Ramaekers Had to Conquer Academic Fears, Surrender His Ego
Randy York’s N-Sider
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Forget all the honors – being a first-team All-Big Eight defensive tackle, a Blackshirt who started in a national championship game and a gifted athlete who is already in the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame.
On the surface, Kevin Ramaekers projected this image of a strong, confident, machine-like man. “But on the inside, I was embarrassed and frail,” he said. “I came to Nebraska a complete academic failure.”
Because he didn’t apply himself at Norfolk Catholic High School and didn’t meet the minimum freshman eligibility standards for all NCAA student-athletes, Ramaekers was a “Proposition 48” casualty. That means he had a scholarship, but he did not meet the NCAA’s pre-scholastic aptitude requirement for the American College Testing (ACT) Program.
The Nebraska State High School Athlete of the Year, Ramaekers came to Lincoln in 1988 anyway. He sat out a year, got a job and worked diligently to improve his ACT score. In 1989, he re-earned his scholarship and started at defensive tackle for Coach Shane Thorell’s junior varsity team.
A year later, he was redshirting and working on life lesson No. 1 – realizing he had to conquer his academic fears.
“I knew I had academic problems and used athletics to hide my insecurities,” he said. “I also knew that if I could conquer my fears and failures academically, there was nothing that could stop me from achieving my athletic goals.”
Let the record show that the light that went on in Ramaekers’ head had a double switch. “Dennis Leblanc and Keith Zimmer are responsible for pushing me academically and monitoring my daily behavior,” Ramaekers said of Leblanc, Nebraska’s senior associate athletic director for academics and Zimmer, associate athletic director for life skills.
Leblanc took Ramaekers under his wing and remembers the big all-state tackle, state champion wrestler and state champion shot putter telling him he wasn’t worried about being able to “handle” football in college. It was the academics that “scared the daylights” out of him.
A Connection Between Academic Rigor and Athletic Achievement
Nebraska’s administrators helped Ramaekers understand the direct connection between academic rigor and athletic achievement. They encouraged and persuaded him to tackle his challenges in the classroom with the same fervor that drove him on the field.
It was a daily struggle and a humbling experience.
“It was embarrassing as the process unfolded,” Ramaekers said. “I realized immediately how far I was behind academically. It was like I had to start all over again.”
Every night, from 7 to 9, he would work with different tutors. “Almost instantly, I could tell my efforts were paying off,” he said. “I started enjoying going to class. For the first time in my life, I was participating and actually raising my hand in class answering questions.”
The difference in approach was dramatic. Before he committed himself to academic improvement, Ramaekers would spend Sundays eating lunch with his fellow teammates, heading to the local gym for two hours and then watching NFL games the rest of the day.
After Leblanc and Zimmer worked their motivational magic, Ramaekers found himself riding his bike to the library to study on Sundays. During his time off, he gravitated naturally to his tutors and started consistently focusing on his upcoming week’s exams.
He found structure to be a much better partner than self-absorbed recreation. “My behavior totally changed,” he said. “I didn’t ‘have’ to study. I wanted to study. I enjoyed what I was learning, and I developed a passion for academic success.”
His on-field success paralleled his academic accomplishments. He earned his first Blackshirt in 1991, and the memory of that honor is as fresh today as it was then.
“I approached my locker, and it was nicely folded up on the top shelf,” he recalled. “I pulled it from my locker and went to the nearest restroom stall and cried like a baby. I was living my childhood dream . . . finally.”
Life Lesson No. 2 – Too Much Ego – Almost Ended His Career
Unfortunately, life lesson No. 2 – an overload of individual ego – thwarted his progress and almost ended his career. After his sophomore season, Ramaekers had an “altercation” with some guys at a party in Lincoln and was faced with some serious circumstances. Tom Osborne, his head coach and now Nebraska’s athletic director, called his parents that evening and by 8 o’clock Sunday morning, they were sitting in Coach Osborne’s office with their son, who now needed a life makeover to match his academic transformation.
“When Coach told my parents and me that my scholarship was being taken away, I was absolutely crushed,” Ramaekers recalled.
Osborne looked at Ramaekers and told him, “I have failed you as a coach.” Then Osborne looked at his parents and said, “I promise you this. Kevin may not play, but he will graduate from the University of Nebraska, and he will become an asset to our community.”
Ramaekers sat there with tears in his eyes. He couldn’t even look at his head coach, especially when he said, “Young man, do you understand that you may never play another snap here at Nebraska? But you will graduate and become an asset to the community, do you understand?”
A remorseful defensive tackle said he understood and that he was sorry. As soon as he left Osborne’s office, Ramaekers called Leblanc and Zimmer. The next morning he met “those two saviors” in Leblanc’s office. He told them what had happened. Leblanc was every bit as upset and direct as Osborne had been. He told Ramaekers he had “blown a great opportunity,” and it was time to “grow up.”
“I was starting as a sophomore, had the academic part down and thought I owned the world,” Ramaekers said. “We went to three Orange Bowls in the three years I was a starter, and the incident that almost cost me my career happened after the first bowl.”
It would have cost Ramaekers his career if he hadn’t surrendered everything, including his own ego.
“A weight finally lifted off my shoulders,” he said. “I had conquered my academic failures, but it was time to put more into things that weren’t just about me. It was my fault I had failed in the past, academically and behaviorally. Only through the help and guidance of the coaching staff and Dennis and Keith could I turn my life around and finally reach the goals I never thought were possible.”
The Journey from ‘Prop 48’ Student to Academic All-Big Eight
The one-time “Prop 48” student, who had dreamed the impossible dream, made the “unmake-able” team – academic All-Big Eight – as both a junior and a senior. His academic turnaround was pivotal in Nebraska’s nominating Ramaekers as its 1993 Male Student-Athlete of the Year for Big Eight Conference consideration.
Ramaekers pushed himself so hard that he graduated with his bachelor’s degree the same month he started his senior season – Aug. 14, 1993. “Walking up on the stage of the Bob Devaney Sports Center and receiving my diploma was my most memorable moment in college,” he said. “Of all the honors, awards and accomplishments, this one was the most rewarding. I had accomplished something no one thought I would ever achieve . . . not even me!”
Three months later, he played his last game at Memorial Stadium.
“It was very emotional,” he said. “I met Coach Osborne at the end of the tunnel, told him I loved him and thanked him for everything he’d done for me and my family. We ended up beating Oklahoma that day and took an unbeaten record and No. 1 rating into the Orange Bowl.”
Florida State ruined that national championship dream with a last-minute field goal that beat the Huskers, 18-16.
Ramaekers was disappointed, but not even a loss like that could bring down the one-time boy who had matured into a man. “Kevin came to Nebraska as a great athlete who had no confidence in his intellectual capabilities,” Leblanc said. “Once he applied the same kind of passion to academics that he had for athletics, he showed how bright he really was. He came here as a well-known jock and left as a young professional. I love the way he buckled up and turned his life around.”
Raemakers used his degree in human development to become a national account manager for Aramark Uniform Services in Atlanta. He and his wife, former NU tennis player Heidi Junius, have two sons – 11-year-old Cole and 6-year-old Joshua.
“We’re blessed,” Raemakers said. “If it hadn’t been for football, I never would have gone to college, and if Dennis Leblanc hadn’t pushed the heck out of me when I got there, I never would have graduated, let alone excelled academically.
“Fear of failure can ruin you if you don’t face the facts. In high school, I let my teachers down and my family down. At Nebraska, I let my coaches down and my teammates down. I needed help, but my ego wouldn’t let me admit that I was an academic failure. Then my ego made me feel much bigger than I really was. When I lied to myself, I feel I lied to everyone else.
“I hope my candor can benefit others in the same position. People need to know I was a ‘Prop 48’ recruit. I was ineligible, too stupid to play football. The staff at Norfolk Catholic warned me and pushed me academically, but I ignored them and didn’t take care of business.
“Recruits and parents understand I’m more the norm than most people think. I will, however, promise all Nebraska recruits and their parents one thing – if they will allow the university to mold you into this program, and if your son or daughter plays by the university’s rules, you will graduate . . . and you will become an asset to your community.
“I think I’m pretty much proof of that.”
Editor's note: This article was published in Nebraska's official 2008 game day program for the Kansas game. See instructions at the top of this column on how you can Respond to Randy.