By Emily Gatewood
Lincoln -- Growing up in Shawnee, Kan., Benny Cornelsen promised his mom that one day he would score a touchdown on the University of Kansas football field. On Nov. 3, 2001 wearing a Nebraska jersey, the 23-year-old Cornelsen fulfilled his promise by returning a punt for 71 yards and a touchdown.
"When I caught the ball, I saw this one guy coming after me," Cornelsen said. "I made a move on him, and I turned the corner to see everyone blocked. There was a wide open space and I ran through it. In the end it turned out to be me and the punter, I knew I was going to outrun him, so I just went around him, went in and scored. It was a great feeling."
After suffering through a shoulder injury and a severe car accident that delayed his enrollment at Nebraska until January of 1998, Cornelsen deserved a great feeling. Cornelsen saw his first playing time in 1999 against Kansas State after a five-month rehabilitation period on his knee. The quick turnaround, which Cornelsen credits to a good athletic medicine staff and amazing doctors, allowed him to see some time on the field.
"After the shoulder injury and knee surgery, things looked pretty bleak," he said. "For a while I thought I?d never get a chance to play football. The only thing that kept me motivated was that I knew I couldn?t give up. I had really good family support telling me to hang in there and take it. If it wasn?t for them, I don?t think I?d be able to have made it through the rough times."
Now in his final year as a Husker, Cornelsen splits his playing time on the field at wingback and punt returner and has no regrets about continuing on with his football career at Nebraska.
"Coach Osborne invited me to visit Nebraska my senior year in high school," Cornelsen said. "When I got to the game, I was really in awe of the atmosphere, fan support and the guys on the team. I thought to myself, I?d like to play with these people. Nothing?s changed since then."
Now with five years of experience under his belt, Cornelsen takes it upon himself to be the one that encourages the new guys on the team.
"I think now it?s my turn to make an impression on someone else," said Cornelsen, who lists former wingbacks Sean Applegate and John Gibson as the players he looked up to as a newcomer on the team.
"When it comes to walking onto the field, I like to give the younger guys little hints that will help them out. I think more than anything, it?s just letting them know that it?s all right if you make a mistake as long as you go hard and do what you have to do on the field."
Receivers coach Ron Brown has nothing but positive things to say about the student-athlete he has worked with over the past six years.
"Benny?s been through a lot," Brown said of Cornelsen. "He?s had so many injuries. Anything from football injuries to car accidents, you name it, that kid has been through it. I?ve seen a great deal of maturity in him. His confidence level has grown. He?s really a pleasant kid, one that?s easy to coach and also a very respectful person and a very efficient player. He has improved in about every aspect of the game. He?s solid and versatile, and he?s learned a variety of positions."
Making steady improvements throughout his years on the team, Cornelsen returned three punts for 49 yards during the 2000 season, and the highlight of his career came in 2001 when he returned a punt 71 yards at Kansas. For the year, he totaled 124 yards on 10 punt returns for Nebraska.
"One of Ben?s strengths is that he?s an illusive runner," Brown said. "He has really exemplified good punt return ability, and he has good hands. He?s not the largest guy in the world, but he?s improved in the areas of blocking and some of the things that he wasn?t so good at when he first came in. I think he?s gotten himself to the point where you can put him into the ball game and he can make a play for you every game."
Cornelsen?s options are open once the season is over. He?s considering further education, or possibly even coaching at a lower level. But before leaving Nebraska he has a few words of advice for the new players.
"My advice is to stay with it, don?t be impatient and play to your potential," Cornelsen said. "Don?t ever hold back, and I think you?ll be all right."