In the front of the line at the University of Nebraska Training Table stands Ndamukong Suh, two plates in hand. One plate has two steaks and the other is covered with a heaping mound of mashed potatoes smothered in gravy. Not far behind Suh stand three East graduates: Erik Anderson (’06), Blair Slapper (’07) and Scott Willman (’08). These students want to make a statement, one that shows they are just as accomplished as Suh and the Cornhusker football team.
Slapper, Anderson and Willman have never joined Suh competing on the football field, but as student-athletes, they enjoy reserved seating in the Memorial Stadium to cheer on their Cornhuskers each Saturday in the fall. When they are not at the football games, they are faced with practice, conditioning and school work.
Anderson is a pitcher on the baseball team, Slapper is a right back on the soccer team and Willman plays on the golf team. In the fall of 2011, another East student, junior Molly Rappold, will join them as a Husker soccer player. While each of these Lancers took a different path to Lincoln, they all made their decision to attend Nebraska for the similar reasons.
“I looked at a lot of different schools, but in the end I chose Nebraska,” Rappold said. “It was the first one that I looked at and I compared all of the others schools to it.”
After Rappold was contacted her sophomore year by Nebraska, she knew that it would be a school that she would highly consider. The weight rooms, facilities and athletic dorms topped it off after being introduced to the academic program when she took an unofficial visit.
“The academic programs offered are great and that was a huge factor in deciding where I would go to college,” Rappold said.
“Nebraska has the most Academic All-Americans and the best academic support system of any university,” Slapper said.
Nebraska is known for stressing the importance of academic progress for its athletes. Athletes are provided access to tutors to help them with the classes they miss because of frequent traveling during the week. Academic advisors help track academic process and ensure that athletes are keeping up with class work. Slapper said that balancing school work and a sport is not too difficult when you manage your time and meet with tutors frequently. Still, the travel is a significant hardship. Willman missed 10 school days during the fall semester, which has made it difficult for him to stay current with his classes. This spring, Willman expects to miss as many as 20 days of class.
The reality is that playing a sport comes with challenges—academics, practices and competitions. Willman said that he sacrifices time and social events but in the end it is worth it.
“The time obligations are immense,” Willman said. “There are the workouts at 5:30 in the morning. Then, there are the daily practices which for golf amount to another five hours a day. We play fall and spring golf tournaments and the travel is brutal. But I have really enjoyed the experience and competing with top quality players every week.”
Some athletes only go so far as the college level, but others go beyond. Slapper said that going beyond college would be a great opportunity. Over the summer, she played in Seattle for a semi-professional team. Willman also played in his first Nationwide Tour tournament this summer against professionals. Nebraska is a stepping stone to what the future holds for these athletes—if it means becoming a professional athlete or using their education to get a job.
“East has prepared me for college at Nebraska,” Slapper said. “A lot of the girls on the soccer team that didn’t go to East really struggled their freshman year.”
Although college is harder for athletes academically, East has helped prepare these students for college. Slapper and Willman took businessbased classes such as marketing and economics at East, which now help them with classes that they take now. East also gives students the opportunity to take classes that transfer to college credit. Rappold is determined to get as many hours as possible towards college so that she has a head start when she begins school at Nebraska. As student-athletes prepare for college academically, they adjust to the transition that they face when beginning college sports.
“In college, the pace of the game is faster and the competition is tougher,” Anderson said. “Everyone is bigger, stronger and pressure builds.”
The four athletes noted that high school sports are significantly different from college sports. While high school offered opportunities for them to improve their athletic abilities, these athletes spent uncounted hours working on their skills on their own. Playing on summer teams, training in the off season and working with coaches often are what separate athletes that play in college from those who do not advance to the next level.
“My time at East helped me be ready for college, both academically and athletically,” Anderson said.
Although Anderson, Slapper, Willman and Rappold have traded or soon will be trading columbia blue, black and white for Herbie Husker’s scarlet and cream, all are thankful that their hard work and dedication has paid off.