Imani Cross received a Life Skills Heroes Award from NU Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst last month.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Cross Training: Leadership Comes Naturally

By NU Athletic Communications
Randy York’s N-Sider

"The Program" came to Lincoln late last week, and put together a four-minute video that gives Nebraska football fans a glimpse of the suburban Boston-based company, led by Eric Kapitulik (pronounced Kappa-too-lick), working with the Huskers. Check out the video and watch how Kapitulik, a Naval Academy grad, a Major in the United States Marine Corps and the CEO of The Program, has installed new elements of shared adversity designed to develop new levels of Nebraska football leadership in 2013. Surely you remember Kapitulik, who received the game ball on behalf of his company from Bo Pelini following Nebraska’s 23-9 win over Michigan last year. This year's training requires new exercises, new demands and a new style by the The Program and for the progam. This video is a must-see because it tells a new story. It also gives Husker fans the imagery, the sound and the relevance that packs a solid recruiting punch and shows how Nebraska views leadership at all levels.

Take Imani Cross, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound I-back who was in high school at this same time last year. “Adversity reveals character, and Imani is a good example of a leader who knows how to handle it,” said James Dobson, Nebraska’s head strength coach who works directly with Kapitulik. “Imani has a great presence. He’s a class act and a great person. He’s hard to beat as a leader. He’s one of those guys who is going to be successful in anything he does in life. He just has that air about him.”

Even though Cross has not redshirted and is four months from beginning his sophomore season, Dobson sees so much leadership, confidence and humility in Imani that “I think he could be anything from a president and CEO of a company to a pro football player to a teacher in a high school or grade school. He’s just really, really, good at whatever he does.”

The Program’s Goal: Be the Ultimate Teammate

Ameer Abdullah, Imani’s teammate, fellow I-back and equally emerging leader, sees what Dobson sees. “The Program is all about learning how to be the ultimate teammate,” Abdullah said. “In my eyes, the No. 1 objective of The Program is to get everyone thinking about each other instead of ourselves. And Imani, even though he’s still just a true freshman, is already there. So many things make a great leader – your work ethic, your presence on and off the field and your credibility with everyone around you. Imani is a natural leader, and natural leaders don’t wait to step up and into that role. They do what they can do now and do what’s best for their teammates.”

We verify that theory with Jeremiah Sirles, who will begin his fifth year as an offensive lineman at Nebraska. A chiseled physical product who can hang with anybody in the weight room, Cross is an ultra-effective young leader. “Imani is the most dynamic freshman I’ve seen," Sirles said, adding that  "Everything he does is what Nebraska football is. I mean, everything is done at a high level all the time. He works hard. He plays tough. He’s a fantastic athlete. He loves to lift. He’s sociable. I think he learned a lot from Rex Burkhead, who was one of the best running backs ever to come through Nebraska as a person and a player. Rex left a legacy. He set the standard of what a running back can be, and Ameer and Imani both are doing a great job of following that standard, as players as well as people.”

This is as good a time as any to point out that Dobson and Jeff Jamrog, a former walk-on who became a Nebraska Academic All-American and now serves as Pelini’s assistant athletic director for football operations, views The Program as multi-faceted, high-octane, all-inclusive leadership trainers.

Dobson: Good Leaders Require Good Teammates

“Leadership is a lifelong pursuit. I honestly believe that,” Dobson said. “You can’t be a good leader if you’re not a good teammate. And it’s hard to be a good teammate if you’re always thinking ‘me, me, me’ or ‘I, I, I’. This training is not just for football, but the life ahead of these guys. The vast majority of them aren’t going to play in the NFL. But they’re going to be leaders in government, in private business or whatever else they choose to do. They’re getting leadership training from the best trainers in the world. They’ve been through it all. They know how hard it is and what you have to do.”

Jamrog reinforces Dobson’s point. “The Program goes way beyond football,” he said. “It’s woven into everything we do every day. It’s about going to class, studying just as hard as you practice and how you treat your teammates inside and outside of the locker room. It’s about your effort every day in practice, your academic effort, your commitment to Life Skills and helping somebody who needs help.”

Not surprisingly, Cross covers all of those bases, even though he is just finishing his first year in college. “Imani Cross is one of the most promising emerging leaders I have had the fortune to work with during my 25-year tenure at Nebraska,” said Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s associate athletic director for what most consider to be the nation’s leading Life Skills program. “Imani is exceptional in every way.  He's committed to the University, to the football program, to his teammates and to serving others and becoming the best person he can possibly be. He’s embraced all components of the Nebraska program and will no doubt make a far greater impact than scoring touchdowns on Saturdays.  I’m so excited that he’s a Husker because I know he will move our program forward on all fronts!”

Leaders Know the Way, Go the Way, Show the Way

In honor of Cross always putting himself last in almost any situation, we deliberately structured this N-Sider to match his philosophy and personality, plus his strong belief that leadership is a state of mind and based on understanding the needs of all of those who are affected by leadership. To Cross, a leader knows the way, goes the way and shows the way to be a good teammate. He’s never had to train himself to be humble or to say “we” instead of “I” or “team” instead of “me”.

All of that and more come naturally. “It all comes from my family,” Cross told me Wednesday. “I don’t know if I’m a natural born leader, but I’ve always been taught to be my own man and to always be committed to people beyond myself. I try to watch other leaders and do what’s right. I grew up that way. It’s a gift from God and my parents.”

Imani’s dad is a hard-working Gainesville, Georgia-based truck driver who always works the late shift, and his mother is a substitute school teacher, who always works whatever shift is necessary. “She’s like my dad. She gets things done the old-fashioned way,” Cross said. “They both work really hard, and they both respect everyone around them.”

Cross-Training: Focus, Discipline, Attention to Detail

Imani relished his first experience with The Program. “It’s a training tool and a mindset,” he said. “I liked getting put into game-like situations that make you uncomfortable and force you to focus, show discipline and pay extra attention to detail.”

Cross Training is part of Imani’s DNA. His parents taught him that leaders are made, not born. They showed him that you don’t need to have authority to have influence. All you need is your integrity and your humility and actions that match your attitude. He has always known that leadership is learned not handed out on a silver platter.

The Program made it clear before we ever started that it was geared to be more than just football,” Cross said. “It was geared to help us persevere through trials and tribulations, wherever they might come from. That’s why I came to Nebraska in the first place. They have a tremendous reputation to do things the right way, to be accountable and to reinforce whatever you choose to do in life.”

Mentors and Motivators: Rex Burkhead and Ron Brown

Cross feels blessed to have spent one year with Burkhead and almost every day with Ron Brown, his position coach. “Coach Ron instills leadership every day,” he said. “He always has a story or a short motivational speech that inspires you to give everything you have inside you. He’s played a huge role for me. He helps me understand that becoming a man really is a process and it’s not only my job to do that, but also my job to help those in front of me and those behind me to be the best they can be, too.”

Imani is the ultimate cross-trainer, the ultimate teammate, the ultimate leader and, you might say, the ultimate representative for The Program’s leaders because, after all, he reflects their values as much as they reflect his.

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Voices from Husker Nation

I am a native Cornhusker from Ord, Nebraska, with a Civil Engineering and a Juris Doctorate degree from UNL. I now live in Georgia, and in the same North Hall High School district from which Imani graduated. I met Imani and his father at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes luncheon here in Gainesville last year. Imani was one of two high school seniors to make a three-minute talk that day about their Christian beliefs, and he did a splendid job! Sitting at the table next to me was Coach Richt of the University of Georgia, and itt worried me that Imani might change his mind. Imani's father indicated to me that the family might relocate to Lincoln while Imani was in college, but he didn't know much about Lincoln. When I found out about Coach (Ron) Brown's involvement with FCA in Nebraska, I became more confident that it would be a significant factor in recruiting Imani to Lincoln. I am pleased to learn of Imani's progress at Nebraska, and I trust that his academics are living up to his athletic prowess. His older brother (Izaan Cross) has just graduated from Georgia Tech where he started for three years at defensive end and signed a couple days ago with the Buffalo Bills. I wish Imani the very best. John D. Prien, Jr., Gainesville, Georgia



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