Kids Help Donovan Vestal Believe in Himself

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

By Randy York

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

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

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

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

Life Skills Helped Sharpen Vestal’s Vision

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

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

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

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

Zimmer: Donovan Engaging, Charismatic

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

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

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

Gymnasts Aycock, Hedval Set to Graduate

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

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

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

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Cornhusker Kickoff Combo Rare NU Offering

Click Here to Buy Your Kickoff Combo Tickets

By Randy York

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

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

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

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

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

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Husker Hero at Hub of Royals’ Resurgence

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Kansas City Royals Photo

Video: Alex Gordon Leads Go Big Red Chant

Video: Alex Hits HR on Own Bobblehead Day

Watch Benny, Shavon Throw Out First Pitch

By Randy York

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

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

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Kansas City Royals Photo

Alex Gordon Leads Fans in Postgame Chant

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

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

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Gordo Would Love to Postpone Football Tailgate

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

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

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Telecast Takes Fans Back to Gordon’s Husker Days

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

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

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Autonomy Helps NU’s Student-Athlete Model

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

By Randy York

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

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

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

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

NCAA Decision in Lockstep with Nebraska’s Vision

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

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

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

Shawn Eichorst’s Letter to Nebraska Student-Athletes

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

“Dear Husker Student-Athletes,

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

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

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

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

Student-Athlete Leaders Represent a Cross Section

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historic NCAA Vote is a Positive Step Forward

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

Go Big Red!  Shawn

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Josh Mitchell Swag Now Positively Charged

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Omaha World-Herald Photo

Mitchell Thanks Pelini, Teammates for Their Help

By Randy York

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

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

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

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Pelini’s Focus on Process Finally Sunk In  

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

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

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Mitchell: Bo Pelini like a Second Father

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

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Coming Out of the Tunnel is Like a Movie

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

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

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Lincoln Journal-Star Photo

NU’s Culture Ranges from Young to Old

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

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

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Jack Has a Mild Setback, Watches Rex in KC

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Rex Burkhead has helped motivate Jack Hoffman for three years.

Video: Jack Supports Rex after Tough Diagnosis

By Randy York

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

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

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

Tumor Has Grown; Surgery Now an Option

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

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

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

Doctors Will Make a Recommendation Thursday

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

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

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Ameer, Royals Featured on Tonight’s Radio

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Shawn Eichorst’s Connecting on Campus Column

Ameer’s Heartfelt Speech a True National Hit

By Randy York

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

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

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Parker, Shields Attended Kansas City High Schools

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

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

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

Twin Recommendations: Column and Radio Show

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

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

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One of NU’s Toughest-Ever Impresses Chiefs

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Barney Cotton sees a potential long career for Ricky Henry in the NFL.

Ricky Henry Getting His Shot in Kansas City

Spencer Long Projected Future Starter in D.C.

By Randy York

Ricky Henry is the classic definition of an under-the-radar player.  But Barney Cotton, Nebraska’s associate head coach and running game coordinator, was not surprised Tuesday to learn that the former Husker lineman – who has spent the past year on the disabled list – has worked his way into the first-team mix at right and left offensive guard with the Kansas City Chiefs.  “Ricky is probably the toughest guy I have ever coached,” said Cotton, who coaches Nebraska’s tight ends and assists John Garrison in mentoring the Huskers’ offensive line.

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Cotton Explains How Tough Ricky Henry Really Was

How tough was Ricky Henry?  “He played his whole last year here with a shoulder that was completely loose and needed 13 staples to put it back in,” Cotton said.  “We tried to take Ricky out, but he would want to beat you up on the sideline and tell you he wasn’t coming out no matter what.  He really is one of the toughest guys you will ever see.”  Henry, 27, is 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds.  An un-drafted free agent in 2011, he spent time with the Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints before the Chiefs claimed him off waivers last August.  Unfortunately, a ruptured bicep put Henry on the sidelines for the past year.

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Henry, Suh Waged Many Memorable ‘Wars’

Because Cotton played four seasons in the NFL, he has a good idea of what it takes to play at that level.  “I’ve always thought Ricky would succeed in the pros,” Cotton said.  “He’s so raw, and he’s just going to get better and better.  The longer he can stay in the league, the better he’s going to get.”

On the second day of Nebraska’s own fall camp, Cotton couldn’t help but smile when he was asked what made Ricky Henry so tough inside and out.  “Whenever it went live between Ricky Henry and Ndamukong Suh, it was a war,” Cotton recalled.  “They really went hard when they went against each other.  Ndamukong’s a great player, but Ricky had his share of victories against Suh and that really helped Ricky become a better player.  There’s no doubt that Ricky’s toughness is what got him through that daily situation.”

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Spencer Long Making Strides in Washington

There was more good news about another former Husker offensive lineman Tuesday.  ESPN.com published a Redskins Rookie Report on Spencer Long, Nebraska’s All-Big Ten and   Academic All-American offensive guard.  Washington’s third-round draft selection has reinforced his reputation as a technician and has been projected to “make the roster as a backup guard” and “should challenge for a starting job at some point – either later this season or next summer,” John Keim wrote for ESPN.com. 

“I was just so happy that Spencer got drafted as high as he did because that’s where he was supposed to be drafted before he got hurt last year,” Cotton pointed out while acknowledging Long’s Pro Day performance that “showed everyone he was well…we were thinking he had a chance to be a late second-round or early third-round guy, and that’s where he deservedly went.”

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Long: A Combination of Intellect and Power

Asked about the differences between Henry and Long, Cotton obliged.  “Spencer was a real tough football player, but he also really schooled himself into becoming a great technician as well, and a very smart football player.  He’s already been accepted to med school and that will be put on hold.  He’s a unique combination of an intellectual guy that was a great technician but also had an awful lot of toughness himself.”

When Cotton thinks about Henry’s and Long’s career getting on a twin launching pad, he can’t help but connect both to former Husker Matt Slauson, who’s beginning his second season with the Chicago Bears after playing his first 51 NFL games in a New York Jets uniform.

Cotton insists that Slauson, Henry and Long “just have that body type” that will help them extend their professional careers.  “I can see those guys playing 10 years in the NFL,” Cotton said.  “The big thing is you have to stay healthy. When you’re 6-foot-4 and have that really thick body with big bones, it gives all of them that chance to be long-term guys, especially playing inside. I hope it works out for all of them.”

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Ameer’s Heartfelt Speech a True National Hit

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Video: Ameer Abdullah Kickoff Luncheon Speech

USA Today’s Myerberg: Ameer Packs a Wallop

Yahoo Sports’ Forde: Ameer Living His Dream

Shatel: Ameer the Essence of Student-Athlete

Christopherson: Ameer Toast of the Ballroom

By Randy York

Ameer Abdullah scored one of the most meaningful touchdowns of a career Tuesday with his mind, his heart and his soul instead of his strength, his legs and his power.  Nebraska’s All-America running back and 2014 Heisman Trophy candidate wore a white sports coat and his Superman glasses for a serious discussion with 1,700 people who gathered to hear his thoughts about the essence of a student-athlete.  Even though Abdulla acknowledged being nervous in front of a packed crowd at the Chicago Hilton, his speech was a true national hit.  Why?  Because his commentary provided perspective for all 14 Big Ten schools represented, as well as every other NCAA school.  The focus was on the growth that all college football players can achieve if they apply the same standards of thinking that Ameer selected as his measurements for lifetime success.

Everyone in the hotel ballroom heard something they might not have expected – a high-profile performer embracing and explaining why he’s so sold on Nebraska’s unrelenting mission to put the word student ahead of the word athlete every day and in every way humanly possible.  I suggest that first, you watch the video that gives the essence of Ameer’s core spirit and academic/athletic soul.  After you’ve done that, check out two prominent national takes on that issue from one of America’s largest newspapers and one of the nation’s most prominent websites.  After that, check out the Omaha World-Herald’s and the Lincoln Journal Star’s compelling coverage of a regional event with national implications.

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As a primer, here are some highlights from the media:

USA Today’s Paul Myerberg:  In pads and out, he stands within range of fulfilling this potential.  After acing a summer course, Abdullah said he’s “on the hoof” of earning Academic All-American accolades; he’d be the 315th student-athlete in Nebraska history to earn the honor, the most of any school in the country.  With another banner performance in 2014, Abdullah would also become the first player in program history to notch three 1,000-yard seasons.  It’s this balance that makes Abdullah a Heisman Trophy contender, the potential antidote to trophy controversy – the thinking man’s option, perhaps, backed by yardage, touchdowns, grades and the built-in name recognition inherent to the Nebraska brand.

Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde: This year’s speaker was Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah.  If the idea is to showcase the league’s best and brightest, then the Big Ten chose wisely.  The ninth of nine children born into a Muslim home in the Birmingham, Ala., suburb of Homewood, Ameer also will be the ninth Abdullah to graduate from college.  Several of his siblings have advanced degrees as well.  There are two lawyers, a CNN producer, a branch manager of a bank and several business people among the Abdullah’s three boys and six girls.  And athletes, too – Ameer considers himself the fourth-best athlete among his siblings.  “I’m the failure of the family,” he said with a laugh.  The “failure” is on track to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in history in December, and when his playing days are over he may pursue a law degree of his own.

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Omaha World-Herald’s Tom Shatel: In Abdullah’s case, it’s all the right stuff: heart, guts and older-than-his-years perspective.  The man represented.  Take his outfit. Classy white sport coat, dark pants, light blue shirt and dark blue tie.  He was dressed to kill.  And then he did.  But which direction would he go?  If you knew something about Abdullah’s background, you wondered.  Would he talk about growing up one of nine kids, all college educated?  Would he talk about growing up in a Muslim family, and hearing the taunts of other kids after Sept. 11, 2001 – as he told media members earlier in the day?  Neither.  His theme was “The Essence of the Student-Athlete,” and I believe I saw Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany beam when Abdullah said that.

Lincoln Journal-Star’s Brian Christopherson:  He got emotional near the end of speech as he recounted his experience on a recent trip back home to Alabama.  He learned that one of his childhood friends, who also had received an athletic scholarship, had become hooked on drugs and was no longer in school. And another was sentenced to 25 years in prison.  “I remember thinking to myself, ‘How can this happen to these guys?’ These aren’t people who I read about or see on TV.  These are my best friends, guys who I knew from elementary school to high school, and all these things were happening to them,” Abdullah said.  “That’s when reality set in.  If it can happen to them, it can happen to any student-athlete in this room today.  It only takes one bad decision to derail all of our hopes and dreams.”

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Ameer Chosen from 1,000 Big Ten Candidates

One of the Big Ten’s best traditions is the annual student-athlete speech for universities   and fans in Chicago.  “The conference chooses one football player to represent more than 1,000 from the league,” Forde pointed out.  Myerberg, a college football writer for USA Today’s nearly 1.7 million subscribers, concluded his national piece in a way that uniquely supports Ameer’s keynote speech. 

"We have a saying in Nebraska: We don’t rise to the occasion; we fall back on our training," Abdullah told Myerberg and other national reporters.  "So I feel like if I train myself to get ready for that moment, when it comes it’s going to be much more rewarding – much more appropriate."  Small wonder why Myerberg calls Abdullah “the linchpin of the Cornhuskers’ Rose Bowl hopes” and “yet another balancing act” for: 1) Ameer’s emerging national status; 2) the promise that lies ahead for his final season in Lincoln; and 3) how he soon will be writing his legacy in real time.

"I know it sounds stupid, but a lot of people envision it but they don’t believe that they can go out and be an Academic All-American, be one of the top backs in the country and be a shining example for the Big Ten," Ameer said.  "It means a lot.  You never know what kind of history you’re writing.  You never know who’s going to tell your story.  Just the fact that my story is maybe a story that may be told … in the future."

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Ameer’s Home State Has a Suggestion for NCAA

One thing is certain about Ameer Abdullah’s national presence.  Even though it was a Big Ten event, his home state of Alabama elevated his name in a major headline on the Alabama Today website.  “The next time NCAA resident Mark Emmert is cornered by reporters and asked whether or not athletes at big-time, Division I colleges should be paid, he might want to ask Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah to stand in for him,” Nick Birdsong wrote on al.com. 

“If his talk at today’s Big Ten Football Kickoff Luncheon is evidence enough, the Homewood product might do a better job of articulating the value of a college education for a high-profile athlete,” Birdsong wrote.

Yes, Ameer painted a fresh portrait to help everyone dig their cleats into an ongoing national debate.  “The true essence of a student-athlete,” he said, “is someone who has the desire to educate themselves athletically, academically and personally.”

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Pelini Wasn’t the Only Enthusiastic Head Coach  

Even though I didn’t attend the luncheon, members of Nebraska’s Department of Athletics couldn’t help noticing a head coach who stood up and gave Ameer Abdullah an energetic hug before he stepped off the stage – Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, a coach for whom Bo Pelini has great respect.  Like Bo, Fitzgerald knows a stunning touchdown run when he sees one, and Tuesday – during and after lunch with the conference and the nation – Abdullah did nothing but reinforce what Fitzgerald has said since his own program became the historic catalyst to create the first players’ union in college sports history.

We end this blog with an American fact, which also happens to be my favorite Ameer quote from his speech.  “You see, nothing, NOTHING, is guaranteed,” he said.  “But if you continually strive to educate ourselves, athletically, academically and personally, then maybe, MAYBE, one day we can reach our FULL potential.”

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A Solid Opinion, a Memory, Two Role Models

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Riding the Rails: The N-Sider’s Top Ten Pics

Coaches Get a History Lesson on Train Trip

By Randy York

Union Pacific Railroad’s recent Big Red Express Whistle-Stop Tour to Columbus, Grand Island, Kearney and North Platte was more than Husker coaches meeting and talking to Big Red fans.  In fact, former Husker players reached those sites ahead of time to help warm up the crowds before they heard from Bo Pelini, Tim Miles, Connie Yori and the rest of Nebraska’s overall superb coaching staffs.  In sorting through the photos I took and the conversations I had with those players, three are definitely worth sharing – 1) a solid opinion from a legendary fullback about whether college football players should be compensated; 2) a memory from a former defensive lineman about the peaks and valleys of playing college football and how one can come right after the other; and 3) how two brothers inspired a walk-on from a small town to dream the same dream.

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Corey Schlesinger: College Players ARE Getting Paid

Cory Schlesinger, flanked above by Nebraska Associate Athletic Directors Keith Zimmer and Dennis Leblanc, is a Columbus native whose two hard-charging touchdowns flattened Miami, 24-17, in an Orange Bowl that enabled Tom Osborne to win his first national championship as a head coach in 1994.  Schlesinger minces no words when asked for his opinion on whether college football players should be paid.  “I don’t think they should be paid at all,” said Schlesinger, who played 12 seasons in the National Football League as a fullback.  “I do not agree with the idea.  In fact, I am absolutely 100 percent against it.”  Why?  “Think about how much kids without a college scholarship are paying for college and how many loans they have to take out to pay for their education,” Schlesinger told me.  “Then ask the scholarship kids who aren’t paying a penny how much debt they will have when they leave and you’ll get your answer – they ARE getting paid and they’re getting paid well.”

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Dan Pensick Aware of College Football’s Highs, Lows

Dan Pensick, above, holding two young fans who wanted their pictures taken with a former Husker football player, was inspiring while warming up his hometown of Columbus.  The father of 2013 Husker starting center Cole Pensick, Dan reminisced about playing on the first Tom Osborne-coached team that upset No. 1 Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims in 1978.  “I talked about winning the biggest game of my college career one week (17-14 over the Sooners) and then losing to Missouri (35-31) the next week, making it the worst week of my life,” Pensick said.  “The biggest response I got from the fans was the way I remembered the last time Billy Sims fumbled in that game.  Everybody in Oklahoma claimed it was his fault they lost, but we hit him so darned hard, he couldn’t help but fumble.  I don’t remember who hit Sims on that last one.  I just remember that Jim Pillen recovered it.  I had two fumble recoveries myself in that game and caused two more fumbles.  It was definitely one of the most rugged games I’ve ever played in, and fortunately, we came out on top.”

Monte Kratzenstein’s Heroes: Clete and Jim Pillen

Monte Kratzenstein, above with Herbie Husker, is a tight end from tiny Brady, Neb. He walked on and lettered in 1987, ‘88 and ’89 for the Huskers.  “My two biggest heroes growing up were Clete and Jim Pillen (from Columbus).  I didn’t know them, but I grew up in a small town, and I just idolized them and what they were able to accomplish.  A lot of walk-on stuff is near and dear to my heart.  I listened to all the games on the radio, and I just think meeting and hearing these coaches is a unique deal that drew a good crowd.  You don’t see something like this very often.  It was nice.  When you put a character like Coach (Tim) Miles in the group, he seems to bring out the best in everyone.  He’s just one of those guys that’s fun to be around, and you can tell it just watching and listening to him.  It was a good kickoff right in the middle of the summer.  Loved the pep rally idea and think in some of these towns, you’re going to draw even bigger crowds on Fridays than you would on Saturdays.  It was cool.  I hope this concept continues.”

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