Beep, beep, beep.
Cameron Pieper rolls over to press snooze on his iPhone like he does every day. Half-awake at 6 a.m., he stretches and takes a deep breath.
Cameron, a long snapper for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, envisions the bustling day ahead of him. A schedule consisting of 8:30 a.m. practice, team workouts, three classes, a film session and 7 p.m. position meetings.
After all of these responsibilities, Cameron still has to eat dinner, study and try to maintain a social life.
“I’m used to it by now,” Cameron said, regarding his daily schedule. “It just comes with what I signed up for. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
To an outsider, this may appear to be a grueling everyday routine. However, Cameron, a junior elementary education major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is optimistic because each day gives him the opportunity to make a positive impact on someone in his life.
Once his football career comes to an end, Cameron plans to teach special education full-time; a passion he discovered as a junior in high school, which still catches people off guard when he tells them.
“You don’t usually hear about a lot of people wanting to pursue teaching,” Cameron said. “It’s even rarer for males; they are very scarce as teachers currently. I think it puts a smile on a lot of people’s faces because they don’t get to see that a lot.”
More than 700,000 special education educators are employed in the United States, according to Zippia, a career resource guide. Of that, 71.8% are women and 24.6% are men.
Nationally, it is even more uncommon for Division I athletes to become teachers as education is not one of the top 10 majors for college football players, according to sportscasting.com.
“I really enjoy teaching, as well as helping out other people,” Cameron said. “That’s how I knew my calling was to become a teacher, I know I can make an immense impact that way.”
Yet, as one of over 12,000 Division I athletes playing college football each year, the Lincoln native has found a way to stand out as a walk-on for the Huskers. During Cameron’s junior year at Lincoln Southwest High School, he signed up to be a teacher’s assistant in a special education class. Little did he know, this decision would make more of an impact on him than he could have ever imagined.
Terri Pieper, Cameron’s mom, said she saw her sons passion for teaching spark in fourth grade.
“Cameron was paired with a student in class who had special needs,” Terri said. “Every year from that point on, he was matched with a special needs student that he would help assist during the school day.”
Although Cameron’s mom saw teaching as an early possibility for his future career path, Cameron said he had no intention of becoming a teacher at that time in his life.
“To be honest, I was so young, I had no aspirations of becoming a teacher, I was still in fourth grade,” Cameron said. “In my opinion, signing up to be a teacher’s assistant for that class in high school really established my first true aspirations for becoming a teacher. It is something that I have really fallen in love with.”
But teaching was not Cameron’s first love. It was football.
“His dad put a football in his hand the day he was born,” Terri said.
From playing football at age 6 to high school under the Friday night lights, Cameron carries many memories from his football journey. Most notably, having the entire student section at Lincoln Southwest chant the words…
“PIIIIEEPER, PIIIIEEPER, PIIIIEEPER.”
Cameron committed to Nebraska as a preferred walk-on in October 2017, just like his father, Aaron Pieper, a preferred walk-on safety for Nebraska from 1989 to 1993. Husker football has a rich tradition of walk-ons, with 25 going on to play in the NFL. However, being a walk-on can bring much adversity and doubters.
“It was rough at times,” Cameron said. “During my freshman and sophomore year, I did not play at all. I wanted to quit; it was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Having God on my side and the faith that I have in Him really helped me get through those hard times of adversity.”
Cameron never quit and it paid off, starting in the last 15 of 16 games at long snapper for the Huskers. Many of Cameron’s teammates noticed his work ethic and his will to never give up.
“Cam has been able to not only balance the job that college football is, with early morning workouts, consistent commitment all year, as well as trying to become a teacher full time,” Huskers quarterback Adrian Martinez said.
The beautiful thing about college football and life, Martinez said, is the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. Cameron shows this work ethic every single day, whether it be job-shadowing teachers, interviewing for future jobs, football or school.
“He has handled his situation with grace,” Martinez said. “Cam still showed up to work and hasn’t complained about one thing. Even though we may not say it all the time, us teammates notice those small things.”
Every day on the field and in the locker room, Cameron said he attempts to bring laughter, passion and encouragement to his teammates.
“He always has a smile on his face, he’s a great person all around,” Huskers safety Marquel Dismuke said. “There’s no way you can ever forget about Cameron Pieper. He is going to give you his all when he’s out there, either on the football field or in the classroom.”
With mental health becoming more recently a talking point in sports, some experts believe that student-athlete depression is at an “epidemic level,” according to donovanmentalperformance.com. In fact, the rates of mental health concerns for 37,000 college athletes were 150% to 250% higher than those historically reported, according to Mitchell Greene, Ph.D., a clinical and sports psychologist.
Student-athletes see each other nearly every single day for months at a time.
“As a team, we are very bonded together,” Dismuke said. “We’ve been through a lot, but our passion for one another translates onto the field, you can see how much we fight for one another.”
Dismuke said humans are becoming more and more comfortable around their surroundings.
“But every day we face trials and tribulations,” he added. “Cam has grown in a major way as a person through his adversity. He’s a walk-on, but he has proved to himself and all of us that he belongs on this team. He keeps a positive mindset about everything.”
That positive mentality is what Cameron plans to carry with him to the classroom where he wants every student to have fun, knowing that he will provide the support, character and love they deserve.
“I want the kids to feel like they have someone there for them, and that they will be successful in life,” Cameron said. “I also would like for them to know that they’re not limited to anything because of a disability.”