They arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1998, part of the same football recruiting class, two players from different states and different backgrounds who quickly realized how much they had in common.
Michael Lehan and Astein Osei were Gophers teammates for four years, roommates for three years and might as well have been roommates as freshmen because they were always together in their Sanford Hall dorm.
They just clicked. Both were early risers and early to bed. Both were on the quiet side. They kept their place tidy, loved to study and appreciated structure in life. Later, each was best man for the other. Each has two kids now around the same ages.
They even chose the same career path, though not purposefully and not by design, with their college majors. But here they are today, school educators who have ascended to leadership positions, each recognized for doing exemplary work.
Lehan is principal at Osseo High School. In February, he was selected as Minnesota’s high school principal of the year. Osei is superintendent of the St. Louis Park Public Schools. Both landed their jobs before age 40.
“They’re a credit to Minnesota football and a credit to Minnesota’s athletic program,” said former Gophers coach Glen Mason, who recruited them. “More importantly, they’re a credit to the university.”
‘Someplace to belong’
Lehan overcame many obstacles before stepping foot on campus. He was placed for adoption at 3 months old by parents who already had five kids and worried that they couldn’t give proper care to a newborn who was experiencing some medical issues.
As a college freshman, Lehan reconnected with his birth parents in Texas. He received a call one day during the process from a woman with a raspy southern voice with a greeting that jolted him: “Hi, this is your mother.”
“I was standing, and I had to sit down and take it all in,” he said.
They met soon after, a reunion that he describes as “one of those moments in life where you feel like you haven’t missed a beat.”
His childhood after adoption wasn’t easy. An unstable home life resulted in behavior at school that led to multiple suspensions.
But Lehan had a neighborhood friend named Paul Nordstrom, and spent so much time at the Nordstrom home that he was considered part of the family.
Lehan stayed a weekend with them in eighth grade. He never went back home. The Nordstroms became his legal foster family until he graduated from Hopkins High. Lehan refers to the Nordstroms’ three children as his siblings, and he still visits the family regularly.
“Mike just needed someplace to belong,” said Judy Nordstrom, his foster mom.
Sports provided that, too. He became an All-Metro selection at running back for Hopkins.
Mason visited Lehan at the Nordstrom home while recruiting him. After dinner, Judy followed the coach outside.
“She said, ‘I think that Mike is a good football player, but that’s your job to make that determination. But I will tell you that he is a great kid,’ ” Mason recalled.
Lehan majored in family social sciences and had plans to become a social worker. On the field, he started at cornerback and set a Gophers record for career pass breakups before being drafted by Cleveland in the fifth round in 2003. He had a six-year NFL career between Cleveland and Miami.
As a pro athlete, he started donating $100 gift cards to Hopkins High to reward deserving students. He did the same at Park Center High, where Osei was working in administration.
Lehan returned to school and earned his master’s degree after retiring from the NFL. He landed a job as a middle school dean of students, starting an arc that included stints as assistant principal at two high schools before taking over as Osseo’s principal five years ago at age 35.
“I knew that I was going to do something with young people,” he said. “I knew that somebody with conviction can make substantive change within education.”
The Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals recognized that dedication in selecting him as principal of the year, making him eligible for the national award. Executive director Dave Adney cited Lehan’s “innovation” in highlighting his success.
“I think he is a model of great hope for people that you don’t have to do the traditional path,” Adney said. “If you’ve got the skills and you are a learner, you can make a difference in everybody’s lives.”
Path began as substitute teacher
Osei similarly followed a nontraditional path. Raised by his grandparents in Chicago, he was a journalism major interning in a TV production truck as a senior when a friend who worked at Cretin-Derham Hall asked him to be a substitute teacher because there was a need.
“The moment I got a chance to sub,” Osei said, “there was something magical about being able to positively influence the lives of young adults, and I never looked back.”
He became a full-time sub and eventually taught physical education. He earned his master’s degree, shifted to administration and rose through the ranks in different districts to become superintendent at age 36.
Of his Gophers football career, Osei says he didn’t have “the most amazing on-field success,” but the former linebacker became a three-time academic all-Big Ten selection. He now leads a school district with 4,600 students while finishing up his doctorate work.
“I’m trying to create critical thinkers that aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo of what the world is telling them is the truth,” he said.
Lehan also is pursuing his doctorate and superintendent license. When he learned that he was named principal of the year, he reflected on the adversity he faced as a child.
“When I was in foster care, I thought once I aged out of the system, I just fell off the face of the Earth,” he said. “There’s less than a 1 percent chance that I should be Minnesota Principal of the Year. By the grace of God and the grace of other people who came alongside me and supported me and believed in me and saw me for who I am — rather than what my behavior may have said — that’s what I thought about when I got the award.”
Lehan occasionally shares his story with his students. Don’t let circumstances define you, he tells them. Write your own narrative. Don’t let others control what you can become.
His message carries deep, personal meaning and is something his old college roommate, Osei, knows well and espouses, too. It’s part of the joy and purpose they discovered as educators.