Gordon Closes in on Major League Milestone

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Photos Courtesy of Kansas City Royals

Baseball-Reference.com: 112 MLB Players Born in Nebraska

By Randy York

If humor is the secret to surprise, then count me as shocked with some measure of awe thrown in.  When I received an email from Owen Thorsen, a retired Omaha policeman, via Sean Callahan, I couldn’t help but laugh after the semi-retiree tried to tell me that Alex Gordon is four home runs away from a major league milestone.

What milestone?

To set the record for most home runs by a Nebraska native in Major League Baseball history.

Yeh, right, I thought, before asking who holds the record Gordon was chasing.

“Wade Boggs,” I was told, and that’s where humor trumped surprise.

Still, I bit, asking Callahan to let me in on the hoax.

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This Fan Wants a Home Run Ball in a Trophy Case

A few minutes later, Thorsen’s view of impending history became a request to Dave Witty and Aaron Babcock, two Lincoln residents who are former Kansas City Royals employees. Thorsen’s goal was simply to find a tie to alert the Royals about something that would be meaningful to Kansas City’s growing list of Nebraska baseball fans.

Why?  “So Nebraska can get the home run ball to put in a trophy case or something,” Thorsen said, explaining that Gordon was “closing in on a home run record that is very important to Husker fans.”  I was semi-convinced until I noticed that Thorsen’s email is one of the most interesting ones I’ve ever seen … boknowsdef@cox.net, an address he secured when Frank Solich hired Bo Pelini as his defensive coordinator way back when, years before Bo had the most popular cat in the country.

I had to ask Callahan just exactly who Thorsen was, and the online writer/radio insider/TV analyst told me he had no earthly idea.  He was just a friendly guy whose only moniker was that Bo knows defense.

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Omaha Fan was as Incredulous as the Rest of Us

Somehow, I couldn’t resist.  I called Thorsen and learned that he discovered this impending milestone on his own. 

I cut to the quick.  “Wade Boggs was born in Nebraska?” I asked.

“I didn’t think so either, but he was,” Thorsen responded.  “I was just as skeptical as you are.  Maybe he was still in diapers when he left Nebraska but he was born in Omaha.”

Thorsen was right, directing me to BaseballReference.com to discover that fact for myself.  Since I’m not one of those baseball junkies like several friends of mine, I went online to verify facts, and the process helped me understand why so many get so immersed in baseball history.  It’s fascinating.

Here’s the deal.  Boggs has hit 118 home runs, the most ever by a major league player born in Nebraska.  Gordon, who was born and still lives in Lincoln, ranks second with 115.  Jackie Brandt is third with 112.

Not bad for a state that claims MLB Hall-of-Famers Richie Ashburn, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Sam Crawford, Bob Gibson and yes, Wade Boggs, who was born in Omaha, grew up in Tampa, Florida, and played 18 years in the bigs, primarily with the Boston Red Sox.  Boggs also played for the New York Yankees on a World Series Championship team and for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, with whom he recorded his 3,000th hit.  Did we mention that Boggs had 12 straight All-Star appearances, 10 more than Alex Gordon’s two?

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Maybe a Historically Charged Fan Will Be Benevolent

Who knows?  If and when Gordon ties and passes Boggs for hitting the most home runs by a Nebraska native in MLB history, maybe a friendly, historically charged fan will be benevolent.

“I would like to see some effort made by the Royals to retrieve Alex’s 119th home run ball,” Thorsen said.  “Hopefully, it’ll take place in KC and land in the bull pen or some other place where it can be retrieved.  The ball ought to go into a trophy case in Lincoln.  It would also be great to get the bat, but that would be up to Alex.”

Whatever happens and whenever it happens, Owen Thorsen deserves special thanks from Royals’ fans everywhere for his assistance in this historic quest.  Having won 22 of their last 27 games, may the force be with Alex Gordon and the Kansas City Royals as they contend for their first playoff berth since beating the St. Louis Cardinals for the 1985 World Series Championship.  I know this: Alex Gordon would be the last to care about the milestone ahead.  He was just one-year-old the last time the Royals made the playoffs, and the only home runs that interest him are the ones that get the Royals back where they feel they belong.  

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Nebraska Hall-of-Famer Nagle Dies at Age 90

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No. 20 Fran Nagle played for Montreal in the CFL before Johnny Rodgers did.

Nagle Guided Huskers to 6-2-1 Record in 1950

Obituary for Francis Joseph Nagle

By Randy York

Fran Nagle, who had never played football until after he was a prisoner of war in World War II, died last Friday in Madison, Wis.  His funeral and burial will be this Friday in Wisconsin’s Capital City.  Nagle was 90, and if you’re a Husker football fan trying to connect the dots, understand this – he was best known as the quarterback who kept handing the ball off to legendary Husker All-America halfback Bobby Reynolds in 1949 and ’50.

Ironically, on the same day Nagle died, the Lincoln Journal Star used a quote from his account of Reynolds’ 33-yard touchdown run on a fourth-and-1 play against Missouri in 1950.  “The whole thing took about five minutes,” Nagle recalled.  “That was one for the books. There was never anything like it again.”

After some quick research on Nagle, there will never be another quarterback like he was, and let the record show that he was inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1992.  That means he did more than just hand the ball off to Reynolds so he could build a resume of dazzling touchdowns.  Nagle was a solid athlete, too.  He was, in fact, a decent passer and the All-Big Seven Conference quarterback in 1950.  Nagle also has to be one of the few collegians who played in three postseason all-star games – the Senior Bowl, the College All-Star Game and the East-West Shrine Bowl.

Four-Year Starter with No Previous Experience

All of those accomplishments are impressive, but consider this: Nagle attended the University of Massachusetts-Fort Devans, and even though he’d never played football, he wound up the starting quarterback in 1947 and ’48.  Then he followed his coach to Lincoln and started two years for the Huskers.  Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, Nagle opted to play one season of pro football for the Montreal Alouettes before injuries and a desire to be closer to his family ended his athletic career.

A devout Christian, Nagle led an active, faithful and humble life, according to his obituaries published in the Lincoln and Madison newspapers. The father of 11 children, he made Madison his longtime home, teaching physiology for many years at the University of Wisconsin before co-founding and directeding the Bio-Dynamics Lab on UW’s campus, where he encouraged cardiac patients to enhance their recovery with exercise.  Throughout the years, he also mentored graduate students.

Perhaps his full life, which included two years coaching football at Doane College, was the ultimate benefit before football entered the picture.  After joining the Army Air Corps in WWII, Nagle’s plane was shot down during his first mission as a radio controller on a B24 Bomber.  He was a prisoner for the last three months of the war, and his camp was liberated by General George Patton himself.

After reading that, you have to think handing the ball off to Bobby Reynolds was a smart and pretty safe strategy and one that I’m sure he would do all over again.

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Huskers Help Honor the Past, Inspire Future

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Shane Swanson, Mark Blazek, Anthony Steels. Wymore Arbor State Photos

Finally, a Hometown Hero for Husker Legend

Grassroots Efforts Elevate Guy Chamberlin

Blue Springs’ Own Guy Chamberlin Story

Video: Anthony Steels

Video: Shane Swanson

Video: Mark Blazek

By Randy York

Blue Springs, Neb. – Anthony Steels, Shane Swanson and Mark Blazek Saturday received a history lesson that has been three decades in waiting.  Nebraska Guy Chamberlin Trophy winners in 1981, 1984 and 1988 helped commemorate a hometown monument here for Chamberlin, one of only two players in Nebraska history enshrined in both the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame.

The celebration comes 103 years after Chamberlin graduated from Blue Springs High School and is the result of a grassroots effort led by City Councilman “Radar” Reedy, Blue Springs native Jan Morris, and Kane Hookstra, a fourth-grade teacher.  Feeling strongly that it is never too late to correct a major oversight, Hookstra suggested that one of the greatest college football players in Nebraska history – and one of the greatest players and coaches in NFL history – deserves his own place on the hallowed ground of the school he once attended.  Hookstra pleased Nebraska Wesleyan at the same time he honored the University of Nebraska.  A Methodist, Chamberlin played his first two years of college football at Wesleyan, Hookstra’s alma mater.

Kane Hookstra came up with the idea to honor a true hometown hero.

A staunch believer in honoring the past to inspire the future, Hookstra was a catalyst at Saturday’s unveiling of a monument that includes a mobile phone application that will give anyone standing next to it a captivating version of the Guy Chamberlin Story.  Steels and Swanson went beyond that.  They spent an hour before the ceremony planting their feet on the same 880 premium acres of farmland where Chamberlin grew up and then came back to farm after his NFL career ended. 

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Guy Chamberlin was a grand uncle to Nick Savener (with wife Sherry).

Chamberlin Award Gets to Heart and Soul

“When you get an award and you’re only 22 years old, you don’t connect with Guy Chamberlin,” Swanson said.  “You don’t really know who he was and what he stood for.  Today, I understand and appreciate what the Guy Chamberlin Trophy means more than ever.”  Steels and Blazek made that observation a unanimous opinion, and The N-Sider uses this valuable space to educate all previous winners and future prospects, plus their teammates and all Big Red football fans.

In 1932, Chamberlin returned to Blue Springs to become a farmer, stockman and businessman.  A well-known authority on football, he also became a popular public speaker and radio broadcaster.  He died in Lincoln on April 4, 1967, the same year the Guy Chamberlin Trophy was born.  The names of Nebraska players who have won that trophy are all legendary in their own way because they represent Chamberlin’s contributions, his qualities and his dedication to enrich tradition.

Nebraska has honored 47 Guy Chamberlin Trophy winners and the list is a treasure chest of All-Americans and All-Spirit individuals who willed their way into achieving the honor.  What a roster of legends who have won the award in the past half century: Jeff Kinney, Rich Glover, Dave Rimington, Will Shields, Trev Alberts, Grant Wistrom, Mike Brown, Eric Crouch, Barrett Ruud, Ndamukong Suh, Alex Henery, Lavonte David. 

The Guy Chamberlin Award gets right to the heart and soul of a Husker who gives his level best and inspires his teammates to do the same, and the three who drove to Blue Springs Saturday are among my personal favorites in the 47 years that I have been a professional writer.  They are not household names, but each carved his own niche in Husker history.

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Tom Novak’s Son Sees Dad’s Similarities to Chamblerlin

Former Nebraska basketball player Terry Novak, above, is the son of the late legendary Tom “Train Wreck” Novak, and he spoke at Saturday’s Guy Chamberlin unveiling. “Train Wreck and Guy really did have a lot in common besides being great football players,” Novak said. 

“Both came from very special tight-knit communities.  My Dad came from South Omaha at a time when everyone was really close, and I’m sure Blue Springs was and still is the same way,” Novak said, acknowledging “Train Wreck” living in South Bend, Ind., the summer before his freshman year of college.  “He got homesick and decided to come back to Nebraska instead of stay in South Bend and play for Notre Dame,” Novak said.  “Reading about Guy, it looks like he felt the same way about Nebraska after his playing and coaching days were over.  The monument looks great.  This whole town should be proud!”

Only Player to Sing National Anthem in Memorial Stadium

Steels has the distinction of being one of Nebraska’s three international walk-ons.  He played his high school football at the U.S. Air Force Base in Zaragoza, Spain, where his Dad was assigned.  He became a 3-year letterman and 2-year starter.  As a junior in 1980, he was on the field 411 minutes, more than any other Husker on a team that finished 10-2.  The next year, Steels started on a team that lost to Clemson, 22-15, in a national championship Orange Bowl.  In his final home game that season, Tom Osborne asked Steels to sing the National Anthem.  Thirty-three years later, No. 33 is still the only Husker player ever to sing the National Anthem inside Memorial Stadium.

Swanson’s story is equally compelling. Growing up near Hershey, Nebraska, he rode a horse to attend a one-room schoolhouse with an outdoor toilet.  His Dad was part of the pro rodeo circuit for more than 40 years, and his Mom ran the family farm until 2009.  Shane competed in professional rodeo into his mid-40s and admits he still dabbles in it.  Saturday, he confirmed that Tom Osborne was the one who convinced him to give up steer wrestling to accept a football scholarship at Nebraska.  After being the backup to Irving Fryar, Swanson started on Nebraska’s 1984 team, and his 49-yard punt return touchdown helped the Huskers rally to beat Oklahoma State.  That 1984 team went on to beat LSU by three touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl.

Blazek was a walk-on who found a unique way to chase his collegiate dream.  He joined the Army National Guard and went to basic training during his redshirt year, helping him develop into a two-time CoSIDA Academic All-American in 1987 and ’88. In his final season, he was named the Toyota Leader of the Year for his combined academic and athletic efforts.  With a 3.957 overall GPA, he went on to graduate from UNL’s College of Law before switching careers to become president of a bank in his hometown of Valparaiso, Neb.  A safety, he is best remembered for his interception and bizarre 75-yard touchdown return of a Troy Aikman pass at UCLA. Unfortunately, that was one of two losses for the 11-2 Big Eight Champion Huskers that season.  The other was to Miami in the Orange Bowl.  Blazek also started on Nebraska’s 1987 team that finished 10-2 and lost, 31-28, to Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.  In his two seasons as a starter, he had 85 tackles and eight interceptions.    

Steels, Swanson and Blazek each won a Guy Chamberlin Trophy, an award that is so important, presentations are now made annually at the Outland Trophy Banquet in Omaha.

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Blue Springs native Jan Morris helped make the Chamberlin monument a reality.

All-Time Guy Chamberlin Winners

1967 - Marv Mueller, S
1968 - Ernie Sigler, QB
1969 - Dana Stephenson, DB
1970 - Guy Ingles, SE
1971 - Jeff Kinney, HB
1972 - Rich Glover, MB
1973 - Maury Damkroger, FB
1974 - Ritch Bahe, SE
1975 - Bob Martin, DE
1976 - Clete Pillen, DB
1977 - Ed Burns, QB
1978 -  Rick Berns, IB
1979 - Tim Smith, SE
1980 - Jarvis Redwine, IB
1981 - Anthony Steels, WB
1982 - Dave Rimington, C
1983 - Dean Steinkuhler, OG
1984 - Shane Swanson, WB
1985 - Jim Skow, DT
1986 - Chris Spachman, DT
1987 - Jeff Jamrog, DE
1988 - Mark Blazek, FS
1989 - Gerry Gdowski, QB
1990 - Pat Tyrance, LB
1991 - Pat Engelbert, DT
1992 - Will Shields, OG
1993 - Trev Alberts, OLB
1994 - Terry Connealy, DT
1995 - Aaron Graham, C
1996 - Jared Tomich, RE
1997 - Grant Wistrom, RE
1998 - Joel Makovicka, FB
1999 - Mike Brown, ROV
2000 - Dan Alexander, IB
2001 - Eric Crouch, QB
          Tracey Wistrom, TE
2002 - DeJuan Groce, CB
2003 - Demorrio Williams, LB
2004 - Barrett Ruud, LB
2005 - Sam Koch, P
2006 - Zac Taylor, QB
2007 - Bo Ruud, LB
2008 - Nate Swift, WR
2009 - Ndamukong Suh, DT
2010 - Alex Henery, PK/P
2011 - Lavonte David, LB
2012 - Rex Burkhead, IB
2013 - Jeremiah Sirles, OL

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Kids Help Donovan Vestal Believe in Himself

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Donovan Vestal receives Nebraska Life Skills Hero Award from Tom Osborne.

By Randy York

Twelve Nebraska student-athletes will graduate Saturday morning at Pinnacle Bank Arena, including seven football players, three of whom are juggling the important event with fall camp workouts – Zaire Anderson, a Child, Youth and Family Studies major from Philadelphia; Jake Cotton, a History major from Lincoln; and Kevin Williams, a Management major from Holland, Ohio.

Four Husker football players who will graduate have completed their football careers at Nebraska – Harvey Jackson, a Construction Management major from Fresno, Texas; Tobi Okuiyemi, a Psychology major from Maple Grove, Minn.; Andrew Rodriguez, an Ethnic Studies major from Aurora, Neb.; and Donovan Vestal, an Ethnic Studies major from Arlington, Texas.  Vestal will be the keynote speaker at Saturday’s  Nebraska Student-Athlete Graduation Reception inside Memorial Stadium.

“I want to talk about the differences in everybody’s experiences at Nebraska,” Vestal told me Friday afternoon.  “We all didn’t all have the same experience, and I’m eager to talk about mine, what I did to get through college, and how it can relate to others who went through some of the same disappointments I did.”

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Barney Cotton and Mitch Krenk help present Donovan Vestal his first varsity N.

Life Skills Helped Sharpen Vestal’s Vision

From a purely football standpoint, Vestal fell short of his own expectations athletically.  “There are standards and when you don’t meet some, that doesn’t mean you can’t meet other standards, which can be even more important for the rest of your life,” he said.

Even when he wasn’t getting much playing time on the field, Vestal stayed positive and stayed focus on earning his degree.  “I will be going back home to Texas and will be a probation officer for juveniles,” he said.  “Life Skills kind of made me who I am as an adult and inspired me to go where I wanted to go with the rest of my life.  Life Skills put me in one-on-one situations at schools that really needed a role model.  Since I didn’t think things were going all that well for me personally at the time, I wondered how I could help those kids.  When I looked into their eyes, I figured something out.”

Vestal finally realized his calling, what he wants to do for the rest of his life.  “It’s kind of ironic,” he said.  “Life Skills helped me change when I didn’t really believe in myself,” he said.  “It pushed me hard to believe in myself, so I could help those kids believe in themselves.”

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At a Nebraska Hero’s Breakfast, Donovan describes how a kid inspired him.

Zimmer: Donovan Engaging, Charismatic

Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s longtime Associate Athletic Director for Life Skills, noticed how Vestal handled his blessings.  “Donovan found his identity helping others,” Zimmer said.  “He’s a very engaging guy, and he has a charismatic personality.  Kids who were around him love the guy.  He’s so positive.  Even when football wasn’t going like he planned, he never sulked.  He just made sure he found something that could motivate him for the rest of his life.  I can see Donovan helping kids take on the positive nature he has.”

Vestal’s family envisions the same thing, reserving 23 places at Saturday’s reception. “My mom and dad will be there from Texas,” he said.  “I have cousins coming in from Georgia, more family and friends from Texas and my fiance’s family from Waverly.  We’re excited.”

Kevin Williams’ family made 18 reservations, Jake Cotton’s family 15, Zaire Anderson 14 and Ariel Weech’s family 12.  Weech’s family will travel the greatest distance to get to Lincoln, coming from Nassau in the Bahamas.  She’s a member of Nebraska’s swimming and diving team.

Gymnasts Aycock, Hedval Set to Graduate

Two members of the men’s gymnastics will graduate Saturday – Wyatt Aycock, a Biological Sciences major from Orlando, Fla., and Zach Hedval, a Political Science major from Santee, Calif. 

Husker basketball player Mike Peltz, a Business Administration major from Alliance, Neb., will graduate Saturday.  So will Maggie Maher, a track-and-field student-athlete from Kearney, Neb., majoring in Special Education-Mild/Moderate 7-12.

Dennis Leblanc, Nebraska’s longtime senior associate athletic director for Life Skills, will open and close Saturday’s Student-Athlete Graduation Reception.  Zimmer will talk about career commitments, and Katie Jewell, associate director of academic programs, will formally recognize all 12 Husker graduates.  

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Cornhusker Kickoff Combo Rare NU Offering

Click Here to Buy Your Kickoff Combo Tickets

By Randy York

I was in a Lincoln doctor’s office today and met John H., who is a devout Nebraska football fan.  He follows the Huskers religiously in a variety of ways and was energized by everything Big Red with one small exception.  At the end of our conversation, he said there’s only one drawback about Nebraska selling out of every home game.  “My wife and I would love the opportunity to buy tickets for us and our three children, so we could experience at least one home game together as a family, but I don’t think there’s any chance of that ever happening,” he told me.

Well guess what?  Now may be the best time for a family to attend a Nebraska football home game live, so they can see the Huskers in living color, hear the newest and greatest sound system in college football and who knows?  Maybe a fan sitting next to them can take a photo that they’ll remember forever.

Nebraska Athletics has come up with a rare offering for Big Red fans.  Because Florida Atlantic and McNeese State did not purchase all available tickets for both visiting teams, Nebraska has put together a special buy.  We’re calling it the Cornhusker Kickoff Combo, and it saves a family of four $120 off the combined face value for the back-to-back season-opening games.

Nebraska’s public season ticket allotment once again is sold out.  Single-game offerings for the Miami and Minnesota games are also sold out.  The single-game price for the first two games is $65.  The Cornhusker Kickoff Combo offers those same seats for $50 each if the buyer purchases the combined package for both games.  That’s a savings of $15 per ticket.  Single-game tickets for Nebraska’s conference matchups with Illinois, Rutgers and Purdue are $75 each. 

Florida Atlantic visits Lincoln for the season opener on Aug. 30 at 2:30 p.m., and the Huskers host McNeese State on Sept. 6 at 11 a.m.  For savvy shoppers, this truly is an uncommon opportunity.  Click here to buy your tickets online, or call 1-800-8-BIGRED to order tickets over the phone. 

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Husker Hero at Hub of Royals’ Resurgence

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Kansas City Royals Photo

Video: Alex Gordon Leads Go Big Red Chant

Video: Alex Hits HR on Own Bobblehead Day

Watch Benny, Shavon Throw Out First Pitch

By Randy York

Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellenger intended to write a piece on Kansas City Chief running back Jamaal Charles Monday, but had to switch gears because “all that came out was a bunch of stuff about the Royals,” he wrote this morning after labeling KC “the hottest team in baseball” with 14 wins in their last 17 games.  The Royals have won six straight series while taking the elevator to the American League’s upper regions and now have a 59.2 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN.com and a 47.8 percent chance, according to MLB.com’s Baseball Prospectus.

“You want crazy?  The Royals are giving you crazy,” a headline declared atop a column that reminded fans that the Royals are the team with the longest playoff drought in North American sports.  But they now also have the longest winning streak in baseball this season, “and son of a gun, they’re doing it again.  No matter what, we all knew it would take something crazy for the Royals to get into the playoffs.  Well, look around. Crazy is here.”

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Kansas City Royals Photo

Alex Gordon Leads Fans in Postgame Chant

It’s here, in large part, because former Husker All-American and American League All-Star Left Fielder Alex Gordon had one of those weekends he’ll remember for the rest of his life. Friday, he went 1-for-3 and had an RBI in Kansas City’s 4-2 win over the San Francisco Giants in the friendly confines of Kauffman Stadium.  On Saturday night, Husker Night at the K, Gordon’s solo home run gave the Royals a 1-0 lead heading into the sixth inning and he finished 2-of-4 at the plate with two runs scored and the most pivotal RBI in a 5-0 win over the Giants.  Even if you watched it live on Fox Sports, it’s worth watching Alex again lead 9,000 Husker fans in a packed house of more than 35,000 in the post game.  His Go Big Red chant fulfilled a promise he made if he should happen to be one of the game’s stars.

On Sunday, the first 10,000 Royals’ fans through the gates were given an Alex Gordon bobble-head, and the honoree was more than willing to celebrate another special day.  In the first inning, he jacked a two-run home run to increase his season RBI total to 53 and set the tone for a 7-4 win over the Giants.  Check out Gordon’s two-run shot to deep right field.

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Gordo Would Love to Postpone Football Tailgate

Nebraska fans can travel and set up tailgate space for baseball just as easily as they can sell out 333 consecutive home football games dating back to 1962.  In Saturday night’s post game, Gordon admitted he’s among those who can’t wait for football season, so he can tailgate with Husker fans.  “But this is pretty cool, too,” he said with a wry grin. 

Make no mistake.  If the Royals make the playoffs and find a way to extend their baseball season into October, no one will be more excited than Alex Gordon, who grew up making the same drive that countless Nebraska fans made to Kansas City for the weekend.  What an awesome experience for No. 4 and the Kansas City Royals, and please don’t forget who threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Gordon’s heroics.  Shavon Shields threw one baseball to Gordon and Benny Parker threw a second one to Herbie Husker.

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Telecast Takes Fans Back to Gordon’s Husker Days

Film clips of Gordon and live interviews with Shields and Parker were woven into this special night throughout the telecast.  Multiple flashbacks harkened back to Gordon winning college baseball’s top award.  Shavon, son of Will Shields, one of Kansas City’s most popular athletes of all-time, was his usual self-spoken self.  Benny, Kansas City’s High School Basketball Player of the Year, made Royal announcer Joel Goldberg laugh when he said he quit baseball because of all the bugs in the outfield.

Saturday night’s televised game was crucial, crowded and center stage, and it begged an interesting question: Who but Nebraska can celebrate three sports – baseball, football and basketball – before a packed house in another state?  What a showcase it was and what a catalyst it can be if Alex Gordon and his teammates are still playing under an October Sky.

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Autonomy Helps NU’s Student-Athlete Model

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Heisman candidate Ameer Abdullah is a national role model for student-athlete welfare.

By Randy York

Thursday was a historical moment in collegiate sports history with the adoption of a structure that enables NCAA autonomy. Division I student-athletes are the big winners in this game-changing decision.  Why?  Because the NCAA’s new structure preserves what’s already good and lays the groundwork for improvements that will benefit each student-athlete’s academic, health, safety and overall well being.  With autonomy, 65 NCAA institutions can provide more student-athlete benefits, such as increased financial aid per year, additional years on scholarship, and health insurance that can extend beyond a student-athlete’s time on campus. 

The biggest news that gets buried in coverage of this monumental decision is a simple fact that gives student-athletes a voice at the table – a voice they should have had decades ago.  Going forward, 15 student-athletes – three from each of the five conferences gaining autonomy – will be voting members of a new board that will guide the nation’s five highest resourced conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC).  With shared input and joint leadership, the new structural autonomy becomes a launch pad for unilateral change in rules that will enable substantive reform focused primarily on education and student-athlete welfare.

In other words, the University of Nebraska’s highest athletic-related priorities will be served, allowing the Huskers and their collegiate partners to craft worthy student-athlete stipends which will help cover the full cost of attending college – costs that stretch beyond tuition, room and board, books, and supplies.

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Shawn Eichorst says student-athletes are the No. 1 priority for Nebraska Athletics.

NCAA Decision in Lockstep with Nebraska’s Vision

For those who don’t read executive columns or listen to monthly Talk to the Director of Athletics radio shows on the Huskers Sports Network, this might seem like startling news.  But it is in lockstep with Nebraska’s vision and Shawn Eichorst, who has a great habit of listening intently at Nebraska Student-Athlete Advisory Council meetings and engaging in one-on-one conversations with student-athletes on any given day.  Nebraska’s second-year Director of Athletics has a knack for keeping all student-athletes in the know about upcoming legislation, and what he did Thursday stayed true to the culture he leads and supports.  Eichorst, you see, sent a detailed email directly to each of Nebraska’s 600-plus student-athletes to inform them about the legislation and how it could affect them.

With all due respect to the extensive national coverage of this watershed event, please allow me to share Shawn’s letter with you, so you understand how the news was in complete alignment with Nebraska’s culture.  The Huskers, in fact, became a national role model leading up to the vote on autonomy when Ameer Abdullah, a Heisman Trophy candidate, was the keynote speaker for the recent Big Ten Football Kickoff Luncheon in Chicago.  Before 1,700 fans, coaches and players, Abdullah explained why returning to college to earn his degree was infinitely more important to him than leaving Nebraska’s campus to pursue an NFL career.  His speech resonated with all the oomph that five major conferences have put into changing the NCAA model.  It also holds up the principles and guiding lights that the nation’s healthiest conferences want to build on, now and well into the future.

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Mary Weatherholt is the latest of Nebraska’s nation-leading 17 NCAA Top Ten Award winners.

Shawn Eichorst’s Letter to Nebraska Student-Athletes

Here’s the full text of Eichorst’s Thursday morning letter:  

“Dear Husker Student-Athletes,

I hope you are having an enjoyable summer and we look forward to seeing and working with you this upcoming academic year.   

The 2013-2014 year was one of the best in the history of the University of Nebraska as your academic, athletic and community engagement accomplishments set new heights.  These successes are the direct result of your commitment to our mission, core values and positive culture.  Our primary mission is to provide you with the resources and support that you need to be successful in academics, athletics and life.  Our core values of Integrity, Trust, Respect, Teamwork, and, Loyalty are at the heart of everything that we do and your health, safety and welfare are at the essence of every action we take.

I greatly respect and appreciate all of your hard work and dedication, as pursuing a degree while participating in intercollegiate athletics is no easy task.  My career in collegiate athletics as a student, competitor and administrator has spanned nearly two decades.  The education and experiences have had a profound impact on my life, being a first generation college graduate, and have afforded me opportunities that I never could have imagined.  I received a tremendous undergraduate education, competed in football and returned as an administrator at a NCAA Division III institution.  I have had the pleasure to serve as an administrator at four NCAA Division I schools which compete in the SEC, ACC and Big Ten.  Though size, scope, mission and finances vary among schools and certainly among conferences and divisions, there remains one constant: the student-athlete educational opportunities and experiences associated with intercollegiate athletics. 

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UNL’s Jo Potuto twice has served as the NCAA’s CEO for Faculty Athletics Representatives.

Student-Athlete Leaders Represent a Cross Section

I have had the great pleasure of daily interactions with many of you in formal and informal setting, and the discussions have often centered on your student-athlete experience.  In fact, I met earlier this morning with a number of our student athletes who serve in leadership roles representing a cross-section of our sports programs.  We had a robust and inspiring conversation, in which we agreed to remain focused on our mission, core values and getting better each and every day.

As you are aware, the current role and values of intercollegiate athletics are being debated, with a focus on the value of an education and the welfare of student-athletes.  At Nebraska, Chancellor Harvey Perlman, Faculty Athletics Representative Jo Potuto, many others and I have been fully engaged in these conversations and have been strong advocates of a 21st century NCAA governance and rules structure that will allow us to provide more resources and support to you, as well as to provide you with a voice and vote in the decision-making process.

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Emily Wong and Seth Wiedel were voted Nebraska’s 2014 Student-Athletes of the Year.

The University of Nebraska has a tremendous history, tradition and reputation of serving the needs of its student-athletes and we have been – and will continue to be – a trailblazer at the cutting edge of academic support, life skills and career services programming, medical and athletic training care, nutrition and training table services, strength and conditioning support, and community engagement opportunities among other areas.  In fact, just in the past year, in an effort to improve your experience, we have provided additional resources and full-time staff members in Academic Support, Athletic Medicine/Athletic Training, Life Skills, Alumni Relations, Sports Nutrition/Training Table and Strength & Conditioning.  We have opened the first of its kind, state-of-the-art, Nebraska Athletic Performance Laboratory complete with an exceptional staff and technology to enhance your performance, health and safety.  We have brought in nationally recognized experts in leadership and teamwork, and we have created a spring break learning abroad program that will include student-athlete participation beginning in 2015.  The 240+ full-time administrators, coaches and staff work extremely hard to provide you with a world-class experience. Please click this link to a recent Connecting on Campus column I wrote.  It provides additional information and insight into the resources and support available.

However, there is more work to be done and we will continue to do more when necessary and permissible.  Additionally, we will continue to engage and collaborate directly with you, to seek your thoughts and suggestions, as your opinions matter.  I and/or at least one of our senior administrators will continue to participate in all Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) meetings and maintain our open door policy. 

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Tom Osborne officially dedicated the only two Student Life Complexes in Nebraska history.

Historic NCAA Vote is a Positive Step Forward

Today’s historic vote and change in the governance of the NCAA is a positive step forward.  Though there are still a great many unknowns, I am confident that the first class services, support and opportunities that we currently provide will only get better and we will continue to work hard every day to that end.  Thank you for all that you do for Nebraska and for representing this great institution with honor, class, integrity and sportsmanship.  Best of luck this upcoming academic year.” 

Go Big Red!  Shawn

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Josh Mitchell Swag Now Positively Charged

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Omaha World-Herald Photo

Mitchell Thanks Pelini, Teammates for Their Help

By Randy York

Swag means different things to different people.  Some think it’s how cool you are or how much bounce you have in your step.  Some think it’s the clothes you own or the jewelry you wear.  Many see the word and can’t help but think overconfident to the nth degree – a politically correct way to say cocky. 

Josh Mitchell, one of Nebraska’s best leaders in a small senior class, probably has most of that ground, if not all of it covered as he begins his fifth season as a Cornhusker cornerback.  A graduate of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Corona, Calif., Mitchell is living proof of a certain truth in an Eleanor Roosevelt quote.  “In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves,” she said.  “The process never ends until we die.  And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” 

Eleanor, wife of United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was one of the most outspoken First Ladies in White House history.  She would have liked Mitchell, who was so outspoken, he didn’t travel to the 2012 Capital One Bowl. Despite his temporary fall from grace, Mitchell, 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, is Nebraska’s most experienced cornerback and team captain material among the likes of fellow senior leaders Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell, Corey Cooper and Jake Cotton.  Whether he becomes a captain or not, Mitchell will help lead the 2014 Huskers in ways that reflect the growth he’s shown.

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Pelini’s Focus on Process Finally Sunk In  

Who could imagine a Southern Californian with substantial swag coming to Nebraska and reluctantly but devotedly reshaping his life?  All it took was playing for a head coach who – like a certain action-oriented First Lady during World War II – believes that the process never ends until we die.  Thankfully, Bo Pelini drilled into Mitchell’s hard-headed helmet and taught him one of life’s greatest lessons so he could understand that the choices you make are ultimately and uniformly your own responsibility.  At the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, Pelini told reporters that he was “unbelievably proud” of Mitchell.  “Josh not only matured and developed and got better…he’s become a real leader in our program, a bell cow in how we do things,” Pelini said. 

Bell cow?  The expression might date way, way back itself because it now only appears in a premium unabridged dictionary that describes the phrase as slang for leader, based on a bell attached to its neck, presumably to draw followers.  Somehow, I think Bo Pelini’s expression of Josh Mitchell came straight from his heart.  It sounds to me like the ultimate salute for a player who is now so seasoned and positively charged that he just might be the most tuned in, toned down, and sweetened up player on this 2014 football team.

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Mitchell: Bo Pelini like a Second Father

“I’m really appreciative of everything Coach Bo’s done for me over my career,” Mitchell said.  “I was hanging on a very thin thread.  It was either be here or go somewhere else and get my act together, grow up and mature.”  Pelini demanded some good, old-fashioned introspection, and once Mitchell examined the swag in his mind, he changed his heart.  “Coach Bo’s been like a second father to me,” he said.  “He’s really helped me.  I wasn’t buying into the program and didn’t believe in the culture.  For him to stick with me and guide me through the process when I wasn’t the best teammate or player I could be, helped me change.”  Let the record show that the once overconfident Mitchell has transitioned from self-centered confidence to almost awe-inspiring appreciation.  “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate how committed people are in this entire state,” he told me at Fan Day. 

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Coming Out of the Tunnel is Like a Movie

“The first time I legitimately got real, true-to-life goose bumps was the first game I started against Washington a couple years ago,” Mitchell said.  “Coming out of that tunnel and seeing the sign that says ‘I play for Nebraska’ … you begin to hear the roar of the crowd…our Tunnel Walk feels like you’re in a movie, especially when it’s a night game because you can start to see the lights, start to see the fans and start to hear the roar.  I get goose bumps and nervous at the same time.”

Mitchell’s first experience wasn’t a night game, but it helped him understand “why people love this place so much,” he said.  “It’s something that I will tell my kids and grand kids about someday,” Mitchell told me before finally making a confession. “I’ll try to explain it,” he said, “and then I’ll end up saying what everyone else says when they can’t explain it.  I’ll just say ‘There is no place like Nebraska…anywhere!’  This is my last year here.  I want everyone in my family to come to one game here before I graduate.  I want them to know why I’m here and why this is such a special place…a very, very special place.”

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Lincoln Journal-Star Photo

NU’s Culture Ranges from Young to Old

Mitchell believes Big Red fans “love the culture of Nebraska football because I think we share our hearts and souls together here,” he told me.  “I don’t know how to explain it, especially coming from Southern California.  I just know it’s a great place.  It’s crazy how much everyone loves our football team.  I grew up with teams like USC, UCLA, the Raiders and the ‘49ers.  The cultures are so different.  You can’t compare them to a culture where everyone loves the team and bleeds their colors forever, whether they win or lose. 

“You can’t appreciate how much energy Nebraska has until you get here, live here and experience it,” he said.  “It has the same effect on kids much younger than you as it does on adults much older than you.  It’s their bond, their tradition, their culture.  It all really does draw you in.  There’s nothing close to it.  I’ve heard players who win the Super Bowl say it wasn’t anything like the love they felt winning the national championship here.  Nebraska fans are so passionate.  They don’t just like you because you play here.  They like you because you’re here and part of the program, the school, and the entire state.  Everyone here comes together as one.  That’s why you finally learn it’s not about you.  It’s about everyone around you and helping them live up to the tradition that’s been built for decades and decades.  I’ll miss this place when I’m gone, but when this senior class leaves, the fans will still be here, and so will the passion, the players and the coaches.  I know one thing.  Whenever I get the chance, I’ll be coming back here, just like everyone else.”

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Jack Has a Mild Setback, Watches Rex in KC

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Rex Burkhead has helped motivate Jack Hoffman for three years.

Video: Jack Supports Rex after Tough Diagnosis

By Randy York

Jack Hoffman’s family experienced a mild setback Wednesday with some disappointing news in Boston, but the family had an uplifting experience Thursday night.  The Hoffman family watched the Kansas City Chiefs outlast the Cincinnati Bengals, 41-39, at Arrrowhead Stadium.  Jack wore a Bengals’ jersey to honor No. 33, Rex Burkhead, his friend, role model and inspiring buddy.  Burkhead rushed for 21 yards on five carries, including one run for nine yards.  Andy Hoffman, Jack’s dad, said the experience was a special treat for Jack the day after a tough diagnosis in Boston. 

Oh Wednesday, the family was “humbly reminded that when your child has an inoperable brain tumor, anything can happen at any point in time,” Andy wrote on Jack’s CaringBridge website.  “Despite Jack’s tumor being declared stable and in remission last October, we learned today that is no longer the case.  While we left Boston in April with the knowledge that there was a spot of concern, we remained optimistic that it was nothing.”

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In July, Jack helped Uplifting Athletes raise $30,000 for pediatric brain cancer.

Tumor Has Grown; Surgery Now an Option

For the Hoffmans, Wednesday was a full day of appointments that included an MRI and discussions with a neuro-surgeon and neuro-oncologist.  “Doctors informed us that Jack’s brain tumor has grown since the April MRI,” Andy said, adding that the tumor reoccurrence will require some type of therapy.  Resection is possible and “surgery is now an option,” Andy said.  “Other options include a third neurosurgery and/or a second round of chemotherapy.”

Among the chemotherapy options to consider is a clinical trial in Boston and a therapy which would target a specific genetic mutation.  “Jack’s tumor was tested for this after his 2011 surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital,” Andy said.  “Like other cancer treatments, this poses a secondary cancer risk and has side effects.  Plus, it would involve extensive travel, so we’re checking on availability of the same trial in Denver.” 

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Jack and buddy Rex Burkhead were invited to visit the White House.

Doctors Will Make a Recommendation Thursday

On Thursday, Jack’s team of doctors will analyze the options and make a final recommendation.  “Regardless, it will include a second round of chemotherapy,” Andy said before thanking Jack’s worldwide prayer supporters.

“Jack is doing great,” Andy emphasized.  “This is a mild setback and everyone remains optimistic for Jack, including and especially his mom and dad.  We love you all and can’t thank you enough for your support.”

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Ameer, Royals Featured on Tonight’s Radio

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Shawn Eichorst’s Connecting on Campus Column

Ameer’s Heartfelt Speech a True National Hit

By Randy York

One of the greatest things about August is following baseball in its stretch drive at the same time the college football world is counting down the days to kick off the season.  Wednesday night’s Talk to the Director of Athletics Show will appeal to both fan bases with Shawn Eichorst connecting with Husker fans in the first two segments to set up a third segment featuring Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska’s Heisman Trophy candidate, and a fourth segment featuring Steve Physioc, the baseball voice of the Kansas City Royals. 

Wednesday’s 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. (CT) show on the Huskers Sports Network also will focus on basketball because Nebraska junior guards Benny Parker and Shavon Shields will share the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch Saturday night at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium.  They were selected to honor Nebraska’s first NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament qualifying team since 1998.  It will be Nebraska’s second Husker Night at the K following last year’s inaugural event that featured Nebraska Baseball Coach Darin Erstad throwing out the first pitch.  The Huskers last year set a “college night” record attendance at Kauffman Stadium.

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Parker, Shields Attended Kansas City High Schools

Parker, the Defensive MVP on Nebraska’s 2014 NCAA qualifying team, is from Kansas City’s Sumner Academy High School.  Shields, an honorable-mention All-Big Ten player in voting from both coaches and media, is from Northwest High School in suburban Olathe, Kan.  “It will be another inspiring night connecting our university with the Royals and Alex Gordon, the Nebraska All-American who has made the American League All-Star Team the past two seasons,” Eichorst said in his column while acknowledging Gordon’s fifth-inning single that became his 1,000th career hit in Tuesday night’s lopsided road win in Arizona.  Gordon’s second hit last night enabled him to become the 10th player in Royals’ franchise history to reach that milestone.

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Nebraska fans already have purchased 4,500 discounted tickets through the Royals, and twice that number of Husker fans are expected to attend Saturday night’s game. “My family and I are looking forward to attending the game and spending time with Alex during batting practice,” Eichorst said in his Connecting on Campus column.

In his third season with the Royals, Physioc serves as the voice on the Royals Radio Network.  He is also the play-by-play broadcaster for 55 regular-season televised games on FOX Sports Kansas City.  Husker Night tickets are still available through this  website: www.royals.com/huskers.

Twin Recommendations: Column and Radio Show

The N-Sider recommends that all Husker fans read Eichorst’s latest column which identifies the depth, breadth and roots of Nebraska’s overall coaching staff.  The column includes his comments on the five latest coaching additions – head rifle coach Ashley Rose-MacAllister, men’s and women’s basketball assistants Jim Molinari and Amy Stephens, football assistant Charlton Warren and wrestling assistant Jordan Burroughs, who is the face of a sport that he helped to revive, nationally and internationally.

The N-Sider also recommends tuning into tonight’s Talk to the Director of Athletics Show, which will move to the first Thursday of each month beginning in September.  It will be interesting to hear Ameer share his thoughts about how and why he decided to approach his Essence of the Student-Athlete keynote address the way he did at the Big Ten Conference Media Day last week in Chicago.

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