Randy York's N-Sider Blog

May 21

SID Honor Reflects NU Tradition of Excellence

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THEN: Legendary SID Don “Fox” Bryant was a superb relationship builder.

By Randy York

Last week’s Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) announcement that Nebraska was again one of the nation’s “Super 11” sports information departments serving football was hardly a surprise. “Nebraska’s SID group always has had a stellar reputation, dating to the days of The Fat Fox (Don Bryant, Nebraska’s legendary Sports Information Director Emeritus),” said San Antonio-based Tim Griffin, a former FWAA President who wrote the release that was distributed nationally from Dallas.

A sports journalist for three-plus decades, Griffin has a good handle on why certain schools are deemed the best in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision during the 2013 season, and he was willing to share his thoughts with The N-Sider, giving well-deserved kudos to Keith Mann, a humble leader and Nebraska’s Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations.

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NOW: Don Bryant’s warm smile still graces Nebraska Athletics regularly.

In following Bryant and Chris Anderson, Nebraska’s Associate Athletic Director for Community Relations, as Sports Information Director, Griffin believes Mann “grew up” in the program and was “brought up with an innate sense of knowing the right thing to do,” Griffin said.  “It’s carried over into his work once he took the program over after leaving for that brief period at Tennessee – a job I think was good for Keith because he was exposed to the ways things are done around the SEC schools.” 

Since the FWAA’s inception in 1941, the organization’s charge is to provide better working conditions for writers across the country.  Over the years, the FWAA has made a habit of commending deserving schools and developed a way to rate sports information departments.

Nebraska One of Nation’s Top Four or Five

“It’s fair to say that Nebraska is among the four or five best departments in the country,” Griffin told me.  “They’ve been honored when they were in the Big 12 and continued to be honored after the move to the Big Ten.”  With no intention to disparage anyone, Griffin believes Nebraska is the benchmark for Big Ten Conference Sports Information Departments.  “My spies on the ground in the Big Ten tell me that,” he said.  “Nebraska has ranked at the top from the very beginning.”

Griffin has covered 12 national championship football games, five NCAA Final Fours and four NBA Championship Series, so he knows what the media wants and needs. He also knows that in the business he’s in, yesterday’s accolades don’t necessarily become today’s realities. “Despite its traditional success, I’ve always thought that the Nebraska SID group has never rested on its laurels,” Griffin said.  “They keep improving and evolving to try and make things better in their dealings with the media.

“The Nebraska football program receives as much publicity in the state as any college in the nation,” Griffin said. “In essence, it is the pro team for the state and is covered as such. Nebraska sports to the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal-Star are every bit as big as the Red Sox might be to the Boston Globe, the Cowboys to the Dallas Morning News and the Spurs to my newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News. Keith always seemed to get it and his work reflects his dedication to the craft.”

Like every Sports Information Department, Nebraska faces unique challenges. “What always impressed me about Keith and his group is the way they keep trying hard and work through whatever challenges exist,” Griffin said.

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Fox and Bob Devaney pulled a prank on the late Mike Corgan at practice.

Through Change, Nebraska Steady as a Rock

“Keith and his group always take that extra step and we as a group of football writers appreciate them for that,” Griffin said before acknowledging how media has evolved over the years. “Unfortunately, tweets are becoming as important for some sports editors as a good long-form story. Through all the changes, Nebraska has been steady as a rock. I personally miss dealing with them after they left the conference I cover on a daily basis.”

Since Griffin, the reporter and columnist, introduced the subject of social media, I ask him about his thoughts of Tim Miles, Nebraska’s second-year head coach who was not only the 2014 Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year, but also the National Coach of the Year. 

“I’ve only seen Tim and his group when they came to San Antonio this year for the NCAA Tournament, but a couple of items have struck me in their coverage,” Griffin said. “Obviously, the success of the program has driven interest in Miles and the program. The new building has helped. The success they had in getting to the tournament this season, as well as their new surroundings, has helped make them a program with a growing national perspective.”

McKnight, Griesch, Smith Support the Media

Even with the growth in interest, Griffin has noticed Miles being quoted in the Nebraska media on such day-to-day subjects as moving the Big Ten Tournament around, future scheduling and other topics. “The fact that he’s accommodating for those demands is an indicator that he gets it and realizes the media’s role in helping build his program to bigger heights,” Griffin said.  “Shamus McKnight (the Nebraska Men’s Basketball SID) does a great job, which isn’t surprising especially when you consider where he’s working and his exposure to the Nebraska way of doing things.”

Let the record also show that Jeff Griesch, Nebraska’s director of media relations operations, is second to no one in terms of women’s basketball information and also supervises and coordinates many of the components that make the media’s job infinitely easier covering football.  Matt Smith is another important sports information cog serving the media with football-related priorities.

Bottom line, “Nebraska gets it, in terms of its services to the media,” Griffin said, “and for that, I speak for our 1,100 (FWAA) members in appreciating all that you guys do.”

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Emily Lockman Flourishing on the Mound and in Her Heart

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Huskers vs ‘Bama in Super Regional

Emily: From California to Nebraska

Fellow Sophomore Decker Thriving

Edwards Twins: Team’s Dual Impact

Emily Lockman’s Photo Gallery

By Randy York

Emily Lockman is a 5-foot-6 Nebraska sophomore right-handed softball pitcher from Corona, Calif.  She was the 2012 California Gatorade Player of the Year.  She was a first-team high school All-American before deciding to come to Lincoln instead of Florida and Notre Dame, plus Fresno State and Cal State-Fullerton in her home state.  The draw for her leaving the West Coast and coming to Nebraska was easy because Lincoln felt like home the first time she stepped on campus on an unofficial visit.  “I knew this was the place for me,” she said.  “I felt comfortable.  I knew I was surrounded by all the right resources and the coaches were the best part of the atmosphere.  So were the rest of the people I met.  I couldn’t picture going anywhere else after that first visit.”

Why would one of the nation’s best pitching talents consider somewhere else after she could sit down and discuss the art of her craft with Nebraska Head Coach Rhonda Revelle and Husker Associate Head Coach Lori Sippel?  To use a word that Lockman has adopted as her Energy Bus word of the year, she is “flourishing” like never before.  Last year, she became the only freshman pitcher in Nebraska history to be a first-team all-region pitcher and one of only two freshmen pitchers to achieve that honor nationally. 

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Coaches Stoke Lockman’s Emotional Fire

It was a milestone, but let the record show that Lockman is not only flourishing on the mound, but also in her heart, and her two primary Husker coaches get credit for that.  In her 22nd season as Nebraska’s head coach, Revelle is the Huskers’ all-time wins leader in any sport. An NFCA Hall-of-Fame member, she lights a match that stokes Lockman’s fire.  “Coach Revelle prepares me more than anyone I’ve ever met in my whole life,” Lockman told me this week.  “She loves each of us with everything she has.  Her knowledge and experience are overpowering.  I’m so grateful to be able to play for a head coach like her.  We just love each other as a team, and we truly are one.  We are together and we think as one unit.  We don’t go one-on-one because we have 16 players who all band together.”

In her 25th season at Nebraska, Sippel was the head softball coach for Team Canada at the 2008 Olympics. An International Softball Hall of Fame Inductee, she has produced 21 all-region pitchers in the last 20 seasons after Lockman and All-American Tatum Edwards repeated their respective all-region honors for the second straight year this spring.  Success seems to follow Sippel, the 1988 Academic All-American of the Year.  When Sippel talks, Emily listens.

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Sippel Has an Answer for Every Problem

"She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met," Lockman said of Sippel, who also has coached 22 all-conference pitchers in the last 16 years at Nebraska.  "She’s an Olympic medalist, and she can tell stories for days, and I’ll listen to her and learn something new from her every day.  Every time I have a problem, she has an answer." Revelle and Sippel would be part of Lockman’s imaginary Mount Rushmore.  So would her parents, Kelly and Don Lockman, as well as Marty Tyson, who coaches the Corona Angels, a nationally prominent club softball program Her list also includes Dawna Tyson, a 5-foot-5 Husker sophomore who replaced injured first baseman and team leader Mattie Fowler.  Dawna is Marty and Donna Tyson’s daughter.

Even though she’s on the sidelines, Lockman considers spirited leader Fowler a key catalyst for the 19th-ranked Huskers competing for their second straight trip to the Women’s College World Series this weekend.  Nebraska needs to win a best-of-three series against No. 2 NCAA seed Alabama in Tuscaloosa.  Game One in the Super Regional is 8 p.m. Thursday and will be televised nationally on ESPN.  Game Two begins Friday at 5 p.m. on ESPNU, and if the Huskers and Crimson Tide split the first two games, an 8 p.m. start will follow Friday’s first game and create another interesting viewing opportunity on ESPN.

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NU Won Four Games in Less than 23 Hours

After winning four NCAA games in less than 23 hours last weekend to earn a spot in the national limelight, Nebraska is undaunted about visiting a No. 2 seed in its own back yard without having a top-16 seed itself.  “Our mindset is to go in and fight every pitch and win as many pitches as we can,” said Lockman, who has won 10 consecutive decisions, Nebraska’s longest individual win streak since 2011.  She also has thrown four shutouts in her last eight starts.  Dating back almost six weeks, Lockman has allowed more than one run just once in her last 10 appearances.  She has posted a 1.27 ERA in the 66 innings she’s pitched during that stretch.

The Huskers, of course, are on roll and seem to flourish on the road, going 18-4 this season away from home.  Nebraska is also 8-3 in road games against teams in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.  Even though the Huskers have the nation’s youngest team among the 16 programs still competing for a spot in the College World Series, Nebraska snapped Missouri’s streak of six consecutive regional titles with two lopsided wins Sunday at Mizzou.  In getting that done, Nebraska became just the second team in NCAA history to lose a regional opener and then come back through the loser’s bracket to win a regional by defeating a national seed on its home field.

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One of Two Unseeded Sweet 16 Teams

The Huskers were also one of only two unseeded teams to advance to this year’s NCAA Super Regional.  Michigan and Minnesota join Nebraska as Big Ten teams still in contention for a spot in the Women’s College World SeriesA Husker upset win over ‘Bama would produce the Huskers’ first back-to-back WCWS appearances in 26 years.

Lockman will play a pivotal role in meeting that challenge, and Revelle and Sippel both have confidence in her ability to deliver.  “Rhonda and I are pretty much in all the bullpens,” Sippel said.  “I kind of build the pitchers, and Rhonda calls the game.  Emily has had double barrels coming at her as both a freshman and a sophomore.  It’s helped her get two postseasons under her belt.  Last year, I think there was some naivete’. Sometimes, you have the cape on and you don’t really know what you don’t know, and that’s okay.  That allows you to be free.  Sometimes we need her to be that person.  Emily’s kind of quiet, but she’s competitive.  That big smile of hers kind of sucks you in, but when it comes to winning something, she certainly wants to be the one in the circle. She can be really tough.

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Lockman Much More Precise than Last Year

"Emily’s a good listener," Sippel added. "She knows where she is now and where she wants to be.  Going through her second postseason, she’s getting some starts, but not all of them.  You see the competitor in her.  She wants to get the call and get the ball in her hand.  I want that in all three of our pitchers (including Tatum Edwards and fellow sophomore Californian Danica Bishop).  I want all three to be mature in handing it off and respect that the game is tough and be inside each other’s hip pocket.  We’re a staff and we win as a staff and a team. We want more quality pitches from everyone, and they all know that.”

Revelle agrees. “Emily is a fighter,” Nebraska’s head coach said.  “She’s just like ‘Give me the ball and I’m going to go out there and give you all I have’. It’s that mindset that leads her.  What’s gotten better is her vision of what she’s trying to do with the ball and how she wants to attack a hitter.  She’s much more precise than she was a year ago.  Lori does a phenomenal job doing all sorts of things and communicating all aspects of the game – the physical, the mental and the emotional.  Emily can read hitters and if any have a loop in their swing, she does a nice job.  We call it throwing into the window.  Her greatest strengths are her heart for the game and her heart for the team.”

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Coaches Don’t Want Pitchers to Over-Think

Revelle can’t help but remember how Lockman stepped up last year as a freshman in Eugene, Ore., to help the Huskers upset the Ducks in their own stadium.  “She always wants to make sure that she can stand and deliver for her team,” Revelle said.  “Just yesterday, when we were talking at the end of practice, you could tell that Emily’s mind was focused on what’s ahead this weekend.  She wants to get it done for her team.”  Lockman says Revelle teaches her how to love yourself so you can love your teammates and “give your all” every day in practice.  Sippel encourages pitchers to “just take in the game,” Lockman said. “She doesn’t want us to over-think.  She wants us to be calm and get cozy with the uncomfortable.”

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Flourishing on the Mound and in Her Heart

Lockman, the sophomore, is finally figuring out what both coaches have been preaching since she arrived at Nebraska.  To flourish on the mound, you also have to flourish in your heart.  She’s become closer with fellow pitcher Tatum Edwards and her twin sister, catcher Taylor Edwards. “We all connect with each other,” Lockman said.  “It doesn’t matter who is pitching.  What matters is the amount of love that we have for each other. It’s incredible, and I think that we learn from each other every day.”

Flourish is a perfect word to insert into the conversation.  “When (The Energy Bus author) Jon Gordon talked about flourishing in his speech when he came to Lincoln, it really sparked me getting to hear him live,” Lockman said.  “He kept using the word, so I went home, looked it up and tried to understand what flourish really meant.  Flourishing isn’t just about being successful.  It means to go above and beyond.  Coming into this year, I had a lot of people doubting me.  I decided I was going to flourish and go above what I even thought I could do.  Every day, it’s growing more and more with me.  I’m doing the little things that add up to be bigger things.  When you do that, everything kind of takes care of itself – for you and the people around you.”

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When the Game Starts, It’s Zero-Zero

Sippel calls it a process and that’s why she continually tries “to throw different things out there and see what sticks,” she said, knowing that Nebraska faces an almost identical test at Alabama that parallels the challenge the Huskers met in the Super Regional at Oregon last year. “Alabama’s the No. 2 seed and we aren’t seeded,” Sippel said.  “But when the game starts, it will be zero-zero, regardless of those numbers.  That’s where Emily thrives.  She can get herself in the right mindset early and make one pitch at a time.  I don’t know if she sees pressure, but I think it’s something she can overcome.  She does a pretty good job having that poker face and being able to compartmentalize what’s important and what isn’t.  It helps her poise.  She doesn’t let the process get to her.”

Despite the disparity in seeding, it’s interesting to note a comparative fact about the SEC’s regular-season championship team, which played in the NCAA’s No. 1 RPI conference.  Nebraska and Alabama share four common opponents from this season – Arizona, Florida State, Houston and Missouri.  The Crimson Tide went 5-4 against that group.  Nebraska posted a 4-2 record against the same four teams.  “Numbers don’t count,” Sippel said. “They don’t mean anything anymore.  It’s all about playing and believing in each other.”

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May 20

Next Journey Begins; NU Hosts B1G Tourney

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2014 Big Ten Baseball Tournament Bracket

Buy Your Big Ten Tournament Tickets Here

2014 Big Ten Regular-Season Standings

Kelly Delivers Extra-Inning Walk-Off Homer

By Randy York

Like the 6,354 fans in attendance at Hawks Field, Darin Erstad saw a masterpiece of a college baseball game that ended last Saturday when Pat Kelly delivered a three-run, 10th-inning walk-off home run to give Nebraska (37-18, 18-6) a 7-4 win over Illinois and a No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Baseball Tournament that begins Wednesday. 

“That was a great college baseball game.  I don’t think you can find a better atmosphere,” Erstad said in his post-game interview on the Huskers Sports Network.  “I can’t believe the weather and over 6,000 people (Nebraska’s largest home crowd in six years)…two teams pitching really well…playing great defense…a lot of intensity and a lot of athleticism on the field…we were fortunate to come out on top of that…it was a great, great experience for everyone.”

The Huskers’ reward is the opportunity to play No. 7-seeded Ohio State at 1 p.m. CT Wednesday after No. 3 Illinois plays No. 6 Michigan State in the 9 a.m. tournament opener. In expanding the tournament from six to eight qualifiers for the first time in 14 seasons, No. 1 Indiana will face No. 8 Iowa in Game 3 at 5 p.m. Wednesday, and No. 4 Minnesota will collide with No. 5 Michigan in the 9 p.m. first-day tournament finale.

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Fans Can Buy Big Ten Tourney Tickets Here

Fans can buy Big Ten Tournament tickets here. Although the Buckeyes eliminated the Huskers in the 2012 conference tournament and beat Nebraska three times in 2013, NU won three one-run decisions over Ohio State this season in Lincoln – 2-1, 4-3 and 3-2.

The Big Ten Tournament is a defining moment for Nebraska’s third season under Erstad.  As much as he enjoyed seeing his Huskers hit the ball out of the park over the weekend, “we need to do a better job of getting back to what we believe in,” Erstad said, “because I can guarantee you one thing – when we play in the Big Ten Tournament, those balls aren’t going out of the stadium (at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park).  We’re going to have to go back to what we do best – hit some line drives.”

On his monthly radio show Monday night, Erstad reiterated the need to multiply hits and base runners, even though the Huskers were able to finish the regular season on a good note. “Last year,” he pointed out, “we ended (the regular season) on a bad note.”

Huskers Rank First in Four Major Categories

The Huskers have momentum and rank first in the Big Ten in four major categories – hits (558), RBIs (303), walks (201) and sacrifice bunts (51). That combination of firepower, patience and precision has enabled Nebraska to come from behind or tied after six innings and go on to win 12 games this season.  Three clutch performance wins came against  first-round foe Ohio State.  Nebraska was down 2-0 heading into the bottom of the eighth before winning the first game of the series, 3-2.  A day later, the Huskers trailed 3-0 after seven innings before scoring one in the eighth and three in the ninth to win, 4-3, thanks to Michael Pritchard’s walk-off single.  In the third and final game of the home series, the Huskers beat the Buckeyes, 2-1, in the ninth, with Tanner Lubach’s walk-off single the difference.

If Nebraska and Illinois win their respective tournament openers, the Huskers and Fighting Illini will meet in a 5 p.m. Thursday match-up.  On Erstad’s Monday night radio show, host Lane Grindle asked Nebraska’s former All-American if Illinois was a solid NCAA Tournament team. Erstad responded with a positive “no question about it” comment.  Considering  Nebraska’s latest weekend accomplishment, here are five compelling facts that reflect how the Huskers have won nine of their last 10 games:

1) The Huskers are 8-1 in the Big Ten during that 10-game stretch and 4-0 on the road.

2) Pat Kelly has hit .429 (15-for-35) with three doubles, two home runs, and 15 RBIs.

3) Zach Hirsch has thrown 10.2 innings of scoreless relief, and closer Josh Roeder has contributed 5.1 innings of scoreless relief in five appearances that produced a win and three saves.

4) Kelly and Blake Headley each produced five multi-hit games.

5) Four Huskers have double-digit hit numbers in the last 10 games – Kelly (15), Headley (13), Pritchard (12) and Ryan Boldt (11).

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Pritchard Wants to Make Up for Missed Magic Moment

Last weekend, Pritchard had four hits against Illinois, including two singles, a double and an RBI in Saturday’s series finale. The effort enabled Pritchard to pass Alex Gordon and Mark Kister and claim the No. 10 spot on Nebraska’s all-time career hit club.  On Monday’s radio show, Erstad talked about how much Pritchard wanted to be the hitter who produced a walk-off win in the 10th inning, but to no avail.  That triggered a conversation about how much the senior has matured since Erstad, then a volunteer assistant coach, met him four seasons ago. Watching and witnessing such growth, Erstad said, is one of the greatest experiences of being a coach. 

While he may have missed a personal magic moment on Senior Day,  the Big Ten Tournament gives Pritchard many more opportunities to show his maturity and demonstrate his leadership.  He knows the bottom line is how much is on the line.  He also knows that Nebraska has not qualified for the NCAA Tournament in six years, so stay tuned.  The Michael Pritchard Story has several chapters yet to be written, and you can be sure about one thing.  He cares about winning more than individual statistics.  That’s why he’s focused on the only place Erstad wants everyone’s focus to be – the team and doing whatever is necessary to extend the season…together.

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May 19

Sports Nightly Focuses on Big Ten Tourney

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By Randy York

With Nebraska baseball’s regular season already in the history book, it’s time to focus on the Big Ten Conference Tournament that begins Wednesday, and Huskers Sports Nightly will help frame up the challenge with a three-hour radio show that will include Lane Grindle and Greg Sharpe, along with NU Baseball Coach Darin Erstad and his live one-hour segment.

Grindle will host the first two hours from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., giving a global view of Nebraska’s first-ever opportunity to host the Big Ten Conference Baseball Tournament at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series.  Sharpe will host the last hour from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.  

Nebraska (37-18 overall and 18-6 in the Big Ten) earned the No. 2 seed with last Saturday’s 7-4, 10-inning win over Illinois.  The Huskers play No. 7-seeded Ohio State at 1 p.m. CT Wednesday, following No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 6 Michigan State in the 9 a.m. tournament opener.  No. 1 Indiana faces No. 8 Iowa in Game 3 at 5 p.m. and No. 4 Minnesota plays No. 5 Michigan in the 9 p.m. first-day tournament finale. Fans can buy Big Ten Tournament tickets here and view the overall tournament bracket here.

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May 16

Jack, Bo Celebrity Chat Helps Fund Research

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After presenting Jack Hoffman with a game ball, Bo Pelini relishes the moment. 

By Randy York

Tonight in Sarasota, Fla., a head football coach and a pediatric brain cancer patient who considers that coach a close friend, will be center stage in front of nearly 900 people paying $1,000 a plate at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Bo Pelini, Nebraska’s 7th-year head football coach, and Jack Hoffman, his 8-year-old sidekick who battles brain cancer every day, have agreed to be interviewed as part of the featured entertainment at the ninth annual Dick Vitale Gala. The celebrity conversation will be a gripping commentary that will remind every patron in the room how Jack’s record 69-yard touchdown run in Nebraska’s 2013 spring game helped elevate awareness for the disease and inspire fundraising to support research that will help fight the disease.

“Awesome with a capital A!” “@TeamJack: Jack & @DickieV at @TheVFoundation Gala raising $$$ 4 child cancer research pic.twitter.com/QUe1l0FRIh

— Nebraska Huskers (@Huskers)
May 16, 2014

Pelini has been a national leader in the fight against pediatric brain cancer over the past several years. He has devoted numerous hours of his personal time, working hand-in-hand with the Hoffman family and others. Pelini also has nurtured an environment in his football program that was instrumental in Nebraska launching its own chapter of Uplifting Athletes that targets pediatric brain cancer research. Husker wide receiver Sam Burtch, NU’s president of Uplifting Athletes, is hopeful that his teammates can register 1,000 runners for the Nebraska Football Uplifting Athletes Road Race in partnership with the Lincoln Track Club on July 20. The event, which drew 700 runners and raised $15,000 for pediatric brain cancer research in 2013, includes a fun run and a 5K competitive race.

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Uplifting Athletes Champions winner Rex Burkhead and Jack visit White House.

Rich Fisher, Burtch’s position coach, was in Florida recruiting this week and will attend tonight’s Dick Vitale Gala, along with Pelini, Jack, and his dad, Andy Hoffman. Jimbo Fisher, head coach for defending national football champion Florida State, is among the guests that include Alabama’s Nick Saban and two Big Ten Conference basketball coaches – Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Indiana’s Tom Crean. Vitale expects tonight’s gala to raise $2 million to support pediatric brain cancer research, increasing the event’s overall contributions to more than $12 million. This year’s event sold out and forced gala organizers to decline celebrities who wanted to buy tickets.

The @Huskers photo @TheVFoundation Gala with @rfisher88 & @BoPelini pic.twitter.com/4pN3VFYiiN

— Team Jack (@TeamJack) May 16, 2014

Andy Hoffman salutes Pelini for his role in fighting pediatric brain cancer. “When Coach Bo and his wife Mary Pat agreed to serve as honorary co-chairs for our first Team Jack Gala two months ago (in Lincoln), it meant so much to our family,” Andy said. “Coach Bo represents everything that’s good in college football. He has a deep commitment to serve others and does an amazing job of using his platform to impact society in a big and very positive way. Our family is so thankful to be a recipient of his graciousness.”Send a comment to ryork@huskers.com (Include city, state)

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May 15

Trust Helping Decker to Drive the Bus Herself

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Nebraska Plays KU in Missouri Regional

Four Huskers Earn First-Team All-Region

Decker: Following in her Dad’s Footsteps

The Eyes of Nebraska are upon This Texan

By Randy York

Hailey Decker is sandwiched between the All-America Edwards’ twins, Tatum and Taylor, in Nebraska softball’s batting order. She’s lived her entire life in the shadows of small-college All-America parents. Her father Steve was a major league catcher for four organization’s and is now the coordinator of minor-league hitting instruction for the San Francisco Giants. Her mom Maite was an All-America and Academic All-America volleyball player at Lewis-Clark State, a NAIA school in Lewiston, Idaho.

Anyone who grows up in a smart, competitive family probably appreciates the inherent pressure a 5-foot-4 bundle of energy might feel when she spurns her home state of Oregon, which had the nation’s No. 1-ranked college softball team, in favor of Nebraska. Fortunately, last year as a freshman, Nebraska won two of three NCAA Super Regional games in Eugene, Oregon, to qualify for the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.

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One of Softball’s Most Decorated Sophomores

Before Decker and her Husker teammates pursue another NCAA regional title in Columbia, Mo., Friday, The N-Sider seized a one-on-one interview with Decker following an indoor practice at the Alex Gordon Training Complex. Already one of college softball’s most decorated sophomore players, All-Big Ten first-teamer Decker added another accolade Thursday, joining the Edwards’ twins and teammate Emily Lockman as First-Team All-Midwest Region honorees. Sharing the 2014 Big Ten regular-season championship with Michigan has helped multiply the individual honors

A winning team is helping Decker return to the rarified air of prosperity, even if she’s not even close to the staggering four-year accumulated totals she achieved as a four-time high school all-state selection and two-time Oregon Offensive Player of the Year choice. After a profound slump that moved Decker into the lower regions of Nebraska’s batting order last year, Decker had to search her softball soul and come up with a solution that wasn’t directly connected to the collective wisdom of her always reliable parents.

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Revelle: Decker Put the Pressure on Herself

“Hailey deserves the credit for bringing herself out of what she needed last year,” 2014 Big Ten Coach of the Year Rhonda Revelle said. “She put the pressure she was feeling on herself. Because of her last name, she felt incredible pressure, even though her parents have never put pressure on her.”

Husker coaches are well aware of the burden Decker feels, and the solution may have reached its peak during last year’s College World Series game against Florida. “We had a pregame conversation,” Revelle recalled. “I told Hailey I wanted her to make a commitment to believe in herself as much as we believed in her and to treat herself like she would treat her best friend.”

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Hailey Now Driving Her Own Bus with Trust

The result was freedom. “In that game, Hailey looked free at the plate,” Revelle recalled. “Florida had taken the lead, and Hailey hit a clutch homerun that closed the distance. I thought that was really an important game and sent her into her sophomore year with a different feeling. We didn’t do it. Hailey has driven her own bus on this.”

The Energy Bus is a consistent Nebraska softball theme, and Decker chose the word “trust” to guide her thoughts and help her navigate through her sophomore season. “I think there was a point where she didn’t trust last year as a freshman,” Revelle said. “She’s had a much better approach with herself and with her game. She’s trusted her preparation. She’s trusted the ebb and the flow and the ups and downs. Now that she understands that will keep cycling, she hit nearly .700 in the fall and realized she couldn’t do that in the spring. Her motor is revved constantly. That’s still something she has to temper to get to the best place, but she has the trust she needs to get there.”

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Hitting Between Edwards Twins Helpful

Being sandwiched in between All-America players in the lineup certainly helped. “I have Taylor in front of me, and she’s probably one of the scariest hitters in the country, and Tatum is behind me,” Decker said. “That means I’m going to get a lot of pitches. When you’re in between those two, they have to pitch to a 5-foot-2 midget. They give me protection and help me trust. The experience has been great.”

In terms of leadership, the Edwards twins taught Decker how to be mentally consistent. “My freshman year, I had a really rough time,” Decker recalled. “If I went 0-for-3, I was really down during the game because I put so much pressure on myself. They told me to let it go and enjoy the moment and to take one pitch at a time.” The strategy worked. “If I’m having a bad game, who cares?” Decker said. “The most important thing is to trust and be there for your teammates. That’s what I learned from the Edwards twins.”

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Staggering Numbers No Longer Realistic

Leadership isn’t easy for a short girl who had a .599 batting average during four years of high school. She also hit 43 doubles, 12 triples, 27 home runs and had150 RBIs. On top of all that, she stole 50 bases in 55 attempts and posted a .709 on-base percentage and a whopping 1.031 slugging percentage. “There’s a reason why I picked the word trust this year,” Decker told me. “The game becomes lighter when you trust your teammates. They pick me up, and I pick them up. I finally realize I don’t have to do it all on my own. Everything will move smoothly if you trust every aspect of the game.”

Decker now understands how it’s possible to be too intense. “I was so focused on stats and numbers last year, I wasn’t able to play the game the way I wanted,” she said. “Coach Revelle and I butted heads for a while. She broke me down, and when I was going through the rough part, she picked me up. She was there for me when I wasn’t there for myself. I have the utmost respect for her.”

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Decker Follows Hall-of-Fame Advice

A Hall-of-Fame coach, Revelle helped Decker adjust her sails. “She sat me down,” Decker recalled. “She explained why it’s important to be a teammate and reminded me that it’s just a game. No one’s going to look back and remember how poorly I played against Northwestern. She told me to just put on the uniform and enjoy the crowd.”

The depth of disappointment can help a gifted player reshuffle her thoughts. “It gave me a different appreciation for the game,” Decker told me. “I’ve always been an offensive player. To hit seventh or eighth in the lineup is tough on someone who’s really self-centered on the whole thing like I was. To hit that rock bottom point helped me appreciate just having the bat and being in the box. The game is so much different for me this year. I finally appreciate the game I play. I realize failure is going to happen, and when it does, I can’t take it so personally. I guess you could say I’ve lightened up.”

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Talking by Phone Routine Behavior

Hailey Decker can get as tight as a banjo string, but she’s learned to relax with her teammates. She still calls her family almost every day. “Baseball has always been my life,” she said. “My dad was gone a lot, so it became routine for me to talk to my family every day on the phone. Talking to my mom and dad is still a very important part of my life. My dad’s taught me everything. When I was 7-years-old, I told him I wanted to be a Division 1 softball player. He told me if that’s what I wanted, we needed to start working and conditioning and lifting. There was some tough love in middle school and high school, but he prepared me and my mom kept me level-headed.”

Having a dad who develops major league hitters for a living is a true blessing for a girl who wants to be a great hitter, too. Steve Decker has always told Hailey that seeing the ball is the most important part of hitting. He told her that hitting is an attitude and that competitive hitters are predators in the box. “I had a kick-boxing bag I hit for core strength,” Hailey told me. “And we had a tire that I carried around the neighborhood. I grew up dreading it, but my parents both knew that was going to get me to the place I wanted to be.”

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She Would Not Want It Any Other Way

Hailey admits there’s a difference between major league baseball and Division I softball. She didn’t see the parallel in middle school. “I didn’t really embrace wanting to learn from my dad until I was a sophomore in high school,” she said. “His schedule is so tight, he doesn’t get to see me play very often, but he made it to the College World Series, and I was glad about that because whenever my dad would come home, he’d let me analyze major league hitters with him.” The experience is different because playing for fun and playing for pay are two different things. Intensity is something she learned growing up. “Looking back,” she said, “I would not have wanted it any other way.”   

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May 14

Reasons to See Entire Husker-Illinois Series

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Huskers-Illini Meet in Pivotal Big Ten Series

Shatel: Darin Erstad the Ultimate Grinder

By Randy York

If this is Wednesday, The Energy Bus must be back in Lincoln from East Lansing, so now’s the perfect time to tell Nebraska baseball fans why it’s important to show up in droves at Hawks Field at 6:35 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 1:05 p.m. Saturday. Illinois is coming to town to play the Huskers and both teams have a chance to tie for the Big Ten Conference regular-season championship. For that to happen, however, Nebraska (35-17 overall and 16-5 in the Big Ten) or Illinois (30-17 and also 16-5) would have to sweep the series and hope Indiana (36-12, 19-2) loses its last three games. The Huskers have won nine of their last 10 games and Illinois has won eight of its last 10. Both teams have won seven consecutive conference games. With two hot teams squaring off, The N-Sider sees three interesting things on the line:

1) Both teams can end up no worse than the No. 3 seed for the Big Ten Tournament that starts next Wednesday at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park, so, in all likelihood, whichever team takes two in Lincoln will be the No. 2 Big Ten seed.

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2) Three years ago, Darin Erstad, above, was wearing a tie and a smile to the press conference that announced the Husker legend as head baseball coach.  Well, guess what? If the Huskers beat the Illini Thursday night, Erstad will get his 100th career win. Time flies.

3) Speaking of meaningful milestones, focus on Michael Pritchard’s first at-bat Thursday night. If Pritchard, the 2014 Sporting News Preseason All-American whose classic swing graces the very top of this column, gets a hit, it will be his 240th career hit as a Husker. That would tie the senior outfielder with Alex Gordon for 11th place on the all-time chart.

Be there to watch Pritchard extend his legacy. The hitting machine has shaken off a 16-game, 9-for-60 slump and raised his average 56 points to .317 over the past 20 games. He’s hitting .400 during his 32-for-80 stretch with eight multi-hit games. Remember his career high 5-for-5 night against Kansas State on April 15th? Pritchard seems poised to get on a roll. Remember, too, that he’s the first Husker in history to put together two separate 20-game hitting streaks.

There’s one more interesting fact to draw fans to a Thursday night series opener to watch an elite athlete pursue history on an elite field. One Husker baseball player will be announced as Nebraska’s 2014 Lifter of the Year. Strength is a big part of baseball, and this is an honor that baseball teammates treasure. In my mind, that makes the winner worthy of a standing ovation.

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Emily Wong Will Throw Out Friday Night’s First Pitch

Strength, of course, can come in small packages, so make sure you arrive early for Friday night’s second game of the series. Emily Wong, above, will throw out the first pitch. Nebraska’s 2014 Female Student-Athlete of the Year won her sport’s highest individual honor at the NCAA Championships in Birmingham, Ala. Therefore, she also deserves a standing O whether that opening pitch is a strike or not. It would be interesting to see part of her floor exercise routine as she exits the mound, but don’t count on it. She’s all about her teammates, and that’s another reason why Emily deserves to be an NCAA Top Ten Award Winner by the end of the year.

That takes us to the final game of the series on Saturday afternoon. With Christian DeLeon out of the weekend rotation for a third consecutive week, Kyle Kubat will be the man on the mound after Chance Sinclair makes his 14th start Thursday and Aaron Bummer is scheduled to start Friday. Saturday’s celebrity first pitch will come from someone who actually played small college baseball in Florida. Sometimes, he goes sleeveless, so be prepared to stand up and cheer when he’s introduced before the regular-season finale that will pave the way to next week’s Big Ten Tournament action inside the home of the College World Series.

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Final Home Stand for Huskers’ Seven Seniors

Saturday should draw a full house or a crowd close to one because the Huskers will honor seven seniors. Here’s a tidbit or two you might not know about each senior who will be introduced and acknowledged:

Luke Bublitz– Luke was one of Colorado’s top two-sport performers in Westminster. An outstanding quarterback and accomplished pitcher, he earned four letters and could become a three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection. He also served on Nebraska’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

Christian DeLeon– Christian is a fascinating story, and I enjoyed writing this column on him. What I didn’t include was his playing shortstop for the Lamar Little League team out of Richmond, Texas, that lost the Little League World Series Championship game to a team from Thousand Oaks, Calif., in 2004. 

Bob Greco– Bob transferred to Nebraska after spending four seasons at Bellevue (Neb.) University, where he was a two-time NAIA Honorable Mention All-American. Competing at Nebraska has been productive because he’s been able to work on his master’s degree in Business Administration.

Zach Hirsch– Talk about productive. Zach, the senior left-handed pitcher from St. Charles, Ill., will be competing against his home state after graduating in May of 2013. A finance major, he leads the Husker staff with 24 appearances and has a 4-1 record and team-leading 1.40 ERA. Opponents have hit only .191 in the 38.2 innings he’s pitched. In 2008, his Downers Grove team played in the Connie Mack World Series. A year later, he was featured on NBC’s Today Show because of his close friendship with Graham Jackson, a St. Charles North High School student with Asperger’s Syndrome. Talk about a well-grounded student-athlete. Hirsch also has earned four letters and get this – he was First-Team Academic All-Big 12 in 2011 and Academic All-Big Ten in 2012 and 2013…quite a resume’.

Ty Kildow – Another versatile athlete who was a three-time first-team Super State outfielder in baseball and a first-team Super-State and first-team All-Nebraska receiver in football. He was the Omaha World-Herald offensive captain.  After a redshirt season at running back and reserve status as a Husker receiver, Ty switched to Nebraska baseball and has earned three letters, back-to-back Academic All-Big Ten honors and Big Ten Distinguished Scholar status. A Biological Sciences major, Ty is a model student-athlete.    

Tyler King – Believe it or not, we have another senior four-year letterwinner and a two-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree in seek of a third. A left-handed pitcher from Republic, Mo., Tyler was a first-team all-state selection who pitched for the Midwest Nationals in the summer of 2009, going 8-0 with a 1.83 ERA. A Nutrition Science major, he also played football and basketball in high school.

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Michael Pritchard – Michael, above, focused strictly on baseball in high school, and his statistics reflect his intense concentration. At Creighton Prep High School, he was first-team all-state in both Nebraska metropolitan newspapers. In those two seasons, he hit .428 with 15 home runs and 80 RBIs. As a junior, 22 extra-base hits helped him post a slugging percentage of .860. On a state runner-up team, he hit .563 with four doubles, a triple, a grand slam and 10 RBIs in the state tournament. With four hits in his last regular-season home series, Pritchard would pass Mark Kister (1992-95) for 10th place on Nebraska’s all-time career hits chart. Who knows? With Pritchard, that could happen in the first game of the series.

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May 13

New Recruiter Kolb Came to the Right Place

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By Randy York

Last week, Caleb Kolb, a wrestler and communications study major, landed the perfect job for someone who could have gone to a number of excellent schools but selected Nebraska and fell in love with the place so much, he traded in his graduation cap and gown for the honor to be a University of Nebraska-Lincoln admissions counselor.

In other words, he will try to recruit new students to a growing Big Ten Conference institution that wants more students just like Caleb Kolb…driven, engaged, and willing to share openly why there’s no place like Nebraska.

“Nebraska’s been a great fit for me, and if I could do it over, I’d come to Nebraska again,” Kolb told me last Saturday after his parents and older brother watched him get his diploma at Pinnacle Bank Arena and then tour Memorial Stadium’s Student Life Complex following a luncheon reception for 55 Huskers who participated in commencement.

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Manning-Led Program Builds Instant Family

“I fell in love with this place. That’s why it’s my home now,” Kolb said of Lincoln. “It was an easy transition for me from the minute I got here. I love Coach Manning, our program and the instant family we all became together. Our team is built on hard work and loyalty.”

Caleb told his father, Jon Kolb, a 13-year player with the Pittsburgh Steelers and owner of four Super Bowl rings, that he was so close to his wrestling teammates at Nebraska, he would “take a bullet for any one of them.” Caleb told me that if he ever ran out of gas anywhere, he could call any teammate and every one would help out.

No wonder Kolb had a one-word answer when I asked what he liked most about the school that is now his alma mater. “Camaraderie,” he said without hesitation. “You can meet people anywhere, and you can talk to people anywhere but friendship doesn’t happen everywhere like it happens here. Nebraska has a certain mindset that’s hard to describe but great to see every day. It’s a positive place. People are the best part of the culture. They’re hard-working, genuine, caring. I made the right choice.”

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A Story Duplicating His Own is a Winner

After hearing how Kolb landed in Lincoln from Grove City, Pa., I believe he’s fully prepared to help potential college students from across the country both to consider UNL and then influence a positive decision.

Kolb had taken four of his five paid recruiting visits to Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Illinois, and Missouri. He was saving his fifth and last NCAA-allowed visit to fly to Oklahoma State, his father’s alma mater. Caleb also had taken unofficial visits to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and to the University of Virginia.

But a funny thing happened on Caleb Kolb’s way to somewhere else – Nebraska Wrestling Coach Mark Manning visited the Kolb family in Pennsylvania. The chemistry was immediate between coach and son and coach and father. Jon Kolb, in fact, told his son that he already knew Stillwater well because he had been there often. The elder Kolb also thought his son should visit Lincoln “because Coach Manning came all the way to Pennsylvania to see him.”

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One Visit Took Nebraska from Last to First

Caleb’s decision came down to the school for which he was saving his last visit and the school which entered the game last but finished first. “Since Caleb chose Nebraska, I haven’t put on my Oklahoma State jacket for the last five years,” Jon Kolb quipped. “Now that he’s graduated, I can wear my jacket again because that’s the place that made me into what I am.”

When Jon Kolb sees a polished, poised UNL recruiter excel across the board, he knows Caleb chose the right place for him. At Nebraska, Caleb became an NCAA Championships qualifier, a member of the first-ever Tom Osborne Citizenship Team, a Nebraska Student-Athlete Hero Leadership Award winner and the recipient of three scholar-athlete awards. His work ethic also earned Caleb the 2009-10 Nebraska Redshirt of the Year Award.

The admission counseling job that Kolb originally pursued at UNL was based in Minneapolis. “When they came back to me and asked if I would mind living in Lincoln and working here, I couldn’t believe it,” Kolb said. “That was a big day for me. I not only want to live here, I want to stay here. Nebraska is a very special place.”

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Graduate Prediction: Husker Future Bright

I have to ask Caleb, who gets a Senior Night hug from his mom in the photo above, one more question: Is Nebraska special enough to continue to grow its national stature in wrestling? “Absolutely,” he said. “I helped recruit wrestlers here over the last four years. People who come here love it, just like Jordan Burroughs, who’s probably the best wrestler in the world. The people coming next year are going to influence our recruiting. James Green, Robert Kokesh and Jake Sueflohn are all going to be very successful seniors. The way they perform is going to be part of our recruiting. Lincoln, Nebraska, is one of the greatest places in the world to live and work. Ask Jordan Burroughs. That’s why he moved here.”

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May 12

Garner Treasures Degree like No One Else

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Former Husker Bernard Garner, 41, received his bachelor’s degree Saturday.

By Randy York
On a Monday after commencement’s pomp and circumstance officially loses its luster, Dennis Leblanc had an interesting comment about one of the 55 Nebraska student-athletes who graduated last Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Leblanc’s observation came from the heart and revolved around a Nebraska men’s basketball season ticket holder who only misses a game if it conflicts with his work schedule at the Lancaster County Juvenile Detention Center.
Meet Bernard Garner, one of the most prolific two-year players in the history of Nebraska men’s basketball. The 6-foot-7, 245-pound forward from Many, La., via Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff, started 43 games and scored 649 points on Husker teams in 1995-96 and 1996-97. On Saturday, the married father of two received his bachelor’s degree in Child, Youth and Family Studies and let the record show that Garner, at age 41, treasures his degree like no one else. “I’ve been around national championship teams, but when I see something like this happen and a player comes back at that age to finish what he started, it moves me even more than winning a national championship,” said Leblanc, Nebraska’s Senior Associate Athletic Director for Academics for more than a quarter century.
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Bernard Garner scored 649 points in two seasons, 1995-96 and 1996-97.

Garner Accepted the Challenge, Never Looked Back
Championships are won through blood, sweat and tears, but the tears of a 41-year-old who becomes the first college graduate in the history of his mother’s side of the family are indescribable. How do I know? Because I huddled up with Garner at a Graduation Reception Saturday afternoon on the third floor of Memorial Stadium. We found a quiet area and within seconds, I knew why Leblanc was so moved about the way Garner accepted the challenge to finish his college degree. Nebraska Athletics paid for tuition, fees and books and offered the same kind of support available to every single student-athlete who becomes a Husker.
“This is probably the most exciting, outstanding, heroic thing I’ve experienced since the birth of my 6-year-old son and my 4-year-old daughter,” Garner told me. “My wife was here and my mom was here. She still lives in Many (La.), but she wouldn’t miss something like this. I have seven brothers and sisters, and I’m the first to graduate from college. When Dennis first called to ask me if I was interested in coming back to college and getting my degree, I had to call him back because I was working at the time. As soon as I was done working, I called Dennis back and told him ‘I’m ready to go, so let’s get it done.’”
Just thinking about the journey was enough to choke up Garner less than a minute after we sat down. “I got it done, but I can’t say enough about Dennis and the University of Nebraska,” he said. “They just go far and beyond to make you feel like you still belong. I mean, it’s been a long road, and I didn’t and couldn’t take that road by myself. I did it all with the help of the University, and I see the light, man…I definitely see the light. In fact, I am now a beacon of light for my nieces and my nephews just like I’m a beacon of light for my own children. I can encourage them just like the university motivated me.”
Great Intentions: Use Diploma as a Welcome Mat
“I did something that money cannot buy. No one can take this degree away from me because I earned it with the support of the university,” Garner said. “We live on a farm near Roca (Neb.) and I’m going to hang this degree as near as I can to the front door of the house. It’s going to be like a welcome mat for everyone who comes in. It’s just sheepskin, but it’s a symbol of fulfillment for me.”
At this juncture, Garner gets caught up in his own emotion. He looks down, breathes in. Tears begin to roll down his cheeks. He swallows hard and is not embarrassed or apologetic. These are tears of sheer joy.
“This is probably the greatest university in the world for college students,” Garner said after composing himself. “I mean, you just can’t beat the University of Nebraska. Nothing and I mean nothing can stand up to the University of Nebraska. If I won the lottery today, I would give every dime to the University of Nebraska. I would take absolutely nothing. I would give it all back to a university that gave so much to me.”
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A 6-foot-7, 245-pound forward, Garner transferred to NU from junior college.

Once You Reach 40, Git’r’Done the Only Option
Garner said words are inadequate. They can’t describe Nebraska’s passion or its commitment to inspire. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “They don’t give you anything but the opportunity, but they find a way to inspire you to do what you have to do to get it done.”
When Garner realizes he’s sounding a little bit like Larry the Cable Guy, he laughs. “That’s really what Git’r’Done means to me,” he said. “Who else gives a 40-year-old the opportunity to grow as a young man, so he can become a leader, a role model and feel like a modern citizen more than ever? The University of Nebraska has more character than I can explain. I don’t know what to say about the university because words simply cannot say what I feel in my heart. Athlete upon athlete upon athlete has tried to describe how this place embraces them and guides them from a young boy to a man. They do it with such grace and style, you just can’t beat it because it becomes a part of you.”
Last year, Garner purchased four tickets on the second level of Pinnacle Bank Arena. “I do whatever I can to support the university,” he said. “If I’m working and have to miss a game, my son is still there with my wife. Coach Miles, he’s doing a great job. I liked him the minute I met him. He’s a heck of a man. He’s a talker now, but when it comes game time, his team is prepped and ready to go. There’s a lot more to come with Tim Miles. Success is a big part of him, on and off the court…in the classroom and around the campus…wherever you find Nebraska people, he’s motivating fans like he motivates his players.”
Garner Believes NU Can Win Big Ten Someday
I ask Garner if he believes the Nebraska men’s basketball team can win its first regular-season conference championship since the Huskers were members of the Big Seven Conference more than six decades ago. “Yes I do!” he said. “Because those guys believe in the system that Coach Miles has installed, and they’re willing to work as hard they can on team basketball, not individual basketball. They will get it done. Shavon Shields can get it done any way you want it. That guy can shoot the three and he can drive to the basket and shoot all kinds of shots. Terran Petteway, he’s the T.P. He’s the Total Package. Look at Walter Pitchford, and what about Benny Parker? He’s the spark plug. He’s probably not even 5-foot-6 and he wants to take on the best offensive player every game. That whole team loves to compete. They play great defense. They know their assignments, accept their roles and do everything they can together. That’s why they’re winning.”
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May 11

California Dreamer Enunwa a Husker at Heart

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Quincy Enunwa’s Saturday daily double: A diploma and a call from the Jets.

New York Jets Select Enunwa in Round 6

By Randy York

When Quincy Enunwa chose Nebraska over Washington State, he had a simple goal – become the best student-athlete he could be. You can put a checkmark beside that goal as mission accomplished. The Economics major received his college diploma Saturday at UNL Commencement ceremonies in Lincoln and hours later, the wide receiver learned he was the sixth-round draft choice of the New York Jets. So check another box. Enunwa, a California dreamer, is now officially a Husker at heart. The new graduate made an interesting comment. “Look around,” he told The N-Sider. “Look at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Look at Memorial Stadium and everything that’s inside it. Look at all these graduates from a Big Ten Conference school. Everyone who comes through here knows Nebraska is a lot more than a bunch of cornfields.”

Nebraska is indeed the place that molded, measured and meant the world to a 6-foot-2, 225-pounder from Moreno Valley, Calif. How many know that Enunwa’s 51 receptions for 753 yards last season replaced Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers as NU’s single-season record holder with 12 touchdown catches? The last of those 12 was a pass from Tommy Armstrong that Enunwa converted into a 99-yard touchdown reception in Nebraska’s 24-19 Gator Bowl win over Georgia, a record that may someday be tied, but never broken. Enunwa’s career-high 129 yards receiving and two-touchdown day in Jacksonville will forever be woven into the hearts of Big Red fans everywhere.

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Bo Pelini and Gator Bowl MVP Quincy Enunwa after two-TD performance.

‘You Can’t Beat the People Who Live Here’

“I love our fan base and I love the people who live in Nebraska,” Enunwa said after hosting an entourage of 15 who came to Lincoln to see him graduate, including his parents, aunts, uncles (including one from Nigeria), grandma, sister and girlfriend from Chicago. “You can’t beat the people who live here. They’re so kind and so friendly. When you walk across the street around here, everybody says hi. I feel blessed to be here, so I could learn what I needed to learn.

“I’ve grown up here in this culture,” Enunwa told me. “At the end of the day, everyone here wants to help you get better, whether it’s football, academics, or life skills. Being under Coach Bo and all of the others who have helped me and believed in me has prepared me for my next challenge. I know what it takes to make it in this world, and I’m ready right now to go out and prove it. Every person I’ve come across here has taught me something different. They’ve helped me grow up and be where I am now.”

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The late Isaiah Casillas leads buddy Quincy (18) on fabled Tunnel Walk.

Team Jack Tunnel Walk Profound Experience

Ask Enunwa to pinpoint the most important lessons he’s learned and he responds immediately. “Hard work,” he said. “Never giving up, staying on top of things, and always giving 100 percent no matter what.” His life lessons don’t just come from coaches and administrators. Enunwa also learned from experiences that touched his heart and helped him realize how good it is to give back to those who have supported him. From hospice visits to hospital visits to Fan Day, Enunwa has embraced how others live and what they go through on a daily basis. Those experiences helped him develop a more compassionate perspective for the human condition and a more global perspective on life.

He will tell anyone the Team Jack Tunnel Walk was one of the most profound experiences of his life. “Quincy’s eyes light up when he talks about how inspiring it is to meet pediatric brain cancer patients like Jack Hoffman and Isaiah Casillas,” said Kim Schellpeper, an academic counselor who spoke at Saturday’s Graduation Luncheon on Memorial Stadium’s third floor. “Quincy played a small role in one of the most inspirational tunnel walks of all time, and that experience truly inspired him.”

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Expectations were high with Quincy at pre-Gator Bowl Press Conference.

Experiences Set Enunwa on a Course to Serve

Despite the fact that little Isaiah lost his battle with brain cancer, Enunwa said he will always remember how happy Isaiah was to be a part of that tunnel walk and how nice it was to meet Isaiah’s family and friends. That experience alone was enough to convince Enunwa that he will continue to expand his commitment to helping others in the NFL.

“As an educator, I’ve always felt that college was the time in a young person’s life when you learn to find your own way, make your own decisions and begin to chart a path for the remainder of your life,” Schellpeper told me. “If this is true, then Quincy’s experiences have set him on a course that will better serve us all.”

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The most critical part of a record 99-yard touchdown: Clearing the traffic.

Getting Diploma, Drafted on Same Day Big Deal

Heading into his senior season, Enunwa had 64 career catches. He was a three-time winner of the “Perimeter Warrior” award that’s based on a receiver’s effort in blocks, knockdowns and takedowns. Pelini tweeted his impressions of what the New York Jets got when they drafted Enunwa as the 209th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. “The Jets are lucky to get such a hard-working, dedicated player,” Pelini said.

Being the Offensive MVP of Nebraska’s 2013-14 team is a big deal for a wide receiver. So is being the MVP of a bowl win over a Southeast Conference Team. Add in the 99-yard touchdown reception and you think it can’t get much better than that. But Enunwa will always put another special day right up there with the others. “Getting your college diploma and getting drafted in the NFL within hours of each other has to rank right up there with anything,” he said. “My education was first and foremost to me since the day I committed to Nebraska.”

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Once Enunwa eliminated congestion, it was a nonstop run to record pay dirt.

Enunwa Has No Doubts about Future Success

In conversations with Pittsburgh, Oakland and Miami, Enunwa was expecting to get drafted during the middle rounds, and he has no doubts about proving himself worthy of being the Jets’ third receiver drafted. “I’ll be successful because I know I’m better and will be better than what people think about me right now,” he said. “I’ll work harder than most people. I still have that chip on my shoulder that I had before my senior season. It hit me hard when I had to tell myself that I had to work harder than anybody else to get what I truly want. That isn’t going to change.”

Enunwa doesn’t want to be the only one applying pressure. “I’ve told everyone, even the youngest guys on the team coming back: ‘If they listen to Coach Bo and do what he expects them to do, they can achieve great things,’” he said. “They have to take the bull by the horns and get those young guys ready to play. I know I can be successful if I do what I have to do. I just have to choose the right path. The guys still here have the same choice. If they do what they’re supposed to do, they’ll be successful. They just need that chip on their shoulder. We all do!”

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