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Imagine being 11-year-old Cayden Hubbard three days ago when he answered an early-morning announcement to come to the office at Lincoln’s Maxey Elementary School to receive a “Student of Character” Award. He gets the award and then happens to see his family, and they walk with him to a conference room, where he opens the door to see school officials, members of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and four Husker football players – Ben Cotton, Ryan Klachko, Eric Martin and Brent Qvale.
It is not school as usual when a fifth-grader meets reporters and Jim Eggleston, the president of the Board of Directors for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Eggleston is wearing a suit, tie and sunglasses and will be the chief security officer in charge of the four Husker body guards that will help Cayden experience something he’s been wishing for and dreaming about for a long time.
Yes, Cayden Hubbard’s special day has finally arrived. He will be Lincoln's very own American Idol for a day – a true pop star ... a celebrity in such high demand that he will have his own police motorcade and the No. 1 seat in the limo parked in front of school … a sleek black stretch limo with a red carpet walkway before he can climb inside.
Cayden pulls a Make-A-Wish T-shirt over his head to wear under his dress shirt and doffs a Justin Bieber-like hat, then mentally prepares himself for the surreal energy building up outside the door ... students chanting his name while he envisions what will be an instant and magical transformation. Student/teacher voices are clear, and the chant is loud: “Cayden! Cayden! Cayden!” followed by “Let’s Go Cayden (clap-clap, clap-clap-clap).”
In Total Shock, He Just Stood There at First
An 11-year-old may have asked for stardom, but when it sneaks up and comes right at him months before he ever imagined, he freezes. “Cayden was in total shock, so he just stood there,” said Stacy Burling, a Nebraska Life Skills assistant who was part of the inner sanctum on this special day. Burling lined up the four Husker football players to serve as Hubbard’s personal body guards, so he could make it through the lines of teachers, all of whom knew in advance what was happening, and his fellow students, none of whom knew what was going down until it did.
“It could not have unfolded any more perfectly,” Burling said. “At first, Cayden kept saying: ‘I don’t know what to say’, but he warmed up in a hurry. He needed the body guards because kids were screaming and wanting his autograph. They were clueless until the last minute, and that made it spontaneous for everyone. There was so much screaming and cheering and yelling, Cayden must have felt what Justin Bieber feels like every day.”
That is not a stretch, pun intended. Just watch this video that Burling shot with her cell phone when our “Pop Star for a Day” went to Lincoln’s KFRX radio for an interview and was asked, on the spot, to sing a song. Our hero for the day went with “Stereo Heart” by the Gym Class Heroes. The end of this short video shows the crush of his fellow students cheering Cayden and trying to get an autograph or just touch him as he was led to the full stretch limo waiting outside with two motorcycles in front of it and four more behind it. The motorcycles flashed their lights everywhere they went, letting the world know that Cayden Hubbard, a big Beatles fan, was inside.
The limo rolled down Highway 2 to downtown Lincoln before stopping at Centennial Mall where Cayden’s dad is employed at Olsson Associates, a prominent Lincoln engineering and design firm. Burling said the hero’s welcome there was similar to the one Cayden experienced at his school, and by the time the limo moved on to Three Eagles Communications on Cornhusker Highway, there were six members of Nebraska’s Spirit Squad waiting there to cheer him on.
Two Recordings, an Interview and a Makeover
The experience didn’t end there. Cayden headed to Omaha for more radio and television interviews, then joined his mom, Jennifer, and dad, Carter, on a flight to Los Angeles, where he recorded two songs, met celebrity interviewer Mario Lopez and got a pop star-like makeover at Macy’s.
Burling said Make-A-Wish team members told her this was one of the foundation’s most memorable experiences because the wish was shared by so many. “Usually, recipients want to take a dream trip,” she said. “But the biggest part of Cayden’s dream ended up happening inside his own school and right here in the city he lives in.”
The pop star treatment had a multiple impact. Cayden Hubbard, American Idol-like Pop Star for a Day, was even the No. 1 front-page story in the Daily Nebraskan, NU's student newspaper. Talk about an omni-present Hometown Hero. This wish, dream and experience reached out and touched everyone, including our Athletic Department.
“That was such cool thing to be one of Cayden’s body guards,” Klatchko said. “What an impact those two hours made on him and the rest of us. He was so calm, cool and collected. He acted the part to the hilt. He was so witty, sweet and savvy. He was so happy he couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. He knew what he wanted to get out of this experience, and I would have to say he took it up to the fullest.”
Lucky, Yes, but He’s Still Fighting Brain Tumor
The experience was so positive that several of Cayden’s classmates told him how lucky he was to get a day like that, meaning, of course, that even they weren’t thinking about what he’s faced to get there. Doctors discovered a brain tumor when Cayden was in kindergarten. He’s had two major surgeries and learned a year ago the tumor was malignant. He’s almost done with chemotherapy treatments at Children’s Hospital in Omaha, and everyone from parents, grandparents, a brother and an aunt thought this day was a well-deserved emotional present for someone with the courage and the positive outlook it takes to fight the battle Cayden’s been fighting.
Cayden’s favorite song is the Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun, an inspiring tune that pairs those four words with three more: “It’s all right” and promises “the smiles returning to the faces” when the sun comes, and that’s exactly what happened last Wednesday.
“We were eager to play a small role in helping with this Make-A-Wish request,” said Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s Associate Athletic Director for Life Skills. “This is yet another avenue for Husker student-athletes to show their care and concern for others and why we use the platform of Nebraska Athletics to help make a positive impact.”
This summer, when the sun’s shining almost every day, Zimmer’s Life Skills staff will huddle up with the Make-A-Wish team to discuss additional ways to collaborate, especially when it comes to making dreams come true. The day Cayden became a pop star created a memory that is an absolute treasure, and deep down, Zimmer knows that Nebraska’s “small role” is a big deal … on both sides of the equation.
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Voices from Husker Nation
I am Cayden's volunteer wish granter from Make-A-Wish. I LOVED your article about Cayden's wish to be a pop star! It was by far the most thoroughly put-together article about the event! Everyone involved had such an amazing time planning it out and seeing it come together so beautifully. I cannot express enough how impressed I was with the Husker football players – Ben Cotton, Eric Martin, Brent Qvale, and Ryan Klachko. They fully committed to their role as bodyguards! I had the pleasure of riding with them in the limo, and they even offered to provide security protection for the girl who Cayden has a crush on at his school while he was in LA. They were a stellar example of the classy athletes that are found at UNL, and they made this wish all the more special for Cayden! I'm so glad that everyone enjoyed their experience on this wish and that it has lead to further talks about collaborating in the future with Make-A-Wish. Thank you so much for writing this article! With sincere gratitude, Sara Sawatzki, a.k.a. Cayden's Agent, Lincoln, Nebraska
We absolutely loved the story about Cayden Hubbard. There is definitely a culture of graciousness and service to others in the Pelini program. These guys are amazing in how they spend their free time, and Keith Zimmer is a miracle worker. To us, he’s like Mother Teresa. We are also following closely the Tyson Zimmerman story. We were so very moved by Channel 10-11’s video about his visit to Memorial Stadium. These Nebraska players are so uplifting to the kids and their families. We all know how hard it is to balance school, athletic commitment and service to others. Something has to give. For the Huskers, free time seems to be what "gives" and we marvel how they sacrifice the minutes that other college kids spend going shopping, playing video games or just hanging with friends. I have never felt so much emotional investment into a group of young men. Thank you for writing this story. We have shared the Team Jack story on Facebook, and reader reaction is strong. It’s now posted on several Husker fan pages as well. Fans love these stories because they reconfirm why we’re all loyal Huskers. Keep up the good work!!! PS - Jack is doing super after round 1 of chemo: Jack 1, Chemo 0. Thank you. Andy Hoffman, Atkinson, Nebraska
Every time we read a story about how Nebraska football players reach out to serve others, we gain perspective about the program and ourselves. We realize more than ever why Tom Osborne says that college football is about "more than winning". Thanks for this inspirational story about Cayden. He is quite the young man. He inspires us and we are certain he inspires many others as well. Janet and Roger Johnson, Omaha, Nebraska