By Rob Moseley
On this Thanksgiving Day, there’s much for UO assistant coach Tom Osborne and his family to keep close at heart. Including a charming little tradition that will play out early Friday afternoon prior to the Civil War in Autzen Stadium.
For the past seven years, off and on, Osborne and his son, Tyler, have made a point of carving out 20 minutes from the busy gameday schedule for a father-son tradition unlike any other.
About 80 minutes prior to the 4 p.m. start, Tom and Tyler will wander onto the field while most of the Ducks and Beavers are inside suiting up. Then, as they’ve done for every home game since 2008, several road appearances and most memorably before a couple of bowl games, they’ll share a game of catch.
It would be easy to miss by anyone else in the stadium, with all the bustle of gameday preparations ongoing. Just a simple game of catch, as punts and placekicks fly overhead, and players jog by. But to father and son, it’s as if there’s nobody else on the field.
“I’ll have other coaches come up and want to chat during that time, and I’ll say, ‘Give me 20 minutes,’” Tom Osborne said. “And every single guy I’ve run in to has understood.
“I always want to say hi and be cordial. But nothing’s going to interrupt that time.”
Tom Osborne says he can’t recall the last time he and his son didn’t play catch at a home game, going back at least to Osborne’s stint at Arizona State from 2001-06. Tyler recalls the routine beginning no later than when he was in eighth grade, in 2007, the family’s first season back in Eugene.
Either way, it’s become a tradition, highly anticipated by both Osbornes. This season, Tyler is an undergraduate assistant coach on the UO staff, and travels to every road game. So for the first time, the Osbornes will have their catch before each game in a full season.
Even at Arizona last week, with rain and wind marring the pregame scene, the game of catch took place. It might be cut a few minutes short out of consideration for weather conditions, but never cancelled.
“It means a lot,” Tyler said.
Tyler Osborne has been close on his father’s heels around the UO football program pretty much since he was born. UO coach Mark Helfrich recalls seeing Tyler at Oregon practices in 1997, when Helfrich was a graduate assistant coach.
Helfrich and Osborne also worked together for a spell at Arizona State.
“He’s always struck a great balance, in a profession that’s tough to do that,” Helfrich said.
“I couldn’t finish meeting with players after practice and I’d have a ball in my hand,” Tom Osborne recalled of Tyler's early exposure to football. “He’d say, ‘kick me the ball,’ and then he’d make me try to go tackle him.”
Whichever year it began, the pregame catch eventually replaced post-practice bonding time for father and son. Tyler would study Oregon’s gameday schedule, seek out his dad and let him know when to be on the field.
“As a coach’s kid, you don’t get to see your dad too much,” Tyler said. “So you kind of have to make an effort to see him.”
A self-described “basket case” at that point prior to kickoff, Tom Osborne uses the game of catch to clear his mind, and enjoy a few cherished moments with Tyler.
“It’s the best part of my week,” Tom Osborne said.
Much to Osborne’s chagrin, Tyler was developing a passion for football over the years, and specifically for coaching. He was a receiver and defensive back at Sheldon High School in Eugene, and was allowed by former coach Chip Kelly to sit in on Oregon’s position and team meetings.
Tom Osborne tried to dissuade his son from an interest in the business “in the worst way,” before coming to terms with the fact Tyler had found his passion.
“I want to do what I love, and this is what I love,” said Tyler, a business major at the university.
One job he won’t get is a position working for his father; neither Osborne wants nepotism to be perceived as a factor in Tyler’s career. Still, they see each other more often now than when Tyler still lived at home, and would have to stay up late to talk football after his dad returned at 10:30 p.m. each night.
Tyler worked with Kelly and Helfrich in an undergraduate assistant role last season, his freshman year at Oregon. Now he’s under offensive coordinator Scott Frost, breaking down film, preparing reports on opponent tendencies and running the audio-video equipment for quarterback meetings.
After graduation, Tyler hopes to work as an intern or graduate assistant, continuing to work his way up the coaching ladder.
“He’s got a head start, because he knows a lot of football that a lot of people his age don’t,” Frost said. “If he stays at it and keeps working, he’s got a really good career in front of him.”
All that’s at least two years off, however, while Tyler finishes his undergraduate career. That means at least two more seasons of playing catch with his dad before games.
Prior to Oregon’s last home game, against Utah, the Osbornes first set up about 15 yards apart. Tyler, who played some quarterback early in his high school career, has a little more zip on his passes, and before long they were 20 yards apart, then 25.
At a couple different points they came together to chat; maybe it was about how Tyler’s sister was doing, or about something one of them spotted in the stands. Whatever the subject, it’s usually small talk, the kind they also share over dinners in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex when possible.
Maybe someday, they’ll be able to top the day each agrees is their most memorable pregame catch. It took place prior to the 2010 Rose Bowl, when a scheduling snafu resulted in the Ducks getting out on the field late for warmups.
When Ohio State’s players went to their locker room to suit up, Oregon’s players had yet to emerge.
“I look around and there’s nobody on the field,” Tom Osborne said. “We’re in the Rose Bowl, which doesn’t get any better as a coach, and I’m out there playing catch with my son.
“As a dad, that was just incredible. I’ll never forget that if I live to be 100.”