After starting coaching in 1962, former Nebraska football coach and congressman Tom Osborne spent a lot of time with kids who grew up without a mentor in their lives, he said at the Milady Coffeehouse Friday morning.
“A lot of those kids that were fatherless or without both parents were a little harder to coach,” he said. “I was spending more time on baggage that these kids were carrying and less time with X’s and O’s and practice schedules and the things that you think you’d be covering.”
Osborne said this realization was one of the reasons he and his wife, Nancy, created the TeamMates mentoring program in 1991. He spoke about the program at the TeamMate Chamber Coffee, hosted by the Fremont chapter.
While initially starting with 22 University of Nebraska-Lincoln football players and 22 Lincoln middle school students, TeamMates went statewide in 1998.
The program served 9,437 students in four states during the 2017-18 year.
“Building relationships with students has proven to be very successful in their school life, their home life and also in helping them be successful,” said Mollie Brown, program coordinator for TeamMates in the Fremont Public Schools system.
The process involves mentors spending an hour a week with a student, typically starting in third or fourth grade and continuing until they graduate high school, Brown said. The students spend time with the mentors on different activities.
One student, Brown said, just wanted someone to play football with.
“We found a mentor that was able to throw a nice spiral, and the student was so excited,” she said. “They just continued to grow and grow in their relationship.”
Osborne was introduced by Mayor Scott Getzschman.
Getzschman, whose wife volunteers for the program, stressed the importance of TeamMates.
“The impact it makes on the children of Fremont, who just need that extra support, goes a long way,” he said.
Osborne began his talk by joking about old age, his meetings with Nebraska coach Scott Frost and his stories on the field. He said as he saw drug culture and violence in the media become more prominent, he saw a need to create TeamMates.
The development of electronic communication was another factor, Osborne said, and many of the students lack face-to-face verbal exchanges.
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“A mentor sits down and listens emphatically for 30, 40, 50 minutes,” he said. “And for most of these kids, that’s probably the only time in the week that somebody sits down and cares enough about them to give them their undivided attention.”
Most importantly, Osborne said the program encourages a strong bond between the mentor and mentee. While the mentors receive a sense of meaning and purpose, the students will begin to grow, something he said he noticed while coaching.
“If I told a player I believed in him, that I thought someday he could be a great player and that I was devoted to him, oftentimes that player would become a player he had no idea he could become,” Osborne said. “Affirmation is very powerful.”
Osborne also said TeamMates uses the Gallup StrengthsFinder to not only pair a student with a mentor, but to develop them as well.
“Most kids aren’t aware that they have any particular strengths, but everyone has something that they can do better than most other people,” he said. “We identify those strengths, we affirm them, we build on those strengths. It’s very powerful.”
The program also creates a ripple effect, something that Osborne said he experienced himself through his grandfather, who grew up in western Nebraska during the 1870s.
After a class speech in the fifth grade, Osborne’s grandfather was approached by a traveling preacher, who was impressed by his talk.
The preacher would visit once a month and spend time with him, encouraging him to finish high school and go to college.
Osborne’s grandfather, who would become a well-known preacher, had five children, all of whom would go to college during the Great Depression.
Osborne himself looked up to him and wanted to be like him.
“I coached about 2,000 young men over a period of around 36 years, and I’m sure that each one of those players was coached a little bit differently because of the influence of that traveling preacher who I never met,” he said. “If you can change one life for the better, you won’t just influence that one life.”
Ultimately, Osborne said the most important part of volunteering for TeamMates is to remember to be faithful to the student.
“It’s not tutoring. You don’t have to know calculus, you don’t have to know how to conjugate a verb,” he said. “All you have to do is care and listen and be an advocate for them, because a lot of them don’t have that.”