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Photo Credit: Brady Oltmans

Huskers Give Back to Youthful Nebraskans in First-Year Flag Football League

July 17, 2023

Being raised the son of a Husker meant Elliott Brown looked up to the scarlet and cream as role models. Lance Brown was a member of Nebraska’s 1995 and 1997 national championship teams. A quarter century later, Elliott is a walk-on at Nebraska and well aware of his social standing. He knows what it means to be a Husker despite the overall win-loss record. So when he became a Husker he immediately looked to give back.

“I’ve always wanted to be where I’m at right now so I thought if I could be able to give the dream to these kids who are where I was back in the day, I wanted to hop on that right away,” Brown said. “Every opportunity to start something that can give back to the kids, I want to be the first guy on the job.”

Brown runs his own football camps in Omaha. He helped with the Matt Rhule Football Camps in June, which included various camps geared towards all ages. Then came a call from Next Level Sports and its intent to start a youth flag football competition in Lincoln. Next Level reps came in, ran Huskers through how they like things ran and then backed away. Huskers and certain Nebraska support staffers are paid representatives of Next Level during the camps to ensure each Sunday runs smoothly. Huskers act not only as coaches but as referees. The inaugural season ended on Sunday with a breezy afternoon in Memorial Stadium.

Next Level wants to provide the best overall sports experience to the youth, director of development Bradley Northagel said. It started 11 years ago and has since grown to 30,000 participants across 12 states. Northagel said an 8-minute conversation with the Nebraska support staff laid the groundwork. They started in mid-June. He thanked Jared Folks, Dr. Susan Elza, Gordon Thomas and Gus Felder for their open communications to lay the groundwork. And then he ultimately thanked head coach Matt Rhule for seeing the potential in the project.

“It’s incredibly humbling the staff at Nebraska was tyring to see what we can do,” Northagel told Hail Varsity. “He’s worried about beating Illinois, he’s not worried about flag football. For us to have that conversation, see the value in it, Coach Rhule being in the first year I heard he was looking for ways to give back to the community and that’s what we’re all about.”

An estimated 160 kids participated in the Lincoln flag football league this summer. They were coached by a multitude of Huskers while parents stood at the fencing around the field with their phones out. Dozens of Huskers walked Tom Osborne Field on championship Sunday alone, scattered across four simultaneous games. Korver Demma sported a sleeveless referee shirt, Brown directed traffic at midfield to start the day, Chubba Purdy, Riley Van Poppel, Tristan Alvano, Vincent Carroll-Jackson, DeShon Singleton, Dylan Rogers and Jason Maciejczak were among those who roamed the two west games. New Husker Jeremiah Charles celebrated a championship with his team at the end of the day.

Brown knows the impact playing at Memorial Stadium for two hours can provide the young kids. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to practice in the Hawks Championship Center and then walk the skywalk tunnel past the locker room, training table and weight room through the tunnel. Seeing them experience the everyday things Husker football players are familiar with underlines the program’s importance to the community. The coaches and referees for these games came to Nebraska to play football. But being Nebraska football players goes beyond the football itself.

“I want to be where Husker football players can be looked up to as good role models, as good men, people who can lead the next generation,” Brown said. “Because that’s what it is, that’s what I looked up to, from my dad, all the guys I watched as a kid, these are the kids I looked up to in the community.”

Those kids now call DeShon Singleton “coach.” The junior defensive back got the notice of the league from Folks and thought it would be a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon. He arrived nervous on the first day. When coaching the kindergarteners and first graders, Singleton discovered he needed to teach them handoffs. During the 45 minutes of practice they get each week he’d have them line up to learn to take handoffs. Then he’d separate them by 5 yards and teach them flag pursuit.

“It means so much to me because when I was younger we didn’t have that,” Singleton said. “When you have the opportunity to meet the college football players it brings a smile to my face. Seeing another kid smile means a lot to me and doing that stuff for them.”

Singleton admitted his team only knows two plays: run to the right and run to the left. Run them until the defense stops it. Singleton laughed thinking about how his team celebrates a touchdown. After one score, Singleton told the kids they needed to learn to hit the griddy. His Husker teammates get involved too, celebrating and hyping up the young kids when they can. Sometimes the competitive nature in coaches come out but it always gives way to the goal of fun.

The young kids didn’t care about the record or the team’s record in recent years. They care about the way the players interact with them and how they feel in that moment. Or, as Singleton put it, they don’t care about anything other than being coached by Huskers. They just want to have fun playing football. Although, admittedly, some of the Huskers find themselves pointing out detailed coaching they receive from the Husker coaches. Brown called it natural because he believes everything learned should be passed onto the next generation. Like being a Husker, perhaps.

“They are more worried about what the players are like when we’re interacting with them,” Brown said. “Are we energetic? Are we really pouring into our heart and soul with what we’re doing? That transfers to the kids. It’s more about how you interact with the kids I think. That’s what they really care about.”

In Brown’s own football camps he teaches effort. Whether it’s staying attentive in class or taking out the trash when their parents ask, it all requires 100% effort, he said. No one’s perfect but you can become a role model with how you treat others and the effort put forward. The participating youngsters trotted off the field on Sunday with glowing pride. They just spent another two hours pretending they were Huskers.

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