Accolades: Nebraska record-holder for career and single-season scoring; 1992-93 Big Eight Conference Female Athlete of the Year; 1991-92 and 1992-93 CoSIDA All-American-of-the-Year
Currently: Realtor, CBS Home
As a young girl in Persia, Iowa, Karen Jennings was thankful for the few hours a day she could take off her scoliosis brace and play sports like a normal kid.
Years later, the awkwardly tall girl with the back brace went on to record one of the most prolific basketball careers in University of Nebraska history. Her scoliosis? She shrugs it off. “Everyone has a disability in something,” she said. “Mine just happens to be a crooked spine.”
Whatever life has thrown at her, Jennings has persevered. Her hard work paid off during her basketball career at Nebraska and beyond, and she has since built a successful career as a realtor with CBS Home. While thankful for these successes, Jennings says feelings of true thanksgiving come in moments of suffering and solitude. “When you are alone or in times of struggle, then I think you’re very thankful,” she said.
Jennings is thankful for many things: her support system, her family’s health and the opportunities she has received. Each of those became clear during periods of personal challenge.
Growing up in Iowa, Jennings’ parents never let scoliosis get in the way of telling her to go for it. When doctors pushed her toward a less aggressive sport like swimming, her parents let her pursue the basketball she loved. They never missed a game.
Close to family, Nebraska was a natural fit for Jennings. During her four years as a starter at NU, the 6-2 forward scored 2,405 points (a record) while adding 1,000 rebounds. Along with holding Nebraska’s career and single-season scoring records, Jennings also owns the Huskers’ single-game scoring mark with a 48-point outburst in an 87-82 win over Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan., on Jan. 21, 1992. She was also one of the top student-athletes in school history and captured CoSIDA All-American-of-the-Year accolades in both 1991-92 and 1992-93.
Her parents never missed a home game.
After earning a bachelor's degree in exercise physiology in 1993, Jennings played professional basketball in France during the 1993-94 season. The transition was rough. Back then, there wasn’t Internet, cell phones or Skype. “I went from an environment that was extremely supportive to being the foreigner,” she said.
Far away from the family and college that nurtured her, Jennings realized how much she appreciated her support system. “It made me very thankful for my time at Nebraska, for the people that supported me, my family and my country,” she said.
After France, Jennings returned to Nebraska. She transitioned from basketball to physical therapy but later became hooked on real estate. Along with her changing career came greater family responsibilities: She and husband Ron celebrated the birth of their daughter, Claire, when Jennings was in her mid-30s. “I’m very thankful for being a mother,” she said. “I’m thankful we were given that opportunity.”
A few years later, health issues rocked the family. Ron was diagnosed with cancer when Claire was 6. The scariest part was the unknown future, but the couple decided the diagnosis wouldn’t control them. “Ron never complained,” she said. “It gave us perspective to remember what was important.”
After surgery and an all-clear from the doctors, Jennings again gave thanks.
“Time is the most underestimated value we have,” she said. “We have a limited time here on earth, a limited time here with children and loved ones. You never know when that is going away.”
“Every day you have to get up and thank God to be alive and have the energy to attack the day.”
Jennings admits that God gave her many gifts of athleticism, like the gift of height and the gift of hand-eye coordination. Her end of the deal was to work hard. “If I can teach my daughter one thing, it would be to be thankful for God and the gifts you are given,” she said. “But the part you can control is your work ethic.”
In pursuit of her goals, Jennings has worked tirelessly – whether spending hours practicing ball or working long nights and weekends for her real estate clients. Success, Jennings says, is about fundamentals. Plant your feet. Aim high and follow through. Work hard. A high level of discipline – even if it’s a struggle at times – will yield results.
Throughout her life and its ups and downs, Jennings has leaned on God and prayer to shepherd her through. “Literally before every game at Devaney, I prayed that God would give me the ability and strength to complete the endeavor,” she said.
“I focused on giving my best, and that’s all you can hope for.”