In 2004 I first became enamored with the story of Danny Woodhead, a North Platte, Neb. all-around athlete who became a living legend in high school for his exploits in football, basketball, and track. He set all kinds of records on the gridiron but large colleges were put off by his small size. He was maybe 5’8 and 180-190 pounds then. Many a big school has bypassed a great player by only looking at the measurables and not assessing an individual’s heart, worth ethic, competitiveness, and instincts for the game. Woodhead clearly had those qualities and if coaches had only believed their own eyes they would have seen a special athlete with big-time running capability. Without an attractive offer in hand, however, Woodhead decided to stay close to home and attend nearby Chadron State College, an obscure Division II school. There, his legend only increased. Long story short, he became the leading rusher in NCAA history, regardless of division. He personally ran for more yards from scrimmage than the majority of college teams did during his four-year career. He helped lead a turnaround at Chadron, which went from doormat to contender, I finally caught up with him in 2006, when he won the Harlon Hill Trophy as D-II’s best player for the first time. The award is D-II’s equivalent of the Heisman, and he won it again at the end of the 2007 season. No one will ever know what Woodhead would have done at a D-I football power like Nebraska, which showed only tepid interest in him at best when he was in high school, but it’s safe to say that after what he did in college and what he’d done by not only making it to the National Football League but thriving there, that he would have performed very well had he been given the opportunity.
In 2008 he was signed as a free agent by the New York Jets, and he so impressed the coaching staff that after suffering a serious injury in preseason camp he was retained by the team, and he once again made the squad for the 20o9 season. He shined in some exhibition games and though he saw limited action during the regular season he did produce well when given the chance. He became a darling of the Jet press corps and fan base, and his legend grew more when he was featured in the HBO reality show, “Hard Knocks. ” Head coach Rex Ryan often praised Woodhead. Woodhead recovered from his injury and made the team to start the 2010 season but he was released only two weeks into the campaign. That’s when the folktale of Woodhead took another fateful turn: the NFL’s premier franchise did what it’s done innumerable times before by picking up a cast-off that the brain trust of coach Bill Belichick & Co. recognized as having real value. The Pats’ acquisition of the no-name Woodhead has more than panned out, as Woodhead has scored a touchdown in each of his first two games with the club, earning praise from his new coaches and teammates, and along the way he’s become an instant folk hero in New England.
The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared after Woodhead’s Harlon Hill-winning junior season at Chadron, when the thought of an NFL career was yet a distant dream. That dream has now been fulfilled and it still has a long way to go before it’s finished. Indeed, Woodhead is only just getting started.
Danny Woodhead, The Mighty Mite from North Platte Makes Good in the NFL
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
By winning the Harlon Hill Trophy last weekend as the nation’s best Division II college football player for 2006 Danny Woodhead won one for all the guys told they’re too small, too slow or from the wrong athletic pedigree. Coming out of North Platte, Woodhead, now the super stud, record-setting tailback for Chadron State College (Neb.), heard doubts about his ability despite being Nebraska Class A football’s all-time rushing-scoring leader.
The modest Woodhead isn’t sure his award is vindication so much as inspiration for underdogs. “I don’t know if it’s a win for ‘em, but I think it’s encouraging,” he said. “It makes ‘em think they have a chance because if I had a chance of doing it I think anyone can. It’s not about your size. It’s about how if you keep working hard something like this could happen. It probably teaches don’t let people tell you you can’t do it, because I’ve been told I couldn’t do stuff since I was in 8th grade.”
D-I schools gave him a look after high school but no offers. A pair of D-II schools courted him and the one he chose, Chadron, lacked a powerhouse program. He followed older brother Ben there. Besides, it was closer to home than his only other suitor, the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
At North Platte High he compiled huge numbers, but didn’t meet the profile of a big-time back. In the eyes of major college recruiters he was under weight, (190 pounds) and a step slow (4.6 in the 40). Also hurting his cred was where he played. Western Nebraska doesn’t produce many D-I prospects. Most of his yards came against the Grand Islands and Cretes, not Lincoln or Metro Omaha schools. The theory went, You-may-be-all-that-in-the-sticks, but-you-ain’t-shit-where-it-counts. Then, too, he’s white, when the prototype ballcarrier is black. What’s a guy to do?
Well, in Woodhead’s case he got bigger, stronger and faster and in the process put up eye-popping stats his freshman and sophomore years, rushing 562 times for 3,609 yards and scoring 46 touchdowns for Chadron teams that were competitive but lost as often as they won. He also proved a dangerous receiver. Each year he made the Associated Press Little All-America Team. Combining great lower body strength, superb balance, uncanny vision, excellent speed and rare endurance, he sheds tacklers and makes people miss and just keeps coming at you.
Then he took his game up a notch in 2006. In a year in which Chadron went 12-1, advanced to the playoffs and nearly beat D-II finalist Northwest Missouri State, he went off the way Barry Sanders did his Heisman year. Woodhead earned 1st Team All America honors and D-II’s Heisman equivalent when he gained 2,736 rushing yards and 3,158 all-purpose yards and scored 38 touchdowns and 228 points, tops in each NCAA category. To put it in perspective, by himself he outrushed and outscored most collegiate gridiron teams. His 2,736 rushing yards set the all-division single season mark. With a full season to play, Woodhead, a junior, has 6,345 rushing yards and 84 touchdowns. He’s on pace to break every NCAA career rushing, all-purpose yardage and scoring record. He may eclipse some marks by huge margins.
Like all great athletes he’s not content. “I don’t want to be satisfied with what I’ve done,” he said. “I want to work just as hard as I can to get better.” He intends leading Chadron to the D-II title game, which the return of 19 players with starting experience makes plausible. He’ll be the favorite to win a second Harlon Hill.
Whatever he does next, he knows people will ask, Could he have done it in D-I? “We could play the what if game,” he said, “but honestly it’s not going to get us anywhere. I’m happy where I’m at. I’m having a blast playing football. It’s something you don’t want to end, so I’m just going to cherish it while I have it and I’m not really worried about what I could be or would be doing in Division I.”
The next question is, Can he make it in the NFL? It doesn’t matter. You see, he’s already a legend. His feats should do wonders for recruiting. Thanks to him, other guys who don’t fit the mold may be dreaming big . Now that’s a legacy, man.
Woodhead compiled just under 10,000 all-purpose yards during his Chadron State career. Here are a few of his college stats:
RUSHING GP NO. YDS LOSS NET RSH AVG TDS LNG PER GM-AVG 11 250 1646 49 1597 6.4 21 89 145.2 13 344 2854 98 2756 8.0 34 88 212.0 10 278 1854 85 1769 6.4 21 91 176.9 10 284 1892 52 1840 6.5 25 73 184.0 44 1156 8266 7962 101 RECEIVING GP NO. YDS AVG. TDS LNG 11 38 484 12.7 2 85 13 45 403 9.0 4 43 10 30 367 12.2 0 32 10 16 163 10.2 2 55 44 129 1417 8 SCORING GP TDS PTS
11 23 138
13 38 228
10 21 126
10 27 162
44 109 654
- Danny Woodhead: New England Patriots Find a Diamond in the Rough (bleacherreport.com)
- Woodhead leads group of unlikely, likeable Patriots (sportingnews.com)
- He helped more than a little bit (boston.com)
- Danny Woodhead dumps his agents (profootballtalk.nbcsports.com)
- Lockout or not, Pats’ Woodhead keeps offseason approach same (nfl.com)
- NFL Star Danny Woodhead Signs Deal With Skechers (shoppingblog.com)
- The Most Beloved Player on Each NFL Team (bleacherreport.com)
The Brothers Sayers: Big Legend Gale Sayers and Little Legend Roger Sayers (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
Whether you’re visiting this blog for the first time or you’re returning for a repeat visit, then you should know that among the vast array of articles featured on this site is a series I penned for The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 20045-2005 that explored Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. We called the 13-part, 45,000 word series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. The following story is one installment from that series. It features a pair of brothers, Gale Sayers and Roger Sayers, whose athletic brilliance made each of them famous in their own right, although the fame of Gale far outstripped that of Roger. Gale, of course, became a big-time football star at Kansas before achieving superstardom with the NFL‘s Chicago Bears. An unlikely set of circumstances saw his playing career end prematurely yet make him an even larger-than-life figure. A made-for-TV movie titled Brian’s Song (since remade) that detailed his friendship with cancer stricken teammate Brian Piccolo, cemented his immortal status, as did being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame at age 29. Roger’s feats in both football and track were impressive but little seen owing to the fact he competed for a small college (the then-University of Omaha) and never made it to the NFL or Olympics, where many thought he would have excelled, the one knock against him being his diminutive size.
The Sayers brothers are among a distinguished gallery of black sports legends that have come out of Omaha. Others include Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, and Johnny Rodgers. You will find all their stories on this site, along with the stories of other athletic greats whose names may not be familiar to you, but whose accomplishments speak for themselves.
The Brothers Sayers: Big Legend Gale Sayers and Little Legend Roger Sayers (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.theeader.com) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out the Win: The Roots of Greatness
This is the story of two athletically-gifted brothers named Sayers. The younger of the pair, Gale, became a sports figure for the ages with his zig-zagging runs to daylight on a football field. His name is synonymous with the Chicago Bears. His oft-played highlight-reel runs through enemy lines form the picture of quicksilver grace. His well-documented friendship with the late Brian Piccolo endear him to new generations of fans.
The elder brother, Roger, forged a distinguished athletic career of his own, one of blazing speed on cinder and grass, but one overshadowed by Gale’s success.
From their early impoverished youth on Omaha’s near north side in the 1950s the Brothers Sayers dominated whatever field of athletic competition they entered, shining most brightly on the track and gridiron. As teammates they ran wild for Roberts Dairy’s midget football squad and anchored Central High School’s powerful football-track teams. Back then, Roger, the oldest by a year, led the way and Gale followed. For a long time, little separated the pair, as the brothers took turns grabbing headlines. Each was small and could run like the wind, just like their ex-track man father. But, make no mistake about it, Roger was always the fastest.
Each played halfback, sharing time in the same Central backfield one season. Heading into Gale’s sophomore year nature took over and gave Gale an edge Roger could never match, as the younger brother grew a few inches and packed-on 50 pounds of muscle. He kept growing, too. Soon, Gale was a strapping 6’0, 200-pound prototype halfback with major-college-material written all over him. Roger remained a diminutive 5’9, 150-pound speedster whose own once hotly sought-after status dimmed when, bowing to his parents’ wishes, he skipped his senior year of football rather than risk injury. Ironically, he tore a tendon running track the next spring. His major college prospects gone, he settled for then Omaha University.
Roger went on to a storied career at UNO, where he developed into one of America’s top sprinters and one of the school’s all-time football greats. He won the 100-meters at the 1964 Drake Relays. He captured both the 100-yard and 100-meter dashes at the 1963 Texas Relays. He took the 100 and 200 at the 1963 national NAIA meet. He ran well against Polish and Soviet national teams in AAU meets. The Olympic hopeful even beat the legendary American sprinter Bob Hayes in a race, but it was Hayes, known as “The Human Bullet,” who ended up with Olympic and NFL glory, not Sayers.
As an undersized but explosive cog in UNO’s full backfield, Sayers, dubbed “The Rocket,” averaged nearly eight yards per carry and 19 yards per reception over his four-year career. But it was as a return specialist he really stood out. Using his straight-away burst, he took back to the house three punts and five kickoffs for touchdowns. He holds several school records, including highest rushing average for a season (10.2) and career (7.8) and highest punt return average for a season (29.5) and career (20.6). His 99-yard TD catch in a 1963 game versus Drake is the longest scoring play from scrimmage in UNO history.
Roger Sayers running track for then-Omaha University
In football, size matters. For most of his playing career, however, Roger said his acute lack of size “never was a factor. I didn’t pay much attention to it. I didn’t lack any confidence when I got on the field. I always thought I could do well.”
Even with his impressive track credentials, Sayers, coming off an injury, was unable to find a sponsor for a 1964 Olympic bid. Even though his small stature never held him back in high school or college, it posed a huge obstacle in pro football, which after graduation he did not pursue right away because the studious and ambitious Sayers already had opportunities lined-up outside athletics. Still, in 1966, he gave the NFL a try when, after prodding from “the guys” at the Spencer Street Barbershop and a little help from Gale, he signed a free agent contract with his brother’s team, the Chicago Bears. Roger lasted the entire training camp and exhibition season with the club before bowing to reality and taking an office job.
“That’s when I realized I was too small,” Roger said of his NFL try.
Gale, the family superstar, is inducted in the college and pro football Halls of Fame but his glory came outside Nebraska, where he felt unappreciated. Racism likely prevented him being named Nebraska High School Athlete of the Year after a senior year of jaw-dropping performances. In leading Central to a share of the state football title, he set the Class A single season scoring record and made prep All-American. In pacing Central to the track and field title, he won three gold medals at the state meet, shattering the Nebraska long jump record with a leap of 24 feet, 10 inches, a mark that still stands today. He got revenge in the annual Shrine all-star game, scoring four touchdowns en route to being named outstanding player.
Recruited by Nebraska, then coached by Bill Jennings, Sayers considered the Huskers but felt uncomfortable at the school, which had ridiculously few black students then — in or out of athletics. Spurning the then-moribound NU football program for the University of Kansas, he heard people say he’d never be able to cut it in school. Sayers admits academics were not his strong suit in high school, not for lack of intelligence, but for lack of applying himself.
It took his father, a-$55-a-week car polisher, who’d walked away from his own chance at college, to set him straight. “People said I would fail. They called me dumb. But my dad said to me one time, ‘Gale, you are good enough,’ and just those words gave me the incentive that somebody believed in me. That’s all I needed. And I proved that I could do it.”
Sayers was also motivated by his brother, Roger, the bookish one who preceded him to college. Each went on to get two degrees at their respective schools.
On the field, Gale showed the Huskers what they missed by earning All-Big 8 and All-America honors as a Jayhawk and, in a 1963 game at Memorial Stadium the “Kansas Comet” lived up to his nickname by breaking-off a 99 yard TD run that still stands as the longest scoring play by an NU opponent. He was also a hurdler and long-jumper for the elite KU track program.
Upon entering the NFL with the Bears in 1965, Sayers made the most dramatic debut in league history, setting season records for total offense, 2,272, and touchdowns, 22, and a single game scoring record with 6 TDs. Named Rookie of the Year and All-Pro, he continued his brilliant play the next four seasons before the second of two serious knee injuries cut short his career in 1970. A mark of the impact he made is that despite playing only five full seasons, he’s routinely listed among the best running backs to ever play in the NFL.
Gale Sayers with the Bears
His immortality was ensured by two things: in 1970, the story of his friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo, who died tragically of cancer, was dramatically told in a TV movie-of-the-week, Brian’s Song, (recently remade); and, in 1977, he was inducted into the pro football Hall of Fame at age 29, making him the youngest enshrine of that elite fraternity.
A quadruple threat as a rusher, receiver out of the backfield, kickoff return man and punt returner, Sayers’ unprecedented cuts saw him change directions — with the high-striding, gliding moves of a hurdler — in the blink of an eye while somehow retaining full-speed. In a blurring instant, he’d be in mid-air as he head-faked one way and swiveled his hips the other way before landing again to pivot his feet to race off against the grain. In the introduction to Gale’s autobiography, I Am Third, comic Bill Cosby may have come closest to describing the effect one of Sayers’ dramatic cuts left on him while observing from the sidelines and on the hapless defenders trying to corral him.
“I was standing there and Gale was coming around this left end. And there are about five or six defensive men ready, waiting for him…And I saw Gale Sayers split. I mean, like a paramecium. He just split in two. He threw the right side of his body on one side and the left side of his body kept going down the left side. And the defensive men didn’t know who to catch.”
The way Gale tells it, his talent for cutting resulted from his “peripheral vision,” a gift he had from the get-go. “When I was running I could see the whole field. I knew how fast the other person was running and the angle he was taking, and I knew all I had to do was make a certain move and I’m past him. I knew it — I didn’t have to think about it. I could see where people were and that gave me the ability to make up my mind what I would do before I got to a person,” he said. He reacted, on the fly, in tenths or hundreds of a second, to what he saw. “
All the so-called great moves in football are instinct,” he said. “It’s not planned. I don’t go down the football field saying, ‘Oh, this fella’s to my right, I better cut left,’ or whatever. You don’t plan it. You’re running with the football and you just do what comes natural…There were so many times in high school, college and pro ball when I was going around left end or right end and there was nothing there, and then I went the other way. You can’t teach that. That’s instinctive.”
He said his greatest asset was not speed, but quickness — combined with that innate ability to improvise on the run. “Every running back has speed, but a lot of running backs don’t have the quickness to hit a hole or to change directions, and I always could do that. A lot of times a hole is clogged and then you’ve got to do something else — either change directions or hit another hole or bounce it to the outside and go someplace else.”
Lightning fast moves may have sprung from an unlikely source — flag football, something Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers also credits with helping develop his dipsy-doodle elusiveness.
“The flags were pretty easy to grab and pull out,” Sayers said, “and so, yes, you had to develop some moves to keep people away from the flags.” The Sayers boys got their first exposure to organized competition playing in the Howard Kennedy Grade School flag football program coached by Bob Rose. An old-school disciplinarian who mentored many of north Omaha’s greatest athletes when they were youths, Rose embodied respect.
“He was a tough coach. I think he had a little attitude that said, in being black, you’ve got to be twice as good, and I think he tried to instill that in us at an early age. He’d say things like, ‘You have to be faster, you have to be tougher, you’ve got to hit harder.’ We all developed that attitude that, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do better because we’re black.’ And I think that stuck with me,” Gale said.
According to Roger, coaches like Rose and the late Josh Gibson (Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s oldest brother), whom the brothers came in contact with playing summer softball, “made it possible for people to succeed. They were good coaches because they taught you the fundamentals, they taught you to be respectful of people and they taught you the ethics of the game. These were folks that…made sure you played in an organized, structured event, so you could get the most out of it. They also had an uncanny ability to identify athletes and to motivate athletes to want to play and to achieve. They were part of an environment we had growing up where we had strong support systems around us.”
From the mid-1950s through the late 1960s Omaha’s inner city produced a remarkable group of athletes who achieved greatness in a variety of sports. Many observers have speculated on the whys and hows of that phenomenal run of athletic brilliance. The consensus seems to be that athletes from the past didn’t have to contend with a lot of the pressures and distractions kids face today, thus allowing a greater concentration on and passion for sports.
“Growing up, we didn’t have access to cars or play stations or arcade games,” Roger said. “We didn’t have to deal with the intense peer pressure kids are influenced by today. Because we didn’t have these things, we were able to focus in on our sports.”
For black youths like the Sayers and their buddies, options were even more confining in the ‘50s, when racial minorities were denied access to recreational venues such as the Peony Park pool and were discouraged from so-called country-club activities such as golf, which left more time and energy to devote to traditional inner city sports. “
Every day after school we were in Kountze park or some place playing a sport — football, basketball, baseball, whatever it may be. There wasn’t a whole lot else we could do,” Gale said. “So, we were in the park playing sports. Our mamas and daddies had to call us to come eat dinner because we were out there playing.”
Gale said that as youths he and his friends had such a hunger for football that after completing flag football practice, they would then go to the park to knock heads “with the big kids” from local high schools in pick-up games. “It’s a wonder no one ever got seriously injured because we had no pads, no nothing, and we played tackle. It really made us tougher.”
Dennis Fountain, a friend and fellow athlete from The Hood, said the Sayers would often compete for opposing sides in those informal games. “You wouldn’t think those two guys were brothers,” he said. “They would mix it up good.”
Speaking of tough, the brothers tussled in a pair of now mythic neighborhood football games held around the holidays. There was the Turkey Bowl played on Thanksgiving and the Cold Bowl played on Christmas. “We had some knock-down, drag-out athletic contests out there,” said Gale, referring to the annual games that drew athletes of all ages from Omaha’s north and south inner city projects. “We were a little young, but the fellas’ saw the talent we had and let us play.”
Then, there was the rich proving ground he and Roger found themselves competing in — playing with or against such fine athletes as the Nared brothers (Rich and John), Vernon Breakfield, Charlie Gunn, Bruce Hunter, Ron Boone. “No doubt about it, we fed off one another. We saw other people doing well and we wanted to do just as well,” Gale said. As the Sayers began asserting themselves, they pushed each other to excel.
“When he achieved something, I wanted to achieve something, and vice versa,” Roger said. “I mean, you never wanted to be upstaged or outdone, but by the same token we were always proud and overjoyed by each other’s success. We were as competitive as brothers are.”
Roger and Gale had so much ability that the exploits of their baby brother, Ron, are obscured despite the fact he, too, possessed talent, enough in fact for the UNO grad to be a number two draft pick by the San Diego Chargers in 1968.
Each also knew his limitations in comparison with the other. Roger played some mean halfback himself, but he knew on a football field he was only a shadow of Gale, whom nature blessed with size, speed, vision and instinct. Where Gale was a fine hurdler, relay man and long-jumper, he knew he could not beat Roger in a sprint. “I wasn’t going to get into the 100 or 220-yard dash and run against him because he was much, much faster than I was,” Gale said. “He was great in track.”
As much as he downplays his own track ability, Gale held his own in one of the strongest collegiate track programs at Kansas. It was under KU track and field coach Bill Easton he discovered a work ethic and a mantra that have guided his life ever since.
“I thought I worked hard getting ready for football,” he said, “but when I joined his track team I couldn’t believe the amount of work he put me through and I couldn’t believe I could do it. But within months I could do everything he asked me to, and I was in excellent shape. He told me, ‘Gale, you cannot work hard enough in any sport, especially in track.’ The things I did for him on the track team carried on through my pro career in football.
“Every training camp I came in shape, and I mean I came in shape. I was ready to play and put the pads on the first day of camp, where many guys would go to camp to get in shape.”
On the eve of his pro career, Sayers was entertaining some doubts about how he would do when Easton reminded him what made him special. “You go for broke every time you go.” Sayers said it’s a lesson he’s always tried to follow.
A saying printed on a card atop the desk in Easton’s office intrigued Sayers. The enigmatic words said, I Am Third. When he asked his coach their meaning, he was told they came from a kind of proverb that goes, The Lord is First, My Friends are Second, I Am Third. The athlete was so taken with its meaning he went out and had it inscribed on a medallion he wore for years afterwards. His wife Linda now has it.
The saying became the title of his 1970 autobiography. The philosophy bound up in it helped him cope with the abrupt end of his playing days. “All the talent I had, the Lord gave me. And it was the Lord that decided to take it away from me,” Gale said. “That probably helped me accept the fact that, hey, I couldn’t do it anymore. I had a very short career, but a very good career. I was satisfied with that.”
Life after athletic competition has been relatively smooth for Gale and his brother. Roger embarked on a long executive corporate career, interrupted only by a stint as the City of Omaha’s Human Relations Director under Mayor Gene Leahy. He retired from Union Pacific a few years ago. Today, he’s a trustee with Salem Baptist Church. Gale served as athletic director at Southern Illinois University before starting his own sports marketing and public relations firm, Sayers and Sayers Enterprises. Next, he launched Sayers Computer Source, a provider of computer products and technology solutions to commercial customers. Today, SCS has brnaches nationwide and revenues in excess of $150 million. Besides running his companies, Sayers is in high demand as a motivational speaker.
Both men have tried distancing themselves from being defined by their athletic prowess alone.
“I want people to view me as an individual that brings something to the table other than the fact I could run track and play football. That stuff is behind me. There are other things I can do,” said Roger. For Gale, it was a matter of being ready to move on. “I’ve always said, As you prepare to play, you must prepare to quit, and I prepared to quit. I didn’t have to look back and say, What am I going to do now? I did other things.”
Getting on with their lives has been a constant with the brothers since growing up with feuding, alcoholic parents, sparse belongings and little money in “The Toe,” as Gale said residents referred to the north Omaha ghetto. His family moved to Omaha from bigoted small towns in Kansas, where the Sayers lived until Gale was 8, but instead of the fat times they envisioned here they only found despair.
Finding a way out of that cycle became an overriding goal for Gale and his brothers.
“Yes, we had tough times, but everybody in the black neighborhood had a tough time. Our dad always said, ‘Gale, Roger, Ronnie…sorry it didn’t work out for your mother and I, but you need to get your education and make something better for yourselves.’” The fact he and Roger went on to great heights taught Gale that “if you want to make it bad enough, no matter how bad it is, you can make it.”
- Gale Sayers’s Knee, and the Dark Ages of Medicine (fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com)
- The 32 Greatest NFL Running Backs (sports-central.org)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Sayers: Current players should help pioneers (sports.espn.go.com)
- John Mackey’s death has Gale Sayers ticked off at today’s NFL (profootballtalk.nbcsports.com)
Prodigal Son, Marlin Briscoe Takes the Long Road Home (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
I never saw Marlin Briscoe play college football, but as I came of age people who had see The Magician perform regaled me with stories of his improvisational playmaking skills on the gridiron, and so whenever I heard or read the name, I tried imagining what his elusive, dramatic, highlight reel runs or passes looked like. Mention Briscoe’s name to knowledgable sports fans and they immediately think of a couple things: that he was the first black starting quarterback in the National Football League; and that he won two Super Bowl rings as a wide receiver with the Miami Dolphins. But as obvious as it seems, I believe that both during his career and after most folks don’t appreciate (1) how historic the first accomplishment was and (2) don’t recognize how amazing it was for him to go from being a very good quarterback in the league, in the one year he was allowed to play the position, to being an All-Pro wideout for Buffalo. Miami thought enough of him to trade for him and thereby provide a complement to and take some heat off of legend Paul Warfield.
The following story I did on Briscoe appeared not long after his autobiography came out. I made arrangements to inteview him in our shared hometown of Omaha, and he was every bit as honest in person as he was in the pages of his book, which chronicles his rise to stardom, the terrible fall he took, and coming back from oblivion to redeem himself. The story appeared in a series I did on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, for The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 2004-2005. Since then, there’s been a campaign to have the NFL’s veterans committee vote Briscoe into the Hall of Fame and there are plans for a feature film telling his life story.
Prodigal Son, Marlin Briscoe Takes the Long Road Home (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness
Imagine this is your life: Your name is Marlin Briscoe. A stellar football-basketball player at Omaha South High School in the early 1960s, you are snubbed by the University of Nebraska but prove the Huskers wrong when you become a sensation as quarterback for then Omaha University, where from 1963 to 1967, you set more than 20 school records for single game, season and career offensive production.
Because you are black the NFL does not deem you capable of playing quarterback and, instead, you’re a late round draft choice, of the old AFL, at defensive back. Injured to start your 1968 rookie season, the offense sputters until, out of desperation, the coach gives you a chance at quarterback. After sparking the offense as a reserve, you hold down the game’s glamour job the rest of the season, thus making history as the league’s first black starting quarterback. When racism prevents you from getting another shot as a signal caller, you’re traded and excel at wide receiver. After another trade, you reach the height of success as a member of a two-time Super Bowl-winning team. You earn the respect of teammates as a selfless clutch performer, players’ rights advocate and solid citizen.
Then, after retiring from the game, you drift into a fast life fueled by drugs. In 12 years of oblivion you lose everything, even your Super Bowl rings. Just as all seems lost, you climb out of the abyss and resurrect your old self. As part of your recovery you write a brutally honest book about a life of achievement nearly undone by the addiction you finally beat.
You are Marlin Oliver Briscoe, hometown Omaha hero, prodigal son and the man now widely recognized as the trailblazer who laid the path for the eventual black quarterback stampede in the NFL. Now, 14 years removed from hitting rock bottom, you return home to bask in the glow of family and friends who knew you as a fleet athlete on the south side and, later, as “Marlin the Magician” at UNO, where some of the records you set still stand.
Now residing in the Belmont Heights section of Long Beach, Calif. with your partner, Karen, and working as an executive with the Roy W. Roberts Watts/Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club in Los Angeles, your Omaha visits these days for UNO alumni functions, state athletic events and book signings contrast sharply with the times you turned-up here a strung-out junkie. Today, you are once again the strong, smart, proud warrior of your youth.
Looking back on what he calls his “lost years,” Briscoe, age 59, can hardly believe “the severe downward spiral” his life took. “Anybody that knows me, especially myself, would never think I would succumb to drug addiction,” he said during one of his swings through town. “
All my life I had been making adjustments and overcoming obstacles and drugs took away all my strength and resolve. When I think about it and all the time I lost with my family and friends, it’s a nightmare. I wake up in a cold sweat sometimes thinking about those dark years…not only what I put myself through but a lot of people who loved me. It’s horrifying.
“Now that my life is full of joy and happiness, it just seems like an aberration. Like it never happened. And it could never ever happen again. I mean, somebody would have to kill me to get me to do drugs. I’m a dead man walking anyway if I ever did. But it’s not even a consideration. And that’s why it makes me so furious with myself to think why I did it in the first place. Why couldn’t I have been like I am now?”
Or, like he was back in the day, when this straight arrow learned bedrock values from his single mother, Geneva Moore, a packing house laborer, and from his older cousin Bob Rose, a youth coach who schooled him and other future greats in the parks and playing fields of schools and recreation centers in north and south Omaha.
For Briscoe, the pain of those years when, as he says, “I lost myself,” is magnified by how he feels he let down the rich, proud athletic legacy he is part of in Omaha. It is a special brotherhood. One in which he and his fellow members share not only the same hometown, but a common cultural heritage in their African-American roots, a comparable experience in facing racial inequality and a similar track record of achieving enduring athletic greatness.
Briscoe came up at a time when the local black community produced, in a golden 25-year period from roughly 1950 to 1975, an amazing gallery of athletes that distinguished themselves in a variety of sports. He idolized the legends that came before him like Bob Boozer, a rare member of both Olympic Gold Medal (at the 1960 Rome Games) and NBA championship (with the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks) teams, and MLB Hall of Famer and Cy Young Award winner Bob Gibson. He honed his skills alongside greats Roger Sayers, one of the world’s fastest humans in the early 1960s, NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers and pro basketball “Iron Man” Ron Boone. He inspired legends that came after him like Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers.
Each legend’s individual story is compelling. There are the taciturn heroics and outspoken diatribes of Gibson. There are the knee injuries that denied Gale Sayers his full potential by cutting short his brilliant playing career and the movies that dramatically portrayed his bond with doomed roommate Brian Piccolo. There are the ups and downs of Rodgers’ checkered life and career. But Briscoe’s own personal odyssey may be the most dramatic of all.
Born in Oakland, Calif. in 1945, Briscoe and his sister Beverly were raised by their mother after their parents split up. When he was 3, his mother moved the family to Omaha, where relatives worked in the packing houses that soon employed her as well. After a year living on the north side, the family moved to the south Omaha projects. Between Kountze Park in North O and the Woodson Center in South O, Briscoe came of age as a young man and athlete. In an era when options for blacks were few, young men like Briscoe knew that athletic prowess was both a proving ground and a way out of the ghetto, all the motivation he needed to work hard.
“Back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s we had nothing else to really look forward to except to excel as black athletes,” Briscoe said. “Sports was a rite-of-passage to respect and manhood and, hopefully, a way to bypass the packing houses and better ourselves and go to college. When Boozer (Bob) went to Kansas State and Gibson (Bob) went to Creighton, that next generation — my generation — started thinking, If I can get good enough in sports, I can get a scholarship to college so I can take care of my mom. That’s how all of us thought.”
Like many of his friends, Briscoe grew up without a father, which combined with his mother working full-time meant ample opportunity to find mischief. Except that in an era when a community really did raise a child, Briscoe fell under the stern but caring guidance of the men and women, including Alice Wilson and Bob Rose, that ran the rec centers and school programs catering to largely poor kids. By the time Briscoe entered South High, he was a promising football-basketball player.
On the gridiron, he’d established himself as a quarterback in youth leagues, but once at South shared time at QB his first couple years and was switched to halfback as a senior, making all-city. More than just a jock, Briscoe was elected student council president.
Scholarship offers were few in coming for the relatively small — 5’10, 170-pound — Briscoe upon graduating in 1962. The reality is that in the early ‘60s major colleges still used quotas in recruiting black student-athletes and Briscoe upset the balance when he had the temerity to want to play quarterback, a position that up until the 1980s was widely considered too advanced for blacks.
But UNO Head Football Coach Al Caniglia, one of the winningest coaches in school history, had no reservations taking him as a QB. Seeing limited duty as a freshman backup to incumbent Carl Meyers, Briscoe improved his numbers each year as a starter. After a feeling-out process as a sophomore, when he went 73 of 143 for 939 yards in the air and rushed for another 370 yards on the ground, his junior year he completed 116 of 206 passes for 1,668 yards and ran 120 times for 513 yards to set a school total offense record of 2,181 yards in leading UNO to a 6-5 mark.
What was to originally have been his senior year, 1966, got waylaid, as did nearly his entire future athletic career, when in an indoor summer pickup hoops game he got undercut and took a hard, headfirst spill to the floor. Numb for a few minutes, he regained feeling and was checked out at a local hospital, which gave him a clean bill of health.
Even with a lingering stiff neck, he started the ‘66 season where he left off, posting a huge game in the opener, before feeling a pop in his throbbing neck that sent him “wobbling” to the sidelines. A post-game x-ray revealed a fractured vertebra, perhaps the result of his preseason injury, meaning he’d risked permanent paralysis with every hit he absorbed. Given no hope of playing again, he sat out the rest of the year and threw himself into academics and school politics. After receiving his military draft notice, he anxiously awaited word of a medical deferment, which he got. Without him at the helm, UNO crashed to a 1-9 mark.
Then, a curious thing happened. On a follow-up medical visit, he was told his broken vertebra was recalcifying enough to allow him to play again. He resumed practicing in the spring of ‘67 and by that fall was playing without any ill effects. Indeed, he went on to have a spectacular final season, attracting national attention with his dominating play in a 7-3 campaign, compiling season marks with his 25 TD throws and 2,639 yards of total offense, including a dazzling 401-yard performance versus tough North Dakota State at Rosenblatt Stadium.
Projected by pro scouts at cornerback, a position he played sparingly in college, Briscoe still wanted a go at QB, so, on the advice of Al Caniglia he negotiated with the Denver Broncos, who selected him in the 14th round, to give him a look there, knowing the club held a three-day trial open to the public and media.
“I had a lot of confidence in my ability,” Briscoe said, “and I felt given that three-days at least I would have a showcase to show what I could do. I wanted that forum. When I got it, that set the tone for history to be made.”
At the trial Briscoe turned heads with the strength and accuracy of his throws but once fall camp began found himself banished to the defensive backfield, his QB dreams seemingly dashed. He earned a starting cornerback spot but injured a hamstring before the ‘68 season opener.
After an 0-2 start in which the Denver offense struggled mightily out of the gate, as one QB after another either got hurt or fell flat on his face, Head Coach Lou Saban finally called on Briscoe in the wake of fans and reporters lobbying for the summer trial standout to get a chance. Briscoe ran with the chance, too, despite the fact Saban, whose later actions confirmed he didn’t trust a black QB, only gave him a limited playbook to run. In 11 games, the last 7 as starter, Briscoe completed 93 of 224 passes for 1,589 yards with 14 TDs and 13 INTs and he ran 41 times for 308 yards and 3 TDs in helping Denver to a 5-6 record in his 11 appearances, 5-2 as a starter.
Briscoe proved an effective improviser, using his athleticism to avoid the rush, buy time and either find the open receiver or move the chains via scrambling. “Sure, my percentage was low, because initially they didn’t give me many plays, and so I was out there played street ball…like I was down at Kountze Park again…until I learned the cerebral part of the game and then I was able to improve my so-called efficiency,” is how Briscoe describes his progression as an NFL signal caller.
By being branded “a running” — read: undisciplined — quarterback in an era of strictly drop back pocket passers, with the exception of Fran Tarkenton, who was white, Briscoe said blacks aspiring to play the position faced “a stigma” it took decades to overcome.
Ironically, he said, “I never, ever considered myself a black quarterback. I was just a quarterback. It’s like I never thought about size either. When I went out there on the football field, hey, I was a player.”
All these years later, he still bristles at the once widely-held notions blacks didn’t possess the mechanics to throw at the pro level or the smarts to grasp the subtleties of the game or the leadership skills to command whites. “How do you run in 14 touchdown passes? I could run, sure. I could buy more time, yeah. But if you look at most of my touchdown passes, they were drop back passes. I led the team to five wins in seven starts. We played an exciting brand of football. Attendance boomed. If I left any legacy, it’s that I proved the naysayers wrong about a black man manning that position…even if I never played (QB) again.”
Despite his solid performance — he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting — he was not invited to QB meetings Saban held in Denver the next summer and was traded only weeks before the ‘69 regular season to the Buffalo Bills, who wanted him as a wide receiver.
His reaction to having the quarterback door slammed in his face? “I realized that’s the way it was. It was reality. So, it wasn’t surprising. Disappointing? Yes. All I wanted and deserved was to compete for the job. Was I bitter? No. If I was bitter I would have quit and that would have been the end of it. As a matter of fact, it spurred me to prove them wrong. I knew I belonged in the NFL. I just had to make the adjustment, just like I’ve been doing all my life.”
The adversity Briscoe has faced in and out of football is something he uses as life lessons with the at-risk youth he counsels in his Boys and Girls Club role. “I try to tell them that sometimes life’s not fair and you have to deal with it. That if you carry a bitter pill it’s going to work against you. That you just have to roll up your sleeves and figure out a way to get it done.”
While Briscoe never lined up behind center again, soon after he left Denver other black QBs followed — Joe Gilliam, Vince Evans, Doug Williams and, as a teammate in Buffalo, James Harris, whom he tutored. All the new faces confronted the same pressures and frustrations Briscoe did earlier. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when Williams won a Super Bowl with the Redskins and Warren Moon put up prolific numbers with the Houston Oilers, that the black QB stigma died.
Briscoe was not entirely aware of the deep imprint he made until attending a 2001 ceremony in Nashville remembering the late Gilliam. “All the black quarterbacks, both past and present, were there,” said Briscoe, naming everyone from Aaron Brooks (New Orleans Saints) to Dante Culpepper (Minnesota Vikings) to Michael Vick (Atlanta Falcons).
“The young kids came up to me and embraced me and told me, ‘Thank you for setting the tone.’ Now, there’s like 20 black quarterbacks on NFL rosters, and for them to give me kudos for paving the way and going through what I went through hit me. That was probably the first time I realized it was a history-making event. The young kids today know about the problems we faced and absorbed in order for them to get a fair shot and be in the position they are.”
Making the Buffalo roster at a spot he’d never played before proved one of Briscoe’s greatest athletic challenges and accomplishments. He not only became a starter but soon mastered the new position, earning 1970 All-Pro honors in only his second year, catching 57 passes for 1,036 yards and 8 TDs. Then, in an example of bittersweet irony, Saban was named head coach of the moribund Bills in 1972 and promptly traded Briscoe to the powerful Miami Dolphins. The move, unpopular with Bills’ fans, once again allowed Briscoe to intersect with history as he became an integral member of the Dolphins’ perfect 17-0 1972 Super Bowl championship team and the 1973 team that repeated as champs.
His post-football life began promisingly enough. A single broker, he lived the L.A. high life. Slipping into a kind of malaise, he hung with “an unsavory crowd” — partying and doing drugs. His gradual descent into addiction made him a transient, frequenting crack houses in L.A.’s notorious Ho-Stroll district and holding down jobs only long enough to feed his habit. The once strapping man withered away to 135 pounds. His first marriage ended, leaving him estranged from his kids. Ex-teammates like James Harris and Paul Warfield, tried helping, but he was unreachable.
“I strayed away from the person I was and the people that were truly my friends. When I came back here I was trying to run away from my problems,” he said, referring to the mid-’80s, when he lived in Omaha, “and it got worse…and in front of my friends and family. At least back in L.A. I could hide. I saw the pity they had in their eyes but I had no pride left.”
Perhaps his lowest point came when a local bank foreclosed on his Super Bowl rings after he defaulted on a loan, leading the bank to sell them over e-bay. He’s been unable to recover them.
He feels his supreme confidence bordering on arrogance contributed to his addiction. “I never thought drugs could get me,” he said. “I didn’t realize how diabolical and treacherous drug use is. In the end, I overcame it just like I overcame everything else. It took 12 years…but there’s some people that never do.” In the end, he said, he licked drugs after serving a jail term for illegal drug possession and drawing on that iron will of his to overcome and to start anew. He’s made amends with his ex-wife and with his now adult children.
Clean and sober since 1991, Briscoe now shares his odyssey with others as both a cautionary and inspirational tale. Chronicling his story in his book, The First Black Quarterback, was “therapeutic.” An ESPN documentary retraced the dead end streets his addict’s existence led him to, ending with a blow-up of his fingers, bare any rings. Briscoe, who dislikes his life being characterized by an addiction he’s long put behind him, has, after years of trying, gotten clearance from the Dolphins to get duplicate Super Bowl rings made to replace the ones he squandered.
For him, the greatest satisfaction in reclaiming his life comes from seeing how glad friends and family are that the old Marlin is back. “Now, they don’t even have to ask me, ‘Are you OK?’ They know that part of my life is history. They trust me again. That’s the best word I can use to define where I am with my life now. Trust. People trust me and I trust myself.”
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