Former Husker football player Tony Veland's journey from mentee to mentor came through football, a torn patellar tendon and a bullet.
That people were there for him through his struggles is why he found success and avoided a more tenuous path, he told about 30 Blair Teammates mentors at the Blair Public Library and Technology Center. That's why being a mentor is important for kids, he said.
"They need people like us to say, 'Listen, you have worth, you have value, you are a beautiful person, you have a beautiful soul,'" Veland said.
Veland was invited to speak to the Blair Teammates mentors during the organization's meeting Thursday. Blair Teammates Coordinator Rebecca Mathiesen said it was a fortunate honor to have Veland speak.
"We have 87 mentors and mentees … we're really hoping to up that number," she said, adding there a few students who need mentors. "We just don't have the mentors to fill those spots."
Veland himself has been a mentor with Teammates in Omaha. The Benson High School graduate won back-to-back championships as part of the Huskers 1994 and 1995 defense before winning a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos. He currently works at the Aim Institute, an Omaha nonprofit, where he serves as the director of community engagement.
Though he was aware of Teammates from his playing days, his decision to be a mentor post-football was a seemingly "stars-aligning" moment.
Becoming a solution
In the summer of 2011, Veland said he had just thrown away some fast food garbage in the Benson High School parking lot when he got back into his vehicle.
"I felt this really sharp pain in my shoulder," he said. "I hear, 'boom, boom, boom, boom.' I finally look up, and I look toward the street, and there's a car, and there's two young kids in there … I got shot. I got shot, they were shooting."
Veland said he was able to drive away from the scene and call an ambulance, but the experience took a mental toll on him.
"I was really, really angry for probably about two or three months," he said, because he'd always tried to help the community and didn't understand why someone would shoot him.
"I felt like it was a case of mistaken identity, but even if that's the case, somebody was still trying to shoot to kill," Veland said. "That weighed on me."
He considered moving to west Omaha and quitting any of the community work he had been doing.
"But as time went on, and my anger started to subside, I started to think," Veland said. "This one thought kept popping up in my head: Do you want to be part of the problem, or part of the solution?"
Not long after, he received a call from former Huskers Chad Kelsay asking if he'd like to be a part of Teammates in Omaha.
"I thought, 'Well, if this isn't stars lining up,'" he said.
Giving without expecting
Veland joined Teammates as a mentor, now giving back to young people who needed someone much in the same way a Lexington teacher did for him during his college days.
"Early in my career, I had a lot of injuries," he said. "The worst one was when I was in Lincoln, and I tore my patellar tendon … I'm sitting there thinking that football could be done for me."
Class wasn't important anymore, he said. He became depressed and started drinking.
"I started doing anything I could to basically throw a pity-party for myself," Veland said.
But one day, he received a letter. Veland thought it was fan mail, that he should just throw it away.
"I got home and ended up reading the letter," he said. "It basically was saying, 'You've taken a test you've already passed before. You need to be strong in body and mind. When this is all said and done, you're going to be stronger in both.'"
For some reason, Veland said, the letter from the Lexington woman and teacher touched him.
"She had been writing Huskers for about three years prior. She said God put it on her heart to minister Husker players," Veland said. "She said she had done this three years, and I was the first one to write her back. When she told me that, I was floored. Think about the commitment, the conviction and the faith to do something for three years and not get anything in return."
It was that moment that he decided he had to be all in, and the friendship with the woman became a defining moment for his collegiate career.
Veland told the Blair Teammates mentors that they, too, can be the person a kid needs whether the issues in their lives come large or small. Anyone, he said, has the capacity to be a mentor.
"You just need a heart," he said.