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Big Red Football in Lincoln and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) in Omaha may be 50 miles apart, but they make great partners because they share a vision to be world-class, and they pursue that vision using a similar competitive model.
First, they build top-tier facilities, so they can recruit the best talent in the country. Then, once that talent arrives on campus, UNMC leaders and Husker coaches develop that talent to compete with any medical center or any football team anywhere.
It's all part of separate but equally strategic plans to showcase how one of the nation's smallest states can be second to none in both a highly competitive sport and in the relentless pursuit for funds to research cancer or support patients who have the disease.
"Nebraska football taught everyone that with the right kind planning, recruiting and execution, Nebraska can become world-class in whatever we decide to accomplish," said Dr. Kenneth Cowan, director of the Eppley Cancer Center at UNMC and director of the Eppley Institute for Research in Cancer and Allied Diseases.
Cowan leads an internationally recognized breast cancer program in Omaha. He is the sixth director of the Eppley Institute and finds it ironic that when he accepted that position in the summer of 1999, he learned the Institute was founded in 1961 - one year before Bob Devaney arrived at Nebraska to jump-start the Huskers' surge to national prominence.
"When you look at what Coach Devaney started and Tom Osborne perfected, you understand why we thought we could use a similar strategic model," Cowan said. "You build infrastructure, recruit and develop talent, train that talent and then, through hard work and teamwork, you do everything possible to become world-class. From the way you think to everything you do, you strive to be the very best and try to bring every corner of the state into your state-of-the-art effort. You build everything, piece by piece and year by year."
It's no coincidence that Eppley Cancer Center at UNMC has the largest graduate student training program in the country. "We will have 65 graduate trainers this fall, and we want to develop them like Bo Pelini develops coaches and players - to be the absolute best that they can possibly be."
Eppley Cancer Center Has a National Reputation
The Eppley Center has developed a national reputation for recruiting, training and specializing in lymphoma bone marrow transplantation. "We've developed state-of-the-art techniques to identify bio-markers for early detection and special treatment," Cowan said, acknowledging his center's leadership role in breast and colon cancer, not to mention its accelerating success in pancreatic and brain cancer.
"Just like Bo, we're always working on developing strength and depth in everything we do," Cowan said. "We have tremendous focus and tremendous passion."
And, yes, much of that energy can be traced to Nebraska's quest for unparalleled excellence in football. "We've recruited talent from all 50 states and developed talent from 20 different countries," Cowan said. "We have international prospects that come to Omaha from Japan, Russia, India, Germany - from all over the world - and once they get here and work together, they don't want to leave because they know they're among the best in the world and they love being part of the Husker family. I would say 100 percent of our medical staff are Nebraska football fans. They come here wondering how such a small state can become world-class, and then they realize how it happens."
Somewhat surprisingly, when sought-after UNMC grad students find other programs trying to recruit them to move to Boston, New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles, they say, thanks, but no thanks. "They don't want to leave Omaha or their Husker family," Cowan said. "They've been to the Cattlemen's Ball in Lodgepole and Kearney and are eager to get together again this weekend in West Point. They enjoy attending an event with 4,000 supporters. Like Nebraska football, we try to reach out to the whole state. Our goal is to educate and to inspire. UNMC and Nebraska football really do make great partners. Bo and his wife, Mary Pat, not only support what we do - they understand what we do."
The Bo Pelini Foundation is a significant contributor to the UNMC Eppley Center. "When Bo visited us, he asked great questions," Cowan said. "He wanted to know what we're doing, why we're doing it and how we got things done. He appreciated the competitive model we have, and he proved himself to be an insightful student of what we do."
The Pelinis aren't just tackling cancer in Omaha. They also support Lincoln's Southeast Nebraska Cancer Center Foundation - another major Bo Pelini Foundation recipient over the past three years.
"We're thrilled that Bo's foundation is helping so many families in Southeast Nebraska deal with cancer, especially in the two areas where they've told us they need the most help - transportation and lodging," said Steve Schmidt, president of the Southeast Nebraska Cancer Center.
Bo's Foundation Contributes more Than $300,000
Connie Jamrog, Executive Director of the Bo Pelini Foundation, confirmed that more than $300,000 has been contributed to a variety of community and statewide causes over the past three years.
"Bo and Mary Pat Pelini and I find genuine needs and contribute whatever we can," Jamrog said. "Whether we're supporting major cancer efforts or giving to Easter Seals, Make a Wish, People's City Mission, Bright Lights, Angels Among Us, Juvenile Diabetes, the Salvation Army or countless other worthy causes, we do our homework. At the end of the day, we believe every dollar we donate makes a difference in Nebraska."
Tuesday night, at the foundation's celebrity dinner at the Cornhusker Marriott, Nebraska's head football coach praised Jamrog for her leadership. He also credited his wife for helping him make decisions that support nonprofit organizations dedicated to the fight against cancer and juvenile and adult diabetes.
"So many give so much of their time and money to programs that advance opportunities for disadvantaged children, particularly young people growing up in Nebraska," Pelini said. "When you can donate and support our mission and touch so many lives, that's what it's all about. I just can't thank enough the generosity of so many donors and the time committed by so many volunteers. This is our cause. This is our mission. When people give to us, we give it back and try to make a stronger community."
Pelini was particulary grateful for Dan Whitney, a.k.a. Larry the Cable Guy, for helping in a live auction following Tuesday night's dinner. That auction came on the heels of 50 items that were up for bid in a silent auction before dinner.
The two dozen live auction items ranged from autographed jerseys and footballs to dinners and getaways that included a Big Ten Nebraska road game at Michigan, coupled with a Detroit Lions game the next day in the Ndamukong Suh family suite. An exclusive golf package for two to three courses at Pebble Beach, Calif., in December drew the night's highest bid - $10,000.
"I thank everyone in this room from the bottom of my heart, and I want to give a special thank you to Neil Smith and Chris Kelsay," Pelini told the crowd of 400. Former Huskers Smith and Kelsay headline Wednesday's 2011 Bo Pelini Foundation Celebrity Golf Tournament at Lincoln's Firethorn Golf Club.
She Recruited the Pelinis to Support CBK Cause
Joslyn Dalton was a four-year Nebraska track and field and cross country letter winner (2006-07-08-09) and team captain. Today, she's associate manager for espnW, ESPN's newest brand initiative to serve the female athlete and fan.
"During my first week of classes as a Nebraska freshman, my father, Michael, lost his battle with cancer, and he was only 45," Dalton said. "Before he became ill, he and I would often run together and share our love for the sport, so it was very emotional for me, at 18, to miss my first collegiate race to attend his funeral."
In the months that followed, the Nebraska Athletic Department approached Dalton about sharing her story of perseverance and overcoming obstacles at a Charlie Brown's Kids (CBK) event.
CBK is the only non-profit organization in the Lincoln area that cultivates a space for children ages 3-18 to express feelings of fear, confusion, guilt, anger, change and grief following the death of a parent. CBK helps families rebuild together through encouragement, communication, storytelling and discussion.
"That experience helped me," Dalton said. "I met a 6-year-old who lost her mother to breast cancer, a 13-year-old whose father was killed by a drunk driver and a 15-year-old whose mother had committed suicide. I even met a junior high student who lost both his parents just a year apart. Hearing the rawness of their stories hit me hard. It was difficult to take in at first because society just doesn't create the space to talk so openly about tragedy and pain."
Charlie Brown's Kids (CBK) helped Dalton understand her feelings about losing her best friend, her biggest fan and what she calls her "earthly rock". CBK became so important in her life that she became a volunteer, worked with a teen group and served on its board of directors. She felt equally honored to use her platform as a Husker student-athlete and serve as a liaison between the athletic department and CBK.
"My experience gave me the courage to establish a relationship with Bo and Mary Pat Pelini and to help enable their commitment to CBK," she said. "When I met Bo, he was experiencing the setback of his own father's deteriorating health, yet he was so respectful and diligent in listening to all I had to say. He was genuine in his follow-up and made it a priority to connect me with Mary Pat. Together, they shared in the decision to support Charlie Brown's Kids."
Dalton learned lessons just listening to the emotions of kids who lost a parent. "They taught me how to shape my own outlook," she said. "I also learned a lot listening to Bo and how important it is to reach out and help others."
In working for Pelini, Dalton reached an important conclusion. "People tend to judge Coach Pelini for his passion on the football field," she said before adding: "I tend to judge him for his commitment off the field."
This Cancer Survivor Believes in Faith, Family, Football
Rebecca Lynn Cambron is a cancer survivor and mother of four. She was featured in the official program for the Bo Pelini Foundation Celebrity Dinner and Golf Tournament and felt honored to tell a personal story about tears and triumph, not to mention how football can rank right up there with her faith and family.
"May of 2011 has been one of the most emotional months of my life - a time to pause, reflect and celebrate my 10th anniversary as a cancer survivor," said Cambron, who spent the last three summers attending Bo's Football 101 class, a program that has donated so generously to cancer research.
"I've always been a huge Husker fan, but through Football 101, that passion has been magnified 100 times over," Cambron said. "Even more importantly, I became a more confident woman who understands and appreciates all the difficulties I've experienced and all the blessings I have."
Cambron will never forget how she felt 10 years ago when the word cancer came out of her doctor's mouth. "The moment it did," she said, "my life stood still. I was numb. Just thinking about my two little girls made tears run down my face. Because I was diagnosed with cervical cancer, I was told I would never be able to have kids again, and I was okay with that."
Fortunately, Becca's cancer was caught quickly and her surgical procedure took place almost as quickly.
Miraculously, a year-and-a-half after her surgery, she learned she was pregnant with her third baby girl. Even more miraculously, 10 months after she was born, she became pregnant again. Today, she is the proud mother of four daughters - Analissa, 13; Makaela, 12; Emma-Mae, 8; and Isabella, 7.
Now a proud single mother who has experienced divorce, Cambron moved back to her hometown of Sterling, Neb., where family and friends surround her and help her, so she can attend Southeast Community College in Lincoln and pursue a full-course of nursing after spending 19 years as a Certified Nursing Assistant.
"I've been through so much in my life, but thanks to the Bo Pelini Foundation, I know how to battle through adversity and how to make the most of every day," Cambron said. "I'm a firm believer that God only gives you as much as you can handle and at 38, I now feel I can handle whatever comes my way.
"I feel blessed to have met Coach Pelini. He's an honorable man, and Mary Pat is as sweet as can be," she said. "Without Football 101, I never would have met the Pelinis. Faith and family mean everything to me, but football has become an important part of my life, too."
The Bo Pelini Foundation and Football 101 have kept Rebecca Cambron grounded. "They've given me hope," she said. "They are truly amazing and wonderful things in my life, and I get tears in my eyes every time I think about what they mean to me."
Voices from Husker Nation
Just read your story on the Bo Pelini Foundation and their fight against cancer. We're hoping to see the return of Football 101 in 2012. My wife and her sister are both breast cancer survivors, and we are very interested in supporting the foundation. Lance Knapp, Lincoln, Nebraska
I have neighbors who go to these big fund-raisers, and they say it's reassuring to see the coaches support the cause. They told me several coaches even make bids in the silent auctions, and that's when they know that they're there because they want to be there instead of have to be there. As a fan, it makes me feel good to read articles like this. Pam Marshall, Omaha, Nebraska
I know people who contribute to and benefit from Pelini Foundation donations in the fight against cancer. Believe me, they're not the type who complain about 9-6 losses where the deck is heavily stacked against you. Winning and losing is more about life than football. Good for Bo for making his foundation a priority. I'm sure it keeps him grounded as well. Mike Smith, Fremont, Nebraska
My girl friend's life was saved at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Four years ago, when others gave Rozanne McCann no hope, Dr. Rudy Lackner identified and successfully treated her for lung cancer. She remains in remission. Great story on Bo and UNMC. Jerry Tegtmeier, Omaha, Nebraska