Fighting against the current is something Nick Larson has never shied away from.
Being bold and forging his own path has helped the Columbus native find personal success, provide for his family and serve the community he calls home.
“The theme of really everything about me is finding what works for you, and hasn’t always been typical for everybody else,” Larson said. “A lot of the things that Leslie (wife) and I have done have been fits for us, and not always mainstream …
“You can waste a lot of time and effort trying to figure out what you want to be, or what someone else thinks you should be, and at some point, you have to be able to figure out who you are, and you have to do it well.”
At some point during Larson’s journey, he became a man who sometimes rubs against the grain, who doesn’t get pressured to stray from his ideals and values and who sets an example for his two boys, 12-year-old Charlie and 9-year old Thomas.
“I’m not sure the best way to say it, but I’ve never been a sheep to follow the herd, I guess,” he said. “I’ve always had my own thing, I’ve always walked to the beat of a different drum. I’m not going to do something because everyone else is doing it, and I guess that’s something I learned growing up.”
With his own foundation soundly built, for years he has been working with his own boys and dozens of youth in the greater Columbus community instilling the principles of hard work, being great teammates and strong leaders.
Whether through volunteering for Columbus Baseball teams, Boy Scouts or an assortment of other children sporting events, Larson is always looking to harness talent, softening out the rough edges and helping to mold youngsters into the final product they will one day become.
The path they travel through their later years and adulthood will inevitably be their own to navigate, but for the time being, they are benefiting from a pretty solid guide.
Leaving and Returning
Nick, the son of John and Mary Larson, is a Columbus native who attended St. Bonaventure Elementary School before passing through the halls of Scotus Central Catholic High School. His dad was an employee with the Nebraska Public Power District and his mother, an employee with District 10 School.
While in high school, Larson’s love for sports continued evolving. He was a guard and tackle on the Scotus football team, positions which helped prepare him to play defensive end at Concordia University in Seward for a year after graduating high school in 1997.
These early years were formative for Larson in more than one way. Unbeknownst to him, he mingled with some of the same friends as his future love, Leslie. She attended Columbus High School and the pair were casual acquaintances.
“We were in the same social circles and everything, but we weren’t real close friends or anything like that,” he said.
After transferring from Concordia after a year to Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nick and Leslie’s paths ultimately collided while attending the same social gathering. The duo hit it off and married a few years later in 2002 at Grace Episcopal Church in Columbus.
After graduating from Southeast with a degree in business administration, for several years Larson worked for Vantage Pointe Homes, a Lincoln-based modular home builder. It was the same place he worked full-time while completing his two-year degree.
Larson treasures the time he spent in Lincoln before returning to Columbus in 2008. It was a time for him and Leslie to develop into a single operating unit, and he made life-long memories.
But when Charlie was born in 2007, Nick and Leslie ultimately decided that there might be a better place for them to raise a full family.
“We had great jobs, a fantastic neighborhood, we loved our house, everything was great,” he said. “But I had one of those ‘aha’ moments that I’ll never forget. On Charlie’s first birthday I asked Leslie, ‘where is our kid every going to ride his bike around here? This just isn’t us.’
“So even though we really loved everything about Lincoln – going to hockey games, bars, everything else that was a lot of fun – when it came to raising kids, Columbus was just kind of the place to do it for us.”
Larson during a recent interview with The Telegram smiled while readily admitting that he doesn’t ever really shy away from vocalizing what he’s thinking.
Really, this is one of the driving factors why Larson is so compelled to get into the thick of things with volunteerism.
“I’m a very opinionated person, and people who know me know I don’t have a problem voicing my opinion,” said Larson, who works in town managing the utility division of Obrist & Company. “In my mindset, if you are going to be opinionated and you are going to say when you disagree with something, whether you don’t like something or you want to see something better, you better be willing to take action and be willing to get involved with it.”
Getting involved started when Larson was living with one of his best high school buddies, Joe Niedbalski, in Lincoln. Niedbalski, the current managing partner/owner of the Runza in Columbus, one day asked Larson if he would be interested in helping out with one of Runza’s youth football teams.
“We were roommates at the time and he saw me going and coaching and I told him that I could always use an extra set of hands,” Niedbalski said. “And he’s just pretty knowledgeable about sports in general, so I thought that it would be something good.”
From about 2006-2008, the men worked together helping middle-school-aged boys strap on the pads, tackle correctly and learn some of the game’s X’s and O’s.
“I think he did push me (to do it) a little at first, but we really enjoyed doing it – we just had a great time working with the kids,” Larson said.
Although Larson and Niedbalski were already well acquainted, coaching provided Niedbalski with a platform to witness Larson’s ability to communicate and engage children.
“He has always been focused with kids,” Niedbalski said. “When he was younger I remember that he didn’t even really want to talk to the parents or anything like that, he just wanted to coach them up and let me deal with all of the politics with the parents. But I know that has changed because I’m sure that’s something he deals with now,” he added, with a laugh.
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In his later years, especially when Charlie and Thomas started competing in athletics, Larson went on to do a little bit of everything sports-related. It seemed like he was always coaching and getting involved with whatever activities his two children were doing. Soccer, T-ball, coach-pitch baseball and basketball were among the sports he helped out with.
Mary Morris, a friend of the Larson family, through an email to The Telegram highlighted her firsthand experience with Larson impacting the youth he associates with.
When Morris’ twin granddaughters were 5, Larson was busy coaching them up. From afar, Morris watched one day as all the players were laughing, bouncing their basketballs and just appearing to have a great time. She saw the coach rounding up his players and chatting with them, watching their little heads nod in agreement with big smiles plastered on their faces as they shook their heads in agreement with whatever he happened to be saying.
“I wondered what he could be saying to 5-year-olds to make them so happy,” Morris said. “I got close and listened to him. He was saying things like, ‘are you having fun?’ ‘I like to see you go after the ball like that, I’m proud of you that you can throw the ball like that.’ … It was all things 5-year-olds understood. He understood how to get 5-year-olds engaged in the game.”
Now, Larson serves as a coach and one of the founders of the Columbus Baseball team, which has 10-and-under and 12-and-under teams. Next year – in year two of the program – there will be an additional two squads added.
“Probably the highlight of my life, the most fun thing I do right now is this baseball team,” he said, adding that he coaches with Nathan Karges, Marcus Gillespie, Patrick Clark, J.P. Holys and A.J. Bloebaum.
While there is always the will to win, the emphasis of the league is on teaching skills that will make the competitors better athletes, and ultimately, better people.
“It’s not about trying to put together an ultra, ultra-competitive team,” he said. “Of course we want to compete, and of course we’re competing as hard as we can, but the emphasis is on developing skills and developing teamwork and just having a good time playing baseball.”
In addition to baseball, Larson is heavily involved with Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts. He serves as the pack leader for Cub Scouts Pack 115, as well as a den leader for Pack 115. in Boy Scouts, he serves as an assistant to Troop 115 Leader Charlie Bahr.
He also serves as president of the Wagners Lake Home Owner’s Association; president of the fish and habitat committee at Wagners Lake and a member of the City of Columbus Park Board.
All of his responsibilities engage him, but he said there is something about athletics and working with youth that serves a bigger purpose. They are out there having fun and learning about life simultaneously.
“Learning some of those (life skills) is why you do it,” Larson said. “I mean, how many kids from Columbus, Nebraska, are making it to the Big Leagues? Maybe a handful. That’s not why we are playing these sports. We are here to really teach life skills, not athletic skills.”
Clearing the Path
Now 40, Larson has a view of the path in front of him that stretches miles ahead. In his younger years, however, there were some obstructions in his line of vision. Those obstructions were cleared, in large part, to adult influencers who had the right words at the right time, and fortunately, an engaged audience.
Three people who influenced Larson are Vern Younger, his freshman football coach; Gary Puetz, his high school offensive line coach; and his father, John.
Younger once gave a speech that really resonated with the teenager. He spoke at the beginning of the year how the boys in front of him were now in high school and if they didn’t want to put the work in, they were more than welcome to ride the bench.
Later on, as a varsity athlete, Puetz managed to hit the nail on the head.
“Gary instilled in me that you should expect to win every game you play,” Larson said. “And that counts a whole lot further than just the football field. That’s a life lesson."
Then there was John Larson, who always knew the right things to say to his son when things didn’t go well on the ball diamond, track or gridiron.
“Being a kid is tough, and failing at sports and failing at events is difficult," Larson said. “And not one time did my dad ever come down hard on me, or tell me I wasn’t doing well enough, he always chose to take a supportive role and tell me the good things I did, tell me how to get better.
“And I’ve always remembered being a young kid and getting into my dad’s truck and going home with him after a game where we lost, or I failed, or I didn’t play well … And (as a father or coach) it can be so easy to make that kid who already feels bad about what happened - it’s so easy to make them feel worse. And it’s really powerful when you can think about what’s going through that kid’s head and what you can say to actually make him better, as opposed to letting your own frustration bear down on him.”
Larson said he hopes that he has had some of these moments – without him even knowing – where kids have picked up on a seemingly small takeaway that will positively impact them moving forward.
He noted that he has so many people in his own corner providing him support day in and day out that allows him to do some of the things he has accomplished.
“I’m pretty good at standing in the sun sometimes,” he said. “And I get a lot of credit for things that are not solely me. And my wife, Leslie, anyone that knows the two of us knows that she is doing all the lifting behind the scenes, and I am standing in the sun taking all the credit. Nothing I do would happen if she wasn’t right there with me.”
Moving forward, Larson will continue volunteering, spending time with his family and helping to make Columbus a great place.
He said he hopes that more people will step outside of their comfort zone and make a difference when it's needed. That one small decision, and taking a bit of a leap of faith, could potentially help others start building their futures, traveling down that right path.
“My biggest pet peeve in the whole world is the phrase, ‘somebody should do something about this,’” Larson said. “So you just need to find something that needs fixing and you fix it, you know? You can’t just say that somebody else should do it.
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com