Brook Berringer, the backup quarterback who led Nebraska to a national championship two years ago but was almost a forgotten player last season, died Thursday when the small plane he was piloting crashed shortly after takeoff in an alfalfa field in Raymond, Neb.
Tobey Lake, the 32-year-old brother of Berringer's girlfriend, was also killed in the crash, said the plane's owner, Harry Barr of Lincoln. Barr said Berringer flew the two-seater, a 50-year-old Piper Cub, about twice a month, including earlier this week.
Berringer, 22, had received his pilot's license at 18 and often said he wanted to become a commercial pilot, though he hoped to be selected in this weekend's NFL draft and to pursue a career in professional football.
The plane began to shake after taking off from the grass airstrip and struggled to a height of about 250 feet before trying to turn around, Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner said. Strong winds then slammed it to the ground, where it burst into flames.
"We could tell it was going slow," said Jim Jeffers, a pilot who lives about a mile from the crash site, 11 miles northwest of Lincoln. "After takeoff, when the wing dropped, I knew it was going to hit the ground."
Said Barr: "It was just a little airplane that he would fly around locally in. He would never get more than three or four miles from the airstrip."
Berringer had been scheduled to speak Thursday night at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes banquet in Lincoln, where players and fans hugged one another when they learned of the crash.
Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne told the banquet audience: "I know he would want it to be done in the spirit with which it was intended to honor God. Brook honored God. Brook enjoyed life to the fullest."
Berringer became a role model for understudies everywhere in the 1994 season, when he was called on in the fifth game to replace quarterback Tommie Frazier, who was sidelined because of blood clots in his leg.
Berringer played against Wyoming in his first start despite a partially collapsed lung, displaying a toughness that would be one of his trademarks. He played the rest of the season in a flak jacket.
Berringer faced doubters every week and eventually quieted them. He engineered a 24-7 victory over Colorado that essentially assured Nebraska the Big Eight title by completing nine of his first 12 passes. Even then, Colorado Coach Bill McCartney said that Berringer needed to pass more to his wide receivers.
In the next game, a 45-17 victory over Kansas, his 267 passing yards were the most by a Cornhusker quarterback since 1978.
"I'm done proving myself," he said then. "Our game plan was formed around what Bill McCartney said last week. We had to get the ball to the split ends . . . to prove ourselves. That's what we did."
He led the Cornhuskers to seven consecutive victories before the Orange Bowl game against Miami. In that game, Frazier split time with Berringer and rallied the Cornhuskers to a 24-17 victory for the national championship.
Berringer completed 94 of 151 passes for 1,295 yards and 10 touchdowns that season.
Those numbers and his willingness to play while hurt impressed NFL scouts. One scouting report listed him as the 11th-ranked quarterback in the draft.
But in 1995, Frazier was back and Berringer was a backup again. He played sparingly in Nebraska's second consecutive national championship season.
In the Fiesta Bowl, Berringer carried one time for one yard late in the fourth quarter and scored the Cornhuskers' final touchdown in a 62-24 victory over Florida.