When Rachel Wilke learned her late husband, James Wilke, would be honored as Nebraska's citizen hero for the annual Hy-Vee Heroes Game between Nebraska and Iowa, she was, quite frankly, shocked.
"I knew from Facebook and a few other places that people had nominated him," Rachel said, "but I guess I just assumed across the state there would be tons of people, and we wouldn't be the recipient."
But here's what really impressed Rachel about the honor. Not only did close friends and other people who knew James and his heroic act deem him worthy for this special recognition, the American Red Cross, which chooses the recipient, told the family that some 40 people they didn't know also nominated him.
"That," Rachel said, "was a nice surprise."
Rachel and her three children – Julianne, Colton and Addie – will accept the award on behalf of James during halftime of Friday's game at Memorial Stadium. Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten Conference in 2011 and began playing border rival Iowa every season, the teams play for the Heroes Trophy, and the American Red Cross, through nominations from residents of both states, chooses two people – one from Nebraska, one from Iowa – to honor who performed extraordinary acts of heroism and service in their communities over the previous year.
James Wilke, who farmed north of Columbus, gave his life while attempting to save the life of a stranger during last spring's historic floods that created dangerous conditions, damaged homes and businesses, washed out roads and bridges and claimed lives.
As floodwaters rose, local authorities asked James to help a stranded motorist. True to his character, he did not hesitate to climb into his tractor like he had done before many times. As James crossed a flooded bridge in his tractor, the bridge gave out. James and his tractor were swept away by the floodwaters.
"I mean, we're so proud of the action my dad took that day," said Addie, a college student who is the youngest of the Wilke children. "To have everyone realize that he's a hero – because obviously we believe he's a hero – but to see that he's a hero from the state of Nebraska, especially for the Nebraska-Iowa football game, we're just proud of him and excited to experience all the activities on Friday.
"It means a lot to our family that we received this honor."
Katie Gudenkauf, a nurse who saved the life of a soccer player who's heart stopped during a game, is the citizen hero from Iowa.
What if James could know he is being recognized for his heroic actions?
"He would not want this," Rachel said. "He did not see himself as a hero. This is something that he would not have been afraid of doing. It was in James' nature to help people, let people borrow things if they needed to. He would not have wanted all of this attention."
Nebraska coach Scott Frost said he'd heard the story about James Wilke before, and he watched a video of his family on Tuesday night.
"That's kind of what Nebraskans are all about – helping one another, being there for one another," Frost said. "Obviously, a sad story that he lost his life while trying to do that. But he kind of represents what it means to be a Nebraskan and what it means to be selfless."
James, a devoted Nebraska football fan, played football at Columbus Lakeview High School and, along with Rachel, graduated from Lakeview in 1987. Today, they have two nephews who also play football at Lakeview. Their oldest daughter, Julianne, 25, played rugby at Wayne State.
Colton, 24, has admirably stepped in his father's shoes to help run the family farm.
"Colton is doing a great job on the farm taking over," Rachel said. "Heck, he knows more than we kind of thought. That means James was such a good teacher, because Colton knows exactly what he's doing.
"We have a very good family friend who checks in with Colton every morning. Checks in a couple of times with me, sees how I am doing. Then James has a couple of cousins who farm, so that's been good to have family."
Support from their community has been wonderful, Rachel said, although friends and family haven't been the only ones to reach out.

"This happened, and I cannot believe the outpouring of support from people across the state of Nebraska," Rachel said. "It's just been overwhelming."
Ruck March Finish
The fourth annual Iowa-Nebraska student veteran-led ruck march began last week at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City and will culminate Friday morning, when the ceremonial game ball will be delivered to Nebraska Athletics Director Bill Moos at Memorial Stadium.
More than 100 volunteers helped with the march, as each volunteer carried 20 pounds of personal items to honor the 20 veterans who take their lives every day.
Veterans from the University of Iowa and the University of Nebraska, including Iowa student vets organization vice president Paul Richardson, and Nebraska vets organization president Rod Venegas, will be recognized on the field during Friday's game.
Reach Brian Rosenthal at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

Huskers Ready to Send Seniors Out on High Note

Lincoln, Neb. -- The Nebraska football team practiced for over two hours Wednesday morning in helmets only in the Hawks Championship Center.

Head Coach Scott Frost addressed the media following the conclusion of practice and talked about the short week of preparation and how the team has handled it.

"They've handled the short week well," he said. "We've still got some work to do on it. Obviously with Thanksgiving tomorrow, we're going to adjust schedules a little bit, but we probably need a little work yet to make sure we have the game plan dialed in and the guys are committed to doing that."

Frost followed up by discussing his offensive line and how the unit has helped the run game the pass two games.

"Last couple of weeks we've opened up some bigger holes for some guys," he said. "I think the offensive line has continued to grow, getting some of those young guys in the middle have gotten better as the year has gone along and are playing at a higher level. We've got our work cut out for us against Iowa. They're really stout against the run, their front four is really good, back end comes up and tackles really well. They're going to make us earn it, and we can't just have a good play now and again, we have to be consistent."

Frost went on to talk about how the defense has improved since facing Minnesota.

"We gave up the one touchdown where I don't think our eyes were good in the backfield on Saturday (at Maryland)," Frost said. "Besides that, the fits and responsibilities have been a lot better. They're going to have to be again against Iowa, they do a great job moving the ball just like they do every year. Their quarterback can throw it, and they've got some weapons. We need to be on our responsibilities and be disciplined."

Frost also talked about how his team is preparing for the final home game of the season and the final home game for Nebraska's seniors.

"Honestly, the whole team is having fun, the whole team is excited and anxious to play. I think there are a lot of guys that want to send the seniors out on the best note possible."

The Huskers will continue preparations for Iowa with a walkthrough on Thursday. Nebraska will kick off against Iowa on Friday at 2:30 with radio coverage provided on 103.1 FM in Nebraska City and b103.fm.

Dewitt Nominated for Capital One Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award

Nebraska football assistant coach Jovan Dewitt has been nominated for the Capital One Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award, announced by the Orange Bowl Committee on Wednesday.
Dewitt, who in his second season as Nebraska's outside linebackers and special teams coach, was diagnosed with throat cancer earlier this year and missed most of the spring after undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Dewitt returned to the team full-time in the fall.
The Courage Award was first presented by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) in 2002. A select group of writers from the FWAA vote on the winner each year. The requirements for nomination include displaying courage on or off the field, including overcoming an injury or physical handicap, preventing a disaster or living through hardship. The winner of the award will be included in festivities during Capital One Orange Bowl week and receive his trophy at an on-field presentation.

Nurse practitioner, farmer to be honored at Heroes Game

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A nurse practitioner from Iowa and a Nebraska farmer who died trying to rescue motorists will be honored Friday at the Heroes Game in Lincoln between the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Hawkeyes of the University of Iowa.

Katie Gudenkauf graduated from Clarke University in Dubuque in 2018 and last March was attending an indoor soccer tournament when one of the players collapsed. Officials say Gudenkauf and others performed first aid on the player, saving his life. She now practices at Grant Regional Health Center in Lancaster, Wisconsin.

The Nebraska hero to be honored is James Wilke. The 50-year-old Columbus farmer was killed March 14, during the historic flooding. He was crossing a bridge with his tractor, trying to reach stranded motorists, when the bridge collapsed. He was swept away, and his body was found downstream.

Gudenkauf and Wilke will be recognized at a halftime ceremony, and their names will be inscribed on the Heroes Trophy.

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