Happy Fourth of July everyone and welcome to a special N-Sider that transcends athletics and digs deeply into one of the more important things in life – the American flag and what it stands for as we celebrate the emblem of our nation’s unity, power, and purpose. Today’s column might help you understand why we honor the flag before every athletic event and why Nebraska has the nation’s most patriotic taste in music. We know the flag flies atop the world’s tallest buildings, and we appreciate why it stands for peace, honor, truth and justice. Nebraska respects Old Glory, and everyone who’s heard Lee Greenwood sing “Proud to Be an American” at Memorial Stadium gets it. The home of the nation’s best college football record over the past half century, Memorial Stadium is dedicated to our military veterans and what they’ve done to preserve our freedom.
After a community outreach event last Saturday in Pilger, Neb., where more than 50 Husker student-athletes helped a town recover from losing more than half its houses in twin tornados, the Huskers now see the flag in a different light. Because they were the ones who dug Pilger’s American flags out of the courthouse rubble, they revere that flag more than anyone could imagine. Perhaps, after that experience, they will hold their heads higher when the national anthem is played, based on a lifelong lesson on one memorable, meaningful Saturday they gave up to help someone else.
Inspirational Moment: Raising the Flag Out of the Dust
“These tragedies bring us together in a way that we never would have imagined,” said Graham Nabity, a junior I-back from Omaha. “Anytime people come together, all with the same mindset, filled with the same hope, they become a powerful force. Look at what our country is founded on...beating an impossible world power and becoming our own. That’s what I think about when I glance upon the flag. That‘s what filled my heart as I kept digging and pushing the debris away...gratefully raising that flag up out of the dust. As bad as a situation may be, there will always be good somewhere within that. You just have to dig out and find it. Last Saturday we found that something – it was the flag and discovering it was quite the moment. It filled me and all the other athletes with a sudden rush of hope and energy.”
The lesson was a simple one. “In this world we will never be able to control what life may throw at us,” Nabity said. “Clearly no day is given. There’s a reason why we call it the present, and I see the word ‘it’ as being a gift. The more I look back to the natural and man causing tragedies, the more I realize that after the sudden blow the ones affected become united and even stronger than before. The flag was a symbol. It reminded all of us not to take things for granted and to be grateful for our friends and families that very well could have been swept away in that same tornado. We will forever take the images with us as we carry onward in this game of life. We will remember never to lose hope but to bind together with our brothers and sisters. We will forever be Pilger Strong.”
Nabity wasn’t alone. Here are testimonials from some of his football teammates and other Huskers who had similarly memorable experiences in Pilger:
Trey Foster, redshirt sophomore tight end from Lincoln
“Before we started, I really saw the flag as more of a symbol of pride and strength for the greatest country in the world. But when we were instructed to dig into City Hall’s fallen roof to find American flags, it seemed like a treasure hunt. When we finally found them under the rubble of City Hall, it made me think of the togetherness of America that the flag represents and that no matter how bad disaster may strike, as a nation we will never be divided.”
Courtney Love, redshirt freshman linebacker from Youngstown, Ohio
“Going to Pilger to help out I realized that we should not take things for granted. I really enjoyed being with my fellow Huskers to show our appreciation for the state of Nebraska. The most memorable part of the trip was definitely seeing the happiness that Pilger residents had once they saw they weren't alone in their struggle. It was an awesome moment to see everyone come together as a family and to reflect on what life is all about.”
Alex Boryca, freshman walk-on linebacker from Cozad, Neb.
“Seeing the destruction in Pilger hit close to home for me. A couple weeks ago, a tornado also hit north of Stanton (Neb.) where my uncle Leonard Boryca lives. He was able to get to the basement before the F4 tornado had a direct hit on his house and farmstead. He walked away with his life, but lost the house he lived in, his vehicle, all of his personal contents in the house, and some livestock. Before I left last Saturday morning, I learned that he lost his pet dog and cat late last week. They told me the only thing he had left was the clothes on his back. I could not imagine. No picture could explain to me exactly what they were dealing with there, until the bus pulled into Pilger Saturday morning. That’s when I got that lump in my throat. I was lucky enough to see my uncle on Saturday. I was able to give him an overdue hug and tell him I was sorry for his loss. With so many other families that were affected by the tornado, we can't give them back what they lost, but we can give them the support they need to get them back on track! I have no doubt. Pilger will be right back! I’m so glad to have been a part of this group. There truly is no place like Nebraska.”
Joey Felici, senior cornerback from Omaha, Neb.:
“My fondest Pilger memory was engaging with the residents who live in the town. When speaking to them, I could really feel their hurt from what they were going through. It was a feeling that I cannot describe. All that I was thinking about while speaking to them is that this situation could have happened to anyone of our student-athletes from a town in Nebraska! The residents were so grateful for our help, and I’m glad I was able to contribute! It was definitely a moment in my life that I will always cherish!”
Nolan Graham, freshman defensive back from Firth, Neb.
“Being a kid from Nebraska, I’ve grown up around tornadoes and had to experience them my whole life. In fact, my school (Norris) was hit by an EF4 tornado in 2005. But this was the first time I could see the widespread destruction caused by tornadoes and honestly I was just awestruck. I was able to connect the destruction so commonplace on TV with the people who have actually lived through it. As soon as we got there I felt a huge purpose in what we were doing. It was an amazing opportunity to contribute and help out the people of Pilger, even if it was only for a little while.”
Will Lohman, sophomore transfer from Boise State on the track and field team:
“As student-athletes we get some unique opportunities to do some awesome community service events. The clean-up event at Pilger was one of the best experiences that I have had. It was great to be able to go up as a group and give back to the community. We have the world's best fans here at Nebraska so I am always eager to give back to our community, and cleaning up for a few hours was the least that we could do to try and show our appreciation. Seeing the destruction in person and trying to place yourself in those people's shoes was an extremely powerful experience that I will not forget anytime soon. I was also able to see a community pull together and support one another to recover from a tragedy. Seeing all this made me even more proud and honored to wear the N and compete for the University of Nebraska.”
Siera Rohde, sophomore sprinter from Ansley, Neb.:
”Traveling to Pilger was definitely a day I will remember. I am from a small town in of 200 people so I knew I needed to go and help out as much as I could. I got to talk to a few locals and hear their stories of that evening. Many lost everything and some still didn't know if their houses were going to be livable. Not one person I talked to was negative or discouraged about the traumatic events. They all were looking toward the future and how they could grow back. I know if that was my hometown, seeing a bus full of Huskers get off to help would lift the spirits of everyone. The town may have been gone but the little community was still as strong as could be. One thing I won't forget is the signs that lined the streets reading "Pilger Will Be Back". It’s an amazing feeling knowing you helped those people that believe so much in their strong community.”
Hannah Dittmar, senior soccer player from Gretna, Neb.:
“The trip to Pilger was one of the most meaningful outreach events that I have been able to take part in to date. Seeing the devastation that the tornado caused and being able to talk to the people who were directly impacted and to hear their stories was humbling. I am grateful that we were given the opportunity to spend the day helping them clear and sort the rubble that had once made up their city hall. My favorite moment from the trip was when our group recovered the American flags from the wreckage, returned them and was able to see how overjoyed the town was to have them back.”
Mattie Fowler, senior softball infielder from Tucson, Ariz.
“Spending the day in Pilger was an incredibly humbling experience. My favorite part of the trip was simply speaking with some of the residents. Each individual had a different story and had lost something in the destruction, yet they remained positive and continued to look forward. As our bus pulled away from the town, twenty residents and volunteers put down their shovels and waved good-bye. The residents and volunteers embody the Nebraska spirit that I am so proud to be a part of. And there is no tornado that can destroy that spirit!”
Ian Ousley, redshirt junior wrestler from Saginaw, Mich.
“The optimistic, happy, and welcoming nature of the residents of Pilger left a lasting impact on me. In the aftermath of the tornadoes, Pilger’s residents welcomed us with bright and inviting smiles, as well as treating us to a meal. As a community that is receiving donations of food and water, the village of Pilger demonstrated the classic Nebraska value of giving back to those around you by providing such a large group with home-cooked food. Thank you to all the people of Pilger for treating us as your own.”
Football, Wrestling Lead Huskers’ Contingent
Nebraska Life Skills coordinators Stacey Burling led Jordan Wilson led the Pilger contingent, which included: Football (17) – A.J. Natter, Alex Boryca, Blake Holtmeier, Bo Kitrell, Byerson Cockrell, Chongo Kondolo, Courtney Love, David Nevel, Graham Nabity, Joey Felici, Josh Banderas, Kevin Gladney, Lane Hovey, Mark Pelini, Nolan Graham, Sam Burtch, and Trey Foster; Wrestling (12) – Alex Metzler, Anthony Abidin, Austin Wilson, Collin Jensen, Colton Adams, Eric Coufal, Ian Ousley, Jake Sueflohn, John Svoboda, Mitch McGinnis, Robert Kokesh, and Sean Murphy; Track and Field (8) – Devandrew Johnson, Katie Rancourt, Madelyn Osmundson, Melissa-Maree Farrington, Sarah Firestone, Siera Rohde, and Will Lohman; Women’s Gym (3) – Aeriel Martin, Jennie Laeng, and Kamerin Moore; Golf (2) – Aaron Wong, Nate Wong; Baseball (2) – Bryce Only, Wes Edrington; Softball (2) – Dawna Tyson, Mattie Fowler; Soccer (1) – Hannah Dittmar; Men’s Basketball (1) Moses Abraham; Women’s Basketball (1) – Rachel Theriot; Cross Country (1) – Sarah Larson.
Nebraska Athletics volunteers sorted and removed all rubble from what was once the Pilger City Hall. With a green light from an insurance adjuster to demolish the remains of the building, Nabity was one of seven who assumed a leadership role. Buried in debris were three large plastic tubs with American flags. After breaking through the roof with sledgehammers, the flags were found and raised in the air, then passed around as two females who worked at the City Hall broke into tears. One suggested that all 50 student-athletes sign a neon yellow safety vest that would find a prominent place to hang when Pilger’s new Fire Department reopens. “The idea came from the lady who helped lead our group,” said Jordan Wilson, the event’s lead coordinator. “She was so touched and so grateful for all of their hard work, she wanted a marker and every student-athlete who volunteered to work that day signed the vest.”
Ross Els, Nebraska’s linebacker coach who coordinates special teams and Husker recruiting, drove to Pilger to watch NU Life Skills in action. Kim Schellpeper, an academic counselor for Nebraska Athletics, made the trip, too. Caleb Kolb, a Nebraska wrestler who graduated last May, represented the N Club and worked just as hard as his former teammates. Somehow, those three additional volunteers define the essence of Nebraska Athletics. None had to be there, but all wanted to be there, just like every student-athlete. Serving others is a big part of Nebraska Athletics’ DNA because it starts at the top and trickles down to every level of the equation, including the independent servants we celebrate on the Fourth of July.
A former wrestler and recent UNL graduate from Grove City, Pa., Kolb said Pilger's passion for each other and compassion from surrounding communities were the most memorable part of the experience. "Being from Pennsylvania, it was truly eye-opening for me to see how passionate and willing to sacrifice for others Nebraskans truly are," Kolb said. "The residents of Pilger invited us in with open arms and told us stories and history of the town. It reiterated how blessed and happy I am to now call Nebraska my home.”
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