We are determined to honor those involved in high school sports who, because of their situation, made a tremendous impact on those around them by fighting right on through what others might call a real problem.
Published November, 2001, Omaha World Herald:
Turning Setback into Comeback
by Michael Kelly
In the sanctuary of majestic St Cecilia Cathedral, a man dribbled a basketball behind his back and between his legs. He spun the ball on his finger.
In front of the altar, he caught a baseball thrown by a child, flipped off his glove and snatched the ball in the air.
But there was nothing sacrilegious or disrespectful. On the contrary, Ron Gustafson gave glory to God – and inspired the 350 adults and children who watched in awe.
“Gus,” 35, has only one arm, the result of a tractor accident in Lyons, Nebraska when he was 9. Folks who were in Nebraska then remember it well.
After school on September 9, 1975, he was riding on a tractor with his father when an axle broke. Ron fell off. The tire came off, and the metal rim of the wheel sliced off his right shoulder and arm. His right leg was crushed.
His horrified father picked up his son, pressed his bleeding shoulder against his own chest and ran to the house. On the way to a hospital in Fremont, the boy heard someone say, “He’s not going to make it.”
It’s one of Nebraska’s most amazing stories that Ron Gustafson not only survived but also has made the most of his life. He and his wife, Julie, have three beautiful children, all with biblical names – Isaac, 9, Josiah, 7, and Hannah, 5.
Gustafson and a partner started and sold two successful businesses. Today he gives 100 motivational speeches a year around the nation and in other countries, telling people how they can “turn a setback into a comeback.”
Figuratively, he said, “garbage” enters everyone’s life, and you have to turn it into fertilizer. You can never give up. And you must have the courage always to fare the next challenge.
After the accident, Gus said, he was like a Humpty Dumpty who was put back together again, with numerous surgeries and grafts of skin and bone. He became addicted to pain medicine, and went through withdrawal.
He’d hear about folks saying “the poor Gustafson kid” would never play sports like his brothers. But he tossed balls regularly with his dad. Ron grew to 6 feet 4, started on the high school varsity basketball team for three years and played at Kearney State until blowing out his left knee twice.
For a while after that, he said, he drank too much. But he was inspired again by his father, Don, who asked if he was “willing to pay the price” for a full life. Gus’ goal became making something good out of every situation.
We take so much for granted – tying shoelaces and neckties, zipping a jacket. Gus had some folks from the audience try those, with comical results. Then he demonstrated how he performed each task in seconds.
With his family present, he joked that he tried to get out of changing diapers when the children were babies, but Julie wouldn’t buy any excuses. He was right-handed before the accident, but he quips that “in case you’re wondering, now I’m left-handed.”
In 1996, the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame named him the first winner of its Gustafson Inspiration Award, honoring athletes who overcome great obstacles.
He continues to inspire many. He sells his book, “Fully Armed,” as well as video and audio cassettes. For more information, call (877) 780-4068 or e-mail him at [email protected].
Gus said that he is committed to Christ, and that “every day is a great day for me.” Twenty-six years after a horrible accident, the boy from Lyons shows the strength of a lion.
2021-Addie Schiemann- Fremont
Ron Gustafson Award 2021 Originally from Arlington, Addie’s family moved to Fremont so she could swim. In July, 2017, Addie was involved in an ATV accident and her right arm was amputated just above the elbow. Less than three months later, Addie was back in the pool. As a freshman, she swam for a club […]
Megan was born premature, weighing only 2 pounds. After overcoming several health issues, including a blood infection, pneumonia, and organ failure, she received a tracheotomy and recovered while in a drug induced coma. At 2 1/2 years of age, she was finally free of wires, tubes, and monitors. She took the words of one of […]
2019- Alex France- Millard North
Alex was diagnosed in his teenage years with Retinitis Pigmentosa, which causes vision impairment. He participated in Cross Country and Track all 4 years of his High School career at Millard North. During his freshman year it became a slight issue and in 2017 his vision became notably worse which caused him to run […]
Sam Schukei, a senior at Kenesaw High School who lost his lower left leg in a lawn mower accident at age three, but is a four-year letterman in football, played basketball and qualified for the state track meet in the discus, setting the school record at that time.
2017-Taleah Williams, Norfolk
Taleah Williams was an honor student at Norfolk High School and in spite of being born without a lower left arm she also excelled in athletics. She held several track records and qualified for the State Meet in 4 events her junior and senior seasons and was All-Conference on the basketball team. She lettered all […]
2016- Sofie Tate Columbus
Sofia Tate began dancing in kindergarten. She was inspired to pursue cheerleading after watching a performance by a University of Arkansas cheerleader on the internet. She cheered for Columbus High School, incorporating athletic feats such as back handsprings into her routine. She is currently a cheerleader at Nebraska Wesleyan, studying communication.
2015: Kenzie May
Born without a right hand and forearm, Kenzie May of Indianola quickly adapted and grew into an outstandng athlete at Southwest High School, playing volleyball, basketball and track. She earned all-state honors in volleyball and won three high jump medals at the state track meet. May was selected to play in the Nebraska Coaches Association […]
2014: Josh Jones
Josh Jones saw his promising basketball career at Creighton University end after he fainted during warm-ups for the Nebraska-Creighton game in December of 2012 Jones has undergone surgery to correct heart issues when he was a student at Omaha Central and went on to lead the Eagels to the state title, but the condition developed […]
2013: Olajuwan Wilson
As an 11 year old OJ was diagnosed with acute Myeloid Leukemia. While in the hospital, he suffered two strokes and slipped into a coma. His grandmother who had raised OJ since he was nine months old was told that any breath he took could be his last. Now 16 and with his cancer in […]
2012: Keefe Lodwig Elkhorn
Keefe Lodwig enjoyed success in his youthful swimming days, winning a high school state championship while attending Omaha Benson and winning a handful of Big 8 championships while swimming for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. But it wasn’t until many years later, when he started competing in Masters events that Lodwig displayed the success that can be […]
2011: Tom Heiser Lincoln
Dr. Tom Heiser suffered a physically limiting spinal cord injury in Maui, Hawaii, in 1990, but never let it keep him from an outstanding career in orthopaedic medicine. He no longer works as an operating surgeon but continues to champion a career as a physician, utilizing his exquisite diagnostic knowledge and experience while managing care […]
2010: Jason Branigan Papillion
A two-time state wrestling champion and an all-state football linebacker, Jason Branigan was diagnosed with testicular cancer, brain cancer, and cancer of the lymph nodes while a high school senior. The diagnosis followed a loss in the 1991 state semifinals where Branigan, nearly doubled over with pain in the third quarter, continued to play until […]
2009: Alex Gouldie St. Paul
An amputee who lost her lower leg when she was 2 years old, Gouldie, a senior at St. Paul High School, has played first base on the high school softball team and played for the U.S. Paralympic volleyball team.
2008: Staci Rene Perrigo-Venneman Omaha
Staci Rene Perrigo-Venneman never shied away from competition. Born without a right arm below the elbow, Staci began competing in swim meets at the age of eight. At 12, she earned a spot on the United States Amputee Athletic Association swim team, competing in international events in England, Australia, South Korea and Holland. In […]
2007: Drew Pope Chadron
Through three years of chemotherapy in Denver, Pope overcame acute lymphocystic leukemia at a young age and went on to letter in football, basketball and track at Chadron High School. He is a freshman at Nebraska Wesleyan where he lettered in football.
2006: Sara Prenosil Omaha Roncalli graduate in 2003
Heart problems since birth forced a heart transplant in 2000 and she’s been on an inspirational pace ever since. She was a good swimmer when younger and came out for the swim team at Roncalli, mostly for exercise for her new heart, and that success and enjoyment took her into competition nationally in the US […]
2005: Neil Halford Fort Calhoun
Fort Calhoun 1992 and was a state qualifier in 1991. Neil Halford of Fort Calhoun placed fourth in the state wrestling meet in 1992 and was a state qualifier in 1991.Halford lost his sight at the age of two when he was kicked in the face by a horse. Despite blindness, he placed fourth in […]
2004: Matt Johnson (Omaha Bryan) & Allison Aldrich (Schuyler)
Both are cancer survivors, single leg amputees and athletes. Matt played football for Omaha Bryan High School. Allison played volleyball, basketball and soccer for Schuyler Central High School. Allison’s grit and determination gained one very elite step. She competed in the 2004 Para-Olympic Games in Athens as a member of the US National Women’s Sitting […]
2003: Rich & Olinda Olson
After learning of Olinda’s diagnosis with Lou Gehrig’s disease some 20 years ago, Rich and Olinda just dug down deeper to raise their young children. Countless hours were spent at their kids’ activities, especially if it involved basketball, since Rich is varsity girls basketball coach at Millard South. Even after she couldn’t climb the bleachers, […]
2002: Grosvenor M. (Budge) Porter
Graduating in 1974 from Nebraska City High School, “Budge” earned 10 varsity letters in three sports for the Pioneers. He was a two time All Conference competitor in football, basketball and track and state honors in track for two years. He received a “full ride” to play football at UNL, making him the third generation […]
2001: Bill Holliday Elm Creek
Bill Holliday Elm Creek After a lifetime of activity as an athlete inducted into the Hall of Fame’s first class in 1994 and as a coach with state championship credentials, Bill Holliday became a quadriplegic after a fall from a deer stand. This didn’t stop him from coaching. The work he went to to continue […]
2000: Joe Edmondson Omaha
Directing a wrestling club for years, Joe exposed countless Omaha youngsters to the benefits and lessons of competitive sports and provided the wrestling foundation for several state champions. He organized a national youth sports program, supervised the Kiewit Physical Fitness Center, coached the Blue Jay wrestling club. He has received no less than 13 service […]
1999: Donny Nordhues Greeley
Donny Nordhues Greeley That anyone wins four state championships in his high school wrestling career is a rare accomplishment. That’s being a state champion from ninth grade right on through your senior year–every year; no losses in the state tournament. Donny Nordhues was the third person in the history of the sport to make the […]
1998: Greg Brecka Thedford
Greg Brecka Thedford A childhood farm accident cost him his right arm. Nonetheless, he made Central Eight all conference in football at East Butler and played basketball. At Concordia College, he had scholarships for both football and baseball, winning the school’s Most Inspirational Player award. He continues to be an inspiration as a teacher and […]
1996: Ron Gustafson Omaha
Fitting, the Hall concluded, was that Mr. Gustafson himself should be the first Inspiration Award Winner. The Hall of Fame’s inspiration award is named after its first recipient. Gustafson nearly died in a tractor accident at age 9 in his hometown of Lyons. He lost an arm and a shoulder and nearly lost a leg. […]