KEARNEY – Tom and Sonja Kropp came from different worlds.

He’s a Nebraska sports legend, an Aurora native who’s widely considered one of the greatest athletes in state history.

“I grew up in an athletic family. My dad was a coach, so sports were everything for us,” said Tom, a member of the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame, National High School Hall of Fame, NAIA Hall of Fame and University of Nebraska at Kearney Athletic Hall of Fame.

Sonja was born and raised in Leuven, Belgium, a city about 20 miles east of Brussels. She speaks four different languages and prefers a good book over the big game.

“She never got too involved with basketball, and I never got too involved with her job,” Tom said with a smile.

“He probably still doesn’t know what my dissertation was about,” Sonja quickly added with a laugh.

Despite their differences, the Kropps are soulmates and best friends. “I can’t imagine life without him,” Sonja said.

They’ve been married for nearly 41 years, with most of that time spent at UNK.


The 1971 Nebraska State High School Athlete of the Year, Tom came to campus later that year to play basketball and football at UNK, known then as Kearney State College. He earned All-American honors in both sports and was twice named Nebraska State College Athlete of the Year.

Tom led the Lopers to a pair of NAIA national basketball tournaments while averaging 20.7 points and 11.2 rebounds per game during his UNK career. He still holds the single-game scoring record with 51 points against Central Missouri in 1974.

A fullback and linebacker on the football team, Tom was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League, Washington Bullets of the National Basketball Association and Denver Nuggets of the American Basketball Association. He spent two seasons in the NBA before returning to UNK to earn his master’s degree, then played professionally in Belgium for four years.

That’s where he met Sonja.

She was working for a travel agency owned by the same person who owned the professional basketball team there. He invited Sonja and a friend to come watch a game and, as she puts it, “We didn’t have anything better to do.”

Sonja and Tom met that night and started dating.

When his playing career ended a few years later, they had a decision to make.

“It was either get married or we weren’t going to see each other,” Tom explained.

Obviously, they chose the first option and tied the knot in July 1983. Sonja agreed to relocate to the U.S. and the couple moved to Kearney in August of that year.

“Because we were so much in love, that was an easy decision for me,” she said.

Back at UNK, Tom became an assistant men’s basketball and track coach and accepted a part-time teaching position in the Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences.

Sonja enrolled as a student at UNK and completed her bachelor’s degree before continuing her education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She earned a master’s degree and doctorate from UNL, and Tom received his doctorate there.

In 1990, Tom was elevated to co-head coach with fellow UNK Hall of Famer Jerry Hueser and Sonja started her teaching career in the UNK Department of Modern Languages.

Tom’s time with UNK men’s basketball covered more than 30 seasons, including 25 as a co-head coach or head coach. His 482 wins rank second in school history, and he took the Lopers to 11 NCAA Division II national tournaments.

When he retired from coaching in June 2015, Tom transitioned into a full-time faculty position in the Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences, where he taught courses such as Introduction to Sports Management, Basketball Theory and Sports Psychology and reached the rank of assistant professor.

“My teaching has meant as much to me as my coaching did. I look at them as equal,” he said. “I have as much pride in myself as a teacher as I did as a coach. My students meant as much to me as my athletes. It was an easy transition for me from coaching to teaching because I loved the relationships with my athletes but then I had the same relationships with my students.”

Sonja looks at her career the same way. As an associate professor, she taught students about the French language, literature, culture and history, using her own background to create close connections and help them view the world differently.

“In anything I teach, it’s not about remembering that person, that writer or that text,” she said. “It’s about what I’ve been able to share with them that is universal and that they can take with them in the rest of their life. That, to me, is the most important thing, that I’ve somehow been able to contribute to their future in some way.”


Although the Kropps had opportunities to leave UNK, nothing ever beat what they had here.

“We’d look at the other job, then we’d come back and compare that to Kearney, and Kearney always seemed to win out,” Tom said.

“We were always happy here,” Sonja added.

They both use words like fulfilling and rewarding to describe their careers.

“The people are what kept us here,” Tom said. “The relationships I had with the people I worked with, my students and my athletes stood out more than anything else by far.”

Sonja agreed, calling Thomas Hall her “home.”

“The relationships with my colleagues and students made it so much fun that you wouldn’t want to do anything else,” the former department chair said.

One of those students was their daughter Dominique, who graduated from UNK in 2015 with bachelor’s degrees in Spanish and sports administration. She’s currently a faculty member in the Department of Sport Science and Management at Xavier University.

As for Tom and Sonja, they both retired at the end of the spring semester after more than 70 years of combined service to UNK. The couple recently moved to Lincoln to be closer to family and a larger airport that makes those trips back to Belgium much easier.

“As much as I will miss the beginning of the semester and the new books and the new faces and the new notes and all that, we don’t have to live that routine anymore,” Sonja said. “We can travel when we want, and we’re still young enough for a new chapter in our lives.”

Since they’ll only be two hours from Kearney, it won’t be difficult to drive back for Loper athletic events.

“Now we’re retired, so we can go to games together,” a smirking Sonja said to Tom. “You’ll have to start explaining them to me.”