Softball’s Lotte Sjulin, left, and field athlete Sarah Firestone hug a fan.
By Randy York
It’s a rainy Sunday night in Lincoln, about 24 hours after Nebraska won a football game for the ages over Northwestern. Nearly 200 first-year Husker student-athletes, representing all 24 varsity sports, arrive inside the Hawks Championship Field, Nebraska’s daily indoor practice home. Two of the 200 are true freshman football players from California – I-back Terrell Newby from Los Angeles and quarterback Johnny Stanton from Rancho Santa Margarita in Orange County. One of five Huskers who had a rushing attempt in Saturday’s 27-24 NU vs. NU thriller, Newby called Sunday night’s fourth annual Husker Heroes Event a “definite difference” in his decision to sign a National Letter of Intent with Nebraska over Oregon and Washington, his other two finalists. Ditto for Stanton, who selected the Huskers over Oregon and Oregon State – his other two finalists.
The Nebraska Athletic Department and “Organizations Networking for Everyone with Special Needs” – a group that includes 11 participating sponsor groups – co-sponsor Husker Heroes. The event drew 800 people, counting family members of the invited special guests with special needs. Stacey Burling, a Nebraska Life Skills coordinator, has directed the last three Husker Heroes, which is part of a Life Skills class for all incoming Husker student-athletes. It might just be the most popular mandatory class in University of Nebraska-Lincoln history because it sets the tone for leadership and community service – two vital components in the Nebraska student-athlete experience.
For Newby, it was an eye-opener. “Events like this really made a difference in my recruiting process,” he said. “I’ve always aspired to help kids in any way I can, and this is a big deal for me. I saw things that I never saw at home, and I can honestly say it really moved me. It’s opened my heart and made me realize that we’re playing for these kids as much as anybody else. My commitment here is more than just football. It’s to the whole state and not just a special group of people. An experience like this really helped me understand why Nebraska is different than other places. It’s special.”
Stanton Wants to Visit as Many Hospitals as Possible
Stanton will never forget his unofficial visit to Nebraska and how much Life Skills and “all of the ways that we reach out to the community were stressed,” he said. “The whole concept became one of the main reasons I came here. When you realize how it all comes from the heart, you just want to get involved as much as you can. I want to visit as many hospitals as I can and get involved with my teammates and other student-athletes. I was very serious about going to Oregon or Oregon State, but this culture drew me in. Nebraska helps you see life in so many different ways.”
The N-Sider wandered around the indoor facility and found two more football players totally engaged in Husker Heroes. Dwayne Johnson Jr., a freshman offensive lineman from Houston, described Life Skills as giving back and caring about your community. “It was a huge part of the recruiting process for me,” he said. “An event like this one is one of the biggest reasons why I came here. I loved Nebraska. My parents loved it and my whole family loved it. The people here are Husker fans who see this as a memory they can hold onto all year long. Being here and being a part of it means everything I thought it would and even more. It inspires all of us just like we inspire them.”
Trey Foster, a redshirt freshman tight end from Lincoln Southeast, said the experience helped him realize the impact a student-athlete can have on people’s lives. “It’s so nice to see all the shining faces around here,” he said. “Everybody enjoys being here, and that’s why they come back. They’re smiling when they get here and smiling when they leave. They love getting their picture taken with you. We make them feel good, but I don’t know if they realize how good they make us feel.”
Kadie Rolfzen Gets Big Hugs and Several ‘I Love You’s’
Every student-athlete we interviewed was immersed in the experience and felt fortunate to be spending a Sunday night with individuals and families who were genuinely touched. Husker freshman volleyball player Kadie Rolfzen committed to Nebraska when she was in the eighth grade. “I had no idea about Life Skills or anything like this,” she said. “But this is something I’ve always wanted to do – put some smiles on some kids’ faces. It’s amazing how much they look up to you. They want to know how tall I am (6-foot-3) and they ask me what my favorite color is (green). I had several kids come up to me, look up at me and just give me the biggest hug and say: ‘I love you!’ while they’re giving me the hug. It is so precious. They’re like any other kid. They love Nebraska sports because they know we love them and care about them.”
Leslee Smith, a junior forward from the British Virgin Islands and a junior college transfer on Tim Miles’ men’s basketball team, said the event helped him understand why it is important to serve the community that supports the Huskers. “I’ve really enjoyed working the inflatable basketball station and meeting all the kids and really meeting their families,” he said. “It warms your heart when you see how much they look up to you and how much they care. We’ve worked so hard all summer and all fall and we’re so ready to open the season Friday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena, so helping others on a Sunday night was a good thing. It gives you balance and inspires you to play even harder.”
Two Husker student-athletes – Lotte Sjulin, a freshman softball outfielder from Omaha and Sarah Firestone, a freshman javelin and discus thrower for the Husker women’s track and field team – worked in tandem Sunday night. “This is really special for me,” Sjulin said. “I came to events like this with my family because my little sister has a learning disability, so it’s really cool to be with these kids,” she said. “I look up to everyone here because I’m on the other side of it now. It’s still emotional because you’re giving instead of receiving. When you see kids who look you in the eye and tell you they want to be like you … that’s why I got here early. We’re doing a walk-around in the first session, so we can see every single station before doing one station in our session – the fitness obstacle course.”
Top Field Recruit Wants to Give Kids Time of Their Life
Firestone, the other half of the freshman tandem, is from Mercersburg, Pa., where she was a two-time AAU national champion in the javelin and a two-time NFL Punt, Pass & Kick national champion in her age group (2006, 2008). When you reach her competitive level, you’re always looking for what separates the great programs from the very good programs. “Life Skills was a real draw for me to come to Nebraska,” she said. “I’ve been given so much in athletics, and this is one of the first times I’ve really been able to give back to kids who really care. They may not have a lot of physical abilities but they’re so happy. It’s awesome to see them have the time of their life, whether they’re dribbling a basketball through a cone or getting an autograph on a piece of paper. I had opportunities to go to Penn State or Minnesota but this is where I wanted to be. This is a real highlight for me.”
Two freshman soccer players, who teamed up for a goal in last Friday’s 3-1 win over Indiana, were equally enthusiastic, talking about Life Skills two days after clinching the Huskers’ first Big Ten Conference Championship in the sport. Courtney Claassen, a freshman midfielder from Parkville, Mo., could have stayed in her home state and played in the Big 12, but “we loved Nebraska and wanted the chance to be part of something like this,” she said. “I love Nebraska even more than I did when I committed.” Claassen said it’s hard to describe the feeling of getting an assist in a game that clinched the Big Ten title and it’s just as hard to describe how much an event like Husker Heroes means. “It’s just amazing,” she said, “and I am so glad I came here.”
Equally amazed and equally grateful, Jaycie Johnson, a freshman forward from Lake Winnebago, Mo., and Nebraska’s leading 2013 scorer, said the Heroes event “honestly tops everything off here for me,” she said. “Winning a Big Ten title and then getting to hang out with kids that love you is just an amazing experience. They all impact my life so much and inspire me so much, I can’t even describe it. I love it when kids see a football player and their eyes just light up, and it’s the same deal if you’re a basketball player, a volleyball player, a soccer player, whatever … they just love Huskers. They all want to be in our shoes, and that just humbles me so much. I wish they could do what I get to do every day, and I never take that for granted because one day it could be taken away. We’re all so blessed to be able to meet these kids and love them just like they love us.”
Westerkamp Decision Influences New Husker Pitcher
Brandon Pechloff is aredshirt junior pitcher from Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. “I was Jordan Westerkamp’s quarterback when he was a sophomore in high school,” the 6-foot-8 Pechloff told me in between sessions of helping special guests play inflatable basketball. Pechloff played two years as a quarterback at Western Carolina. “I always had such great respect for Jordan choosing Nebraska when he could have gone almost anywhere else,” he said. “I wanted to transfer and play football, but there weren’t any openings at quarterback, so I contacted Darin Erstad about playing baseball.
“I made the right decision to come here,” Pechloff said. “I wanted to go to the best school so I could push myself in every aspect of my life – the weight room, on the field and everywhere else. Nebraska sets the standard in almost anything a student-athlete wants to look at. Attending this event just shows what kind of family Nebraska Athletics really is. This place gives so much back to the community without ever asking for anything in return. Nebraska is a tradition that would be hard for anyone to pass up, and it’s just an incredible feeling to be a part of it.”
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