There was never a question in Ron Gustafson’s mind.
He was going to play pro football.
A fourth-grader at Lyons Elementary School, Gustafson came from an athletic family. His 6-foot, 6-inch-tall dad, Don, had scored 65 points in a semi-pro basketball game. His older brothers would go on to play college basketball or football.
“I was supposed to be the best athlete out of us all — bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic than all of my big brothers,” Gustafson said. “I was the next I-back for the Huskers. That was the talk in town.”
Back then, Gustafson never doubted he’d play professional football — until a farm accident derailed that dream.
Decades later, Gustafson — known as “Gus” — is a motivational speaker who’s shared his never-give-up message with about 1.5 million people. He’s author of the book, “Fully Armed,” and has plans of having a movie made about his life.
“I have a passion for encouraging others,” he says.
Gustafson even calls the day of the accident “one of the best days of my life.”
“I learned so much about looking at life from a whole new perspective!” he says. “It gave me a passion to live, to learn and to share! Can it get any better than that?”
For many people, a day like that wouldn’t have seemed so good.
It was Sept. 9, 1975.
Gustafson, then 9 years old, had come home from school. His dad, a cattle feeder, drove up to the house on an older tractor pulling a feeder wagon. The cab-less tractor had moon-shaped fenders.
The boy jumped on the tractor and sat on the right fender as he had so many times before. Father and son headed down the road.
“I was telling Dad all about my day at school, bragging to him about all the touchdowns I’d scored playing football with my buddies at recess,” Gustafson recalls.
The two were about a quarter mile away from their house when the tractor’s back axle broke. The wheel flew off.
“I was thrown under the tractor where the axle tore off my right arm and crushed my lower right leg,” he said. “Dad was thrown away from the tractor, came back up on the road, grabbed me and pushed my right shoulder against his chest to slow down some of the bleeding.
“He grabbed my right ankle, because the only thing that attached my right foot to the rest of my body was a strip of skin an inch wide and a couple muscles and ligaments,” he says.
Screaming and crying for Gustafson’s mom, Joyce, to call the rescue squad, his dad carried him into the house and placed him on the living room floor. Joyce brought towels to stuff in the hole where her son’s arm had been and wrap his leg as they waited for help.
The boy, who was conscious, felt no pain and even talked to his parents.
“I didn’t know what damage had been done to me,” Gustafson says.
In the ambulance, the boy remained focused on his future goals.
“I’m still going to play in the NFL,” he told his dad.
Gustafson was taken to what then was called the Dodge County Memorial Hospital in Fremont. There, he says, Dr. William Chleborad did surgery after surgery, taking skin from Gustafson’s stomach and grafting it over his right shoulder where his arm was. He took bone from Gustafson’s hip.
“They take strips of bone. So he wrapped it around the tibia and the fibia in the right leg and made one bone from below my knee to just above my ankle,” he says, adding, “In 1975 that was far greater than amazing.”
Gustafson says he has fond memories of young nurses’ aides Rita Pratt and Carol Grasz, who helped take care of him.
“It was a family relationship. They cared for me and we still have a relationship today,” he says.
Since Gustafson’s mom had switched school-teaching jobs and was in between insurance coverage, he left the hospital after six weeks, traveling home on a mattress in the back of his parents’ station wagon.
He remembers his dog, Bubba, coming to greet him and Dad carrying him into the house.
“I couldn’t go anywhere without Dad carrying me,” he says.
With his right leg in a splint and unable to bend his knee, Gustafson learned to hop around on the other foot. His dad brought him a golf cart for transportation around the farm. Gustafson would prop his right leg on the cart’s seat and run the brake and accelerator with his left foot.
He didn’t return to school until January or February. His dad carried him into the school, placing him in a recliner in his classroom.
Gustafson, who’d turned 10 in December, was embarrassed to have to be carried into school.
But when he came into the room, all his classmates stood and clapped and gathered around his chair for 30 minutes.
He felt accepted and wonderful. Still weak, he started going to school for an hour a day, but grew stronger.
With a brace on his leg, Gustafson began to walk again in sixth grade. He played half-court basketball in seventh grade with a splint from hip to ankle. He played full-court basketball in eighth grade with a splint from knee to ankle.
He wore no splint during his freshman year and played two or three seconds of junior variety basketball games.
After those games, he’d go home to his bedroom and cry.
“I’d cry myself to sleep,” he says. “I was mad, sad, frustrated. I was embarrassed. There had never been a Gustafson that had sat on the bench at any level of competition.”
His dad came into his bedroom one night with some advice.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, what you are or where you’re at in life, but a big garbage truck is going to back up right beside you and it’s going to dump its load of garbage on you,” he said. “At that very moment, you have a decision to make. You can either sit in it, act like it, smell like it and be just like that garbage or you can process it, turn out fertilizer and make everything around you turn green, grow and prosper.”
Dad was walking out the door when he stopped, turned and pointed his big finger at his son and said:
“But the decision is up to you. What are you going to do about it?”
“That was the night,” Gustafson says, “I committed my life to processing all the garbage that had ever been dumped, was being dumped or would ever be dumped on me — to making something good out of every situation I found myself in.”
Gustafson started on the varsity basketball team his sophomore and junior year and was “Honorable Mention All-State” his senior year.
He walked on to play basketball at what’s now the University of Nebraska at Kearney, but had three knee operations during his first two years and never saw the court.
Basketball ended. And at age 20, Gustafson didn’t have an identity outside of being a one-armed basketball or baseball player.
“I was in a lot of emotional pain so I began to medicate my pain with alcohol and was drinking a lot of beer and getting myself into a lot of trouble,” he says. “And a youth pastor got ahold of me. He dragged me to church, where I found Christ. It changed my life.
“Life was not about me, it’s about what I can do for my creator and my Savior?”
Gustafson graduated in 1988 with a degree in marketing and moved to Omaha. He and his wife, Julie, married in 1989; they have three children, Isaac, Josiah and Hannah. He started two Omaha companies, Microfilm Imaging Systems and Integrity Systems, both of which he has sold. He bought Horizon Dance, a dance bag manufacturing company, and set up distributors in Canada, Australia and Japan. A California company bought him out.
Throughout his life, Gustafson has dealt with more stuff. He had a stroke at 33 and had to learn to talk again. He flat-lined after a surgery five years ago.
Gustafson’s motivational speaking began about 24 years ago, when a college friend-turned-teacher asked him to speak to her high school class. The next day, the principal asked if he’d speak to the entire school. Another principal asked what he’d charge to speak at that school.
He’s been a motivational speaker for 23 years with only four states in the U.S., where he’s not spoken. He’s spoken at five of Nebraska’s prisons in the last six months.
Reflecting on his faith, he says: “God is my best friend and my leader. He is why I do what I do. It’s all about my relationship with him. It’s not a religion. It’s not a Sunday activity. It’s about a relationship.”
With a severe winter storm expected to hit eastern Nebraska hard on Thursday, local and state officials are offering tips to help keep drivers safe, and to help make the cleanup run smoothly.
The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm watch for counties throughout eastern Nebraska, including Dodge County, beginning Wednesday evening and running through Thursday.
According to the winter storm watch, heavy snow with accumulations of 2 to 5 inches is possible through Thursday along with blowing snow and rapidly falling temperatures. The snow is expected to make travel conditions difficult for the morning commute on Thursday.
With lots of snow expected to accumulate, the Fremont Street Department is readying for cleanup and possibly a snow emergency declaration.
“We start to go on and sand and salt the streets beforehand when conditions warrant that we do it, and we start plowing arterial streets as soon as there is enough accumulation of snow,” Fremont Street Superintendent Mark Vyhlidal said. “It is hard to say how much exactly that is, but usually a half inch to an inch.”
The Fremont Police Department is reminding residents that parking on designated snow routes will be prohibited in the event the city declares a snow emergency.
According to the Fremont Street Department, a snow emergency is declared when snow has accumulated to 4 inches or greater.
“Once a snow emergency is declared we go and plow the arterial routes and you are not supposed to park on those streets at that time,” Vyhlidal said. “When we have to go in the residential streets it is much appreciated if they don’t park on the streets, and we try to get the snow cleared as soon as possible because the longer we wait the more it gets packed down.”
According to the Street Department, when a snow emergency is declared residential snow removal begins as soon as the snowfall ends.
If a snow emergency is declared, FPD officers will attempt to contact the owner of any vehicle parked on a designated snow route. If officers are unable to contact the vehicle owner the car can be towed at the owner’s expense and the owner can be ticketed.
The Fremont Police Department is encouraging Fremont residents living on or near designated snow routes to stay apprised of weather forecasts in the event a snow emergency may be declared.
Along with local agencies reminding residents of possible snow emergency parking restrictions, statewide the Nebraska State Patrol is urging motorists to be prepared for potential hazardous conditions with tips of their own.
“The storm forecasted for this week could make for dangerous driving conditions across a large portion of the state,” Colonel John Bolduc, Superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol, said in a release. “Drivers should be prepared by staying up-to-date on the forecast and plan ahead if you need to travel.”
Travelers are urged to stay up-to-date on travel conditions with information available through Nebraska 511, Nebraska’s Advanced Traveler Information System. The system is available at all times via phone by dialing 511, online at www.511.nebraska.gov, or Nebraska 511’s smartphone app.
The NSP is also reminding motorists to keep a winter weather survival kit in their vehicles while traveling.
Some basic items to include are: First Aid Kit, phone charger, ice scraper, shovel, small bag of sand, flashlight with extra batteries, blankets or sleeping bags, extra clothing and winter accessories, jumper cables, tow rope, tool kit, matches, candles, red flag or bandana, high energy or dehydrated foods, and bottled water.
The NSP also issued the following reminders for motorists traveling in extreme weather conditions:
Always wear your seat belt and never drive faster than conditions allow.
Blowing and drifting snow can reduce visibility. Travel only when absolutely necessary.
If you must travel, use well-traveled routes and give yourself plenty of time to reach your destination. Let others know where you are going, your route, and when you will arrive.
If you do become stranded while traveling, stay in your vehicle until help arrives. Wind chill and freezing temperatures can be life threatening.
If your vehicle becomes stuck, run your motor sparingly and keep a window cracked to prevent buildup of carbon monoxide.
Carry a red flag or bandana in your car and attach it to the outside to signal for help.
Members of the Midland University Acoustic Performance Group are gearing for a tour of high schools across the eastern half of the state next week.
The Acoustic Performance Group is made up of two dozen Midland students who will be performing a unique brand of entertainment at high schools from Gretna to Grand Island from Jan. 15-23.
“The tour itself is to tell people about Midland and all of the cool things we have going on here,” Kat Sodawasser, assistant director of music at Midland, said. “But the experience for the students is really unique in that, unlike the cast of our musical, they don’t have a script to tell them what to learn, they create their show from scratch in a very short amount of time.”
This year’s theme is “Decades” which includes an opening mashup of an old and a new song as well as three different medleys that feature music from the 1940s through today.
According to Sodawasser, the group tailors its performance to account for amount of time they have at each school but it usually runs around 30-45 minutes.
Also, the group has to create its entire show from scratch over a very short time frame.
“We started rehearsing on Jan. 2, and we go out on tour Monday the 15th,” Sodawasser said. “So they learn how to be creative and learn quickly, and to think on their feet so there are just so many really great benefits from them educationally.”
The Acoustic Perfromance Group show goes beyond traditional choir, or instrumental groups, and includes a rock band and dancers.
“We have a student band with drums electric guitar and keyboard, all that, and we also have some students who are really good dancers who add some dance elements and choreography to the show to add a final touch,” Sodawasser said.
According to Sodawasser, the Acoustic Performance Group serves as an outlet for Midland students who enjoy performing but may not be interested in more traditional venues.
“At Midland we have all of the standard programs, as far as choir, concert bands and musical theater,” she said. “But how cool is it to show these (high school) students that we have all of that, but we also have an outlet for maybe a musician who is not into musical theater, but they love to just create music and so that is the type of students we get in the cast.”
This year’s tour will make stops at high schools in Gretna, Bennington, Elkhorn, Lincoln, as well as Weeping Water, Howells-Dodge, Logan View and others. The Acoustic Performance Group will perform compositions of popular songs from the 40s until today including “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, “Hey Jude”, and “Carry On My Wayward Son”, just to name a few.
“We are performing songs anywhere from Stevie Wonder to the Spice Girls,” Sodawasser said. “It’s cool because we will kind of get to teach some of these high school student about that music, because my guess is some of them probably haven’t heard of singers from those past eras.”
Although the tour performances are reserved for high school students, the public can catch a glimpse of the group later this month as they serve as the pre-show entertainment for Midland’s upcoming performances of “The Man of La Mancha” .
The Acoustic Performance Group will perform thirty minutes before each performance of “The Man of La Mancha” which will be held at 7:30 p.m. from January 25-27th and at 2 p.m. on January 28th at Kimmel Theater.