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Monday, May 2, 2016

Crowd-pleasing night of Husker Hoops at MCC

Monday, April 22, 2013

Steve Kodad/McCook Daily Gazette Wauneta-Palisade High School graduate Taylor Dixon drives for a layup as Medicine Valley coach Scott Johnsen of the Southwest Nebraska Coaches All-Star team looks on during Husker Hoops charity basketball action April 20 at the MCC Events Center. Dixon was one of 12 former Husker football players to bring their annual basketball exhibition to McCook.
Many of the players and fans probably won't remember the final score.

What will be remembered is a great night of basketball entertainment from two teams not well versed in the game. Memories of Nebraska football fans getting a chance to meet some of their Husker heroes. Plus the funds raised to aid a very worthy cause.

A group of former Husker football players came to McCook Saturday, April 20, as part of their Husker Hoops tour. The Huskers faced the Southwest Nebraska Area Celebrity All-Stars, a group of high school coaches from the Gazette area. The basketball exhibition was held at the MCC Events Center on the McCook Community College campus in front of an eager crowd estimated at nearly 1,000 fans.

Steve Kodad/McCook Daily Gazette The crowd roars in the background as former husker P.J. Smith (right) hugs referee John Anderjaska after the official flagged Smith for a penalty during Saturday's basketball exhibition.
The MCC throng was treated to a little bit of basketball skill from both sides. That's might be considered especially amazing considering the Husker players were college seniors concentrating on football during the 2012 gridiron campaign and their opponents, for the most part, could likely be considered on the downward sides of their roundball careers.

THE FORMER NU players signed autographs and mingled with fans after Saturday night's contest. No doubt a highlight for many of the younger fans in attendance was the chance to walk on the floor with the Husker players. On every free throw opportunity during the contest, a name was drawn to come down and be a special guest shooter.

One youngster, Roy Hoelscher, seems a bit edgy when he was hoisted on the shoulders of NU's biggest player, 6-foot-6 former Husker wide receiver K.C. Hyland. Hoelscher applied a death grip around Hyland's head, with the basketball clamped tightly in his hands and pressed tightly against Hyland's forehead. Even the encouragement of Husker heroes P.J. Smith and Alonzo Whaley couldn't convince young Roy to release his grip and shoot the ball.

Steve Kodad/McCook Daily Gazette Young free throw shooter Roy Hoelscher holds on for dear life as he sits on the shoulders of 6-foot-6 former Husker receiver K.C. Hyland, as NU seniors Alonzo Whaley (45) and P.J. Smith encourage Roy to attempt the shot. A crowd estimated at nearly 1,000 fans enjoyed the show at the MCC Events Center, with the Husker seniors holding on for an 87-85 win over the area coaches all-star squad.
REFEREE John Anderjaska felt the wrath of a jarring hit from former defensive safety P.J. Smith late in the contest.

Anderjaska flagged Smith for a foul -- the ref actually pulled a yellow flag from his pocket and tossed it in Smith's direction (holding was likely the call). Smith took offense and chased Anderjaska, picking up the ref and carrying him across the floor to the delight of the crowd. Of course, both Smith and Anderjaska had smiles on their faces the whole time.

SMITH JOINED the Husker football program five years ago after a stellar prep athletic career at John Curtis High School in New Orleans. The NU defensive safety said he thoroughly enjoyed his trip to McCook, with a chance to give a little back to Husker fans for their support.

"That's what it's all about, having a good time with the fans and having a good time with the young kids," Smith said. "That's the reason why I do it. I do it for the fans because they have supported us so much while we were at Nebraska, coming to the games. Emails and Facebook, they did all that, telling us thank you. This is giving thanks back to them.

"Coming to small towns, having a good time and putting on a show for them, that's what it's all about. Who cares who wins, who cares who loses -- it's about having a good time."

FORMER TEXAS PREP standout Alonzo Whaley came to Lincoln five years ago after starring in high school sports at Madisonville, Texas. Whaley echoed Smith's sentiments on giving back to the fans.

"It's just fun. Just think about in the five years that I've been here, how much these fans have put time in and effort in supporting us through the good and bad," Whaley said. "I feel like this is an opportunity to go back and just show them how much we appreciate them. Come out and interact with the fans, interact with the kids.

"It's just so much giving back, because you can't show (enough) gratitude you feel towards them and show them how much you really appreciate them. I think this is a minor part of it, saying that 'Hey, we really appreciate you all.' It's not about the money, it's not about the trip out here, it's not about what you get from it, it's really about coming out interacting with people."

A BASKETBALL and football standout in high school -- "Basketball's my first love," he said -- Smith had options to play football or roundball in college. He chose football.

With a slew of scholarship offers from many Southeastern Conference schools -- LSU, Alabama and Florida to name a few -- Smith decided to come to Lincoln.

Want to know why?

"I'm blessed to play here. I know it's a saying that everybody says, but it's true -- there is no place like Nebraska," Smith said. "I went to a lot of LSU, Alabama and Florida games growing up. I saw the atmosphere there, and Nebraska's is way better, I promise you. I'm not just saying that because I play here, but I'm just telling the truth.

"Nebraska, it sort of reminds me of my high school and how close the fans are and crazy about football and about winning. It felt like home."

THERE WAS ONE other main reason for Smith picking the Huskers over all those big SEC schools.

"I came here because of Coach Bo," Smith said, referring to NU head coach Bo Pelini.

"Coach Bo, he's a hell of a guy. I love him. He wants what's best for us players," Smith said. "He's not just a coach, he's like our best friend, he's like a father. He wants us to succeed. If that means he has to get on our butts here and there, that's what he's going to do," Smith said. "But at the end of the day we've all got respect, we all go in the locker room and hug and he says, "Hey, you did a good job.' We love him, I'm thankful to have Coach Bo as my coach."

Smith said the things put out in the national media about his former head coach are blown out of proportion.

"Now the entire nation sees what Nebraska football is all about," he said, referring to Jack Hoffman's touchdown run in the NU Spring Game April 6.

PELINI WAS instrumental in having 7-year-old Jack Hoffman come on the field with the Huskers and run for a 69-yard touchdown late in the Husker scrimmage at Memorial Stadium. Jack is battling pediatric brain cancer, and after developing a close friendship with Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead a few years back, Jack has been adopted by the Huskers and had become an inspiration to the team, and probably everyone in the state.

Whaley was at the Husker Spring Game, chatting with an old friend, unaware of what was on the menu, when he spotted the young Hoffman in his familiar No. 22 jersey on the NU sidelines.

"Man, who is this?" Whaley said to himself. "Then I put two and two together. I know Jack and Rex have that great relationship. So I'm like, 'I think that's Jack.' Next thing you know he takes off, the crowd goes crazy. It was something that you'll never forget. You can watch it a hundred times, you'll get chills a hundred times.

'It was hands-down the most inspirational thing I've ever seen. It gave me chills. Just seeing this little guy who is a trooper that goes out day-in and day-out and battles with something so serious, to get out and do that. We look at our daily problems and think that they're huge, think that they're problems, we stress about them. But when you see this little guy that fights something that most people think is impossible to defeat, and he defeats it and runs (69) yards without any problems. You look and take a step back -- whoa, this guy is really what the face of the Nebraska program is about.

"It's not about how does the nation view Nebraska football players? It's about watching this little guy go out and show the toughness and that attitude that there's nothing that can defeat me. He lifts up this program, he lifts up everybody. Like I said, for this little guy to go out and fight every day, that's what it's about."

Smith said he was not at the Spring Game, but he heard about Jack's run on ESPN.

"I wish I would have went to the Spring Game," P.J. said. "That's the dream come through for Jack. He's a hell of a kid. Just to see him on Sports Center, Top 10 plays, made me smile. A lot of kids would love to do that. That just shows what kind of man Coach Bo is."

Proceeds from last Saturday's event will benefit the Team Jack Foundation to help fight pediatric brain cancer.

SMITH AND WHALEY are probably the only former Huskers in attendance at McCook Saturday who will pursue a pro football career. They both will be anxious for the NFL Draft later this week, and both are hoping for free agent tryouts if they don't hear their respective names called in the draft.

"God has a plan and it will work out exactly how it's supposed to work out," Whaley said.

A HIGHLIGHT for area fans Saturday night was the appearance of former Wauneta-Palisade standout Taylor Dixon.

The three-sport W-P star was a walk-on in the Nebraska program five years ago. Taylor persevered while spending the first few years deep on the NU roster at wide receiver. He finally earned a letter in his senior year last fall after playing in four games.

Dixon brought a strong cheering section of family and friends from the W-P area to Saturday's event.

THE GAME was almost secondary. The Husker seniors build a seemingly insurmountable 77-61 lead late in the second half. Somehow the area all-stars slipped in a couple touchdowns to tie the score at 77-77 with just under three minutes remaining.

Smith defected to the celebrity team, sneaking in the huddle during a time-out and donning a blue MCC jersey.

With a little more help from the scorer's table, the celebrity team suddenly erased a six-point deficit in the final minute, and seconds mysteriously kept jumping back on the scoreboard until the Huskers prevailed 87-85 when Hyland tipped in a shot just before the final buzzer.

The Husker seniors have played six games so far this spring, with two more games remaining next weekend at Grand Island and Spalding.

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