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With approximately 100 outreach projects, 3,000 hours of community service and countless lives impacted over the past year, Nebraska Athletics hosted its annual Hero Leadership Breakfast Monday, and the most emotional honoree in the West Stadium had to be former Nebraska track-and-field athlete Erin Hannon .
One of three Huskers presented with the "Heart and Soul Award" - otherwise known as the Heisman of Nebraska Life Skills - Hannon admitted she felt "underachieved from an accomplishment perspective" while listening to Nebraska Olympic Gold Medal Sprinter Charlie Greene introduce the first two recipients: Alex Henery , who finished his Nebraska career as the most accurate kicker in NCAA history and could be the sleeper in the NFL Draft April 28-30; and Jordan Burroughs , a two-time unbeaten national wrestling champion that won the coveted Dan Hodge Trophy as the nation's most outstanding collegiate wrestler.
"When Jordan was called out and then Alex, I wondered what Charlie was going to say about me because I didn't really accomplish what I wanted to achieve in track," Hannon said.
As much as Greene loves champions, there's a reason why he waited to introduce Hannon last. "Erin is a champion of life and a champion of life skills," he said, "and she is the heart and soul of everything Nebraska Athletics stands for."
Few of the 250 Hero breakfast attendees Monday understand how true that statement really is, but Charlie Greene understands. A recent recipient of a kidney transplant, he knows all about the Erin Hannon Story - how a once promising multi-event track and field athlete turned down scholarships to Notre Dame, Penn State, Virginia and Louisville to accept Nebraska's offer and two years later, ended up in a hospital bed in Greeley, Colo., wondering if she'd ever walk again, let alone compete.
Aug. 10, 2008 - the Day Erin Hannon's Life Changed
Hannon had dreams that she, too, could accomplish great things. That's why she chose to attend Nebraska, the perennial Big 12 track power that Greene and multi-Olympian Merlene Ottey put on the national and global maps. Hannon remembers 8-8-08, the Friday she went to Buena Vista, Colo., for white water rafting/kayaking. That night was the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.
On a rainy late Sunday afternoon, Hannon's dreams were shattered when an SUV in which she was riding slipped on a wet roadway, rolled through a fence and then rolled 2¼ times before coming to rest on its right side in a field adjacent to Interstate 76. The SUV's airbags did not deploy, and Hannon was ejected during the crash. She was airlifted to Greeley and underwent surgery that Monday morning.
"We were all in shock," Tammie Hannon, Erin's mother, said. "We had flight issues getting into Denver and missed seeing her before she went into surgery. It was a very serious accident and a very difficult time."
Bob and Tammie Hannon were there, though, when the surgeon shared his prognosis about their daughter recovering from surgery to repair four injured vertebrae, two broken and two that needed to be fused.
Erin will never forget what the surgeon said. "He said there was a good chance that I would never be able to walk again," Erin said. "I remember lying there and thinking to myself: 'I'm nothing now. I'm not part of a team. I'm stuck here at the age of 20 and looking at trying to learn how to walk again."
Tough stuff to hear any time, but especially so when only days earlier, you're thinking to yourself how your junior year just might be your breakthrough season - the one where you've worked hard enough to realize the goal you've envisioned all along - Big 12 champion in the heptathlon or pentathlon or both.
Coaches, Teammates Support One of Their Own
Crushed vertebrae and crushed dreams can be cause for depression, and Hannon admits something else she was thinking that day. "I thought that the University of Nebraska just might want to wash their hands and be done with me," she said.
Wrong. Double wrong, even triple wrong.
Gary Pepin, Kris Grimes and Billy Maxwell, three Husker coaches who had great expectations for Hannon, made sure the track team did what it always does when tragedy strikes a close-knit member of the family. They rallied around Hannon, letting her know how much they cared and how much they still wanted her to be part of the team.
"When the doctor said there was a good chance I wouldn't walk again, I was completely devastated," Hannon said. "It wasn't something I wanted to hear, but I knew right then and there that I had to search for a new purpose. Maybe I was no longer able to compete in college athletics, but I was still a member of the track team and with successful rehab, I could still be a student and use my talents to serve others."
Even though she would have to wear a neck brace for months, Hannon had the character, drive, personality and spirit to adjust her dreams and achieve them. She looked adversity in the face and approached her new goals like she did the shot put - something she had to learn, deal with and maximize. Hannon still needed her passion, but now, she had to match it with equal amounts of patience and perseverance.
Mother: Award Fitting of Hannon's Personality Traits
"Erin tackles whatever obstacles are thrown her way head on," her mother said. "The accident was just one more obstacle. This was on a much bigger scale, but no one has ever told Erin she can't do something.
"I thought the award was certainly fitting of her personality and her traits and all that she's had to overcome," Tammie Hannon added. "We knew she'd bounce back. It wasn't easy, and we stood by and helped. There were times when she wanted to give up, but we kept reminding her that she'd never given up on anything."
Looking back, Hannon now sees the grand picture that unfolded before her own very surprised eyes. "Even though I couldn't do anything on the track," she said, "I did come back and find other ways to be part of the team and touch the community. I wasn't scoring points like Alex or breaking records like Jordan, but I was helping and volunteering and giving back. Now I understand why all of those things are so important."
"Heart and Soul" is the perfect description for the honor that Henery , Burroughs and Hannon now share. All three reinforce the importance of life skills as the third leg in the Nebraska success stool, providing balance to the first two - athletics and academics. Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne said the essence of having a solid, committed Life Skills program requires a servant leader mindset that's built on character.
"Mother Teresa said that only a life lived in service to others is worth living," Osborne told the Heroes Breakfast attendees. "We want people in this Athletic Department to understand that reaching out and helping others is really important - one of the most important things you'll ever do."
There's Nothing Like a Memory Helping Special Kids
Like countless others, Hannon understands the importance of serving others. "The experiences I've had helping others are experiences I want to keep having," she said. "College athletics can only take you so far. Once you leave here, some of the best memories you'll ever have is putting a smile on some kid's face or teaching someone how to hula hoop. The smiles you get from doing that last a lifetime."
Monday's Hero Breakfast showcased a broad range of ways student-athletes can make a difference. One showed several athletes going to a local nursing facility to wish a 100-year-old female Husker fan a happy birthday. Another showed a mentor developing such a trust level that his young mentee told the entire room he loved him.
Tammie Hannon admits she gets emotional whenever she watches a video of the volunteer activities in which Nebraska student-athletes participate. She believes it is one thing to be told about all the wonderful things that Nebraska student-athletes do to give back. She knows that anybody can stage a video. "But we saw it first-hand and can attest to the validity," she said.
According to her mom, in addition to her own teammates and coaches, Erin received visits on a regular basis from coaches and athletes from several other Nebraska athletic teams as well. "I could see how much it meant to have them stop in and offer an encouraging word to 'one of their own' even if they did not know her," Tammie said. "It was then that I knew as soon as she was physically able, she would want to extend the same to others, especially because she had experiences she could share."
After sitting at the Hero's Breakfast and witnessing everyone's story, "We are so thrilled that Erin has been a part of such a special program that is really vested in its student-athletes on a much deeper level," Tammie said. "Despite the distance from home, we could not be happier with the choice she made for her collegiate career."
Erin Hannon is equally moved. "I can't believe all the support I've been given - from Mike Nieman in academics and Keith Zimmer in life skills to everyone in the entire athletic department," she said. "The track program kept me involved in every way they could. They let me stick around and coach. It's been great. The exact opposite happened to everything that I thought was going to happen. I feel really blessed that I'm able to stay involved so I can touch other people's lives in my own way."
In addition to recreating her purpose and adjusting her goals, Hannon admits that she took on her grueling rehab with the drive to come back and compete again. "I rehabilitated to prove to myself that I could do it and maybe even put on the uniform again," she said. "I didn't end up getting back on the track, but I worked hard for something equally important over the last two years, and I'm proud I could beat the odds."
Next Stops: Getting Degree, Working in Track Office
Three weekends from now, Hannon will step on the Devaney Center stage to accept her diploma that includes a bachelor's degree in Psychology with a minor in Coaching and Education.
"I want to work in athletic administration," she said. "I'm a recruiting intern in the track office and hope to work hard enough to become a full-time intern."
One thing is certain. "I can tell everyone how much this athletic department truly cares for you," she said. "I came here from Pennsylvania - halfway across the country - and I can honestly say that Nebraska was, is and always will be my family away from home."
Hannon's "grandpa" joined her mother at Monday's breakfast. "Erin just loves Nebraska, and it's obvious Nebraska loves her," said Jack Hedlund, who made the trip from Kane, Pa. "It's unfortunate she had the accident, but she's risen above it. There are ways to distinguish one's self, and we think she's done that her whole life, including here. We love her, and we're proud of her. She's been a blessing for all of us."
Erin's dad, a former basketball star at the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford, where the family still lives, will be back in Lincoln for his daughter's graduation. He made the trip to Lincoln in February for the track banquet, but couldn't make all three events in such a short time-frame.
Big Doubleheader: A Wedding and a Husker Game
The Hannon family lives within 100 miles of Penn State, one of the schools that Hannon strongly considered before deciding on Nebraska.
"If something like this was going to happen anywhere," her grandpa said, "we're glad it happened at Nebraska. This university is everything people say it is."
Keith Zimmer, Nebraska's associate athletic director for Life Skills, says the entire Nebraska program and staff "absolutely did the right thing" by standing by Hannon at all times of her collegiate experience.
"Points scored and championships and titles won tend to be irrelevant when you look at the bigger picture," Zimmer said. "What truly matters is honoring the commitment we make from day one to every Husker student-athlete. It's our job to help them grow and develop as a complete, well-rounded person - a person that ends up with the confidence and the transferable skills to achieve success in their chosen career."
Hannon is proving just that while working in the Nebraska men's and women's track and field office.
In November, she will head back home for a wedding in Chautauqua, N.Y. The next day, Nebraska plays at Penn State - the Huskers' perennial cross-division rival as designated by the Big Ten Conference, which will welcome Nebraska as its 12th member on July 1.
"I have to find some tickets to that game," Erin said.
Don't ask what team she'll be rooting for.
She'll be rooting for the one that became part of her heart and soul.