Zimmer a Reluctant Hero, But an Inspiring Teammate

Zimmer a Reluctant Hero, But an Inspiring Teammate

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Randy York’s N-Sider

Official Blog of the Huskers

Last Saturday night, among a crowd of 650 inside the Cornhusker Hotel’s main ballroom in downtown Lincoln, Andy Hoffman experienced a real, but short-lived panic attack. After a pediatric cancer research update and before the introduction of Olympic gold medal skater and keynote speaker Scott Hamilton, Andy noticed Keith Zimmer walking toward the back of the room.  While wondering whether Zimmer was leaving the event or making a rest room break, Andy tapped his wife, Bri, on the shoulder while ESPN’s Jeannine Edwards, the night’s emcee, was making the next presentation – the 2014 Team Jack Teammate of the Year Award.

“Our Teammate of the Year is making a huge impact,” Edwards said. “Known as a servant leader, who has been instrumental in keeping pediatric brain cancer at the national forefront, we are pleased to announce that this year’s recipient is Mr. Keith Zimmer, associate athletic director at the University of Nebraska!” The room responded with a standing ovation, and Zimmer, who was heading to an adjacent room to increase two bids in a silent auction, turned his attention to the video screen like everyone else. The video was a highlight of the 2014 Uplifting Athletes Road Race that supported the football team's cause – pediatric brain cancer. Zimmer had no idea that he was winning a special award at Saturday night’s second annual Team Jack Gala, let alone be asked to answer a couple of questions from Edwards, ABC's sideline reporter who broke the Jack Hoffman story on national television in October, 2011. She told how Jack inspired Rex Burkhead to lead Nebraska to its greatest comeback in Memorial Stadium history with a 34-27 nationally televised win over Ohio State.

Huskers Help Families Fight Pediatric Brain Cancer

Zimmer arranged Jack’s first meeting with Burkhead and nominated Rex for the 2012 Rare Disease Champion Award, which was decided by national online voting and sponsored by Uplifting Athletes. Mike Riley, Nebraska's first-year head football coach, led his team practice for the first time Saturday, but took the time to tape a video "thank you" and congratulated Zimmer on what he thought was a well-deserved award. Rex not only won a national award, but created incredible national awareness for pediatric brain cancer. In presenting Zimmer's Teammate of the Year Award, Burkhead asked the crowd to look around the room, then pointed to Zimmer and said: "Without Keith, none of us would be in this room tonight." Zimmer indeed solidified the relationship between football and a cause the Huskers embraced. Team Jack was formed through a grass-roots effort in Atkinson, Neb., and continues to raise substantial funding for relevant pediatric brain cancer research to fight the No. 1 childhood cancer cause of death.

Scott Hamilton has a special place in his heart for this particular cause. A cancer survivor, he gave a sincere and stirring keynote address at Saturday's Team Jack Gala. "With this challenge comes blessings," he said. "Through every storm, there's a rainbow." That thought helps define Nebraska football's launch of its Uplifting Athletes chapter. Through teamwork, the Huskers have raised more than $100,000 for child brain cancer research. “The entire Hoffman family inspires so many people, including our football team,” wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp said. “They’ve raised awareness to a national level, and whenever we get a chance to help their cause, it’s not a question of if – it’s a want for us. Team Jack is part of who we are. They’re part of our makeup. I was glad to see Keith Zimmer win that honor. He does a great job instilling the importance of helping others into our football team.” Make no mistake. Zimmer was a reluctant "hero" who had no idea what was coming his way Saturday night. He did not panic and answered both of Edwards’ questions with poise and confidence, bridging his answers into a team theme instead of an individual one, and the one word that resonated was a “culture” to serve and help others.

Zimmer’s Coworkers Benefit from His Vision, Values

All three of Zimmer’s full-time staff members attended Saturday night’s gala, and all three were just as surprised as their leader was when he was named Team Jack Teammate of the Year. Nebraska Life Skills Coordinator Stacey Burling said that from the time the banquet started to the announcement that Zimmer won the award, a handful of families with a child in the room came over to their table to thank both Zimmer and the football team for raising the level of awareness for pediatric brain cancer. "No one knew Keith was winning an award," Burling said. "They were just expressing how appreciative they were for what he's done for them.” The photo above, from left, shows Zimmer and three Life Skills coordinators – Jordan WilsonKayla Conrad, and Burling. Conrad said Zimmer is “typically the person behind the scenes organizing various events, so to see his dedication recognized was exciting for all of us. Getting to see Keith completely surprised when they called his name was priceless.” Wilson pointed out how Zimmer’s leadership has had a positive impact on thousands of Husker student-athletes through the years and continues to do so every day. “Keith is a perfect example of why Nebraska is such a special university,” she said.