By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – University of Nebraska at Kearney student-athletes are used to being in the spotlight.
Normally, people show up to watch them score goals, complete passes and sink baskets.
On Sunday, these roles were reversed. Instead of competing at Cope Stadium, the Lopers gave some of their biggest fans a chance to shine.
Nearly 100 people attended the inaugural Loper Stars event, a collaboration between UNK Athletics and The Arc of Buffalo County that brought individuals with disabilities and their families to campus for an evening of fun and relationship-building.
“I think everybody should have the opportunity to be on this field, and I know that’s how all of our student-athletes feel,” said UNK Athletic Director Marc Bauer. “We all have different levels of ability, and everybody should have that opportunity to experience being successful – just like a collegiate athlete has.”
With support from around 190 coaches and student-athletes, including the cheer and dance teams, participants showed off their skills in basketball, football, golf, soccer, softball, tennis, volleyball and other activities.
Hunter Kraus, a graduate student from Taylor and punter on the UNK football team, was assisting at a giant, inflatable slide that led to a footwork drill and the chance to take down a tackling dummy.
“This is incredible to see how much fun they’re having out here,” he said. “It’s awesome to see all the smiling faces.”
Kraus currently serves as president of the UNK Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), which helped organize Loper Stars. He called it an “excellent opportunity to give back to Kearney.”
“As athletes, the community does so much for us and always supports us, so it’s important that we remember to return the favor,” Kraus said.
Women’s basketball player and fellow SAAC member Brinly Christensen agrees.
“I think it’s a great way to get connected with the community,” the freshman from Lincoln said. “It’s good for us as student-athletes to get to hear their stories while recognizing that they enjoy the same things we do. Sharing that moment with them and having fun together is what makes it so special.”
Modeled after the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Husker Heroes, the inclusive outreach event also featured UNK announcer Rich Brodersen, Louie the Loper and the Pride of the Plains drum line. It was free to attend.
“We have a lot of people in this area who can benefit from an event like this, so it’s really cool to have something closer to home where they can come out and engage with the athletes,” said Jordan Squiers, a direct support manager at Mosaic and president of The Arc of Buffalo County Board of Directors. “As a former student-athlete, I think it’s an awesome way to connect with the community and give everyone involved a chance to shine.”
A 2012 graduate, Squiers played volleyball at UNK, where her father Rick is the head coach. Like the Lopers, many of the participants in Sunday’s event are also competitive athletes through Special Olympics.
“They love to go to the UNK games, so it’s fun for them to get to know the student-athletes,” Squiers said.
Bauer wanted the event to be an enlightening experience for student-athletes, but that wasn’t the main goal.
“I told all the student-athletes last week, ‘I want this to be fun. I want you to enjoy it. I want to see a lot of smiles,’” he said. “Hopefully that’s what they take away from this. I hope they remember this for a long time to come.”
UNK Athletics plans to host Loper Stars every fall.
Thank you @UNK_Athletics & @arcofbuffalocou for putting on the Loper Stars event today! It was well done & a huge success! Trae & EJ LOVED it!! Grateful for this opportunity for them! 💙 #loperstars #togetherweshine #hope #dreambig #autism pic.twitter.com/8Z9N1V7NYm
— Aaron Bly (@kidsanddreams) August 28, 2023