Christianity has been an essential underpinning of the personal and professional lives of Tom Osborne, the legendary former University of Nebraska football coach. Insight into how strong faith has guided his life’s journey was offered by the College Football Hall of Fame member at the 37th annual Marco Island Community Prayer Breakfast.
Held recently at the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort, the affair, as always, brought together a large gathering of residents and clergy from Marco’s houses of worship, as well as civic officials, first-responders and representatives from a broad cross-section of the business community.
Athletics, in Osborne’s case, football, basketball, baseball and track, dominated his life as he grew up. It was his way of seeking to please a sports-loving father, he explained. The Nebraska native proved so adept at them that he was offered scholarships to play either football and basketball and the University of Nebraska after high school. But Osborne wanted to play multiple sports, so he stayed in his hometown and attended Hastings College instead.
During the summer of 1957, between his sophomore and junior years in college, he attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp in Estes Park, Col. that changed his life.
“During that week at the camp, I heard Christianity articulated in a way that I’d never thought about before by people whom I could associate with and admire,” he said. “It was pretty impactful.”
Osborne said it was there that he decided to “pick up the cross of Jesus and follow His path.” He also began to see that up until that point, he’d used sports as a way to gain acceptance from the world and himself.
“I felt that somehow if I was good enough, then enough people would approve of me then maybe I could then approve of myself,” he explained. “Athletics was my vehicle. I realized that I was trying to save my life through athletics.”
During his 25 years leading the University of Nebraska’s program, he became recognized as one of college football’s most successful and respected coaches, winning three national championships in the process. After stepping down, he represented his home state in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001 to 2007 and then served a stint as Nebraska’s athletic director
He opened his remarks with several humorous stories before diving into more weighty topics, often citing Scripture in addressing them. He offered up self-described “observations” to highlight three subjects relating to faith.
On the subject of stability Osborne noted that in sports, there’s not much middle ground.
“You’re no better than your last game,” he stated. “So if you win a championship—you win a big game, people want to put you on a pedestal and you know you’re not that good. On the other hand, if you lose a big game, they want to run you out of town on a rail and you know you’re probably not that bad.”
He said he came to realize that his relationship with Christ was something constant that remains unchanged, which sustained him throughout the year’s ups and downs and wins and losses. It’s a relationship that also infused his life with purpose and meaning. Osborne then paraphrased a Biblical passage that quotes Jesus saying, I’ve come so that you might have life and have it more abundantly.
“I think we’ve all heard that and probably talked about that at one time or another. I think what he was saying is it doesn’t mean you’re going to win every game, it doesn’t mean every investment’s going to turn out well, that you’re always going to be healthy and there’ll be no problems in your life,” explained Osborne. “I think what he was saying is if you follow me, your life will have meaning, it will have purpose, it will have significance.”
Where the subject of grace is concerned, Osborne relied upon the story of the Prodigal Son, which called the most important of Jesus’ parables.
“The theme of the story isn’t so much about the prodigal son, it’s about the father,” he began. “You see, for all the preceding centuries, people’s view of God was of a distant figure, up there judging you and about to zap you. You had to offer different kinds of appeasements to that God to make him, somehow, be a little bit favorable toward you. Jesus said, ‘No, that’s not what God is like. God is like that father who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that we would not perish and instead have life everlasting.’ That flipped things on their head.”
He said that as a coach, he saw many times when one of his players might be headed in the wrong direction, that this realization altered their course.
“It wasn’t until they understood this principle of grace and that they were accepted, that they were made in his image, a little lower than angels, that they were loved with an everlasting love, that they did a U-turn and all the sudden, everything changed.”
As his presentation wound down, he told the audience that he sees a great struggle ensuing for the country’s soul today.
Osborne said that during the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, the noted French diplomat, political scientist and historian, spent several years touring the U.S. to determine what had gone right with the country since the revolution.
“He said, ‘I looked for American’s greatness in her harbors and didn’t find it there,’” said Osborne. “’I looked for it in her vast fields and her forests didn’t find it there, I looked for it in her commerce and her world trade and didn’t find it there. It wasn’t until I went into her churches and heard her pulpits ablaze with righteousness that I began to discover the true source of America’s greatness. And then he went on to say, ‘America’s great because American’s good. If America ceases to be good, it will cease to be great. I think that’s somewhat of a prophetic warning sign for us.”