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You won't see redshirt Kenny Bell or former Blackshirt Philip Bland in uniform for Friday's last Nebraska-Colorado conference football game, but that hardly matters. Both highly recruited Boulder natives chose the Huskers over their home-state Buffs, among others, and are content that they based their collegiate choice on something far beyond football itself.
"I know football won't last forever," Bell said. "I wish it could, but it can't. I came to Lincoln to get bigger, stronger and faster athletically. But I also came here to become a better student academically and to become a better person overall."
Bell had a role model in Bland, who played in Nebraska's national championship Rose Bowl game as a true freshman in 2001. As a sophomore, he was the Huskers' leading tackler through the regular season and a First-Team Academic All-Big 12 player.
Talk about luck. Bland broke his ankle as a freshman, had off-season shoulder surgery and then broke the same ankle against Southern Miss halfway through a junior season that appeared headed to first-team all-conference honors.
"That was the last down I played," Bland said. "Fortunately, I invested in Academics and Life Skills pretty heavily at Nebraska - before and after my injuries. Who knows what my life would have been like right now if I'd gone to a different school and gotten injured and didn't have the kind of support Nebraska provided?"
Football Door Closed, But Career Door Opened
The way Bland sees it, his chronic injuries may have closed one door, but a Nebraska Career Fair in 2003 opened up a much bigger one to the financial services industry. "The Career Fair was the starting point for me, and I'm just now beginning my seventh year in the business," said Bland, a registered investment advisor for Omaha-based Heritage Financial Services.
At the Athletic Department's most recent Career Fair, an event that attracted 300 Nebraska student-athletes and representatives from 22 respected employers, Bland was the interviewer/recruiter instead of the one being interviewed and recruited.
It made for an interesting professional meeting between two Boulder Fairview High School graduates, both of whom played for Tom McCartney, the son of former Colorado Head Coach Bill McCartney.
Bland, the son of former CU safety Richard Bland, chose Nebraska over Notre Dame, USC, Colorado, Colorado State and Kansas State.
Bell, the son of former Denver Bronco kickoff return specialist Ken Bell, chose Nebraska over Minnesota and Texas Tech, but also had offers from CU, Cal, Arizona and Arizona State.
Bell heard a lot about Bland in high school. He'd even watched him several times on film, but the Career Fair was the first time he got to meet him. "I knew he was a blue collar, hard-working kind of guy," Bell said of Bland. "I also knew he was a great football player and a successful businessman."
The Nebraska Product Lives up to Promotion
Not surprisingly, when the two got together, the freshman receiver and the former Blackshirt agreed on something they both consider important.
"First, we talked about how fortunate we were to have so many options out of high school," Bell said. "Then we talked about the process we used to pick Nebraska."
It was a mutual reinforcement session that evolved into a joint conclusion that the Nebraska product lives up to its heavy-duty promotion in Athletics, Academics and Life Skills.
"There just isn't anything like Nebraska anywhere else," Bell said. "This is the best place in the country to get you focused in the right direction. Football brings you together, but the system is bigger than the sport. When you get here, you see why there's so much emphasis on academics and why careers are a big part of the focus."
The Nebraska Athletic Department has hosted 15 consecutive Career Fairs, and the event draws representatives from such national firms as AFLAC, ConAgra, Eli Lilly, the FBI, Gallup, Mutual of Omaha, National Research Corporation, Target and Union Pacific.
Keith Zimmer, Nebraska's Associate Athletic Director for Life Skills, said it was "cool" that two players from the same high school finally got a chance to meet at an important professional event.
"Actually, that's not all that uncommon," Zimmer said. "It's amazing how many of our former student-athletes come back to recruit this Career Fair after they've been recruited themselves at the same event."
Former Husker Heads Admissions for Medical Center
There are all kinds of examples to prove Zimmer's point. Jeffrey Hill, for instance, was a receiver that Tom Osborne coached in the early 1970s. Now he's a medical doctor in charge of admissions for the University of Nebraska College of Medicine.
"In today's world, it's about recruiting," Dr. Hill said. "It's like recruiting football players. You can't sit back and say we're a good school. You have to be out there recruiting year-round."
Ex-Huskers are doing just that, and not just for the College of Medicine.
Former Husker quarterback Garth Glissman attended the Career Fair as a recruiter for the UNL College of Law. Several other Husker football lettermen also recruited the event. Two-year letterman center and NU co-captain Brett Byford represented Gallup; four-time Husker receiver letterman Wes Cammack represented ConAgra; and two-time letterman punter Dan Titchener represented Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.
Former Nebraska track and field star Patrick Burke, who parlayed his four varsity letters and academic resume into a job with Union Pacific, was among the Career Fair recruiters. So were two-time track and field letterwinner Mandy Brandt and four-time golf letterwinner Amy Roux for Eli Lilly; three-time track and field letterwinner Leandra McGruder for Target; four-time softball letterwinner Amber Burgess for Lincoln Fire & Rescue; and two-time cross country letterman & three-time track and field letterman Brian Parr for National Research Corporation.
Nebraska recruiters also included four-year NU basketball student manager Bernie Inbody, who represented Forest Pharmaceuticals at the Career Fair.
Career Fair Helps Build Comfort, Confidence
"So many of our student-athletes got their jobs through attending the Career Fair," Zimmer said. "It's refreshing for them to get together, share their stories and understand how everything that we require in Academics and Life Skills is designed to help them build their resumes and enable their careers. I think there's a comfort level when they see former student-athletes recruiting this event. Whenever you can sit across the table and see the same skill sets in action, it's a confidence-builder for everyone involved."
The 300 Husker student-athletes who spent a Monday night at last month's Career Fair invested wisely in their futures. They knew how to introduce themselves, highlight their best attributes, communicate their career goals, articulate their strengths, stand up straight, use a firm handshake, smile and make eye contact and ask for an employer's business card. They also knew how to conduct an immediate follow-up with a company and how to thank that company with an email or a hand-written note.
Zimmer pointed out that Blaine Hoppenrath, one of the top all-purpose swimmers on the Nebraska Women's Swimming and Diving Team, used the Career Fair to secure a summer internship with ConAgra. A senior from Liberty, Mo., and Co-President of Nebraska's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, Hoppenrath will work for the consumer and commercial food company next summer in California.
"Nebraska's Career Fair is one of the greatest experiences a student-athlete can have," Bland said, describing the event as a bit of a graduation ceremony for student-athletes to apply what they know and execute what they've learned.
"Life Skills are a real differentiator for Nebraska in recruiting," Bland said. "Other schools are starting to understand why they're so important, but Nebraska has been setting the standard nationally for a long time in this area. It started with Tom Osborne, and is now directed by Dennis Leblanc (Nebraska's Associate Athletic Director for Academics) and Keith Zimmer. Those two are the best in the country at what they do. You won't see many places try to take on what those two take on."
Integrated Approach Boosts National Recruiting
Bland has leveraged the skills he learned at Nebraska into a rewarding career. Last spring, he got married and now, in his spare time, he manages to stay "around scratch" as a serious-minded golfer.
"I loved every minute I played football, and I'm grateful that Nebraska offered so much more than everyone else in the recruiting process," Bland said. "I just reached a point where my body couldn't take it anymore, but I never lost a step because I could lean on the support and use it to create an exciting career. Bottom line, that's why I chose Nebraska, and from what I see happening right now as we get ready to join the Big Ten Conference, Nebraska will use this integrated approach (Athletics/Academics/Life Skills) to recruit some of the best student-athletes in the country."
Voices from Husker Nation
I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading the article you did on Philip Bland, Ken Bell and the Husker Career Fair, etc. What a great way to celebrate a couple of good kids and the great University they chose. It not only brought back so many great memories for me of Philip's playing years at Nebraska, but also reminded me of what a great choice Philip made to become a Husker. As a player and alum of CU, I developed an almost rabid animosity toward Nebraska (that will happen when you haven't beaten a team for almost 20 years running), and I still vividly remember handing the first Husker recruiting letter to Philip and saying something along the lines of 'Well, we know that ain't gonna happen.' (Luckily, I learned to write better than I speak). But the truth has a way of overcoming even the most deep-seated of prejudices, and that is what happened to me. Once you actually sit down with people like Ron Brown and Frank Solich and get to know what the Huskers are all about, the prejudice melts away and is replaced by a tremendous amount of admiration and respect. Not to mention humility and pride - that they considered my son to be worthy to wear a Husker uniform and be a Blackshirt. And then, when he could no longer suit up, the way he was still welcomed as part of the Husker family. Pretty darned good stuff. Nebraska stands for so many things that I admire, and I'm so glad Philip ignored me and chose to come to Nebraska. Hard to believe I can type this, but I can't help it. GO BIG RED!! Richard Bland, Longmont, Colorado
Thanks for a perspective that describes why Nebraska is such a great program. Living close to Denver, I have watched, listened and read about Colorado's contempt for Nebraska for all these years, and I think I know why. Forget the lopsided nature of the series. I remember guys like Dave Butterfield, Marc Munford, Lee Kunz, Mike Knox, Cory Ross and many others who have chosen to leave Colorado and play for Nebraska, which consistently recruits nothing but the very best players in the state of Colorado. Ryan Hill (from Arvada) is like Phillip Bland. He got hurt and couldn't play his senior year either, but I bet he's stayed tight with the Nebraska family. Of course, Nebraska got another great recruit from Colorado in Pierre Allen. And here's hoping those recruits just keep coming year after year to play for one of college football's all-time best programs. As a native of Western Nebraska, I laugh every time I hear a Colorado fan try to put Nebraska down, and in the future, even though CU won't have to play Nebraska, I will think of Bland and Bell and all of those other Coloradoans who came before them and after them. Lonnie Irvine, Cheyenne, Wyoming