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FIRST-PERSON: Coach Osborne prepared to transition from gridiron to D.C.’s frying pan

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (BP)–Tom Osborne attained a position Tuesday night — United States congressman — that holds almost as much influence as the one he held for 25 years — head football coach at the University of Nebraska. If ever a man was qualified for a job without technically having ever worked in the field, it is Osborne, who will now compete in a different arena playing a different game but using the same talents.

Osborne may not put his X-and-O’s knowledge to work in Washington, but all the other gifts that made him a great football coach will make him a great legislator.

America’s heartland, in particular, keeps proving this truth: solidly grounded athletes or coaches who move into politics have what it takes to succeed. It works for congressmen J.C. Watts and Steve Largent (Oklahoma) and Jim Ryun (Kansas), all of whom were re-elected Tuesday. Watts was a quarterback at Oklahoma and in the Canadian Football League. When Largent retired from pro football, he had the most catches in NFL history. He entered the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Ryun is a three-time Olympian whose high school mile record from 1965 still stands.

Preceding them were men like Jack Kemp, former Buffalo quarterback who was the 1996 GOP vice presidential candidate. Even Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has learned some lessons from high-level sports competition — he once owned baseball’s Texas Rangers.

What do all of these athletic-minded public officials have in common? Faith in Jesus Christ and success in their athletic discipline. Why are they successful in politics? The answers vary somewhat with each individual, of course, but the common elements are easy to spot: the Christian sanctification that comes through the discipline of athletics. Consider that Osborne is accustomed to:

— Dealing with pressure. Nothing Osborne will face in Washington — short of becoming president — will bring more pressure than trying to satisfy the Big Red fans in Nebraska. It can be argued that politics, for all its intense feelings, is less emotional than major college football.

— Setting priorities/managing a tight schedule. He managed 100-plus players and 25-plus staff and juggled meetings, practice and press briefings while maintaining a family life and public speaking schedule.

— Dealing with the press. Osborne has faced more media in national championship Orange Bowl games than he will normally see en masse in Washington. I’ve been in many a press conference with Osborne, who is well-spoken but careful, fluid but guarded, engaging but not very revealing. He’ll play the press game perfectly.

— Team building. Osborne understands what it takes to create consensus among people from widely varying ideological, spiritual and cultural backgrounds. Imagine the diversity of a college football team and a massive fan base. Washington can’t be any more polarized.

— Influencing people. Convincing intelligent, grown men to pass a bill can’t be any harder than trying to talk a temperamental 18-year-old into moving from Miami to the Midwest to play football. Osborne is a recruiter par excellence, thus an influencer, thus a motivator.

The emergence of Osborne and this Bible-toting Midwest football gang begs the question: Why are more of the athletes who enter politics Christians? Perhaps because they have a sense of purpose behind their success and fame. They understand that God gave them their platform for the purpose of glorifying him, and that can include helping make the world a better (read: more Christlike) place to live. Such is the case with Osborne, who recently told the Internet news site Crosswalk.com, “I felt like I’ve been given somewhat of a platform through athletics to make a difference. You reach a point where you win it or lose it. I thought I could be of some help.”

Like Largent, Osborne will stand for what is morally right, using his lessons from football to withstand the battle. Largent recalls an ideological battle within his Republican Party two years after being elected in 1994. Then House speaker Newt Gingrich called 11 members of his party on the carpet, demanding to know why they helped defeat a routine appropriations bill. One of the 11, Largent, recalled being in a similar position as an athlete: he had been physically threatened by other players for not participating in a strike. According to The Weekly Standard, when the meeting began Largent didn’t wait for Gingrich to invite him to justify his position. He went immediately to the microphone and said, “I’ve been in smaller rooms with bigger people, and I can’t be intimidated.” Gingrich became a conciliator rather than confronter.

Largent confronts politics and politicians with the truth, living up to the what he once told Oklahoma Baptist University students: “We need leaders who will not ask: What is popular? What do focus groups say? What do the opinion polls say? We need leaders who will ask, ‘What is right?'”

Apparently much of America agrees, hence we have Largent, Osborne, Watts, Ryun, Bush and greater hope. Hope lies in the character of these men, which is drawn from Christ, who lives in them.

My University of Tennessee classmate, former Osborne assistant coach and current Baylor University head coach Kevin Steele, told me Tuesday, “It’s important to step back and realize who is the man behind the word ‘politician.’ Having worked for Tom Osborne on a daily basis for seven years, what I saw every day was a man who truly lived his faith. It was not an external wearing of a faith, it was an internal and external execution of a faith. Now, transfer that from football to politics, because there are so many similarities. Football is a game plan situation, so is politics. Football is highly scrutinized, so is politics. Coach Osborne has been in the position of Nehemiah — he has been heavily scrutinized and attacked. So he has the will to execute his game plan in a highly scrutinized, intense arena, just like in politics.

“That said, the best way to summarize my feelings about Tom Osborne being an elected official is to say that there is no human being I’ve come in contact with in my 42 years that I would choose to represent me in any facet of life — especially to go to Washington and help lead our country — than Tom Osborne.”

That’s the kind of confidence Americans wish they could have in all their elected officials. That kind of confidence can only be placed in men of formidable Christian character, men like Largent, Watts, Ryun — and Tom Osborne.
Victor Lee is Crosswalk.com’s Sports Channel producer and columnist. He lives in Charlotte, N.C.

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  • Victor Lee