schedules to show a little more attention to my family when I am at war. When I hear the joy in my little girls' voices after they've been to a Nebraska game, it really makes me happy and proud to have had the opportunity to play for such a great university."
Jessie and Dion met in 1999, his redshirt sophomore year, after Dion followed brother Michael from Oceanside, Calif., to Nebraska. Michael was a star cornerback on two national title teams and a first-round NFL draft pick by the Falcons in 1997.
Dion started 21 games from 1999 to 2001. He didn't make it in pro football and distanced himself from Nebraska for several years after his career. He tried banking and other endeavors but longed for the family atmosphere that football fostered.
Dion began to reach out to former teammates and attended occasional games in Lincoln. He signed up for the army in California and punctuated his reconnection with Nebraska by marrying Jessie on the third Saturday of September in coach Bo Pelini's first season.
They scheduled the ceremony for a bye week, a necessity for true Huskers.
"He started appreciating what the state and the school and the fans and the education had done for him," Jessie said. "Once you leave Nebraska, I think you appreciate it more."
His appreciation for Nebraska helped provide focus for Dion, whose father was a longtime Marine.
Dion found common ground with Jessie's brothers in their passion to defend America. Justin and Joshua Metcalf served overseas deployments and remain enlisted in the Nebraska National Guard.
And Dion found that missing sense of camaraderie in the Army.
"He's kind of a wanderer by nature," Jessie said, "which is part of the reason we chose the military. You can be a transient of sorts, but in a much more legitimate fashion."
For Jessie, Nebraska will always serve as home, no matter where she plants her red mums.
She hangs a skull and crossbones, symbolic of the Blackshirt defense, on her office wall amid coworkers' Kansas State diplomas. Two years ago, Jessie received a call from her daughter's school that Kaia had crossed the line in talking about the Huskers with classmates and a teacher.
"They were giving her a hard time about wearing red on Friday," Jessie said, "so she decided to go ahead and defend her team pretty vehemently."
Such devotion is OK in Lincoln. The Bookers cherish the opportunity to stay close to Nebraska football. The feeling at Nebraska is mutual.
"Dion is our family," said T.J. Hollowell, a graduate-assistant coach at Nebraska who played alongside Booker for two seasons. "He's giving his life for our freedom. So anything we can do to help him and help his family is definitely a must."
VETERANS DAY 2013
ESPN commemorates Veterans Day and ESPN's weeklong series "American Heroes: A Salute to Our Veterans."