Bo Pelini has a way of inspiring his players, on the field and off the field.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Live to Give: Players Model Head Coach

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York's N-Sider:

The Official Blog of the Huskers

It's no small coincidence that Nebraska’s football team has: 1) won back-to-back Life Skills Awards at the past two NU Student-Athlete Banquets; 2) carries the highest overall grade-point average in Nebraska football history (3.1); and 3) is using Bo Pelini’s team leaders to begin their own foundation to support Uplifting Athletes, a national organization that recently named Husker captain Rex Burkhead its 2012 award winner for mentoring and encouraging 6-year-old Jack Hoffman, who is battling pediatric brain cancer. “Coach Bo has made life skills a team focus, and they’re reaching out and drawing players in for outreach efforts like we’ve never seen,” said Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s associate athletic director for Life Skills. “Everyone knows the popularity of Nebraska football, so there are always requests out there to help others. But ultimately, football has to take the initiative to accept these requests. They’re the ones who have to follow through and deliver, and they have.”

Pelini’s passion begins with his own foundation that has distributed more than $400,000 to help find cures for breast cancer and juvenile diabetes in addition to supporting dozens of other charities, ranging from the Make A Wish Foundation and People’s City Mission to numerous Nebraska-based cancer foundations. Bo’s foundation also supports such critical causes as special needs children, food banks, Cystic Fibrosis and Big Brothers and Big Sisters, plus many others. “Our motto in Life Skills is ‘Live to Give’ and our support comes right from the top – from Coach Bo,” said Ryan Klachko, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound redshirt freshman offensive lineman from Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield, Ill. “Giving absolutely applies to everything we do, off the field as well as on the field. Giving back to the community is a big part of Nebraska and says everything you need to say when you live here and play here.”

Klachko staunchly believes that the motto connects the game he plays to a much bigger game – the game of life. “When you live to give, it helps your whole mentality about everything you do,” he said. “Your whole mindset is based on how you see things, and when you experience everything we’ve experienced over this past year, it makes you really appreciate what others people have to go through.” When a dozen Huskers showed up at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo on Halloween to hand out candy and hang out with a young teenager fighting spinal cancer, “you realize how important it is just to show up and let people know how much you care,” Klachko said. “We just hung out with Ian and played tag football with him, his buddies and his brother. We looked around and saw about 50 percent of kids wearing costumes were dressed up as Husker football players. That’s when you realize you’re a role model, and you want to do everything you can to help.

“It’s definitely a fight trying to play football every day at Nebraska,” Klachko said, “but when you see what kids are fighting through every day, you realize there’s some really, really tough people out there and whenever you can make them feel just a little bit better about what they’re going through, it’s good. Look at Rex Burkhead and Jack, the little guy Rex is so gung ho about helping. That kid has become part of Rex’s life, and I think that’s awesome to see how much he cares about other people.” The mindset starts at the top and spreads through the ranks. “Coach Bo made sure our whole team got to meet Jack after one of our bowl game practices,” Klachko said.

As a father himself, Pelini invited Jack and his parents to watch practice, so the Huskers could reach out and touch someone with compassion and genuine caring. “We have a lot of caring players on this football team,” Zimmer said. “They’re volunteering all the time and with genuine motives. It’s not about getting extra points or enhancing resumes. They’re volunteering because it’s the right thing to do and it’s part of our tradition. I think it’s really cool what Coach Bo has done with his foundation. What he’s started has spread to his players.” The day before Nebraska’s Spring Game was cancelled, a sizable group of Husker players met with Zimmer and Scott Shirley, a former Penn State player who founded Uplifting Athletes.  

“They want to start a players’ foundation to help raise money for a rare disease like Rex’s little buddy has,” Zimmer said. “That’s a real compliment to Bo and good modeling. They’ve seen what Coach Bo has done in terms of service with his foundation, and now they want to do something, too.” Burkhead and his teammates are all “N” because they live to give, just like their head coach.

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