Finding ancient Pagan ethics in the modern World

While I now live in Minnesota, I was born and spent my early childhood in Nebraska. Most of my extended family still lives there and I visited often over the years since I moved away. Like most Nebraskans, Husker football is a strong part of my life. It’s something that ties us together, no matter how far we roam, and exemplifies the culture of the state. As a Pagan, I recognize the value in honoring the land you’re tied to and recognizing how its ethics shape you. I joke that the yearly trip to watch a game at Nebraska’s Memorial stadium is a pilgrimage to the Motherland. Except it’s not really a joke. I didn’t realize, until years later, that the culture I grew up in – that of Nebraska – was so similar to the ideals of the religion I adopted – Hellenismos.

So how does Husker football and Pagan ethics fit together?

Arete is translated as striving for excellence and it’s one of the main ethics of Hellenismos. Arete is doing the best you can and has little to nothing to do with competition against others or winning. It may happen during a contest or may result in winning, but that’s a by-product. Striving for excellence isn’t something you do in one area of your life, it’s for all areas of your life.

Inscription at Memorial Stadium, Lincoln Nebraska [photo credit Cara Schulz]

Inscription at Memorial Stadium, Lincoln Nebraska [Photo credit :C. Schulz]

Carved into two places on Memorial stadium, where the Huskers play football, is one of the best definitions of arete that I have ever found: “Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory.”

It’s perfect.

The quote was written by former Nebraska professor of philosophy Hartley Burr Alexander. It both describes the culture of Nebraska and continues to shape it. Every Nebraskan knows those words by heart. Especially the last bit, “In the deed the glory.”

Arete is finding the glory in the deed.

I recently read a book that is filled with men living their lives striving towards excellence. It’s called What it means to be a Husker edited by Jeff Snook, and it contains the remembrances of 50 former Nebraska Husker football players from the 1920’s and beyond. Each player has a few pages in which they talk about what playing for the Huskers was like, what it meant to them, and how it changed their lives. Yes, it’s a book about football and, no, arete is not only or even primarily about sports.

Each story, each man’s life, is a case study in arete. Not just in sports, but in life – in their ethics; in their spiritual life; with their families. How the ethics and culture of the coaches and the people of Nebraska shaped them.

The book starts with Glenn Presnell in the 1920’s and continues on with remembrances by players grouped by decades in each chapter.

You read about Kaye Carstens, named All-Big 8 in 1996, who felt overwhelmed and out-classed when he left the small town of Fairbury, Nebraska to play in Lincoln.

“Football taught me a lot of discipline and hard work and what it takes to succeed, especially with the right coaching staff. … It takes more than talent. You have to put the effort in and that carries into your your business life as you get older. You have to make things happen. It doesn’t happen if you just sit out on the doorstep and watch.” Dr. Carstens graduated with a degree in medicine and practiced family medicine in Omaha.

You also learn about striving for excellence after you hit bottom. Bob Newton was an All-American for Nebraska in 1970 and went on to play 11 seasons for the Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks. After his pro-career ended he entered a treatment facility for alcoholism.

He wrote to Husker coach Osborne letting him know what happened and that he was trying to turn his life around:

Coach Osborne immediately wrote me back with words of encouragement and support. In fact, he stated that once I got on my feet, he wanted me to come back and finish my undergraduate degree and work as a graduate assistant coach. Six months later, I reenrolled at Nebraska as an undergraduate student at age 34, and two and half years later, I achieved my degree. Coach Osborne always put a high emphasis on education, and I think he was probably more proud of me going back to school at that age and achieving my degree than he was of all my football accomplishments.

Dave Rimington, who played Center for Nebraska from 1979 to 1982, writes one of the best paragraphs on arete in the book. “The wins and losses, because we played so many games, I don’t remember as well. But all that hard work toward a common goal, with those people who became like brothers to me – that is what I’ll never forget. In reality, that’s what made you work so hard – I never wanted to let down the guy next to me.”

Striving for excellence isn’t just found in the coaches and players, it’s found in the fans. Husker fans are widely regarded as some of the best fans in all of college sports.

[Photo Credit: Steve White/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Steve White/Flickr]

Opposing fans are welcomed to Nebraska and treated as guests. If you’ve been to games in other states, you know that yelling, spitting at, or ignoring fans of other teams is closer to the norm. Husker fans go out of their way to show you the sights, give you tips on where to park, eat and stay. They are as friendly after the game, win or lose, as they were before the game. Husker fans live the Greek ethic of xenia – hospitality.

Nebraskans are passionate about the Huskers. I’ve overheard a table full of elderly women eating breakfast reciting stats going back decades and debating the merits of the recruits rumored to be in the stands that game day. Husker fans don’t just know their own players and coaches, they also know the players and coaches of the opposing team. They stand and cheer for most of the game. And every single game since 1962 has been sold out. This is the longest sell-out streak in college ball, and they play in an outdoor stadium. I’ve been there for winter games, the swirling winds are brutal. They travel to out of state games and regularly turn the opposing team’s stadium red with their sheer numbers in the stands.

This level of knowledge and passion allows them to fully appreciate excellence in field play. You expect that to be directed at the home team, but they also acknowledge excellence displayed by opposing teams. One of the first games I attended as an adult was a rare home game that we lost. The stands were very quiet. Then something happened that I took as normal, but startled the celebrating opposing fans sitting right below me. Husker fans stood up and began clapping. The opposing fans asked why we were clapping and I heard the man next to them answer, “Your team played some very fine football. We’re clapping for them.”

This culture of arete, In the deed the glory, permeates into all areas of Nebraska. I won’t say the state, or it’s people, are perfect. I’m also sad to say Nebraska is changing a bit. I’ve heard booing in the stands and the culture of Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini are not the same as what Tom Osborne created. But they still strive. And that’s what counts – for football and religion.


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5 thoughts on “Finding ancient Pagan ethics in the modern World

  1. I grew up in Nebraska myself, and I have always joked that football is our state religion — but after reading this, I might just claim it! Thank you so much for capturing the spirit of what I love about Nebraska. I tell folks that it is a wonderful place to be from – and I absolutely agree that the concept of “Arete” (love that) is embedded into the culture. I love the idea that this might very well have influenced my journey toward Paganism. (It might even help my family accept my spiritual choices more if I could convince them that the Huskers helped me get there. Can I claim Tom Osborne as a spiritual teacher? 🙂 ) Wonderful article. Thanks!

  2. “Spartans!? What is your profession!?!?! Harooh! Harooh! Harooh!”

    I just felt like I had to add something acknowledging the current Rose Bowl Champion Michigan State Spartans. Lincoln is a nice place, visited once, and most Nebraska fans are a credit to college football.

    What a lovely article Cara, you are really knocking things out of the park over here.

  3. I am a die hard Jay Hawks fan, having grown up in Kansas and gone to KU. It takes a lot for anything about Nebraska football to impress me (other than the fact they usually whipped our butts).

    This does. Great piece.

  4. Football has always seemed to me to be the essence of American Paganism (the kind of home-grown paganism that has been cobbled together from First Nations’ lore and all the myths and fables the immigrants brought with them). Bunyan and Babe may not show up, but it’s a harvest festival when it starts in Fall and it’s as religious as many Americans get in the late Winter. A celebration of having survived Winter, when we get together and eat chicken wings.