Wednesday, July 18, became an historic day for Nebraska football, and it had nothing to do with a top-level recruiting commitment, a conference championship or a national title. The day was inspiring, moving and meaningful in a different sense because 47 Husker players bonded to form the nucleus of Chapter No. 14 supporting Uplifting Athletes, a national nonprofit organization that aligns college football programs with rare diseases. Each chapter chooses a rare disease and then elevates it to a national priority through outreach, research, education and advocacy.
“The Nebraska chapter is the most advanced starting chapter we’ve ever had because its launch on day one is comparable to other chapters beginning year three,” said Scott Shirley, the executive director and chairman of Uplifting Athletes. The organization named Rex Burkhead, Nebraska’s All-Big Ten running back, the 2012 Rare Disease Champion Award winner last spring after he collected 76,000 votes in a national poll.
Tuesday night, Shirley addressed the 47 Huskers who designated pediatric brain cancer as the rare disease for which their chapter will raise funds and create national awareness. “Being in the room with those 47 players for an hour-and-a-half last night and then again this morning, you can see they're a reflection of the type of player Nebraska recruits,” Shirley said. “They were there because they want to make a big impact. They were very attentive. They asked very good questions, and they were great examples of the character Coach (Bo) Pelini recruits. They were the most supportive and knowledgeable group we’ve ever launched.”
Zimmerer, Kellogg, Enunwa Named New Officers
Shirley praised Huskers who were elected officers by fellow members – Omaha’s C.J. Zimmerer, a junior fullback as the chapter’s first president; Omaha’s Ron Kellogg III, a junior quarterback who serves as vice president; and California native Quincy Enunwa, a junior wide receiver who fills the third executive position on a team that gives student-athletes an opportunity to gain practical job skills while learning how to leverage their assets and abilities to make a positive and lasting impact.
“We all know what we’ve signed up for,” said Zimmerer, a Husker player who has Type 1Diabetes and carries an insulin pump with him at all times except for practice. “Ben Cotton and I both have Type 1, so we have somewhat of an understanding of what we’re getting into with this organization because we’ve done some fund-raising and awareness projects for Juvenile Diabetes. Rex was always updating us on Jack’s condition, and we feel like a big part of his cause. Now that we’re an official campus organization, we’re eager to raise money and increase awareness of the disease he’s living with every day. We listened to his dad (Andy Hoffman) describe what Jack’s going through, and we know how underfunded research is for this rare disease. The protocol for treating this disease hasn’t changed in 25 years because they haven’t qualified for increased funding.”
Kellogg says the Huskers know they can make a greater impact together than they can alone. That’s why they’re using Team Jackas motivation to champion gliomas, the most common type of brain tumor in children. “I had a couple of friends die of cancer, and belonging to a chapter like this gives you a chance to be part of something that can help postpone what might happen,” Kellogg said. “This is life. It’s part of why we’re here. Coach Bo is always telling us if we want to be treated like a man we have to act like a man. I think this fits into that category. We’ve chosen to help Jack and all the other kids who have the same kind of tumor.”
Zimmer Laid the Groundwork for Nebraska Chapter
Shirley credits Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s associate athletic director for Life Skills, for his pivotal role in laying the groundwork required for Husker football players to become the fifth Big Ten school with an Uplifting Athletes chapter. The others are Penn State, Ohio State, Northwestern and Illinois. “Nebraska now becomes the Western-most chapter we have,” Shirley said. “Nebraska comes onboard right after Notre Dame, and we’re looking to expand even more.”
Zimmer facilitated Tuesday night’s meeting that elected officers. “We had an awesome meeting, and that paved the way for an action-plan meeting that Jessie Gardner facilitated this morning,” Zimmer said. “In addition to the executive committee, we’re organizing committees for public relations, operations, fund-raising and volunteers. Our players did a lot of brainstorming about what they want to accomplish and the timing that works best for their sport. They’re eager to present that plan to Coach Pelini. This will give them a great chance to show their leadership skills, to make a difference and to find a way to recruit, so others can join the cause.”
Even though Burkhead is not a chapter officer, he remains a driving force and constant source of inspiration. “This all came out of what Rex chose to do, the relationship he’s had with Jack and the impact it’s had on the rest of us,” Enunwa said. “We chose to focus on his disease because our whole team has learned a lot about it. So have the Nebraska fans that support the cause. For me, this really does go back to when Coach Bo came into our homes and talked about us coming to Nebraska. My parents loved him because he’s all about character. This is a chance for all of us to show what we’ve learned ... to give back what we’ve been blessed to have ... and to be inspired by people who really do need our help.”