Amid the euphoria of a former Nebraska great coming home to coach, the Nebraska Greats Foundation continues its quiet work — helping ex-athletes in medical need.
Among those helped:
» David Humm, the lefty Husker quarterback from 1972-74, now wheelchair-bound with multiple sclerosis in his hometown of Las Vegas, received thousands for nursing care.
» Josh Jones of Omaha, a Creighton basketball player from 2009-13 with a heart condition, received a grant for medical costs not covered by insurance.
» Jim Unger of Lincoln, a 1975 All-America gymnast for the Huskers who was paralyzed in a 2012 bicycle accident, was able to purchase specialized equipment.
» Willie Miller of Gulfport, Mississippi, a 1996-2000 Husker fullback, received a grant for weight-loss surgery (not covered by insurance) so he could have long-needed back surgery, now scheduled for Wednesday.
The foundation has helped about a dozen former athletes from colleges and universities in Nebraska — not just ex-Huskers — but it has an unusual problem: more money on hand than people to spend it on.
“We need recipients,” said Jerry Murtaugh of Omaha, the 1970 NU All-America linebacker who founded the nonprofit. “We’ve spent $275,000 the past five years, but we have $200,000 in the bank.”
With former quarterback Scott Frost returning as the Husker coach, excitement for the future of the football program is building, and Nebraska is receiving renewed national attention.
The Nebraska Greats Foundation is independent of the university, but Murtaugh and his board, including ex-Huskers and former players from other schools, are seeking a little attention — hoping that former athletes in medical need will make contact.
Ex-letterwinners or their friends and families can go to nebraskagreatsfoundation.org and download the application.
Each case is different. The need may be a little, or it may be a lot.
The foundation provided $80,000 for Humm and about $40,000 for Unger, who called it a godsend.
On Aug. 12, 2012, Unger was riding his bicycle three blocks from his home when he glanced over his shoulder for traffic — and didn’t see a pothole.
“As soon as I landed, I tried to get up, but nothing worked,” he said. “I was paralyzed from the neck down.”
For decades he operated his own gymnastics school and had been in great shape. Besides the neck injury, he needed 100 stitches in his face and had four broken ribs.
Through extensive rehab, including physical therapy, chiropractic and acupuncture, he has regained some function. He stays positive, asserting, “I’m going to walk again, for sure.”
At a Nebraska Greats event recently at the Happy Hollow Club in Omaha, he explained his high-tech machine that uses electrodes to help him exercise his legs. He also has an electrical stimulator for his hands.
The foundation’s problem of finding recipients, Unger said, isn’t that athletes are too proud to ask for help. “I just think nobody knows about this.”
Murtaugh and others want to get the word out. Among the foundation’s board members are Eric Crouch, 2001 Heisman Trophy winner; Maurtice Ivy, three-time all-conference women’s basketball player at NU; and Sandy Buda, former football coach at UNO.
Medical consultants are former Husker football players Dr. Monte Christo and Dr. Rob Zatechka.
Willie Miller, a Bellevue West graduate from an Air Force family, played as a backup NU fullback with Frost and as a two-year starter with Crouch.
An academic all-conference honoree, he missed a chance to play pro football, he said, because a neck problem caused him to fail the NFL physical.
He worked in pharmaceutical sales but said he later suffered from depression and was diagnosed as bipolar. His 260-pound playing weight grew to 390.
Now a motivational speaker in the mental-health field, Miller said his back surgeon required that he first get his weight under 300. A friend notified the Nebraska Greats Foundation, and Willie received a call from Murtaugh.
Miller soon received a $25,000 grant for gastric-sleeve surgery, and he has changed his diet and lost 100 pounds. He said he had put off the back surgery for 17 years.
“The foundation has been a huge blessing,” he said. “And it’s reminded me of the importance of the sacrifices I made in my career, giving it my all on every single play on the field.”
The foundation has assisted ex-Husker basketball player Larry Florence (1996-2000) with travel expenses for medical treatment.
And it has helped wipe out bills for the families of some who have died: Anthony Steels, a 1979-81 NU football player; Alan Pogue, multisport athlete at Dana College, 1984-87; Adam Skoda, NU football, 1994-95; and Pat Kiehn, UNO football, early 1980s.
The first female recipient will be announced soon.
The Nebraska Greats Foundation is modeled somewhat after former NFL star Mike Ditka’s Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund. Murtaugh consulted with Ditka, a Hall of Famer who played for and coached the Chicago Bears.
In Nebraska, money has been raised through tax-deductible donations as well as through golf outings and other fundraisers.
Murtaugh said he knows of no other such foundation in the country with a mission to assist former college athletes in need.
He’s not worried, he said, that the $200,000 in the bank will get spent, and that will be the end of it. More money will come in, he said, when more ex-athletes in need come forward.
“All these athletes,” Murtaugh said, “were the memory-makers of the state of Nebraska.”
Originally published December 12, 2017 on Omaha.com
Michael Kelly, World Herald columnist