The town of Fort Calhoun began to rally around a visiting high school football player from Norfolk Catholic High School almost from the moment he was injured in a Nov. 6 playoff game.
And the Fort Calhoun community's support has grown since townspeople learned the severity of Isaac Pfeifer's potentially paralyzing injuries.
As the Norfolk youth begins to recover — he was at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on Tuesday to see his team win the Class C-1 state championship — Fort Calhoun's plans continue to mushroom for a Dec. 2 benefit spaghetti dinner and silent auction.
Dozens of individuals and organizations — from Fort Calhoun football players and cheerleaders to the Knights of Columbus and a women's fitness boot camp group — have volunteered to work on the benefit or have donated money or auction items.
People have called to offer prime rib dinners, Kansas City Chiefs tickets, sports memorabilia, romantic getaways — even the loan of a camel.
“A lady called (the other day) and said 'I have a camel,' ” said Mike Conrad of Fort Calhoun, one of the organizers and a friend of the injured youth's parents, Neil and Becky Pfeifer.
“ 'Could I bring it and it'll be part of a petting zoo for the kids?' ”
Organizers were mulling that one over. Meanwhile, the kindness from strangers continues to swell.
The event is scheduled for 2 to 7 p.m. Dec. 2 at Schwertley Hall, 215 N. 13th St. in Fort Calhoun. Conrad said more than 2,800 invitations had been issued on Facebook. Organizers are expecting 1,200 people at the dinner. All the food is being donated.
“Somebody said to me, so this young man was hurt in a playoff game, they knocked you out of the playoffs, and most people don't even know him, and the town is doing all of this?” said Conrad.
That's right, he said.
“Fort Calhoun is a very caring community,” he said. “In our community, we've had tragedies, kids killed in car accidents, kids with severe injuries, people who were sick with cancer. The people band together.”
Even though he's not from their community, Pfeifer, who was hurt in a game at Norfolk, feels like one of Fort Calhoun's own.
“Anybody who has a football player as a son knows that something like that could happen,” said Kori Grosse-Rhode, an organizer of the benefit and the mother of a Fort Calhoun football player. “Everybody was just kind of stunned. ... One of my friends said it best. You go into that game thinking it's the most important thing, winning the game, and then something like that happens and you realize, wow, it's just a game.”
Fort Calhoun residents also are helping their own youths by helping Pfeifer, who has been moved after surgery to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln and is beginning a long recovery.
“The kids here wanted to know how they could help,” Grosse-Rhode said. “They're affected by it and hurting, too. They walked off the field, and Isaac didn't.”
Fort Calhoun football players have volunteered to serve spaghetti and do whatever else is needed at the benefit. Cheerleaders plan to do face paintings. Presbyterian, Baptist and Catholic youth groups will volunteer, as will the Fort Calhoun High School booster club.
Beyond raising money for the Pfeifer family and showing Isaac emotional support, the organizers also aim to help Norfolk Catholic and Fort Calhoun students deal with their feelings, Conrad said.
“We're going to help both schools out,” he said.
Pierce High School, which played Norfolk Catholic next in the playoffs, also had a fundraiser for the family. Fundraisers are also planned in Norfolk by the Knights of Columbus and others.
Isaac arrived at Tuesday's state championship game — a game Norfolk Catholic won over Boone Central, 24-13 —- with two therapists from Madonna, but they left before the game started. He was surrounded by his family and girlfriend, Maddy Hannappel.
Norfolk Catholic fans held signs supporting Isaac. On the field, the players had his number, 26, on their helmets and at the conclusion of the game pointed to the West Stadium's club level, where Isaac sat. Isaac's two younger brothers accepted his state championship medal after the game.
Norfolk Catholic Principal Jeff Bellar, who also is a football coach, said Pfeifer's family and the school greatly appreciate the efforts of the Fort Calhoun community.
“It's kind of overwhelming,” Bellar said. “It's a tremendous thing for that community to get involved like this. Isaac's a great kid. It was just an injury; nobody tried for that to happen.”
Norfolk Catholic and Fort Calhoun don't play each other often, so they're not familiar with each other, Bellar said.
“It really just shows that they have a lot of caring for a young kid who was injured,” he said.
For Conrad's part, seeing the event grow is something that can restore a person's faith in humanity.
“Just when you think the world's getting real harsh and people don't care, it's good to see that people really do care for each other,” he said.
World-Herald photographer Alyssa Schukar contributed to this report.
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