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For Ekwall, who played for the Huskers from 1955-57, this is second time around. He was formally inducted into the Nebraska Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992. This weekend, he becomes only the second winner of the Hall of Fame’s Distinguished Alumni Award, given to a former player and Hall of Fame member “who has been a positive force in the state and local community” after his playing career.
Bus Whitehead, the first Distinguished Alumni Award winner in 2003, remembers Ekwall. “In fact I coached Rex for one year when I was an assistant for Jerry Bush,” Whitehead said. “Jerry always said, if he ever had a son, he wanted him to be just like Rex Ekwall. Rex was a good player from Holmesville, Nebraska. He runs a good business, and he’s a real fine person. Everybody likes Rex Ekwall.”
Count Nebraska Coach Doc Sadler in that group. “Since I’ve been at Nebraska, Rex has been one of our program’s biggest supporters,” Doc said. “Whether you’re in Lincoln or Omaha, you see his face. Presence is always louder than words. He’s always there as someone who truly appreciates being part of the Nebraska basketball family, and I really appreciate that.”
Ekwall has had Nebraska season basketball tickets since the Devaney Center was built, but his presence goes beyond the hardwood. The 73-year-old has had NU season football tickets for 51 years and is also a Husker volleyball and Nebraska baseball season ticket holder.
“I support all Nebraska athletics,” said Ekwall, who works diligently as the Omaha-based owner of 40 convenience stores/gas stations in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota.
From NCAA Volleyball Semis to Basketball Games to Gator Bowl
How active can one fan be? “Well,” Ekwall said, “I watched Nebraska almost beat Penn State in that NCAA volleyball semifinal in Omaha. A couple nights later, I was at the Devaney Center for a basketball game and at another game a couple nights after that. Then, after Christmas, we flew to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl.”
For the first time, Ekwall flew commercially to a bowl game. Normally, he’s in the cockpit of his own pressurized, six-passenger Piper Malibu.
For a busy, hard-working guy, Ekwall finds flying to be therapeutic.
“I’ve helped out the basketball team a few times,” he said. “I know Erick really well and Danny, too. I feel good about being honored the same night that they’re being honored. I’ve flown both of them before, plus Cookie Belcher, Tyronn Lue and others. I help out whenever I’m needed.”
No one has needed him more than Angel Flight, a group of pilots who volunteer their time and planes to provide free air transportation for any legitimate, charitable or medically related need.
“I’ve taken 120 of those trips all across the country,” Ekwall said. “I’ve flown some very sick people, some terminally ill individuals and even little kids. It’s amazing how well some of these families cope with what they’re going through on very limited resources. I got a Christmas card from a young family in Texas. They had a child very close to death, and we found out he’s doing great now. I also remember being asked to fly a pastor to a funeral for a three-year-old. I try to help out in any way I can.”
Ekwall is also a source of inspiration for several ex-Huskers.
Dave Hoppen, the leading scorer in Nebraska basketball history, worked for Ekwall when he was in high school and college. “I think he’s a fine young man and has done quite well,” Ekwall said. “If he hadn’t hurt his knee toward the end, he would have been a real good pro player.”
Eric Piatkowski, Nebraska’s second leading scorer of all-time, played on four consecutive NCAA Tournament teams before becoming a first-round NBA draft choice who spent 13 seasons in the pros. He now serves as a color analyst on Fox-produced Husker basketball telecasts. “I’ve stayed in touch with Eric over the years,” Ekwall said. “He’s another fine young man who has done quite well.”
For Ekwall, the game of life always has been bigger than the game of basketball, a sport that pitted him, at 6-4, against the likes of such future All-Americans, Olympians and All-NBA players as Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas and Bob Boozer of Kansas State.
Amazingly, 52 years after he graduated from Nebraska with a business degree, Ekwall still holds the school record for career rebounding average. He collected 679 in 65 games for a 10.4 per-game average, and his 13.5-point scoring average ranks 35th on the all-time chart.
“We were about a .500 team the three years I started at Nebraska,” Ekwall said. “I played against Wilt when he was a sophomore, and I was a senior. We didn’t beat him, but I watched Nebraska beat Wilt (and fourth-ranked KU) the next year. Then we turned around and beat Boozer (and top-ranked K-State) a week later. The chancellor had to call off classes after that one. KU and K-State were big rivals of Nebraska . . . still are.”
Ekwell Competed in National Industrial Basketball League, 1960 Olympic Trials
Ekwall played even more competitive teams after exhausting his collegiate eligibility. Adrian Smith was Ekwall’s only National Industrial Basketball League teammate to reach the NBA.
“Adrian ended up playing with (Oscar) Robertson at Cincinnati,” Ekwall said. “I only played one year in the NIBL, and then got drafted into the Army. The next two years, I was on the All-Army team and the All-Service team. We played in the 1960 Olympic Trials. We might have won a game or two, but didn’t do real well.”
Honest, straightforward and humble, Ekwall exhibits many of the same qualities as Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne. “I’ve known Tom for a long time,” he said. “He’s done a great job all these years at Nebraska – from the time he was a graduate assistant coach for Bob Devaney to all the things he’s initiated and accomplished as a national championship coach and as the co-founder of TeamMates with his wife, Nancy.”
Ekwall sees Osborne, as athletic director, putting service as a priority alongside such important values as integrity, trust, respect, teamwork and loyalty. Ekwall sees that mindset permeating a new life skills program, and he believes a service-oriented philosophy helps differentiate Nebraska’s overall approach to student-athletes from others.
As a small-town athlete who has used his gifts to help others, Ekwall likes where Nebraska basketball is headed. “Doc has done a good job,” he said. “You can tell he’s a great coach. He works hard and has lots of energy. He just needs to land some bigger, stronger players. In recruiting, you need a little luck. Once it happens, it becomes a lot easier to recruit. I think Doc is the one to get us back on track. He knows this state will support a winner.”
In the mid-1950s, basketball was a much different sport than it is now. “Back then, it wasn’t year-round, and we didn’t lift weights,” Ekwall said. “We also didn’t have much contact with the coaches during the off-season. We were more on our own, helping on the farm or doing whatever else was needed at the time. In the last 50 years, that’s what‘s changed the most.”
As a first baseman and outfielder, Ekwall combined baseball with basketball and competed against former Missouri Coach Norm Stewart in both sports in the Big Seven Conference. The son of a gas station owner in a small Missouri town, Stewart helped pitch Mizzou to the 1954 College World Series championship in Omaha. “Norm and (the late) Joe Cipriano were buddies, so I got to know Norm real well after our playing days,” Ekwall said. “I still keep in touch with Bob Boozer, too. And Gary Thompson (ex-Iowa State All-America basketball player) and I still talk because we’re both in the gas business.”
How to Stay Fit at 73: Work, Swim, Fly and Serve
Whitehead marvels at how fit Ekwall is. “Look at him. He’s in great shape,” Bus said, pointing to Ekwall across the room at a recent “Talk With Doc” luncheon in Lincoln. “Of course, he’s still working. I think that’s a big help.”
So is swimming, which Ekwall does three or four times a week. “Flying has been a good diversion for me over the years, too,” he said. “It’s been a big part of the way I’ve chosen to serve others.”
Ekwall is willing to drive from Omaha to Grand Island, but any distance beyond that, he prefers to fly. “I enjoy all sports as a spectator, and I realized more than ever in Jacksonville how great our fan base really is,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how many people I met who had driven to Florida instead of flown. They took two days to drive down and two days to drive back.”
Nebraska football fans seem to parallel its roster. “We have players from Cozad, and I met fans who drove to Jacksonville from Cozad. They came from small towns all over Nebraska, really,” Ekwall said. “I even met three guys from Omaha who had driven straight down the day before the game and left right after the game. They didn’t want to buy the expensive plane tickets, but they didn’t want to miss the game either.”
Ekwall would never question an economic-minded move to serve a passion, especially when money is saved, drivers are shared and Nebraska is supported.
“I think it’s great how many people plan a vacation, no matter how brief it is, around a Nebraska road game or a bowl game,” he said. “I just can’t imagine driving that far that fast. I guess they’re just dedicated fans.”
They’re Nebraska fans . . . the best fans in college athletics.