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Nebraska fan's lid lifted at PSU; returned by bad poet

Saturday, September 28, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It was a felt crimson cowboy hat with a big white "N" on the front. Most University of Nebraska football fans long ago dropped it from their game-day wardrobes, which speaks nothing but well of their fashion sense.

Northeast Nebraska dentist Jim Murphy kept his, though. It was all about loyalty.

He got it in the Cornhuskers' 1970 championship season. He wore it through Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne's 25-year reign, to his adieu at the 1998 Orange Bowl. He had it on when an ESPN camera panned by at a game last year.

Once, when Oklahoma State fans threatened to snatch the chapeau, soft-spoken Murphy promised, "You might get the hat, but you'll get a lot more boot." End of threat.

Two weeks ago tonight, Murphy, 61, and son Michael Murphy, a 32-year-old medical resident, were in the flood of humanity leaving Penn State's Beaver Stadium, fresh from the trauma of seeing Nebraska shellacked.

Someone -- a student, the Murphys surmise -- ran up, swiped the hat and vanished into the throng.

"I think it hurt him worse to lose the hat than lose the game," daughter-in-law Brenda Murphy said.

"It was his good luck charm," said Michael Murphy. "It was good and honest, just like him."

That was that for the hat, the deflated Murphys figured.

But in a twist of repentance, Jim Murphy's crimson hat didn't go missing long enough even to make it onto a milk carton.

Thursday, 12 days after it disappeared, the hat arrived packaged in a container not much bigger than a shoebox, mailed to Nichole Dobo, a reporter at Penn State's Daily Collegian who detailed the keepsake-gone-missing in a story last week.

"It was a little wrinkled," said Dobo, a senior journalism major from Morrisdale, Clearfield County. "I straightened it out."

On a piece of paper tucked inside the box was a meld of defiance and apology, written in awkward verse that pretty much assures that the brigand wasn't attending Penn State on a poetry scholarship.

"40-7, what were you thinking? Wearing that hat to our house -- you must have been drinking," he wrote. "Next time think twice about wearing that hat. You wear it again and it ain't coming back."

Dobo rebundled the hat and mailed it on to Jim Murphy.

"I'm excited," he said yesterday.

Murphy isn't a Nebraska alumnus. None of his seven children is, either. But like swallows to Capistrano, Nebraskans are drawn to Nebraska football -- Murphy making the 121-mile trip from Norfolk to Lincoln every home game.

"I had a chance to move to Colorado once, but I didn't go," he said. "I don't think I could live in another state because of the football team."

His hat isn't likely to be in the mailbox by today. But Nebraska plays Iowa State today, an away game, so it was an off-week for the hat, anyway.

Meanwhile, for Penn State, the outcome turned into a little less egg on the face over game-day behavior. University President Graham Spanier has already taken issue with game-goers who show up, drink up and behave improperly.

This time, after dozens of letters that complained of verbal abuse by drunken fans, Spanier -- who came to Penn State seven years ago from the chancellorship at Nebraska-Lincoln -- and Athletic Director Tim Curley penned a letter to the Omaha World-Herald, offering "profound and sincere apologies" for "the bad behavior of a few Penn Staters."

As for Michael Murphy, his angst over the episode mostly vanished -- starting when he recounted the theft on a Penn State football message board the day after "and in two hours, I had 50 responses, all supportive."

"For the guy who stole the hat, I hope he comes to Lincoln and comes to the game and brings his dad and brings his hat," Murphy said. "And I hope he's treated with courtesy and sportsmanship and respect."

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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