Anatomy of an Era: Diane Yeutter, Unsung Hero, Part 1
Excerpted from Chapter 32, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
“I didn’t even know this lady and she wrote me a letter. She was just encouraging me and giving me words of comfort, and for some reason the words that she said really touched me and opened my eyes as to what was going on. Her name was Diane Yeutter.”
–Tony Veland, previous chapter
As providence would have it, Tony Veland had his Husker Angel’s phone number ready at hand when we ended our conversation. I dialed her up from out of the blue to find if this face from the Sea of Red would have the time and/or inclination to share her version of events as it concerned Tony’s heaven-sent letter mentioned in the previous chapter. Luckily for us, she kindly obliged. And though you’ll never see her name on a roster or in a media guide from that 60 & 3 era, she was there. I officially present to you Nebraska’s 12th Man, errr, Woman, of that era: Mrs. Diane Yeutter …
Question: Hello, Diane, I appreciate your willingness to speak to me. Tony Veland brought your name up and mentioned that at one time in his life a letter from you made all the difference; that he found it very encouraging, exhorting, and gave him a proper perspective and mindset going forward. I simply had to hunt you down and find more about the story and the part you played in it.
Diane Yeutter: Well, that’s nice of you, Paul. Tony is very special to us to this day. He really is. Our birthdays are two days apart, and my husband and I both love him as a ‘spiritual son.’
Q: Before we get going here I must ask, how is your name pronounced?
DY: That’s Yeutter. (rhymes with fighter) My husband’s name is Ed.
Q: From what region does that name originate: Yeutter?
DY: Well, my husband’s family was German, so it’s a German name. My family was English, so we married the English with the Germans.
Q: Are you a native Nebraskan, born and bred?
DY: Oh, for Pete’s sake, yes. My family? We were located in Fremont, Nebraska, which is just a hop, skip and a jump from Lincoln.
And actually, it was my father who would take me to Nebraska football games when I was five years old or so, so I was born and raised Husker Red. I never knew passion for another team, collegiately, than Nebraska. I remember going to Lincoln, driving in blizzards, and we’d still go to the games. I can also remember in the 1960’s when we beat Missouri, and we were sitting in the south end zone. I don’t know why I remember it, but we just pounded the flesh out of those Tigers. I just fell in love with the spirit, the fans, the competition of the game, and the noise just thrilled me. And also, during the years my family would watch the traditional Oklahoma-Nebraska game at Thanksgiving and all my family was over. So yeah, I just grew up Red.
And one time Mom and Dad took my brother and I out to eat, Paul, at the Cornhusker Highway Holiday Inn. Well, the entire Nebraska football team was there. And you have to understand, Paul, this was back in the ’60’s and at a time when integration was just becoming a common thing. My Mom and Dad looked at Doug, my brother, and I, and said, “Go over to that table and get these Huskers’ autographs.” So I had my little napkin and I walked over and I looked at this one player and said, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ And I remember this like it was yesterday -and he was sitting over there in the booth and he was black- but he blushed. He signed my napkin, and it was Ked Geddes. Ken Geddes. I still have that napkin up in my attic. I never destroyed it. It was Ken Geddes. I don’t even remember what position he played, but I was in awe of him. I was in awe of Ken Geddes.
That’s the background of the passion from childhood on up. And my father was killed in ’73, and in ‘75 was when I went to college. Then my mother came down to Tau Kappa Epsilon, the TKE house in Lincoln, and she became a TKE House Mom. She had me down for any game I wanted to come to for nine years. I can remember mom had one of the TKE’s in her house who was a center and he was second string, and one time my mom said to him, “You know, you could be first string center for probably about any other team in the nation.” And he replied back, “Who wants to be number one on the depth chart when you can be number two for the number one team in the nation?” I’ll always remember hearing that. It was pretty neat. So a passion for the Huskers and a passion for football was bred into me.
Sower in the Clouds (Dave Rimington)
Q: Where did you attend college?
DY: I went to Kearney State before it was UN-K. I got my teacher’s degree there. As a matter of fact, after my freshman year I went to UNL to make application and talk with the Dean of Education with my mom. The three of us were having a conversation -and I wanted to transfer to be close to my Husker football team- and my mom said I needed to go back to Kearney because they had an excellent teachers program. So I went back to Kearney and graduated from there. I wanted to relocate so I could be near my football team, (laughs) but I was turned away.
Q: So you ended up in Lexington, Nebraska somehow?
DY: Thirty-one years ago. Thirty-two this coming fall. I made application and became a schoolteacher and I’ve been here for that long. It’s been a wonderful challenge, a great opportunity here, and we actually teach to around nineteen different nationalities here in town. I teach the best grade of all: the second grade.
Q: So where did the letter-writing come in? When did it start? What was the impetus?
DY: Paul, when my husband and I were first married we wanted children. And we went through twelve years of eight miscarriages, major surgeries for me, minor surgeries, and it was in ’92 or ’93 that the dream abruptly came to a stop because I had major surgery and almost died. I was hemorrhaging to death and had two ectopic pregnancies and almost bled to death, but as I was walking out of the surgeon’s office I looked up and said, ‘Lord, you must have a plan for me. You don’t want me home yet, so whatever you want me to do, I’ll do.’ That autumn, Paul, I don’t know if I can explain it any other way, I just… I felt like it was a divine appointment from the Lord to write Tony Veland.
Q: Tony specifically?
DY: Yes, and it was something that I had heard, that he had wanted to be quarterback and that he’d broke his collarbone and they were making a position change on him from quarterback to defensive back. And something inside of me had compassion. We had just come off of twelve years of desperately trying to have children and our dream had died, just as Tony’s had died of being quarterback in what was to be the one of the greatest eras in college football history, but it wasn’t to be.
So Tony had a dream that was lost and we could identify. And I remember praying to the Lord and asking him what scripture he’d like me to share with this young man. And Paul, He took me right to it: James 1:2-4, “Count it all joy when you fall into divers trials and temptations, for the trying of your faith shall produce patience. And patience has its perfect work. Because you shall then become complete and whole.” That’s what I sent to Tony. And I said, ‘Lord, I’m uncomfortable writing this to him. I don’t know him. He might think I’m a religious cuckoo.’ There were a lot of things going through my mind, but I knew that I was to send it.
Tony told you his response, and that young man wrote us back. He wrote a hand-written letter and then we wrote him back and he wrote us back. Tony even became involved in my second grade classes, becoming a Big Brother. They would write him letters and he would write them back. I always had Tony’s back in prayer. There hasn’t been a long period of time where I haven’t prayed for that young man, so I think of Tony as if he were my son.
I have a notebook that is four inches thick of letters that we have written people during that time. We also wrote the team as a whole. We wrote the team many letters for many years; just notes of encouragement and hope and inspiration from the Lord, encouraging each player, each coach to recognize that God has them on earth and has a plan and purpose for their life, and at this time of life it is to influence the children of Nebraska, since the eyes of the children were on them.
Q: So Tony’s was the very first letter you wrote?
DY: Yes, Tony was the very first.
Q: Amazing. And how long a drive is it from Lincoln to Lexington?
DY: Oh, about two hours and fifteen minutes. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump.
Q: Pretty much a straight shot down I-80?
DY: Right, and what might be interesting to you is that my husband and I wrote other letters to players and have gotten to know them. Patrick Kagbongo has been in our home several times and we’ve followed him up in Canada. Willie Amos, we wrote him letters. Willie and I still write. Jeff Hemje, we still write back and forth on facebook. And he even invited us to his wedding. We’ve just developed great relationships with these boys, these players, and we’ve actually gotten spiritual sons, so we are richly blessed. And my husband, he was a former football player for the Kearney State Antelopes, too. I’m getting off track here, but when Patrick Kabongo walked into the doorframe of our home he filled it! Not only filled it with his size, but he filled it with his heart. That boy is just a remarkable kid. We’ve had a lot of fun.
And there’s another young man, Tony Ortiz. We also wrote him. And whenever I would write players letters I always prayed and I wrote scripture because I felt the Lord has something very special for individuals. So Tony Ortiz, I can remember writing him and telling him where we sat in the end zone -because we had season tickets for many years until Callahan and Steve Pederson came in- but Tony Ortiz, I told him the exact section we were sitting in, and he’d come by and wave his hands. Not to say, “Hello. Hi,” but waving them and lifting his arms up as if to say, “Louder! Louder!!” And I remember one time waiting outside the door where family and friends waited after the game and we saw Tony Ortiz and I said, ‘Tony Ortiz?’ And I said, ‘We’re the people who wrote you the letters,’ and just told him how much we appreciated and loved him for the young man he was. And the intensity of his eyes? I’ll never forget it. He looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t you ever stop writing me!” I was like, ‘You got it!’ (laughs)
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But it was really interesting, because you usually think of football players when you are a youngster as one thing: big, tough dudes. But they all have basic needs as any other human being. And I don’t know them, but the Lord knows them, Paul, and he’s always given me messages for certain players. Now, was it for every player? Oh, probably not. Were there some players who were turned off by it? Probably so. But the point was that was our ministry, and we knew that the Lord was leading us to write these letters, so that’s a snippet of the letter writing.
Q: “God’s word will not return void”?
DY: Amen. He is just remarkable. It’s such a pleasure now getting on Facebook. And Tony Ortiz has a job interview soon, so we prayed for him for a second interview. It just kind of cool, Paul, being able to see these young men. And we also wrote Mike Minter and Mike Rucker. And Mike Rucker’s mom used to write us Christmas letters, and then when Martin Rucker Sr. became a Congressman or Senator from Missouri, he and I used to e-mail back and forth. Ross Pilkington’s parents, we’ve written back and forth, too.
To be continued….
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