Donovan Vestal was one of seven Husker football players who graduated from UNL Saturday.
Photo by Nate Olsen/Nebraska Communications

Kids Helped Vestal Believe in Himself

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York's N-Sider

Official Blog of the Huskers

Twelve Nebraska student-athletes graduated Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena, including seven football players, three of whom juggled the event with fall camp workouts – Zaire Anderson, a Child, Youth and Family Studies major from Philadelphia; Jake Cotton, a History major from Lincoln; and Kevin Williams, a Management major from Holland, Ohio.

Four other Husker football players who graduated have completed their athletic careers at Nebraska – Harvey Jackson, a Construction Management major from Fresno, Texas; Tobi Okuiyemi, a Psychology major from Maple Grove, Minn.; Andrew Rodriguez, an Ethnic Studies major from Aurora, Neb.; and Donovan Vestal, an Ethnic Studies major from Arlington, Texas.  Vestal was the keynote speaker at Saturday’s Nebraska Student-Athlete Graduation Reception inside Memorial Stadium.  He talked about the differences in individual experiences.  “We all didn’t have the same experience, and I was eager to talk about mine, what I did to get through college, and how it can relate to others who went through some of the same disappointments I did,” Vestal said.

Senior offensive lineman Jake Cotton followed in the family footsteps to earn his college diploma.

Life Skills Helped Vestal Sharpen His Vision

From a purely football standpoint, Vestal fell short of his own expectations athletically.  “There are standards and when you don’t meet some, that doesn’t mean you can’t meet other standards, which can be even more important for the rest of your life,” he said.

Even when he wasn’t getting much playing time on the field, Vestal stayed positive and focused on earning his degree.  “I will be going back home to Texas and will be a probation officer for juveniles,” he said.  “Life Skills kind of made me who I am as an adult and inspired me to go where I wanted to go.  Life Skills put me in one-on-one situations at schools that really needed a role model.  Since I didn’t think things were going all that well for me personally at the time, I wondered how I could help those kids.  But when I looked into their eyes, I figured something out.  It’s ironic.  Life Skills helped me change when I didn’t really, truly believe in myself.  It pushed me hard to believe, so I could help those kids believe in themselves.”

Junior defensive lineman Kevin Williams celebrated graduation and football practice on the same Saturday.

Zimmer: Donovan is Engaging, Charismatic

Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s longtime Associate Athletic Director for Life Skills, noticed how Vestal handled his blessings.  “Donovan found his identity helping others,” Zimmer said.  “He’s a very engaging guy, and he has a charismatic personality.  Kids who were around him love the guy.  He’s so positive.  Even when football wasn’t going like he planned, he never sulked.  He just made sure he found something that could motivate him for the rest of his life.  I can see Donovan helping kids take on the positive nature he has.”

Vestal’s family envisioned the same thing, reserving 23 places at Saturday’s reception. The guest list included his parents from Texas, cousins from Georgia, more family and friends from Texas and his fiance’s family from Waverly, Neb.  Kevin Williams’ family made 18 reservations, Jake Cotton’s family 15, Zaire Anderson 14 and Ariel Weech’s family 12.  Weech’s family traveled the greatest distance to get to Lincoln, coming from Nassau in the Bahamas.  She’s a member of Nebraska’s swimming and diving team.

Senior linebaker Zaire Anderson was one of three current Husker players who graduated at PBA on Saturday.

Gymnasts Aycock, Hedval Graduate Saturday

Two members of the men’s gymnastics team graduated Saturday – Wyatt Aycock, a Biological Sciences major from Orlando, Fla., and Zach Hedval, a Political Science major from Santee, Calif.  Husker basketball player Mike Peltz, a Business Administration major from Alliance, Neb., also graduated, along with Maggie Maher, a track-and-field student-athlete from Kearney, Neb., majoring in Special Education-Mild/Moderate 7-12.

Dennis Leblanc, Nebraska’s longtime senior associate athletic director for Academics, opened and closed Saturday’s student-athlete reception.  Zimmer talked about career commitments, and Katie Jewell, associate director of academic programs, formally recognized all 12 Husker summer graduates.  

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