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"Everything we raise for our foundation stays in Nebraska, and we love it when our student-athletes take time out of their schedules to help these kids." Connie Jamrog, Executive Director, Bo Pelini Foundation
THE first time Curenski Gilleylen participated in a Nebraska Life Skills experience, "they made me do it," said the sophomore wide receiver from Leander, Texas.
Always one who dared to be different, Gilleylen nevertheless had a difficult time processing a deliberate attempt to reach out and touch someone he didn't know.
Not anymore. "Once I saw how much kids appreciate you being with them, how well they know your name and how happy they are to meet you, it makes you feel good, too," Gilleylen said after visiting three fifth-grade classrooms at Lincoln's Elliott Elementary School.
Gilleylen and 12 of his Husker teammates delivered large holiday shopping bags to appreciative fifth-graders in conjunction with Elliott's YMCA after-school program.
"Our kids look forward to these visits for weeks, even months. They can hardly wait for this day," said Elliott Principal De Ann Currin. "That's why these visits have become a tradition at our school."
Ninety-one percent of Elliott's students are on the free and reduced lunch program, and 26 first-languages are spoken at the school. "It's an international place, so having a picture of the next step after high school is important," Currin said. "It's wonderful to see role models come into our classroom, so our kids can see someone they know and relate to them with a career in mind."
Building His Own Character Resume
Gilleylen isn't just a role model in this experience. Like the fifth-graders he talks to, he's taking motivational notes himself and making changes that should help him work his way back into a more prominent role on the field. He calls it building a character resume through life experiences.
"Even though I was forced to do something like this the first time, no one has to twist my arm now," Gilleylen said. "You feel good when you can give back. For me, it's just part of the Christmas spirit to be able to visit a school and brighten a kid's day. I tell them they can do anything they want to do if they just set their minds to it. I tell them that whatever background they come from, teachers and student-athletes like us will encourage them and try to help inspire them."
The 12 Huskers who joined Gilleylen at Elliott are cornerback Prince Amukamara, tight end Robert Barry, cornerback Anthony Blue, offensive lineman Mike Caputo, tight end Ben Cotton, wide receiver Nick Failla, fullback Mike Hays, offensive lineman Marcel Jones, quarterback Ron Kellogg, wide receiver Marcus Mendoza, tight end Kyler Reed and running back Dontrayevous Robinson.
At 6-7 and 310 pounds, Jones was the most imposing figure to a fifth-grader. "One kid called me a giant and wanted me to sign his shirt," Jones said. "Another kid wanted to touch my hair and give me a little pat on the head. One little girl said 'This is the best day of my life' and a little boy copied her and said the same thing. Anytime you want to see what kind of an impact our Life Skills program has in the community, just come to an elementary school like this. You don't really think about being a role model until you come in here and get all that attention."
One fifth-grader told Cotton that meeting the Huskers was better than having a snow day. "You see all the eyes that are on you when you just walk in," Cotton said. "You definitely know that you're a role model, so you need to watch the things you do - on and off the field. It only takes one experience like this to make you realize why you have to do the right thing at all times."
"I love giving back and doing things like this," Mendoza said. "There's nothing better than bringing a smile to a kid's face, especially during Christmas time. We all love lifting these kids up because - let's face it - they lift us up, too. They know they can ask us anything, and we're going to encourage them to keep pursuing every dream they have."
Kim Petri, a first-year fifth-grade teacher at Elliott, shared her class's excitement. "Now I know why these kids have been excited for at least a month," she said. "We've been waiting for this moment a long time."
The Power of Listening and Balance
Petri says her students follow Nebraska on TV and in the eyes of fifth-graders, the Huskers are superstars. "Our kids love meeting famous people they grow up watching," she said. "But what really makes it important is the way these players come in here and tell our kids the most important things they can do to succeed - listen in class and concentrate just as hard on your studies as you do on becoming an athlete."
Players are willing to use whatever motivational tools they consider effective. Mendoza, for example, started to clap, and when fellow Huskers joined him, it was only a matter of seconds before nearly two dozen fifth-graders were clapping fast and ready to hang on to every word coming their way.
"School gets tougher closer to the holidays," Caputo said. "These kids are busy, just like we are. So it's good to loosen them up, put a smile on their face and relieve some stress. This is a big deal for them, but personally, I think it's just as big for us. It makes you appreciate what being a role model is all about."
Apparently, humor is part of the equation. Mendoza told one fifth-grade class that Mike Hays was Ndamukong Suh's cousin. An overblown social celebrity in one class, Hays made sure he retained his real identity in the next two. "I am NOT Ndamukong Suh's cousin," he said before they could ask.
Reed laughed at his teammates' good-natured fun. "I remember looking up to college players when I was growing up, but I never had the privilege to meet any," he said. "It's nice to show some spirit and do something for the community because we have the best fans in the nation, and these kids are really the next generation of our fans."
Severyn Foster is one of those fifth-grade fans, and it might shock you to hear him articulate why he's so loyal. "All of the Husker players here today inspire me," he said, "because they tell us why academics is so important as we grow up and try to be successful. They also tell us never to give up, even when things don't go the way you want. I learned that from my dad, too."
Volleyball Players Held in Equally High Esteem
Tiana Dorsey is a fifth-grader who understands the message. "Nebraska volleyball players inspire me," she said shortly after putting on a Nebraska Volleyball tee-shirt that was part of her "goody" bag. "I play volleyball, and I like to watch it. Nebraska is very athletic, and I am very athletic, too. I take swimming, gymnastics, soccer, softball, even taekwando, but volleyball is my favorite."
Tiana says she learns from Husker football players, too, and Connie Jamrog was moved watching the instant chemistry and camaraderie between football players and fifth-graders. The wife of Nebraska Assistant Athletic Director for Football Operations Jeff Jamrog, Connie is the Executive Director of the Bo Pelini Foundation. She coordinates Football 101 and oversees the Foundation's annual golf tournament in addition to sponsoring events like the holiday gift bag visit to Elliott Elementary.
No wonder Bo's Foundation fully stocked shopping bags with everything from shirts, free movie tickets and all kinds of gift certificates to fan guides, toothbrushes and balls for Husker players to sign.
"These community events are important to the Foundation because everyone looks up to Bo and what's important to him," Connie Jamrog said. "We believe in reaching out and giving back. Everything we raise for our foundation stays in Nebraska, and we love it when our student-athletes take time out of their schedules to help these kids. It's great when a fifth-grader can see a player off the field as a person, and as someone who genuinely cares about them."
Caring is the most important part of being a role model. "It's all about the connection these players make with these kids," said Currin, in her 16th year as Elliott's principal. "Any time someone older can talk about setting goals and accomplishing them, you're ahead of the game because it helps these kids see the whole piece of working hard and seeing results."
Robinson, a true freshman running back, experienced his first interactive community event as a Husker at Elliott. "I wish someone had visited me when I was in fifth grade," he said. "I knew the minute I stepped in this building that I was a role model. That means you show them the right way."
The Nebraska Way.
Voices from Husker Nation
This was a great story, showing how players can influence kids and how dreams can be attained if you work at it. I was in the Navy for 20 years, serving on three submarines, and kids just don't have these kinds of opportunities in other countries. This story explains why members of our Nebraska Alumni Chapter here in San Diego visit local schools to spread the word about how good our university - and the State of Nebraska - is in serving and helping others. Thank you, and Go Huskers! Dave Schmidt, U.S. Navy Reserve and Hastings native now living in San Diego, California
It is great to know that the student-athletes take time with the public, especially when a lot of people feel like the only thing they do is donate money. The athletes are role models to so many people in this nation (not just the Husker Nation) and carry a heavy burden because of this. When my late husband and I started going to the games, he saw how fun the crowd really is. It's not just about the game. The atmosphere is great! Unfortunately, at the age of 27, my husband passed away before we could fulfill one of his dreams. It was just simply to go into the football team's locker room and see the area where they work out. Please remind all the players that life is short, and you should never take it for granted. Stacy Burr
Thanks for doing stories like this. I am a custodian at Lincoln Elementary in Hastings, where I believe 92 percent of our students are on free or reduced lunch, so I see on a daily basis the need for such events. Thanks again for putting out some good off-the-field news. Dale Davis, Hastings, Nebraska