Solich Award Surprises Husker Walk-Ons

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Generous scholarships for NU walk-ons will be used at Omaha’s UNMC.

By Randy York

Two senior walk-on football players headed to postgraduate study at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) in Omaha received something besides lunch at the Lincoln Country Club Thursday afternoon. Jake Long, an Elkhorn (Neb.) native who has been accepted to Medical School, and Brandon Chapek, a Wahoo (Neb.) native who has been accepted to  Dental School, each received a $15,000 check as the 2014 winners of the Solich Award. The scholarship honor originated in 2001 and is presented in honor of former Husker fullback Frank Solich, who became Nebraska’s head coach for six years after serving as a longtime  assistant coach under Tom Osborne. Originated in 2001, the Solich Award includes only one two-time winner – three-time Olympic bobsledder Curtis Tomasevicz, who earned the award in 2004 and 2005.

Neither scholarship recipient knew in advance that the Solich Award included major financial support. “I was truly honored to receive such a generous scholarship,” Long said. “This scholarship represents all the things that I think our football program represents – hard work, dedication, and accountability.” In fact, those very skills helped Long earn an athletic scholarship near the end of his Husker career. “I know Coach Solich held all of those things in high regard,” he said. “Hearing the names of the former athletes who received the same award really put into perspective the elite company Brandon and I are joining. This scholarship is going to help me out tremendously as I move forward into medical school, which has become quite expensive over the years. I can’t say enough how honored and humbled I am to receive this scholarship and will do my best to honor it with my career and future endeavors.”

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Chapek and Long received blazers with a Nebraska seal and a block N.

Chapek’s Perseverance Paid Off in Final Season

A five-year contributor in the offensive line, Chapek received the Cletus Fischer Scholarship at last weekend’s Spring Game. He also won the 2014 Husker Heart Award in a vote of Nebraska coaches and staff and added a Husker Hero Award from Life Skills earlier this week. Even though he did not see action until his senior season, Chapek was on the field when Nebraska defeated Penn State, 23-20, in overtime last November in State College, Pa.

“What an amazing honor it is to be recognized as a recipient of an award that is modeled after an individual like Frank Solich,” Chapek said. “He poured his everything into any task he performed. He work his way through the ranks as a player without receiving much notoriety. He developed himself as an individual and dedicated himself to athletics and involvement. He displayed his passion for football on the field, and he emptied himself into being an amazing coach. I strive to exhibit the same characteristics in my own daily life. I never achieved the level of accomplishment that I desired so badly, but I poured myself into my academics, community involvement and personal development. This, in turn, allowed me to reach never-before-seen levels of success as an individual, even if they were not in my originally sought-after realm.”

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Jake Long, Bob Sawdon, Shawn Eichorst, Tom Smith, Brandon Chapek.

Chapek, Long Paid Their Dues, Worthy Recipients

Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s longtime Associate Athletic Director for Life Skills and Director of the N-Club, called Chapek and Long “two outstanding scholar-athletes who have paid their dues and will thrive in their chosen graduate programs.” The Solich Award honors Husker student-athletes who exemplify the work ethic and organizational skills of Solich. “The generosity of this committee recognizes Frank for his tireless contributions,” Zimmer said. “It’s impressive to say the least.”

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The Frank Solich Scholarship Award originated at Nebraska in 2001.

Chapek’s Dad Played Under Solich as ‘81 Freshman

Chapek was particularly taken aback because his father, Larry Chapek, had the privilege of having Solich coach the UNL freshman team when he played in 1981. “I have never heard a negative word about Mr. Solich come out of my father’s mouth, and I personally know that he holds a great deal of respect for him,” Chapek said. “Knowing how morally solid my father is, I can honestly say that I also have hold a great amount of respect for Mr. Solich, based solely on that fact.” 

Brandon Chapek feels “extremely blessed” to be able to apply the scholarship money towards his postgraduate education in Dental School at UNMC. Coming into the football program as a walk-on meant that Chapek had to endure the struggles and challenges of putting himself through school financially. “Having this award helps lessen the load that I need to carry in my continued academic pursuit,” Chapek said. “I truly think that it is even more satisfying, knowing that I have scratched and clawed my way to this point and can enjoy the fruits of my labor a bit. It is an amazing thing what this fund is doing.”

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The Solich Award display is in the same hallway as NU’s Tunnel Walk.

Solich Award Helps Student-Athletes Succeed in Life

Chapek is right, of course. Because the Solich Award is providing an amazing opportunity for dedicated student-athletes to further their education, it is a motivating extension of a group of individuals assisting Nebraska student-athletes in their pursuit of success in life. “I’m extremely honored receive this prestigious award and I’m excited to use it fully to enjoy the opportunities that it provides,” Chapek said. “I was truly speechless at first and remain truly humbled.” The parents of both walk-ons – Larry and Nancy Chapek and Doug and Ann Long – attended Thursday’s luncheon, along with Nebraska Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst and scholarship committee members Bob Sawdon and Tom Smith. The Solich Scholarship Committee prioritizes football consideration, but has named one non-football postgraduate recipient, Brett Grieb from Nebraska cross country and track & field in 2013. The football honorees include: Monte Christo, 2001; Jake McKee, 2003; Will Dabbert, 2004; Aaron Terpening, 2004; Curt Tomasevicz, 2004 and 2005; Tyler Toline, 2006; Dusty Keiser, 2006; Garth Glissman, 2007; Matt Senske, 2008; Conor McDermott, 2013.

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Fans Can Lunch with Softball, Help Break Record

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By Randy York
In our never-ending drive to give Nebraska fans The N-Side scoop on smart choices, we have an Easter Weekend Special today. Even if you’ve never been to a Husker softball game, Saturday is a triple-option doozy…free tailgate, free lunch and free softball between Nebraska and Ohio State at 1 p.m. at Bowlin Stadium. Other than Lincoln, Nebraska, where else in America this weekend can you stop by the World’s Largest Softball Tailgate, grab a free grilled hot dog, a free Pepsi product and a free bag of chips, then walk inside the stadium without a ticket stub and watch your own Top 20-ranked team play a softball game against a premier Big Ten program? This kind of promotion only happens when NU Softball’s On-Deck Circle booster club joins forces with Nebraska Athletic Marketing and a softball program that’s confident about anyone checking out their fast, fun Division I sport.
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Tailgate Festivities Begin at 10 a.m., End at 12:30 p.m.
Did we mention Saturday’s tailgate festivities begin at 10 a.m. and include balloon artists, face painters, inflatables and games? Everyone attending the tailgate will receive a ticket for a chance to win one of seven door prizes. One prize will be awarded each inning, and you must be present to win. After the game, on the third-base concourse, players will sign autographs for Big Red fans. With a Saturday forecast of 81 degrees, season ticket holders will be the first to welcome you aboard. Why? Because Nebraska will make sure their normal seats remain reserved while everyone else will use available general admission seating on a first-come, first-served basis. 
Yes, Nebraska is going all out on a fun-filled Saturday for several solid reasons, according to Katie Brown, the director of operations for Husker softball. “This is our third straight year hosting the World’s Biggest Softball Tailgate, and we want to keep climbing and hit that 2,000-fan milestone,” Brown said. “When we joined the Big Ten and saw Illinois go for the record, we decided the idea was good and you know how we love competition. We wanted to host the World’s Biggest Softball Tailgate.”
Nebraska set the record in 2012, drawing 1,752 fans for the Wisconsin game. The Huskers set another record last year with 1,840 fans for a nationally televised game against Michigan. In another high-profile game Saturday against the Buckeyes, the Huskers are determined to hit that 2,000-fan mark. So bring your family, your friends and your neighbors for a free lunch and a sneak peek at a sport you are destined to fall in love with.

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Tailgate Perfect Match for High Energy Softball

“Softball is such a great sport for anyone to watch, whether you’re bringing younger children who have never seen a game or coming into the stadium with people who have been watching it all their lives,” Brown said. “We have a tremendous team with a lot of energy and they just have a lot of fun playing the game. There’s always excitement around our team, but this weekend, our players may be as fired up as you can get.” Hy-Vee’s ability to tailgate at a high level will be an important part of the atmosphere. So will the Death by Brass band that will play four live sets to keep the crowd in the spirit of the game before they ever walk in. “Many of the band members are former members of the Cornhusker Marching Band, and they’ll be playing our fight songs and other songs everyone loves,” said Brown, who wears a lot of hats to support Nebraska’s team, players and coaches. She also manages @HuskerSoftball’s Twitter Account, plus all the logistics that go into hosting a home game, including taking care of the opponent’s needs.
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Rylee Robinson has been selected to throw out Saturday’s first pitch.

A Special Friend Will Throw Out First Pitch
Brown is excited that Husker play-by-play announcer Nate Rohr will do his pregame show live from The Tailgate, so fans can hear his interview with Coach Rhonda Revelle while active tailgaters are competing in softball- and baseball-throwing, tackling obstacle courses and shooting baskets. All the Tailgate action will be finished by 12:30 p.m., so Nebraska fans can go inside Bowlin Stadium. “We want everyone in their seats so they can see a very special person throw out the first pitch,” Brown said, explaining that Rylee Robinson, a 13-year-old former softball player from Topeka, Kan., will perform that honor. “It will be a very special moment for her and for all of our coaches, players and staff. Rylee was riding her bike last summer when she was hit by a car and lost a leg. She was in ICU and in critical condition for 32 days in Topeka before spending nine months rehabbing here in Lincoln at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital. There have been a lot of friendships formed with this team, and it was quite a day when Rylee came to one of our practices and circle the bases. We’ve done a video and will show it before she throws out that first pitch.”
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Rylee Robinson (headband, right center) loves her adopted team.
Erstad Supports Revelle’s Team
After the ceremonial first pitch, Nebraska baseball fans will still have an hour to enjoy the softball game before the Huskers’ first pitch against Northwestern at Hawks Fieled at Haymarket Park. I’m pretty certain of this: If Baseball Coach Darin Erstad wasn’t coaching Saturday, he would be having lunch with the softball program before entering Hawks Field. Erstad and others in his program would want that 2,000 milestone reached for NU’s overall good. “Things like that always explain why we all say There Is No Place like Nebraska,” Brown said, “and I think Saturday’s going to be one of those days.”
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Huskers’ Spark-plug Gymnast: We Can Win It!

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Desire’ Stephens, left, has become chief motivator for Nebraska Gymnastics.

NCAA Championships Await Nebraska

Huskers Capture Share of Big Ten Title

By Randy York

We all have our own views of confidence and how important it is to believe in yourself as well as your teammates…to use your own optimism as the faith that leads to achievement…to understand that you either have it or you don’t…to assume that confidence is a required edge necessary to compete…to define confidence with strength and courage in the same sentence…to have someone who acknowledges fear yet has the leadership and chemistry to help a team fight through everything with the confidence that is absolutely necessary to win.

Those thoughts represent the competitive resume’ of a young lady named Desire’, and lay the foundation for Dan Kendig giving Desire’ Stephens the license to motivate Nebraska in this weekend’s 2014 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championship in Birmingham, Ala.

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Desire’ has a unique way of making her teammates feel comfortable.

Kendig: Stephens Relishes Leadership Role

“There’s no question that Desire’ is the one who stirs the emotional pot for our team,” said Kendig, a two-time National Coach of the Year and a nine-time Conference Coach of the Year in the Big 12 and Big Ten. “I think she likes that role. She feels like it’s her niche and her way of contributing beyond her individual performances. She did it when she was hurt, and it helped. The girls liked her being the sparkplug and responded to it. It’s helped turn Desire’ into one of our leaders, and she knows the importance of that.”

She also knows the highs and the lows at stake. “When we didn’t make the NCAA Championship meet last year, I cried,” Stephens said, even though she was just a sophomore. “Regionals were in Morgantown (West Virginia) and we didn’t move on. We were third by about a quarter-of-a-point. I don’t know if I said it that night, but I said to myself that was never going to happen again.”

Perspective is built into that bullish statement and this year’s theme is a simple one: Let’s not beat ourselves. Some teams are here thinking ‘hey, we made it. We have nothing to lose’ and some teams that have been National Champions squirming in their pants because they know they have to make the Super Six to keep their history going. Our history is different. We didn’t make it to nationals last year, so we can use this as a stepping stone. We’re going to prove everything we have, everything we’re capable of and lay it all out there on the floor.”

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In the week before Regionals, Stephens said Nebraska’s No. 9-ranked team “hasn’t touched the national championship floor, and we’re ready to compete on it,” she said. “Our mindset as a team is simple: ‘We haven’t done our best yet and we’re still in it. Now we have one more meet to prove that we’re the best. I think everybody’s mindset on the team is the same: ‘Let’s fix the little things and focus on what needs to happen.’”

Make no mistake. When you’re the team’s spark-plug that starts the ignition for everyone else, there is no fear of failure, only hope for triumph. Stephens can and does envision national championship banners with Nebraska’s entire team celebrating. She can even see individual faces. “I can see everybody there,” she told me. “I think we have the capacity to win it all. I think everybody has the talent at this point.”

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Desire’ inspires others, but also contributes as an individual performer.

Alabama, Florida in Nebraska’s Semifinal 

Kendig and Stephens are in agreement on that. Twelve teams are still standing. Six compete Friday afternoon – Georgia, Illinois, LSU, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Stanford compete in the afternoon. The evening session brings together Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, Penn State, UCLA, and Utah. The three top teams from each of those sessions compete Saturday night in the Super Six.

“We have to be at our best on Saturday,” Stephens told me. “It doesn’t matter what you did the night before. What matters is what you do right then and there when you salute it. If you are the best team that night, then you will be the National Champion. We have the talent to do it. We can win it!”

As a positive-minded coach, Kendig would be the last to dispute such vision. “Every team’s different but every team has not experienced it,” he said. “That’s the only reason you’re in this sport – to win and to do exactly what you need to do to win. If that’s not your purpose to train and excel and get to the top level, then you’re doing you student-athletes a disservice.”

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Husker All-American Emily Wong is a passionate, team-driven leader.

NCAA Last Meet for Wong, Schleppenbach

Kendig and assistants Heather Brink and Dan Miller have coached a deep and talented lineup to challenge for a spot in the Super Six. Emily Wong was first and Jessie DeZiel was third in the all-around at the NCAA’s Seattle Regional. Hollie Blanske also “did a great job” in the all-around, according to Kendig, who also is counting on stellar performances from Jennie Laeng in three events and four other two-event performers – Stephens, Ariel Martin, Jamie Schleppenbach, and Amanda Lauer.

“We start on floor, and we’re going to need to do what we did at regionals and then some,” Kendig said. “It’s like a pyramid. Every time you start heading closer to the top, the tighter the competition gets. We’ve prepared through purposeful practice, and I believe we need to stay loose at nationals like we did at regionals to really compete like we know how.”

For Wong and Schleppenbach, this is the last competitive chapter they will write in the NCAA. “Last year, regionals was our worst meet of the year, and we still just missed making it by the smallest of margins,” Kendig said. “We’ve worked hard to get back here. Our chemistry has been really good. We’ve competed well as a team and now we’re down to the last piece in the puzzle – Do our job Friday night. Make sure we move on to Saturday night.”

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Huskers’ Dan Kendig has been named National Coach of the Year twice.

Confidence, Chemistry, Courage Crucial

Confidence is paramount and the Huskers’ overall performance will be tied directly to the encouraging words that Nebraska’s sparkplug will use to infuse her teammates…faith, strength, courage, leadership and chemistry. “Everyone on this team will raise their hand and say we haven’t hit the best we can do yet,” Kendig said. “They all believe they can do better, and that’s what you hang your hat on when it comes down to the end.”

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This Father Supports a Spring Game Pledge

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Jessie Pflug, Lincoln; Cory and Madison Demmel, Papillion; Jenn Powell, Lee’s Summit, Mo.

Video: ABC Calls Jack Hoffman ‘The Comeback Kid’

By Randy York

On Sunday, a day after Jack Hoffman led an alcohol and drug-free pledge for youth inside Memorial Stadium, ABC World News Tonight shared an update on Jack, the pediatric brain cancer patient who the network dubbed The Comeback Kid for the way he leads, motivates and bounces back from the disease he fights every day. Count Cory Demmel, a 33-year-old youth pastor in Bellevue, Neb., as a proud parent who cherishes Jack’s new role in Nebraska – a vibrant, valiant champion of living life without alcohol or drugs. “I think it’s really good that we’re encouraging kids and adults to be drug and alcohol-free,” Demmel said. “It’s an ongoing problem. I know how hard it is. I’ve been working with teenagers since I was in college. Alcohol and drugs represent one of the biggest problems any state faces.”

With leaders like Demmel, who has his own incredible story to share, and Jack, who is stepping up to the plate to support another important cause, there is hope. “My dad (Brian) was in the State Penitentiary for drugs and alcohol when he was 18 years old,” Cory told me in the North end zone while holding his 3-year-old daughter, Madison, during Saturday’s back-to-back youth/adult pledges. His dad, also a pastor in Omaha, “completely turned his life around,” Demmel said, “so I grew up as a kid listening to him talk about drugs and alcohol. He should have died from drunk driving. Listening to his travels and experiences, I learned about the bad side of drugs and alcohol. When he met my mom, he changed, so I did not grow up in an alcoholic family. Fortunately, faith saved us. That’s our legacy as a family, and we do everything we can to help others.”

Demmel works with the Sheriff’s Department in Sarpy County and commits to and leads pledges to support D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). “We reach out and do community work and see the challenges our youth are facing,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure with drugs and alcohol, and the ones who have a care group and a positive network have a lot better chance to succeed than the ones who don’t. I’ve been a huge Husker fan since I was a child and hope that someday I’ll get to see my daughter helping my grandkids take a similar alcohol and drug-free pledge. We’ve pushed a lot of positive into a tough battle. I don’t drink. I’ve never done drugs, and I don’t feel like I’ve missed out or regret anything.”

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Prince Amukamara, left, and Roy Helu Jr. share their views at Boys Town.

NFL Players Willing to Share Their Views

Cory Demmel also has connected with former Husker All-American Roy Helu Jr., and the Washington Redskins’ running back has shared a variety of his experiences in Omaha. “Roy talked about being a man of principle and a man of faith in the spotlight,” Cory said. “He talked about how he found God in college and how that really turned his life around. I wanted to put an icon and a hero in front of my students, and Roy promoted the principles that we feel are helpful for kids to become successful in life.”

in his fourth year with the New York Giants, Prince Amukamara understands why Demmel connected with Helu Jr., one of his closest friends. On Memorial Stadium’s East sideline Saturday, Prince was waiting for a chance of his own to motivate fathers and their boys about true manhood. Almost immediately after the Spring Game, Amukamara and Helu Jr. joined Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown and former Husker football captain Stan Parker in a Q&A session at Haymarket Park. Both leaders in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Brown and Parker asked the questions, and two Huskers still in the NFL, answered them. The goal was to share their views with honesty, love and hope.

“When we share our faith, we’re not passive,” Amukumara told me during the game. “Three topics I want to cover are pornography, being a newlywed and money. Roy has been a role model for me. I love his openness and his maturity. He’s truly been a brother in Christ for me and has really helped me in the way I look at life.” Helu Jr. and Amukamara share a desire to help free kids from inaccurate conventional thinking. Both believe that young men, armed with the right values, can meet any challenge they face.

 

 

 

Four Huskers Enjoy Celebrity Experience

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An appreciative family flanks Ron Kellogg III before Saturday’s Spring Game.

By Randy York

Last year, they were huddled up with Jack Hoffman on Memorial Stadium’s turf, planning the big play in their last Spring Game. Saturday, they had their own tables and sharpies and the attention of hundreds upon hundreds of Big Red football fans who waited patiently to get their autographs. “They” were Quincy Enunwa, Ciante Evans, Ron Kellogg III and Jeremiah Sirles.

“It’s always nice when you can give back to those who have given so much to us,” Sirles said. “You try to do whatever is possible. There really aren’t a lot of ways you can do something like this to show your appreciation, and this is the best way I know how to do that.”

“I like interacting with all the fans. They’ve watched and supported us for the last five years,” Kellogg said. “It’s always awesome when you can give back. You can only say you’re a celebrity once in your lifetime, and today was one of those days. It was fun.”

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Ciante Evans shares a photo op with a young fan and his red football.

“This is a wonderful experience to be here for people who have been so wonderful to us,” Evans said. “We put ourselves into the program, but so do our fans. They support you every chance they get. This is not an obligation. It’s just us. Our whole team feels the same way I do.”

“I really do think this is as fun for us as it is for our fans,” Enunwa said. “They’re always telling us how much they enjoy watching us play. We feel the same way about them. I always loved Fan Day because you realize how much people care. Hopefully, today, we returned the favor.”

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Eichorst Sees a Bright Basketball Future

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Students stormed the court after NU upset Final Four-bound Wisconsin.

Eichorst: Basketball’s Winning Formula

Shawn Eichorst Audio: Segment 1

Shawn Eichorst Audio: Segment 2

Audio: Robin Krapfl, Katelyn Wright

Audio: Bill Spangler, Aaron Wong

By Randy York

Shawn Eichorst focused his monthly Connecting on Campus column  on Nebraska women’s and men’s basketball, and he spent a good share of his monthly Talk to the Director of Athletics radio show on Thursday night to what he sees as a bright basketball future for Husker teams coached by Connie Yori and Tim Miles. The two programs shared a common denominator – dominating records in their new home at Pinnacle Bank Arena in the West Haymarket Area.

“There’s no question. Anyone who had a chance to come to a game this year, you would have quickly come to the conclusion that we have created a special situation, and that’s not one person. That’s not one team. That’s a collection of folks who have connected to doing things the right way,” Eichorst told host Greg Sharpe. “My hat’s off to everybody who’s been involved in our inaugural season at Pinnacle Bank Arena. It’s been a rewarding one and a successful one. The men and women won 31 of 34 games over there.”

As much as Eichorst credited the players and coaches, Nebraska’s second-year Director of Athletics made sure that Husker fans understood the role they played in helping both Big Red teams reach the NCAA Tournament. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been in an environment like there was for the men that last game against Wisconsin,” he said. “Talking to some of my colleagues at Wisconsin after that deal, they just raved at the environment. They kind of get everybody’s best shot at this time in the program across the country, and they just didn’t see any environment than they experienced here.”

Eichorst also praised Nebraska women’s basketball fans for helping life the Huskers up to their first postseason tournament championship in program history and their strong presence in the Lincoln NCAA Regional even though NU didn’t advance to round of Sweet 16. “Drawing almost 10,000 fans says a lot about our fan base and certainly a lot about our program,” Eichorst said. “It’s also a credit to the city of Lincoln and the state of Nebraska. We just need to continue to embrace Tim’s and Connie’s programs and what they do and be humble and hungry in the approach. I think the future’s bright for both programs.”

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Athletic-Related Announcement Tied to Train

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Union Pacific Mini-Train will be at the Haymarket Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

By Randy York

If you’re looking for something different before Saturday’s 2 p.m. experimental Offense vs. Defense Red-White Spring Game at Memorial Stadium, check out the Union Pacific Mini-Train above. Envision that miniature locomotive with several cars behind it that can carry adults and children like the train at Lincoln’s Children’s Zoo. The only difference is this train has rubber wheels instead of adhesion traction, so it can carry passengers round-and-round in the parking lot at Haymarket Park on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The train will offer free rides for fans of all ages and will be located just west of the main gate to Hawks Field.

Built in Union Pacific’s Omaha locomotive and rail car repair shops 58 years ago, the mini-train is sometimes called the Pride of the Omaha Shops. For more than half a century, the miniature train has been a big hit in parades, family days and other civic events. This weekend, the mini-train will make a stop in Lincoln that is every bit as important as the 50-some appearances it makes every year. The mini-train is so popular, it is booked up to three years in advance for special civic celebrations.

Union Pacific Announcement Scheduled Saturday

There is a strategic if not semi-compelling reason why the mini-train will be part of Nebraska’s pre-game Spring Game atmosphere. Union Pacific, in fact, will be tied to a Nebraska Athletics-related announcement on Saturday. Nebraska Public Address Announcer Patrick Combs will share the news during the first half of Saturday’s Spring Game experiment that will be telecast nationally on tape-delay at 7 p.m. Saturday on the Big Ten Network. A statewide telecast is also set for NET at 2 p.m. Sunday.

I apologize for using a train to tease a football story, but as the son of a longtime railroader, trains always have intrigued me. They’re so fascinating that Walt Disney once thought about creating a character while riding coast-to-coast on a train with his brother. Both were struggling and thinking disaster was right around the corner. Then Walt pulled out his drawing pad and created Mickey Mouse on the train. Pure genius. Down went up and suddenly, it was fun times, great conversations, and memorable folklore.

In the past, Nebraska Spring Games were about seeing which players would plow new ground in the fall. For this agricultural state, the Spring Game was a sneak peak to see what kind of crops we might harvest when September turns into October. A mini-train is one of Union Pacific Railroad’s most popular goodwill ambassadors, and I’m sure everyone will be listening intently Saturday when Combs gives people inside Memorial Stadium the insight scoop. Stay tuned.

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100th Anniversary for Big Ten Medal of Honor

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NU’s first Big Ten Medal of Honor winners: Ashley Miller and Tyler Hitchler.

100th Anniversary of the Big Ten Medal of Honor

Miller, Hitchler First Husker B1G Award Winners

Weatherholt, Barrefors 2013 Big Ten Winners

By Randy York

As Nebraska continues to assimilate and prepare for its fourth season in the Big Ten Conference, most Big Red fans remember such legendary names as John Wooden (Purdue), Jerry Lucas (Ohio State) and Tony Dungy (Minnesota). Most of us, however, probably don’t recognize such names as Mike Hopkins (Illinois), Jennifer Hsia (Indiana) and Keith Nosbusch (Wisconsin).

Wooden coached UCLA to an NCAA record 10 national basketball championships. Lucas was a three-time All-America player, two-time National Player of the Year, seven-time NBA All-Star and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Dungy ended his career as Minnesota’s all-time leader in passing and touchdowns before going on to become the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl Championship.

Hopkins (football), Hsia (tennis) and Nosbusch (football) were not necessarily well-known athletic names beyond their own schools, but all were solid academic student-athletes who became highly successful professionals – Hopkins as a flight engineer for the International Space Station who’s been orbiting in space for months before returning back on earth last month; Hsia as an otolaryngologist at Minnesota who cares for patients with obstructive sleep apnea and sleep-disorder breathing, and Nosbusch as the current chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation.

8,200 Student-Athletes Competing in the Big Ten

All six of those former Big Ten student-athletes were Big Ten Medal of Honor winners, and their conference has grown in stature just like their legends have grown. More than 8,200 student-athletes now compete in the Big Ten, and the conference is rightfully making a big deal of its Big Ten Medal of Honor 100th anniversary celebration. The nation’s oldest intercollegiate conference considers the Medal of Honor the most exclusive and prestigious award in collegiate athletics because of 1) its rich and unparalleled history; and 2) its emphasis on and recognition of combined academic and athletic success.

The Big Ten fits Nebraska’s longtime goal of Success in Academics, Success in Athletics and Success in Life. The Big Ten Medal of Honor winners have, in fact, made major contributions in business, education, finance, law, media, medicine, philanthropy, politics, science, sports, and yes, even writing.

Pete Gent, for instance, is a Michigan State graduate and distinguished alum. He’s the author of a semi-autobiographical novel entitled North Dallas Forty, published in 1973 and turned into a pro football-related movie in 1979. A star basketball player for MSU in the 1960s, Gent did not play college football. But he tried out with Dallas as a receiver and ended up playing five NFL seasons with the Cowboys. Count Tom Osborne as one who read Gent’s best-selling novel. Not to be outdone, former Michigan football player David Nelson authored seven books on football, including a year-by-year chronicle of how collegiate football playing rules evolved from 1876 to 1971. A former player, coach, athletic director and author, Nelson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987. He served three decades as Secretary-Editor of the NCAA’s Football Rules Committee.

Elite Company for Hitchler, Miller, Barrefors, Weatherholt

Since the Big Ten Medal of Honor is awarded to one male and one female student-athlete of each member institution each year, Nebraska has had four such honorees in its first two years in the conference. Tyler Hitchler and Ashley Miller, both Husker track and field student-athletes, received Big Ten Medals of Honor in 2012. Björn Barrefors (track and field) and Mary Weatherholt (tennis) earned 2013 Big Ten Medal of Honor awards.

Nebraska’s 2014 Student-Athlete of the Year/Big Ten Medal of Honor winners will be announced at its annual Student-Athlete Academic Banquet Sunday night at Lincoln’s Downtown Embassy Suites Hotel. Nearly three years ago, Nebraska Athletics’ senior management team decided to award the Big Ten Medal of Honor to its Student-Athlete of the Year winners on an annual basis. “We have a long history for our award, and the basic criteria is fairly similar to the Big Ten’s, so it’s only appropriate that we combine our awards to reflect the amazing 100-year history of the Big Ten’s Medal of Honor,” said Dennis Leblanc, Nebraska’s Senior Associate Athletic Director for Academics. 

The Big Ten’s innovative launch of its 100-day campaign to announce this year’s honorees celebrates the annual Medal of Honor winners from the 12 current Big Ten schools. That number will increase to 14 when Maryland and Rutgers join the conference this summer. The integrated effort to celebrate Medal of Honor winners from the past 99 years extends through June 18 and includes profiling notable winners with their inspiring stories each day through social media channels and on the official Big Ten Conference Website.

Keep up with Huskers.com and stay tuned to The N-Sider Sunday night and Monday as we announce the academic and leadership accomplishments of Nebraska student-athletes over the past year. The more you read, the more you’ll know why the Big Ten Medal of Honor is already a vital part of what we do best and why we consider this century-old award an inherent part of our overall brand.

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Armstrong, Jackson Big Hits with Young Kids

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Tommy Armstrong Jr. posed for 26 different elementary schools Tuesday.

Editor’s note: Nebraska has sold nearly 50,000 tickets to Saturday’s Red/White Spring Game. Wednesday is the deadline to order tickets and have them sent by mail. Fans also can click here to buy and print your own Spring Game tickets and avoid long lines on game day.

By Randy York

Whatever format Bo Pelini and his coaching staff come up with for Saturday’s 2 p.m. annual Nebraska Red/White Spring Game scrimmage, Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Charles Jackson will be ready to roll, eager to please and always engaged – just like they were Tuesday when the Huskers’ sophomore starting quarterback and junior defensive back gave their undivided attention to more than 200 elementary school students from Omaha, Lincoln, Bellevue, Fremont, Papillion, Hartington, Kearney, LaVista, Lawrence-Nelson, Weston and Elkhorn.

It was NFL Fuel Up to Play 60 Day at Memorial Stadium, and Armstrong and Jackson were pivotal performers who encouraged and inspired every student to make healthier choices and to commit to at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day.

Like Everything, It’s What You Put into It

“I remember being a young athlete and growing up and finding a way to go to events similar to this,” Jackson said. “I went to places where everybody was really motivating, and I went to places where they didn’t put their hearts in it and show respect to the people who came. If you saw us today, you know every football player out there gave these kids 100 percent of their time and ability. My goal was to put a smile on everyone’s face, and I completed my goal. Everybody worked hard and had fun today.”

Armstrong agreed. “I had a great time with these kids,” he said. “The best part of the day was making everybody happy.” Armstrong and Jackson weren’t the only Huskers going all out for grade-schoolers who had earned the right to come to Lincoln because of their diligence to eat healthy and get active. The Midwest Dairy Council rewards student efforts to focus on nutrition and partners with the National Dairy Council and the NFL while working in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture.

Nine Additional Football Players Volunteered

With that background, nine additional Husker football players had smiling, action-ready faces to make this “reward summit” as fun as possible. Joining Armstrong and Jackson were Matt Finnin, Trey Foster, Chris Long, Kevin Maurice, Mike Moudy, Mark Pelini, Brent Qvale, Jordan Westerkamp and Austin Williams. Nebraska men’s basketball players Shavon Shields and Leslee Smith were leaders steeped in the action. Other Husker participants included Ian Ousley (wrestling), Mayme Conroy (soccer), and four members of NU’s swimming and diving team – Katie Ditter, Anna Filipcic, Jacqueline Juffer, and Julia Roller. Keeping 202 kids busy and excited was a well-planned experience. While football players engaged students in fun games on Memorial Stadium turf, other student-athletes helped kids participate in a nutrition game in both the morning and afternoon sessions. When emcee Keith McWhirter asked the participants if they had fun learning new things from Armstrong and his fellow Huskers, the kids responded with increasingly resounding cheers that rocked Nebraska’s third-floor gathering, which included healthy lunches with great views of Nebraska’s home facilities for football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and softball.

A Chicago-based emcee who works with the NFL on similar events at an international game in London, the Super Bowl and the Pro Bowl, McWhirter praised Nebraska’s passion in working with kids for four hours. “It was a pleasure to work with everyone here,” he said. “They listen, participate, get excited and cheer the people who are motivating them. This whole event is about fueling up to play 60 minutes. It’s about eating smart, being active and spreading your message in the community. I was impressed with Tommy Armstrong as the featured speaker and everyone else who volunteered.”

Six-Step, Student-Led Initiative, Reward

Omaha’s Caryn Kusleika, who oversees the event for the Midwest Dairy Council, was equally impressed. “It was a great day,” she said. “This is our main event, a reward for those who have stayed active and played 60 year-round. This is a 6-step, student-led initiative for kids helping other kids. Tommy Armstrong was so motivational and so cooperative getting his picture taken with every one of the 26 schools.”

Members of the program submitted questions in advance and Armstrong put his heart into answering each one, telling the kids that his favorite meal is grilled chicken and rice and encouraging them to heat three healthy meals a day and to stay active every day. “My mom put a football in my hand and wanted me to throw it when I was really little,” he told the kids, “so I was an active quarterback early on.”

Tommy’s Shining Moment: Gator Bowl

Asked about his favorite moment from last season, Armstrong paused, then said the Gator Bowl win over Georgia was his favorite, not because he threw a record 99-yard touchdown pass (which he didn’t mention), but because the bowl win became “the start of this season”.

What’s the hardest part of being a quarterback? “Accepting the responsibility for everything that happens,” he said.

What’s his favorite part of college? “Besides football?” he asked with a laugh. “Meeting new friends and creating a bond with teammates.”

Best advice? “Remember that the word student always comes before athlete. You can’t take a day off. School always comes first and football second. Stay healthy. Be active. Work hard. And enjoy it while it lasts. If you can do all of that, you can achieve what you believe.”

Quarterback Praises Jackson, Mitchell

Heading down Memorial Stadium’s elevator as Armstrong headed to class Tuesday, I asked my own question: Who’s been the biggest surprise on the defense this spring? “Charles Jackson,” Tommy answered immediately. “He’s really pushed himself and stepped up big in the nickel position. So has Josh Mitchell.”

Fortunately, we interviewed Jackson earlier, so he’ll be featured before Saturday’s opening kickoff at 2 p.m.

Be there!

And stay tuned.

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Pepin Remembers a Former Husker Coach

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By Randy York

Mark F. Devenney, a longtime assistant coach under Nebraska Head Track and Field Coach Gary Pepin, died recently at age 69. “Mark had been fighting through a number of health issues,” said Pepin, who will share his thoughts about Devenney in a memorial service at the temporary Newman Center at 16th and Q Streets, beginning at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, April 8th, on NU’s campus.

“Mark was originally from Philadelphia and a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth, but had a lot of Husker in him,” Pepin said. “He was a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and served his country in Vietnam. I ended up hiring him twice. The first time was in the early 1980s as an assistant coach. Mark did a nice job in both recruiting and coaching. He ended up moving to Alaska, where we recruited a couple of student-athletes, including one who became a captain on our team for a couple of years. He also coached in Southern California before returning to Lincoln.”

In his first stint under Pepin, Devenney volunteered his time to complement his teaching responsibilities for the Lincoln Public Schools. In his second stint, he went full speed as a coach. “He was a very effective coach and a very good recruiter,” Pepin said. “He loved coaching at Soldotna High School in Alaska, but he loved helping us out here, too.”

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