Eugene M. “Gene” Oetting passed away on May 29, 2019, in Seward at the age of 87. Gene spent 58 years of his life as either a student or faculty member at Concordia. He first arrived in Seward in 1946 to attend Concordia High School. A native of Emma, Mo., Gene had never played football before journeying to Concordia but went on to become one of the top players in program history. After his collegiate career, Gene entered into a teaching vocation and left a lasting impact upon countless people. He retired from his position as Dean of Education at Concordia in 1997. Afterwards, Gene continued to be a fixture on campus and at many Bulldog sporting events. The legacy of the Concordia Athletic Hall of Fame and Nebraska Football Hall of Fame member lives on.
The following passage is an excerpt from the book Cultivating Men of Faith and Character: The History of Concordia Nebraska Football.
Gene Oetting: “Concordia has been – I don’t think I’m stretching it to say – more than just a part of my life. It’s been a consuming thing.”
The eldest brother, Gene, is to thank for beginning the Oetting pipeline to Concordia. The second Oetting brother in line, Larry, called Gene a “hero” of his. As did many others like Vic Peter and John Suhr. Gene had never actually seen a football game until making his way to Concordia High School, but the other Oetting boys began to learn of the game of football in the small town of Emma, Missouri, in which they grew up. Located 60 miles east of Kansas City, Emma had a population of about 200 people. When questioned by a Los Angeles reporter during Rams training camp, Bob remarked that Emma was “halfway between Sweet Springs and Concordia – right off of Blackwater Creek.” The response drew laughs. Of course no one from LA knew of the small Missouri towns.
Halfway between Sweet Springs and Concordia, placed on the edge of town, is where Norbert and Lydia Oetting raised six children, including five that would find their way to Seward for both high school and college. Norbert worked maintenance at a local grain elevator. He settled in Missouri after having also lived in Nebraska as a railroad worker. He had previously made extra money by competing in weekend wrestling tournaments in Omaha. He was big and he was strong. Back on the residence, the Oettings often housed cattle, chickens and pigs, though on a small scale. They never had more than five cows at a time, but it was enough for a creamery that would produce butter and cheese. Each of the Oetting children fulfilled their chores and went to church. They tended to the large family garden and mowed lawns for neighbors. There wasn’t a choice. But there was time for fun. The youngest brother, Dennis, joked that Larry and Bob got their powerful arms from “throwing dirt clouds at me.” The boys also loved playing sports. They played fast-pitch softball in the fall and spring and baseball in the summer.
But the origins of the football talent that characterized the Oetting brothers is a somewhat of a mystery. Their father, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade to support the family, wrestled and played baseball. Their mother stopped going to school early on in high school for similar reasons. Larry believes this made his parents more apt to emphasize the value of getting an education. They supported the athletic ventures of their six children, but rarely attended games because of work demands. Gene could recall just one instance in which his family saw him play during his football career at Concordia. As the eldest brother, Gene had to figure out football on his own. “I didn’t know how to put on the equipment,” Gene recalled. “I was as green as grass, but I was big. I weighed 190 pounds as a (high school) freshman and I was probably too dumb to be scared. I think I was the biggest guy on the team as a freshman.”
The distance from home also made attending Gene’s games problematic. Back then, the drive on two-lane highways could take roughly 10 hours. The Oettings typically did not drift too far from Emma, but Gene changed the game when he settled on Concordia, his landing spot for both high school and college. His mother struggled to understand why her eldest son desired to leave the home at the tender age of 14, but Gene became almost mesmerized by the wonders of Concordia, as told to him by an elementary teacher he had in Emma. Gene had also decided early on that he wanted to be a teacher and that he wanted to discover what the game of football was all about. The Oettings all had a physicality about them that translated perfectly to the gridiron. As children they played a game called the fox and the hound. It was the hound’s objective to literally tackle the foxes. It didn’t matter how old you were, you were going to get leveled to the ground.
His parents gave the okay, but Gene would have to pay his own way to go to Concordia. He went to work cutting grass, working construction and doing any odd job he could find to save up money starting at the age of 10. Gene arrived at Concordia High School in 1946 and wrote a check out for $250. It was enough to cover the entire cost – room and board, tuition and all. There were no scholarships for football, no matter how skilled an athlete was. It was clear from the beginning, Gene had talent and then head coach Herb Meyer would be a major beneficiary. Gene also did more than just play football. He threw the shot put, javelin and the discus for the track and field team.
Gene proved to be a quick study in regards to the game of football. He attracted attention as an all-state performer at Concordia High School in six-man football. He first lettered in football as a sophomore at Concordia High and soon became a starter and earned a strong reputation for his work as a lineman. In 1949, the Omaha World-Herald’s Gregg McBride wrote, “Gene Oetting of Concordia was the best lineman in 1949 Husker six-man ball. He carried his 200 pounds with surprising ease, was a bearcat on defense, a tireless player and a power on offense.”
In Emma, Gene, like his brothers, had played fast-pitch softball, but there just wasn’t much infrastructure for a whole lot else. Gene saw only one basketball game before moving to Seward. TV did not reach the Oettings until about 1950. There was no ESPN. It didn’t stop Gene from becoming one of the greatest football players in Concordia’s history. Plus, few conversations about Gene’s playing career fail to bring up his tremendous leadership skills. Former teammate Gary Seevers effusively praised this trait that Gene possessed. During one game, an opposing player purposely tried to twist Seevers’ ankle. Gene saw what happened and took immediate action. He approached a senior member of the opponent and told him, “You know that’s not the way we play. I don’t want to see anyone on your team ever do that again. You take care of it.” Those leadership skills translated well to Gene’s career as a teacher. He made a return to Seward in 1967 and taught classes at Concordia at the same time as Ron Harms roamed the sidelines as head coach. Gene’s first call sent him to Houston as an elementary teacher. His service also took him to Los Angeles in opening up opportunities he had never dreamed of. Gene went wherever he was assigned. No doubt he was most fond of Concordia, where he spent 58 years of his life as a student or faculty member.
Four Brothers. Four Concordia Athletic Hall of Famers. Said Gene, “I was overwhelmed and so thankful for it.” The bond they shared grew with adulthood and repeated Hall of Fame inductions. It was natural. Gene was separated by eight years from the next oldest brother, Larry. At the time of Gene’s marriage, Larry was 14, Bob 12, Dennis 10 and the youngest sister 3. The Hall of Fame inductions were another reminder of the special nature of the family. None have a bad word to offer in regards to each other. In an interview Bob relayed details about their head-to-head battles on the field. Bob had the chance to play at Concordia with both Larry and Dennis. Said Larry, “That was always a joy for us to have that opportunity.” Bob called each of his brothers an “inspiration” and continued, “Larry and Dennis were tremendous football players. I was faster but they were a lot bigger and stronger. We loved going against each other one-on-one. They were definitely a tremendous challenge, but it was a great learning experience going against them. We were all so competitive. We couldn’t wait to see which of us got the best. I think I got the worst of it. Thankfully after college I continued to get bigger and continued to grow.”