Thirty years ago, University of Nebraska Head Football Coach Tom Osborne had a vision that included the athletes in his program making an impact on the lives of middle school students.

In 1991, 22 football players began to spend time with Lincoln-area students, mentoring them in their studies and offering advice as the youngsters navigated their lives through the TeamMates Program.

Of those original 22 mentees, 21 went on to graduate from high school and 18 of those students obtained some form of post-secondary education.

That vision that Tom Osborne had has grown and evolved over the years, now serving thousands of students across the Midwest through a mentorship program that combines people from all walks of life.

While the program has grown, the basic idea that a young student can have an adult in their lives to just be there for them has remained the same.

“We are in five states now and around 175 school districts,” Osborne said in an exclusive conversation with the Leader. “We serve more than 10,000 kids and we have a handful of states that are interested in our model.”

The pride that Osborne has in the program he started was evident when he spoke to the growth and the impact that it has had on so many lives of people, both young and old.

“I believe that research has shown that there are around nine million kids in this country today that say they don’t have a single adult in their life that they can turn to with a problem who they feel cares about them unconditionally,” he said.

When thinking about that number and how someone may ask about getting a mentor, Osborne was to the point in his answer.

“Don’t be shy,” he said. “People thought originally that this program was for troubled kids. That’s not the case at all. We have kids that are straight-A students who come from sound families, and we have others who are not.”

Ultimately, Osborne said that if a young person wanted someone in their lives to just be there for them, don’t be afraid to say so - no matter your circumstances.

“We have found the stigma has gone away and that’s very important,” he said. “We are very proud of our mentors and we don’t want anyone to be ashamed to ask for a mentor.”

This past weekend, Husker athletes both young and old, gathered at Wild Horse Golf Club to celebrate the vision of Tom Osborne.

The 21st Annual Adrian Fiala Golf Tournament, named after the former voice of the Huskers, kicked off on July 16 in an informal gathering that included a meal from Around the Block catering for sponsors, golfers and the Huskers who would be playing in the tournament the following day.

Osborne was the keynote speaker at the evening’s festivities that culminated with a putting challenge and a par-three shootout.

Men and women who proudly wore the Nebraska uniform across seven decades were represented in the July 17 tournament field, which included local sponsors and area players.

The tournament is organized every year by the Gothenburg TeamMates Board of Directors, the local chapter coordinator Lynnette Stevens and Dave Morock, who was a dear friend of Fiala’s.

Stevens said she felt the 2021 tournament was a successful event and while she did not have a final tally on the proceeds raised from events of the weekend that included a silent auction, the event does raise approximately 90% of the yearly budgetary needs for the Gothenburg chapter.

“I think my favorite part of this year’s tournament was seeing so many players from so many different decades all in one place,” Stevens said. “From players who played in the 60’s to a player who is a senior at UNL this year. That many players across so many decades attending shows how Dr. Osborne’s influence has reached and touched so many people. Having him attend and speak was so very special.”

In thinking about the TeamMates program, Stevens said that the success of the program is measured in the number of lives that are changed on a year-to-year basis.

“The greatest victories in our chapter would be the quality of our matches,” she said. “The connections and relationships made between the mentee and the mentor are the reward of TeamMates.”

Gothenburg graduate Tanner Borchardt played in the tournament this year and said he felt honored to be a part of the field.

“It’s great to be back and playing golf for such a wonderful cause,” he said. “It was great to get the call, to be back in the home town on the home course. I feel blessed to be a part of it all. This is something that means so much to so many people.”

Borchardt graduated from UNL two years ago and said that he found himself in a place during his time as a Husker Basketball player that he needed to just take some time to figure things out.

“I felt like I was playing ball for everyone except myself,” he said. “I took a year off and came back on my own terms. I am thankful that those around me gave me that chance and I feel like kids today need that kind of grace to do the same.”

Borchardt went on to say that nobody should be afraid to ask for a little help along the way.

“Absolutely ask,” he said. “There’s no shame in asking. Everybody needs help in this world and thankfully there are great people out there to help lead the way.”

Other Huskers amongst the tournament field included Husker football players Jeff Kinney, Van Brownson, Guy Ingles, Ryan Terwilliger, Jim Rose, Jared Crick, Brenden Stai, Matt Masker, golfer Hannah Thiele, volleyball player Brooke Delano and softball player Ashley Ford.

In thinking about future tournaments, Gothenburg TeamMates board member and former Husker Monte Kratzenstein said that the goal was to include players from other sports.

“This year, we had the voice of Husker Volleyball, Jim Rose play in the tournament and we hope to get other sports more involved as we continue to grow,” Kratzenstein said.

The weekend is the brainchild of Adrian Fiala who wanted to host a fundraiser for the TeamMates Mentoring program.

In 2001, Fiala chose Gothenburg’s Wild Horse Golf Club as the site for the tournament.

As a former football and baseball player, Fiala fielded players who used to wear the Big Red uniforms to come out to play a round of golf.

He called it the Adrian Fiala Husker Heritage Golf Tournament.

After Adrian passed in 2014, his dear friend and former football player Dave Morock, took over the realms of the tournament and worked in tandem with the Gothenburg TeamMates Board of Directors to execute the weekend of fun that is ultimately like a big reunion for those who attend - including Osborne.

“I enjoy seeing the players,” Osborne said. “Some of these guys go back to the 60s and 70s, it’s always fun to catch up.”

When asked if he would get out to take a swing on the course, Osborne smiled.

“I haven’t played for eight or nine years,” he said. “I have finally figured out that you only have so much time and if you’re going to be a good fisherman you’re not going to spend much time on the course.”

The success of the program across the Midwest is truly a testament of Osborne’s love for kids and the passion he has for them to find success - no matter where they are in their lives.

His vision continues to live on through those who have taken this original idea and put it into action to change the lives of so many.

Contact Rebecca Steward at rebecca@gothenburgleader.com or call 308.537.9498