Randy York's N-sider
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Wilma Henn, 92, has been a Nebraska season ticketholder for 52 years. She's so sweet and energetic, so polite and complimentary and so knowledgeable about Nebraska football that you'd think she was ready to climb aboard the Huskers' charter flight to Colorado on Thursday.
But she can't. She's in Tabitha Hospice, bravely battling cancer day by day, week by week.
Monday, Wilma experienced one of her all-time greatest thrills, and she still can't stop smiling. That's because Nebraska junior cornerback Prince Amukamara, sophomore defensive tackle Jared Crick and freshman running back Rex Burkhead paid her a visit in a short week between classes and practice.
By the end of their one hour together, it was difficult to figure out who enjoyed the time the most ... Wilma or the three Nebraska players who had just met an amazing woman they will never forget.
"She inspired me more than I inspired her," Amukamara said. "She has so much faith and so much joy. She made me realize how important it is to persevere through every situation, just like she's doing."
"Wilma is a wonderful lady," Crick said. "She's amazing, and her life story is incredible. I'm a great listener, so I loved hearing how she grew up in Northeast Nebraska, worked at the state Capitol for more than 40 years and has remained so loyal to this football program for so long."
A 'Real Tandem' and a Broken Foot
Wilma's mind is razor sharp, and she didn't hesitate to tell Crick something he didn't expect to hear. "You and Suh are a real tandem," she said. "It makes me proud every time I watch you play."
A few minutes later, she turned to Burkhead. "How's your foot?" she asked. "I was surprised you were able to play against Kansas State."
Three Nebraska players, perhaps a bit surprised themselves with how savvy Wilma was, presented her with an autographed football. She promptly, and a little awkwardly, clutched on to it like she was ready to bust through a linebacker herself.
So Burkhead, kindly and very gently, showed Wilma how to hold onto the football properly. She listened and did just what he told her. Fully confident in her new-found skill, Wilma said that no one is going to steal that football from her, even if she is less than 5 feet tall.
"It's humbling when you visit people who are fighting for their lives with such strength and courage," Burkhead said. "When you see how positive they are in the way they fight, you can't help but understand how important it is to show the same kind of strength and courage every day yourself."
Burkhead gets the essence of what Tom Osborne believes, Bo Pelini reinforces and Keith Zimmer nurtures almost every day, all year long.
A Servant's Heart Supplants Self-Centeredness
"Sometimes, athletics can become a self-centered endeavor, where it's all about you," said Osborne, Nebraska's athletic director. "You get a lot of publicity and attention, so it's a big deal when a Nebraska football player can visit someone who's hospitalized or in some type of difficult circumstance. But really, it's about having a servant's heart and sharing with others. That's more important than anything."
At Nebraska, life skills are not a secondary priority. "We recruit unselfish guys who have lot of character," Pelini said. "This is a big part of that character - giving back, especially at a time like Thanksgiving, when you know people are going through some tough times. It's important to understand the big picture. We're not here just to win football games. We're here to develop young men in every area of their lives."
Zimmer, Nebraska's Associate Athletic Director for Life Skills, is the catalyst that helps light the fire for community service. "Our teams and our student-athletes have a lot to be thankful for around here," he said. "They get great support from within and great support from the outside."
Wilma Henn is part of that outside support. "She represents countless other fans that follow this football team," Zimmer said. "She follows us so closely that our players are almost like part of her family. So when those three players met Wilma and saw how sensitive, genuine and concerned she was about them, a light went on for them, too. They realized that when they give back, it means something, and ultimately, having a servant's heart will become part of their lifestyle when they leave here."
That goal is one of Osborne's top priorities as athletic director. Last Sunday night, when he spoke to about 200 Nebraska student-athletes at a Life Skills seminar, Osborne remembered sitting next to Bob Devaney when he was dying.
The two Hall-of-Fame coaches shared no thoughts about the wins they experienced. There was no mention of their national championship trophies, their conference championship rings or their bowl game watches. No, they talked about the relationships Devaney developed, and the impact he had on so many young men's lives. A tear rolled down Devaney's cheek during the conversation, and when Osborne communicated that intensely private moment to his audience Sunday night, he choked up himself.
Pelini: Our Job is to Keep Young Men Grounded
Make no mistake. Championships remain a focal point for Nebraska's program, but the foundation is built on something much stronger. "You can be a big Nebraska football player and think that everybody you deal with perceives you that way," Pelini said. "But you can lose sight of that in a hurry. It's our job to keep these young men grounded, to keep them well-rounded, so that they get a full experience here. Service is a big part of it. The Life Skills aspect is huge for us."
So huge, in fact, that there's competition for volunteer hours among all 23 programs in Nebraska Athletics. "We've been doing this through our Life Skills program for a long time," Osborne pointed out. "It's competitive to see which teams can contribute the most service. It means quite a bit, and we have Life Skills awards just like we have Academic awards at the end of the year. We also have Brook Berringer awards for service to others. It means a lot to our athletes."
That's why Zimmer didn't have to coax the football team to step up to an important opportunity Wednesday morning. When about 75 players answered the call, three buses were ordered to visit three Lincoln hospitals - Bryan LGH East, the Nebraska Heart Hospital and St. Elizabeth's Regional Medical Center.
Amakumara, Crick and Burkhead signed up for another stint, and Pelini was not surprised.
"Crick visited my son's school earlier this fall for a reading program," Pelini said. "Everybody at the school raved about Jared and how many rooms he went to, how he read and how much time he spent there. There are a lot of people who go through the motions in situations like that, but our kids don't approach it that way. They take responsibility. Keith Zimmer does a great job getting these kids ready, and Jeff Jamrog does a great job helping create the time. Our kids understand that it's worthwhile for them, too. They come out of these experiences feeling good about giving something back."
Jamrog, a former Husker Academic All-American and now Assistant Athletic Director for Football Operations, says it's important for student-athletes to remember who helped influence their lives when they were younger. "Our players and our coaches know how special it is to be at the University of Nebraska," Jamrog said. "We're thankful every day we walk into this building. Anyone who can help a little kid, a young man or woman or older people is more than willing to help make a difference."
Jamrog said he knew Burkhead was special the first day he practiced as a Husker. "The Sunday after that first practice, we didn't have a meeting until 1 o'clock," Jamrog recalled, "but Rex was in the football office around 10:30, waiting to watch film. It tells you something about his makeup. His decision came down to Stanford and Nebraska. We're glad he chose Nebraska. Even as a true freshman, he sets a tone, on and off the field."
Roy Helu Jr., also has a servant's heart and calls Burkhead one of his best friends. "He was raised in a Christian home, and nothing he does is superficial," Helu said. "His relationship with God is really personal to him and motivates him to do what he does. You can tell that hard work and a giving spirit were instilled in him. He's really a special kid ... really special ... very, very mature."
Treat Others the Way You Want to Be Treated
As much as he appreciates the confidence shown by his older teammates, Burkhead does not feel all that special. "I just believe my parents brought me up the right way," he said. "They always instilled in me to stay humble and treat others the way you want to be treated. They also emphasized how you can learn life lessons from other people, just like we learned from Wilma."
Amukamara learned something from Crick as well as from Wilma. "Jared and I practice every day together as Blackshirts," Prince said. "He's so quiet, but maybe that's because I'm always talking. I've just never really heard him talk much until we met Wilma. It was a side of Jared I'd never seen. He was interacting so well with Wilma that he was making us all smile and laugh.
"It was a blessing for all three of us to share what we were able to share with Wilma," Amukamara said. "Keith told us going out there that when we were kids, we wanted to be heroes who could help people and now that we're older, we can. I think we were heroes to Wilma. She kept telling us she was speechless. Just the look on her face made the trip worthwhile. She was so thankful we came and had so much energy. You would never have known she was sick."
After meeting Wilma and seeing how she's persevering, "there's no way I'm going to give up on the football field," Burkhead said. "She gives me even more faith and more confidence."
Helu said he also draws inspiration from serving others. "When you talk to older people, you learn things that might spark a little energy and change your perspective on certain things," he said.
The energy you send to others, Helu indicated, has a way of coming back to you.
Last Thanksgiving week, for instance, Helu and many of his closest friends, visited former Husker Olympic gold medal sprinter Charlie Greene in the Madonna Rehabilitation Center.
"When you're stuck in the hospital for whatever reason, it makes you feel good when you know somebody cares about you," Greene said. "Last Thanksgiving, Keith Zimmer arranged for the volleyball team to visit me at Madonna. I got to know all of those players, and like everyone else in this state, I was jumping up and down in my hospital room when they rallied to beat Washington.
"Then the football players came by, and they made me feel real good, too," Greene recalled. "They had a tremendous influence on my recovery. When they came in, on their own time, to encourage me, it made me think how I needed to work harder in my rehabilitation, so I could walk again and try to be what I used to be, even if it was in my own mind. Those young people inspire you. They absolutely do."
Ask Charlie Greene. Ask Wilma Henn. Ask anybody what it means when Nebraska student-athletes go beyond themselves to encourage you and inspire you.
Give Wilma the Picture, but Replace the Sound
Friday afternoon, Wilma will do what she always does when the Huskers play on TV. She will turn on the ABC channel and turn down the volume. Then she will turn on her radio so she can hear some familiar voices ... Greg Sharpe, Adrian Fiala, Matt Davison and Lane Grindle.
"She's really looking forward to this Colorado game," Zimmer said, "and, needless to say, she's all fired up for the Big 12 Championship Game in Dallas, too."
Wilma knows that Plano, a Dallas suburb, is Burkhead's home stomping grounds.
Imagine sitting next to Wilma and watching that game with her.
Is there any doubt that she will be clutching a certain football in her right arm, one presented to her by three of her favorite players on her favorite team?
And just how cool is that?
Voices from Husker Nation
Thanks for the great story about Wilma and the Huskers. It really warmed my heart. I'm sure this is one of those stories that wrote itself. It's truly a real-life example of the words chiseled into Memorial Stadium that I carry with me every day of my life. Great job. Ron Sinclair, Chicago, Illinois
I have no words to express to thank you for this story. I am Wilma's hospice volunteer and was there when the Nebraska players came to visit. She broke down and cried after they left. Bless you. Vicki Lamb, Lincoln, Nebraska
A big thank you to all the Huskers who visited the hospitals the other day. My aunt was in one of the hospitals and enjoyed having the opportunity to visit with the football players. As a former student-athlete myself, I know you work hard - on and off the field. Keep up the good work, and thanks again for all of your community involvement. Go Big Red! Brenda Campbell-Yturralde
Another great story about how Nebraska Football takes care of their family. Count me as one fan of Husker Football with tears in my eyes while reading this story of "Thanksgiving Means Sharing With a Servant's Heart". Working here in France, this means a lot to me because this is my first year without family or friend for Thanksgiving. I get great pleasure reading these stories that connect me with the program I love. Keep up the great work. Robin Simmons, Pierrevert, France
Once again you found the deeper meaning to what it is to be a Cornhusker and to grow up in Nebraska. Wilma's story can reflect so many over the years. I appreciate what Coach Osborne is doing to make sure all that showed loyalty to Nebraska are getting their due respect. Scott Buescher, Olathe, Kansas
Thank you for being willing to publish the quotes about the personal faith of these men. In a day when political correctness is the order of things, it is important for people to see that character development has a connection to faith. Go Huskers! Tom Walker, Longmont, Colorado
Thanks for another great column. This is the sort of story that produces goose bumps and tears to the reader, not to mention a bit of perspective. Husker Nation is lucky to have Coach Osborne back at the helm and having this sort of influence on the entire athletic department. Joe Petersen, Midland, Texas
This is the type of story that reminds me of why I am so proud to be a Husker fan. It is not only the tradition on the field that Nebraska is known for, but also turning out quality young men. People all over the country know of Nebraska's Academic All-American tradition as well. I believe that with Tom Osborne's influence, Nebraska brought in Bo Pelini, a coach that understands the importance of building young men of CHARACTER. Thanks for the article. Keith White
Thanks for the uplifting story of the athletes and their work in the community. It goes to show there is more to life than what goes on both on the field or on the court. The Life Skills program is doing just what the name says, giving Husker athletes skills for life. Jeff Kelley
Thank you so much for the article about the football team visiting Lincoln hospitals today. Two players visited my sister, who is a patient at St. Elizabeth's. This meant so much to her, because she is not very well and will be spending Thanksgiving in the hospital. Sherrie Dux-Ideus
This was an outstanding column on "sharing". It shows how boys grow up to be men and how much there is to life after football. Kay Peters
Just read your Thanksgiving article on Wilma. It was awesome. Keep up the great work! We are gearing up for the FreedMen Conference on April 17th next spring. Happy Thanksgiving! Mike Bliss, Bennington, Nebraska (Editor's note: Bliss was part of the team led by Nebraska Assistant Coach Ron Brown and former Husker Captain Stan Parker that brought together 4,200 men to Nebraska's 2009 Spring Game).
Great article. So many times you hear and read of the negative downfalls of student-athletes, but this article brings warmth to the heart. It revealed the good Cornhusker spirit of the fans and players. Hang on to that football Wilma. Go Huskers! Larry Snider, Rancho Cucamonga, California