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Omaha’s Holiday Inn Central Ballroom was filled Tuesday with Boy Scouts, corporate leaders, political figures and 17 people Tom Osborne didn’t know were coming.
They were all ex-Husker football players, and they came to honor Nebraska’s former head coach and first-year athletic director, who was receiving the highest honor from the Mid-America Council of the Boy Scouts of America – its Citizen of the Year Award.
A Boy Scout who once specialized more in hiking, camping and cooking than earning merit badges, Osborne accepted the award with his usual grace and humor. “As everyone who’s been in coaching knows, whenever anybody offers you an award, you better accept it whether you deserve it or not because there are going to be days when they will want to recognize you in other ways,” Osborne said.
Everyone in the room laughed, including the ex-Huskers who came to support the man they consider a lifetime mentor every bit as much as they view him as a coach or an administrator.
“Tom is the ultimate Boy Scout,” said Carel Stith, a former Nebraska defensive tackle who played three years for the Houston Oilers in the late 1960s. Now a Houston attorney, Stith missed Osborne receiving the Bear Bryant Lifetime Achievement Award last January in Houston, so he made it a point to fly from Houston to Omaha on Monday, so he could attend the luncheon. He figures it’s the least he can do for a former coach and ex-Congressman who was always willing to meet Stith at a busy airport for breakfast when both of their schedules were too busy to get together anywhere else.
“The whole idea of scouting is to build character and turn boys into solid citizens and help them become men. That fits Tom to a tee,” Stith said. “He exemplifies every quality scouts strive for. He’s one of the few men who have what I consider true integrity. I’ve known Tom all these years, but got to know him better when I went to an Orange Bowl with Mike Devaney while Tom was still coaching. I’ve certainly been influenced by the example Tom sets, even though he never coached me personally.”
Former Oiler Defensive Lineman’s Dream Career Began at Age 50
Stith, 63, said 14 years ago he spent a day watching his wife, a family law judge, preside in court. At home that night, he told her he could have done what the attorneys did. “Then why don’t you go to law school?” she asked.
So, in 1994, he did. “I practice family law, and my wife (Bonnie Hellums) is a family law judge in Houston,” he said. “She’s worked with Coach Osborne on legislation in Washington, D.C., when he was in Congress. Coach really impressed her, and my wife is a hard one to impress. In Tom, she saw how ethics and morals can come together, so you get the right things done.”
Maury Damkroger, a Nebraska fullback who played two years for the New England Patriots in the mid-1970s, had a special reason for attending Tuesday’s luncheon.
“I work with a woman who had a son at the Little Sioux Scout Ranch the night the tornado hit,” Damkroger said. “Her son was a very close friend of one of the four boys who died. What those boys went through and how they reacted was amazing.”
Al Larson, former president of the Nebraska Lettermen’s Club and a defensive starter at “monster” in the late 1960s, was also impressed with the Boy Scouts’ courage under pressure. “It was phenomenal the way those kids reacted in the face of disaster,” he said. “Here you are 14 or 15, or even younger, and your training just kicks in when something like that happens. I was never an Eagle Scout, but I was a Life Scout, and I’ll say this: Watching those young men handle a tough situation brought a tear to my eye.
“I saw a 14-year-old interviewed on TV. He talked about how he’d dived to the floor, and when the kid next him split his head open, he immediately applied pressure the way he was trained to do. Most kids would have panicked. But when you’re a Boy Scout, and you’ve been trained on what to do, you do it.”
Damkroger Gains a New Sense of Appreciation for Scouts
Nebraska’s former players and their athletic director knew who the real heroes were on Tuesday.
“In the past few weeks, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the Boy Scouts,” Damkroger said of the group preparing for its 100th anniversary celebration. “I’m glad I attended this luncheon. I’m amazed at the corporate support Boy Scouts receive, and I’m pleased they chose to honor Coach Osborne. The list of previous winners is impressive, and he’s very deserving.”
Former defensive end Bob Martin, who played four years with the New York Jets and one year with the San Francisco 49ers in the mid to late 1970s, wasn’t surprised to see how his former head coach was able to focus the spotlight on the young men in brown uniforms.
“I think of Coach Osborne as a very unassuming guy with a firm set of beliefs,” he said. “I believe the biggest lesson he has taught all Nebraskans is that patience is a virtue. If you are willing to let the process run its course, good things will come.”
Osborne took the Boy Scouts’ motto of “Be Prepared” to an unmatched level in college football. “When it comes to preparation, if the saying is true that ‘adventure is just bad planning,’ Coach Osborne’s Nebraska teams never experienced much adventure,” Martin said.
‘Johnny the Jet’ Did Everything While He Was Still Tired
Johnny Rodgers, Nebraska’s first Heisman Trophy winner, was sitting at the same table with Larson and Martin at Tuesday’s luncheon. A wide receiver, wingback, running back, punt returner, kickoff return specialist and utility back, Osborne helped Johnny the Jet become a classic example of individual preparation.
“Coach always believed that whoever got tired first lost,” Rodgers said. “Fatigue makes cowards of us all. So he always made sure I was in the best condition possible. I always did everything while I was tired. After practice, my real practice began. I’d catch hundreds of balls or run laps with Coach Osborne or the stadium stairs with Coach (Monte) Kiffin. Then I’d go to special teams with Coach (Clete) Fischer and catch punts until it got dark.”
Husker football, Rodgers said, combines three of the worst things about Nebraska – sometimes violent winters and extremely hot summers with “brutally long” team meetings. Rodgers, who played four years with the Montreal Alouettes and two with the San Diego Chargers, has a unique memory of what drove Nebraska to back-to-back national championships in 1970 and ’71.
“I remember in the summer they had cattle watches out because the cows were dying in the heat, but we were out practicing,” he said. “Later in the same season, it would get so cold that they had cattle watches out in the winter because the cows were freezing to death standing up, yet we would still be outside practicing as hard as ever.”
Then, the Huskers would go inside for the tough part – watching film. “Our preparation was incredible, and our audible system was more advanced than the pros,” Rodgers said. And if that wasn’t enough, “No one could compete with us when they came to Nebraska because they couldn’t handle the extreme weather in the fourth quarter,” he said.
Players Still Marvel at Osborne’s Approach to Preparation
Former defensive tackle Danny Noonan, who played six years with the Dallas Cowboys and his last with the Green Bay Packers in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, lives in Omaha and runs Carson Wealth Management Group. He attended Tuesday’s luncheon and couldn’t help remembering how much Osborne stressed the importance of preparation, both on the field and in the classroom.
“He would always tell his players that the little things mean a lot,” Noonan said. “We all understood that if you can improve just a little bit in every area in aggregate, that would be a huge improvement overall for the team.” Noonan’s greatest life lesson from playing under Coach Osborne was learning that by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. “I still incorporate that philosophy into my business today,” he said.
Kelly Saalfeld, who works account sales for UPS Freight in Omaha and officiates Big 12 Conference football games, said he’s a bit surprised to look up the word “consistency” in the dictionary and not find Coach Osborne’s picture and name next to it.
“The answer to why Coach Osborne put so much into preparation becomes more and more evident with each passing year,” said Saalfeld, who went from an obscure walk-on to first-team Academic All-America status at center in 1979. “I have come to understand that Coach had to have daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal goals and stuck to them to maintain the flow and focus to detail that was his trademark in game preparations.”
Guy Ingles, a split end on Nebraska’s first national championship team and a now a financial adviser in Omaha, reconnected with Osborne briefly at the luncheon. “He’s the most consistently committed person I’ve ever known . . . same person, same commitment, same results,” Ingles said. “When I played for him and we went home late after meetings, he’d always be carrying the projector and film to his car. He showed us all how discipline and consistency can lead to superior results. When I need to make a decision, I still try to think of what he would do or advise.”
Osborne Calls Scouting ‘A Direct Antidote’ to Young People Issues
When he accepted his citizenship award, Osborne said he’s concerned about today’s youth and their pre-occupation with computer and video screens and other electronic devices. He thinks Boy Scouts are all about being outside, enjoying nature and, above everything else, understanding the importance of honor. “You just don’t hear that word anymore,” he said. “Being honorable seems to be almost passé. Not too many people talk about duty, service and honesty. So scouting is really a direct antidote to an awful lot of issues we’re dealing with for young people, and I very much appreciate that.”
So does Creighton Head Basketball Coach Dana Altman, who received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award at the same luncheon. Even though he’s averaged 20 wins per season over the past 13 years, Altman made a point to recognize Osborne in his acceptance speech. The former Eagle Scout said God put Osborne at Creighton at just the right time. “He came into my life as an athletic department consultant when I needed a mentor most, and I’m appreciative of the way Coach Osborne helped me,” Altman said.
“I still remember when Coach Osborne discussed our four life priorities in our first meeting as freshmen,” Saalfeld said. “It was faith, then family, then school (work) and then football (or other interests). I try to incorporate his philosophy into my own life, but I’m just not as good at it as he is. Coach has that certain ‘it’ that everyone looks for in a leader. He does it best by not saying much. He speaks with his actions, and that’s why he’s such a great man, great coach and great Christian role model. Like everyone else, I was lucky to have him be an influence in my life.”
The Model for Success in Academics, Athletics and Life
Tim Fischer, a defensive back who last played in 1978, is a family physician in Lincoln, but took time to attend Tuesday’s luncheon. “I think Coach Osborne lives his life as a good Christian man and therefore is a pretty good role model for men today,” he said. “He’s a virtuous man in many respects. He treated everyone with respect and dignity. When you talked with him, he wasn’t distracted. You knew he was ‘there’ with you and nowhere else.
“He was honest with every player and every recruit. He never promised playing time or anything else he couldn’t deliver. Unlike so many people today, to my knowledge, he never made a disparaging comment about anyone publicly or privately, and he certainly never wasted superlatives. To Coach Osborne ‘yes’ meant yes and ‘no’ meant no. Anything else was from someone I never want to meet.
“All that said, I think the most outstanding virtue I can recall is Coach Osborne’s humility. He seemed to realize that he didn’t play a single down during his entire coaching career. He had a bunch of young kids playing their hearts out, and – win or lose – he was truly sincere in thanking the players and his assistant coaches for the effort we all put forth.”
Jake McKee, a tight end who played from 1996-2000, attended the luncheon because “I try to incorporate Coach Osborne’s philosophy into my life and my (stock/bond) business: ‘Tell the truth, be respectful, and be humble,’” he said. “Exemplary is the word I think best describes Coach Osborne. I’m here today to support the example he set for all of us.”
Other former Huskers who attended Tuesday’s luncheon no doubt feel the same way – Larry Jacobson, Keith Jones, Chad Kelsay, Mitch Krenk, Jeff Makovicka, Jim McFarland and Jason Peter.
They were all there to support the “ultimate Boy Scout” and to recognize him in the most tangible way possible.
Respond to Randy
"As a born Nebraskan and Scout Leader here in Indianapolis, I was moved by what happened and even more proud of how these young men responded to such a tragedy. I have spoken to numerous people here in our area about what happened and all have been so impressed by how these young men stayed calm and responded to their friends in need. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those families affected by this tragedy. Today, families are challenged with a hundred different priorities and activities. I see it every day as the parent of three children who have school, sports, scouts, church and pressure from everyone to do the "cool" things. Although tragic, I believe this was a moment that all of us should consider when prioritizing activities in our children's lives. I don't know of another organization that prepares our youth for now and the future like scouting can. I don't know of another organization where a dad and/or mom can spend so much time together outdoors learning and enjoying what God has created for us like scouting can. It may not be as cool as some other activities, but sometimes doing the right thing is cooler than our children know or understand. Finally, as a life-long Husker fan, I am proud to see Tom Osborne recognized by your local BSA Council. Tom represents the ideals of scout law. For those who are not familiar: a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Pretty good character traits for all of us, and Tom lives them everyday. Congratulations to Tom Osborne and all our prayers and best wishes to the Mid-America Council." Jim Hester, Crossroads of America Council, Indianapolis, Ind.
"Back in the day when I was a football manager (1974-77), I was known as the "Thumper." I was always helping the offense. I was always amazed at how Coach Osborne kept his composure with the athletes. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the athletic department. I have a son that just earned the Eagle Scout rank with the BSA. As a father and a Scout Leader I've always emphasized the fact that the character that we are developing with our youth through scouts pays off in the future. You will only go as far as your character will take you. Your recent N-sider about the "ultimate boy scout" was a wonderful tribute to a great man who will forever be remembered for all he has done for the University and the State of Nebraska." - Mark Eiserman,