LINCOLN — The news was spreading last week about the devastation caused by two tornadoes in the state’s northeastern countryside, and that got a couple native Nebraskans wondering what they could do to help.

The texts went back and forth between junior receiver Sam Burtch and senior defensive back Joey Felici. Their minds were racing after hearing about that June 16 storm.

Could they send supplies? Raise some money? They could at least pack a car with a few football teammates to volunteer, right? Something had to be done.

Turns out, a bunch of NU athletes were thinking the same thing.

That’s why a bus full of more than 50 Huskers — representing 12 sports — made its way up to Pilger last weekend. The athletes spent last Saturday helping a community rebuild after an EF4 tornado killed two and ripped apart half of the buildings in the 350-person town.

It didn’t take long upon their arrival for Burtch and his fellow Huskers to be reminded of how helpless one can be after a natural disaster.

“Really surreal,” Burtch said.

Especially considering that Burtch grew up in Murdock, which he assumes resembled Pilger before the storm. Looking at the destruction in Pilger, it was hard not to think about his hometown.

“A small town in Nebraska — they all pretty much look the same,” Burtch said. “You’ve got the main street going through the center. Standing there, I could tell how it was before. To see how it is now … it’s shocking and unfathomable.”

Burtch spent about six hours in Pilger, clearing out a building that had collapsed. Felici and 17 other football players joined him. They teamed up with 15 Husker wrestlers and did much of the heavy lifting, removing what was left of a roof, slamming sledgehammers into walls and lugging cinder blocks to trucks. The other athletes formed an assembly line, then helped whenever directed.

“What struck me (about the residents): how grateful they still were, that they continue to look forward,” said Mattie Fowler, a senior on the softball team. “There were hundreds of volunteers there besides us. All these people just giving their time to reach out and help.”

Fowler, from Arizona, had no clue what to expect.

She was once the freaked-out freshman who spent 10 minutes in the basement of her dorm three years ago when she first heard a tornado siren on a Wednesday morning. No one joined her.

Fowler eventually figured it out. Just the monthly test.

The trip to Pilger confirmed her fears, though.

“We saw three blocks, completely leveled, and one block over, a house that isn’t even touched,” Fowler said. “It was so heart wrenching to see. It just makes you realize how lucky you are.”

Which was the point of the trip. Just a group of Huskers hoping to give back.

Keith Zimmer, NU associate athletic director for life skills, said when he originally sent out an email about the trip, his inbox was flooded with responses by the end of the day.

“I think they just recognized that they get so much support from our fans and this university, it just felt like the obvious thing to assist with — even though it was to a smaller degree,” Zimmer said.

For more information on recovery efforts visit, or volunteer by calling 402-833-1515.

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