The history section of the Mineral Water Bowl website includes a photo of a young Tom Osborne in a red No. 31 jersey. Osborne played for Hastings (Neb.) College in Mineral Water Bowls following the 1955 and 1957 seasons, the site says.
Though the Broncos lost both, Osborne caught the attention of John Waldorf, one of the game officials, in 1957. Waldorf’s brother, College Football Hall of Fame Coach Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf, was the personnel director for the San Francisco 49ers (1957-72) and apparently received a recommendation on Osborne, following his senior season at Hastings, because the 49ers drafted him.
The first four rounds of the draft were held in December of 1958, the remaining rounds in January of 1959. The draft included 26 rounds. Osborne was selected in the 19th, the 222nd player picked.
Though he had played quarterback at Hastings College, earning State College Player of the Year honors twice, 49ers Coach Red Hickey persuaded him it would be in his best interests to switch to receiver. The 49ers had proven quarterbacks in Y.A. Tittle and third-year back-up John Brodie.
Osborne didn’t make San Francisco’s active roster but did earn a place on the practice squad for the 1959 season. Before the season, he spent a brief time at a Presbyterian Seminary in San Anselmo, just north of San Francisco. He had a Rockefeller Grant to attend but left after about two weeks, deciding that wouldn’t be his career path. He went to pre-season camp with the 49ers again in 1960 but was cut during the exhibition season and picked up by the Washington Redskins.
Among the stories Osborne has recounted in speaking engagements relates to what he called his first recollection of his acquisition by Washington. He joined the team, he said, in New York City, waiting in front of the Waldorf-Astoria. “That’s where the Redskins always stayed whenever they went to New York,” he said, “out in front of the Waldorf-Astoria.”
But seriously folks . . .
Washington owner George Preston Marshall was known for his parsimonious nature. That, and the lingering effects of a pulled hamstring during pre-season practice in 1961, contributed to Osborne’s decision to give up pro football after two seasons in Washington, which deducted money from players’ contracts paid for exhibition games, he said, a violation of league rules.
Washington was a combined 2-21-3 under two head coaches during Osborne’s two seasons. He played in 10-of-12 games in 1960, catching seven passes for 46 yards, and in all 14 games in 1961, when he was third on the team with 22 receptions for 297 yards and two touchdowns. Norm Snead, the starting quarterback, threw only 11 touchdown passes with 22 interceptions. His completion percentage was 45.9. Washington scored just 23 touchdowns, total, including two by the defense.
Osborne’s first touchdown catch came in the fourth game, a 31-7 loss against the Browns in Cleveland, his second on a 60-yarder against the St. Louis Cardinals, the final score in a 38-24 loss. The lone victory and tie both were against the Dallas Cowboys.
The victory in 1960 was also against the Cowboys.
Another of Osborne’s stories about Washington included a reference to the combined record over two seasons and: “We were so desperate, things got so tough, we went to what’s known as an incentive pay system. If you made a touchdown, you got $100; caught a pass, you got $50; if you made a great block or a great tackle, you got $15. And, of course, there were fines and deductions if you fumble, missed an assignment, did something wrong. To give you an idea of the kind of player I was, at the end of the first year, they called me in and added everything up and said I owed the team $34.50. They said I was the highest-paid player on the team that year.”
Osborne the Hall of Fame coach was focused and serious-minded but hardly humorless, as those who played for him and coached with him would, no doubt, tell you.
Tom’s Time, a regular feature that will take a closer look at the life of Tom Osborne. Nebraska has a storied history in football that dates back to the earliest years of the game, but the tradition to which Husker fans hold Nebraska is mostly a reference to Osborne’s 25 years as head coach. And that will always be worth exploring in greater detail. Click here for all of the entries in the series.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.