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Two highly recruited freshmen fell in love with their first Husker Heroes event earlier this week at the Hawks Championship Center, and the experience reminded both student-athletes why they chose Nebraska over multiple options.
"Hearing Keith Zimmer talk about life after football and life after college was a big differentiator in my recruiting," said Greg McMullen, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound freshman defensive end who chose Nebraska over Ohio State and Notre Dame.
"I want to major in special education, and Life Skills was a huge factor in my recruiting because of the way Nebraska serves others," said Kiki Stokes, a three-time prep All-America softball outfielder who selected Nebraska over Florida and Tennessee.
200 Student-Athletes Host 300 Special Guests
"We have some gifted freshmen student-athletes who come here wanting to make a difference and fully embrace being role models," said Keith Zimmer, Nebraska's associate athletic director for Life Skills. "It's exciting when you see 200 mostly freshmen student-athletes take the time to make 300 kids with special needs and 800 other members of their family feel so special."
"To me, reaching out to the community is a very important part of being a football player," said McMullen, who goes against Nebraska's first-team, high-octane offense every day. "These kids and their families appreciate us being here and interacting with them, but I don't know if they know how much they inspire us."
When McMullen was sizing up athletic programs, he analyzed integrity, honesty and respect. "Nebraska has been all of that," he said. "I have a friend who plays in another major conference, and they don't even talk about community involvement, let alone help others."
In Special Education Terms, She's No Rookie
Stokes says she grew up in a home where her mom was a day care provider for 14 years. "That's how I fell in love with special education," she said. "It was a cool experience for me to able to run a lot of different special education events. I've also been part of a high school mentoring program.
"Kids light up your heart," Stokes said, "because they have so much charisma. The way they can inspire you is just awesome. One little girl with Down Syndrome came up to me on Husker Heroes night to tell me that she plays softball, too, and loves coming to our games. Getting our autographs was a big deal to her, and she told us that she can't wait for the season to get started."
Scott and Christy Rine attended Husker Heroes with their two sons, Garrett, 7, and Keegan, 8. "Keegan was diagnosed with being Autistic when he was 3," Christy said. "Events like this make him seem like a normal kid for the moment."
Once He Warmed Up, He Had a Great Time
The Rines are thankful that Nebraska's Life Skills Department has the vision and the ability to marshal enough resources to host Husker Heroes. "Our son loves Husker sports, but can't handle being in a huge crowd most of the time," she said. "Watching him being able to interact with some Husker athletes one-on-one was amazing for him.
"He had to warm up first, but once he did he had the best time," Keegan's mother said. "We were just so impressed that so many athletes would show up on a Sunday night when it was raining. Everyone that we spoke to treated every child with the utmost respect, and I just love seeing that."
It would be difficult to determine which group benefited the most from Husker Heroes - the 1,100 total guests or their 200 student-athlete hosts. Based on what I saw, it would be a toss-up because everyone went home that night equally enriched by the experience.
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