No matter how many winning seasons the NU football team has, or how many championships are achieved, the 1940 season, culminating with a trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena -- Nebraska's first bowl game, will have a special place in Husker history.
The members of that pre-World War II team were very close -- like brothers, as one member of that team described it, led by a true "father figure," Biff Jones. For one thing, there were not very many players on that team, just 40 -- versatile players, who played both offense and defense, as contrasted with the more than 150 players who are carried on the NU roster today, many as very specialized players indeed.
All the members of the '40 team were from the State of Nebraska, and many had played with and against the others on the team in high school. (Note: Vike Francis, quarterback on the team had followed his brother, Sam -- a consensus All-American and a member of the 1936 Olympic team, to NU, both after stellar careers at Oberlin, Kansas. He began playing football for the Huskers, following graduation from Lincoln High School.)
There was not a single scholarship player on the 1940 squad. In those days interested alums gave jobs to needy football players (average pay 35 cents per hour). Most players chose jobs where they could keep in shape, i.e. the railroad, Lincoln Steel; the highway department, since there was no such thing as a college "weight program."
A few took the easy way, with cushy jobs, for instance selling automobiles, or office jobs. QB Vike Francis, known as a "hellion," changed juke box records for an amusement park company, a job that provided him with spending money, but did nothing for his strength.
Several members of the team were Germans, who grew up in the "bottoms" -- Germans from Russia area of Lincoln, along Salt Creek. Jake Klein, a builder from McCook told how he enjoyed speaking German with the players who worked at Lincoln Steel. He was even welcomed into the locker room after a game.
Eddie Schwartzkopf was a very compact, competitive 165-pound guard on the Rose Bowl team. He and Walter "Butch" Luther, from Cambridge, were close friends. When Butch was killed in World War II, Ed came to Cambridge, like a son, to manage the Luther store, giving the father time to decide just how he was going to dispose of the business.
Herm Rohrig, a halfback on the team, threw the pass for NU's second touchdown. He played three years with the professional Green Bay Packers, became an NFL scout, then an NFL official, before eventually becoming the chief of NFL officials.
Forrest Behm overcame a serious burn injury and life in a wheelchair, to play football at NU. When he arrived at NU he looked like "a cow in mud" when he ran. With the help of track coach, Pa Schulte, and new, size 15 shoes (which he had to buy himself), he not only learned to run, but to excel, and was named All-American in 1940.
Allen Zikmund, a sophomore from Ord, caught the pass from Herm Rohrig for Nebraska's second touchdown. Zikmund, a long-time football coach (1955-1971) at Kearney State -- now UNK -- Kearney, was elected to the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1977.
Warren Alfson, a Wisner High School graduate had worked at various farm jobs for a few years after graduation, to earn the money for his tuition. He was 26 when he finally enrolled at the U. His teammates referred to him as "Dad," or "Pops."
He was Nebraska's first "red shirt," maybe the first in the nation. When he decided to go out for the team, he could see that his conditioning was not good. He proposed to his coaches that he be allowed to practice with the team, but not play in games the first year, to preserve his eligibility. They were agreeable, and the move paid big dividends, for Alfson and the team. He became a two-time All Big Six selection, Two-time All American, Member of the NFL All-Rookie team, Member of the World Herald 100 top Athletes Roster, and Member of the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame.
Alfson played in the East-West All-Star game after graduation, and when he was offered a contract with the old Brooklyn Dodger Football team he took his chance and signed, with a princely bonus of $50.
"Hey, don't laugh," he admonished years later. "In 1941 $50 was a lot of money. Marge and I were just married and moved to Brooklyn. We took that $50 and went to the best restaurant in New York City. We had a fancy dinner, with wine and roses for Marge, and still had money left for a cab ride home. Best money I ever spent."
Warren Alfson spent just one year with the Dodgers, and a good year it was. He made the All League Rookie team. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the Navy, with a number of others, at a ceremony at the College All-Star game. When the war was over he decided he no longer wanted to play football and returned to Wisner, where, with the help of Wisner's Louie Dinklage, he became a farmer/cattle feeder.
In 1965 I was in Lincoln at the time of the 25th anniversary of the Rose Bowl game. It was the last time that Coach Biff Jones came to a reunion and most of the living members of that team were in attendance. I happened to run into Marge Alfson in the lobby of the old Cornhusker Hotel. I mentioned that it was nice that the team could get together. She said that it was a special reunion, perhaps because Coach Jones was there. These men of the world were boys again, gathered around their coach. They knew they had been a part of something special, and they enjoyed the experience.
"I've never seen anything like this reunion," Marge said. "No one is even drinking very much (unlike some earlier reunions). It's as if they hate to miss a single minute of their time together. They're reliving every play of that whole season."
Alfson never did lose his love of Husker football, and was a contributor/fan at Memorial Stadium until his death in 2001.
He also never forgot his teammates. George Abel and Warren Alfson, both linemen, were especially close. The Abel family was and is a very rich and powerful family in Lincoln, with interests in many enterprises.
At one point after the war George contacted Warren and offered him a position in one of the Abel businesses. It was a good offer, and one that probably would have made Alfson extremely wealthy. He considered it seriously, but eventually turned down the offer. As he explained it years later, "You know, George Abel and I were like brothers. I told George that I respected our friendship more than anything.
If the offered job didn't work out it would probably end our friendship, and I just couldn't take that chance."
And so it was. The two remained best friends -- Rose Bowl brothers -- 'til the end.
Source: NU Football; NU Football Legacy by Mike Babcock