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In 1970, Jerry Murtaugh was an All-America linebacker and named the Big Eight Conference Player of the Year. He was a trailblazing force on Nebraska's first national championship football team and to this day, Murtaugh ranks second behind Barrett Ruud in career tackles.
Murtaugh has enough intriguing football stories to schedule a small speaking tour across the state of Nebraska. The problem with that is a simple one – Murtaugh would much rather talk about something that’s infinitely more important in the grand scheme of his life, such as the Nebraska Greats Foundation.
The foundation, Murtaugh's brainchild, provides medical and emergency assistance to former men and women student-athletes who have lettered in their respective sports at universities or colleges throughout the state of Nebraska.
In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, Shawn Eichorst invited Murtaugh to be a guest on hisTalk to the Director of Athletics Radio Show as a follow-up to Eichorst joining Murtaugh on his own Legends radio show in Omaha.
Husker fans remember how former Husker quarterback Dave Humm became the foundation’s first recipient and continues to exemplify the courage and determination to meet health challenges for the rest his life.
Murtaugh is proud to say that the foundation has helped both Nebraska and Creighton basketball players, the Huskers’ Larry Florence (1997-2000) and the Bluejays’ Josh Jones (2009-2012).
Foundation Provides Financial Assistance for Those Who Have Exhausted Resources
The Nebraska Greats Foundation provides financial assistance to former collegiate athletes who have medical challenges but have exhausted their insurance and personal resources.
“In Nebraska, we take care of our own,” Murtaugh said. “We put our money where our heart is, paying for medical services and everything needed by our recipients. By easing the financial burden of medical care, former athletes can focus on healing their bodies, minds and lives.”
Life Changed Dramatically; Jim Unger Became a Quadriplegic with No Movement
Jim Unger (pictured above in rehab), was a Nebraska gymnast from 1971-75, is a proud benefactor of the Nebraska Greats Foundation. After a successful career competing for the Huskers' nationally prominent program, Unger stayed with the sport that he loves most, owning and managing a gymnastics school in Lincoln for nearly 40 years.
"I've had great support from so many people...Francis Allen, Chuck Chmelka, Jim Hartung, Dan Kendig, plus large contributions from Darin Erstad, John Cook and Bo Pelini. I'm truly blessed to be surrounded by the community and Husker Nation!"
Unger never sustained a major injury from competing or demonstrating routines to others. Then, four years ago, tragedy struck when he was thrown from his bicycle, hit a tree and broke his neck. “My life changed dramatically,” Unger said. “I became a complete quadriplegic with no movement or feeling at all below the neck.”
The good news is three amazing things happened after that accident.
First, despite multiple significant injuries, he did not lose consciousness. Unger broke four ribs, dislocated a shoulder and suffered a severe concussion. He split his face open and broke the orbital bone in his eye socket, causing a complete loss of vision in one eye and a broken neck that was out of alignment from C5 to C6.
Second, a lady who had passed Unger on the road was sitting at a red light when she had a feeling that something was wrong. Unger was 40 feet off the road and almost down into a creek. She turned around and came back a half mile, got out of her car and walked along the shoulder. "Is anybody down there?" she asked in darkness. Unger asked her to call for help.
Third, as soon as he landed face down, Unger tried to get up. The only thing that worked was tilting his head up an inch or two. “I remember my exact words out loud – ‘Oh my God, I broke my neck,’” Unger said."
Unger Remembers a White Tree in Lonely Territory; No Doubt It was a Guardian Angel
In front of him, 18 inches away, was a white tree. “Or was it?” he asked himself. “I could see out of one eye, and the white, vertical ‘thing’ was captivating. It was in front of me for several minutes, not just a few seconds. All I talked about on the way to the hospital was what I saw. My wife went to the exact spot the next day. There was a bloody glove, and a dried-up pool of blood. But NO white tree, only brown trees about four inches wide. In the evening, only darkness.
“I have no doubt that God and my guardian angel were responsible for standing over me and keeping me alert until the ambulance arrived,” Unger said. “Four years later, I still can’t fully describe the pure white color. It didn't glow like a light bulb. It was just pure white in the dark.”
Two years after that experience, Unger received a phone call from Murtaugh, wanting to know how he was doing and wondering what he needed. Within weeks, the Nebraska Greats Foundation received the tax-exempt status it had been waiting for.
Two generous donations enabled Unger to purchase an FES Bike and a Bioness Forearm Stimulator. Both use electrodes that send pulses of electricity to his muscles and nerves.
“The cost was staggering for one family to consider, but my extended family was there!” Unger said. “My neuropathy doctor is extremely pleased and amazed by my progress. No one is supposed to make so much progress following a spinal cord injury, but with a team like Husker Greats and thousands of people praying and pulling for me, I’m convinced I will walk again.”
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Views from Husker Nation
Thank you for the wonderful article on Jim Unger. He is such an awesome guy with such strong willpower. I am so happy he is getting help to achieve his goal. We helped him start his gymnastics facility years ago because we saw such talent and caring in Jim. He made everything fun for the kids while learning. A more deserving person could not be found. Go Big Red! Always a Nebraskan at heart. Deanna Griess, Carmel, Indiana