Randy York’s N-Sider
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NU's First Life Skills "Heisman" Winner
Matt Senske doesn’t know Tom Osborne well, but the law school-bound Nebraska senior fullback already holds a special place in the heart and mind of the Huskers’ first-year athletic director.
Senske received the Gerard Scholarship of Excellence Monday. In becoming Nebraska’s first "Heisman"-like winner of Life Skills, that’s Johnny Rodgers-like significance in the eyes of Osborne, who, truth be told, prefers the third floor of the West Stadium to New York’s Downtown Athletic Club.
Working hard and effectively throughout a career spent in relative obscurity, Senske is now a trailblazer for Life Skills – something Osborne holds in highest regard. The Bellevue, Neb., native’s name also goes on the new varsity football letterwinner’s wall. More importantly, he has gone above and beyond in the classroom and the community – two important places Osborne wants all letterwinners to flourish.
"Our version of the Heisman Trophy – the Heisman of Life Skills – is very important to our 525 student-athletes and their coaches because it represents the very core of who we are and what we stand for. It’s what makes Nebraska special," said Keith Zimmer, the associate athletic director who has quarterbacked NU’s Life Skills program for 20 years and is now trying to call the ultimate audible, taking what already may be the nation’s leading program to the next level.
After huddling up often with Zimmer, Osborne has empowered one of his steadiest leaders to help make the Nebraska Life Skills program truly world class and become the standard by which other college athletic programs are measured.
Monday’s Gerard Scholarship for postgraduate study, made possible through former corporate executive Ivan Gerard of Omaha, was an immediate result of an amped-up Life Skills program.
"I couldn’t be more honored to be the first recipient of this award," Senske said. "I’ve taken full advantage of everything we have in Life Skills, and I can honestly say if I hadn’t, I would not have the balance or the confidence I have. And I probably would not be headed to law school either."
TAKING ONE LAST CHANCE AT BEING A WALK-ON
A long-shot, walk-on football player, Senske didn’t get a tryout until his redshirt sophomore season after walking on as a discus thrower in track. "I just missed football too much and had to give it one last try," he said. "They invited 100 unrecruited walk-ons to try out. Two of us were asked back, but I’m the only one who stayed. I still can’t believe I got the chance to play and ended up getting a varsity letter."
Not to mention catching a short touchdown pass from reserve quarterback Joe Ganz.
Senske exemplifies the "total person" approach in an enhanced Life Skills program because, Zimmer said, he is blessed with the values, drive, discipline and work ethic to succeed.
"Keith Zimmer has been instrumental in everything I’ve been able to accomplish since I’ve been here," Senske said. "He’s helped me more than I could ever imagine, and I’m really grateful for the opportunities he’s put in front of me – from participating throughout the state in our Tours of Excellence, where we speak to thousands of school kids, to writing recommendation letters for me to get into an MBA program and law school."
Being vice president of the Nebraska Student-Athlete Advisory Committee "has been one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had," Senske added. "Keith has been a great mentor for me, and so many others, and now we’re all equipped to help mentor others as we move on in life."
Nebraska’s Academics/Athletics/Life approach isn’t a simplified template that runs on automatic pilot. It is an ever-evolving program built on communication, cooperation, collaboration and an incredible commitment to community service. It also prepares student-athletes for more meaningful and rewarding personal lives.
"Keith Zimmer is a long-distance runner. I do not know anyone in his role at any institution – and I know many – that is better at what he does for student-athletes than Keith," offered Dr. Richard Lapchick, the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and arguably the nation’s leading expert on sport and social issues.
Lapchick is the nation’s most popular guest on network news programs whenever the subject revolves around academics and sports or diversity and ethics in sports.
He understands why Nebraska has such a solid 1-2 punch in academics and athletics and why that base will be even stronger moving forward. "Tom Osborne was always a coach with a servant mentality," Lapchick said. "He respected and believed in his players and gave them the tools off the field to become educated, committed citizens in service to America."
FROM GETTING INTERNSHIPS TO CHOOSING A SPOUSE
Osborne, Nebraska’s first football academic counselor in the early 1960s, wants Zimmer’s revitalized Life Skills program to continue to cover such fundamental components as internships, resume writing, job interviewing, professional networking and media training. But he also wants to see enhancements to programs addressing personal finance, substance abuse, performance-enhancing drugs, recreational drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, teenage pregnancy and even education on how to make perhaps the most important decision of your life – choosing a marriage partner.
"We’re looking for people to be leaders, but sometimes they don’t even know who they are themselves," Osborne said. "We’re hoping to establish a Life Skills program that prevents a lot of these unwanted issues and helps athletes put in place a system of core values that they can use for the rest of their lives."
As a coach, Osborne always felt that if a player left Nebraska without a degree, "we had failed, and he had failed because when you’re 22 years old, you have at least another 40 years to go with an occupation that isn’t very likely to be athletically related."
That’s why Nebraska’s athletic director places a premium on the academic side of the athletic department. "I’ve always had a great deal of respect for student-athletes who have the discipline to develop great time-management skills, so they can get everything done that they have to do," he said. "They have to go to class. They have to study three or four hours a day. They have to go practice. They have to participate in off-season programs. It’s not easy, and it’s our job to help them learn how to get through it all."
Juggling a mission impossible schedule, Senske remembers taking the time out of a busy day to talk to grade-school kids. "I remember using little note cards and not feeling comfortable unless I could read the cards," he recalled. "I used to be so nervous, but I’ve calmed down. I’m more confident. Now I just get up there and tell the kids what they need to hear – mainly that school is important, and if they work hard, they can do anything they can dream of, even someday play football at Nebraska like I got to do.
"I tell them that there will always be doubters, even among their friends, their teachers and their own families, but if they keep working hard and never give up on their dreams, they will be amazed what can happen."
Denise Senske, Matt’s mom, is amazed. A single mother, she left Michigan and moved her four kids – ages 3, 5, 7 and 9 – from Michigan to Bellevue when Matt was 7. A registered nurse for 30 years, she worked the late-night shift at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha while her kids were growing up. She still works there and expects all four children to graduate from college.
"I really appreciate my mom and all the sacrifices she’s made for all four of us," Matt said Monday with his mom nearby. "Today was a proud moment for her."
It is equally special for his grandparents, Richard and Lorraine Purdum, who helped their daughter raise her children when they moved to Bellevue. Richard, a retired wing commander and a full colonel in the Air Force, "has been a great role model," Denise said. "Dad is a very driven person, and so are all four of my children. Our whole family is very education-oriented."
DREAMING BIG AND THEN EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS
Matt’s older sister graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Seattle. His younger brother and sister both attend the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "They’re great kids, and my parents have been a big help," Denise said. "They’ve all exceeded my expectations. When you dream big for your kids, it’s enjoyable to see them live their dreams.
"Matt has achieved so much, and he deserves everything that’s come back to him," his mom said. "He loves little kids because he gets down to their level. He’s always been that way, even in junior high and high school. He understands their hardships, and he’ll do whatever he can to make them feel better."
A first-team Academic All-Big 12 Conference player and a three-time selection to the Brook Berringer Citizenship Team, Senske "goes beyond his accomplishments on the field and in the classroom," Zimmer said. "He represents what molds great leaders of the future. All of our HERO winners in all of our sports have taken advantage of the programs that have been afforded to them. They’ve embraced those programs, made the most of them and used them to set themselves up for more life challenges and opportunities, and they’ve done it by using sports as a platform to make a difference."
Tom Osborne can’t draw up winning plays on the chalkboard any better than that. "We want our Life Skills program to help our student-athletes be what they want to be 10 years from now, and we want to show them how to get there," he said. "Sometimes you hit and miss, and sometimes you wish you could get a do-over. But you can’t do that, so we want to do everything we possibly can to get our student-athletes prepared to handle whatever life throws at them."
Respond to Randy
"Matt Senske recently helped coordinate the Husker Hoops charity basketball game in Albion, Neb. I was truly refreshing to work with a college student of his magnitude. Matt was very responsbile, helpful, enthusiastic and went above and beyond to get all the information to the Health Center in an effort to make the event successful. The Husker Hoops event was held in an effort to raise money to purchase AED's to be placed in the gym's of local schools. The nine Huskers who participated came out and had a great time and truly represented the Husker athletic program well." - Tonya Fustos, Albion, Neb.
"Thank you for an outstanding article about a truly outstanding young man, Matt Senske, who is a credit to Nebraska's athletic program. His career at Nebraska emphasized what student-athlete really means. Congratulations to him. And congratulations to Tom Osborne and others in the program who recognized how fortunate the Huskers were to have someone of Matt's caliber participating in athletics and excelling in the classroom and in the community. Outstanding young men and women often reflect the values and influences of their families. And that is certainly true with Matt. I am so glad you devoted some of the story to Matt's mother, Denise. It's a shame we can't find an award for her, but I have an idea that pride in Matt is enough for her. And I am so glad you also included his grandparents, Dick and Lorraine Purdum. When Dick retired from the Air Force at Offutt, where he had served as Offutt base commander, he and Lorraine could have headed off to the Sun Belt. But like many of the good citizens who've served at Offutt, they chose to remain in Bellevue, where both have contributed greatly to their adopted home. It's a special bonding summed up in a local slogan: "Bellevue/Offutt..One Proud Community." - Jack L. Allen, Robinson, Kan.