In the early 1970s my big cousin Denny wrote letters to numerous Husker football players. Denny wrote to star players, scrubs and incoming freshmen. He wrote to coaches. I’m pretty sure he wrote to equipment managers and trainers and even to the mascot, a surly type who was too busy to respond. In fact roughly half the players replied with an autographed photo. The signatures on several looked eerily similar.
I envied Denny for several reasons, his collection of Husker player photos being one. But the main reason I envied him was because he didn’t have to go to school. His mom taught him, long before home schooling was a thing.
While I was getting up early on weekday mornings and trudging through snowdrifts to get to class Denny got to stay at his home in Lincoln in his Husker PJ’s and write letters to Husker players in an effort to add to his memorabilia collection which already rivaled anything you’d find in Canton.
My cousin was the most fanatical Nebraska football fan around and I’m including the dude in Omaha who was buried in a Go Big Red casket and the one in the Panhandle who shot his wife after learning she once rooted for Iowa State.
One weekend afternoon when Denny was fifteen the doorbell rang. My Aunt Helen opened the door to see a tall, handsome young man with dark wavy hair who introduced himself as Husker freshman quarterback Dave Humm who had yet to play a down for the varsity but whose name was already well known after coach Tom Osborne had won an intense recruiting battle for his services. Humm asked for Denny while clutching the handwritten letter my cousin had sent him and an autographed picture of himself.
Humm was going the extra mile. While fifty percent of players didn’t even bother responding to my cousin and the others signed the same action photo of themselves - with their arm extended and their leg up in the air, Rockette-style - Humm had actually driven way out to northeast Lincoln to deliver his signed photo in person.
Humm stood smiling in the entryway of my relatives’ home in the working class neighborhood across from the Hinky Dinky grocery store as my aunt went to fetch her son. Humm looked down, as if he was expecting a person about three feet tall to enter the room. Perhaps because of how the letter was worded and the crude scrawl Dave seemed to believe he’d be meeting a kid who was five or six. He must have been shocked when Denny, who stood 5'10 and weighed about 190 pounds of mostly muscle with a scraggly little beard entered the room looking stunned.
Now I had another reason to envy Denny, who was meeting the much ballyhooed quarterback of the future. To my nine-year-old eyes this was probably the biggest thing Denny had ever accomplished in the incredible, fortunate life he was leading, even ahead of not having to attend school and amassing all those medals for bowling in the Special Olympics.
Assuming Humm was surprised he hid it well. He was extremely gracious to my cousin, an only child, and to Denny’s parents, Helen and Bud. Humm didn’t just hand over the photo and split. As my aunt relayed at the time and for years afterward, Humm sat down in the living room and talked to Denny. Not just idle small talk either. Humm discussed moving from Las Vegas to Lincoln and about what he hoped to accomplish in football and in life. He talked about his dad who worked in a casino. Humm was also inquisitive, asking Denny all about his life and examining his Special Olympics medals as if he was holding the Heisman.
When my aunt asked Humm if he’d be interested in staying for dinner he not only accepted but talked throughout the meal. The conversation ran the gamut from football to education to Denny’s artwork which consisted mostly of drawings of Husker players in Superman suits and then-Oklahoma coach Chuck Fairbanks with devil horns, holding a pitchfork and surrounded by fire.
It was a truly terrific occasion and Denny, who was generally bereft of friends, had a buddy for one day. After dessert (a red Husker bunt cake that was baked before anyone knew Humm was coming) Dave excused himself, shook everybody’s hand and left.
So the story ends here, right? Actually, no. A couple weeks later the phone rang and my uncle answered. It was Humm asking if he could stop by.
This time Humm showed up with a football and threw passes to Denny in the backyard. Soon Humm was slinging and drilling the passes. This routine was repeated on future visits. At least once Denny took a hard pass to the noggin and his thick glasses were knocked off. Dave encouraged Denny to get up and carry on, a lesson in perseverance that later paid off when Denny passed his driver’s exam on approximately the thirty-second attempt. On other visits Denny and Dave, the two D’s, played basketball and shot pool, with Denny usually “winning” and Humm staying for dinner.
Once my aunt looked out the window and saw Dave and Denny playing tackle football. She ran out the door and told them to knock it off or somebody could get hurt. She meant Humm, since Denny was strong as an ox and nobody wanted to see Nebraska’s season go down the drain.
Denny liked to come up with razzle dazzle plays. On one he conceived, Denny lined up as a running back and Humm pitched the ball to Denny who began to run before pulling up and throwing a pass back to Dave for an imaginary TD.
In the big game vs. Oklahoma in 1974 the Huskers executed a perfect razzle dazzle play in which Humm pitched the ball to I-back John O’Leary who began to run before pulling up and throwing a pass to a wide open Humm in the flat who waltzed in for a touchdown. It was the first time Nebraska had ever attempted the play. Hmm...
The friendship between the two D’s continued throughout Humm’s career at Nebraska. During his senior season when Humm made All-American and finished fifth in Heisman voting his only poor performance occurred when Denny thrashed him in a driveway game of H-O-R-S-E.
Humm was later drafted by the Oakland Raiders and had a long NFL career, mostly as a backup, and won two Super Bowl rings. Denny also reached his potential, eventually landing a job working for a small moving company where he put his muscles to good use.
When I heard years later that Humm had developed multiple sclerosis it again hit home just how unfair life can be. It seemed there were so many bad people in the world, and yet this truly good guy got this terrible illness. It wasn’t right. It just wasn’t.
Throughout Humm’s friendship with Denny, a developmentally disabled man, no one from the media ever found out, even though this would’ve been a sports information director’s dream - the All-American quarterback with the movie star looks and the challenged guy who became buds. Humm chose to keep his good guy efforts on the down-low, something that seems unfathomable today when an athlete doing good shows up with a platoon of P.R. flacks and a social media director who immediately tweets and posts to Instagram proof of the good deed.
Denny, however, had loose lips. Still, I’m pretty sure when he ran to Hinky Dinky and told employees he’d just defeated Nebraska’s star quarterback in a game of touch nobody believed him.
Dave Humm died last March, before his time. He was only 65. His post-football-playing career was spent as an analyst for Raider games in a home studio Al Davis had built special for him.
Denny’s parents are also gone. Denny lives at the Douglas County Health Center in Omaha where he battles several ailments. He still remembers - and talks about - his friend Dave Humm and I think those memories help get him through some difficult days.