Nebraska Uplifting Athletes President C.J. Zimmerer holds a baby at St. Elizabeth's Regional.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Huskers Visit Hospitals for 20th Straight Year

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York's N-Sider

Maybe it's a coincidence and maybe it isn't. But Nebraska football's annual Thanksgiving visits to Lincoln hospitals started in the same year that the Huskers went on a 60-and-3, 3-national championship run that produced the greatest five consecutive year stretch in college football history.

Somehow, the human touch and personal connection of seeing someone in a hospital room the day before Thanksgiving helps players see the world from a different perspective. Instead of having people cheer for them, football players cheer for the patients, learning an important lesson in the process - the best way to cheer yourself up is to cheer somebody else up.

And that's exactly what happened Wednesday when 82 Huskers took buses from Memorial Stadium to four Lincoln hospitals - Nebraska Heart Hospital, St. Elizabeth's Regional, Madonna Rehab and Bryan LGH (East), marking consecutive year No. 20 of Thanksgiving hospital visits that started when Tom Osborne was Nebraska's head coach.

Since the visits include players from all grade levels, we have feedback from all levels - senior tight end Ben Cotton from Ames, Iowa; junior cornerback Ciante Evans from Arlington, Texas; sophomore running back Braylan Heard from Youngstown, Ohio; and freshman tight end Trey Foster from Lincoln (Southeast), Neb.

Ben Cotton: The Most Emotional Husker Senior

Not surprisingly, the most enthusiastic Husker we found was Cotton, the most emotional senior we saw taking his last Unity Walk to the North Stadium last Saturday on Senior Day.

"Being able to go to Madonna the last few years and see some of these people struggling with things that we can't even imagine is important to me," Cotton said. "When you see people working hard every day to just simply be able to walk reminds all of us how lucky we are to be able to do what we do. It's pretty cool to go in there and put smiles on faces and help brighten their day and maybe even give them a little motivation to keep working hard and get back on their feet.

"An experience like this is really special for a lot of us," Cotton said. "It makes me even more thankful for my family, my teammates, our coaches and everyone involved with this program, whether it's athletics, academics or life skills. These hospital visits makes you thankful for being able to live your life freely compared to what a lot of people have to deal with.

"Being a Type 1 Diabetic myself, I've always wanted to be able to do things in the community, and that's been my focus since high school. Life Skills has broadened that and made all these opportunities available," Cotton said. "It teaches you how to handle scheduling, communicate with people and take requests from people you meet. I love reading to elementary school kids, delivering gifts and all sorts of stuff that we do, thanks to (Associate Athletic Director) Keith Zimmer and his staff. They make it all possible. We're just college kids, and it would be pretty difficult for us to try to handle everything that they line up for us. We're very fortunate to have the resources we have, so we can give back as much as we do."

Ciante Evans: Giving Back Opens Up Your Mind

Evans said when he arrived at Nebraska from Texas he wondered what kind of impact he might have on others. "It's special going out and giving back to the community," he said. "It makes you thankful for all of the blessings that have been bestowed upon you. As the years go by and you learn to give back, it really opens up your mind. You look up to older guys and younger guys look up to you.

"Whether you describe it as a leader or not, when someone looks up to you, you want to do the things that they're doing and accomplish the things that they're accomplishing," Evans said. "It's not just about your football life. It's about your everyday life. What are you doing outside of football to make you better? Once people see you step out into the community, the younger guys want to follow. At least that's how I think of it."

Braylan Heard: Hospital Visit Touches His Heart

Heard does not disagree. "This event touches my heart because we're giving back," he said. "When you get so much handed to you, it's good to give back. Patients tell you   they look up to us, and they enjoy watching us play."

That, in turn, makes Heard more thankful for his own family, plus "my teammates and coaches and everyone around me. I'm thankful for everyone that's part of my life I'm thankful for. Coming from the city I'm from, I've always wanted to give back. So I kind of came here with that mindset a little bit, but Life Skills has definitely helped me take that up several notches."

Trey Foster: We're Playing for Our Community

According to Foster, the freshman, lifting the spirits of people going through tough times "warms my heart because when we got to the hospital, the patients were already in good spirits and all excited for Thanksgiving," he said. "Seeing people get ready to see their families makes you thankful for much more than that.

"I used to just say hi to people, and they would appreciate my presence. Now it's turned into so much more," Foster said. "I've realize that without our community and our fans, there isn't much that we would be playing for. Giving back is a necessary thing, regardless whether we're having a good season or a bad one. Having your community behind you is a top priority."

Everson: Visit Teaches a Powerful Lesson

Austen Everson, Nebraska football's Director of High School Relations, relishes a freshman who understands the value of life skills and community commitment. As a staff member who plays a key role coordinating all of Nebraska's on-campus recruiting, Everson immersed himself into the players' experiences Wednesday.

"I went to Madonna Rehab and so many of the patients we visited are affected by accidents that we hear about every day," he said. "The news is filled with car accidents, illnesses and other conditions that take away motor skills and leave patients unable to carry on normally.  These visits make the news stories real for all of us. Their lives will never be the same, and it's powerful to know that we're not invincible. So often in athletics, we think nothing can affect our performance. But a visit like today makes   everyone thankful to be healthy and capable of performing."

The hospital visits "tend to refocus our players on how blessed they are to be in their position," Everson said. "They're elite athletes, but they also have a responsibility to give back and help make other people's day brighter just by being around. Our athletes are heroes to so many, and it's really important to have our younger players realize this first-hand. They see how a quick hello or a high-five can make a kid's day or week."

Nebraska Life Skills is a Daily Mindset

Everson sees Nebraska Life Skills as a daily mindset. "I think it's about 'paying it forward,'" Everson said. "Life skills encompass so much, but the community service aspect is something that should be thought about daily. We all have opportunities to positively affect the lives of others each and every day, sometimes in little ways, sometimes in big. Life Skills just helps make these big opportunities possible."

On the day before Thanksgiving, Everson is thankful for his family in Tennessee and the ones that have become his family in Lincoln. "I'm thankful for the opportunities I've been given and the ones that will continue to arise," he said. "I'm thankful that the Lord has blessed me with ability and that He gives me an arena to use my talents."

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