In Search of 50: Big Red of the Desert Brings Nebraska to the Valley
By Jonathan McNamara
A Wikipedia breakdown of Nebraska’s religious affiliations list Christians at 90 percent, other religions at 1 percent and atheism at 9 percent. Spend a few moments with Caryl Peters and you’ll know that those numbers are inaccurate. There may be other belief systems in place in Nebraska, but the primary religion is Cornhusker football.
Peters is a Cornhusker football fan, and make no mistake she’d probably bleed crimson and cream if it were possible. She graduated from the University of Nebraska with a masters in education and has been eating the corn ever since. Since 1996, she’s been at the epicenter of Nebraska culture in the Valley at Big Red of the Desert, her Cornhusker memorabilia shop located at 7066 East Indian School Road in Scottsdale.
So many things in such a small space.
Peters opened the shop at the suggestion of an associate athletic director for the Cornhuskers whom she had befriended. He had badgered with her unyielding enthusiasm for all things Cornhusker while she was working in the hotel industry and making reservations for the team.
“He said ‘cover yourself with red and then you’ll get your fix.’ And so that’s what I did,” she said.
Merchandise: How important is football to the state of Nebraska? Standing amidst a few jam-packed racks of Husker jerseys, Peters explains to me that she believes if the Cornhuskers had not gotten rid of former coach Bill Callahan “within a few years there would have been a noticeable economic depression in the state of Nebraska.” Callahan would have run the team into the ground and lost all the games, she says. People would stop coming out to see the game at bars and restaurants and they’d stop buying Husker merchandise.
Of course even if that had happened, it’s unlikely Peters would have called it quits. If Big Red of the Desert had any more merchandise there wouldn’t be room for customers. Inspect the steering wheel covers, individually wrapped mints, books, baby bibs, dog sweaters, toilet seat covers, bobbleheads and signed footballs, and you’re just scratching the surface. Several items, Peters says, she’s never seen in any bookstore or general sports memorabilia store. As an example, she picks up what appears to be ball wrapped in a red flag. She strikes it against her hand and a computerized voice says “Good call! Way to get it right!”
“That’s called the couch flag,” she said.
Authenticity: Peters has an African Gray Parrot named Cowboy who whistles the Nebraska fight song “There is No Place Like Nebraska” and asks repeatedly if you’re “gonna watch the game,” every morning.
“He also says Merry Christmas and a few other things…he has a good vocabulary,” she says.
I’m not sure how much authenticity this feathered linguist adds to the shop, but I am convinced that Cornhusker fans come in all sizes.
Shannon Banzhaf, left, and Caryl Peters get a hug from an inflatable Lil' Red mascot
Luckily, another Huskers fan and Big Red of the Desert regular Shannon Banzhaf was on hand to point out some choice memorabilia to my untrained eye. He showed me a signed poster of Coach Devaney hanging near the door and tells me it’s the best piece in the place. Devaney coached the Cornhuskers from 1962-1972 during which the team made nine bowl appearance and won two championships. Now his signature lies in a small shop in Scottsdale Arizona.
Verdict: Peters was nice enough to answer my biggest question before I could even ask it. She turns from helping a few customers flip through shirts and says “People have asked, ‘how can you really make a living from the store’ and I can’t, but I also sell real estate.” Then she smiles a bit and adds that she once calculated that 60-70 percent of the houses she’s sold have been to customers she met at Big Red of the Desert.
But is a Big Red a touchdown or an incomplete pass on my quest to find culture from all 50 states in the Valley?
There’s no mention of Kool-Aid (invented in Nebraska and consequently the state soft drink). There’s no nod to Warren Buffet or Cliff’s Notes (both Nebraskan exports), but Big Red of the Desert is the physical manifestation of Nebraskan football out here in the Arizona. I give the store and its owner a red check mark and continue on my quest.
I mean come on! She's got a parrot that whistles the fight song!
Get Involved: Any thoughts on where my quest should go next? Nominate a piece of your state's culture or just let me know if you agree with my assessment by commenting below: