Even a Scrimmage = High Intensity Volleyball

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Volleyball Tickets, Time, Top Ten Poll

By Randy York

You’re a devout volleyball fan who watches Nebraska on television or follows the Huskers on radio.  You’ve always wanted to experience the action live, but 200 consecutive home sellouts block your entrance.  What do you do?  Well, why not be among the first to see the fully renovated Devaney Center Saturday night in Nebraska volleyball’s annual Red-White scrimmage?  Don’t discard the idea.  Unite Tonight is the team’s theme and if you’ve been tracking John Cook’s comments, even a Saturday Night Live scrimmage will push this team to the highest level of intensity.

See the speed train at the top of this blog with Huskers waiting to board?  That’s how they traveled in China, and they haven’t taken their feet off the accelerator since their return.  “We’ve upped the intensity and the pace of it all because of our experience in China,” said Cook, beginning his 15th year as Nebraska’s head coach.  “They’ve seen how hard the Chinese and Japanese train, and our expectations for how we train have been raised a lot.”

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Senior Pollmiller NU’s Speed Conductor

Setter Mary Pollmiller is the only senior on Nebraska’s roster, and she’s the most persuasive conductor on the Huskers speed train.  “The attitude and mindset of our team is really good,” Cook said.  “Even in the dog days of summer, they really get after it in two-a-days.  They’ve been upping the ante every day.  They look at it and say ‘Let’s bring it on and get it done.’  That’s why they call themselves The Redshirts.”  For the Huskers, Unite Tonight applies to a preseason scrimmage every bit as much as it relates to Florida State and Stanford next weekend or to Penn State, Wisconsin and Texas down the line. 

Yes, John Cook is a master motivator who wants competitive fire and chemistry in the same fireworks package.  He’s told his players that the Red-White Scrimmage should feel like a regional final for them.  Unite Tonight not only will determine who gets on the court next weekend, but what system will prevail when the real fireworks begins.

The Huskers may be competing against their own teammates, but one thing is guaranteed. Their effort will be fast and the action will be formidable, so join more than 5,000 Big Red fans who can’t wait to see a team launch the 2014 season after bonding in sand volleyball, becoming a family in Asia, hitting the weight room, and making every day in the off-season count for measurable improvement.

Team Applies Lessons Learned in China

A couple days ago, after practice was over, the entire team did a drill that took an hour to complete.  “I feel like this group really loves challenges and I feel I can put them in situations to be challenged,” Cook said.  “They can handle the big workload.  They’re always flexible.  Their retention from China has been great.  We debrief every day about one of the five things we learned there.  They want to apply the lessons learned.  They get it and they embrace it.”

Cook admits a couple have “hit the wall big time”, but teammates pick ‘em up and find a seat back on the fast train.  “Our older kids get it; they understand it, and I think they really enjoy it,” he said.  “We tell them that the only easy day was yesterday, so they know it’s going to get tougher.”

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Kelsey Robinson Will Be in the House

Pollmiller, Kadie Rolfzen and Cecilia Hall help Cook gauge when to back off, agree on a place to eat dinner and find the right movie, so everyone can hit the reset button.  This is a team that thinks every competitive night is the night that sets the tone for the rest of the season.  That makes Saturday night a good time to get a legitimate preview of the nation’s seventh-ranked volleyball team, even if it is “just a scrimmage”. 

Kelsey Robinson, the 2013 Big Ten Conference Player of the Year and Pollmiller’s former teammate at both Tennessee and Nebraska, will not be in uniform.  But she will be in the house, watching every player on the floor seek her level of intensity.  It’s a meaningful benchmark, and just to make sure this team understands Nebraska’s high standards, nearly two dozen volleyball alumni will be woven into the welcome mat. The Devaney Center’s new, dazzling street-level south entrance is lined with their trophies, jerseys and sweat equity.  Unite Tonight is on the launch pad with a team ready to carve its own niche in Husker history.

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Tingelhoff: A Solid Senior Candidate for HOF

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Senior Committee Names Tingelhoff HOF Candidate

By Randy York

Anyone who’s been involved with sports anywhere knows that there is no such thing as a sure thing, but I have one possible exception. When I learned this afternoon that former Husker center Mick Tingelhoff is the single “senior” candidate to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame the day before the next Super Bowl, I can’t help going out on a limb. Tingelhoff is as good as gold. He’s solid as a rock and fits any other idiomatic expression you might have in mind. In fact, I am so certain that Tingelhoff will become Nebraska’s fourth player enshrined in the NFL’s hallowed hall, I will give up a month of Training Table lunches for Lent next year if he isn’t.

The NFL has a great system to honor the best. It announces 15 modern-day players as Hall-of-Fame finalists every year.   The day before each Super Bowl, the five highest vote-getters from 48 voters are elected to be inducted. The “senior status” Tingelhoff has earned is much simpler and infinitely more predictable. His entry into the Hall of Fame requires 80 percent approval from the same 48 voters. The best news is Tingelhoff is the only senior candidate up for vote this year, making him almost as automatic as a door lock.

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Mick Tingelhoff and Jim Marshall were longtime Minnesota Viking teammates.

What Are the Chances of Two Husker Inductees?

The interesting twist to Wednesday’s announcement is Husker fans having a rare opportunity to hit the daily double with – 1) Tingelhoff a likely shoo-in; and 2) legendary College Football Hall-of-Fame offensive guard Will Shields can somehow move on up in into the top five after being one of the 15 modern-day finalists three times. What a day it would be if two of Nebraska’s greatest-ever offensive linemen could join former Huskers Guy Chamberlin, Roy “Link” Lyman and Bob Brown in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, at the same time.

So circle Jan. 31, 2015 on your calendars – the day voting in Arizona will be conducted to finalize the five honorees from the yet-to-be-named 15 candidates. The HOF Committee also will select two “contributor finalists” to complete the 2015 Hall-of-Fame Class prior to Super Bowl XLIX. We are finally deep enough into this blog for me to acknowledge why I am so certain that Tingelhoff is on the front step waiting for the Committee to open the door and let him in.

First, read this detailed document on the Hall-of-Fame’s official website, so you can understand how the selection process for a senior nominee differs from the “normal” selection process.

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Peter King Presents a Powerful, Prevailing Point

Secondly, I invite any possible doubters to read this quote from Peter King, perhaps pro football’s most respected writer, who says: “Think of Tingelhoff’s greatest accomplishment: For the last 358 games of his 17-year career – 99 preseason games, 240 regular-season games, 19 postseason games – Tingelhoff started. He failed to start only once – the first exhibition game of his career for the Vikings in 1962. Amazing. He dressed for 359 games in 17 years, and started the last 358. “He never missed a practice either,’’ his onetime quarterback, Fran Tarkenton, said. He made first-team All-Pro seven times; no NFL center was voted first-team All- Pro more times. Back when the Pro Bowl meant something, a back playing behind Tingelhoff made the Pro Bowl 13 times.”

And here’s the real kicker. Chris Tomasson, who writes for the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn., said: “Missing in Peter King’s well-argued case is the fact that none of those backs that made the Pro Bowl behind Tingelhoff’s blocking were considered Hall of Fame-caliber players.”

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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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