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Radio DJ-actor-singer Dave Wingert, in the spotlight

August 25, 2010 28 comments

Microphone stands in spotlight

Image by kjeik via Flickr

 

UPDATE I: I have been noticing a major uptick in views of this Dave Wingert profile and I think at one point I even Googled his name to see if he was in the news, but I didn’t find anything. But the views kept right on aggregating. I just happened to email him Oct. 17 about something totally unrelated to this and he informed me he has been summarily let go by KGOR. Obviously a lot of you out there who listened to him knew about the situation. Apparently the dust-up had to do with an FCC violation – a listener calling-in unloosed a forbidden expletive on air that seems pretty tame to me and my ears, “bullshit,” and Wingy let it through and tried covering his ass just as you or I might do — and after serving a suspension he got canned for his trouble. Please explain how the many obscenities (and I don’t just mean words) of reality TV and shock-jock radio are acceptable, even in prime time, and yet its producers, writers, and hosts only seem to get richer, but a stray “bullshit” said over the radio is grounds for termination? He tells me he was fired without severance, only a goodbye and good luck. He wants to stay put and continue doing his radio gigging in Omaha. He and his agent are busily testing the waters. I hope he gets his wish and perhaps a measure of revenge against the station that dismissed him by killing them in the ratings.

UPDATE II: The story finally made the news, though the reports have him uttering the expletive. Does it really matter? I find it interesting that I broke the story via my blog Monday morning and yet that there was no mention by the Omaha World-Herald or other media of getting a lead on this news from this source and/or from readers of this blog, but I assume that’s precisely what happened.

UPDATE III: After fielding dozens of comments and questions about Wingert’s firing, I am happy to report what some of you probably already know – he’s landed at a new radio home in Omaha, KOOO-FM, 101.9, where he will be the morning host beginning Monday, Jan. 30.  The station plays hits from the 1970s through today and targets a 25-54 demographic.  Does this mean his loyal listeners from KGOR, many of them upset by the way he was let go, will follow him to the new station and boost its ratings?  I wonder how many listeners spurned KGOR in the aftermath of his firing?  Oh, well, all water under the bridge now.  He’s back in the saddle again and if his fans want to hear him they know where to find him.

In my 52 years in Omaha, Neb. I am aware of only a few entertainers and personalities who can compare with Dave Wingert, a multi-talented gentleman who makes whatever medium he’s working in, whether radio or television or theater or cabaret, appear effortless. Those of us who have been around the block a time or two know from experience that things only appear effortless from the outside looking in, and that that apparent ease is only arrived after tremendous study and work. After admiring Wingert from afar for so many years it was a delight to finally meet him and get to know him a bit.  I trust you will like the man I portray in this article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) as much as I do.

 

Radio DJ-actor-singerDave Wingert, in the spotlight

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The words fearless and morning radio personality don’t usually jive but they do in the case of Clear Channel KGOR 99.9-FM wake-up man Dave Wingert. Far from the madding crowd of shock jocks the veteran broadcaster and stage actor is brave enough to simply be himself on air. Enervating, effusive, empathetic, effeminate.

He’s gallant enough to have accepted the fact his biological father no sooner saw him as a newborn infant than went home and killed himself. His mother laid that messed-up heritage on him when he was a teenager.

“What do you with that?” Wingert asked rhetorically in an interview. What he did was learn all he could about his father, a man who was the love of his mother’s life but who also suffered from manic depression. The revelation of how he died came just as Wingert began pursuing radio and theater at Ohio University. That’s when he discovered his father had worked in those same fields in New York. Weird.

Wingert’s resilient enough to have survived a bullet to the chest in Omaha’s most famous shooting spree until the Van Maur tragedy. In 1977 he and Larry Williams had just begun their cabaret act before a packed house at now defunct Club 89 when Ulysses Cribbs opened fire with a 12-gauge shotgun. In a few seconds rampage that seemed to last forever the gunman killed one and injured 26, including Wingert, who luckily had the round deflect off his chest.

Superman went on the air the next day helping a city heal. He did the same after the Van Maur shootings. The earlier experience was a lesson in how precious life is. “Since that day I try not to take that for granted,” he said. A recent stalking incident made him relive some of that chaos. “Mr. Crazy” made veiled threats before being arrested. Wingert never missed a show.

A triple-threat actor/singer/dancer, he’s daring enough to take on demanding roles requiring huge commitments of time and energy. “I’m drawn to material, content,” he said. Recent roles in Six Degrees of SeparationUrinetown and The Goat fit the bill. Blue Barn Theatre artistic director Susan Clement Toberer, who directed him in Six Degrees andGoat, said, “His work ethic is purely professional yet he is very willing to try anything at least once. I love working with actors like Dave who are fearless and willing to jump off a ledge and not worry if they look the fool.”

 

 

Dave Wingert

 

 

He’s courageous enough to be an openly gay announcer in Omaha. Not in a flaming, militant way but with a breezy, emotive patter and Jewish motherly demeanor. By addressing, on-air, overtly heterosexual newsman Rich Dennison with, “Oh, honey!,” or female callers with, “Dahling.” He doesn’t use the show as a coming out platform but rather as context for being true to who he is.

“I have come out — if you listen for it. But it comes out in conversation. I haven’t made it a banner,” he said.

Three years ago Wingert showed the courage of his convictions by abandoning his dream for large market radio fame, which had led him from Omaha to the west coast, to venture back here in search of a permanent home to call his own.

More recently, Wingert proved he has the guts to leave a prime gig as a protest. In a show of solidarity with Omaha Community Playhouse artists who’d earlier resigned he and two fellow cast members deserted a production of Moonlight and Magnolias days before its scheduled opening last month. He, Ben Burkholtz and Connie Lee refused to go on in response to a dispute at the theater that led to the temporary departures of Playhouse artistic director Carl Beck, who directed Moonlight, and associate Susan Baer Collins. When Wingert and Co. exited, the show was canceled and Billy McGuigan booked as a fill-in.

Beck appreciated the gesture.

“I was terribly surprised and terribly moved. It received a lot of varied reaction around the city. Some people very much horrified actors would do that. Others, understanding what motivated the actors. I know those actors were taking an uncomfortable positiion and so I admire them seeing it through the way they have.”

Some may view what Wingert did as a grandstanding ploy that undermined the theater. Others, as the loyal action of a man guided by integrity. Either way, Wingert didn’t sit idly by while Rome burned.

Prompting this soap opera was a blunt force effort by executive director Tim Schmad and board president Mark Laughlin to bridge a budget shortfall. The pair reportedly told Beck and Collins their duties and salaries would be reduced. Beck and Collins balked and submitted their resignations. Insiders say it was a classic case of bean counters versus artists.

Once the story broke angry theater supporters deluged the Playhouse with calls and emails. Schmad and Laughlin faced the music at an April 16 open forum that announced the restoration of Beck and Collins to their original posts.

Wingert attended the session, which saw people rant against OCP administrators for what many viewed as their insensitivity, but the actor remained silent. Aside from a comment to a television reporter about Schmad’s well-publicized and much-derided lack of arts experience, Wingert let his actions speak for him.

“What’s really behind this is I keep a list of what I want to be here and do here and one is to make a difference, and this made such a huge difference as it played out,” said Wingert. “I think of that. I guess you could call it a protest. It was saying, ‘You can’t treat my friends this way, this is wrong, you can’t do this.’ It was all about people for me,” said Wingert, who’d worked with Beck before.

 

 

Wingert at a script reading

 

 

What impact the Wingert-led walkout made in causing Playhouse leaders to rethink their decision no one knows. While Beck and Collins are back on the job Moonlight never made it to curtain, unless you count the fully-dressed and lit but empty set that served as backdrop for the rancorous public forum. A fitting symbol for a show that would not go on in a house divided. Wingert equates what happened to a dysfunctional family airing out some issues.

“I think it’s much like a family having a blowup.”

He said “going to the brink” may have been just the “cathartic” awakening the complacent theater, which has lost much of its membership, needed in order to get both the business and art sides on the same page.

“I see this as all really good for the Playhouse, I really do,” said Wingert. “If this is a situation that has been brewing for some time than the place deserves to implode, it needs to get its shit together. Only time will tell.”

He feels the events that led to Moonlight being canceled sent a message to the Playhouse administration.

“It was more important not to do this show for the reasons we didn’t do it than to get on stage,” said Wingert, who refused overtures from management he reconsider his walkout. “Maybe it wasn’t meant to live.”

Still, he rues losing Moonlight. The play looks at a frantic few days in the making of Gone with the Wind. Wingert went after the plum role of screenwriter Ben Hecht, whose biography’s telling of these true-to-life events inspired the stage comedy. There’s discussion of finding new play dates for Moonlight but that may be difficult given the theater’s tight schedule. Wingert can hope though.

“I would love to play that part,” he said. “It’s so rich and fun.” Wingert said he initially had trouble finding Hecht’s voice, the instrument the actor relies on for fixing in on his characters. Once he did, he said, he “nailed the part.” What he hit upon, he said, was a wry, Woody Allenish, New Yorker smarty pants whine. “That voice had never come out of my mouth before.”

 

 

His real-life voice is a warm, mellifluous, inflection-rich concoction hinting at his Bensonhurst-Brooklyn background. It’s not hard to imagine this same voice charming listeners, especially when married with his dynamic personality. He seduces without resorting to blow-hard political agenda, cutesy alter-ago or phony banter. A more theatrical voice comes out for dramatic-comedic affect. “Well, radio lends itself to that, especially if you’re telling a story,” he said. “I mean, it is of course a little bit of extenuated realism there. There’s a bit of schtick.”

He projects a vaugely Jewish vibe, too, as the friendly mensch who says, “let’s check the morning schlep,” or, “love to schmooze with you.”

Filling time between playing what KGOR tags “the super hits of the the ‘60s and ‘70s” he indulges in canned jokes provided by a syndicator of prefab material. Most commercial stations subscribe to such services. The bits, mostly satiric pot shots at headline grabbers like OctaMom, stand on their own but work best when a host can riff on them. If nothing else, Wingert’s an extemporaneous whiz whose decades of live radio and theater experience make improvisation second nature to him.

It’s why he does his show, not from a chair but standing up, moving around, much the way he works on stage.

“I do my show standing up because I think best on my feet. It gives me more more energy.

Quiana Smith’s Dream Time

August 22, 2010 2 comments

My good acquaintances Rudy and Llana Smith have a daughter named Quiana who has inherited their talent and drive and gone them one further by pursuing and realizing her dream of a musical theater career in New York.  This profile of Quiana for The Reader (www.thereader.com) expresses this dynamic young woman’s heart and passion.  It’s been a few years since I’ve spoken with her, and I’m eager to find out what she’s been up to lately, and how she and her father are coming along on a book project about African-American stage divas.  Quiana is to write it and Rudy, a professional photographer, is to shoot it. Her mother, Llana, is a theater person, too — writing and directing gospel plays.  My story on Llana Smith is posted on this site and I will soon be adding a story I did on Rudy Smith. They are a remarkable family.

 

High Res Can't get enough of Q. Smith. Photo by David Wells.

 

©photo by David Wells

 

Quiana Smith’s Dream Time

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Once the dream took hold, Quiana Smith never let go. Coming up on Omaha’s north side she discovered a flair for dramatics and a talent for singing she hoped would lead to a musical theater career. On Broadway. After a steady climb up the ladder her dream comes true tomorrow when a revival of Les Miserables open at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Q. Smith, as her stage name reads, is listed right there in the program, as a swing covering five parts, a testament to her versatility.

Before Les Miz is over Smith will no doubt get a chance to display her big, bold, brassy, bodacious self, complete with her shaved head, soaring voice, infectious laugh and broad smile. Her Broadway debut follows featured roles in the off-Broadway Fame On 42nd Street at NY‘s Little Shubert Theater in 2004 and Abyssinia at the North Shore Theater (Connecticut) in 2005. Those shows followed years on the road touring with musical theater companies or doing regional theater.

Fame’s story about young performers’ big dreams resonated for Smith and her own Broadway-bound aspirations. As Mabel, an oversized dancer seeking name-in-lights glory, she inhabited a part close to her ample self, projecting a passion akin to her own bright spirit and radiating a faith not unlike her deep spirituality. In an Act II scene she belted out a gospel-inspired tune, Mabel’s Prayer, that highlighted her multi-octave voice, impassioned vibrato and sweet, sassy, soulful personality. In the throes of a sacred song like this, Smith retreats to a place inside herself she calls “my secret little box,” where she sings only “to God and to myself. It’s very, very personal.” Whether or not she gets on stage this weekend in Les Miz you can be sure the 28-year-old will be offering praise and thanksgiving to her higher power.

It all began for her at Salem Baptist Church, where her grandmother and mother, have written and directed gospel plays for the dramatic ministry program. At her mother Llana’s urging, Smith and her brothers sang and acted as children. “My brothers got really tired of it, but I loved the attention, so I stuck with it,” said Smith, who began making a name for herself singing gospel hymns, performing skits and reciting poetry at Salem and other venues. She got attention at home, too, where she’d crack open the bathroom window and wail away so loud and finethat neighborhood kids would gather outside and proclaim,  “You sure can sing, Quiana” “We were just a real creative house,” said Quiana’s mother.

Quiana further honed her craft in classes at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre and, later, at North High School, where music/drama teacher Patrick Ribar recalls the impression Smith made on her. “The first thing I noticed about Quiana was her spark and flair for the stage. She was so creative…so diverse. She would do little things to make a part her own. I was amazed. She could hold an audience right away. She has such a warmth and she’s so fun that it’s hard not to like her.”

Still, performing was more a recreational activity than anything else. “Back then, I never knew I wanted to do this as a career,” Smith said. “I just liked doing it and I liked the great response I seemed to get from the audience. But as far as a career, I thought I was going to be an archaeologist.”

She was 15, and a junior at North, when her first brush with stardom came at the old Center Stage Theatre. She saw an audition notice and showed up, only to find no part for a black girl. She auditioned anyway, impressing executive director Linda Runice enough to be invited back to tryout for a production of Dreamgirls. The pony-tailed hopeful arrived, in jeans and sweatshirt, sans any prepared music, yet director Michael Runice (Linda’s husband) cast her as an ensemble member.

Then, in classic a-star-is-born fashion, the leading lady phoned-in just before rehearsal the night before opening night to say she was bowing out due to a death-in-the-family. That’s when Mike Runice followed his instinct and plucked Smith from the obscurity of the chorus into a lead role she had less than 24 hours to master.

“It was like in a movie,” Smith said. “The director turned around and said to me, ‘It’s up to you, kid.’ I don’t know why he gave it to me to this day. You should have seen the cast. It was full of talented women. I was the youngest.” And greenest. Linda Runice said Smith got it because “she was so talented. She had been strongly considered for the role anyway, but she was so young and it’s such a demanding role. But she was one of those rare packages who could do it all. You saw the potential when she hit the stage, and she just blew them out of the theater.”

What began as a lark and segued into a misadventure, turned into a pressure-packed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not only did an already excited and scared Smith have precious little time to steel herself for the rigorous part and for the burden of carrying a show on her young shoulders, there was still school to think about, including finals, not to mention her turning sweet 16.

“The director wrote me a note to let me out of school early and he came to pick me up and take me to the theater. From 12 to 8, I was getting fitted for all the costumes, I was learning all the choreography, I was going over all the line readings, I was singing all the songs, and it was just crazy. A crash course.”

Smith pushed so hard, so fast to nail the demanding music in time for the show that she, just as the Runices feared, strained her untrained voice, forcing her to speak many of the songs on stage. That opening night is one she both savors and abhors. “That was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “It was the best thing because if it wasn’t for that experience I’d probably be digging up fossils somewhere, which isn’t bad, but I wouldn’t be fulfilled. And it was the worst because I was so embarrassed.”

In true trouper tradition, Smith and the show went on. “What a responsiblity she carried for someone so young, and she carried it off with all the dignity and aplomb anyone could ever want,” Linda Runice said. Smith even kept the role the entire run. The confidence she gained via this baptism-by-fire fueled her ambition. “I told myself, If I can do this, I can do anything,” Smith said. Runice remembers her “as this bubbly, fresh teenager who was going to set the world on fire, and she has.”

To make her Broadway debut in Les Miz is poetic justice, as that show first inspired Smith’s stage aspirations. She heard songs from it in a North High music class and was really bit after seeing a Broadway touring production of it at the Orpheum.

“It was my introduction to musical theater. I fell in love with it,” she said. “I already had a double cassette of the cast album and I would listen to this song called ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ over and over. It was sung by Patti Lapone. I tried to teach myself to sing like that. When I finally met her last year I told her the story. That song is still in my audition book.”

Smith dreamed of doing Lez Miz in New York. Ribar recalls her telling him soon after they met, “‘One day I’m going to be on Broadway…’ She was bound and determined. Nothing was going to stop her. So, she goes there, and the next thing you know…she’s on Broadway. With her determination and talent, you just knew she was right on the edge of really brilliant things in her life. I brag about her to the kids as someone who’s pursued her dream,” he said. Stardom, he’s sure, isn’t far off. “Once the right role shows up, it’s a done deal.”

A scholarship led her to UNO, where she studied drama two years. All the while, she applied to prestigious theater arts programs back east to be closer to New York. Her plans nearly took a major detour when, after an audition in Chicago, she was accepted, on the spot, by the Mountview Conservatory in London to study opera. Possessing a fine mezzo soprano voice, her rendition of an Italian aria knocked school officials out. She visited the staid old institution, fell in love with London, but ultimately decided against it. “The opera world, to me, isn’t as exciting and as free as the musical theater world is,” she said. “Besides, it was a two or three-year conservatory program, and I really wanted the whole college experience to make me a whole person.”

Her musical theater track resumed with a scholarship to Ithaca (NY) College, where she and a classmate became the first black female grads of the school’s small theater arts program. She also took private voice and speech training. At Ithaca, she ran into racial stereotyping. “When I first got there everybody expected you to sing gospel or things from black musicals,she said. “Everything was black or white. And I was like, It doesn’t have to be like that. I can do more than gospel. I can do more than R&B. I can do legit. I really had to work hard to prove myself.”

Her experience inspired an idea for a book she and her father, Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith, are collaborating on. She interviews black female musical theater actresses to reveal how these women overturn biases, break down barriers and open doors. “We’re rare,” she said of this sisterhood. “These women are an inspiration to me. They don’t take anything from anybody. They’re divas, honey. Back in the day, you would take any part that came to you because it was a job, but this is a new age and we are allowed to say, No. In college, I would have loved to have been able to read about what contemporary black females are doing in musical theater.” Her father photographs the profile subjects.

She’s had few doubts about performing being her destiny. One time her certainty did falter was when she kept applying for and getting rejected by college theater arts programs. She sought her dad’s counsel. “I said, ‘Dad…how do I know this is for me?’ He was like, ‘Sweetheart, it’s what you breath, right?’ It’s what you go to bed and wake up in the morning thinking about, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah…’ ‘OK, then, that’s what you should be doing.’ And, so, I never gave up. I kept on auditioning and I finally got accepted to Ithaca.”

 

 

 

 

Smith has worked steadily since moving to the Big Apple. Her credits include speaking-singing parts in productions of Hair at the Zachary Scott Theatre and The Who’s Tommy at the Greenwich St. Theatre and performing gigs in five touring road shows. Those road trips taught her a lot about her profession and about herself. On a months-long winter tour through Germany with the Black Gospel Singers, which often found her and her robed choir mates performing in magnificent but unheated cathedrals, she got in touch with her musical-cultural heritage. “Gospel is my roots and being part of the gospel singers just brought my roots back,” she said.

New York is clearly where Smith belongs. “I just feel like I’ve always known New York. I always dreamed about it. It was so easy and comfortable when I first came here,” she said. “Walking the streets alone at 1 a.m., I felt at home, like it was meant to be. It’s in my blood or something.”

Until Fame and now Les Miz, New York was where she lived between tours. Her first of two cross-country stints in Smokey Joe’s Cafe proved personally and professionally rewarding. She understudied roles that called for her to play up in age, not a stretch for “an old soul” like Smith. She also learned lessons from the show’s star, Gladys Knight. “She was definitely someone who gave it 100 percent every night, no matter if she was hoarse or sick, and she demanded that from us as well,” Smith said, “and I appreciated that. The nights I didn’t go on, I would go out into the audience and watch her numbers and she just blew the house down every single night. And I was like, I want to be just like that. I learned…about perseverance and about dedication to the gift God has given you.”

For a second Smokey stint, starring Rita Coolidge, Q. was a regular cast member. Then, she twice ventured to Central America with the revues Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber andBlues in the Night. “That’s an experience I’ll never forget,” she said. “We went to a lot of poor areas in Guatemala and El Salvador. People walk around barefoot. Cows are in the road. Guns are all around. We performed in ruins from the civil wars. And there we were, singing our hearts out for people who are hungry, and they just loved it. It was a life-changing experience.”

She loves travel but loves performing more in New York, where she thinks she’s on the cusp of something big. “It’s a dream come true and I truly believe this is just the beginning,” said Smith, who believes a higher power is at work. “I know it’s not me that’s doing all this stuff and opening all these doors so quickly, because it’s taken some people years and years to get to this point. It’s nothing but the Lord. I have so much faith. That’s what keeps me in New York pursuing this dream.”

While not a headliner with her name emblazoned on marquees just yet, she’s sure she has what it takes to be a leading lady, something she feels is intrinsic in her, just waiting for the chance to bust on out. “I’m a leading lady now. I’m a leading lady every day. Yes, I say that with confidence, and not because I’m so talented,” she said. “It’s not about having a great voice. It’s not about being a star. It’s about how you carry yourself and connect with people. It’s about having a great aura and spirit and outlook on life… and I think I’ve got that”

Her busy career gives Smith few chances to get back home, where she said she enjoys “chilling with my family and eating all the good food,” but she makes a point of it when she can. She was back in September, doing a workshop for aspiring young performers at the Hope Center, an inner city non-profit close to her heart. She also sang for a cousin’s wedding at Salem. On some breaks, she finds time to perform here, as when featured in her mother’s Easter passion play at Salem in 2004. She’d like one day to start a school for performing arts on the north side, giving children of color a chance to follow their own dreams.

Occasionally, a regional theater commitment will bring her close to home, as when she appeared in a summer 2005 production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coatin Wichita. Despite lean times between acting-singing gigs, when she works with aspiring youth performers for the Camp Broadway company, Smith keeps auditioning and hoping for the break that lands her a lead or featured part on Broadway, in film or on television. She’s not shy about putting herself out there, either. She went up for a role opposite Beyonce in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls, the other show she dreams of doing on Broadway. She can see it now. “Q. Smith starring in…” She wants it all, a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy. A career acting, singing, writing, directing, teaching and yes, even performing opera.

Smith’s contracted for the six-month run of Les Miz. Should it be extended, she may face a choice: stay with it or join the national touring company of The Color Purple, which she may be in line for after nearly being cast in the Broadway show.

That said, Smith is pursuing film/TV work in L.A. after the positive experience of her first screen work, a co-starring role in the Black Entertainment Network’s BETJ mini-series, A Royal Birthday. The Kim Fields-directed project, also being packaged as a film, has aired recently on BET and its Jazz off-shoot. A kind of romantic comedy infomercial for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the project also features Gary Dourdan from CSI and gospel artist David Hollister.

The Royal Birthday shoot, unfolding on two separate Caribbean cruises, whet her appetite for more screen work and revealed she has much to learn. “It was absolutely beautiful. We went horseback riding, para-sailing, jet-skiing. I had never done any of those things,” she said. “I learned a lot about acting for the camera, too. I’m very theatrical, very animated in it. It doesn’t need to be that big.”

Should fame allude her on screen or on stage, she’s fine with that, too, she said, because “I’m doing something I truly love.” Besides, she can always find solace in that “little secret box” inside her, where it’s just her and God listening to the power of her voice lifted on high. Sing in exaltation.

Photographer Monte Kruse pushes boundaries

August 22, 2010 4 comments

Camera lens. Derivative of File:Camara.jpg

Image via Wikipedia

I first wrote about Omaha photographer Monte Kruse more than 20 years ago, and even in all the intervening years and stories and personalities I’ve come across, he still rates as one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve ever met.  One day I will post that story, as it’s always been one of my favorites — I think because of the subject and for the way I captured the essence of his otherness.  Monte definitely marches to his own drummer. Like a lot of creatives, some can find him strange or difficult, but that’s just Monte being Monte.  Of his talent, there is no question.  When I encountered that first time he was doing great humanistic work and as I recall more or less living out of his car, flitting between places and assignments.  He’s come a long way since then.  The last time I ran into him, which was for the following story, he had a downtown loft that served as both residence and studio.  I believe he’s still there, but I don’t know for sure.  What I do know for sure is that wherever Monte lands he’ll always find a way to do things his own way.

This blog also contains stories of mine about several other Omaha-based photographers, including Jim Hendrickson and Don Doll, who are friends and mentors of Kruse, as well as Rudy Smith, Larry Ferguson, and David Radler.  By the end of the year I will be posting a major piece on 2010 World Photographer of the Year Jim Krantz. Additionally, the blog features pieces on many filmmakers, including Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler, Dana Altman, Jon Jost,  John Landis, Joan Micklin Silver, Gail Levin, and Charles Fairbanks.

 

Photographer Monte Kruse pushes boundaries

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When Omaha photographer Monte Kruse muses about his darkly erotic work “pushing the limits” and getting “him noticed” he sounds every bit the impetuous artist that he is. A sensualist in his life and in his art, Kruse makes striking nude images that actually fulfill his expressed intention to “stretch the bounds” with “edgy work” that elicits strong responses from viewers.

The large-format black-and-white images, which explore the male and female body in evocative contexts, have attracted the very attention he seeks via a slate of local gallery showings displaying his work and the recent gift of one of his prints, Debris IV, to the Joslyn Art Museum permanent collection. While holding court at an Old Market bistro one spring night, the enigmatic Kruse discussed what lies behind the improvisational approach and primal effect he has hit upon with his latest series of nudes.

“I was making money shooting standard portraits but I said to myself, ‘I’m not doing anything that stirs interest or makes people think. How can I do that?’ And I thought, ‘Well, the best way to do it is to photograph the nude, but not the classical nudes of beautiful bodies entwined on a beach with the ocean in the background. Instead, I wanted to do something more like snapshots — images that come out of found moments that have some mystery to them.’ So, I looked at a lot of film noir. I liked the darkness and the moodiness of it. The mystery of it. The detective-style quality to it. And that’s what I was searching for,” he said that night above the din of the busy bistro.

 

 

Un-habitat for Humanity

Photographer Monte Kruse’s new series of Hummel Park images is featured in the November exhibit at Connect Gallery. His ‘Incredilble Likeness of Being’ seen above focuse on his theme of mankind’s collision with nature.

 

 

 

The result, he explained, “is photojournalism, combined with mystery writing, imbued with a mood. It’s the kind of work not typically seen. It’s not real pretty. It’s dark, it’s personal, it’s edgy. It’s not so much about the person as it is the moment — the specific truth of the moment. I don’t want anything posed. I go in without any preconceived ideas, except to bring out a certain element of intrigue. It’s like a diary. It’s my experience with that person in that moment. There’s one like that of me and my girlfriend naked in a hotel room. It just happened. Another time, someone I was with took a shower and, boom, I shot it. Once, in a hotel, a person opened a window across the way and I said, ‘That’s it — I’ve got a photograph.’”

Striving for verisimilitude, Kruse often uses found locations and objects rather than sets or props, relying on available light and “a gut feeling.” When not shooting in a studio, he employs minimal artificial lighting and staging. The idea, he said, is to let the process be as natural and instinctive as possible. “I’m photographing without safety nets. I don’t want to do things that are going to be perfect. I don’t want to have it all sketched out. The more off-handed I get, the better I get. I let the subconscious free. I want to be surprised by my own images. The whole thing is just moving and keeping your energy flow up and shooting different angles and not being afraid to take chances. It’s like jazz — it moves from one thing to another. It’s free-flowing. It just goes.”

Later that same night in the Old Market Kruse retreated to his spacious Bemis loft apartment/studio, where he showed some acquaintances the very pictures he was describing. Upon seeing the pulp-fiction-like images, the assembled agreed the photos capture private, unguarded moments suggestive of any number of storylines or histories.

Snapped amid such naturalistic settings as bedrooms and bathrooms, the images offer views of nude individuals and couples in intimate, impromptu moments of a post-coital nature, although nothing overtly sexual is revealed: the shape of a voluptuous woman leaning with a nonchalant attitude in a hallway; a half-glimpsed man standing over a woman lying on her back in bed, gently stroking her pelvis; a well-hung man descending a staircase; a woman with a full bush getting dressed. The pictures, both stark and dreamy, offer a post-modernist’s view of the human form and make the viewer acutely aware of his/her role as voyeur and as purveyor of certain attitudes.

Janet Farber, associate curator of 20th century art at Joslyn Art Museum, said, where images of “the traditional nude” focus “on the beauty or the form of the human body in an isolated context,” Kruse’s images explore the nude in “contextual-narrative” ways that imply certain socio-psychological-sexual dynamics. She said his interest in evoking an atmosphere imbued with subtext is achieved in various ways.

“He’s really paying attention to the range of tones and the intensity of black and white. He creates a tension within the image that allows room for the viewer to bring something to it or add something to it in terms of the implied action. One of the ways he does that is by leaving important bits of information out. Quite often his models are anonymous or somehow their identity obscured. I think that’s part of the effect that brings into play the imagination of the viewer.”

Kruse said his increasing output of male nudes, which has included pictures of gay men interacting, compel people to confront things they may rather avoid, such as homophobia. “I’m not necessarily trying to shoot provocative images, but let’s just say the male nude is always something a little bit scarier. Anytime people see the male nude then all of a sudden there’s the assumption that you or the subject is gay, which doesn’t matter. People are going to bring those attitudes. But with my new series I’m trying to evoke some political questions about what love is and isn’t and what’s wrong with viewing the male body and what’s wrong with the gay culture. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with it.”

He said by presenting the male nude in different ways, he hopes people see beyond questions of sexual proclivity and instead view the male body as a natural and legitimate subject and one not yet exploited or perverted like the image of the female body. “When people ask, ‘Why are you interested in the male nude?, I say, ‘Well, because it’s beautiful.’ The female nude has been done to death. It’s a cliche. The male body has just as much validity as the female body. It’s just me pushing the parameters a bit. I take these snapshot-like images and blow them up into huge prints that people are forced to confront on a wall, where they’ll love it, hate it, whatever.”

Carol McCabe, who has printed many images by Kruse at her Professional Darkroom Services, said she saw the artist go through a phase where he ratcheted up the emotional tenor of his work to the point of shock value. She said where his work was once “more literal and straightforward” it now displays a “much more formal, sophisticated” and subtle interplay between elements in tension, whether shades of light and dark or moments of action and repose.

She said while “there’s a lot of physical power in the images, a big piece of what he wants to do is create ambiguity, as seen by his interest in androgyny. I think he pushes the envelope with his work more than anyone else I’ve seen in Omaha. He brings a passion and honesty and compassion to his work that makes people respond.” McCabe said Kruse is also meticulous, going to great pains to study how master visual artists have used light and paying close attention to every detail in the darkroom.

During a recent shoot in a side corridor at the Bemis building where he resides, Kruse photographed a nude male in a series of primal, pent-up “action” scenes against the backdrop of a brick wall. Beyond some minimal track lighting overhead, the only fill light Kruse brought to the location was something he calls “my genius light.”

Without any firm idea of what he would shoot, Kruse tried conjuring some compelling image into being out of thin air. He moved everywhere in the tight space, searching for angles, compositions, shadows, texture, depth, mood, feeling. He had the model, Greg, try any number of clinging, crouching stances along the wall, having him insinuate his body like a snake slithering across a rock face. In some cases he had Greg hoist himself up on a lead pipe and then twist his body and turn his face from the lens. In others, he had him make like he was scaling the wall, ala Spider-man, or else like a cat burglar or prowler caught with his pants down.

 

 

 

 

In a photo session Kruse charms his model like the seducer he is in order to get the results he wants. “You’ve got to be able to read people. You have to become their friend for that moment. You have to develop that trust. You have to be alert. You have to be open. You have to take risks.” he noted. In an almost constant patter, he reassures and directs his subject: “Beautiful, hold it right there. Bring your legs down. Bring ‘em up. Now, a little bit further down. Throw your head back. Yeah, that’s it. It’s gorgeous.” He also exchanges quips. “You kind of look like Jesus up there,” he told Greg, who at the time clung from a wall with his arms splayed out. “I’m feeling a lot like him right now,” answered a flushed Greg.

A frequent model for Kruse is Claudia Einecke, Curator of European Art at the Joslyn. Recently, she dropped over Kruse’s place while he was shooting painter Helen Braugh. After finishing with the petite and politely British brunette Braugh, he turned his attention to the sleek, blond Einecke, a German emigree who oozes a pouty sexuality without trying. As she nonchalantly sat on the arm of an easy chair, hands propped on her knees and long legs opened, Kruse clicked away from the floor with his Canon AE-1 camera. He also favors a Pentax 645.

Einecke described what it’s like being the object of his intense gaze: “Although it looks like he’s just waiting for something to happen,” she said, “there is an energy and a tension there because he’s making those things happen. It’s always impressive and interesting to see Monte at work and the concentration he brings to it. He’s always looking for the unplanned. Usually, his best photos come out of moments he recognizes that you and I would probably not see as photographs. Monte reminds me that at first I thought his new work was just awful, but now that I’ve gotten used to these images there are some that I think are really lyrical, beautiful and gentle.”

In some recent images, Kruse goes for extremities — capturing the taut muscles and bulging veins of, for example, Greg straining to support himself at the Bemis. “Where before I was dealing in found moments,” Kruse said, “now I’m trying to step-up the intensity. I’m after something real urban, real dark, real menacing. I’m pushing the model to the extremes. I’m capturing the pain, the tension, the exertion, the danger. I want to make it real hip, real cool, but not contrived.” In other shoots he’s done along these lines, he achieves ambiguity in images of naked men caught leaping through the air without a familiar context to ground their actions in. The models “are not objects,” Einecke said, “but are subjects in a narrative. You don’t know what’s going on, but you feel something is going on.”

 

 

 

 

For Kruse, photography is all about the possibilities it affords as a medium of self- expression and personal growth. The life of this former Iowa farm boy was transformed when he turned his back on a promising baseball career while a Creighton University student in the 1970s to pursue photography. With world-renowned photojournalist Don Doll and sculptor Richard Hunt as mentors Kruse developed into a sought-after image maker adept at capturing poetic human scenes for such diverse sources as news publications, galleries, corporations and private clients.

In the photo-journalistic vein, he has documented AIDS patients, homeless individuals, developmentally disabled residents and poverty-stricken natives of foreign lands. For the art market, he has shot a wide variety of stunning nudes. For a personal series of artist portraits, he has photographed such leading lights as author Studs Terkel, the late actor Jason Robards and filmmaker Sydney Pollock.

Ever the iconoclast, Kruse long ago eschewed a mainstream career for independence. His romantic idea of being an artist found him living out of his car between assignments and adventures in Israel, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. He took his obsession with photography to the limit. “If I had a choice between buying film and food, it was generally food, but it was a really close call. I’ll be honest — I stole, I cheated, I lied — I did everything to keep going. And now I’m in a position where I don’t have to do that. I’m not as desperate as I was.”

With age and maturity he now lives a settled life, supporting himself by working as a hotel doorman. This solid foundation actually frees him to experiment more with his work. “Before, I was so desperate to please and to get other jobs that I’d shoot this stereotypical stuff. My photography was based on pictures I’d seen. Now, I’m doing individual images that are uniquely my own. I’m less self-conscious. I’m more confident. If I don’t want to work with you, I can say the two magic words in the English language, ‘F_ _ _ you.’ Plus, I can create here. When I lived in other places, like New York, I couldn’t create because I was so caught up in just surviving and making the rent. Here, I can shoot all day long.”

Finally, Kruse feels photography is what ultimately defines who he is and what his legacy will be. “I pick up the camera, man, every day. I shoot images every day. I’ve shot countless images in my life. My photos are like a diary of my life. I can look back at photos I shot years ago, and it’s like yesterday. They’re proof of my existence on earth. I think the last picture I’ll take, if I can, is of all the people gathered around my bedside.”

Houston Alexander, “The Assassin”

August 22, 2010 1 comment

Fighters have always had a certain appeal, whether doing their fighting in the street or in the ring or, since the advent of mixed martial arts events, in the octagon.  Houston Alexander of Omaha has pretty much done it all and he’s turned his talent for fisticuffs, combined with his good looks and charisma, into a bit of a run in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, although he ended up losing more than he won.  He’s also a radio DJ, graffiti artist, self-styled hip-hop educator, and man-about-town, making him more than the sum of his parts.  The following story I did on him for The Reader (www.thereader.com) hit just as he was on his way up, and even though his star has since dimmed, he’s a survivor who knows how to work his image.  He and his family didn’t like some of the things in my story, but he also knows that comes with the territory.

 

 

Culture Shock Tour.jpg

DJ Doc Beat Box and Houston on a school Culture Shock Tour

 

Houston Alexander, “The Assassin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Ultimate fighter Houston “The Assassin” Alexander of Omaha is being a good soldier for the photo shoot. Stripping down to his trunks, he poses in the middle of a south downtown street one late summer afternoon. He’s asked to look menacing, hardly a stretch for the chiseled, tattooed, head-shaved graffiti artist-street thug turned Ultimate Fighting Championship contender. He remarks about “those guys looking out those windows” at his half-naked ass, meaning inmates at the Douglas County Correctional Center peering out the razor-wired windows of the facility just down the block. He once peered out those same windows upon this very street.

“I was inside the cage in ‘97. I just got through beating up a cop and they took me down,” he says matter-of-factly. “The cop tried to grab me and I swung back and hit the guy. It was illegal what he was trying to do to me in the first place. He was trying to beat me up. I didn’t get charged for hitting a cop. I got charged for something else. I did like six months.”

It’s not his only run-in with the law. He alludes to “a whole bunch of domestic,” referring to disturbances with a woman that police responded to.

The fact he has a record only seems to add to his street cred as one tough M.F..  His fans don’t seem to mind his indiscretions. Passersby shout out props. “What’s up, Houston Alexander?” a guy calls out from his sedan. Another, on foot, invites him to a suburban sports bar where, the homey says, “they all love you out there.”

Now that Alexander is a certified UFC warrior, he’s handling all the hoopla that goes with it like a man. He seems unfazed by the endorsement deals, sponsorships, personal appearance requests, interviews, blog appraisals and fan frenzy demands coming his way these days.

Increasingly recognized wherever he goes, he eagerly acknowledges the attention with his trademark greeting, “What’s up, brother?” and firm handshake, giving love to grown men and boys whose star-struck expressions gleam with admiration for his fighting prowess. The African-American community particularly embraces him as a home boy made good. A strong, hard-working single father of six who came up an urban legend for his scribbing and street fighting. He’s one of their own and it’s them he’ll most be representing come next fight night.

Barely three months have passed since his furious UFC debut on May 26, when the  light heavyweight put an octagon whupping on contender Keith Jardine at UFC 71 in Las Vegas. After getting knocked down in the first 10 seconds, Alexander quickly regrouped. His relentless pressing style backed Jardine against the fence, where he unleashed a flurry of knees, elbows, uppercuts and hooks to score a technical knockout. Now Alexander’s primed for his next step up the sport’s elite ladder.

He and his local coaching-training team led by Mick Doyle and Curlee Alexander, the same men who got him ready for his dismantling of “The Dean of Mean Jardine, left for Great Britain on Monday to make final preparations for a September 8 clash with Italian Alessio Sakara on the UFC 75 card at London’s O2 Arena.

Doyle, a native of Ireland, is a former world champion martial arts fighter. His Mick Doyle Mixed Martial Arts Center at 108th and Blondo is the baddest gym around. He’s trained and worked the corner of several world champs. Curlee Alexander, a cousin of Houston’s, is a former NAIA All-America wrestler at UNO and the longtime head wrestling coach at North High School, where he’s produced numerous individual and team state champions.

Houston Alexander when to North, but other than brief forays in wrestling and football, he didn’t really compete in organized sports, unless you count weight lifting and body shaping. He was a two-time Mr. North. There was never enough money or time, he explains. By high school he was already a burgeoning  entrepreneur with his art and music. Besides, he said, “I always had responsibilities at home.But everyone knew he was gifted athletically.

The way Doyle puts it, Alexander’s “a freak” of nature for his rare combo of power and speed. The 205-pounder can bench press more than twice his body weight, yet he’s not muscle bound. He’s remarkably agile and flexible. Alexander came to him a “raw” specimen, but with abundant natural talent and instincts. Alexander knows he has a tendency to resort to street fighting, but Doyle recently reassured him by saying, “Everything we’re showing you sticks because it’s brand new. It’s not really replacing anything that anyone else taught you.” A blank slate.

“He wants to learn,” Doyle said. “He’s very confident, but he’s grounded. It’s a joy to coach someone like him.”

Curlee Alexander, a lifelong boxing devotee, has rarely seen the likes of his cousin, who’s made this old-school grappler a UFC convert. He, too, tells Houston not to change what’s worked, street fighting and all, but to harness it with technique. When Houston came to him eight months ago asking that he condition him, Curlee was dubious. Houston’s work ethic won him over. “He’s certainly determined.” His dismantling of Jardine convinced him he was in the corner of a special athlete.

“It was the most amazing night as far as being a coach I’ve ever had. All the things we had worked on were coming to fruition. He was doing it. He put all this stuff together at that moment. Incredible.”

 

Houston "The Assassin" Alexander

 

For his part, The Assassin credits his coaches with getting him to the next level.

“Without Mick and Curlee, there’s no me. I had the raw skills, but they’re fine tuning what I have to turn me into this champ I need to be,” he said. “I love those guys. They’re the real deal. No joke. They know what they’re talking about. I do whatever they tell me to do. There’s no getting away with anything, brother, believe me. But I wouldn’t want to cheat myself anyway.”

With their help, he said, “I’m more technical and all the power and strength I have is programmed a whole different way. More controlled. But don’t get it twisted. If I need to turn it up and go hard in the paint, it can easily change.”

A win Saturday night should put the fighter in the Top 10 and that much closer to what some anticipate will be a world title challenge within a year. Doyle told Alexander as much after an August meeting to breakdown the tape of the Jardine fight. “I told you this would be a two-year process. We’re only three months into this deal and look how much better you’ve gotten. Just think in another year where you’re going to be. You’ll be able to get in the ring with Wanderlei Silva (the legendary Brazilian world champ, late of the PRIDE series, now a UFC star).”

“We understand the window of opportunity on this thing is short,” Doyle said. “We want to get it there.” Asked if Alexander’s age, 35, is part of the urgency, he said, “Maybe some of it. If he gets an injury he’s not going to heal like a 25-year-old. He’s got some years left, but let’s get him the money. He’s got six kids.”

The Sakara-Alexander tussle is key for both fighters. Doyle calls Sakara “a stepping stone” for his fighter, whom he said must “prove the Jardine thing wasn’t a fluke.” He describes it as “a make or break fight” for Sakara, who’s coming off two straight losses at 185 pounds. “He’s gotta win to stay in the UFC. Sakara’s in the way of bigger and better things, so he’s gotta go.”

Cool, suave, laidback, playful. Quick to crack on someone. Alexander’s extreme physicality manifests in the way he grabs your hand or brushes against you or delivers none too gentle love taps or engages in horse play. When he needs to, he can turn off the imp and attend to business. He’s all, ‘Yes, coach…‘Yes, sir,’ with his trainers, putting in hour after hour of roadwork, skipping rope, weight lifting, calisthenics, stretching, grappling, sparring and shadow boxing under their watch.

For months he’s trained three times a day, up to six to eight hours per day, six days a week, devoting full-time to what not long ago was just “a hobby.” He’s disciplined and motivated enough to have transformed his physique and refined his fight style. After years of itinerant club fighting, all without a manager or trainer, only himself to count on, he began formal, supervised training less than a year ago. He worked with Doyle a few weeks before the Jardine clash, which also marked the first time he prepped for a specific foe and followed a nutritional supplement regimen. By all accounts he followed the strategy laid out for him to a tee.

“I have no problem working,” he said. “I’ve been working all my life.”

Doing what needs to be done is how he’s handled himself as an artist, DJ, father, blue collar worker and pro fighter. Whatever’s come down, he’s been man enough to take it, from completing large mural projects to getting custody of his kids to donating a kidney to daughter Elan to breaking a hand in a bout yet toughing the injury out to win. “Most people don’t know I’m fighting with one kidney,” he said. He’s paid the price when he’s screwed up, too, serving time behind bars.

The UFC is all happening fast for Alexander, which is fine for this dynamo. But the thing is, he’s come to this breakthrough at an age when most folks settle into a comfortable rut. No playing it safe or easy for him though. The truth is this opportunity’s been a long time in the making for Alexander, who enjoyed local celebrity status way before the UFC entered his life.

The veteran Omaha hip hop culture scion, variously known as Scrib, FAS/ONE and The Strong Arm, has always rolled with the assurance of a self-made man and standup brother. All the way back to the day when he protected the honor of his siblings and cousins with his heavy fists, first on the mean streets of East St. Louis, Ill., then in north O, where his mother moved he and his two younger siblings after she left their father. Alexander was all of 8 when he became the man of the family.

“I’m the oldest, so I was always expected to be the leader of the whole bunch. See, I’ve fought all my life, and that’s no exaggeration. It was always a situation where I couldn’t walk away, like somebody putting their hands on my girl cousins. I got into a lot of fights because of my brother,” he said. “I don’t interfere with no one’s business, but if you put your hands on my family, then it becomes my business. A lot of people got beat up because of that.”

Respect is more than an Aretha Franklin anthem for him.

“I don’t go around disrespecting people unless they disrespect me. There’s always a line you can’t cross.”

Growing up in a single-parent home, he started hustling early on to help support the family. What began as childhood diversions — fighting and music — became careers. When he wasn’t busting heads on the street, he was rhyming, break dancing, producing and graffiti tagging as a local hip hop “pioneer.” His Midwest Alliance and B-Boys have opened for national acts. He had his own small record label for a time, His scrib work adorns buildings, bridges and railroad box cars in the area. He mostly does murals on commission these days but still goes out on occasion with his crew to scrib structures that just beg to be tagged.

It wasn’t until 2001 he began getting paid to fight, earning $500-$600 a bout. He estimates having more than 200 fights since then, of which he’s only been credited with seven by the UFC, sometimes getting in the ring multiple times per night, on small mixed martial arts cards in Omaha, Lincoln, Sioux City, Des Moines. These take-on-all-comers type of events, held at bars (Bourbon Street), concert venues (Royal Grove), outdoor volleyball courts, casinos, matched him against traditional boxers as well as kickboxers, wrestlers and practitioners of jujitsu and muay thai.

“I fought everybody, man. I fought every type of fighter there is,” he said. “Fat, short, tall. I fought a guy 400 pounds in Des Moines. Picked him up from behind and slammed him on his neck and beat him senseless. I’m a street fighter, man. When you street fight you don’t care what size and what style. It don’t matter.”

There were times he’d MC a rap concert and fight on the same venue. “Dude, it was funny, man, because first people would see me on stage saying, ‘Hey, get your hands in the air,’ and then five hours later I’m kicking somebody’s ass in the ring.”

MMA promoter Chad Mason, who promoted many of Alexander’s pre-UFC matches, confirmed the fighter saw an inordinate amount of action in a short time.

“Sometimes he was doing two-three fights in a night. He’d do ‘em in Des Moines and then turn around two days later and go to Sioux City and fight a couple more times there. So there were times he probably had six fights in a week,” Mason said. “Of course everybody he fought wasn’t top of the line competition, but he was beating Division I college wrestlers, pro boxers, pro kick boxers, guys that had years of experience. They could come out of the woodwork to just try against Houston, and he’d beat ‘em. I mean, he’d knock ‘em out.”

By Alexander’s own reckoning his personal record was fighting and winning five times in one night in Sioux City.

“I was feeling it that night. It was just crazy, man.”

He began fathering kids 15 years ago and now has custody of his three boys and three girls, by three different mothers. Four of the kids are from his ex-wife of 10 years. He, his kids and his hottie of a new girl friend, Elana, share a three-room northwest Omaha apartment until he finds the right house to buy. He has the perfect crib in mind — a three-bedroom brick house with wood floors.

As a single daddy he has a new appreciation for raising kids. He makes it work amid his training and other commitments with some old-fashioned parenting.

 

 

 

 

“My kids have structure. It’s all military style. We have to do everything together. We all have breakfast together. We all sit down at the table together for dinner. It can’t work any other way,” he said.

Between school and extracurricular activities, he said, “I try to keep them as active as I can.” He helps coach his boys club football team, the Gladiators. One girl’s in ballet, another in basketball. “I’m always moving, so they’re always moving.”

He vows his children, ranging in age from 15 to 4, are his prime motivation for making this fight thing pay off.

“I want to win to secure a financial future for my kids’ college education. Again it always goes back to the kids.”

To makes ends meet he worked on highway construction crews for nearly 10 years. Until the UFC discovered him, he was perhaps best known locally for his radio career, first at Hot 94.1 and now at Power 106.9, where he does everything from sales to promotions to engineering to hosting his own independent music show on Sunday nights.

He’s also an educator of sorts by virtue of his long-running School Culture Shock Tour that finds him presenting the history of hip hop to students.

Whatever it takes to put food on the table, he does. “I’m a hustler, man. This is true. That’s why I have Corn Hustler on my forearms,” he said, brandishing his massive, graffiti-inked limbs. “That’s a street term. I stay busy. I have always kept busy.”

He strives to be “well-rounded” and therefore “I’m always in that mode to where I’m doing something to better myself.”

Always looking for fresh angles, a pro sports career is right up his alley with its marketing possibilities and mix of athletics and entertainment. Besides catching on like wildfire, the sport is a crowd-pleasing showcase for men wishing to turn their cut bodies, mixed martial arts skills, macho facades, charismatic personalities and catchy names into national, even international, brands. Having built to this moment for years, he leaves little doubt he’s ready to take advantage of it, confident he will neither lose himself if he succeeds nor crash should he fail.

“I give myself five or six years, maybe more than that if I keep training and don’t get hurt. (Randy) Couture is 43 and he fought a younger guy and whupped his ass. If it doesn’t work out with the UFC, who cares? I was never a UFC fan anyway.”

Would he ever return to those $500 paydays in Sioux City? “Yeah, in a hearbeat. Why not? I love fighting, man. That’s the whole thing — I love fighting.”

What is it ultimately about fighting that’s such a turn on?

“I think it’s the rush,” he said. “I know have the ability to beat the guy, but it’s still the rush of not knowing. You’re out there to prove to this guy that you know how to whip his ass. You think Jardine had remotely in his mind he was going to get done like that? I don’t think so. But I knew. Because I know deep down in my heart what type of abilities I have.”

As he says, the UFC was never really his goal until promoter and friend Chad Mason hooked him up with fight manager Monty Cox. What little Alexander’s seen of the competition out there doesn’t impress him. No high octane attacks like his.

“I never really watched the UFC. When I started watching it all I saw was this assembly line of guys. I really haven’t seen anyone come with it or bring it. Maybe the guys they bring in are not as passionate about it as I am. I really love fighting. When I get in the ring I love doing it, so I’m going to bring it to the guy 110 percent. If a guy’s trying to slack off on me and he wants to me wear me down, nu-uh, we’re going to pick up the pace a little bit and we’re going to go at it.

“If you want to try to wrestle and do all that, OK, that’s fine, but you’re going to get kneed and you’re going to get elbowed and you’re going to get disrupted.”

Disruption could be his alter ego name inside the octagon. It’s a mantra for what he tries to do to opponents. “Always disrupt, man, always disrupt,” he said. “To where they can’t think, because if you can’t think, you can’t react. That’s been my concept through the years,”

He said a quick review of the Jardine fight will reveal “I had hands in his face all the time. I was so close to him to where he couldn’t use those long arms, and I kept applying the pressure. Like my coaches said, ‘Always apply the pressure,’ and that’s what I did with that guy. I kept him disrupted.”

Alexander puts much stock in his “explosiveness.” “Once a guy tries to attack me,” he said, “my counter moves are so swift and fast and powerful, that definitely we’ll take the guy out. They’re all in short bursts.”

Doyle doesn’t even want Alexander thinking about leaving his feet. He wants him to dispatch Sakara on Saturday night the same way he did Jardine — standing straight up, his trunk and feet forming a triangle base, throwing blunt force trauma blows with knees, elbows and fists. Back in July Doyle told his fighter, “Just like in the Jardine fight, you don’t need to go to the ground. We’re going to knock the guy out or make the referee stop it. That will get you a title quicker. He’s gotta go.”

“That’s our motto for 2007 — he’s gotta go. He’s in the way. The Italian guy has got to go. Chow, baby,” Alexander said of Sakara. “I really want to go in and knock this guy out or really do something bad to him. I want people to be scared when they look at the footage. I want to show them what I’ve got.”

In his soft Irish brogue Doyle explained to his fighter how keeping an element of mystery is a good thing.

“Dude, if you go out there and knock this guy out, people are still going to wonder, What else can Alexander do? You know what, let them try to find out. If we can finish this guy on our feet, let’s do it. You don’t need to show people any more of your game than what is necessary to get the job done — until you come up with an opponent who makes you show more,” he said. “Keep it simple.”

Doyle, a Dublin native who came to America in ‘86, has tried to prepare Alexander for any technical tricks opponents might try to spring on him. He’s had him go toe-to-toe with athletes skilled in boxing, wrestling, kicking, you name it, bringing in top sparring partners from places like Chicago and sending him to Minneapolis to work with world-class submission artists good enough to make him tap out.

The fighter will have seen everything that can be thrown at him by fight night.

“They’ll get that move on you one time, and that’ll be the last time,” Doyle told Alexander. “That way when you step in the ring, and a guy goes to make his moves, you’ll feel ‘em coming, you’ll see ‘em coming, you’ll know what to do.”

Doyle and his team have spent much time honing Alexander’s footwork and stance, making sure his weight is balanced. It’s all done to harness his natural power, which becomes “more dangerous” when leveraged from below. The uppercuts that devastated Jardine were practiced repeatedly. The force behind those vicious shots, Doyle reminded him, comes from “using your legs,” which is why he harps on Alexander to maintain the foundation of a solid base.

To improve his quickness, Alexander often spars with lighter, faster guys and wears heavy gloves, so that when fight time arrives his hands and feet move like lightning.

The gameplan with Sakara is to pepper him with double jabs, then push off or slide step in to follow up with an arsenal of kill shots. For all his bravado and bull-rush style, Alexander is all about “protecting myself,” which is why a point of emphasis for the Sakara fight has been to keep his hands up against this classical boxer.

“As long as you keep your hands up you’re not going to get hurt,” Doyle said after an August sparring session. “None of the guys out there are just like that much better than you. But if you give them a mistake, they are more experienced and more technical to capitalize on it than you are right now. In a year, it’s all going to be different. Just like this guy Sakara, we’re going to make him give us a mistake.”

Sakara’s habit of keeping his hands low is one Alexander expects to exploit.

 

Houston Alexander

 

One thing Alexander said he’ll never be is intimidated.

“It’s important to inject fear. Everyone gets scared of the way a guy looks. I truly believe that half these people get scared by looking at the guy in the ring. I think Jardine beat a lot of people by the way he looked,” he said. Not that it was ever a possibility in his own mind, but Alexander said Jardine lost whatever edge he might have had when he heard him give an interview and out came a voice that didn’t match the Mr. Mean persona. “There’s no way I’m going to get my butt kicked by a guy that sounds like Michael Jackson,” he said.

Jardine’s comments leading up to the fight led Alexander and his camp to believe the veteran UFC fighter took the newcomer lightly. Alexander warns future foes not to make the same mistake.

“If anybody approaches me the same way to where they’re not taking me serious, that’s what’s going to happen. Every time. I’m going to be passionate about it. I’m going to be right or die with it. That means I’ll die in the ring before I actually lose. That’s how I feel about winning. Winning is everything, I don’t care what nobody says. If I hadn’t of won…you wouldn’t be talking to me,” he told a reporter.

It’s not hard to imagine Alexander gets an edge, both by the ripped, powerful figure he projects, and the calm demeanor he exudes. His serenity is no act.

“I’m mentally prepared for this thing,” he said. “I’ve always been mentally strong…tough. Make no mistake about it, the mental game I have down. No one’s going to out-mental me. No one’s going to deter me left or right, forward or back, because I have it down. Guys ask me, ‘Are you going to be nervous going out in front of 50,000 people?’ No, because I’ve done it before. I’ve done it with concerts. I’ve hosted concerts with 10,000 people. I do the school thing every week with 700-800 kids. Kids are the worst critics ever. If you can’t get kids’ attention, you’re garbage, and every week I get those kids’ attention. My working in radio, having 30,000 people listening every time I crack that mike, that’s pressure. So for me being in front of a crowd is nothing.”

Like all supreme athletes, Alexander exudes a Zen-like tranquility. His senseis — Mick and Curlee and company — have brought out the samaurai in him. It’s why he’s such “a calm fighter” entering the octagon.

“What it comes down to, you just have to play it out all the way and see where the chips fall,” Alexander said. “Everything happens for a reason. It is what it is.”

The Gabrielle Union chronicles

August 21, 2010 1 comment

Gabrielle Union at the San Francisco Blackberr...

Image via Wikipedia

My first couple  interviews with Gabrielle Union were by phone.  She was smart, funny, gracious, and generous with her time. My last couple interviews have been in person, and I found her exactly the same. She’s a sweet person.  Yes, her beauty leaves you breathless and is a bit distracting at first, but she’s completely down to earth and after awhile you don’t focus on her looks, you focus on what she’s saying and what she’s about.  This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared about five years ago, and in it she speaks extensively about some things she’s passionate about, including the difficulties that actresses of color have in finding suitable subject matter and her efforts to try and change that.  More recently, the formation of her new production company, Stew U, with Nzingha Stewart, finds her really taking matters into her own hands.

In the last couple years, she’s made as much news off the screen as on it due to her relationship with NBA superstar Dwyane Wade.  The couple have been to Omaha, where Gabrielle’s from, and they caused quite a stir here as you might imagine.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they become regular fixtures her before too long, at least during Native Omaha Days.  I hope to catch up with Gabrielle again in the near future.

 

The Gabrielle Union chronicles

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Let’s face it, the girl can’t help it. With a to-die-for combo of beauty and attitude, Omaha-born and bred actress Gabrielle Monique Union embodies what it means to be fabulous. The It Girl’s parlayed early television-film roles as the sharp-tongued foil and love interest babe into a regal-like, real-piece-of-work brimming with confidence, intelligence and class. This enticing package of goodies makes her a presence in the Hollywood glam machine. Despite The Honeymooners fizzle, her profile is about to explode owing to her work in a handful of new feature films awaiting release that show her in a new light and a starring role in the new ABC series Night Stalker that premieres September 29.

“I’ve been trying to branch out and do different kinds of projects people wouldn’t necessarily expect me to do, and I’m very proud of the work coming out” she said, while in town for Native Omaha Days, looking absolutely fabulous despite no sleep after wrapping Night Stalker that same morning and catching a red eye to O.

Yes, the many sides of Gabrielle are showcased these days. She recently shared the cover of Ebony with Honeymooners’ co-star Cedric the Entertainer, doing her best Alice Kramden domestic next to his Ralph Kramden bombastic. Depending on the gig, she’s whatever she wants to be. But no matter how much she appears all-together, she confided to The Reader some of the anxieties attending stardom and some of the frustrations that go with being black in a white-dominated field. Partly to determine her own fate and image, she’s about to start producing her own projects. Meanwhile, she plays the game, transforming herself into our fantasies.

When on the red carpet-runway circuit, she’s the preening diva in designer wear, perfect makeup and flawless hair who flashes I-love-my-public smiles and blows kisses in classic movie star fashion. In those Nutrogena TV spots, she’s the oh-so-fresh-and-so-clean girl-next-door of our dreams. For magazine spreads, she projects the epitome of style and elegance. She plays it sultry-urban-cool guesting on shows like BET’s Rap City: Tha Bassment, or turns on the charm chatting it up with Jay or David or Jimmy or Regis. She turns serious young artist at events like the NAACP Image Awards. On the big screen, she’s the hottie object of desire of LL Cool J, Jamie Foxx and Will Smith. Lately, she’s taking parts that don’t so much exploit her head-turning attributes and sex symbol defying smarts as display her acting depth.

 

 

 

In the drama Neo Ned, fresh off rave reviews at the 2005 TriBeca Film Festival, her disturbed character gets involved with a fellow patient at a mental health hospital. She’s a victim of abuse somehow under the delusion she’s Hitler. He’s a neo-Nazi hater of blacks and Jews. Upon recovery and release, this odd pair still try forging a life together. InConstellation, which beat out both Hustle and Flow and Crash for the Audience Prize at the Urbanworld film fest’, she’s the matriarch of a troubled Southern family whose secret legacy leads back to her own private crucible. In Running with Scissors, the much-awaited adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ tell-all book, she’s the possessive lover of Annette Bening, whose messy life she makes messier. In Night Stalker, an update of a 1970s show, she’s part of an investigative reporting team examining unexplained homicide cases. With a creative staff from The X-Files, it’s not surprising Stalker casts Union as Perrie, a skeptic trying to rein-in her overly curious partner Kolchak (Stuart Townsend), who suspects the supernatural, paranormal or extraterrestrial in every unsolved murder. Sound familiar? Union was sold on the show, despite “not being a fan of the genre,” by the quality of the scripts and the chance it offered “to grow with my character.”

All this comes on the heels of her small but weighty appearance in the Emmy Award-winning HBO drama, Something the Lord Made, her first period piece.

Ten years after breaking through, she’s sufficiently got-it-going-on to be in the  select company of such single name Star Sistas as Halle, Queen, Beyonce, Angela, Oprah and Vivica — adding flava to an otherwise bland look-alike white girl scene.

But a rising career for a black or Latina actress, no matter how talented or lovely she is, is not the same as it is for a white actress. Union bristles at the inequity that gives a Reese Witherspoon or Cameron Diaz carte blanch when she’s restricted from certain roles due to her race.

“It’s the option of doing different kinds of things,” she said. “They have the option of doing any kind of movies they want. Anything that could possibly pop into their head, that kind of script is there for them. Whereas with me, I’m offered the same exact things over and over and over again.”

This relative lack of choices, she said, not only means a more limited artistic palette to pick from, but a smaller financial reward, too. “There is a financial reality in what we do. Those bills, darn it, pop up every month. That dang mortgage has to be paid. You can pass, pass, pass, pass pass and hope for better material, but when it’s just not coming, at a certain point you end up doing the same sort of material. As actors of color we don’t have the same luxury and we’re certainly not paid anywhere close to what they (majority actors) get paid,” Union said.

Then there’s industry-wide casting practices that unfairly limit actors of color. Producers often can’t or won’t hire blacks and Hispanics for non-race specific roles because the suits’ experience/perception of the world doesn’t include racial-ethnic minorities in certain guises, especially opposite whites.

“That just happened last spring. I was told, ‘Gabrielle, you gave the best read. If we decide to go ‘black,’ you’re at the top of the list.’ It’s still a big fight to get people to think someone like me could be the friend or colleague of a white character, male or female. I’m not even talking about trying to convince somebody I could be Angelina Jolie’s sister or something like that. I’m talking about being her friend or associate or whatever. It’s the nature of the business” to stereotype us, she said.

But as her slate of new projects attests, Union’s not backing down or giving up. She’s a fighter and a survivor, instincts that helped her run-off the armed man who raped her in the early 1990s and cope with the trauma of that attack. A former competitive athlete, Union’s lately redirected her fire to her career, where she aggressively pursues the kinds of parts traditionally reserved for her white counterparts. She’s landing some of these jobs, but she wants more.

“You have these little victories and you hope to spin these little victories into a bigger victory,” she said, “and that’s just kind of been the basis of my career. I’m still waiting to sort of win the battle. But I’ve had a lot of fun on the path. Some of the battles I have lost have taught me so much about myself and about my inner resolve and who I am, and the fact that I don’t lay down and just die when I don’t get what I want. I learn to kind of regroup and fight harder. There’s nothing else I can do but stay prepared and stay ready for that opportunity. And I am prepared.”

 

 

 

 

Far from passively sitting by waiting for that breakthrough role to plop in her lap, she’s actively looking to develop properties and projects via a talent/marketing consulting agency now expanding into film production, Prominent Enterprises. The company is in the family, so to speak. It’s owned and managed by Union’s husband, Chris Howard, an ex-NFL player, in partnership with her former publicist, Alejandra Cristina. Although a new player in Hollywood, Prominent’s raising a sizable film fund to finance productions for Gabrielle to produce and/or star in.

“They’ve put together an investment group that’s put up $20 million to make anywhere from one to five films, so we’ve been poring over scripts. Nothing I’m going to star in yet, but I’m definitely going to produce,” she said. “The investment group has the capability of distributing and marketing a film, all in-house, so we don’t have to go pander our films to a studio to get distribution. I’d rather learn producing through my husband’s company than out there alone. We’ll definitely be putting our friends to work and you’ll be seeing people in roles that you would never anticipate them in. I’m excited about getting to work with my friends. It’s all happening very quickly. A lot quicker than we anticipated.”

Taking charge of her career is nothing new for Union, who’s taken pains in recent years to control her image by virtue of the parts she chooses and the type of pub she does. For her, not doing nude scenes, for example, is not so much about protecting her good-girl persona in the industry as it is honoring her family.

“I think it’s the respect I have for my parents and the respect I have for my husband. It’s also been a learning process. I’ve taken jobs and I’ve done photo spreads in the past I wouldn’t necessarily do now — understanding the reaction and aftermath that follows. My parents are alive and a part of my life and I’m not estranged from anybody. My husband has to go to work and face people. It’s just not worth it to me to do things that are going to embarrass them. My folks raised me to be a certain kind of person and I want my roles to be reflective of that and I want the kind of press I do to be reflective of that. Sometimes I stray, but it’s all a learning curve, and I’m learning I have the power to say no and the world’s not going to end and my career’s not going to stop.”

An example of her emancipation came during her recent Omaha visit, when she refused agent-publicist entreaties to fly her out of town for an ABC affiliate appearance. Instead, she opted to party-on-down with family and friends at the Native Omaha Days festival, where befitting her status, everywhere she and her small entourage went caused a stir. Just the rumor she might show some place got joints jumping and crowds buzzing. Hundreds attended a ceremony naming the Adams Park pond after her. The fans, many of them relatives from her large extended family on both sides, crowded inside the rec center for an autograph or some piece of their “Nikki.” Her appearance marked the first time “when everybody sort of came together since my wedding. They’re all here. More than I expected. People I didn’t even know came back. It’s exciting,” she said.

With such “a big family” and her “time always so limited” when in town, there’s added pressure to please everyone, so they don’t feel “cheated.” It’s also a reality check, not that her parents or sisters would let her get away with a big head. Her folks, Theresa and Sylvester Union, who are divorced, both said their star daughter is amazingly “grounded.”

Besides being selective in how she represents herself, there are the meatier roles Union’s been holding out for. Where she can coast playing brassy characters “cut from the same cloth that I’ve been cut from,” she has to stretch when cast in roles far from herself. “It’s a lot easier to play when the part’s close to who you are.” she said. “I take pride in bringing strong depictions of women to the screen.” With more substantial roles come more challenges.

Although she’s used to playing characters who are hell-on-wheels, Union’s part in Running with Scissors is a departure in that she portrays a drugged-out gay woman. “She’s a lesbian, a speed freak and a psychologically touched young woman who falls in love with Annette Bening’s character and disrupts her life. It’s a great kind of crazy character that’s really challenged me in new ways, and I just had a ball doing it. I think my mom is still getting used to the idea of me being a lesbian, but as long as Annette Bening is my girl friend, she’s OK with it,” Union said, laughing.

“To tackle” the role of an abused woman in Neo Ned, Union reopened the wounds of her own rape by going “back through my journals and to times when I was in therapy and to times when I was completely out of sorts and out of control. I was able to convey certain aspects of my own experience into the character’s, but at the time I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it without going nuts.” She made it through OK, but she said far from being cathartic, reliving her own trauma was harrowing.

“It was only afterwards I found it therapeutic, when at the Q & A that followed the film’s opening, people were saying — and it always happens — ‘Me too, me too.’ It’s always comforting for me and others to know — I’m not alone in my experience. I’m not alone in my surviving and in being able to still lead a decent, functional life. That these obstacles are surmountable.”

Union has long used her celebrity to openly discuss her rape and recovery and to advocate for victims’ rights and the importance of counseling, which she received.

As much as she enjoys educating people about empowering themselves, she realizes she’s still learning both her craft and this whole business of being a star. Therefore she seeks out mentors to school her in acting and in managing fame. Diva soul singer Patti LaBelle is among those who’ve taken Union under their wing, teaching her how to stay “who she is” and keep “what she stands for” amid the hoopla. The more high profile projects Union does, the more seasoned veterans she calls on.

“It’s the only way you’re going to get better. Unfortunately, a lot of young people in our industry lack humility. That whole idea of wanting to be the biggest fish in the pond doesn’t appeal to me. You can learn so much more if you just shut up and watch, which is what I do. I don’t know enough to keep talking. I watch the masters work and try to absorb as much as I can about how they work and how they handle different situations. That’s been the biggest help to me and my career — being able to watch what to do and what not to do.”

Asked if working with a Bening in Scissors, Alan Rickman in Something the Lord Made or Billy Dee Williams in Constellation obliges her to raise her own level, she answered emphatically, “Oh, hell, yes. They make you step up your game. And especially as I’m not formally trained, I don’t have that wealth of knowledge to fall back on. I have to learn from my co-workers.”

To help prep for difficult parts, she works with acting coach Dennis Lavelle, an actor/director who gets her to “fine tune stuff,” like nailing a Nashville accent for Something, and “on point” for portraying characters undergoing emotional crisis.

 

 

 

 

She’s still insecure and starstruck enough that she gets tongue-tied around her idols, such as Diahann Carroll, whom she “chickened out” meeting. On the set of Constellation, she lost her composure working alongside icons Williams and Rae Dawn Chong. “I got intimidated. I didn’t know where to begin the scene — to not be buried,” she said, “because they were all bringing it.” She uses the work ethic of fellow pros to motivate herself. “When I see them doing their homework, running lines or doing theater, I’m like, I need to go home and study more. The people I look up to never stop growing…never stop working. So, I need to step it up.”

To her surprise, serious theater offers have come her way. Thus far, she’s passed, admitting she feels out-of-her-depth there.

“I’ve been offered things I have no business being offered. I mean Broadway productions — all off the strength of something like Bring It On. But I have too much respect for the craft and for the theater to take a job I’m not ready for and to bring down a whole production. I have too much respect for the amazing talent that’s underemployed to take a job I don’t deserve and I haven’t earned — just because I can. I don’t want that on my shoulders.”

The props, the perks, the offers, the adoring crowds, the intrusive fans and the unwanted stares are all part of the bargain, good and bad.

“It’s weird. I don’t feel worthy of that sort of adoration. Ultimately, it’s nice that people appreciate what you do and to know your work is not in vain,” she said.

Negotiating fame is a-work-in-progress for her and husband Chris Howard. “It’s been a long path to kind of figuring that out,” she said. “When we want a fun, cool time, either with him and I or with our friends, we don’t do it at premieres or parties. We do it at our homes. We keep it private. So that whatever we’re doing or talking about or wearing or not wearing, no one’s going to know about it except for us. That’s how we stay strong.”

Careerwise, she has her thing and he has his. Even with the overlap from Prominent Enterprises, she’s the one out front. He’s in the background, where he prefers it. It’s their way of maintaining separate identities. “When I do travel for work and go to premieres or parties, he doesn’t always come,” she said. “He’s like, ‘That’s your life. I don’t want to stand around and hold your purse. I have my own career and a whole life outside yours.’ And that’s made it a lot easier.”

Being the center of attention, she said, “sometimes is a drag.” Having to look gorgeous, smile, press the flesh, sign the stills, pose for pics, answer questions. Her well-known penchant for slumming at Target has even gotten problematical, with shoppers and clerks wanting to stop and talk. “There’s times you just don’t feel like it. You’re tired. You just want a quiet evening with family. You just want to be. But when they don’t fuss over you, that’s when you go, What happened?”

The spotlight will only get hotter once her new films break and Night Stalker, airing Thursdays at 9 p.m. (CST) on ABC, debuts. There’s also two more features, Donut Hole andSay Uncle, in the can and still another, 32 and Single, in development.

Inking the deal for Night Stalker, which she wanted against the advice of her management, was done partly to get more “alone time with my husband,” she said. “Now that I’m home in L.A. shooting the series, even though the hours are crazy, we have a little bit more time together. It almost feels like we’re starting over because I’m home now.” Starting a family is not a priority yet. “I don’t want to be jealous of a child for taking me away from my man. Once we get enough alone time and we travel and we do all the things we want to do, than we’ll expand.”

Gabrielle Union: A Star is Born

August 21, 2010 2 comments

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

I have to believe that some folks are surprised to discover that the stunning actress Gabrielle Union is from Omaha, Neb. That’s because a large chunk of America either draws a blank when the city and state are mentioned or else conjure up images of corn fields and small towns devoid of black people.  Well, it is true that most of Nebraska is crop and range land. This is a Great Plains agricultural state after all, and agriculture is what drives the state’s  economy.  It is also true that most of the communities dotting the state’s wide expanse are small towns that generally do have few residents of color, particularly African-Americans, although some  have large Latino populations. But Nebraska also has two large cities in Lincoln and especially Omaha, and while the black population in Omaha has never been huge, its always been significant, in the tens of thousands, and African-Americans here own a long and rich heritage of cultural and intellectual achievement. She belongs to a large and prominent extended family whose annual reunion is more than a hundred years old and draws hundreds from all over the region and the nation.  Gabrielle is proud of her roots and she usually makes it back for that reunion, particularly when it coincides with the biennial Native Omaha Days, a week-long black heritage celebration.

So, when you know the facts, you realize Gabrielle hails from an urban African-American environment here not so dissimilar from those in cities with major black populations, and through all her success she’s remained fiercely loyal to this place and the old haunts in the inner city.  The following is the first of two cover stories I did on her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  This piece appeared just as she was breaking big on the national scene.  Just as she’s done with other journalists, she spoke thoughtfully and candidly with me about a whole range of subjects, including her family, her growing up here, her surviving an assault, and her forging a career.  Although she’s enjoyed a nice long run in film and television, I’m not sure she’s quite reached the heights that she or others saw ahead.  But she’s still young, still fabulous, and still working hard to develop projects that provide positive images of African-Americans and that put her and other African-Americans in control of those images.  To that end, she and director Nzingha Stewart have formed their own production company, Stew U.  Good luck with it, Gabrielle, you are a face of poise, beauty, and strength for many females who see you as a role model.  You also give America and the world a whole other idea of who lives in Omaha.

Look for my followup story about Gabrielle on this same site.

 

Gabrielle Union wedding beauty

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The next Halle Berry?

If, as some predict, Gabrielle Union, co-star of the new action sequel Bad Boys II, is poised to be the next ebony screen idol, then don’t expect the rising young actress with the suave sultriness of a classic Hollywood siren to do any cartwheels in anticipation of It happening. Not that the hard-bodied ex-athlete — she competed in track, soccer and basketball while growing up in Omaha and Pleasanton, Calif. — couldn’t do a flip if she wanted. It’s just that this sophisticated lady, who first made an impression playing smart, sassy babes in the teen comedies Bring It On and She’s All That and who more recently revealed a deeper dramatic range as a hard-boiled seductress in Welcome to Collinwoodand as a meddling man-hater tamed by Mr. Right in Deliver Us From Eva, remains firmly grounded. After all, she well recalls the vagaries of her unexpected cinema ascent, which soared despite no formal acting training. Unlike some stars to whom success comes early on, she’s savvy enough to seek advice and hungry enough to hone the craft that first chose her. Sweet.

“I have no problem humbling myself and asking a lot of stupid questions of veteran actors and of people who’ve been there-done that. I’m not into taking myself so seriously that I can’t go, I’m in a little over my head — can you help me out here? Yeah, I think a director would rather have you ask questions than waste takes. Luckily, people have taken me under their wing and helped me along the way. I’ve found really great mentors the last couple of years who’ve helped me sort of deal with my insecurity and say, Obviously you’re doing something right — you’re working, so whatever it is you’re doing don’t stop that, but also don’t stop asking questions,” she explained by phone from the Los Angeles area home she shares with husband Chris Howard, a former University of Michigan and NFL football player.

One reason Union doesn’t think she’s all that is because she views her film career as a kind of fluke. Not so long ago she still held out the possibility of falling back on her sociology degree if this movie thing didn’t work out (Her mother and two aunts have worked as social workers.). You see, the UCLA grad stumbled into acting only when her striking good looks and poised manners got her mistaken for a model at an agency where she interned. Before she knew it she found herself going up for and landing parts in ads and then television shows, debuting on Moesha, doing guest spots on ER and Steve Harvey and nabbing recurring roles on Sister Sister7th Heaven and City Of Angels. A year ago she was just another fetching supporting player in a string of moderately successful films, but was still best known as the first African-American love interest on the hit NBC series Friends. It was really the buzz behind her Friends guest shots, combined with her scene-stealing turn as a diva head cheerleader in 2000’s Bring It On and her portrayal of a tough yet tender sista in 2001’s The Brothers that added steam to the career she never intended.

2003 is shaping up as a breakout year for Union between her performances in the already released  AbandonCradle 2 the Grave and Eva and her featured appearance opposite Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys II. In the expected summer blockbuster she plays the vexing Syd, a woman raising the heat and danger for Miami police detectives Mike Lowrey (Smith), who falls for her, and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence), her half-brother. She may really turn heads with her on-the-limb portrayal of a disturbed mother in the now-under-production Neo Ned, a gritty project by indie director Van Fischer (Blink of An EyeUrban Jungle). Her persona as a beautiful, brainy, brassy black woman coincides with the growing crossover appeal of women-of-color artists — from Jennifer Lopez to Beyonce Knowles to Halle Berry — whose urban, hip-hop vibe is redefining the image of female sex symbols. Where, only a few years before, Union doubted if she even belonged, she’s paid her dues and now finds herself on the verge of A-list status. Not coincidentally, she’s since fallen in love with acting.

 

 

 

 

“I have, actually. Certainly after working on Welcome to Collinwood with Joe and Anthony Russo — who are very much actors’ directors — they really made it a different kind of experience. It wasn’t just about coming to work and knowing your lines. It was — How can we elevate this material? How can we make this better? How can we make this completely organic? We’d be doing exercises on set. We’d be doing tons of rehearsals. And through that process there was so much more discovery about the character and about the text that I really became enamored with what they did. It’s definitely experiences like that that make me really enjoy what I do now. It’s not so much a means to an end.”

Challenges are something Union, a fierce competitor at Scrabble or anything she competes in, welcomes. Her never-say-die-attitude, which surfaced when she fought back against a rapist that attacked her at 19, was instilled by her old-school ex-Army and ex-jock father, Sylvester, who pushed her, like a drill instructor, to excel in sports and academics from the time she was a child. She feels this boot-camp rearing gives her an edge in swimming with the sharks. “I’ve learned how to navigate tough waters, whereas a lot of actors are used to being coddled. I have a very thick skin. Screaming directors or difficult actors or whatever…it’s not a big deal. I mean, after you’ve dealt with my father, it’s all easy.”

The mettle that comes from a trial-by-fire background is why Theresa Union is “not surprised” by her daughter’s success. “She’s very disciplined. She’s self-reliant. She’s a natural-born competitor. She takes advantage of things that come her way. Her confidence and ability to pick up things fast give her an edge,” she said.

After playing largely decorative roles early in her career, Union, who can now afford to be choosy, is embracing more ambitious parts. “With certain kinds of things I was doing it wasn’t that hard to figure out and you sort fell into a lull,” she said of the stock best friend and girl friend characters she played. “But as the projects got a little bit more complex and a little bit more challenging it became a lot more fun for me because I had to push myself to see what I could do better than the day before. For me, it’s like when I played up an age group in basketball or in soccer, where the players were bigger, faster, stronger, better and you had to kind of raise your level of ability to meet that challenge. It’s the same with acting. As the projects get a little bit more in-depth and complex you have to raise your game to work with the William H. Macys and the George Clooneys. You can’t just sort of rest on, Well, I did a few sitcoms for UPN. So, I work with a coach (acting) now to make sure I’m sharp and ready to compete.”

Of the tests posed by her latest films, Union said: “For Eva, the challenge was how to make this really difficult woman likable. For Bad Boys, it was how to do action and not make it seem like you’re just a cardboard cutout in this high-concept movie. This movie I’m shooting now — Neo Ned — will probably be my most challenging to date. I play this woman who was molested as a child. She’s a bed-wetter. She’s trying to deal with the shame that comes with these experiences. She keeps checking herself into mental institutions. She’s not necessarily crazy, she’s just very overwhelmed. She develops this character, if you will, of this girl who feels like she’s got the soul of Hitler trapped inside her. She goes as far as to learn German and she ends up falling for this neo-Nazi, Ned. So, it’s incredibly challenging on a lot of different levels.”

Making the role even more demanding for the actress is that it requires her to be more emotionally raw on screen than ever before. “Usually, I’m cast as someone strong — with bolder-type qualities. But with this, she’s damaged and sort of on the path of trying to put herself back together. I kind of wanted to challenge myself in that sense in being able to convey the vulnerability and the trust issues that victims have and some of the things that go along with being violated.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Union is careful not to take on roles too close to the real-life trauma she endured, saying she accepted Neo Ned because it deals with the aftermath of the attack rather than its depiction. “I’ve turned down other projects where the character was brutally raped on-screen,” she said. “It’s not a problem talking about it or expressing it or conveying the emotions of what it feels like to have all control taken away from you, but to have someone physically simulate raping me, that would be above and beyond what I’m emotionally able to do. So, I know my limitations.” Her fear of having to relive her horror during a City of Angels shoot whose storyline concerned a serial rapist first led Union to divulge her own story. “I had so much anxiety that my character would be next that I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t go through that again. You see, I never talked about it. No one ever knew to not write my character to be raped. That, combined with the very cavalier attitude a lot of people on the set were taking about the storyline, made me come out to a magazine reporter I was doing an interview with in the midst of all this. I just felt it was my duty to come out and use my voice for something worthwhile. Reporters ask you a lot of stupid questions, like who’s cuter — Freddie Prinze. Jr. or Paul Walker? Well, who cares? How about what I’ve experienced and what I’ve overcome. I still finished college and I still got a pretty cool career for myself in spite of all this. Why don’t we talk about that and help people?”

She said it’s only after “years and years of therapy” that she’s able to be “normal again and somewhat sane.” Although once the victim of a brutal crime, Union is no victim for life. Her defiant attitude then and now stems from the way she was brought-up. “My parents always said, Don’t ever start a fight, but you damn well better finish it. You know, it was like — Don’t bring your ass home defeated. I certainly never solicited to have that (rape) happen to me, but when I saw an opening to sort of take back control of the situation I gave it my all. I put up a really valiant fight and have the scars to prove it.” As first related to Vibe Magazine, she wrestled the armed perpetrator to the ground, flailing at him with her fists, and managed to grab his gun and fire. “But in the end I wasn’t successful. He went on to rape another girl and ultimately turned himself in. A part of me was disappointed I didn’t kill him or didn’t at least wing him, so he could be apprehended sooner. I wanted to be the one that put an end to it.” She is proud, however, for having “the tenacity and courage…to make sure he was prosecuted and served his time and got a little dose of good old-fashioned prison justice,” she said. “All of that definitely goes back to how I was raised.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where her father has been the driving disciplinarian in her life, her mother, Theresa, a former dancer, has been the nurturing, artistic influence. Her mother’s family, the Bryant-Fishers, is one of the oldest and largest black families in Nebraska. So entrenched are they that as part of their annual weekend-long August reunion — 85 years and running — the family stages their own parade down 24th Street. Union recalls that after her family moved from Omaha, where her father was an AT&T manager and her mother a social worker, her mom would take her and her two sisters to such Bay Area cultural events as poetry slams, ethnic festivals and gay pride parades. Union, a tomboy at heart, was 8 when she left Omaha but her ties led her to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, whose women’s soccer team she competed on and whose football team she still madly cheers. Homesickness soon led her back to the coast, where she attended Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo before entering UCLA. After getting her B.A. she  considered law school before being “discovered” at the Fontaine Modeling Agency.

Despite lacking a prestigious acting school pedigree, Union said, “I feel confident about what I bring to the table.” In a sense, she’s been in training from the start by being a keen observer. “I’ve always been the kind of person, even as a young kid, who would just sit somewhere and watch people. I’ve always been fascinated by human nature and by what motivates people to do certain things…and that’s kind of a big chunk of acting. That, coupled with the fact I was a sociology major and wrote tons of term papers on inter-group conflict and on what makes people tick…which is a lot of what goes into theater studies.”

Then, she said, there’s the side of the profession no drama school can simulate. “Nothing prepares you for Hollywood. There’s no class on how to deal with a psycho director or a co-star on cocaine or on how to get along with people. Those are just sort of common sense things and a lot of that goes into who works and why. A lot of it is just like manners. Being on time. Working well with others. Literally being one of those people that others like to spend three or four months out of a year with. Part of that is definitely being professional, but part of it too is not taking yourself so seriously that you don’t have a good time. I mean, if I’m going to work in Miami I’m taking a very professional attitude, which means I’m going to be at work on time, I’m going to know my lines, I’m going to hit my marks and you’re not going to have to wait for me. But I’m also going to have a good time while I’m there. No one’s ever going to accuse me of being a fuddy-duddy.”

The vivacious Union is also no shrinking violet. Having grown up in the suburbs, she’s used to being “the black girl” in classes, on teams and, more recently, on sets, which means taking on “the responsibility of sort of educating people, correcting people and letting people know…little different nuances of race and class. It can be a little tiresome. It’s so much different on the set of a predominantly minority cast and crew, when you can free yourself up to just work and not have to worry about somebody saying something offensive or not understanding why I need a black hair stylist or why pink lipstick doesn’t look so great on a black person. It’s nice not to have those little struggles.”

Union is riding a wave that is seeing a more inclusive American cinema than, say, 10 years ago. But, as she can attest, Hollywood is still no where near to being as diverse as the society it purports to mirror. “There’s so much more that needs to be done for minorities, period, just to make films reflective of a multicultural America. Unfortunately, most of the writers employed come from privileged, homogeneous backgrounds not representative of the changing face of America, especially among younger people who, with the infusion of hip-hop, have a completely different mind-set,” she said. “For the younger generation, it’s not a big deal to have a black person kissing a white person or to have a Latino and an Asian as a couple. If those are the dollars Hollywood’s trying to get, then the projects need to be reflective of those attitudes, which are much more open.”

 

 

does she age at all? wth?

 

Casting, she said, is still replete with racism. While Berry broke down barriers playing a Bond girl, the buzz behind that “goes away and it’s back to fighting to play certain roles not written race specific. Why does the star’s secretary have to be blond? Why does Tom Cruise’s love interest have to be white? What’s the problem?” More insidious, she said, is the practice of casting light-skinned minorities in positive roles and dark-skinned minorities in negative roles. “When I was auditioning to play the pretty girl friend or the well-educated snob, the other girls in the room were either very fair or biracial and it was like, OK, clearly we have a mind set about what’s attractive, what’s well-to-do and what those faces look like. But a single mother crack-head who just lost her baby’s daddy to a gangland shooting, oh yeah, those girls are going to be dark. It’s just what people feel comfortable with I guess. It’s weird. But hopefully we’re slowly changing that.”

Along with her counterparts, Union hopes to open doors for more actors-of-color. “People in Hollywood always say, It’s not a black thing or a white thing, it’s a green thing, and in a sense that’s true. I’ve been lucky enough that some of my films have made money. Deliver Us From Eva made triple its budget, which you can’t say about many other movies, and that means something to Hollywood, which says, Here’s a movie about four sisters who all have jobs, who all have relationships and it made made money — Hmmm, let’s have more of this.”

Black or white, part of being a starlet in Hollywood is glamming it up, something Union, who can otherwise be found kicking it at home in sweats or shorts, enjoys doing for occasional magazine spreads and industry bashes, when she looks as cool and posh and fabulous as anyone. “It’s an escape from reality and a nice release to be a part of that whole Hollywood glamour machine,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s not something I could keep up every day, certainly.”

She still gets back to Omaha, most recently for the January funeral of her great-grandmother, Ora Glass, who was 110. And she keeps tabs on other native Omaha film artists, such as actress Yolonda Ross (Antwone Fisher). An admirer of Alexander Payne, who’s a fan of hers, she said if he ever shoots in town again she’s “willing to be a P.A. or grip to help him around north Omaha,” adding with her typical sauciness, “I love his work, but you don’t see all of Omaha reflected.” Hint, hint.

 

Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

August 18, 2010 1 comment

 

 

In the constellation of University of Nebraska football legends, Johnny Rodgers is probably still the brightest star, even though it’s been going on 40 years since he last played for the Huskers.  So dazzling were his moves and so dominant was his play that this 1972 Heisman Trophy winner , who was the one big play threat on the 1970 and 1971 national championship teams, remains the gold standard for NU playmakers.  The fact that he was such a prominent player when NU first reached modern day college football prominence, combined with his being an Omaha product who overcame a tough start in life, puts him in a different category from all the other Husker greats.  The style and panache that he brought to the field and off it helps, too.  He’s also remained one of the most visible and accessible Husker legends.

 

 

 

 

Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (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)

“Man, woman and child…the Jet has put ‘em in the aisles again.”

Viewing again on tape one of Johnny Rodgers’ brilliant juking, jiving broken field runs, one has the impression of a jazz artist going off on an improvisational riff and responding note by note, move by move, instant by instant to whatever he’s feeling on the field.

Indeed, that is how Rodgers, the quicksilver University of Nebraska All-American and Heisman Trophy winner known as The Jet, describes the way his instinctive playmaking skills expressed themselves in action. Original, spontaneous, unplanned, his dance-like punt returns and darting runs after catches unfolded, like riveting dramatic performances, in the moment. Poetry in motion. All of which makes his revelation that he did this in a kind of spellbound state fascinating.

“I remember times when I’d go into a crowd of players and I’d come out the other side and the first time I’d know anything about what really happened was when I watched it on film,” he said. “It was like I was in a trance or guided or something. It was not ever really at a conscious level. I could see it as it’s happening, but I didn’t remember any of it. In any of the runs, I could not sit back and say all the things I’d just done until I saw them on film. Never. Not even once.”

This sense of something larger and more mysterious at work is fitting given Rodgers unlikely life story. In going from ghetto despair and criminal mischief to football stardom and flamboyant high life to wheeler-dealer and ignominious failure to sober businessman and community leader, his life has played out in surreal fashion. For a long time Rodgers seemed to be making his legend up, for better or worse, as he went along.

Once viewed as an incorrigible delinquent, Rodgers grew up poor and fatherless in the Logan Fontenelle projects and, unable to get along with his mother, ran away from home at age 14 to Detroit. He was gone a year.

“You talk about a rude awakening. It was a trip,” he said.

He bears scars from bashings and bullets he took in violent clashes. He received probation in his late teens for his part in a Lincoln filling station robbery that nearly derailed his college football career. He served 30 days in jail for driving on a suspended license. Unimaginable — The Jet confined to a cell. His early run-ins with the law and assundry other troubles made him a romantic outlaw figure to some and a ne’er-do-well receiving special treatment to others.

“People were trying to make me out to be college football’s bad boy,” is how he sums up that tumultuous time.

Embracing his rebel image, the young Rodgers wore shades and black leather and drove fast. Affecting a playboy image, J.R. lived a Player’s lifestyle. By the time he signed a big contract with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, he was indulging in a rich young man’s life to the hilt — fur capes, silk dashikis, fancy cars, recreational drugs, expensive wines and fine babes. Hedonism, baby.

Controversy continued dogging him and generating embarrassing headlines, like the time in 1985 he allegedly pulled a gun on a cable television technician or the two times, once in 1987 and again in 1998, when his Heisman was confiscated in disputes over non-payment of bills. Then there were the crass schemes to cash in on his fame.

Rodgers, whose early life could have gone seriously astray if not for strong male figures around him, said, “I really wish I would have had mentors in mid-life like I had coming up so I could have been prepared for a lot of things I found myself getting into and out of, whether good or bad. I really don’t have any regrets as far as whatever has happened, one way or the other, because I’ve grown on both sides. I’ve learned probably more from my mistakes than from my successes.”

It is only in recent years he has settled down into the kind of calm, considered, conservative life of a reborn man who, in conversation, often refers to his Creator and to giving back.

As he was quoted in a 2001 Omaha World-Herald story, “I’m a little boring now. I make people nervous these days because they have to put their drugs away now.”

Not that this inveterate risk-taker and spotlight lover still isn’t capable of surprises, just that his escapades are less brazen. In the late 1990s he went back to school to finish his degree and added a second degree for good measure. In 1996 he started a sports apparel, bedding and accesories business, JetWear, located in the Business and Technology Center at 24th and Lake, that got him named entrepreneur of the year. He and his wife Jawana own and operate it  today. Then, cementing his lofty status as a sports hero, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and named Husker Player of the Century.

These days, Rodgers, looking fit with his shirt-popping muscular physique and jaunty with the gold bling-bling draping his every appendage, seems comfortable in his role as venerable legend. The media seeks his opinions on the state of the Husker Nation in the aftermath of last season’s debacle.

However much he plays the role of wizened old football warrior, he is forever seen as the dangerous artful dodger whose unique combo of strength, quickness and intuitiveness let him do the unexpected on the gridiron — leaving people grasping thin air with magical now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t moves. In an interview from his office, adorned with images and clippings from his glory days, he spoke like a man still in touch with the electrifying, enigmatic athletic genius that left fans breathless and opponents befuddled. Still every inch the star, he’s finally come to terms with himself.

When viewed in the context of a rather rash fellow who follows his instincts, then his punt returns — the plays where he improvised the most, displayed the most creativity and took the greatest chances — make more sense just as some of his reckless off-the-field antics can be better understood if not excused. For better or worse, his let’s-wing-it, go-for-broke attitude explains his life inside and outside of athletics.

“When you’re a risk taker you do make mistakes because you’re going for it all the time,” he said. “You don’t always make the right move. You can fake yourself right into harm’s way or you can shake yourself right through it. But you have to be willing to take a chance. In a lot of ways I should have been more conservative about things but it’s just not my nature.”

Just like calling a fair catch or lining up behind a wall of blockers was not about to happen when fielding a punt.

“You don’t think, you just react. You don’t know, you just feel,” is how Rodgers describes what it’s like for an impulsive person like himself to feed off whatever is happening around him at any given time, including the chaos swirling about when running back a punt in a preternatural daze. “It’s not like being in what athletes call a zone. You get yourself ready in a zone so you can think about what you need to do and you can get it done. Being in a trance is a whole other level. It’s not a planned thing. You don’t know what’s going to happen. If you make a plan, you’re already wrong because it hasn’t happened yet. The plan is, there is no plan.”

Because of Rodgers’ unusual, innate gifts, then NU head coach Bob Devaney gave him great latitude.

“I had a green light returning punts. I just did whatever came natural,” Rodgers said. “I’d call a punt return right and I’d go left in a heartbeat. When I saw everybody going left, I’d change direction. I never would know. I was never ever told to fair catch the football, even in dangerous situations. There were never any rules for me. I was given that freedom. It got to the point where the only thing I could tell my guys is, ‘Get that first man and meet me down field’ because I didn’t know myself what I was going to do.”

Some of his most famous returns illustrate Rodgers at his extemporaneous best. Take the famous 72-yard touchdown versus Oklahoma in the 1971 Game of the Century.

“It was a right return and I started off right but the whole darn thing happened on the left. On that return my guys didn’t get the first man. I had to shake the first man, who was Greg Pruitt. Joe Blahak broke one way and I went the other way, but still he circled all the way back around the field to pick the last guy off my back and that was because we always agreed to meet down field.

“Where most players would be satisfied getting one block and be jogging the rest of the way my guys, like Blahak and (Rich) Glover, were still fighting until the whistle blew. They knew to meet me down field and that attitude really panned out.”

Call it a sixth sense or a second set of eyes, but Rodgers possessed an uncanny ability to elude defenders he couldn’t possibly see. “I watch myself returning punts on film and I see guys reaching at my head and I’m ducking and you can see clearly that I can’t see them, but I can feel them. At the exact right time I make the move. It’s an instinct. A spiritual thing. Unconscious.”

In a remarkable series of sideline returns against Colorado in 1972, Rodgers executed some fancy arabesques and tightrope maneuvers that defied logic and balance as he repeatedly made sharp cuts, spins and leaps to escape trouble.

On offense, he also enjoyed a degree of freedom. When the Huskers needed a play, he and quarterback Jerry Tagge would collaborate in the huddle. “When push came to shove we called plays ourselves. Tagge would ask, ‘What can you do? What can we get?’ because I was setting up the guy covering me for something. I’d be running down-and-outs all day long just so I could run the post-and-go or whatever we needed. ‘Is he ready yet? Tagge would ask. ‘He’s ready,’ I’d say. I always had the attitude if we were in trouble I want the ball because I could get it done.”

He got things done to the tune of setting numerous single season and career school marks for catches, yards receiving, punt returns and total offense. Amazingly, Rodgers isn’t sure he could be successful today in NU’s highly regimented schemes.

“I was fortunate enough to come along when I did. I don’t know if I could make it now,” he said. “Coaches don’t let you be who you are. They try to coach you to who they are. They’re not letting the great ones be great. You can’t teach this stuff. If you have to think, you’re already too slow. It’s reaction. You have to react. You have to be free and open to sense it and feel it.”

Precociously talented from an early age, Rodgers first made headlines at age 8 by diving over a human pyramid his Lothrop Grade School tumbling teammates formed with their interlaced bodies in tumbling shows. Despite being much younger and smaller than the youths playing at Kountze Park his athleticism gained him entry into sandlot football and baseball contests there that included such future greats as Gale Sayers, Marlin Briscoe and Ron Boone.

“I was ‘too small’ to play but they let me play ball with them because I was good enough.” He honed his repertoire of fakes playing flag football and, later, tackle with teams sponsored by the Boys Club and Roberts Dairy. By the time he starred at Tech High in football, baseball and basketball, Rodgers had a sense of his own destiny. “I noticed I seemed to be special. I saw these older guys go on and do something nationally and I felt if they could, I could, too. It was almost supposed to happen.”

Rodgers wasn’t always comfortable with his own prodigious talents. He said early on his gift, as he calls it, was “definitely a burden because I didn’t know why I was so good and whether I was chosen or something. I didn’t know if I even wanted to have that type of a burden. I was almost upset because I had it. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I really wasn’t spiritually grown enough to really appreciate this gift, which it really was.” Then there was the fact his prowess caused grief off the field. “My gift was getting me in fights every single weekend…and for no other reason than I was popular, I had notoriety and people were jealous. Girls were telling their guys we were together or whatever. I had people coming down where I lived trying to beat me up. I remember having to crawl out the gall darn window.”

Things got so bad during junior high school he took extra precautions walking to and from the home of his grandmother, who’d taken him in after his brash runaway stunt. “I’d walk in the middle of 25th Street so that if anybody came after me I could get away,” he said. “And it would never be one on one. It would always be several guys and they could never catch me.” If nothing else, being chased helped him develop his broken field moves. One day, Rodgers wasn’t so sure he’d make it past the gauntlet facing him. He and his pal Leroy had just left a friend’s house when they were surrounded by a gang of boys.

As Rodgers describes it, “I had a dog chain and he had a knife and I said, ‘Leroy, you ready?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ So, I’m looking around to check out the situation and when I turn back around Leroy is turning the corner up the street. He ran off and left me. So, I started swinging my chain until I got me a little opening and I broke. In those days, when I broke I was going to be alright because I had it covered. Well, those guys started chasing me, except they sent one guy out while the rest of them stayed back jogging.” That’s when he got a sinking feeling. Not long before the incident he’d watched a Western on television about a lone settler chased by Indians, who sent a series of runners out after the man until they wore him down and caught him.

“I remember thinking, They saw the same movie. I couldn’t believe it. They had me scared to death because I saw what happened to that cowboy. Luckily, I escaped down the street and ducked into an alley and dove in a car. I laid down on the floor in back and they went on by,” he said, laughing and flashing his best Johnny “The Jet” smile.

 

 

 

 

Growing up in The Hood then didn’t pose quite the same dangers as it does now, but there is no doubt Rodgers narrowly skirted the worst of its ills thanks to the influence of some black men who nurtured and guided him.

“I see how easily I could have went totally in the other direction and what it really took came from my athletic background.”

There was George Barber, his gym coach at Lothrop, who got him started in athletics. There was Josh Gibson, his baseball coach at the Boys Club. The older brother of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, Josh was a legendary baseball coach and “a hard disciplinarian.”

Rodgers, a good enough baseball prospect to be drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers, credits Gibson with teaching him to switch hit. His basketball coach at Horace Mann Junior High, Bob Rose, taught him to shoot layups with both hands. Perhaps the greatest lesson learned from Gibson and Rose, Rodgers said, was that “we weren’t there just to play the game, we were there to win. Of course, we lost some games but we learned you never quit. You went back and worked harder and got better.”

And at the YMCA there was Don Benning, still years away from coaching UNO to an NAIA wrestling title, a man whom Rodgers said “has been like a father to me.”

By the time Rodgers emerged as the star of NU’s 1970 and 1971 championship teams and as the 1972 Heisman front runner he was befriended by two more key men in his life — the late community activist Charles Washington and high living attorney Robert Fromkin. A friend to many athletes, Washington helped Rodgers out with expenses and other favors.

But, Rodgers said, what he really gleaned from Washington was “a responsibility to help others. I learned a lot from him about helping out the community.” According to Rodgers what he got from Fromkin, who represented him after one of his arrests, were free lessons in style.

“Bobby was responsible for me having maybe just a touch of class. He always had an elaborate place and a brand new El Dorado. He would invite me to the fights and to shows. We’d have the whole front row. Then we’d go out to the French Cafe and he’d pick up the whole tab. That was stuff I looked forward to at an early age. That showed me how to do it. How to live right. It added to my flamboyance. The thing he taught me is the only shame you have is to aim low. You’ve got to aim high. You’ve got to go for the gusto. It only takes a little bit more to go first class.”

When, on the advice of Fromkin, Rodgers surprised the football world by spurning the NFL for the CFL, he found a perfect fit for his garishness in cosmo Montreal and its abundant night life. “I loved Montreal. It was the city of love. There were some great times in Montreal. The French people and I got along great. We were flamboyant together.” The dash he exhibited off the field complemented his flash on the field, where Rodgers again dominated. After four banner years, it was time to meet his next challenge. “The only thing left to do was to go to the NFL and prove myself there.” He signed with the club that originally drafted him — the San Diego Chargers — and worked like he never had before.

“Because I had so much natural ability I never pushed myself as hard as I really could have. When I got to San Diego I was really determined to go to the next level. I wanted to see just how good I could be. I made sure I was in the best condition I could be in.”

He was coming off a monster preseason showing against Kansas City when his dream fell apart. A series of torn muscles and hamstrings severely curtailed his rookie NFL season. He came back ready the next year only to suffer an ugly, career-ending knee injury. “That was it,” said Rodgers, who after surgery spent much of the next year in a wheelchair and crutches. For him, the biggest disappointment was “never really getting a chance to showcase what I could do. It hurt me, but I’m not bitter about it. I mean, I could have gone crazy but instead I grew from it.”

A perpetual optimist and opportunist, Rodgers has bounced around some since his retirement. For several years he made San Diego his home, starting up a cable TV magazine there that had some success. He returned to Nebraska in the late ‘80s to help support his son Terry during an injury-shortened NU career. Over the years he’s announced several business-community projects that have not come to fruition and some that have. In addition to JetWear, which he hopes to expand, he owns a sports memorabilia business and a promotion arm organizing events like his Husker/Heisman Weekend and public speaking engagements.

Rather than slow down in his mid-50s, he’s poised to make a big move.

“I feel like I had a rejuvenation on life at 50 and so I feel I’m just getting started. I think the best is truly still ahead of me. I have only touched on a small part of the potential I have. Because of my history and my visibility I can create a better future for myself, for my family and for my community.”

Eying Omaha’s riverfront redevelopment, he looks forward to being part of a north Omaha rebirth to match his own. “I think north Omaha’s future is so bright you have to wear shades.” Burn, Jet, burn.

 

Ron Boone, still an Iron Man after all these years (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

August 18, 2010 1 comment

 

Ron Boone
Ron Boone

 

 

I never saw Ron Boone play ball, but I didn’t need to in order to write this story about his magnificent commitment to the game, one made manifest by his sheer doggedness.  His commitment and toughness ran so deep that he earned the nickname “Iron Man” for never missing a single game during a very long and grueling 13-year professional basketball career in the ABA and NBA. More than a body you could count on to suit up and get on the court, Boone was a consummate player who ranked among the best guards of his era.  He could do it all: score, handle the ball, pass, rebound, defend, you name it.  He was a key cog on a championship team.  He played alongside and against many legends, always holding his own.  He’s another of the Omaha born and raised figures who went from the ghetto and projects here to become a sports legend.  His devotion to the game has remained intact many years after his retirement as a player.

 

 

 

 

Ron Boone, still an Iron Man after all these years (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)

 

During a 13-year professional basketball career that spanned two leagues and six teams, Omaha native and Tech High grad Ron Boone became an “iron man” of legendary proportions.

A chiseled 6’2” guard known for his toughness, Boone saw action in each and every one of the 1,041 regular season contests his clubs played. His consecutive games-played streak set a record for pro hoops unbroken until years later. In fact, Boone said he doesn’t recall ever missing a game — preseason, regular season, post season — in a playing career that included elementary school, high school, college and the pros.

This feat is important to Boone. Since his 1981 retirement from the Utah Jazz, he has worked as a color commentator on Jazz radio and television broadcasts. Since 1988 Boone has been a full-time resident of Salt Lake City, the site of his greatest triumphs, where he is active in private business and community efforts.

“The longer I’m out of the game, the prouder I am of it,” said Boone, who at age 58 is buff and just over his peak playing weight of 205 pounds. “I know how very difficult it is to get through an entire season without getting hurt, not to mention 13 seasons or 1,041 consecutive games.”

Of course, he sustained the game’s usual bumps and bruises, ankle sprains and worse, but he never sat out a single game because of them. There was the shoulder separation he suffered in a collision with another player during a regular season game. On that occasion, a reluctant Boone followed the team doctor’s advice to undergo acupuncture the next day and by the following night he was able to shoot and play through the pain. The only other injury that set him back, if only momentarily, was the broken nose he suffered in a playoff series. He simply got the broken bone set, taped and protected by a mask he wore the rest of the series.

“Other than those two injuries, there was never a remote chance I was not going to play,” he said.

Fortitude and ferociousness came to be Boone’s signature qualities as an athlete, for which he credits several people. Hailing from a family of athletes — he and his five siblings all won college basketball scholarships — Boone was first schooled by his older brother Don. Two of his early coaches, Josh Gibson and Neal Mosser, are remembered for their old-school emphasis on fundamentals, discipline and, above all else, winning.

The late older brother of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, Josh Gibson, was a former jock who shaped many fine athletes as a youth sports coach in northeast Omaha. Boone, whose first love was baseball, played ball under Gibson, whose fiery demeanor — he was known to physically challenge cheating officials and abusive fans  — taught him to never back down.

The strict Mosser coached many greats while head basketball coach at Omaha Technical High School. Boone recalls Mosser as being “a very fine coach, but a very tough coach,” whose formidable presence and insistence on perfection ensured “you did what he said.” Quitting on a play or sitting out to pamper a boo-boo were unacceptable.

But the real story is how this late-bloomer became a professional all-star and record holder at all after an unheralded prep career at Tech, where he didn’t start until his final year. As a kid, he had some serious game, but he was small and came up when Tech was a talent-laden powerhouse. As late as his junior year he rode the bench on the fabled 1963 Tech squad led by the great Fred Hare, a phenom Boone and others call “the best basketball player to come out of the state.”

When Boone became a starter, he helped keep Tech a contender, but was thought unlikely to play major college ball due to his height — even on tip-toes, about 5’8” — and his 140-pound frame. Yet he still harbored big-time hoop dreams. He wouldn’t let anything stop him from achieving them either, even if he had to will himself to grow, which perhaps he did. Then there was his secret motivation.

“I remember playing in a league down at the local YMCA and just having a good time — scoring points — and this friend of mine asked one of the officials if he thought I could play major college basketball and the guy said, ‘No way,’ Boone recalled. “That was always in the back of my mind because I thought I could. If there was anything in my life that I can say inspired me, it was those comments.”

 

Ron Boone

Ron Boone

 

The short, scrawny Boone yearned to follow in the footsteps of near north side athletic greats like Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer and Gale Sayers. The youngster showcased his playing abilities at Kountze Park and in the rough-and-tumble leagues at Bryant Center, the mecca of north Omaha hoops, where he went head-to-head with Omaha’s finest players.

Yet his dreams seem stalled. There was, of course, his nagging lack of size, as well as the absence of interest from college recruiters. Boone, who grew up poor in the Logan Fontenelle housing project, knew an athletic scholarship was his only sure ticket to college. Then two things happened to give him a chance.

First, he and a Tech High teammate were offered a package deal to Clarinda Community College. These days, junior college ball in Clarinda, Iowa, a rural town whose white-bread, slow-paced life was “a culture shock,” is as far from major college hoops as you get. But Boone made the most of his only season there by averaging about 26 points a game. In a matchup versus the University of Nebraska junior varsity squad, which included future star Stu Lantz, Boone burned the Huskers. But a hoped-for invitation to join Nebraska never came from then-head coach Joe Cipriano.

Second, a sudden, dramatic growth spurt at season’s end turned Boone into a strapping physical specimen, but with the quickness he had as a smaller player. He finally had the look of a major college prospect.

“As I started to grow, I started to inch up and to get bigger and stronger. I started to get muscles naturally, without lifting weights,” Boone said.

Just as Boone got some feelers from Iowa’s two state universities, Mosser pointed him out to Idaho State University head coach Claude Retherford, a roommate and teammate of Mosser’s at Nebraska. Retherford took Mosser’s word that Boone was a diamond-in-the-rough and signed him unseen. Boone headed to Boise, Idaho, little realizing it would be the start of a long and fruitful association with the Rocky Mountain West that continues to this day.

Playing in a full-court running scheme that complemented his coast-to-coast style, Boone soon developed into a bona fide pro prospect. In addition to being able to run the floor and dog opponents all night long, his strength and fierce competitiveness added intimidating dimensions to his all-around game.

“I was a very strong player. I was a guy who even though I was only 6’2”, could go up and play forward, and I did on a number of occasions because of the strong physical style I had. I didn’t back down. I didn’t take any shit from anyone. I would fight,” Boone said.

 

 

 

 

Far more than an enforcer on the court, he was also a capable scorer, an excellent free-throw shooter, passer and rebounder.

By his senior season he was being courted by both the Dallas Chaparrals of the fledgling ABA and the NBA’s expansion Phoenix Suns. On Retherford’s advice, Boone opted for the ABA, a league renowned then and fondly remembered for its free, open, playground style of fast-breaks and flamboyant dunks. That attitude extended to its innovative rules, including the 3-point shot and the use of a red, white and blue ball. After being traded to the ABA’s Utah Stars, Boone enjoyed his best seasons, leading his Salt Lake City-based club to the 1971 ABA title. Teaming with fellow ABA legends Willie Wise and Zelmo Beaty, Boone sparked the Stars to the championship, a feat he ranks as the “greatest accomplishment” of his career.

“That’s the ultimate thing you can achieve in a team sport, regardless of all the individual accomplishments you had as a player,” he said. “Very few teams get there.”

While he will forever be associated with The Streak, he is quick to point out he was fundamentally sound. Boone, the third leading scorer in ABA history, owns career league averages of 18.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists a game. His lifetime field goal percentage is 46 percent and his lifetime free throw percentage is 84 percent.

As a starter his first two years in the NBA, Boone continued his dominant play, posting 20 points a game in two seasons with the Kansas City Kings before spending his last three years as a valuable reserve and role player, first with the Los Angeles Lakers and then the Utah Jazz.

While gaining NBA validation was important to Boone, his years in the wild and woolly ABA are the ones he remembers most fondly. After all, it was in the circus-like, street-ball atmosphere of the upstart league where the thing he is best remembered for — The Streak — began.

“It was a fun league. It was a very attractive league and fun to watch because it was so wide open. The league was different from the NBA. The style of play was run and gun. I think that approach right there is the reason we ended up with your Julius Ervings and George Gervins right out of college and why guys like Rick Barry jumped leagues (early in his career, going from the NBA to the ABA),” Boone said. “Even today, if you talk to people who grew up in it, they’ll tell you we had the most popular brand of basketball you’d ever want to see.”

Before the leagues merged in 1976, a red-hot rivalry existed between the ABA and NBA, and debate raged over which featured the better players. As Boone saw it, the ABA had a decided talent advantage except in one category. “We had all the best guards and forwards and the NBA had the big men. I thought the NBA was a little afraid of us.”

Other than the occasional player defection or draft coup, it was a rivalry existing in people’s minds, not on the basketball court. The exceptions were hotly contested inter-league exhibition games staged in the years leading up to the merger. For the ABA, it was a chance to gain respect. For the NBA, an opportunity to put the brash young pretenders in their place.

“We took it as a challenge,” Boone said, “because not only were we looked at as a minor league, guys like Red Auerbach (the Boston Celtics’s famed former coach and general manager) had the attitude that we would just go away. I think we took pride in beating them.”

In the overall interleague rivalry, the ABA edged the NBA 79 wins to 76. In particular, Boone recalls the throttling his Utah Stars dealt the NBA’s Kansas City Kings, a team he joined only a year later after the merger made him the third player selected in the NBA dispersal draft.

In the spirit of fairness, however, Boone acknowledges that in a much-hyped 1972 meeting between the two leagues‚ defending champions — his Utah Stars and the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks — his Stars got whipped by the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-led Bucks. Jabbar dropped his trademark shot, the “sky hook,” on them all night.

Early in Boone’s career his consecutive games played streak was something he was largely unaware of. It only assumed bigger-than-life dimensions when the number of games played reached into the hundreds, and club officials and media types brought it to his attention. “The longer it continued the more you started to think about it,” he said.

The streak is a remarkable feat considering Boone’s bruising style of play and the wear and tear anyone accumulates over the course of each 80-game regular season. Basketball is, after all, a running, jumping sport filled with contact on rebounds, picks, screens and post-up moves, and by head-first dives for loose balls on an unforgiving hard court. “It’s a blessing I was able to do that,” he said.

Besides an iron will and gritty attitude, Boone attributes the streak to the care he took in preparing for games and in staying fit.

“I never had a pulled muscle, hamstring, groin or anything like that and I attribute that to my old high school coach, Neal Mosser, who always had us stretch and take care of ourselves like that. Conditioning is something I took a lot of pride in. It was very difficult for me to work out with someone because it just seemed like they didn’t work out as hard as I did, and so it would set me back,” Boone said.

“My workouts were always basketball drills and road running, but more sprints. The key was my weight never fluctuated. Unlike a lot of guys who had to play themselves into shape and were two to three weeks behind, whenever I got to camp I was ready to go.”

Like other old-school warriors, Boone looks at his iron man streak as a badge of honor and derides the trend among modern athletes to coddle themselves and their injuries by “sitting out with everything from a hang-nail to a bad attitude.”

 

 

 

 

After a storied 13-year ride as a pro, Boone retired at age 35. Like many retired athletes, Boone struggled to find an outlet for his competitiveness.

“Very, very tough, especially if you want to continue playing basketball,” he said of the recreational leagues he participated in. “The NBA is physical and after retiring I found myself having to go back to high school rules. A tough adjustment. I tried it, but stopped because again I was a physical player.”

Boone’s aggressiveness was not appreciated. He wasn’t out to be a bully, he said, it’s just that’s the only way he knew how to play.

“It’s basic. Sports for the most part is muscle-memory. A lot of things just naturally happen out there, especially if you’ve been doing it for a number of years, and it’s awfully difficult to stop it.”

He next tried fast-pitch softball but after competing for several years in local leagues he lost interest when he realized the friends who’d talked him into playing in the first place had all quit. And so at age 41 he came to the sport that’s his new passion — golf.

“The greatest game I found for an ex-athlete who is so competitive and such a perfectionist is golf. It’s an individual sport. If you screw up you kick yourself in the butt. It’s so challenging that you want to beat the game and only Tiger Woods and the other guys on the tour can beat this game.”

He gets in some golf when he returns for the annual Bob Gibson Classic, an event he enjoys because of the opportunity it affords to hang out with other sports legends. He feels camaraderie among his fellow old lions.

“There’s so many stories. We all recognize each other for what we did. Even though there may be a guy you didn’t care for, you have respect for him for what he was able to do on the field or on the court,” he said. “The older you get, there’s more respect and a lot of the things you disliked about a person go away. It’s like a reunion. You wouldn’t believe the ribbing guys take. It’s a lot of fun.”

While Boone still gets back to Omaha, where he has family, Salt Lake City is his home.

“Salt Lake City is where I had my best years and where I have a lot of respect. When I retired I moved back to Omaha for about six years before going back to Salt Lake City. Yes, I’m from Omaha, but even though people talk about me being from here — it wasn‚t like I was ever a star here. I was a star in Salt Lake City. Being who I am there I can get things done. It makes a difference.”

Boone rues the disappearance of the Omaha he once knew.

“I just know the areas I grew up proud of and patronizing on North 24th Street are no longer there.”

Like the in-progress Loves Jazz & Arts Center to pay homage to North Omaha’s rich musical heritage, Boone would like to see something done to commemorate its great athletes. There is talk about plans for a north Omaha athletic museum or hall of fame.

“So many athletes came out of Omaha that were not only great college players but ended up being great professional players,” he said.

Whether or not such a showcase ever is built, Boone plans to add to his newest streak — since starting as the Jazz color commentator 15 years ago, he hasn’t missed a single game. An “iron man” to the end.

Omaha Black Sports Legends Featured in My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness

August 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Omaha Black Sports Legends Featured in My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness

I am now posting installments from a series I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Omaha Black Sports Legends entitled, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness.

The 13-part, 45,000 word series profiles the remarkable gallery of athletes who came out of essentially the same inner city neighborhoods during a brief period in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s:

Bob Gibson
Bob Boozer
Gale Sayers
Roger Sayers
Ron Boone
Marlin Briscoe
Johnny Rodgers

In addition to these well-known names, there are many more figures, including Marion Hudson, whose stories and feats deserve more recognition, and my series, originally published in 2004-2005, is an attempt to put all these athletes’ accomplishments in proper perspective. Athletes of more recent vintage are also profiled. I will be adding a few stories that didn’t officially appear as part of the series but that fit thematically within it and help to provide more context.

Some series posts are currently featured on my home page. You can find the series in the categories Omaha Black Sports Legends or Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. There’s half-a-dozen stories posted right now, but many more soon to come.

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)

August 15, 2010 3 comments

East quarterback Terrelle Pryor of Jeannette, ...

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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 2004-2005 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

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.”

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