As the Osbornes tell it, the idea was Nancy’s.
The vision for the TeamMates mentoring program winds back to a night 25 years ago, when Nancy came to Tom with a question: “What can we do?”
She had just watched a segment of “60 Minutes” featuring Eugene Lang, a New York businessman who, years earlier, had promised a classroom of sixth-graders in Harlem that if they finished high school, he would help pay for their college education.
As the story goes, Lang hadn’t planned on making the promise — he was just visiting his alma mater to speak to students about success. But on the way to the lecturn, the principal stopped him, told him that three-quarters of the students in the school wouldn’t finish high school. He scratched his speech and made the promise that launched a national foundation aimed at giving all children an opportunity for higher education.
When Tom got home, Nancy told him about Lang. They might not be able to pay for college for a classroom of students, but she was sure they could do something.
“Using the notoriety of football, I knew we had a good platform to make a difference,” Nancy said.
Tom’s mind went to the guys he was coaching. Over the years, he started noticing that more of them came to the university with painful stories of growing up in broken homes. Many couldn’t count on seeing their fathers in the stands at games — some had never met their dads. Others battled the temptations of drugs. These young men know what it’s like to navigate young adulthood without someone to turn to, he thought. What would happen if he gave them a chance to be mentors themselves?
So the next morning, during the daily meeting with the entire football team, Tom — in his classic soft-spoken, serious demeanor — told his players about the program he wanted to start. There are young boys who need a reliable male figure in their lives, he said. How many of you are willing to commit an hour a week to be a mentor for a middle-school boy?
Twenty-two hands rose in the air.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing at first,” Tom said. “But we were pleased with the results.”
Of the 22 original mentees, 21 went on to graduate from high school. Eighteen went on to postsecondary education.
In the next few years, the demand for mentors grew beyond the numbers of players on the football team.
Formalized as a statewide program in 1998, TeamMates expanded to include male and female students from third grade through high school. The school-based mentoring program is now in 143 school districts, including 14 in Iowa, one in Kansas and one in Wyoming.
“Naturally, we are proud of how it’s worked out,” Tom said.
But the Osbornes are quick to say that there’s still room to grow, still an unmet need.
Based on a 2014 report by MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, about one in three young people ages 8 to 18 years old reports that they have never had a mentor. Apply those statistics to the greater Omaha area, and Tom said that means more than 20,000 young people in and around the city are without mentors.
Those numbers, along with several other national studies, drove the program’s 2020 strategic plan, released last year. By 2020, the organization hopes to have 12,000 active matches — up from about 8,000 current matches.
That means recruiting thousands more mentors, more than 100 a month, who can agree to at least a three-year commitment. To apply to be a TeamMates mentor, visit teammates.org/become-a-mentor/apply/.
Tom is eager to spread the message, making sometimes up to 10 appearances a month to speak about the benefits of mentorship and asking people to become TeamMates mentors.
“I think it’s pretty powerful when someone with no obligation to do so shows up to care for you,” he said. “The most precious gift any one of us can give is our time.”
In his own life, Tom looked to his sports-loving father as a mentor. But during the four and a half years his father was serving overseas in World War II, Tom’s uncle stepped in. While his dad was away and his mother was working in an ammunition plant, his uncle became a mentor, taking him on hunting and fishing trips.
Years later, Tom would look to other Nebraska legends as mentors — former coach Bob Devaney and former chancellor and president of the University of Nebraska Woody Varner. Those men, he said, taught him what he calls the “ripple effect” of mentoring.
“People are aware that there’s a need but they think giving time to one person, well, that’s just one person,” he said. “But that mentorship impacts everyone that person meets — their family, their children, their co-workers. One mentorship could impact a dozen, two dozen or several hundred other people.”
That’s the message Richard Bollen remembers from his old coach. Bollen, who lives in Lincoln, was a walk-on on the football team in 1991. He remembers that morning when Tom gathered the players and asked them for a commitment.
Bollen raised his hand that morning. Looking back, though, he realizes he didn’t initially take Tom’s message to heart.
“He kept emphasizing commitment — the importance of following through on this, because that’s what these kids needed,” Bollen said. “That was always his message — commitment in the game and in mentorship and in life.”
But Bollen didn’t stay committed, at least not at first. He told himself he needed to focus on school, that he had a lot going on. After a few months, he no longer was carving out an hour a week for his mentee.
“It still haunts me today,” he said.
But Bollen has kept in touch with his mentee, who went on to graduate from high school and now has a job and a family.
In 2009, Bollen, now assistant athletic director at Lincoln High School, was approached by a friend who asked him to be a TeamMates mentor again. He was reluctant at first — he has three children of his own and works with students all day. Eventually, he agreed, and mentored the young man as he completed high school and a year at Peru State. The young man has a family and a steady job and is considering joining the military.
Even though they don’t meet for an hour a week anymore, he calls Bollen for advice, whether it’s about applying for a loan or purchasing a car.
“I worked to be more involved,” Bollen said. “I won’t make the same mistake I did the first time. From here on out, anyone I mentor, I’m going to take coach’s words to heart and be committed.”
For Allie Andersen, her involvement with TeamMates has come full circle. She was matched with a mentor when she was a seventh-grader in Columbus. Her mother had just died, and she was living with her grandparents. Less than a year into her mentorship, her grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. He died during her eighth-grade year.
“My mentor was there through all of it,” the 19-year-old said. “She provided the motherly support that I was missing, and I knew I could go to her with anything.”
Now a sophomore at Creighton University, Andersen credits her mentor with helping her become a first-generation college student.
“That relationship has meant the world to me, and I knew I wanted to be that for someone, too,” Andersen said.
Last year, Andersen was matched with a fourth-grader at Holy Cross Catholic School. Together, they talk about the girl’s goals and dreams — she wants to be president someday.
“I will do anything to give her what my mentor gave me, but she gives me so much, too,” Andersen said. “She gives me hope.”
The program’s success stories give Tom hope, too. Many former mentees such as Andersen come back as mentors — a clear marker of success, he said.
Osborne isn’t one to predict the future: He won’t pretend he can see the next 25 years. Nancy, too, is quick to joke about how old both of them would be if TeamMates turns 50. But the couple are sure of one thing: The need for the mentorships provided by the program continues.
“Most people are concerned about the economy or politics right now, but to me, my greatest concern is the changes I see in our culture,” Tom said. “I see instability in families, I see kids growing up without fathers and without mentors. That really concerns me.”
TeamMates is just a small part of the solution, he said. “But if we can get enough people to commit and replicate programs like this, I do think we will be OK.”