Husker tight end Ben Cotton says community service can make your day, your year, your life.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Cotton, Larson, Weatherholt Share Heart & Soul

By NU Athletic Communications

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Monday’s Hero Leadership Breakfast inside Memorial Stadium showed why Nebraska student-athletes know the true meaning of the word hero and why they’re part of something bigger than becoming an All-American, winning a national championship or even pulling off a perfect ACT score.

The breakfast drew 175 people and helped everyone redefine what the word hero really means. Athletic Department employee Ruth Hood sang the Mariah Carey song Hero as a creative thank you to 33 Husker Hero Award Winners. It was a unique way to recognize the hundreds of student-athletes who are reaching out and creating unmatched memories and emotions while, at the same time, providing hope and encouragement for others.

Nebraska tight end Ben Cotton, swimmer Kelsey Larson and tennis standout Mary Weatherholt shared the 2013 Heart & Soul Award, the highest life skill honor that Nebraska bestows on an annual basis. Cotton and Larson were humbled recipients, and Weatherholt missed accepting a second major award in 12 hours. On Sunday night, she was named Nebraska’s 2013 Female Athlete of the Year. Her mom, Nancy, accepted that award because of the Huskers’ Sunday afternoon match at Michigan State and filled in again Monday morning when weather grounded the women’s tennis team in Chicago.

Weatherholt Believes a Hero Lies Within Us All

Weatherholt is already grounded into Nebraska’s values, constantly looking inside her heart and reaching into her soul to help kids, teammates and others understand the real truth … that a hero lies within us all, and when the fortunate connect with the unfortunate,  sorrow, like the song says, will melt away.

“Intercollegiate athletics taught me how important community is,” Weatherholt said. “In a world where individualism and looking out for one’s self are often encouraged, I’ve learned how valuable people and connections really are.”

She’s not talking about the connections people make to help advance their careers. “I’m talking about the connections that run deep and provide the backbone of life,” Weatherholt said, reflecting back on her time as a student-athlete, her academic accomplishments and athletic achievements will not rank at the top of her fondest memories.

Fondest Memories: People Caring, Supporting

“It will be the laughs and the moments I celebrated with my teammates, the relationships I formed with everyone, and the interactions and impact I had in the Lincoln community,” Weatherholt said. “My absolute favorite thing about Nebraska, hands down, is the people here. They’ve provided more care and more support than I ever could have fathomed.” A graduate of Shawnee Mission (Kan.) South High School,  Weatherholt has become so ingrained in Nebraska’s culture that she feels like a member of the Husker family.

Larson can relate to that conclusion. Even though she graduated from high school in Newport Beach, Calif., she has Nebraska ties back to a grandfather’s graduation from Nebraska in 1921. Her father also owns a master’s degree from UNL and she said Monday’s Hero Breakfast was so awesome, “it made me even prouder to be a Husker. When you’re at a place like Nebraska, we can all be heroes.”

That thought trickles down from Larson’s head coach, Pablo Morales. “He’s always emphasizing academics, athletics and life skills,” she said. At Stanford, Morales was an NCAA record-setting swimmer. He also won three gold and two silver medals in the Olympic Games. Yet all that glitter pales in comparison to Nebraska’s commitment to total student-athlete development. “We call him Coach Morals instead of Coach Morales because he’s always reaching out to help others and encourages us to do the same.”

Cotton: Service Can Change Your Day, Year, Life

Cotton comes from a family that knows the importance of giving your heart and soul to someone beyond yourself and something beyond your sport. He enjoys reading a book to kids and watching the smiles on their faces. He’s been inside nursing homes where grown men cry just because he’s taken time out of his own busy life to see them. “The true reward is what we get when we give,” said Cotton, who has been particularly inspired by a young girl who has had more than 40 open-heart surgeries “yet she’s still smiling and laughing and enjoying life more than anybody in the room,” Ben said.

Monday, Cotton mentioned Jack Hoffman’s 69-yard touchdown run in Nebraska’s Spring Game and how it continues to inspire. “Those are the reasons we do what we do,” Cotton said. “That’s why one of my top goals is to help get my teammates more involved with life skills. It can change their day; it can change their year; and it can change their life.”

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