Soccer is still no where near as popular in America as football, basketball and baseball but it’s undeniably growing year by year in having a hold on people’s interest and imagination. The emergence of soccer as a prime sport at Omaha South High School gives insight into the demographics at work that will likely one day see the sport challenge the big three team sports and perhaps even overtake them, not just in Omaha or greater Neb., but around the nation. South High is a microcosm for how South Omaha has changed from its largely Eastern European population base from the late 19th century through the 1970s to a largely Hispanic, African and Asian base in recent years. Then and now many of the immigrant and refugee families drawn there have found work in the meatpacking industry, and thus the school’s nickname, Packers. This demographic transformation has had many effects, including a student population that is increasingly soccer-centric. Boys soccer head coach Joe Maass has been there since 2000, when the change was near full flower. Since then he’s taken a moribound program that couldn’t win and nobody wanted to coach and turned it into a budding dynasty. He’s done it with players of Mexican and Latin American heritage and more recently of African heritage who have played soccer practically from the time they could walk and run. These experienced, skilled and passionate players, wave after wave and class after class of them, have made South a perennial contender for metro, district and state titles. Just a few years ago it would have been unthinkable for a a high school soccer game to outdraw a football or basektball game, but that’s often what South high soccer manages to do. When the program first emerged as a force to be reckoned with a few years ago and the team made it to their first state finals, record crowds turned out and most of the fans were rooting for South. The majority of fans were Hispanic. It was a hugh love fest for the team, the school and the South Omaha community. Maass is the mastermind who’s embraced this flood of talent and passion and let it flourish. My El Perico story about Maass and the evolution of South High Soccer was published just as this year’s team has found itself and climbed to No. 1 in the rankings. With the way the Packers are playing, they will be the odds-on favorite to win their second state title in three years.
Masterful: Joe Maass leads Omaha South High soccer evolution
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Omaha South High soccer coach Joe Maass enjoys being part of a transformation that’s seen his soccer program blossom from awful to brilliant and his school rise from woebegone to thriving.
He was 26 when he got the job in 2000. That’s unusually young for a big school head coach but it wasn’t like candidates were busting down the doors. Slowly but surely though Maass turned that no-win situation around. He now has South soccer a perennial contender and a point of pride for the school and community it represents.
South has built a near dynasty on the strength of mostly Latino players who’ve become the new face of the more than century-old school. Michael Jaime became the first Gatorade Nebraska Boys Soccer Player of the Year (2013-2014) from South, one of several all-state players with Spanish surnames the school’s produced. In 2010 Manny Lira was the captain of the all-state team. Those players and several others went on to earn college scholarships.
For the ninth consecutive season South’s regarded as a major threat. The No. 1-ranked Packers opened the season with 10 straight wins. Since their first and only defeat of the year, 1-0 to Papiliion LaVista-South on April 13 in the Metro Conference championship game, they’ve beaten traditional rivals Omaha Westside and Omaha Creighton Prep, and on April 20 they avenged their lone loss to Papio LaVista-South. They’ve come together as a team despite injury and suspension.
Maass says the prospects for his 2015 team are promising.
“As a unit we’re really good. I have a lot of pretty good players but there’s not like one or two players miles ahead of everybody else in the state, so this is definitely going to be a team year where a lot of different kids contribute. I think making state would be a fair goal and then maybe when we get there…”
Anything can happen. Only a few years after being a losing team, South made its first state final in 2010, the game infamous for the “green card” incident when opposing fans threw mock green cards on the field to insinuate South players were illegal immigrants. It was the most public in a long line of racial insults directed at South.
Maass says he was proud of “the way his team handled it,” adding, “The kids didn’t retaliate – they stood up for the team and school and for what was right and wrong.”
South then put together arguably the greatest season ever by a Neb. Class A boys soccer team in 2013, going 23-0 en route to the state title, setting many records in the process. Elite Soccer Report named South the top team among states where soccer’s a spring sport.
“We won the whole thing and we did it the right way,” Maass says.
None of it seemed possible 16 years ago.
“Everything that’s been accomplished I would never have imagined. I have a huge sense of pride in that and in knowing that if I stopped coaching tomorrow South High soccer’s still going to be pretty good because we’ve built a strong program.”
Not bad considering what Maass started with.
“The guy who was the head coach before me saw I had some energy and passion, so he stepped down and recommended me to replace him. The truth is nobody else applied, so they just gave it to me because essentially nobody wanted that job. There was nothing desirable about it. It was not very forgiving.
“The program was pretty bad back then. The school really didn’t fund the program. The uniforms were really old. The sport of soccer didn’t get much attention or respect, especially down here.”
Besides low interest and expectations – South won eight games his first four years – it was hard getting kids to play and fans to follow.
“I had somewhere around 11 or 12 players. The first practice there were 15 kids on the field and four of them were off the streets, they weren’t even students. I only had one senior. The next year it was maybe 13 to 15 players. Then 18. Each year it just grew a little bit.”
He scoured South O parks and fields for promising talent and before long gifted players, even some elite club players, filled his rosters.
The facilities were subpar until Collin Stadium opened in 2009, giving the by-then vastly improved program a distinct home advantage with its full-sized soccer field.
The one constant, Maass says, is that “the kids were great kids.” “But,”
he adds, “I don’t think anybody saw South going from being the worst team in the state to what it is now. We’re pretty much a projected top 10 team every year and that’s where we want to be – a top 10 team that everybody has to kind of somewhat fear.”
These days the program gets 100-plus students trying out and carries 80 to 90 players across its varsity, junior varsity and freshman squads. Grads are getting scholarships to play at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Bellevue University and other schools. Several are coaching for South, including Leo Enriquez and Cesar Lira, and several others are coaching for club teams or competing schools.
Where South soccer used to be an after-thought, it’s now a conversation starter. Cara Riggs was South’s principal when Maass engineered the turnaround. More than all the wins, she appreciated the way Maass cared.
“Joe sometimes comes off as tough, maybe even gruff. Underneath that exterior is a very soft-hearted, compassionate man who cares very deeply about the kids he works with. He has high expectations of your hard work and he’s willing to go above and beyond for you and your success. His loyalty to South High, its students and South Omaha is as strong as a Mack truck.”
Tobias Maertzke, a German exchange student who played at South a few years ago, lived with Maass and his wife while going to school there. “He’s like a family member almost,” Maass says.
Maass acknowledges he’s softened and matured since becoming a father. He and his wife have two children.
“I’ve mellowed quite a bit. I’m still fiery but not overly fiery like I used to be. The first couple years i was probably a little bit rough actually. I had a great understanding for the game but maybe not an understanding for all the kids, whereas now I feel I understand the kids, the game, how the referees work. I feel the refs respect me, so they’re not as quick to give me a yellow card if I step out of line.”
Riggs says South soccer made a positive impact far beyond the field.
“The success of Joe’s soccer program has been a definite booster for school pride and community respect. The success helped put South back on the map and recognized again in the Omaha community.”
Maass, whose roots are in that neighborhood, says, “The sense of community that came back to South Omaha is just amazing to me.”
Having built South to be an elite program and kept it there, Maass is not sure which feat is more difficult.
“It was really hard to get there but it’s hard to stay on top though because more kids are playing the sport now and other schools are starting to mirror the things we’ve done.”
Of all the achievements South’s attained, including district and metro crowns and records for most goals scored and most shutouts recorded in a single season, the 2013 state title stands out.
“Winning a championship at South after they hadn’t won one in years was big. It felt great to feel our program was on top of the world.”
Championships and records are nice, he says, “but at the end of the day” it’s the relationships he forges with “the kids” and following their life pursuits that matter most to him.
“I see them out in the community. It’s interesting to see where they end up. I hope in some way I’ve impacted these kids. That by far outweighs everything else.”
Just like the team’s Twitter page tag line reads, “We are a family, friends and a team with one big heart.. Packers.”
Don’t look now, but UNO hockey may be on the verge of making the kind of noise and capturing the kind of attention traditionally reserved for Nebraska football and Creighton basketball. My Reader (www.thereader.com) story charts some of the reasons why this already has beenand continues being a special season for the program. For the first time this late in the season UNO’s nationally ranked and in a contending position for accomplishing big things in their conference and perhaps in the NCAA tournament. The Mavs play their last regular season home series this weekend, March 6-7, at the CenturyLink and it’s an important opportunity to keep momentum and maintain a solid spot heading into the post-season.
UNO Hockey Staking its Claim
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since launching hockey in 1997 to subsidize its non-revenue generating sports UNO’s netted a nice return on investment. Maverick hockey crowds rank among the best nationally, with annual ticket revenues of $2 million. When the school dropped football and wrestling in 2011, it added pressure on hockey to be the signature sport.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha has enriched the city’s hockey legacy. The minor league professional Omaha Knights (1939 to 1975) began the love affair. The amateur Omaha Lancers (1986 through today) continued it. UNO found its niche as Neb.’s only collegiate hockey team. Despite gritty performances and many upsets its first 18 seasons. UNO didn’t emerge as a title threat. Until perhaps now.
Coach Dean Blais, tasked with making Mav hockey nationally relevant when hired in 2009, has guided UNO through conference changes, player suspensions, stars leaving for the NHL and solid if not stellar play. Now, for the first time this late in the season, he has UNO contending. His team’s defeated several highly ranked clubs, splitting four games, three in overtime, with perennial power North Dakota, where Blais won two national titles.
His best offensive player, sophomore forward All-America candidate Austin Ortega, recently tied the NCAA single-season record with his nation-leading 10th game-winning goal.
UNO, 17-10-3 at press time, climbed to No. 4 in the Division I ratings. It’s led the powerful National Collegiate Hockey Conference most of the year. Entering the final regular season home series versus Colorado College at CenturyLink Center, UNO hopes for momentum that carries into the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and the NCAA tournament.
As UNO hockey enters the local sports conversation reserved for Husker football and Bluejay basketball, it may establish itself as a must-see attraction and traditional power. The timing’s apt since it gets its own facility next year when the UNO sports arena opens on the Ak-Sar-Ben campus, where the Knights played. Touted underclassmen helping drive this special season were recruited to the new venue.
Sophomore center Jake Guentzel is enjoying the ride, “We’re more on the map, more fans are coming, so it’s pretty special.” He’s not surprised by the success. “I thought we had the players to do it, I just didn’t know if we had the experience. We’re bottom-heavy with freshmen and sophomores but we’ve adapted pretty well. We’ve been fortunate we’ve had the opportunity to play and we’ve taken advantage of it.”
He says preseason predictions of UNO finishing sixth in the league provided motivation. He credits an early road trip to Western Michigan, where UNO got a sweep. as a confidence-booster and bonding experience. The right mix of leadership has team chemistry just right.
Senior goalie Ryan Massa has waited four years for UNO to break out. “It’s nice to finally see all the hard work pay off for the guys.” He feels a humbling exhibition loss to Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in October was a necessary rude awakening. “It kind of opened the new guys’ eyes to understand the level we’re playing at and helped them grow and mature a little bit faster than maybe anticipated.”
Senior forward Dominic Zombo likes this team’s make-up. “I do see a component I haven’t seen in the past. We’ve got a really tight-knit group. We don’t have any passengers here, nobody’s just going through the motions, everybody’s here to get better, to win games. Every single guy’s committed to their job. That’s what makes us so competitive as a team.”
Blais doesn’t know if UNO’s truly arrived but he’s confident it soon will.
“I would think so but you never know from year to year. This is a special group of guys and for them I hope we win a league championship, get to the Target Center (home to the Frozen Faceoff), advance to the national tournament. Those are benchmarks for a program and our seniors know they’re paving the way for the underclassmen. Hopefully getting to the tournament isn’t a big accomplishment, it’s an expected accomplishment every year.
“We have a new arena coming that’s going to take the program to another level.”
UNO athletic director Trev Alberts says the arena signifies that Mav hockey matters.
“You can tell people hockey is very important to your school but if you don’t even have a place you can call home and practice in, it’s difficult to get the kind of talent in here you ultimately need.”
He says the arena will put the program on near equal footing with its stiffest competitors.
“When I hired Dean I really wanted to have somebody who’d been there, done that, who knew what it took to win at the highest levels.
There’s built-in disadvantages to being in Omaha, so far from hockey hotbeds. I just feel good we’re finally able to give he and his staff some tools necessary to assemble the kind of talent we hope to have here.”
Having its own intimate space will benefit UNO, which shares the huge CenturyLink with Creighton. The average hockey crowd of 8,000 downtown still leaves the venue half-empty. That same crowd fills the new arena. It should spike demand from fans and corporate sponsors.
Die-hard hockey fan Ernie May, who’s never missed a UNO home game, says, “I can’t wait to get into our own building. I think that’s going to be fantastic and make the interest grow.”
“Clearly this will be the best opportunity we’ve ever had to have a branded-out facility of excellence our student athletes can compete in,” says Alberts.
Omaha hockey historian and former UNO sports information director Gary Anderson says, “They’re going to go into an arena exactly the right size they need for the fan base they’ve created.” He says there was never any doubt Omaha could sustain college hockey. “When the program was born you still did have a lot of old-time hockey fans and the Lancers were around the peak of their success, so consequently UNO built a really good fan base right from the start.”
That loyal base bodes good times ahead.
“I’ve been absolutely amazed and humbled by the support UNO hockey fans give to this team, even in some pretty poor years,” Alberts says. “Our fans are hungry and we’re hungry to give them what they want, which is a consistent winner on the ice.”
May enjoys that the Mavs are meshing to put themselves in position to make history: “For me this year almost has as much excitement as the first years we had hockey.”
Coach Blais is trying to ensure his team attends to all the details heading into the intense post-season, where little things become magnified and championship teams find ways to win. UNO getting swept on the road at St. Cloud State (Feb. 20-21) resembled the late season swoons it’s suffered in past years.
“I don’t know if we have any more than we’ve given already,” he says. “How many times can you go to the well? My teams at North Dakota could operate at 70 percent and still win. We’re not there yet. Our margin for error’s slim. We’ve got to be all engines going, we can’t have one engine not running. We’re darn close. It starts with recruiting and we’ve been lucky enough to land some dandies.”
Even if UNO should reach the top, he says, “it’s one thing to get there, it’s another thing to stay there.” First things, first.
Massa says, “Every single one of us believes in our potential. None of us doubts we can be playing at the Boston Garden (site of the Frozen Four) competing for a national championship this year. We’ve played against the best all year and we’ve done well against the best.”
Zombo can’t imagine what a UNO hockey title would mean.
“I wouldn’t be able to explain. I’ve never been a part of anything like that that’s a dream.”
UNO’s dream ride continues at home Friday, March 6 and Saturday, March 7. Listen on 1180 The Zone 2.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
What do Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and WBO world lightweight boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford have in common?
What do Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and WBO world lightweight boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford have in common?
These newsmakers share the same hometown of Omaha, Neb. but more than that they share an unflinching loyalty to their roots. Payne could elect to or be swayed to make films anywhere but he repeatedly comes back to Omaha and greater Neb. to create his acclaimed works, often resisting studio efforts to have him shoot elsewhere. Crawford doesn’t get to call the shots about where he fights but for his first two title defenses he did convince Top Rank and HBO that Omaha could and would support a world title card. Besides, it’s tradition that a world champion gets to defend his title on his own home turf. And when there was talk his first title defense might move across the river to Council Bluffs, he wasn’t having it. Now that he’s been proven right that Omaha is a legitimate market for big-time fights and is a formidable hometown advantage for him, he will undoubtedly press to fight here over and over again and opponents will certainly resist coming into his own backyard. As he moves up a division and the stakes get higher, there may come a time when the CenturyLink and Omaha can’t provide the same pay-day that a Las Vegas and one of its mega venues can. Whether Omaha could ever become a main event host for fighters other than Crawford is an open question. The same holds true for whether Neb. could ever attract a major feature film to fix its entire shooting schedule here outside a Payne project. The only way that will happen, it appears, is if the state enacts far more liberal tax incentives for moviemakers than it currently offers. But that is neither here nor there, as Crawford’s done right by Omaha and his adoring fans have reciprocated, just as Payne has done right by his home state and his fellow Nebraskans have responded in kind.
The Crawford parallel to Payne goes even deeper. Just as Payne maintains a signifcant presence here, living part of the year in his downtown condo, serving on the board of Film Streams and bringing in world class film figures for special events, Crawford lives year-round in Omaha except when he goes off to train in Colorado and he owns and operates a boxing gym here, the B&B Boxing Academy, that’s open to anyone. Just as Payne looks to grow the film culture here Crawford hopes to grow the boxing scene and each has made major strides in those areas. A major Hollywood film besides one of his own still hasn’t come to shoot here, though he’s lobbied the state legislature to give studios and filmmakers the incentives they need. No world-class fighter has emerged here yer as a protege of Crawford’s or as someone showing promise to be “next Bud Crawford.” Similarly, “the next Alexander Payne” hasn’t announced him or herself yet here.
Another way in which these two Omaha figures – each so different on the surface, wth one the product of white privilege and the other the product of Omaha’s poor inner city – are similar is that each has been embraced and endorsed by the Omaha establishment. They’ve been honored with the keys to the city, feated at banquets and preened over by the media. When Mayor Stothert showed up for a photo op with Bud at his pre-Thanksgiving turkey giveaway and Warren Buffett appeared at his most recent title defense, you knew that Crawford had made it.
I don’t know if Payne and Crawford have met, but I would enjpy the intersection of two different yet not so different Omaha’s meeting. At the end of the day, after all, each is in a segment of show business or entertainment. Each is a professional who has reached world class stature in his profession. Each has worked and sacrificed for his craft and been rewarded for it.
I have been covering Payne for going on 20 years, I have been covering Crawford for two years. I admire both men for having come so far with their passion. I congratulated Payne on his latest achievement, the film Nebraska, one in a long line of filmic successes. And I now say congrats to Terence “Bud” Crawford on defending his WBO world lightweight boxing title in his hometown of Omaha for the second time in five months. The 11,000-plus fans on hand Saturday night at the CenturyLink arena were there to support their own and they roared and cheered and gave shout-outs to Bud, who’s become a much beloved folk hero here. Feeding off their energy he displayed a full boxing arsenal in thoroughly dominating a very tough challenger in Ray Beltran. Every time the pressing Beltran tried to trap Bud along the ropes or in the corners, the champ used his superior quikness and agility to turn the tables on Beltran with sharp counterpunching, By the last few rounds Bud was doing the attacking, thwarting the few rallies Beltran mounted and frustrating his foe at every turn. It was an impressive boxing display and further proof that the talk about Bud being pound for pound one of the best fighters in the world today is no hype. He’s the real deal and almost certainly the best prizefighter to ever come of Nebraska. As I articulated above, the fact that he remains rooted to his community and brings his success back home reminds me of what filmmaker Alexander Payne does in another arena, filmmaking.
The main event turned into a love-in and as much love as the crowd gave to one of their own Bud gave it right back. It’s a beautiful thing that’s happening in what can be a brutal sport and a heartless game.
Look for my new story about Bud in the Jan./Feb. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine. I’ll have something in a upcoming issue of The Reader as well. Meanwhile, you can read my previous stories about Bud at these links:
You can find excerpts of my many stories about Alexander Payne on my blog. You can also buy my book, “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,” which is a collection of my extensive journalism about the artist and his work. You can preview the book at, www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga,
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Organizations serving at-risk kids come and go but few stay the course the way the CW Youth Resource Center, 1510 Cass Street, has since opening in 1978.
Founder-director Carl Washington hosts a Nov. 29 open house at CW from 4 to 8 p.m. to celebrate 35 years of structured youth activities.
His experience mentoring youth began a decade earlier, when he was like a big brother to his nephew Howard Stevenson. After Stevenson was shot and killed by an Omaha police officer in the wake of a 1968 civil disturbance in North Omaha, Washington was angry. A bully and street fighter at the time, he went to the old Swedish Auditorium boxing gym looking to release his rage.
“I went down there and picked on the first guy I thought maybe I should be able to beat up, a chubby kid by the name of Ron Stander.”
That’s Ron Stander, aka the Bluffs Butcher, who fought heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in a 1972 title bout. But when Washington first laid eyes on him Stander was still a pudgy, no-name amateur.
“Everyone was paying attention to him. My thought was, Knock him off and then you can be the top guy. It didn’t work that way.”
After weeks pestering coaches to let him spar Stander, the exhibition was set. Washington was so confident he brought an entourage. He knew he’d miscalculated when he landed his best blows and Stander didn’t even blink. The first punch Washington absorbed was the hardest he’d even been hit. After a few more punishing shots he feigned injury to end the onslaught.
Washington wanted to quit the sport right then but Stander encouraged him. The two men became friends. While Stander went on to make boxing his career, Washington only fought a year. Well-schooled by the late trainer Leonard “Hawk” Hawkins, Washington saw his true calling not as a fighter but as a coach. He believed boxing could give kids a safe activity in place of running the streets.
He first tried forming the gym in 1971 but it didn’t take. Seven years later he gave it another go, this time with help from two mentors. A lifelong inner city resident, Washington daily saw unsupervised kids getting into mischief and brawls, hungry for structure, and he felt he could give them the healthy alternative they needed.
“A group of kids I ran across were fighting and I broke it up and took them downstairs to my basement and started working with them. We took two of them to a boxing show at the National Guard Armory and they both won trophies. We put the trophies up on the mantel and the other kids wanted to win trophies, too. So, it grew from there.”
He’d have two dozen youths training in his basement at one time with another similar-sized group out on a long run before they took their turn hitting the bags.
CW took the local amateur boxing scene by storm, winning hundreds of individual and team trophies at smokers and the Midwest Golden Gloves.
“A couple years we won every weight division,” he says of the Gloves.
Washington ran a tight ship. “I instilled discipline. Our guys had to walk the line.”
He bemoans the lax standards commonplace today.
“I see a lack of respect for one another from a lot of kids, a lot of people, Respect is not on the table like it used to be. Respect is an art we should be going back to. I think a lot of that is lost. When all those factors are gone that’s why there’s so much chaos.”
He insists boxing’s a useful tool for instilling values.
“Out of a hundred kids probably one of them might box and go all the way to the Gloves and do all he’s supposed to do in boxing. But for the rest of them it might open the door for them to get into wrestling, football, basketball and other sports. We can give them that discipline.”
He says that discipline carries over to school, work and family life.
The kids he started with are now parents and send their kids to him.
Reaching kids takes patience and instinct. “I have a feel for when I meet a kid exactly what the kid really wants – if he wants to box or to get in shape or if he’s down here because his mother needs a baby sitter. Sometimes they may have aspirations of becoming a champion.”
Terence “Bud” Crawford is a once in a lifetime phenom who came up through the CW ranks and now is on the verge of fighting for the world lightweight title. He remains loyal to the CW, where he still trains under the man who got him started there, Midge Minor, and is managed by another CW alum, Brian McIntyre.
In its early years CW was a predominantly African American gym. Its fighters weren’t always well received.
“We ran into a lot of negativity in the beginning. Some cities we boxed in weren’t too friendly. It seemed like the ones closest to Omaha were the unfriendliest,” says Washington. He recalls that before a Wahoo, Neb. boxing show his fighters got debris and racial slurs hurled at them. They silenced the crowd with excellence.
“A lot of parents with me wanted us to leave and I said, ‘No, we’re not going to leave.’ We parked the cars going toward the street just in case we had to get out of there in a hurry. I said, ‘We’re going to go back in there, box, and act like gentlemen and we’re not going to respond to the crowd. We had 16 bouts that day and we won all 16.”
Boxing hasn’t been the only avenue for youth to explore at CW, which moved from his basement to the Fontenelle Park pavilion to south downtown to its current spot in the early 1990s. CW once featured recording studios and a dance floor to feed the rap and breakdance demand. Washington organized talent showcases and concerts highlighting the club’s many homegrown performing artists
“We were involved in a little bit of everything. We were doing anything we thought could reach kids.”
He says he put on the first gang reconciliation concert back in the mid-1980s when he was doing gang prevention-intervention work before it had a name.
He cobbled together support from grants, donations, fundraisers and raffle sales.
“We had to jump over a lot of hurdles in the beginning. What really built the club was raffle tickets. We were out on the corners and kids sold raffle tickets. I was able to do the (initial) restoration here through the raffle sales.”
At the boxing gym’s peak, he says, “We were going all over the country with kids in the car to boxing shows and coming back with a lot of trophies.” But he feels CW was never fully embraced by its hometown, where fans booed the club’s fighters when the national Golden Gloves were fought here. Boxing’s also lost kids to martial arts and other activities.
Looking back, he says he’s proudest of just “being able to survive,” adding, “We’ve been pretty blessed.”
Though CW doesn’t have as many competitive boxers as it once did, he’s seeing more kids come as a result of Bud Crawford’s success. He scaled down the club’s entertainment facets after frictions surfaced between performers. He stopped holding concerts after a drive-by shooting outside the club. He recently formed a hoops program as a new outlet .
One thing that hasn’t changed, he says, is “I open my doors to everybody and I never charge a membership fee.”
For more information about the CW’s programs, call 402-671-8477.
- The kid with the Golden Gloves (wafb.com)
This will likely be my last word on the demise of the University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program. As some of you may know from reading this blog or from following other media reports on the story, the program did nothing to contribute to its demise. Quite the contrary, it did everything right and then some. UNO wrestling reached the pinnacle of NCAA Division II competition and maintained its unparalleled excellence year after year. Yet university officials disregarded all that and eliminated the program. The action caused quite an uproar but the decision stood, leaving head coach Mike Denney, his assistants, and the student-athletes adrift. In a stunning turn, Denney is more or less taking what’s left of the orphaned program, including a couple assistants and 10 or so wrestlers, and moving the program to Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo. The following story for the New Horizons is my take on what transpired and an appreciation for the remarkable legacy that Denney, his predecessor Don Benning, and all their assitants and wrestlers established at a university that then turned its back on their contributions. It’s a bittersweet story as Denney closes one chapter in his career and opens a new one. It is UNO’s loss and Maryville’s gain.
Mike Denney exhorting his troops to keep the faith
Requiem for a Dynasty:
Mike Denney Reflects on the Long Dominant, Now Defunct UNO Maverick Wrestling Program He Coached, Its Legacy, His Pain, and Starting Anew with Wife Bonnie at Maryville University
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in the New Horizons
The For Sale sign spoke volumes.
Planted in the front yard of the home Mike and Bonnie Denney called their own for decades, it served as graphic reminder an Omaha icon was leaving town. The longtime University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling coach and his wife of 42 years never expected to be moving. But that’s what happened in the wake of shocking events the past few months. Forced out at the school he devoted half his life to when UNO surprised everyone by dropping wrestling, he’s now taken a new opportunity far from home — as head coach at Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo.
The sign outside his home, Denney said, reinforced “the finality of it.” That, along with cleaning out his office and seeing the mats he and his coaches and wrestlers sweated on and achieved greatness on, sold via e-Bay.
On his last few visits to the Sapp Field House and the wrestling room, he said he couldn’t help but feel how “empty” they felt. “There’s an energy that’s gone.”
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not for the golden wrestling program and its decorated coach.
But this past spring the winningest program in UNO athletic history, fresh off capturing its third straight national championship and sixth in eight years, was unceremoniously disbanded.
Denney’s teams won two-thirds of their duals, claimed seven national team championships, produced more than 100 All-Americans and dozens of individual national champions in his 32 years at the helm. At age 64, he was at the top of his game, and his program poised to continue its dominant run.
“Let me tell you, we had a chance to make some real history here,” he said. “Our team coming back, I think we had an edge on people for awhile. We had some good young talent.”
UNO celebrates its 2010-2011 national championship
A measure of how highly thought of Denney is in his profession is that InterMat named him Coach of the Year for 2011 over coaches from top Division I programs. In 2006 Amateur Wrestling News made him its Man of the Year. That same year Win Magazine tabbed him as Dan Gable Coach of the Year.
Three times he’s been voted Division II Coach of the Year. He’s an inductee in both the Division II and UNO Athletic Halls of Fame. UNO awarded him its Chancellor’s Medal for his significant contributions to the university.
“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness”
Yet, when all was said and done, Denney and his program were deemed expendable. Suddenly, quite literally without warning, wrestling was shut down, the student-athletes left adrift and Denney’s coaching job terminated. All in the name of UNO’s it’s-just-business move to Division I and the Summit League. The story made national news.
Response to the decision ranged from incredulity to disappointment to fury. To his credit, Denney never played the blame game, never went negative. But as print and television coverage documented in teary-eyed moments with his wrestlers, coaches and wife, it hurt, it hurt badly.
“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness,” he said.
The closest he comes to criticism is to ask accusingly, “Was it worth it? Was the shiny penny worth it? Or are people worth it? What are you giving up for that? Your self? Your soul?”
Referring to UNO officials, Bonnie Denney said, “They’re standing behind a system that treats people very disrespectfully. You just don’t treat people like that, — you just don’t. We’ve got to put it in God’s hands and move on. We’re not going to let it pull us down. We’re going to keep our core and take it someplace else.”
Nobody saw it coming. How could they? Wrestling, with its consistent excellence and stability, was the one constant in a topsy-turvy athletic department. The decision by Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts to end wrestling, and along with it, football, was inconceivable in the context of such unprecedented success.
Unprecedented, too, was a university jettisoning the nation’s leading program and coach without a hint of scandal or mismanagement. No NCAA rules violations. No financial woes. It would have been as if University of Nebraska-Lincoln higher-ups pulled the plug on Husker football at the height of Tom Osborne’s reign of glory.
An apples to oranges comparison? Perhaps, except the only difference between NU football and UNO wrestling is dollars and viewers. The Huskers generate millions in revenue by drawing immense stadium crowds and television audiences. The Mavericks broke even at best and drew only a tiny fraction of followers. Judging the programs solely by winning and losing over the last half-century, however, and UNO comes out on top, with eight national titles to NU’s five. Where UNO won minus sanctions, NU won amid numerous player run-ins with the law.
Noted sports psychologist Jack Stark has said Denney’s high character makes him the best coach in any sport in Nebraska.
Denney and Dustin Tovar
USA Wrestling Magazine’s Craig Sesker, who covered Denney for the Omaha World-Herald, said, “He is a man of the highest integrity, values and principles. He’s an unbelievably selfless and generous man who always puts his athletes first.”
“He has a unique way of treating everybody like they’re somebody,” said Ron Higdon, who wrestled and coached for Denney. “He physically found a way to touch every guy every day at practice — touch them on the shoulder, touch them on the head. I learned so much from him. I have such incredible respect for him.
“One of the reasons I never left is I felt it was a special place. I felt such a connection that I felt this was the place for me. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of it.”
The influence Denney has on young men is reflected in the 60-plus former wrestlers of his who have entered the coaching profession.
“They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did”
Denney created a dynasty the right way, but what’s sometimes forgotten is that its seeds were planted a decade earlier, by another rock-ribbed man of character, Don Benning. In 1963 Benning became the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white university when he took over the then-Omaha University Indian wrestling program. Having already made history with its coach, the program — competing then at the NAIA level — reached the peak of small college success by winning the 1970 national title.
Once a UNO wrestler or wrestling coach, always one. So it was that Benning and some of the guys who wrestled for him attended the We Are One farewell to the program last spring. The UNO grappling family turned out in force for this requiem. In a show of solidarity and homage to a shared legacy lost. wrestlers from past and present took off their letter jackets, vowing never to wear them again.
“Wrestling is kind of a brotherhood. It was my life, and so I had every reason to be there,” said Benning. “There was a lot of hurt in seeing what happened. It was devastating. We felt their pain.”
Benning said the event also gave him and his old wrestlers the opportunity to pay homage to what Denney and his wrestlers accomplished.
“It was a chance for us to say how much we appreciated them and to take our hats off to them. They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did.”
Benning left after the 1971 season and the program, while still highly competitive, slipped into mediocrity until Denney arrived in 1979.
For Denney, Benning set a benchmark he strove to reach.
“When we came one of the first things I said was we want to reestablish the tradition that Don Benning started.”
A farm-raised, Antelope County, Neb. native, Denney was a multi-sport star athlete in high school and at Dakota Wesleyan college. He played semi-pro football with the Omaha Mustangs. He became a black belt in judo and jujitsu, incorporating martial arts rituals and mantras into his coaching. For example, he called the UNO wrestling room the “dojo.” He has the calm, cool, command of the sensei master.
He taught and coached at Omaha South and Omaha Bryan before joining the staff at UNO, where in addition to coaching he taught.
With his John Wayne-esque swagger, wide open smile, genial temperament, yet steely resolve, Denney was the face of an often faceless UNO athletic department. In a revolving door of coaches and ADs, Duke, as friends call him, was always there, plodding away, the loyal subject faithfully attending to his duties. You could always count on him. He modeled his strong Christian beliefs.
Under Denney UNO perennially contended for the national title and became THE elite program at the Division II level. He led UNO in organizing and hosting the nation’s largest single-day college wrestling tournament, the Kaufman-Brand Open, and a handful of national championship tournaments.
He was particularly fond of the Kaufman-Brand.
“I loved that tournament. It was a happening. Wrestlers came from all over for that. It was a who’s-who of wrestling. I mean, you saw world, Olympic and national champions. Multiple mats. Fourteen hundred matches.”
“We were a positive force…”
With everything that’s happened, he hasn’t had much time to look back at his UNO career. Ask him what he’s proudest of and he doesn’t immediately talk about all the winning. Instead, it’s the people he impacted and the difference his teams made. His guys visiting hospitals or serving meals at homeless shelters. The youth tournament UNO held. The high school wrestling league it organized. The clinics he and his coaches gave.
“We were a positive force in the wrestling community. I think its going to hurt wrestling in the area. We provided opportunities.”
Then there was the annual retreat-boot camp where his wrestlers bonded. The extra mile he and his coaches and athletes went to help on campus or in the community. The Academic All-Americans UNO produced. All the coaches the program produced.
Then, Denney gets around to the winning or more specifically to winning year in and year out.
“I think one of the most difficult things to do in anything is be consistent. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. I think that consistency, year in and out, in everything you do is the biggest test.”
In its last season UNO wrestling went wire to wire No. 1. “Staying up there is the toughest thing,” said Denney.
“People don’t realize how difficult what they did really is,” said Benning, who knows a thing or two about winning.
Benning thinks it’s unfortunate that local media coverage of UNO wrestling declined at the very time the program enjoyed its greatest success. “They kind of got cheated in regards to their value and what they accomplished.”
“Whether it was on our terms or not, we went out on top. No one can ever take away what we accomplished,” said Ron Higdon.
Highs and lows come with the territory in athletics. Win or lose, Mike and Bonnie Denney were surrogate parents to their “boys,” cultivating family bonds that went beyond the usual coach-player relationship. Parents to three children of their own, the couple form an unbreakable team.
“When you do anything that takes this amount of time, you gotta have a partnership,” said Denney, who said he often asks Bonnie to accompany him on recruiting trips and invites her to get to know student-athletes.. “She’s a recruiting asset. She’s kind of a second mother to them. They get to know her.”
Bonnie said she learned long ago that “if I wasn’t going to join him in this I was going to lose him — wouldn’t have a husband.” Therefore, she said, “it’s a shared mission.”
There’s been hard times. She survived a multiple sclerosis scare. They endured the deaths of UNO wrestlers Ryan Kaufman, R.J. Nebe and Jesse Greise.
Next to all that, losing a program pales in comparison.
“We kept this in perspective because we’ve been there when the parents of former wrestlers had to pull life support,” said Denney. “To be in a hospital room and to see a former wrestler take his last breath, to be there with the parents and the wives, this (wrestling getting cut) is not in that same category.”
That didn’t make it hurt any less. The coach and his boys didn’t go down without a fight, either. Denney, his assistants, his wrestlers and his boosters held rallies and lobbied university officials to reconsider, but they could not sway NU regents to reverse their decision.
Denney keeping things positive
What cut deepest for Denney is that no one in a position of power took wrestling’s side. No decision-maker spoke up for the program.
“There wasn’t anybody that thought we were valuable enough to fight for us,” he said. “There wasn’t anybody that cared. At Maryville, they care, they value us.”
Two men Denney counted as friends, Christensen and Don Leahy, who hired Denney at UNO and whom Denney regarded as a father figure, were not in his corner when he needed them. It stings, but Denney’s refrained from name-calling or recrimination.
Following the lead of their coach, UNO wrestlers took the high road, too.
“One of the things that made us really proud of our group is how they handled all this,” he said. “They really, I thought, did a nice job of showing dignity and class and poise.”
Just like he taught them.
“We always talk about teaching and building …that we’re teachers and builders. Immediately when this went down, I thought, How can we use this? Well, it starts with the family-the team pulling together, supporting each other, picking each other up, and then modeling and displaying character under adversity. It’s easy to do it when everything’s going good. But things are going to happen in life.
“Obviously, we got hit. we got blindsided. We had no idea this was going to happen, no indication. It was a cheap shot.”
On the mat or in life, he demanded his guys show grit when tested.
“I created a family with high expectations for how you acted. You demonstrated character under adversity. You had to be tough. You had to demonstrate moxie. You had to bounce back. If you got knocked down, you had to get up.”
“I kept saying… to expect a miracle”
His boys didn’t let him down. But as hard as they were hit with their team and dream taken away, they were crushed. Naturally, in the aftermath, they looked to their coach for answers. Denney said, “They gave me this look like, ‘Fix this coach.'” Starting the very night the team got the heartbreaking news, right on through the regents sealing its fate, Denney kept his troops together.
“We tried to meet every day and just talk about things,” he said. “It was a significant kind of thing, really.”
In the process, he tried to give his guys some hope.
“I kept saying — and I don’t have any idea why, except I was just trying to keep them up I think — to expect a miracle. First of all, I said, it’s a miracle that we’ve been able to do this for all these years.”
Denney admittedly walked a fine line between keeping things positive and offering false hope, but he wasn’t going to rest without exhausting every opportunity to maintain his program — whether it be at UNO or somewhere else.
“Our whole thing when this first happened, our prayer was, let there be some way that we could somehow continue this thing,” he said. “So, I kept telling them, ‘Expect a miracle.’ They’d kind of look at me like, What are you saying that for? I was kind of having fun with it, keeping things light. You know, we’ve hit some adversity, but we can still laugh, we can enjoy each other, we’re going to make the best out of this deal.”
But it wasn’t only about staying upbeat. Even before the regents made it official and unanimously endorsed UNO’s decision to cut wrestling and football, Denney sent out feelers to other universities to try and find a new home for his program.
Creighton University, it turned out, might have been able to add the program if the timing had been different, but as it was CU was in a budget cutting mode. There were also tentative discussions with Bellevue University and Benedictine (Kansas) College.
Denney and wife Bonnie consoling each other after the Regents vote; photo from Lincoln Journal-Star
Just when it appeared all might be lost, Maryville University approached Denney. After much soul-searching and many exploratory visits, now he, Bonnie, a couple assistant coaches and 10 former Maverick student-athletes, plus some new recruits, are taking what’s left of the UNO wrestling brand to inaugurate that small private school’s first entree into varsity wrestling. It’s the only time in NCAA history one university has essentially adopted another university’s athletic program.
“This is a miraculous kind of story really,” said Denney. “That’s why we have to go there. Because of all the things that have happened to set this up, it’s almost like we’re divinely guided to go there. So, I guess, be careful what you ask for.”
Thus, at a time when most couples their age prepare for retirement, the Denneys find themselves starting all over again, at a new school, in an unfamiliar city. Except, they have been made to feel so welcome and wanted there that they expect the transition to calling Maryville and St. Louis home will be easier than they ever imagined.
Recently, the Denneys shared how the Maryville option came into focus and what it’s like to be moving onto this new, unexpected chapter in their lives.
It all began with a phone call, which is ironic because once the news broke about UNO wrestling being cut, Denney’s office phone was so deluged with calls neither he nor the message system could keep up. He hardly ever caught a call.
One day, he’d just finished meeting with his team, he said, “when I walked into my office and the phone was ringing and I thought, Well, at least i can get this one. So I picked it up and it was someone saying, ‘I”m Jeff Miller from Maryville University in St. Louis. I’m representing Maryville president Mark Lombardi.'” Miller told Denney that as part of Maryville moving from Division III to Division II it sought to add wrestling and saw UNO’s orphaned program as a ready-made fit.
Denney was skeptical at first. “I said, ‘If this is one of my friends, this is a cruel joke.’ About four times during the conversation, I said, ‘Who really is this?'”
The more Miller, a Maryville vice president, laid out his university’s interest, the more convinced Denney became this was no joke. Miller came right out and said Maryville wanted not only Denney but as many of his coaches and student-athletes as he could bring to come there and start a wrestling program.
“I was like, ‘Really?'”
The clincher, said Denney, was when Miller told him he was flying “up there” — to Omaha — to talk things over.
“So he flew up and we spent time talking at Anthony’s (the venerable southwest Omaha steakhouse that’s long been a UNO hangout). He said this opportunity has presented itself.”
“From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us”
The more Miller talked, the more Denney was convinced this was a one in a million chance come true to salvage a bad situation with something clear out of the blue.
It soon became clear to Denney Maryville had done its due diligence.
“This Jeff Miller studied our program,” he said. “They actually looked at some other things but they just didn’t feel like they fit. They felt like this fit for them somehow. From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us.”
After the rejection at UNO, it felt nice to be appreciated again.
“Since the new AD (Alberts) came, these last couple years we really felt we weren’t being embraced, let’s just put it that way. We just kind of pulled back into our own area,” said Denney. “But they (Maryville) did embrace us. It was kind of a great feeling. It felt really good, actually.”
In terms of facilities, Maryville can’t match UNO, at least right now. When the deal was struck with Denney, Maryville didn’t even have a wrestling room. A meeting room is being converted into one. By contrast, UNO had a state-of-the-art wrestling room built to Denney’s specifications and that he was justifiably proud of.
Bonnie said what Maryville lacks in tangibles it makes up for with intangibles.
“It is a change to go from UNO to that environment, but there’s something about that spirit and environment that makes you feel valued.”
Besides, it’s not so different from when Mike started at UNO. The facilities were so bad his first several years there he purposely avoided showing them to recruits. Over time, things improved. Bonnie sees the same thing happening at Maryville.
“I think it will be kind of fun to see it grow and change,” she said.
For a UNO wrestler or recruit to buy in to a start-up program in a new locale, “it took some imagination,” said Mike, to visualize what things will look like in the future.
Committing to wrestling is a big thing for Maryville. First, the school already had a full complement of sports. Next, as a D-III school it offered no athletic scholarships and its coaches were part time. Now, in D-II, it’s granting partial scholarships to student-athletes and its coaches are closer to full-time.
“They’re making a real step and you can feel the energy on campus,” said Denney, who’s been impressed on multiple visits there by the buildings going up and the programs being added. “They’ve got a little money and they’re looking for every way they can to build their university. It adds to their campus, it adds exposure for their university.”
Besides, he said, an athletic program can be a revenue producer simply via the out-of-state tuition it generates.
“It actually can be a profitable thing for them. They’re figuring out this is a good business venture. If you look at it business-wise, if you bring in 30 scholarship student-athletes, with an annual out of state tuition of $31,000 each…”
Denney’s miracle was delivered in a most unexpected way
Still, Denney said he wasn’t prepared to accept Maryville’s offer unless Bonnie wholeheartedly agreed to the move.
“First of all, I had to recruit her,” he said. “She’s the one who’s going to give up everything. She’s gotta leave everything — all of her friends, our church, our house of 35 years.”
Bonnie knew Mike wanted it, but everything was happening so fast she wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do.
“I didn’t want him to rush into anything,” she said. “We were still in shock, and they (Maryville) were coming on so strong. It’s like it had a life of its own. He took me down there and you get to this campus and the people down there are warm and nice, and I thought, You know, this is possible — I know it’s going to be difficult, but I feel it.”
And so she consented to the move with a philosophical attitude: “You have to say farewell to have that new beginning.”
“‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.'”
Denney liked the idea of playing the Pied Piper, but first he needed assurance enough of his guys were willing to follow him there to make it worthwhile.
“I kept telling Jeff (Miller), ‘We’re willing to go, we’re willing to do this thing, we feel like we’re called to do that. But I’m not going to do it if it’s just my wife and I. I’m not doing it just for us.’ I mean, really, we could just ride off into the sunset. We could make it. There’s a lot of things I could do, and we got offered some things to do, but none that I felt called to do.
“It’s not like I was looking to build up my resume.”
His passion to teach and build good people still burns bright, however.
“He’s no where ready to retire,” said Bonnie, adding he outworks assistants half or a third his age.
The Pied Piper next had to re-recruit his own wrestlers and their parents, or as many as he could, to make this leap of faith with him.
“We kind of sold them on it,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.’ I had to sense our guys wanted to help start the fire. I don’t know if you call it an obligation, but I want us to do well. They’ve been so good to us. I want us to make an impact on campus.
“We always said, ‘Let’s be a positive force.’ We’re going to do the same thing down there.”
After 32 years at UNO, Denney now heads the Maryville Saints wrestling program
Denney led several UNO contingents to visit Maryville, whose officials always took time to express how much they wanted them there.
Many factors went into determining whether it made sense or not for a UNO student-athlete to take the plunge. For example, geography. St. Louis would put some athletes an even longer distance from home and family. Too far in some cases. Then the academics had to mesh. One of UNO’s best returning wrestlers, Esai Dominguez, decided to bypass his final year of eligibility in order to remain at UNO and finish his engineering degree. And then there was cost. Maryville tuition is higher than UNO’s.
Transplanting the program is historic and given how stringent NCAA rules are, Denney said, “we’re starting to figure out why” it hadn’t been done before. UNO officials worked closely with their Maryville counterparts to make it work.
“Now get this, Maryville sent a whole team of admissions/financial aid people to Omaha,” said Denney. “We met at Anthony’s, and all day long our guys came in with their transcripts, and we tried to get all this to match up.”
“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization”
While Denney tried retaining as much of his wrestling family as possible, “the vultures” — recruiters from other programs — circled about, pouncing on UNO strays who were uncommitted or undecided. He finally had to release his wrestlers to talk to other schools and to make visits. Some of his best returnees left for other programs.
Most of his assistant coaches couldn’t justify the move either between career and family considerations.
In the end, Denney’s brought fewer with him than he would have liked, having to say goodbye to about two-thirds of his former team.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s hard, but you’ve just got to let them go,” said Denney. “Here’s what we feel good about though — we offered everyone of them an opportunity to go.”
Still, he’s brought with him a a stable of wrestlers and coaches who have competed at and won at the highest levels. It’s a transformational infusion of talent, attitude, standard and expectation at a school whose teams have mostly endured losing seasons.
Denney expects to win right away but is enough of a realist to say, “We’re back into a building process here.” It took years to build UNO into D-II’s preeminent program and it won’t be done overnight at Maryville.
He leaves no doubt though he’s committed to making the Maryville Saints wrestling program an elite one. And he seems to be giving himself eight years to do it, saying he’s always envisioned coaching and teaching 100 semesters or 50 years (high school and college combined), a figure he would reach at age 72. Beyond that, nothing’s for sure.
“As long as we can handle it,” said Bonnie. “As long as we don’t fall over at some tournament.”
Ron Higdon can hardly believe what his close friend and old boss is doing. “I have a whole new respect for what he’s taking on and the way he’s handled it and the energy he’s putting into it, because it’s unbelievable.”
Make no mistake about it, Denney’s heart still aches over how UNO did him and his program in, but he has moved on. He does, however, offer a cautionary note for those who so cavalierly discarded the legacy of UNO wrestling.
“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization,” he said. “You must keep it, you must do everything you can to keep it. You’re going to see the long term effects of this later on. That culture won’t last.
“What happens when you lose your tradition, your history, and you forget about it — then you don’t recognize it. You lose something, and sometimes you’ll never get it back.”
- Former UNI wrestler has Olympic goals after prison (thegazette.com)
- Two high school wrestlers post bond, released in sex assault (ajc.com)
- World medalist wrestler dies at age 36 (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Wrestling Futures (deegeesbb.wordpress.com)
- Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: The Charles Bryant Story (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness) (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero
I am a moderate baseball fan at best, but I am drawn to the stories behind the game and to the figures who animate it. One of the all-time great players, Roberto Clemente, made millions take notice of his baseball skills, which earned him a well-deserved spot in Cooperstown, but what he did off the field may be what he’s ultimately best remembered for. This little story for El Perico newspaper in Omaha takes a cursory look at the impact the late Roberto Clemente still has on people nearly 40 years after he tragically died at age 38 while attempting to carry out a humanitarian mission. The occasion for the story was a touring exhibition of his life that landed at El Museo Latino, and I simply asked a few folks in the local Latin community what Clemente’s legacy means to them. The exhibition continues through July 17.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente continues through July 17 as part of a 20-city tour.
It’s curated by Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico with the Carimar Design and Research studio and organized for touring by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The Smithsonian Latino Center is a sponsor.
When Pittsburgh Pirates great and Latin symbol Roberto Clemente died December 31, 1972, his native Puerto Rico wept. He was only 38. The grief extended throughout the Americas.
The first great Latino star in the big leagues, Clemente was a trailblazer who opened pathways for other Latin players to follow. He’s remembered as more than a magnificent athlete, but as a man of the people, devoted to his countrymen and Spanish-speakers worldwide.
He died when a plane he was aboard delivering relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims went down in the ocean. His body was never recovered. It was not the first time he acted as a humanitarian — he helped needy people in the United States and Central America and held free baseball clinics for children in Puerto Rico. After his death his wife and children have continued his work.
In recognition of his brilliant play in the outfield, at the plate and on the base paths, the usual five year waiting period for Hall of Fame consideration was waived and he was elected by an overwhelming majority into Cooperstown. The Roberto Clemente Award was established to salute Major League Baseball players who combine outstanding play and community service. The award, given annually since 1973, made Clemente the inaugural honoree.
His homeland is replete with stadiums and streets named after him. As a national hero, his image adorns homes of Puerto Ricans there and everywhere.
With Clemente’s legacy so strong, El Perico asked members of Omaha’s Puerto Rican community and others for lasting impressions.
Antonia Correa vividly recalls the news of his tragic death on the island, where Clemente’s aid mission to stricken Nicaraguans was well known. His sudden loss cast a pale over holiday celebrations.
“It was a major emotional thing,” she says. “It was sad twice because we lost him, someone everybody was passionate about, and because of his trip to help victims.”
Correa’s memory of Clemente is forever fixed in context of what he died doing. “I remember him as this face of humanity. I keep in my mind the face of this humble man eager to help others.”
Maria Valentin remembers “days of mourning Roberto” after his death. In life he was beloved because he never forgot his roots. “He was very proud of being a Puerto Rican,” says Valentin.
Beyond baseball success, his charitable work endeared him even more.
“He was young and he wanted to help, and he did it and we loved him in the process,” says Valentin. She notes that he’s revered as “a champion for human rights” and “a role model for kids, adding “He was ours. He created a legacy not only for him but for all of us Puerto Ricans, carrying the country along. His talent, his energy, his commitment to help people still remains within us.”
She says his example of overcoming discrimination to excel when he and other Latin and black players were treated as “second class” citizens is inspiring. “He broke barriers for the younger generation. The language, the color, the strange territory should not stop you once you have a dream, once you have a talent.”
Hector Santiago says Clemente is a rare figure who transcends eras to still inspire.
Acclaimed jazz artist Miguel Zenon, who played Omaha May 21, says Clemente’s place in history “really surpasses anything that has to do with sports or fame. He just took it to another level in terms of what he achieved as a human being.”
University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado says Clemente “presented for us the archetype of what we wish all humans do when given the immense gifts and skills he possessed…His dignified presence was equivalent to that of the icons of his age and his too-soon passing only served to remind us of what had been taken from us. He would have been the penultimate ambassador for sport and humanity to the Latin world.”
Special programs in conjunction with the exhibition include a lecture series, a baseball clinic and a celebration of Puerto Rican culture.
El Museo Latino is located at 4701 South 25th St. For details, call 402-731-1137 or visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org.
- El Museo Latino in Omaha Opened as the First Latino Art and History Museum and Cultural Center in the Midwest (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Review: “21”: The Story of Roberto Clemente (repeatingislands.com)
- Graphic biography of Puerto Rican Baseball great Roberto Clemente (repeatingislands.com)
Filmmaker Charles Fairbanks, aka the One-Eyed Cat, Makes Lucha Libre a Way of Life and a Favorite Film Subject
When I read about filmmaker Charles Fairbanks for the first time last year I was immediately taken by his story: how a rural Nebraska student-athlete turned artist become enamored with and immersed in the world of Mexican professional wrestling known as Lucha Libre, which he’s made the subject of some of his short films. Then when I delved further into his story, by exploring his website and watching some of his work, I knew I had to write about him. We met last summer, when his disarmingly sweet personality and thoughtful responses made me immediately like him. The following story I wrote about Fairbanks and his work appeared just before this year’s Omaha Film Festival, where one of his Lucha Libre films, Irma, was shown. Fairbanks is a serious artist whose work may or may not ever find a wide audience but is certainly deserving of it. I plan to follow his career and to see much more of his work as time goes by.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In the space of a few years Charles Fairbanks has gone from conventional prep and collegiate wrestler to one of the few gringo performers of Lucha Libre, Mexico’s equivalent of WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).
Amid a world of masked figures with exotic alter egos, Fairbanks performs as the One-Eyed Cat. It’s not what you’d expect from this cerebral, soft-spoken, fair-skinned rural Nebraska native. Then again, Fairbanks is an adventurous artist and art educator, which explains why he’s devoted much of the last nine years to Lucha Libre’s high-flying acrobatics and soap opera melodramatics.
Fairbanks, whose pretty boy face and chiseled body are in stark contrast to Jack Black in Nacho Libre, is a photographer and short filmmaker who loves wrestling. Naturally, then, he combines his passions as self-expression. He’s gone so far as affixing a video camera to his mask to record the action.
“Oh, I look silly,” he says of his third eye. “Other wrestlers laugh out loud but they’re always very welcoming. I make sure to establish a relationship before I walk in with a camera on my head.”
His documentary short Irma, an Omaha Film Festival selection, lyrically profiles Irma Gonzalez, a hobbled but still strong, proud former wrestling superstar and singer-songwriter who befriended him at Bull’s Gym on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Last fall Irma won the Best Short prize at the Coopenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. It’s shown at festivals worldwide, as have other works by Fairbanks, some of which, like Pioneers, have nothing to do with wrestling.
Intense curiosity brought him to Mexico in the first place. Oddly, he’d just abandoned organized wrestling. He was a state champion grappler at Lexington (Neb.) High, where his artistic side also flourished. His mat talent and academic promise earned a scholarship to Stanford University, where he wrestled two years before quitting the team.
He was touring Mexico on a rite-of-passage mission of self-discovery and enlightenment when he saw his first Lucha Libre match. He soon started shooting and practicing. He made still images that first trip and has since used video to capture stories.
“I just fell in love with this spectacle,” he says.
Bull’s Gym, located on an upper floor of a hilltop building, is his main dojo, sanctuary and set. It overlooks a cinematic backdrop.
“There’s something powerful for me in looking out at the miles of humble cinderblock housing spread out and up the ridges around Mexico City,” he says. “That view is very beautiful. With all the pollution the sunsets are very colorful. The airport is nearby and so you see the airplanes taking off.
“For me all of this magnifies and modulates the gym’s energy, which is really pretty fervent. There’s often boxing and wrestling going on at the same time in the same room. With all the activity, the ambient noise is really a roar.”
Lucha Libre has a near mystical hold on him now but he admits he originally regarded it as a lovely though bastard version of the wrestling he grew up with.
“At the time, as most competitive wrestlers in the U.S., I denied the connection,” he says. “I said, This is totally different. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I can accept the real links between competitive wrestling and show wrestling.”
Fairbanks, a Stanford art grad with a master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan, takes an analytical view of these kindred martial arts.
“There is a lot of overlap but at the same time I think they have very different philosophies embedded in them.”
Asking if Lucha Libre is fake misses the point. The visceral, in-the-moment experience is the only reality that matters.
“In my experience of Lucha Libre the matches themselves are not staged — you don’t know who’s going to win. You still maybe want to win, but it’s not just up to you,” he says. “You can’t just go for a pin. You really have to try to entertain. It’s very much like a dance. There’s a certain repertoire of moves my opponent and I know how to do together, and if I start to do one move you recognize this move and you actually respond in a certain way to help me do it more spectacularly.
“And then there are variations, where you’re doing something defensive that’s changing me, so it’s not my move anymore. As we go through this back and forth we establish these sort of rhythms.”
The unfolding dance, he says, is also “an improvised drama” marked by “waves of tension” and “a building of energies. One wrestler is dominating but then the tides turn and the other wrestler comes back. It’s not something scripted but you feel your way through.” The improvisation, he adds, extends to the referee, who “plays his part,” and to the crowd, “who play their part.”
Reared in the no-frills tradition of amateur wrestling, he says “it’s been really hard to learn this completely different way of thinking or feeling reality. I’m the first to say I haven’t mastered Lucha Libre. I’m not trying to make it big as a wrestler in Mexico. I’m trying to learn about wrestling.” He’s also a practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
He’s learned about Lucha Libre’s “built-in codes of honor” and “certain ways people present themselves publicly or don’t.” The wrestlers aren’t supposed to reveal their identity outside the ring. He’s made himself an exception.
“I feel OK transgressing this because I’m already marked as Other.”
In his Flexing Muscles some native wrestlers half-kiddingly harangue this outsider. “It’s very important to me they’re calling me gringo and saying, ‘Go back to your damned country,” he says, as it makes overt his interloper status. As deep as he’s tasted Mexican culture he knows he remains a visitor and observer.
“I’m really conscious of my differences from most of the people there in terms of nationality and economics,” he says.
He’s acutely aware too of his privileged “ability to come in and do this and then leave and go back to the States and make art out of this experience,” adding, “With my movies in a certain sense I try to build in the story of my being there and my relationship to the subjects.” He’s struck by how generous his subjects are in opening their lives and homes to him even as they struggle getting by.
Stranger or not, he engages the culture head-on.
“I do try to immerse myself very much in that world I’m living in, but without losing who I am. I never try to pretend to be Mexican. I try to get as close as I can and I try to understand, but from my point of view.”
Despite the obvious differences between Fairbanks and his fellow performers, he feels a reciprocal kinship, adding, “there’s a certain kind of camaraderie I feel with wrestlers anywhere.” Wherever he’s traveled, including Europe and Asia, he’s wrestled.
Fairbanks has seen much of Mexico but is largely centered in Mexico City and Chiapas, where he teaches filmmaking. He says, “I love to stay with families, I love to have local people to learn from and to interact with.”
Moments of zen-like meditation and magic realism lend his work poetic sensibility and cultural sensitivity. Irma‘s tough title character sings a ranchero in the ring while her circus performer granddaughters romp. In Pioneers Fairbanks lays hands over his father’s ailing back in a shamanistic healing ceremony. Enigmatic stuff.
“I like to make movies that invite more questions,” says Fairbanks, who participated in Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School and cut his chops working with veteran filmmakers in Brussels, Belgium. “I like to have the films be a process of discovery for the viewers — to not tell the viewers how to see this world — but also a sense of discovery for me as I’m making the films.”
Authenticity is his goal.
“For me it’s important I’m making movies in Mexico that convey a part of experience not covered by our news media.”
As for the future, he says, “I have very specific stories I want to tell in Mexico and in other countries, some related to wrestling, other types of wrestling, some not at all related to wrestling.”
Irma‘s Omaha Film Festival screening is 6 p.m. on March 3 at the Great Escape Theatre as part of the Striking a Chord block of Nebraska documentary shorts.
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