Kids Help Donovan Vestal Believe in Himself


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.”


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.”


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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