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A 6-foot-9 senior basketball walk-on who came to Nebraska from a small farming community in Minnesota will start his first Husker game tonight against Colorado.
The start is a reward from Nebraska Coach Doc Sadler for Ben Nelson's four years of hard work, his selfless spirit and a willingness to knock heads every day at full speed on a scout team that prepares Husker starters for the rigors of the Big 12 Conference, which has been the most difficult it's ever been this season.
But the Huskers have never given up despite this season's setbacks. They have always shown character, and Ben Nelson is one indelible reason why. Even though he lacks significant floor time, the Senator is a stabilizing force on a team that thinks it can get its groove back.
That's why Sadler has decided to start Nelson - the highest honor Big Ben has earned in a Big Red uniform that he wears proudly and honorably.
Learning to Love the Art of Physical Conditioning
So cheer loudly when the Senator - a name NU play-by-play announcer Kent Pavelka bestowed on Big Ben - is introduced. No need for an extra-charged P.A. announcer to ask Nelson if he can "feel it" tonight. Go ahead and bet the house that he's the only tire-flipping champion who has ever started for Nebraska in basketball and maybe the only one in Big 12 or even Division 1 history.
And we all thought tire-flippers only perform on ESPN2 in the world's strongest man competition.
You obviously haven't watched a Nebraska basketball off-season conditioning session, and you must not know Rusty Ruffcorn, the NU basketball program's head strength and conditioning coach who has sent everyone imaginable after Big Ben in his chosen specialty.
Yet, in all the spirited battles of tire-flipping, Big Ben ends up with the Full Nelson. "(I'm) the undefeated champion of Nebraska basketball tire flipping," the Senator said Monday afternoon. "Toney McCray almost got me once, but he couldn't finish it."
We are not making this stuff up. In the past, Ruffcorn has rounded up what looks like dump truck tires. They're so big that when you stand one up, it reaches the shoulders of a towering Nelson. "I don't know how much they weigh, but they have to be 250 to 300 pounds," he said. "They're not easy to handle."
Call it grueling strength training when Ruffcorn plants cones in the parking lot of the Bob Devaney Center and asks each player to grab a tire and flip it end-over-end in competitive races with their teammates to the finish line.
"We have team tire-flipping races, too," said Nelson, who has lettered four straight years at Nebraska even though he has appeared in only 35 games during those four seasons.
It takes a bona fide scout teamer to insist that physical conditioning is his most memorable moment at Nebraska. "It is for me because it's such a team-bonding experience," Nelson said. "It's fun to compete against the guys and be able to hold something over their heads, especially when you find something you can beat them at. It's kind of a pride thing."
Rugby Prepared Big Ben for Doc's Workouts
Pride means everything to rugby players, who are known to pay their own way, set their own practice times and pop their own dislocated shoulders back in place.
Make no mistake. Big Ben is a tough, physical guy who didn't even play basketball until his later years of high school. By the time he got to Nebraska and made the All-Big 12 rugby team as a freshman, he'd polished some of the basketball skills he learned in Atwater, Minn.
"I probably played basketball four hours a day at the Rec my freshman year here," Nelson recalled.
Almost immediately, Sadler liked him. "Ben Nelson is a guy who showed up every day and demonstrated what it's really like to be Husker," Doc said. "He brings his hard hat, and he brings his lunch pail whenever he comes to work. Most coaches would say if your son had the work ethic and the integrity of a Ben Nelson, you'd be a successful parent and a happy one also."
According to Sadler, the same could be said for Chris Balham, who started 23 games last season before his knees forced him to the sidelines, and he became a student assistant coach in his final season as a Husker.
Sadler has designated Balham as an honorary starter for tonight's game, and the Overland Park, Kan., native will be wearing his customary shirt, coat and tie for the occasion.
Since the day Sadler took over at Nebraska, Balham "has shown me what a student-athlete is really all about," Doc said. "Unfortunately for Chris, he hasn't had the knees he needs to compete."
Every Day is an Adventure for Chris Balham
Still, of all the players that have been in NU's program with Sadler, Doc thinks Balham is one of his best success stories. "It's been a pleasure to be around him," he said. "I don't know if Chris has had any bad days. He didn't allow his injuries to distract him from what he was here for, and that was to get an education."
Balham is now in graduate school with majors in International Studies and Spanish. "Hopefully, someday I can work at the United Nations," he said. "But first, I need some experience in a non-profit organization like UNICEF. I want to travel and explore and help people resolve conflict."
For Balham, there is no question about his biggest life lesson as a Husker. "Perseverance," he said. "Learning how to compete and fight through anything that comes your way. Basketball teaches you how to handle heartbreak and life. When you get hit with hard blows, you get back up and keep moving."
Just like your head coach. "Doc is a strong-minded person," Balham said. "Through his workouts, you find out a lot about yourself. You learn how to push through things."
Yes, Ben Nelson and Chris Balham labored in the shadows of fellow seniors Ryan Anderson and Sek Henry, but they both profited from the experience.
"There are good people here at Nebraska," Balham said. "They really care about you, and it doesn't take long for you to understand why it's a lifetime deal when you come to this state."
A mechanized systems management major, Nelson is always amazed by the loyalty and the warmth of Husker fans. "I don't get to play like Sek and Ryan," he said, "but the fans support me just as much as they do someone who plays the whole game. I don't know if our fans realize it, but they mean a lot to me personally, and a lot to all of the rest of the guys on this team, too."