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Perez finds home away from home in York


Perez finds home away from home in York

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in March 2018 issue of El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

It seems like destiny now to Brianna Perez, the ex-York (Neb.) College softball standout and recent Nebraska Greats Foundation recipient. She dreamed of playing on a national stage. Instead, she eded up 1,500 miles from home at tiny, private York in southeast Neb., where she overcame injury to become a diamond legend. Then, when more hard times hit, she discovered an entire community, even some strangers, had her back.

Perez was a star high school competitor in her native Madera, California. She suffered an ACL tear as a junior when, covering second base, her cleats got stuck in the dirt and her left knee torqued. She came back strong her senior year. But missing time didn’t net the exposure she needed to land a major college athletic scholarship.

York entered the picture because her aunt Roni (Arellano) Miller played there – graduating in 2001. She’d been a Madera softball star herself. She, too, dreamed of Division I glory before finding her destiny at York. She took Perez on her campus visit and was happy when her niece enrolled on scholarship there. But the homesick Perez lasted only one semester.

“I was closed-minded and not open to the culture of York College. It was different from what I was used to,” Perez said.

She returned home to be near family and friends. She attended Reedley Junior College, where she played ball two years. But leaving York the way she did never felt right. She pined to get back. An unexpected opportunity to do that arose when Miller took the York head coaching job and called to recruit her niece. who had two years eligibility left, to come play for her.

“I was given the opportunity continue my education and softball career, so, I took a leap of faith and decided to go back,” Perez said. “That was the best decision I ever made in my life. I got more involved and made friends I will cherish the rest of my life.

I’m really happy with the way things worked out. I definitely think  everything happens for a reason. The relationships you build at a small school like York College are things you can’t really replace or get anywhere else. I think everything happened the way it was supposed to.”

Having her aunt as her coach helped.

“What I learned from her was not only how to be a better player but how to be a better person. I really appreciate that because I use it now in my everyday life.”

Miller’s husband, Kenny Miller, assists coaching the team and Brianna helps out, too.

“Roni and Kenny are two of the biggest influences in my life. I live with them and help coach with them. They’ve been huge mentors. They’ve helped me grow as a person. If I have questions about life and need advice, I know i can always go to them.”

Perez needed support when, as a York junior, she had the same ACL injury she endured in high school. This time, she made a shoestring catch and as she came up to throw the runner out at home, she stepped in a hole and the same ligament twisted and tore.

“Having already been through it once, I knew what to expect. I learned it was just a set-back to reaching my goals and that I had to work twice as hard. I also learned to be mentally tough because there were many days when the pain was too much and I didn’t think I could do it. But with the help of family, friends, teammates and coaches, I was able to push through.

“I think it has made me more mentally tough for difficult situations in life.”

Just as before, she came back strong. For her 2016 senior campaign she played outfield and batted .433 with an .803 slugging percentage. Her 68 hits included 22 doubles and 12 home runs. She drove in 55 runs. She became the Panthers’ first softball All-American.

Then she got tested again when she fell behind paying medical bills from the knee surgery she underwent. A collection agency threatened legal action.

“It was scary and embarrassing. I didn’t really know what to do.”

She depleted her few resources traveling home to be with her mother, who was fighting pancreatic cancer. “I worked three jobs just so I could afford to go home.”

Then her car broke down. “It was a pretty tough year.”

That’s when she learned about the nonprofit Nebraska Greats Foundation that helps ex-athletes in need.

“It’s been such a blessing in my life,” Perez said of the foundation, which paid off her debts.

Her mother has made a full recovery.

Perez views everything that’s happened as a gift.

“It was completely worth it. It’s made me into the person I am today.”

She left after graduating only to return for her master’s in Organizational and Global Leadership. She compiled a 4.0 GPA. She hopes for a human services career.

“I’m passionate about helping the less fortunate and homeless. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work with that.”

She works in admissions at York, where one day her younger sisters, also softball phenoms, may follow her.

“I tell them all the time, ‘Don’t let anything hold you back.’ I showed them that it can be done. They’re capable of doing that and so much more. They might have offers to play softball at bigger schools but,” Perez said, it’s possible” they could continue the family legacy there. “They’ve come out to visit and they like it a lot. I’ll support them in whatever they want to do.”

Perez is enjoying coaching.

“It’s really cool to see players accomplish something they didn’t think they were capable of. When that happens, you see their confidence go up and carry over into everything else they do. That’s satisfying.”

Though she may not stay in York, she said, “It will always be a little home away from home for me. I’ve been given so many opportunities through York College.”

Lea más del trabajo de Leo Adam Biga en leoadambiga.com.

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Giving a helping hand to Nebraska greats

March 8, 2018 1 comment

Giving a helping hand to Nebraska greats

©story by Leo Adam Biga

©photos by Bill Sitzmann

Appears in the March-April 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine ( http://omahamagazine.com/ )

Memory-makers.

That’s what former Husker gridiron great Jerry Murtaugh calls the ex-collegiate athletes whose exploits we recall with larger-than-life nostalgia.

Mythic-like hero portrayals aside, athletes are only human. Their bodies betray them. Medical interventions and other emergencies drain resources. Not every old athlete can pay pressing bills or afford needed care. That’s where the Nebraska Greats Foundation Murtaugh began five years ago comes in. The charitable organization assists memory-makers who lettered in a sport at any of Nebraska’s 15 universities or colleges.

“All the money we generate goes into helping the memory-makers and their families,” says Murtaugh.

Its genesis goes back to Murtaugh missing a chance to help ailing ex-Husker star Andra Franklin, who died in 2006. When he learned another former NU standout, Dave Humm, was hurting, he made it his mission to help. Murtaugh got Husker coaching legend Tom Osborne to endorse the effort and write the first check.

“The foundation has been a source of financial aid to many former Huskers who are in need, but also, and maybe equally important, it has helped bind former players together in an effort to stay in touch and to serve each other. I sense a feeling of camaraderie and caring among out former players not present in many other athletic programs around the country,” Osborne says.

The foundation’s since expanded its reach to letter-winners from all Nebraska higher ed institutions.

By the start of 2018, more than $270,000 raised by the foundation went to cover the needs of 12 recipients. Three recipients subsequently died from cancer. As needed, NGF provides for the surviving spouse and children of memory-makers.

The latest and youngest grantee is also the first female recipient – Brianna Perez. The former York College All-America softball player required surgery for a knee injury suffered playing ball. Between surgery, flying to Calif. to see her ill mother, graduate school and unforeseen expenses, Perez went into debt.

“She found out about us, we reviewed her application and her bills were paid off,” NGF administrator Margie Smith says. “She cried and so did I.”

It’s hard for still proud ex-athletes to accept or ask for help, says all-time Husker hoops great Maurtice Ivy, who serves on the board. Yet they find themselves in vulnerable straits that can befall anyone. Giving back to those who gave so much, she says, “is a no-brainer.”

The hard times that visit these greats are heartbreaking. Some end up in wheelchairs, others homeless. Some die and leave family behind.

“I cry behind closed doors,” Murtaugh says. “One of the great ones we lost, a couple weeks before he passed away said, ‘All I’m asking is take care of my family.’ So, we’re doing our best. What I’m proud of is, we don’t leave them hanging. Our athlete, our brother, our sister has died and we just don’t stop there – we clear up all the medical bills the family faces. We’re there for them.”

“We become advocates, cheerleaders and sounding boards for them and their families,” Smith says. “I am excited when I write checks to pay their bills, thrilled when they make a full recovery and cry when they pass away. But we’re helping our memory makers through their time of need. Isn’t this what life is all about? “

Smith says the foundation pays forward what the athletes provided us in terms of feelings and memories.

“We all want to belong to something good. That is why the state’s collegiate sports programs are so successful.  We cheer our beloved athletes to do their best to make us feel good. We brag about the wins, cry over the losses. The outcome affects us because we feel a sense of belonging. These recipients gave their all for us. They served as role models.

“Now it’s our turn to take care of them.”

Murtaugh is sure it’s an idea whose time has come.

“Right now, I think we’re the only state that helps our former athletes,” he says. “Before I’m dead, I’m hoping every state picks up on this and helps their own because the NCAA isn’t going to help you after you’re done. We know that. And that’s what we’re here for – we need to help our own. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Monies raised go directly to creditors, not recipients.

He says two prominent athletic figures with ties to the University of Nebraska – Barry Alvarez, who played at NU and coached Wisconsin, where he’s athletic director, and Craig Bohl, who played and coached at NU, led North Dakota State to three national titles, and now coaches Wyoming – wish to start similar foundations .

Murtaugh and his board, comprised mostly of ex-athletes like himself, are actively getting the word out across the state end beyond to identify more potential recipients and raise funds to support them. He’s confident of the response.

“We’re going to have the money to help all the former athletes in the state who need our help, Athletes and fans are starting to really understand the impact they all make for these recipients. People have stepped up and donated a lot of money. A lot of people have done a lot of things for us. But we need more recipients. We have some money in the bank that needs to be used.”

Because Nebraska collegiate fan bases extend statewide and nationally, Murtaugh travels to alumni and booster groups to present about the foundation’s work. Everywhere he goes, he says, people get behind it.

“Nebraskans are the greatest fans in the country and they back their athletes in all 15 colleges and universities. It’s great to see. I’m proud to be part of this, I really am.”

Foundation fundraisers unite the state around a shared passion. A golf classic in North Platte last year featured the three Husker Heisman trophy winners – Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier, Eric Crouch – for an event that raised $40,000. Another golf outing is planned for July in Kearney that will once more feature the Heisman trio.

Murtaugh envisions future events across the state so fans can rub shoulders with living legends and help memory-makers with their needs.

He sees it as one big “family” coming together “to help our own.”

Visit nebraskagreatsfoundation.org.

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