LINCOLN — Dusty Lindgren was only about 6 when his grandpa first took him to watch the Huskers play Colorado at Memorial Stadium.
Now 27, Lindgren vividly recalls the launch of thousands of red, helium-filled balloons to celebrate Nebraska’s first score of a football game. It is a sight that still thrills him two decades later.
“I remember,” he said. “They were everywhere. After the first touchdown, everyone looked up. No matter where you were in Lincoln, it was a red cloud that came up over the stadium.”
On Monday, athletics officials at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced that a helium shortage would bring the balloon launch tradition to an end.
The NU Athletic Department has eight or nine helium tanks left over from last year, enough to fill about 2,500 balloons — about half the usual number per game, said Ethan Rowley, director of athletic marketing. They will be launched during the Huskers’ Sept. 1 home opener against Southern Miss. After that, the balloons won’t re-emerge until the helium shortage abates — which could be years.
“We want to be good stewards,” Rowley said in an article posted on Huskers.com. “We don’t want to take helium away from hospitals and industries that need it more than we do.”
A combination of politics, economics and plain old physics contributed to the shortage. Cheap, effective and nonexplosive, helium has an array of industrial uses. Hospitals use it for operations and to cool down high-powered scanners. Stainless steel welders use it, as do manufacturers of items like flat-screen TVs, fiber optics and rocket fuel.
Helium for commercial purposes is obtained from underground deposits. Some experts say the world’s supply will float away in 30 to 80 years.
Nebraska’s balloon-release tradition dates back to the 1940s, according to retired sports information director Don Bryant, who recalled a campus women’s organization selling balloons downtown.
Ray Stevens, a former Lancaster County Commissioner who has held season tickets for the same North Stadium seats since about 1966, said the balloons were a tradition before he started college in 1959 — before Bob Devaney came to town.
About five years ago, the athletic department took over the balloon operation because it grew too large for student groups to handle. Since then, the department has paid youth organizations to inflate the balloons, given away for free to game-goers.
Eric Kamler, UNL’s student body president, lamented the tradition’s end but called it the right decision. “Places like hospitals and construction companies need (helium) most,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s much you can do about it, other than be disappointed,” Kamler added. “I think Husker Nation will be as strong as the football team, and we’ll be fine.”