Randy York's N-Sider
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The day before Nebraska's season-opener, two of the Huskers' biggest football stars got in a van for a 15-minute drive to meet a longtime season ticketholder.
Keith Zimmer, Nebraska's associate athletic director of Life Skills, reminded the two players that Ron Brooks was a "huge fan" with terminal brain cancer.
Brooks, who headed the computer department for the City of Lincoln for nearly 34 years, had been asked by hospice workers if there was anything that he would like beyond their care and his family's love.
The soft-spoken, hard-working and kind-hearted 71-year-old husband, father and grandfather surprised his family when he said he'd like to meet a couple Nebraska football players before they played their first game and started a season that he might not see to the finish line.
Brooks told workers his favorite player was defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, but close behind were running back Roy Helu Jr. and place-kicker/punter Alex Henery.
Zimmer told hospice that Suh had a class Friday morning, so he couldn't make it to the assisted living facility, but he would check with Helu and Henry about their availability.
Helu, the Huskers' leading rusher in 2008, and Henry, the kicker who saved the season with his record-breaking 57-yard field goal against Colorado, said yes, they would like to meet a loyal fan in an important hour of need.
"At first, I wasn't sure I could handle what this man was experiencing," Helu said. "But then, I just recognized the responsibility I have as an ambassador of the university and a follower of Christ who carries the word with me. I knew I would be strong enough to be in that situation. It was really more spiritual than just physically being there. It was good for all of us, but words can't really describe how it was."
Henery: Experience Put Life in Perspective
Henery agreed. "None of us knew what to expect, and words are really inadequate when you describe how you feel or what that meant to their family," he said. "It just puts life into perspective and shows that while everyone is watching you, you can still create time to give to others. It was an experience that will stay with me for a long time."
Zimmer, who sends Nebraska student-athletes across Lincoln for all kinds of community outreach activities and across the state for out-of-season opportunities on weekends or during spring break, praised the way Helu and Henery related to Brooks and his family.
"When these guys came to Nebraska, they didn't sign up to do this," Zimmer said. "They've been kind of thrust into that responsibility. So I really admire them for taking time out of their busy schedules, and I'm always in awe of how they relate and handle some of these very difficult situations.
"They continue to impress me. But more importantly, they made an impression that will help that family hold onto and remember Ron - their husband, their father and their grandfather - forever. Their taking 45 minutes out of their busy day created a lifetime memory for that family. I really appreciate these guys, and all of our student-athletes, who give of their time to make a huge impact for others."
Zimmer remembers when Helu was a true freshman and his department took the freshman recruiting class to a retirement home for their first community relations experience in college.
"Roy met a gentleman who was 101 years old, and Roy was very intrigued by that," Zimmer said. "Roy was instantly drawn to that gentleman and wanted to let him know that he had a lot of wisdom that Roy could benefit from more than the other way around.
"There's always something special at every outreach visit Roy does," Zimmer said. "He really impresses you every time because he shows that he gets it, and he's so much more than just a football player. Thousands of people know Roy on Saturdays as a football player, but people like me and others, we're lucky. We get to see that Roy and Alex - and so many others - are so much deeper than that."
Wife's Faith, Demeanor Impressed Helu
Helu initiated most of the conversation Friday with the Brooks' family and said that Ron's wife, Susan, helped make the experience "awesome" because "she reminded me of a verse in Proverbs."
Fighting back a few tears, Susan showed she's "a woman who is so respectful and watches over her husband and children and grandchildren," Helu said. "It was great to meet someone who's been married more than 40 years and sees the rewards of her relationship with God, her husband and the rest of her family. She helped give me a great perspective and outlook on life beyond football. She and her family inspired me."
Susan talked about how her husband wanted to keep working even when he was retired. "He was doing some work for Homeland Security and even some real estate when the tumor hit him last November," she said.
Susan asked the players to describe what they would do leading up to the game, and Helu provided an almost hour-by-hour account, including watching a movie ("without popcorn") on Friday night.
What movie did they choose?
"Gamer," Helu said, explaining that it was about a modern-day gladiator and had to be approved by the team's Unity Council first.
Jackie Bates, a registered nurse and Ron's caseworker, asked Helu what he enjoyed doing most outside of football. Helu said he enjoyed going with three teammates on a long weekend last spring to Scottsbluff and other communities to talk about the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Ron, his wife Susan, daughter Kristi Stinette, and 5-year-old grandson Chase, learned that Henery turned down a soccer scholarship at Creighton to walk on at Nebraska with the idea of becoming the Huskers' punter. On Thursday, Henery learned he would add that duty to his place-kicking responsibilities.
Season Ticketholder Remembers Turman
Ron's daughter asked Helu and Henery to sign a football that included signatures from as far back as the 1980s. They gladly obliged, and asked Ron if he remembers some of those players.
"Yes," he said, admitting that his favorite signature on his son-in-law's ball was Matt Turman's from the 1990s "because he was a third-team quarterback who helped save a national championship."
The smile never left Ron Brooks' face during his 45 minutes Friday with two famous, but humble Huskers.
"I think it's important for Nebraska fans to know that on the same weekend of our season opener, this was not an uncommon scene," Zimmer said. "Our student-athletes go out and do this kind of stuff all the time. They do answer the call, and they're happy to do it, and do a great job while they're doing it.
"Our players get it. They understand it," Zimmer said. "They know there's more to life than Nebraska football. They're happy to have all the excitement and pandemonium, but things like this put football in perspective for them, too. It puts life and death in perspective. These two guys grew up even more with this experience, and they made huge statements . . . about themselves and what's most important."
For the Brooks family, Saturday night will be spent watching the game in a South Lincoln assisted living facility. Jeff and daughter Kristi Stinette will be there with their two children. So will son Jeff and Jennifer Brooks and their 6-year-old triplets who live in Colorado Springs.
Susan and Ron Brooks will miss their usual South Stadium seats, but she said, patting her husband's hand, "we'll enjoy watching the game here, too, won't we?"
Ron nods affirmatively, smiles and says yes, especially now that he's met two of the Huskers' biggest stars.
Voices from Husker Nation
Whoa!!!!!! Awesome article about Helu and Henery!! That's what being a Husker is all about. Janet Darst, Omaha, Neb.
Your article, "Helu, Henery Know There's More to Life Than Football", is why I'm a Husker fan. I know there are many college and pro athletes who take on responsibilities such as this, but I have always felt that The Huskers' Organization has more heart and faith than anyone else. Thank you for such a beautiful article to show how truly wonderful our team is and will always be. Richard Dickerson, Desert Hot Springs, Calif.
I really enjoy your work. Keep it up. You provide a look into Husker athletics that goes well beyond game stats. Dr. Phil Warrick, Principal, Round Rock High School, Round Rock, Texas
Great article! Thank you for a wonderful inside story about the players away from the football field. It is nice to get a story, of which I am sure there are many more, that tells a great story about a couple of players. Too many stories are written on the few players who go in the opposite direction and get the majority of the press. Diane Ewing, Chaska, Minn.
Born and raised in Omaha, I now live in Colorado, and I am often asked by native Coloradoans what makes me so loyal to The Big Red. I will print the story of Helu and Henery, and when they read it, they will know without me saying a word. Joe Renner
Another good article. I forwarded it to a couple of prep school classmates of mine. Ken Softley, Topeka, Kan.
What an encouragement! An effort on everyone's part to make this happen represents the behind-the-scene, true purpose of life. Roy's humility in Christ elevates him to God's glory and makes him a true star. Thank you for putting this out. Mitchell Lichti, Lincoln, Neb.
Thanks for the terrific article on the players making a huge difference for a terminally ill, longtime fan. That is NU football! It struck me because my wife Carol was diagnosed in late 2007 with a rare type of terminal dementia, related to both Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. I am her full-time caregiver and work three days a week as a sales rep. Both of us worked for the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha during the glory years of Bob Devaney. Like the couple featured in your article, our seats were also in the South Stadium. We are still huge Husker fans and have stayed loyal while living in California, South Carolina, Texas, California, and now, Texas. We are the only house on our block to fly a Husker flag. Amidst all the Texas, OU, A&M and Cowboys' hype, it can be quite a journey. Like Helu, we are followers of Christ and know He will see us through to the end. In the meantime, we are hoping to be in Waco for the Oct. 31st game against Baylor. Go Big Red! Roger Green