The Irish-Punk Nebraska Fight Song Cheering Football Fans

Original sheet music of the 1909 composition "The Cornhusker."
Memorial Stadium glows red as fans listen to The Killigans.
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November 26, 2019 - 3:41pm

Nebraska football ends its season today, and it's been a tough year for the Huskers. One bright spot for fans came by way of music.



The Killigans perform on the UNL Campus. (Photos: NET Sports)


 

Think back to September 28, a night game at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska is being torn apart by Ohio State. Just after 9:00 p.m. as the fourth quarter was about to start, the stadium went dark for a second. Suddenly every electronic screen lights up red, casting an eerie glow over the stands. On the speakers, a recent, boisterous addition to the HuskerVision playlist kicks in.

Come a runnin' boys
Don't you hear that noise like the thunder in the sky
How it rolls along in a good old song
From the sons of Nebra-sky!

The song had an intoxicated edge to it, in the style of rowdy Irish bands like The Pogues or Flogging Molly. Some recognized it as the work of a local group named The Killigans

Now it's coming near with a rising cheer
That will sweep all foes away,

So with all our vim
We are bound to win, and we're going to win today.

'The Cornhusker' is the official title of the song. 

Up in the stands, Nebraska fans in mourning leap to their feet. Cell phone flashlights added a starlight twinkle to the un-choreographed dance party that interrupted the game day funeral. The song had been played in the stadium before, but on this night, ticket-holders needed a jolt of high-spirts.

For Nebraska and the scarlet
For Nebraska and the cream

Though they go thru many battles
Our colors still are seen
And so in contest and in victory
We will wave them for the team
And will always stir a Cornhusker
The scarlet and the cream

It was thrilling for everyone who was there. Many left asking where that music came from.

Tony Falcone, the director of the University of Nebraska Marching Band, says fans should give credit to Robert Stevens, a big Husker fan, who put pen to paper in 1909.

"He wasn't happy with the school songs that we had up to that point," Falcone said. "He wanted something a little bit more raucous that would get people's blood up."

The popularity of "The Cornhusker" would rise and fall, and rise again, depending on musical tastes. The legendary Nebraska football team that played in 1941 Rose Bowl revered the song.

Looking back in an interview before his death, halfback Al Zikmund felt the spirited little ditty inspired a gang of young football players.

"It was a tremendous emotional lift, and it brings tears to your eyes," Zikmund said.

"When we sang that it was comparable to those things that happen when a man in the military is going into battle knowing that his life is at stake and that he has to draw together with all of his comrades to get the desired result."

More recently, the UNL Marching Band put the song back on its playlist after director Falcone dusted off the sheet music.

"It's been steadily coming back in popularity," Falcone said.

Around the same time, the Killigans, a self-described 'working-class Nebraska folk-punk band,' felt it was time to give fans a taste of a tradition adopted by musicians who influenced their sound.

Singer and guitarist Chris Nebesniak explained he and the band "grew up with this genre of music. "Full punk, Irish punk bands in the bigger cities that have an allegiance to a certain professional team."

The allegiances of the six bandmates in the Killigans were obvious. 

"We all came up in the mid-90s in that second glory age in Nebraska Football," Chris explained, "so it was huge for us."

Pat Nebesniak, Chris' brother, remembered a song, called "Come A Runnin' Boys" from his days in the marching band that never quite caught on. The original tile was "The Cornhusker," written in 1909.

We wanted to adopt those lyrics," Pat said, so he "took the time; I looked all that up; I got the sheet music for it (and I) got it all figured out."

Lead vocalist Brad Hoffman recalls going "back to the drawing board" and over the course of about two weeks, stripping away "some of the 'Sousa-esque' marching band quality" that inspired original composer Robert Stevens.

Hoffman says they "turned into something a little bit more of our own." 

The end product was a fresh off-the-barroom-wall take on the musty relic.  

About five years ago, 'Come a' Runnin' Boys" became a raucous hit at the Killigans' bar gigs.

"The initial reaction that we got was pretty alarming and pretty overwhelming," Hoffman said in an interview with NET's Big Red Wrap Up." 

"I think it's worth noting that this whole project was just sort of a pet project of Chris and Pat and I's. We had no expectations of it going anywhere or really getting any notice."

Guitarist Greg Butcher watched digital demand for the punked-out version of the anthem spike with downloads from the band's website and in YouTube views. 

"It was of amazing to see because it went quick," Butcher said.

Once again, interest in the song lagged for a couple of years. 

A thunderstorm brought it back.



The "Husker Kareoke" that kept fans lively during the 2018 rain delay included "Come A Runnin' Boys." (Photo: Craig Chandler, UNL Communication)

Monsoon-rains during the 2018 season home-opener with Akron kept soaked fans waiting in the stands as officials and the athletic department decided if the game should be canceled. 

With everyone in a good mood, anticipating a new era with coach Scott Frost's arrival HuskerVision, kept the spirit light with a cheeky selection of weather-themed songs like Thunder Road and Toto's 80's rock tribute to "the rains down in Africa."

Butcher remembers watching the rain-delay on television with other members of the band when "all of a sudden, right in the middle of their playlist, here comes the Killigans and they have that in-stadium sound, and you hear your voice is playing back to you on a live football broadcast!"

His reaction? "This is surreal."

Fans in the stands were ecstatic by the high-energy fight song at a time when they were hungry for a new beginning intertwined with old traditions. 

Come A' Runnin' Boys now reached a whole new audience. 

"I think it definitely has turned them on to us," said Chris Nebesniak.

"At the end of the day, we are husker fans, and we happen to be musicians," Hoffman said," so we feel very, very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to have a lot of people exposed to what we're doing."

When the sun is bright
And the fields are ripe with the tassel on the corn
You can hear it grow in the evening glow
Or the hush of early morn
In the state so fair 'tis the very air that inspires us with a zest
That in any fray we will not dismay
But we'll do our level best

This season, Come A 'Runnin' seems to have a regular slot at Memorial Stadium between the 3rd and 4th quarters. Fans can sing along now that HuskerVision video displays supply the lyrics.

Band director Falcone appreciates the song he helped revive "has gotten popular again."

"It's got a great old history," he adds. "It's our oldest, really our oldest fight song."

That's a century after its composer wanted to shake things up “for Nebraska and the scarlet; for Nebraska and the cream.”

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