Nebraska athletic program’s coaches, players call on faith for success
By Nedu Izuegbunam, NewsNetNebraska
Caleb Hawkins still can’t believe he’s a member of the Nebraska baseball team.
“If you were to tell me in my senior year of high school that I was going to play baseball at the University of Nebraska I would have told you you were crazy,” Hawkins said.
Although the thought of being a Husker relief pitcher wasn’t something Hawkins ever fathomed coming true, he described in one word why he’s a Husker today: blessed.
“People say the game of baseball is paying me back,” he said. “I say that’s God trying to ease me along the path that he has set for me in his plan.”
For several years, Nebraska has, in public and private ways, carried tradition of faith in athletic programs. From prayers on the 50-yard line to Bible studies amongst athletes to verses written on the inside of baseball caps, signs and symbols of faith appear throughout Husker athletics.
It starts at the top with a Nebraska legend – Tom Osborne.
During his time at UNL, Osborne held three jobs as a member of the coaching staff – offensive assistant, offensive coordinator and head coach – from 1964 to 1997, before eventually landing his most recent job as athletic director from 2007 through 2012.
But besides being a prominent figure in the football department for many years, the former Husker coach has also been known for his commitment to his faith.
“Faith is always a part of you. It’s hard to separate that out,” Osborne said. “We did have a silent prayer before we took the field and a silent prayer when we came off. It was always silent so a player can pray in their own way.”
Osborne, whose written six books that have included his beliefs and faith in sports, said he wasn’t shy on letting his players know about his spirituality. Although he never forced his religion on anyone, he said he does believe that it assists in building a person’s character.
“Sometimes I would tell our players where I was coming spiritually,” he said. “I would tell them that everyone’s of equal importance and should be treated with the respect. That we should be supportive of our teammates and try to build cohesion, unity and purpose on our team. And that no one is beyond redemption.”
Husker men’s basketball coach Tim Miles agrees.
The newest acquired head coach for Nebraska, who Osborne hired before his retirement in January, said the former football coach’s philosophy played a major impact on his decision to come to Nebraska.
“There’s nobody out there that’s more about the right things than Tom Osborne,” Miles said. “He understands how to build a successful program and do it the right way. I think he embodies all the things that are right about life and certainly college athletics.
“There’s no doubt that he was a big reason I took this job.”
Like Osborne, the Catholic head coach also said he incorporates his beliefs into his coaching philosophy. According to Miles, instilling faith into his players isn’t something he works at either.
“It’s just ingrained,” he said. “One thing about religion and faith, I think that helps is that you confront issues. You don’t just run away from issues, you get it going in a more positive, healthy direction. And we try to do all those things in our program.”
TRUST IN THE LORD
When Hawkins first entered his freshman season at Texarkana College, the right-hander was told by his then head coach, Will Bolt, five words that hit him like a pile of bricks.
“When I first came in as a walk on he told me I was the worst pitcher on the team,” Hawkins said.
But the right-hander didn’t deny the discouraging statement from Bolt. He agreed.
“It was true,” Hawkins said. “I had a terrible summer before hand and I wasn’t where I thought I’d be. I remember my parents just saying keep your heart where it’s meant to be, keep your head where it needs to be at, stay focused on the Lord, and just work as hard as you can and let’s see what happens.”
His faith in God and the pep talk from his parents seemed to be the kick start Hawkins needed to an impressive rookie season. After praying many nights, Hawkins saw the choice of sticking with baseball pay off in huge dividends.
“I ended up at the end of the year being one of the first two guys out of the bullpen every series we had,” Hawkins said. “I thought ‘God is granting me another chance’. I didn’t even know I was going to play multiple years. I was going to try one year and see what happened.”
The right-handed reliever saw his hard work paying off. And so did his coaches.
At the end of the season, Bolt took an associate coach’s job at his alma matter, Nebraska, and wanted Hawkins to join him. He had the then sophomore visit the school four months after his hiring in October.
“We had it all laid out for him,” Bolt said. “We told him we like you, we want you to be a part of the program.”
However, Hawkins wasn’t offered a scholarship, which he admits not being too thrilled about at the time.
“That bothered me a little bit,” Hawkins said. “I thought that I had worked hard enough to get one and I had scholarship offers to other schools down in Texas. And then I set back and evaluated and thought ‘God, what are you doing with this because I don’t know what to think.’
“Then I thought what type of servant would I be if I’m here whining about money?”
It took a couple weeks, but after praying over it and writing down the pros and cons with his parents, Hawkins finally made the decision to join the Huskers as a walk-on.
According to the junior, his faith is what got him to where he is today.
“It was just a matter of prayer and it was God orchestrated,” he said. “There’s no other way to explain it. When I get down about things here – if I think I’m not having the best season or about the team struggling – I think, ‘I’m still here for a reason that maybe I don’t know about yet.’”
A BLESSING IN DISGUISE
The worst words a pitcher can ever hear is Tommy John. It means the pitcher has torn a ligament in their elbow. It means surgery. It means a long recovery. It might mean no more baseball.
After going 5-3 and posting a 3.06 ERA his freshman year at Iowa Western Community College, Michael Hoppes made a visit to the UNL to talk about playing baseball for the Huskers. It was a dream to play for Nebraska, and it came true that trip when he signed onto the team.
A week later, he was told he tore a ligament in his elbow. He’d miss the next season, and he’d have Tommy John surgery.
The injury left the then 20-year-old puzzled about what to do about the sport he loves.
“Growing up as a Nebraska kid I always wanted to play for Nebraska,” he said. “You really long to search for answers and you long to search for why these things are happening in your life.”
After he was given the diagnosis of a torn ligament, Hoppes chose to redshirt in the spring, a season in which he watched his team go 62-6 and win its second national title in school history from the bench.
“That year was probably one of the longest years,” he said. “It was a long 12 to 13 months.”
Despite being unable to pitch a full year, Hoppes said he now looks at the timing of the season ending injury as a blessing in disguise.
“Of course the questions arise ‘why me, why now?’” he said. “In my heart I knew I wanted to be a Husker. Without an initial diagnosis of an actual torn ligament, but then extend the process out to where I signed and then found out…it was a real example of how God has a plan and how God’s going to work something out.”
The now 21-year-old said the daunting ordeal has made him more resilient in his faith.
“I can say that my faith as never been stronger now that I’ve gone through (the injury) and it’s only caused me to grow,” Hoppes said.
And although he says it’s been tough juggling his studies, baseball and his spirituality, Hoppes has found ways to connect with God both on and off the field.
On game days, the Husker pitcher said he writes a Bible verse from Philippians 4:13 on the inside bill of his cap that reads: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Hoppes said he reads the verse whenever he’s in tough jam to get him through an inning.
“It’s really such a powerful verse in such a short amount,” he said. “It can be used as cliché but if you think about the power that’s inside that verse, it’s really anything but that.”
And it’s not just on his uniform where Hoppes makes sure to remind himself why he’s playing this game for God.
Whenever the redshirt-sophomore is called out of the bullpen, “Let There Be Light” by Andy Mineo can be heard playing from the Hawks Field speakers to welcome him out on the mound.
“There’s no bigger stage than standing on the mound in front of 4,000 fans at Nebraska and for them to know my true purpose of why I’m here and why I’m playing this game,” he said. “It fits perfectly.”
Hoppes also tries to continue his relationship with God off the field through a student athlete organization called Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
The Husker pitcher said he and some of his teammates involved in the ministry get together on Tuesday’s for Bible Study, and added that their discussions have helped lure him closer to God.
“There’s a lot of travel time and we don’t have as much down time as we did in the fall,” he said. “Any kind of scripture or any kind of biblical teaching that you can get goes a long way with such a busy schedule.”
Hoppes, who’s also an advocate for FCA along with Hawkins, said that he plans on being more involved with the student athlete ministry after the 2013 baseball season is over and is considering interning with them this summer.
“God’s put that in my life,” he said. “Wherever I go…to be an ambassador for Christ is always going to be something I’m for. It’s always going to be something I’m going to put a lot of emphasis on.”
And it’s not just the pair of baseball players who have carried their faith into athlete focused groups.
REDISCOVERING HER SPIRITUALITY
Ever since she could remember, God has always been a part of Lora Evenstad’s life.
Whether it was at home with family or attending private school from age six through 18, religious studies were always a part of the East Grand Forks, Minn., native’s childhood.
But when Evenstad came to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2008, sticking close to her religion became difficult. The decline in faith, Evenstad said, was partly due to her involvement in sports.
“When I got to college, it’s something that I really wanted to pursue,” she said. “But I didn’t know how to be fully involved in my sport and my faith at the same time. Especially when you first came to college and you’re participating in a sport, it’s overwhelming.”
Evenstad joined the Nebraska women’s gymnastics team her freshman year and immediately made a name for herself when she was awarded the 2009 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. But it wasn’t in the scarlet red leotard on game days the student athlete said she had trouble excelling in her first two years.
Her attempts to be a flawless gymnast took over her identity.
“As an athlete it’s really easy to let your sport become of absolute importance in your life,” she said. “You’re never happy when your identity isn’t your sport. So if you had a bad day at practice or you’re not happy with your performance, that can start to define you.
“You can never be perfect at your sport so you’re always going to be a failure.”
Her inability to live up to her own expectations and her increasing distance from her faith led Evenstad to feeling disoriented.
“When you join a team, you’re a part of that team and those (teammates) become your friends and sisters,” Evenstad said. “So you can’t really choose who you’re hanging out with or what groups you’re hanging out with. These are the people that I need to hang out with, that I need to be with, workout with and spend my time with.
“It’s hard to find time outside of that when there are a lot of mandatory activities that you have to participate in.”
After being dissatisfied of just going to church on Sundays her first two years of college, the then 20-year-old decided to join a newly launched organization called Varsity Catholic.
The F.O.C.U.S. subgroup was formed on UNL’s campus in 2007 to assist student athletes who struggle making time for their faith. The Catholic organization has since expanded its staff to eight other colleges in the United States since its establishment six years ago.
Evenstad said joining the organization in her final two seasons helped her to regain her faith.
“(God) knew I needed Varsity Catholic and He put me, not only a campus that has Varsity Catholic,” she said. “He knew this is where I needed to be and He did a great job of leading me here, regardless if I knew what was going on or not.”
By the end of her four year career as a Husker, Evenstad had accumulated four individual conference championships in the Big 12 and Big Ten; three All-Big 12 honors; three All-Big 12 Championship Team honors; two All-Big Ten Championship Team honors; a First-Team All-Big Ten honor; and two First-Team All-American honors.
When it came to winning awards and being honored in sports, Evenstad did it all. And if you were to ask Osborne, he’d tell you her accomplishments are no surprise.
According to the former Nebraska athletic director and head coach, spirituality can only make an athlete successful in anything they do.
“I do believe that (athletes) that are spirituality grounded in many ways are less apt to be selfish, less apt to violate team rules, less apt to treat another player inappropriately,” he said. “Spirituality, however you define it, can be an important part of an athlete’s performance.”
Now that the 23-years-old’s playing days at the college level are over, Evenstad said she plans on using the lessons she learned as an athlete to help her through her future endeavors and keep close to her faith.
“I feel like gymnastics was just more of a stepping stone to get me to where I needed to be,” she said. “I have the background of an athlete, the drive of an athlete, but a soul for the Lord. I feel like athletics taught me how to work hard. It taught me how to communicate, and work on a team, and how to be a leader.
“Since I’m not an athlete anymore, God’s allowing me to hone those skills that I acquired from my athletic career, and use them to pursue other things, or a career to do His work in whatever way.”
Faith amongst student athletes is something Miles said he’s enjoyed seeing since moving from Colorado last summer, and added that it’s another reason why he’s proud to be a Husker.
“It’s just cool to see all the young people engaged,” Miles said. “There’s no doubt that there’s a kindred spirit in Nebraska when it comes to their faith in God; when it comes to their commitment in their faith. And you can see that from a mile away.”