NOTE: The text below represents only a small fraction of the Oetting brother story adapted from the book on Concordia football’s history, Cultivating Men of Faith and Character, which will be published this September.
Halfway between Sweet Springs and Concordia exists the town of Emma, Missouri. Roughly 200 people populated the teeny, tiny blot on the map where Norbert and Lydia Oetting settled down to raise six children. Norbert and Lydia were hard working, blue collar and devout Lutherans.
“It was fantastic,” said Bob Oetting, the third of four boys. “We had a wonderful family. Mom and dad were wonderful Christian people who believed in a Lutheran education.”
The oldest of the Oetting boys, Gene began a family pipeline that cut northwest into Nebraska before stopping in Seward in 1946. Little did any of the Oettings know, it was the beginning of a relationship that would profoundly impact both the family and an institution once known as the “college in the cornfield.”
But before garnering attention on the football field, the family lived a mostly normal, happy lifestyle. 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.”
Leisure time presented the opportunity for the Oettings to play sports. There were no area football teams, but they gravitated towards fast-pitch softball, a prominent activity in Emma. They also played games like the fox and the hound. In this particular activity, the hound was meant to literally tackle the foxes to the ground. It was competition and the Oettings couldn’t get enough of it.
There was something else that intrigued the eldest. Gene heard stories about a school in Seward, Nebraska. An elementary teacher in Emma told Gene about the wonders of Concordia, then both a high school and college that afforded students the chance at a high-quality Lutheran education and the opportunity to compete athletically. With an early desire for becoming a teacher, Gene made up his mind that this seemingly perfect place in Seward is where he wanted to be.
“My dad said, ‘you can go to school, but you have to pay for it.’” Gene said. “That wasn’t such an impossible task in those days. I started saving money when I was about 10 or 11. When I came here I wrote a $250 check and that paid for room, board, tuition and everything that first year.”
And so Gene entered Concordia High School in 1946 with ideal size and athleticism to be a star football player. The only problem? He didn’t yet understand the rules of the game. This was before widespread access to football games on TV. Said Gene, “I didn’t know how to put on the equipment. I was as green as grass.”
Before long, Gene caught the eye of Concordia collegiate head coach Herb Meyer, who welcomed the Emma native onto his squad in 1950. Gene led the Bulldogs to Central Church College Conference titles in 1951 and 1953 as a standout on the offensive and defensive lines. He was named the Omaha World-Herald athlete of the year in 1954. Said then running back Vic Peter, “Gene was a leader. He got the team to mesh together with his talks.”
On to the next one. Split from Gene by roughly eight years in age, Larry got to Seward just months after his older brother had finished up. With an eye on becoming a football coach, Larry started at Concordia High School in 1954. Just like Gene, success came natural for Larry. He helped Concordia High to an undefeated football season and then powered the Bulldogs to a conference title in 1960. He was named the team MVP in 1961 and earned a tryout with the Minnesota Vikings before beginning his coaching career.
The lifespan of Oettings playing football at Concordia College began in 1950 and ended in 1966. Overlap occurred in the playing careers of Larry and Bob and Bob and Dennis. Bob went on to play professional football, having stints with the Los Angeles Rams and Canadian Football League teams in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Until serious knee injuries forced him to leave the Rams, Bob appeared on his way to gaining a starting role in Los Angeles for a team that included Deacon Jones, a future pro football Hall of Fame inductee. Bob underwent nine different surgeries, including six on his knee, all due to football injuries. Said Bob, “I’d do it all over again.” He added of his experience in the NFL, “I didn’t have to take a backseat to any of them.”
When it came time for Dennis, the youngest brother, to make a college choice, there really was no choice. “It was a done deal,” Dennis said. “I knew I was going to go to Concordia. I really didn’t have to think about it too much. I gladly wanted to go there.” Dennis even turned down a full-ride scholarship from then University of Nebraska head football coach Bob Devaney to land at Concordia, where he’d become a star in football and on the wrestling mat. No Oetting has ever regretted the decision to come to Concordia. Plus the chance to play together was a special one. Says Larry, “That was always a joy for us to have that opportunity.”
During the 13 seasons in which one or more of the Oetting brothers played, Concordia College put together a combined record of 69-40-5 with nine years of above .500 records. Their eras also spanned three different head coaching tenures. Without the Oettings, the course of Concordia football may have been altered. “We got a lot of notoriety, but there were a lot of families that did that,” Gene said humbly. “I don’t know how it all happened.” Dennis took a crack at explaining the success, saying, “God blessed us with some ability and some talent that we were able to use. God blessed our efforts and all we can really say is the glory goes back there. It just took a little hard work and perseverance on our parts.”
Beyond their football playing days, each of the Oettings have experienced plenty of rewarding moments. Gene and Dennis became longtime teachers, Larry went on to become head coach of Bulldog football and is currently a pastor and Bob also spent many years coaching before shifting to insurance. (It should also be noted that both Oetting sisters, Lois and Sharon, displayed similar talents athletically and in their occupations). To this day they share a bond that was partly formed by their collective experiences as Bulldogs. Says Gene, “I was so overwhelmed and thankful for it.”
When asked by a Los Angeles reporter where he grew up, Bob proudly told them Emma, Mo., or “halfway between Sweet Springs and Concordia.” No matter where they’ve gone, Emma has always been part of them. So too has Concordia. Says Larry, “We’re very proud to say that we’re Bulldogs.”