The ties that bind Rod Giesselmann and Concordia date back to 1961 when Rod’s father took a call to St. John Lutheran School. For the next 10 years, Rod’s life became transformed by the hundreds (or even thousands) of relationships that were formed while living both across the street from and on the campus of Concordia Teachers College. Some of the best education professors in the country, as well as eventual Hall of Fame coaches, inspired a young Giesselmann, just a seventh grader when his family made the move to Seward.
It's been more than 50 years since Rod celebrated his college graduation, but the memories remain vivid as he relives the stories of yesteryear with an obvious passion and vigor. It’s clear when speaking with Giesselmann that those 10 years were some of the best of his life. He still marvels at how it all came together with the people who came together.
“There was a oneness between the 2,000 people on campus,” Rod says of his time as a Bulldog. “They all vowed to become mostly teachers and some pastors. That’s pretty wild. There was a oneness of purpose and oneness of being there. So many relationships festered and grew out of being in that spot for 10 years. Having all those mentors in athletics and in the vocation you were going into was pretty special.”
Another special moment for Rod came this past June when he received a letter in the mail, informing him of his selection into the Concordia Athletics Hall of Fame. The former record-setting quarterback had been nominated for the award by one of his sons. As Rod tells the story, his second son (Zachry) had been sitting in a tractor in western Nebraska and had the thought, ‘Why isn’t dad in the hall of fame?’ That thought set into motion the events that will lead Giesselmann back to campus for homecoming week at Concordia. Rod called his inclusion into the school’s hall of fame “humbling and something I’m thankful for at the same time.”
Athletically, Rod is known to the school’s history books as one of its finest quarterbacks. Perhaps his most significant claim to fame athletically, Rod led the 1970 football team to an 8-1 overall record, a Nebraska Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship and final NAIA ranking of No. 12. Upon his graduation, Giesselmann essentially owned every meaningful program passing record – 13 of them to be exact. Over his fear years, he threw for 5,380 yards and 47 touchdowns while completing 355-of-839 attempts.
The ’70 season is one of the most cherished in Concordia’s football history. It started with a bang when Giesselmann and company ended rival Doane’s 38-game unbeaten streak with a 35-0 pummeling. In eight years playing for Concordia High School and Concordia Teachers College, Giesselmann never saw such a massive crowd. A reported 6,800 people flocked to Seward that day with most of them expecting to see Doane claim victory.
As Giesselmann recalls, the key to that season was that the top players remained healthy. Giesselmann himself had tried to play through a broken thumb in 1969. That 1970 season, Giesselmann threw for 1,783 yards and 17 touchdowns while spreading the ball to the likes of productive pass catchers in Dan Danielcyzk and Brian Naber. At a time when many colleges were focused on the run, coaches Ron Harms and John Seevers were allowing Giesselmann to air it out while calling his own plays. He was ahead of his time.
“With Coach Harms and Coach Seevers, we ran a little different offense than was around at that time,” Giesselmann said. “We threw the ball way more than anyone we played. We had some people who could catch, and we had some people who could throw. It was different. Teams had to prepare for us a little different than other schools at the time. Harms and Seevers let me call the plays. We wanted to do what they weren’t expecting us to do, so we threw the ball more than most. It was always fun to beat the places that had more than we had, like more scholarships and better facilities.”
As a school dedicated to developing “teachers and preachers,” as many would say back then, Concordia athletic teams indeed had to outwork and outsmart some of their opponents. Football head coach from 1959-63, Ralph Starenko was credited with helping to modernize and upgrade the program. He quickly came to understand the challenges that went with recruiting top football players to Concordia.
As Rod says, “There was no scholarship money and you had to want to be a Lutheran teacher or pastor. It was hard to get people to commit to that. We were more than proud that we could carry the banner of our vocation and also have success athletically. As I look back at it now, I’m very proud. Back then, the focus was just on what was in front of you.”
If there was a competitive advantage for Concordia, it may have been its oneness in mission and the closeness of the relationships that were built. Quite simply, there were good people in place with unified beliefs. When Giesselmann learned that he had been chosen for the hall of fame, he made a point to reach out to the people who helped him get there. In his thoughts were people like Harms, Seevers, Jim Wacker, Gene Faszholz, Carl Everts and many others, from both his high school and college days.
Harms served as head football coach from 1964 to 1969. One of the main reasons Giesselmann stayed home at Concordia for college was because of Harms’ influence (Harms would go on to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame).
Says Giesselmann of his recruitment, “(Tom) Osborne wanted me to walk on at Nebraska. Valparaiso talked to me a little bit. I was playing basketball for Concordia High School and we were making a run to go to the state tournament. Coach Harms was the head coach at the college at that time. He walks into the gym and looks at me and says, ‘Mr. Giesselmann, you coming here next year?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ That was it. 100 percent that was it. It was a pretty easy situation. I wouldn’t change anything about it. The 10 years of relationships during that time was pretty special.”
A three-sport college athlete, Giesselmann seems to remember each of those relationships in great detail. According to Rod, he suited up alongside one specific teammate for 340 games and 1,440 practices – but who’s counting? His toil included not just the grueling practices, but the jobs he had working a newspaper route, in the dining hall, in construction and for the House of Davisson. Giesselmann looks back at all of it with a certain fondness.
Concordia and the people involved set up Giesselmann to succeed in life and in his future careers as a teacher, coach and financial representative. He probably didn’t realize what he had then, but his years of wisdom have made it clear now.
“The people who coached me are involved in 10 different halls of fame,” Rod said. “The ability to be around those type of people was quite the thing. I feel very blessed to have had them in my life. I enjoyed every one of those conversations. Coach Harms and I talked for an hour (after the hall of fame announcement). We got done and he said, ‘That’s the most I ever talked to you.’ We just had a ball.”
An hour of conversation is nothing for someone like Rod, who quite evidently possesses the gift of gab. He has joked with his wife Becky that he will “behave” during his hall of fame speech and attempt to limit his remarks in line with the parameters that are communicated with inductees.
We’re here to tell you to take the time you need, Rod. You are a storyteller with stories to be told. On the week of homecoming, it seems fitting that Rod will be back home to help link the present to a different era of Concordia.
To be sure, Rod is a proud Concordian, faithful servant and witness to Christ. No matter where he goes, such as his home of Arlington, Texas, or otherwise, Rod feels the ‘oneness’ of Concordia. As Rod says, “There was a oneness of purpose and oneness of being there. If you are looking to be a teacher, you’re not going to get a better education than at Concordia Teachers College. You’re just not.”
NOTE: Additional stories about Rod Giesselmann’s career can be found in the book, Cultivating Men of Faith & Character: The History of Concordia Nebraska Football.