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Adrian Martinez primed to take next step in leading Big Red back to respectability

April 16, 2019 Leave a comment

With all the love coming to Adrian Martinez heading into his second year at the helm of a Nebraska football team that year two coach Scott Frost is trying to mold into a contender, anticipation is running high. Martinez showed enough as an 18-year-old true freshman in leading a 4-8 team that came on strong late season that he’s a serious Heisman candidate in 2019 in many people’s eyes. The hype machine is in full gear. Expectations in Big Red Land tend to get out of hand. But this is not your average young man. He appears to have the smarts, the physical tools and the desire to be the best player in Lincoln in a generation. And this marriage between player, system and coaches – head man Scott Frost, QB coach Mark Verduzco and offensive coordinator Troy Walters – truly appears to be a match made in heaven. 

Adrian Martinez primed to take next step in leading Big Red back to respectability
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)
A year ago Husker football fans were on an anticipatory high when Nebraska lured back native son and program legend Scott Frost as head coach after he led Central Florida to an unbeaten season.
Frost then fanned the flames by promptly landing highly sought-after dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez to lead the uptempo spread offense the hot new coach brought. As an 18-year-old true freshman, Martinez beat-out redshirt freshman and fellow Californian Trestan Gebbia for the starting QB job.
Though NU had a past QB (Taylor Martinez) with the same last surname, Adrian Martinez is believed to be the first Husker trigger-man of Hispanic heritage.
“I think it’s something that can make me unique,” Martinez said of his ethnicity. “Also, it’s something I wear with pride. A lot of people that are Hispanic, including my grandparents and other family members, take a lot of pride in me having the Martinez name on my back. I try to carry that and do it justice.”
The only heritage Frost was concerned about was Martinez being the program’s first franchise player since Ndamukong Suh. With Martinez as the foundation and spark-plug, NU sought to recapture glory after only 19 wins in three years under previous coach Mike Riley. NU’s slide from college football elite to also-ran has seen it go two decades without a conference title. The once solid program has shuffled through five head coaches and staffs in this unstable span.
While year one of the Frost-Martinez rebuilding era didn’t go to plan in terms of wins-losses (4-8), the coach, the team and the star showed enough flashes of excellence that hopes are high for 2019. So high that some even peg Martinez, who set school records en route to passing for 2,617 yards and rushing for 629 more in 11 games, as a Heisman Trophy candidate. If he stays healthy, analysts project NU posting a winning mark, contending for the Big 10 West Division title and going bowling for the first time since 2016.
 
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It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a 6-2, 220-pound sophomore with but one Division I season under his belt. Yet one thing Martinez has shown is a maturity beyond his years. The calm way he handles himself in interviews, at practices, on the sideline or in the heat of action is a characteristic oft-referred to by coaches and teammates. It goes back to his days at Clovis West High School In Fresno, where he helped coach the team rather than sulk while rehabbing an injury as a senior.
“I owe a lot to my parents and to my family as a whole for the way they brought me up and taught me how to go about things,” Martinez said. “Whether that be in school or talking to the every day person, it didn’t matter. There’s a right and there’s a wrong and there’s a fine line and my parents really taught me all about that.”
Back home, he didn’t think it was anything “special or unique” when his parents’ friends praised his wise-for-his-age demeanor. That changed during the recruiting process and his ballyhooed arrival in Lincoln.
“Then it started being pointed out more by people I didn’t know,” he said. “I take it as a high compliment and I think my parents do as well. I want to continue to be like that. I want to continue to exhibit those type of traits and just continue to make my parents proud.”
In a press conference to open spring football practice  this month, Frost referred to Martinez’s continued progress in the offense under the guidance of QB coach Mark Verduzco. Frost also said that as a former Big Red QB himself, he’s trying to help Martinez navigate everything, good and bad, that comes with holding the signal-calling job in the glare of Husker Nation.
As for Martinez, the confidence he radiates is a function of his preparation.
“I think confidence truly comes from the work you put in day in and day out,” he said, “and if you truly believe you’re putting in enough work and you’re doing things the right way, then you’ll get the outcomes that you think you deserve and obviously earn.”
Despite his youth and inexperience, he’s seemingly never blinked in the face of of expectations or adversity.
“The confidence just came from working with Coach Verduzco and Coach Frost every day during fall camp, during spring ball, really putting in the time to try and learn the playbook and getting as good as I possibly could to be there for my teammates. That just translated into on-the-field confidence and obviously over time as I started to play a little bit more and gained a little bit more experience that confidence just grew.”
Though NU struggled mightily during an 0-6 start, the team remained cohesive and finished a strong 4-2 the second half of the year. That resilience, Martinez said, “really speaks to the character of the coaches and the quality of players we have here at Nebraska.”
“Things could have went differently. Things could have fallen apart there when things weren’t going our way. But we stuck together. The coaches kept believing in us, which I think is the most important thing. They didn’t try to degrade us or break us down. They wanted us to get better, We’re a team, we’re in it together. I think that point is what came across to the players and eventually over time we truly formed that bond and began forming that chemistry and finally put it out there on the field.”
Year two of the Frost regime and of Offensive Coordinator Troy Walters’ breakneck system is expected to start much smoother and reap more success. All eyes will be on Martinez to make things happen from the get-go. He denies feeling any pressure though.
“I would say pressure isn’t anything I’ve ever felt and I don”t feel it right now. I’m just confident we’re going to get the job done. I have faith in the people around me.”
Despite the loss of key offensive players to graduation in receiver Stanley Morgan, running back Devine Ozigbo and lineman Nick Gates, he believes enough returnees and newcomers will step up as new cogs.
After so much hype leading into last year, harsh reality quickly set in when the team opened 0-6. Whatever growing up the already mentally strong Martinez had to do, he did it on the fly, under great scrutiny.
“The toughest thing was going through that losing stretch. I encountered some things I wasn’t anticipating. Often I think you have this dream or image in your mind of how things are supposed to go, and a lot of times it doesn’t happen that way. But that’s nothing new. You have to learn to adjust and keep pushing forward.”
Nobody wants a repeat of last year’s disappointment and that’s why Martinez and his mates are taking lessons from what transpired in 2018.
“I truly believe things do happen for a reason and I think the experiences we went through last year will help us a ton going into this year. We experienced some tough losses and we know why we lost those games. Having that experience for the guys is going to be huge in just learning how to win.”
if anything, he said, the bumps in the road that occurred only fuel what the team wants to get done.
“If having the season we did at a place like Nebraska last year doesn’t motivate you to do better, I don’t know what will. I think this group of guys and me are hungrier than ever and we have some high expectations.”
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Martinez likes the evolution he’s made in his own performance.
“I really believe I got better with each game. But I would say the Purdue game (a 42-28 loss) was probably a tipping point for me. It was a tough game with lot of penalties. I threw a critical interception there. But I felt confident with my ability to throw the ball and I think from that point there I felt there wasn’t a throw or a read I couldn’t make. It was just a matter of doing it effectively and doing it on time.”
Improvement, he said, needs to come in certain game situations where his decision-making and execution can make the difference between a bust or a big play.
“I think the part that can always use the most improvement is situationally – being better in all situations of the game. Knowing when to throw the ball here, knowing what the time is, being better with my reads, being quicker. I think you can never know too much about the offense. It means really diving into the playbook and spending time in the film room and that’s  something I can improve on a lot from last year.”
After missing his final high school season and then going winless midway through his rookie college campaign, he doesn’t take anything for granted.
“You can’t be complacent. I don’t want this team to be and in no way do I want myself to be. I just have to keep that attitude and fall back on those people around me at the end of the day.”
Leadership is another area he’s looking to improve.
“You have to show up every day. Your effort has to be there. You have to be a leader, not only by example, but you have to have somewhat of a voice and make sure people are pulling their weight and you’re pulling your own.”
Martinez’s belief in himself is second only to his belief in quarterback guru Mark Verduzco, who came with Frost from Central Florida.

“I’m so appreciative of a guy like Coach Verduzco who really pushes me to be great on the football field. But he’s there for academics, for personal life, for everything. I couldn’t ask for a better coach and a better man to help guide me through this pretty critical process in my life.
“There’s always something I can improve on and Coach Verduzco makes sure I’m a aware of that and the fact that I can get better each day. The fact of the matter is we went 4-8 last year. I had some moments that were good, but I also had some moments that were bad. There’s a lot to get better at. There’s a lot of things still out there to accomplish. That’s really what drives me.”
Spring practice concludes with the April 13 Spring Game. Big Red opens the regular season at home August 31 versus South Alabama.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
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Marlin Briscoe: The Magician Finally Gets His Due

December 27, 2016 1 comment

Marlin Briscoe has a story straight out of Hollywood and so it’s only right that a major motion picture about his life is in the works. The Omaha native made history on the field by becoming the first black starting quarterback in the National Football League but he achieved an even greater feat off the field by recovering from a serious drug addiction he developed after retiring from the game. The title of the soon to start production film “The Magician” comes from the nickname Briscoe was given during his legend-in-the-making collegiate career at then-University of Omaha when he’d improvise plays in the broken field with his arm, legs and head for big gainers and touchdowns. He played much the same way the one and only year he was given a chance to play quarterback in the NFL. Undeterred when teams denied him the opportunity to play signalcaller again, he made himself into a top-notch wide receiver who won All-Pro honors with the Buffalo Bills and back to back Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins. All through his NFL caereer he encountered obstacles and he took them all on and won, including an anti-trust lawsuit. But the biggest fight of his life lay ahead and he licked that, too. At the time Briscoe made history and overcame his demons, little was made of it, but in the ensuing years more and more recognition and love have come his way, includng induction in the College Football Hall of Fame. The movie should help cement his case for eventual inclusion in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. My new Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) story about Marlin touches on these and other threads of his life.

Link to more Marlin Briscoe stories I’ve written at–
https://leoadambiga.com/?s=marlin+briscoe+

Link to my Omaha Black Sports Legends series at–

 

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Marlin Briscoe

The Magician Finally Gets His Due

December 22, 2016
©Photography by Contributed
Appearing in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Omaha native Marlin Briscoe made history in 1968 as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback. His success as a signal-caller carried huge symbolic and practical weight by disproving the then-popular misconception that blacks lacked the intelligence and leadership to play the position.

The same racist thinking not only applied to quarterbacks but to other so-called thinking-man positions on the field (center, safety, middle linebacker) and on the sidelines (head coach, general manager).

briscoe4Even in those racially fraught times, Briscoe’s myth-busting feat went largely unnoticed. So did the rest of the story. After overcoming resistance from coaches and management to even get the chance to play QB, he performed well at the spot during his rookie professional season, never to be given the opportunity to play it again. That hurt. But just as he overcame obstacles his whole life, he set about winning on his own terms by learning an entirely new position—wide receiver—in the space of a month and going on to a long, accomplished pro career. He made history a second time by being part of a suit that found the NFL guilty of anti-trust violations. The resulting ruling, in favor of players, ushered in the free agency era.

After retiring, Briscoe faced his biggest personal hurdle when a serious crack-cocaine addiction took him to the bottom of a downward spiral before he beat that demon, too.

Now, nearly a half-century since making history and a quarter-century since regaining sobriety, Briscoe’s story is finally getting its due. His 2002 autobiography spurred interest in his tale. Major media outlets have featured his story. Modern-day black quarterbacks have credited his pioneering path, and several lauded him in video tributes played at an event titled “An Evening with the Magician,” held in his honor in September at Omaha’s Baxter Arena. A life-size statue of his likeness was dedicated at the tribute event. Also in the fall of 2016, he received the Tom Osborne Leadership Award. In December he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Now, he’s preparing to watch actor Lyriq Bent portray him in a major motion picture about his life, The Magician, set to film this spring.

If the movie, produced by his old Omaha University teammate-turned-actor John Beasley, is a hit, it will bring Briscoe’s role as a civil rights soldier to a much wider audience than ever before. Now in his early 70s, Briscoe fully appreciates all that has led up to this moment. He has no doubt he’s ready for whatever may come. Growing up in South Omaha’s melting pot, no-nonsense mentors and peers steeled him for life’s vagaries. Fierce competition toughened him.

“The training I grew up with was the best training any young man or woman could have,” Briscoe says.

On playing fields and courts, in streets and classrooms, he found an inner resolve that served him well through life’s ups and downs.

“That’s where I learned resilience—from my mom, my sister, and all my mentors, and neighbors. They all had this type of mentality and grit. It rubbed off on me and some of the kids I grew up with. It prepared me for anything. If I had not learned core values from growing up where I did, the things I did, the obstacles I overcame would never have happened.”

His cousin Bob Rose and Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s oldest brother Josh Gibson were among a cadre of local coaches who inspired youngsters of Briscoe’s generation. 

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“You had to go through them if you wanted to do something wrong, and you didn’t want to go through them,” Briscoe says. “Our mentors were down at the Northside Y, at Kellom School, Kountze Park, St. Benedict’s. They cared about where we were going in life.”

When Briscoe was bullied as boy, Rose gave him a “magic box” filled with the tools of various sports—a baseball, football, basketball, and boxing gloves—with the admonition that if he mastered these, he wouldn’t be bothered. He did and wasn’t. The magic box became the gateway for the Magician to do his thing.

Briscoe grew up respecting adults, all adults, even winos, hustlers, and prostitutes.

“They told you to do something, you did it, and went on about your business,” he says.

He conducted himself in a way that in turn earned him respect as a young leader. Virtually all the athletic teams he played on growing up consisted primarily of white players, which meant his entire athletic life he was advancing diversity. Long before he found immortality with the Broncos, he was the first black quarterback on youth teams, at South High, and then at Omaha University (now known as UNO).

Though he lived in South Omaha, Briscoe made a point of going to the proving grounds of North Omaha, where there were even more great athletes and a particular endurance test and rite of passage.

“Off Bedford [Avenue] by Adams Park, there used to be The Hills. It was like the barrier and motivational place where top ballplayers like Gale Sayers and myself would go and work out. Sometimes, I would be up there early in the morning by myself running those hills. I always tell young people today, ‘It is what you do when nobody sees you that defines and determines your work ethic and how you will turn out.’

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“There were plenty of guys with more ability than myself—who were bigger, stronger, faster—and while they worked hard when eyes were on them, they slacked off when they were alone. A lot of guys who never made it regretted not putting out the effort to match their ability.”

Briscoe might never have made history if not for some good fortune. He started at quarterback for Omaha University his sophomore and junior years, putting up good numbers and earning the nickname “Magician” for an uncanny ability to escape trouble and extend plays with highlight reel throws and runs. Just before what was supposed to be his senior year, 1966, he got undercut in an all-star basketball game at Bryant Center and took a hard spill. He went numb and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors decreed he was injury-free. He started the ’66 season football opener versus Idaho State with no ill effects. He had a monster game. Then, late in the contest, he took a hit that caused his neck to swell. When rushed to the ER this time, X-rays revealed a fractured vertebra. He’d competed with a broken neck.

Doctors told him his days playing contact sports were over. He accepted the harsh news and dived into his studies, ready to move on with life sans football. Then during a medical checkup, tests confirmed his bones recalcified, and he was cleared to play again. He got a medical hardship waiver from the NAIA and went on to have a huge senior season in 1967, earning small college All-American honors and getting picked in the 14th round of the NFL draft.

He’s convinced he wouldn’t have taken snaps in Denver, which drafted him as a defensive back, if he hadn’t negotiated his own contract to include a clause he be given a three-day tryout at quarterback. He so dazzled the media and the public during the open practices that once the season began and Denver QBs went down due to injury or were benched for poor play, he got his shot and ran with it.

Briscoe’s larger-than-himself magic enabled him to make history in a crucible year for America—a year of riots, anti-war protests, assassinations, and civil rights struggles.

“For some reason, divine intervention maybe, it just seemed the stars were aligned in 1968 for a black man to break the barrier at that position,” he says. “It just seems 1968 was the pivotal year for all African-Americans, for all Americans period. For me to do it in ’68 is just eerie, the way that happened.”

So much of his NFL experience, he says, involved fighting “injustices.” Released by Denver and denied playing quarterback again, he excelled at a new position. Blackballed by the league for challenging its power, he won a hard-fought battle for himself and fellow players.

He insists he was not resentful for being shortchanged at quarterback.

“I wasn’t bitter, I was disappointed,” he says. “When you’re bitter, you give up, you take all this stuff personally, and you quit. I tell young people, ‘You’re going to have disappointments, and you’re going to be treated unfairly, but you can’t be bitter about it.’ Instead, you roll up your sleeves and fight whatever negative things come your way. Plan A doesn’t work? You go to Plan B. Life is just that way.”

Only after walking away from the game to be a broker in Los Angeles did he meet a foe—crack cocaine—that got the better of him. Before his recovery, he lost everything: his home, his fortune, his family. 

briscoe5“Here I was on a park bench trying to get some sleep in the heart of L.A. after owning homes and property,” he says.

What was so maddening about it is that he had done everything right. “It was not like I left the game with nothing,” he says. “I left the game correctly, sitting on easy street. I had wise investments. I prepared to leave the game by going to school and getting additional degrees. I was not hurt. I was in perfect physical condition.”

But in the vacuum of his post-athletic life, without the daily disciplines of workouts and team dynamics, he slipped into an unhealthy lifestyle.

“I let my guard down. I wasn’t really prepared for the L.A. scene because my whole life was always about precision, being responsible,” he says. “Then, when I didn’t have to meet all these different obligations and being single, I wasn’t rooted in one direction—I was just partying. You know, bring it on.”

No one who knew Briscoe before could believe he was in the grip of something that controlled him so completely, least of all himself.

“I had been a player rep. I was the one they always came to just as I was when I was a kid. I was the one people always came to for sage advice. And I never did drugs in the NFL,” Briscoe says.

But there he was, enslaved to a habit he couldn’t kick. Through it all, even losing his Super Bowl rings as collateral for a bank loan, he never forgot who he was inside and what he had done. Though homeless, penniless, and stuck in a jail cell when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead a team to an NFL title, Briscoe felt he shared in that victory, too.

“I felt proud on one hand, and disappointed in myself on the other hand,” he says.

He sank lower than he ever thought possible, but he came back to whip that challenge, too: “The thing is, I always knew I would let go of that descent. I always knew and prayed I’d get back to that person all Omaha knew as this accomplished individual who conquered the NFL and enjoyed all these triumphs. The people that knew me are so elated now I’ve overcome my post-career meltdown because I had been a champion for them, fighting the NFL. I was always fighting for them and fighting for myself. I put myself in positions as a player where my voice could be heard.”

Even though it was decades ago, he believes defying and defeating the NFL’s monied interests left a blemish on his career that got further stained when he was traded several times as persona non grata.

“I’m not bragging or anything, but if I had been any other player, I guarantee you, I’d have been in the NFL Hall of Fame a long time ago. Nobody had ever done it—making history as the first black starting quarterback. People don’t realize I was also the first black holder on extra points. Counting cornerback and wide receiver, I played four different positions in the NFL, and I’m not sure anybody did that before. Then you add in the fact I made All-Pro as a receiver within two years of switching positions and went on to win two Super Bowls.”

Efforts are underway to rectify his absence as a Canton inductee via a write-in campaign to the Hall’s Veterans Committee.

Just as Briscoe wasn’t bitter about being shut out from playing quarterback after his rookie year, he wasn’t bitter that other blacks followed him into the league at that position.

“If I had not succeeded in 1968, James Harris would not have gotten drafted by the Bills as a quarterback out of Grambling in 1969. If I would have failed, they would have brought James in as a tight end. But the fact I was a litmus test and succeeded, they could take a chance on a black quarterback, and James was drafted.

“Ironically, he and I ended up being roommates in Buffalo. We knew each other’s plight. We would have conversations after practice. I would tell him different things that were going to happen to him and to be prepared for them.”

While Briscoe is known as the first black starting QB, another black man, Willie Thrower, briefly got into two games as a QB with the Bears 15 years before Briscoe’s experience with the Broncos. High off his rookie year success, Briscoe had a chance meeting with Thrower in Chicago. The two men hit it off.

briscoe6Briscoe, Harris, Doug Williams, and Warren Moon have formed an organization called The Field General that uses the still-exclusive legacy of the black quarterback to educate and inspire young people. Blacks still comprise but a fraction of the professional QB ranks. The same is true of head coaches, coordinators, and general managers. That fact, combined with the journey each man had to make to get to those rarified places, reveals just how far the nation and league still have to go.

Never in his wildest dreams did Briscoe imagine his story would get so much attention this many years after he played.

“It just goes to show that, if you never give up, a lot of these things will come your way. Sometimes things come late, like this movie project about my life,” he says.

Briscoe says he only agreed to let his story be told in a movie if it stayed true to who he is and to what happened.

“It’s not for self-gratification,” he says. “It’s hopefully as an inspiration for others that you can overcome any obstacle if you really want it. I look back on my life and see what it can do for others. It’s not just a football movie. If it were, I probably wouldn’t be a part of that interpretation of my life. My life is a lot more than just football.”

He’s sure the movie’s message of “if you never give up, you’ve got a chance” will resonate with diverse audiences. He’s proud to be living proof that anything can happen when you keep fighting.

Visit marlinbriscoemovie.com for more information.

 

Marlin Briscoe: Still making history

December 10, 2016 1 comment

 

Marlin Briscoe: Still making history

Now that he’s in the College Football Hall of Fame, will the Pro Football Hall of Fame be next?

Marlin Briscoe was just inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday in New York City and a strong contingent of Omahans made the trek to honor one of their own. Here is a tribute video of Marlin that UNO Athletics created from the two-day ceremony earlier this fall that paid homage to this sports legend who, pound for pound, might have been the greatest athlete to ever come out of Nebraska.

Now that he’s in the College Football Hall of Fame, will the Pro Football Hall of Fame be next? I think it will happen sooner rather than later now. Certainly, all the attention that’s come his way the last couple decades helps and with the movie of his life in the works, it should be plenty to put him over the top with the Veterans Committee. What he did by making it in the NFL as a defensive back, a quarterback, a wide receiver and a holder, and playing nine productive seasons in the league, is more than enough to get him in. The fact that he was the first black starting QB should seal the deal. But in my opinion, his transitioning from a very good quarterback who nearly won Rookie of the Year honors to being a Pro-Bowl caliber wide receiver is enough all by itself to get him in.

Link here to an appreciatIon I wrote about Marlin on the occasion of that UNO recognition–
https://leoadambiga.com/…/marlin-briscoe-finally-getting-h…/

You can also link to this profile I wrote about Marlin as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness–
https://leoadambiga.com/…/prodigal-son-marlin-briscoe-take…/

And you can link to the entire Out to Win collection of stories at–
https://leoadambiga.com/out-to-win-the-roots-of-greatness-…/

Look for my coming Omaha Magazine feature on Marlin. And look for updates on the movie to be made about his remarkable life, “The Magician” is due to start shooting in the spring.

And look for a new post making the case for Marlin as the best athlete, pound for pound, that Nebraska’s ever produced.

Former Omaha University quarterback Marlin Briscoe is among the class of 2016 inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. During…
YOUTUBE.COM
Some photos courtesy UNO of Marlin and Friends at the College Football Hall of Fame event:

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Living legend Tom Osborne still winning game of life at 79

October 27, 2016 2 comments

 Thirty-five years into practicing my craft as a journalist in my home state of Nebraska and I finally got to interview and profile state icon Tom Osborne. I mean, when it comes to the most famous living Nebraskans, there is Osborne, Warren Buffett, Alexander Payne and, well, that’s about it, unless you want to include Dick Cavett, Roger Welsch, Ernie Chambers, Pete Ricketts, Cathy Hughes, Bob Gibson, Johnny Rodgers, Tom Mangelsen, Nick Nolte, Marg Helgenberger and Gabrielle Union. I’ve interviewed them all with the exception of Nolte (long to do so) and Ricketts (don’t really care to). So it was satisfying to get this opportunity to take the measure of Osborne, especially since I grew up on Nebraska football and for most of that time he was the undisputed face and architect of the program. There is nothing groundbreaking in my cover story appearing in the November 2016 issue of the New Horizons (it should hit newsstands and arrive in mailboxes by October 31-November 1). But I believe I did achieve what I set out to do, which was create a humanistic portrait of this genuine living legend that keeps in proportion the fact he is a man, not a monument. His legendary status is not for anything heroic he did, after all, it’s for doing his very public job at a high level over a long period of time. In that sense, he’s just like hundreds of thousands of other Nebraskans who get up and go to work each day, most of whom never get their name in the paper until they die because their work isn’t covered by the media and obsessed over by fans. That’s how it goes in this game of life. When I followed Nebraska football more closely during its glory years, it was often hard for me to get a bead on Osborne through media reporting and television-radio interviews he gave. It took me a long time to appreciate his gifts because they are the subtle gifts of someone who is at his best in private, intimate moments with a player or coach or parent. He is all about the quiet communication, relationship building, intense analysis and unconditional love that happens one on one. That studied yet intuitive skill set is very personal and when combined with his naturally introverted demeanor it doesn’t pop out like the extroverts of his profession and their loud, over-the-top, folksy antics or mannerisms that sometimes seem a facade or a put-on. I believe I have captured in Osborne’s own words and in the words of those close to him some of the qualities that have come to define who he is and what he represents. I portray a man who has settled very comfortably into the role of elder statesman. He wears the mantle well.
Tom Osborne

Living legend Tom Osborne still winning game of life at 79

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2016 issue of New Horizons (a free monthly published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging)

 

 

Right man for the job

What do you say about a living legend that’s not already been said?

When it comes to former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, aka T.O. or Dr. Tom, his whole life story and career is already delineated in print and online. That exposure comes with the territory from being a College Football Hall of Fame coach at a big time legacy program like Nebraska’s.

Next fall marks 20 years since he last patrolled the sidelines as coach. He misses some aspects of it and others not so much.

“I miss the game, I miss the strategy, but the main thing was the relationships,” he said, still looking fit and ruddy-faced at 79. “It didn’t mean winning wasn’t important because if you didn’t win a fair amount you weren’t going to stay employed, so that was something always in the back of your mind.”

NU couldn’t have found a better fit than Osborne. The native son grew up in small town Nebraska as a star athlete at Hastings High and Hastings College, where his grandfather captained the football team more than a half-century earlier, His father loved athletics and vicariously enjoyed his son’s exploits. Osborne won both state high school and college athlete of the year honors. He played three years in the National Football League as a wide receiver before joining the University of Nebraska football staff as a grad assistant under Bob Devaney. He earned a master’s and Ph.D. in educational psychology while serving in the Nebraska National Guard.

Osborne’s intelligence and mastery soon showed itself. In less than a decade on the full-time staff he moved from position coach to offensive coordinator and then to head coach when Devaney hand-picked him as his replacement. The 36-year-old successfully followed the winningest coach in school history and eventually surpassed his achievements.

“He knew that Tom was the right guy for the position,” said Frank Solich, the man whom Osborne passed the baton to when he stepped down as coach. “He had a great deal of trust in him and just turned the program completely over to him. I think there remained a great relationship between the two and it made it an easy working relationship for Tom.”

Moving on

There was a symmetry to Osborne’s leaving. Just as Devaney retired on top, so did Osborne. He followed precedent by handing the reins to his longtime assistant, Solich. The former Ohio prep star played at NU and after finding success as a high school coach he led the Husker freshman team before joining the regular NU coaching staff.

Osborne said he meant for the 1996 season to be his last. He’d promised Solich five years earlier he was quitting. But when top players he expected to declare for the NFL draft instead returned for their senior season, he felt obligated to stay. He did and the rest is history. He had NU on such a roll then it was hard giving it up, but there was that promise he made to Solich.

“I kind of felt like I couldn’t back down from what I told him – that was the primary reason I left. Also, I developed atrial fibrillation that year, which I thought was a little bit of a physical sign. But even if I hadn’t had the atrial fib, I felt at that point I had to turn it over to Frank at that point.”

Unlike Devaney, who stayed on as athletic director, Osborne made a clean break. He refused at least two opportunities to remain near or in the game.

“When I retired from coaching I was given the chance to go on the radio and be a color commentator and I refused simply because anything I would say could be interpreted as critical of Frank Solich or as somehow overboard in his favor, and I didn’t want to be put in that position.”

He could have coached again if he wanted.

“When I got out of coaching, Michigan State offered me the job up there. I knew the president of the school. I was tempted. It would have been quite a bit more money than I made here. But my grandchildren were here. I knew Nancy’s heart was here. And I just didn’t know if it would be a good idea. So I stayed here. I felt I needed to end my career as Nebraska coach.”

Besides, Osborne in anything but black, scarlet and cream just wouldn’t do. He “decided to do something different” by entering an entirely different competitive field – politics. He ran for and won Nebraska’s 3rd District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. During his six years in office he made an unsuccessful bid to be Governor of Nebraska. He returned to NU as athletic director following the Bill Callahan debacle and hired Bo Pelini, whose character issues he later lamented.

Just as Devaney didn’t meddle when Osborne led the program, T.O. took a hands-off role with Pelini.

Osborne appreciated Devaney giving him free reign.

“I’m sure he had thoughts on who ought to be playing and what plays we ought to run but he never made public his speculating or criticizing, so I’ve pretty much taken that approach. Unless you’re in every meeting and you know the injury report and you’re at every practice you really don’t have enough information to intelligently comment on what’s going on. I have views on things but it’s something I wont necessarily talk about.

“It’s about respecting the coach’s right to be able to function without somebody like me looking over their shoulders and commenting, so I kind of stay away from that.”

 

Nebraska football lives in Osborne lost fantasy world

 

What makes him tick

Today, three years removed from his AD duties, Osborne’s a Husker icon with no official active ties to NU, The respected patriarch and beloved former CEO is held in high esteem by administrators, athletic officials, coaches and fans. He’s been a model of “values, consistency and integrity” said one of his favorite players, Turner Gill.. True to Osborne’s deep Christian beliefs, football was always more about the journey, not the won-loss record. He even wrote a book titled More Than Winning that took its cue from an earlier coaching treatise.

“I read a book by John Wooden (the late UCLA hoops coach)years ago and he talked about the fact he never mentioned winning to his players – he always talked about the process, How you put your socks on so you didn’t get blisters, how you bend your knees on free throws, and those kinds of things. We kind of broke the game down to the fundamentals we felt you needed to accomplish each day. The main emphasis during the week was on how we prepared, it wasn’t so much on winning games. So if we did the little things and the details correctly, the winning would take care of itself.”

That formula worked to the tune of 255 wins in 25 seasons. He was under enormous stress to win and he did.

He weathered the pressure and arm-chair critiques that come with the territory. He endured under heavy fire from 1973-1979 when he went 1-7 and 3-4 against chief rivals Oklahoma and Missouri, respectively. It got so bad he seriously considered bolting for Colorado. But he stuck it out and finally got over his OU and MU nemesis and can’t-win-the-big-one albatross.

During that rough stretch he was befriended by an important figure in his life.

“(D.B.)’Woody’ Varner was the chancellor at UNL when I was starting out as a head coach. We had good teams but we lost to Oklahoma the first five years and that was wearing very thin on people. It wasn’t just a matter of having a winning season and going to a bowl game, it was ‘Did you beat Oklahoma?’ and if you didn’t beat Oklahoma you didn’t have a good year, no matter how many you won.

“But Woody was always very supportive. Quite often he’d come over after one of those tough losses. Here he was wanting to spend time with this young guy. He probably had a lot of other things as chancellor he could have been doing, He was a very good friend and mentor.”

 

Champions-Jason Peter's arm around Coach Tom Osborne!:

 

What Osborne misses least is the win-at-all-costs mentality.

“Just the fact there were times when it became a one-game season and some of the public reaction. You know, if you win a game you’re the greatest and if you lost a big game then people were mad at you and you’d get all kinds of crazy mail. So the unevenness of the experience – you’re either up or down and not too much life in the middle. Most people live most of their lives somewhere in the middle and in coaching sometimes there isn’t a whole lot of middle.”

The pressure to keep up with the competition invites scenarios where some coaches are willing to cut corners.

“I remember one of our coaches came to me and said. ‘You know, if we cant beat ’em, maybe we ought to join ’em.’ He was referring to some things happening in recruiting that weren’t entirely ethical. Schools were bending the rules and on occasion we were losing players to those schools.

I said, ‘No. We may get fired, but we’re going to go out of here with our heads up by doing things the right way.’ I felt essentially in coaching your primary duty is that of a teacher and if you were conveying to young people that bending the rules was the way to get ahead, you weren’t really fulfilling your academic mission. I wanted to be consistent in what we were saying and what we were doing.”

The big money, recruiting excesses and unrealistic expectations that surround college football give him pause.

He finds much of the business side “unpleasant.”

Like any good teacher, Osborne took the most satisfaction in helping young people develop.

“I remember Tom Landry (Dallas Cowboys coaching legend) telling me one time he didn’t feel he made a difference in any player he coached in the NFL in regards to their character because by the time they came to him at 23-24 their character was pretty well formed. I didn’t feel that way in college. I saw a lot of players come to us as one person at 17-18 who left a somewhat different person at age 21-22. That was one reason why I was never that interested in going into professional athletics because I felt there was more going on in college in terms of education and culture and those kinds of things.”

Frank Solich, the man Osborne selected to succeed him and the current head coach at Ohio University, said, “Tom was way ahead of the game in terms of looking after our players academically. It was as important to him that we had success in the classroom as well as on the football field. He wasn’t just after the wins. He was also after doing what he could to help his players get ready for what was out there in the real world. He was able to cover both of those bases and his players appreciated it and his coaches appreciated it.”

The buttoned-down Osborne has always played things close to the vest in public but he’s regarded as a warm person in private.

 

 

 

“He’s a very caring person,” said Solich, “I think there’s no question his players as well as his coaches knew he cared for them beyond just playing the game and coaching the game. That came across all the time. He’s a very loyal guy. He developed loyalty within his players and especially his coaches. Aa lot of us hung around a long long time and obviously there were reasons for that. Number one was how Tom treated people.

“He looked after his players and coaches. He wanted people to succeed and reach their highest potential and did everything he could in order to help us reach our individual goals. He developed such relationships that those players and coaches would do anything for him. He’s just a special guy that I think would have been special in anything he went into. He’s still helping people now with the Teammates program. I think that’s embedded in him – to help people – and so he continues.”

Solich said he tries emulating his old boss.

“Just as you could always go to him, I have an open door policy here for my players, for my coaches. They can always come to me I hope and feel comfortable in doing that and be able to really discuss anything. Tom was very much that way for the people that worked for him.”

 

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Turner Gill

 

Turner Gill quarterbacked Osborne’s 1981-1983 high-octane teams that contended for three straight national titles. Now a veteran coach at Liberty University, Gill said, “He always told people their value. He has a unique way that whenever he meets anybody, even for the first time and for a few minutes, he makes them feel like they’ve know this man for a long time. He has that presence about him. He has that unbelievable way of being able to touch people and make them feel valued.”

Gill felt such a kinship with Osborne that he asked him to be a groomsman in his wedding.

“I just wanted him to know how I really believed in him and felt about him for me to ask him. If he’d had said no it would not have been a disappointment, but I was pleasantly surprised he accepted. It’s just a fond memory and special moment not just for me and my wife but for all the people there who witnessed it.

“We’ve known each other in a deep way and continue to value each other. I feel privileged and honored to continue our relationship to this day.”

 

 

On being a servant leader

Osborne said as coach he practiced transformational leadership, where “the leader essentially serves – your main objective is to have the best possible outcome.” His best teams so bought into it that they became unstoppable forces.

He said, “If people know you care about them and value them then they are much more responsive because they feel whatever you’re asking them to do is to promote their long-term interests. It’s important the leader be able to model the behavior and be consistent. If somebody has to take the hit for something negative that happens, you don’t point the finger at somebody else, you accept responsibility.”

Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers recalls Osborne as always “doing what he was saying.” “It was clear what his values-base was.”

Osborne said effective communication is key to leadership. His subdued personalty didn’t fit the popular coaching stereotype.

“You do a lot of listening. You try to understand what it’s like to walk in people’s shoes. You can’t be telling or ordering people around. You have to have good communication skills. Being positive is important because the best way to change behavior is to catch somebody doing something right and reinforcing it. So often people equate coaching to hollering, screaming, swearing. When you’re constantly on people’s backs, they begin to tune you out, so I tried not to coach that way.”

When he saw a need to correct, he did it subtly.

“People want to be treated with respect. They want to be given a clearly defined job and then the autonomy within that area to operate. I don’t think I ever walked around and interfered with a drill or second-guessed a coach in front of the players. If I had   something I felt I needed to talk about, I did it privately.”

As Osborne’s teams often demonstrated, character, hard work and love can trump talent.

“There’s no question maybe the most important thing your team can have is good team chemistry and unity of purpose and that essentially is a very spiritual act. You focus on physical skills, you focus on the mental side – knowing assignments and making sure you understand what it is you have to do in an actual game. But I think there’s also a spiritual side, too, and the transformational leadership develops that”sense of people caring for each other and for the shared the task at hand.

He said it’s about moving people away “from thoughts that it’s all about me to making this organization, program or team the best it can be.”

He said his longtime offensive line coach at NU, Milt Tenopir, “was a really good teacher and a good representative of the kind of things I’m talking about.”

Osborne acknowledges he picked up traits from Bob Devaney that helped make him a better coach.

“I learned something from Bob about good people skills and a good sense of humor. He had a good feel for when to lighten up on the players and tell them a joke or whatever and when he should bear down on them a little bit. So it wasn’t always grinding and it wasn’t always the same all the time. He had a good touch with people.”

 

Nebraska-Cornhuskers-1992-Media-Guide-Featuring-Bob-Devaney-Tom-Osborne-Rare

Devaney and Osborne

 

Building a culture

Osborne inherited the walk-on program and expanded it. He saw how the work habits of hungry student-athletes motivated to be Huskers could rub off on scholarship players.

“I think every organization develops its own culture and some of that depends on the values system and principles of the leadership. But I think in a very real sense the walk-on players had an awful lot to do with shaping the culture of Nebraska football because these guys constituted about 50 percent of our football team. They were mostly from Nebraska, so they grew up wanting to play at Nebraska. Most of them would give up scholarships at other schools, usually smaller institutions, to come play. Almost by definition they were overachievers. They would go the extra mile, work a little bit harder, be a little bit more loyal, be willing to sometimes be on the scout team for three or four years just to have a chance to get a letter and maybe rundown on a kickoff and be part of the program.

“As a result I think the attitude of these walk-on players began to permeate those who came from outside of Nebraska or maybe came for other reasons. Sometimes players came to be part of a high profile program, be on TV more and maybe get a faster avenue to the National Football League. But I often talked to those guys and they would mention that the work ethic and attitude of the walk-ons really began to affect them.”

Many walk-ons came out of obscurity, buried deep on the depth chart, to work themselves into the starting lineup, even stardom.

“In every case they had a great deal of determination, a great work ethic and good character,” Osborne said, “and I think that made all the difference. Character is always a big ingredient.”

Make no mistake, Osborne not only knew how to motivate and lead, he knew Xs and Os as well as anyone. He was an offensive innovator and risk-taker. He called memorable trick plays in critical situations. He boldly converted from a pro style to an option-based spread attack with dual-threat signal-callers who are now all the rage today. Rather than settle for a tie and probable share of the national title, he went for two points and the win in the heartbreaking 31-30 Orange Bowl loss to Miami.

Leaving it all behind

As surprising as those moves were, his sudden announcement he would retire following the 1997 season shocked most everybody. That’s because it came in the midst of a historic five-year run of excellence. Counting what his final team did in going 13-0 and winning a share of the national championship, he led the Huskers to an unprecedented 60-3 record and three national titles in that 1993-1997 span. Though a head coach 25 seasons, he was still only 60 years old. Many of his veteran peers went on to coach into their 70s. Yet here he was calling it quits just as NU became the dynasty program of an entire era.

In his usual pinched way, he articulated well-arrived at reasons for stepping away. None of them eased the pain of Husker fans losing the man who brought Nebraska to the pinnacle. But he methodically, dispassionately explained his decision to leave was the result of fulfilling promises he made. He also assured the program would be handed off to trusted colleagues who would maintain the carefully developed culture there.

One of his biggest disappointments came when Solich was unceremoniously fired after six seasons.

“I left the program in good shape and in good hands and we had good teams under Frank. He had some injuries that first year, then two 10-win plus seasons, played for a national championship, won the Big 12. He won 76 percent of his games, which is what some of the great coaches of the game did. Frank’s teams played at the top level, went to several BCS bowl games, played for a national championship. If you/re around for only six years and you do that, you’re a good coach, so it was unfortunate he was let go.”

 

From the Archives: Second chance revitalized Phillips, friends say

 

One that got away

Besides losing a beloved former player, Brook Berringer, to a fatal plane crash shortly after his senior season, perhaps Osborne’s greatest disappointment was Lawrence Phillips. The tragedy that became his life and death haunts the ex-coach.

“Lawrence had some issues, primarily with rejection and abandonment. Somehow his mom had chosen a boyfriend over him and he was kicked out of the home when he was 10. He was pretty much homeless for two years. Then he got put in a group home. It was a pretty rough place. Everyone was there for criminal activity. He was 12 when he went in and I think there was some abuse.

“He was pretty well crippled. He didn’t have a lot of trust for people. We knew Lawrence had a difficult background but we also knew the people at the group home said that he had not committed any crime, that he was very adamant against drugs and alcohol and gangs. The coaches at his high school were very complimentary of him, too. He completed two years of school in his senior year because he missed most of two years. He tested out as academically gifted. He had the characteristics of a very good player – unselfish, great work ethic. So we weren’t necessarily out there recruiting a problem.”

Osborne said when Phillips was charged with two misdemeanors for entering a female student’s apartment and dragging her down three flights of stairs, he was kicked off the team with conditions for possible reinstatement.

“He met all the conditions, including going to counseling. When he went to the NFL I told his agent he needed to stay in counseling.”

Phillips stopped going to counseling and between the lack of mental health support, the big money and the rejection of being cut and suspended several times, he spiraled downward.

“He attracted a certain group of hangers-on, most of whom were from that group home, and I don’t think they did him any great service,” said Osborne, who remained in contact with Phillips.

“One thing led to another. Primarily he experienced rejection.  He had a lot of that going on and he didn’t handle it well, so he went to prison.”

In prison, where Phillips killed someone and later committed suicide, prison officials ignored his insistence that he not be given a gang member for a cellmate.

“There was a fight and the other guy died.” Osborne said. “Lawrence got the feeling there was no way he was going to get out of prison, so he took his own life. It’s a very sad story because he had a lot of things going for him, but he just wasn’t able to overcome his previous experience.”

 

Tom Osborne

 

Mentoring 

Phillips was not the first or last NU player from a troubled past. Osborne earlier helped Johnny Rodgers stick to the straight and narrow after a hold-up he was charged in came to light. “We ran a lot of laps together,” Osborne wryly noted. Osborne was his position coach and by the time he was assigned to shepherd the player, Rodgers said “we were already hooked at the hip and then we had to get a little deeper because things got a little bit more complex.” “He gave me direction. He was my mentor and he’s been one of my mentors ever since.” Rodgers added.

Osborne wrote the foreword for a new book by Rodgers. Reading the book, Osborne said, “there were some things in his background I had not realized he went through.” “He came up from a difficult circumstance – pretty much without a dad and with a very young mother,” he said. “Johnny sometimes required a little discipline but we stayed with him and it’s been a journey. But he’s certainly made considerable strides in his lifetime and done some good things.”

 

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Johnny Rodgers

 

Osborne went into some rough hoods after recruits.

“I went to a lot of inner city areas and there would be times when the mother would make sure the player was down at the curbside to walk me up because if I walked up into the housing project unaccompanied it could be a pretty dicey situation. But you did what you had to.”

The longer he coached, he saw more products of broken homes.

“We began to see a lot of changes in family structure. In the ’60s you very seldom ran across a player who didn’t have both biological parents living under the same roof with them and by the time the ’90s began to unfold you began to see more and more kids who were in families that had split up and a lot of them that didn’t have fathers. Some of these young persons quite often were not familiar with discipline and how to relate to authority and those kinds of things.

“Many of them had mothers struggling just to keep their head above water financially and not always able to devote a lot of time to their kids.”

Other societal-cultural trends added to the challenges.

“Talk radio and social media started to come along. With the influence of technology a lot of kids don’t have the same emotional intelligence. So much of their communication is electronic anymore. It used to be when you got on an airplane or a bus there was a lot interaction, people talking, and now it’s sometimes dead silent. People have headphones on or else they’re texting someone maybe three-four feet in front of them. That kind of communication doesn’t have the emotional content. It’s very much scripted and as a result some people don’t have the ability to carry on a conversation or understand where somebody’s coming from, what they’re feeling, so they’re blunted emotionally.”

 

Tom Osborne’s wife, children and grandchildren were all on the field for a Saturday tribute at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. Photo Courtesy Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

 

Teammates

Osborne’s interest in giving young people a solid emotional footing led him and his wife Nancy to form the Teammates Mentoring Program for at-risk youth.

“We feel you can’t always legislate strong families but you can provide a mentor. In many cases it’s the difference between life and death and some pretty serious outcomes. We’re in our 25th year.”

Of the program’s first cohort of 22 students, 20 graduated on time and 18 went onto higher education – trade school,  community college or four-year universities. One even went to Oxford.

“We thought, well, maybe there’s something to this, so we expanded the program, first here in Lincoln, and we began to mentor young men and young women from third grade through high school. We ended up last spring mentoring 8,000 kids. We’re in 45 school districts across Nebraska, into iowa and some in Kansas. So it’s grown a lot and that’s where I spend most of my time.”

He actively recruits mentors and more are needed now than ever he said, “because we’re growing and trying to get over 12,000 matches over the next few years.” He added, “You always lose some mentors every year. Some have been with their mentee for years and want to do something else. We try to re-engage them but some don’t come back. There’s always people that move or get transferred. Just to stay at 8,000 we’re going to have to replace about 800 to a thousand mentors and then try to add another thousand on top of that.”

 

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Tom and Nancy Osborne

 

Purpose and meaning

He strongly advocates volunteering for retirees who have some time on their hands.

“Retirement is tricky. Some people don’t last very long after they retire. I think you’ve got to feel that life still has purpose and meaning and you still can make contributions. Most people can in some way until the day they draw their last breath. It can be as simple as making a few phone calls to people who are hurting, delivering meals on wheels, teaching Sunday school or mentoring a young person. And yet we’ve been having trouble with the Baby Boomers. Some of them are responsive but not to the degree you would think you would see.”

He said he’s learned some things about retirement.

“You always hear stories of people who look forward to retirement and then they find out it isn’t what they thought it was going to be. Playing golf every day and traveling is okay for awhile but then at some point you wonder does this mean. Making a contribution and living with meaning and purpose is important. It think it’s really important if you retire that you have some hobbies and a willingness to engage in something that requires service and sacrifice for somebody else. Otherwise it becomes a very self-absorbed lifestyle, which i don’t think is particularly healthy.”

University of Nebraska at Omaha Department of Gerontology professor and chair Julie Masters often taps his experience by asking him to speak about aging and end of life.

“I asked him to share his thoughts with the death and dying classes I teach for our department at UNL. I also have him share the benefits of serving as a Teammates volunteer. Each semester he wows the students with his wisdom and insight about life and living and meaning and purpose.”

She likens his sage advice to that of the late Morrie Schwartz in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie. “Students see this required book come alive in Dr. Osborne’s words. I greatly admire him for his wisdom and compassion. He is an extraordinary example of someone who is aging with grace and dignity. Indeed, he is a role model for young and old alike.”

The old coach walked away with few regrets and appears quite satisfied with the quiet place he’s landed after so the limelight.

He still talks regularly with former players and coaches and enjoys catching up with their lives.

“We talk about a little bit of everything,” Turner Gill said.

What impresses everyone who knows him is his constancy.

“If he says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it –  he’s not going to vary off of it.” Gill said. “You don’t have to write it down, you can just count on it, because he understands his true purpose each and every day.”

 

 

UPDATE TO: Marlin Briscoe finally getting his due

September 20, 2016 2 comments

UPDATE:  I was fortunate enough to attend the Thursday, Sept. 22 An Evening with the Magician event honoring Marlin Briscoe. It was a splendid affair. Omaha’s Black Sports Legends are out in force this week in a way that hasn’t been seen in years, if ever. A Who’s-Who was present for the Magician event at Baxter Arena. They’re back out at Baxter on Sept. 23 for the unveiling of a life-size statue of Marlin. And they’re together again before the kickoff of Omaha South High football game at Collin Field. Marlin is a proud UNO and South High alum. This rare gathering of luminaries is newsworthy and historic enough that it made the front page of the Omaha World-Herald.

It’s too bad that the late Bob Boozer, Fred Hare and Dwaine Dillard couldn’t be a part of the festivities. The same for Don Benning, who now resides in a Memory Care Center. But they were all there in spirit and in the case of Benning, who was a mentor of Marlin Briscoe’s, his son Damon Benning represented as the emcee for the Evening with The Magician event.

So much is happening this fall for Marlin Briscoe, who is finally getting his due. There is his induction in the high school and college football halls of fame. John Beasley, who was a teammate of Marlin’s, is producing a major motion picture, “The Magician,” about his life. This week’s love fest for Briscoe has seen so many of his contemporaries come out to honor him, including Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Roger Sayers, Ron Boone and Johnny Rodgers. Many athletes who came after Marlin and his generation are also showing their love and respect. Having all these sports greats in the same room together on Thursday night was a powerful reminder of what an extraordinary collection of athletic greats came out of this city in a short time span. Many of these living legends came out of the same neighborhood, even the same public housing project. They came up together, competed with and against each other, and influenced each other. They were part of a tight-knit community whose parents, grandparents, neighbors, entrepreneurs, teachers, rec center staffers and coaches all took a hand in nurturing, mentoring and molding these men into successful student-athletes and citizens. It’s a great story and it’s one I’ve told in a series called Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, I plan to turn the series into a book.

Check out the stories at–
https://leoadambiga.com/out-to-win-the-roots-of-greatness-…/

 

Marlin Briscoe finally getting his due

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

In the afterglow of the recent Rio Summer Olympics, I got to thinking about the athletic lineage of my home state, Nebraska. The Cornhusker state has produced its share of Olympic athletes. But my focus here is not on Olympians from Nebraska, rather on history making athletic figures from the state whose actions transcended their sport. One figure in particular being honored this week in his hometown of Omaha – Marlin Briscoe – shines above all of the rest of his Nebraska contemporaries.

Briscoe not only made history with the Denver Broncos as the first black starting quarterback in the NFL, he made one of the most dramatic transitions in league history when he converted from QB to wide receiver to become all-Pro with the Buffalo Bills. He later became a contributing wideout on back to back Super Bowl-winning teams in Miami. He also made history in the courtroom as a complainant in a suit he and other players brought against then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. The suit accused the league of illegal trust activities that infringed on players’ pursuit of fair market opportunities. When a judge ruled against the NFL, Briscoe and his fellow players in the suit won a settlement and the decision opened up the NFL free-agency market and the subsequent escalation in player salaries.

The legacy of Briscoe as a pioneer who broke the color barrier at quarterback has only recently been celebrated. His story took on even more dramatic import upon the publication of his autobiography, which detailed the serious drug addiction he developed after his NFL career ended and his long road back to recovery. Briscoe has devoted his latter years to serving youth and inspirational speaking. Many honors have come his way, including selection for induction in the high school and college football halls of fame. He has also been the subject of several major feature stories and national documentaries. His life story is being told in a new feature-length film starting production in the spring of 2017.

You can read my collection of stories about Briscoe and other Omaha’s Black Sports Legends at–

https://leoadambiga.com/out-to-win-the-roots-of-greatness-omahas-black-sports-legends/

Briscoe’s tale is one of many great stories about Nebraska-born athletes. Considering what a small population state it is, Nebraska has given the world an overabundance of great athletes and some great coaches. too, The most high-achieving of these individuals are inducted in national sports halls of fame. Some made history for their competitive exploits on the field or court.

Golfer Johnny Goodman defeated living legend Bobby Jones in match play competition and became the last amateur to win the U.S. Open. Gridiron greats Nile Kinnick, Johnny Rodgers and Eric Crouch won college football’s most prestigious award – the Heisman Trophy. Pitcher Bob Gibson posted the lowest ERA for a season in the modern era of Major League Baseball. Bob Boozer won both an Olympic gold medal and an NBA championship ring. Ron Boone earned the distinction of “Iron Man” by setting the consecutive games played record in professional basketball. Gale Sayers became the youngest player ever inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Rulon Gardner defeated three-time Olympic gold medalist Alexander Karelin in the 2000 Sydney Games to record one of the greatest upsets in Games history.

Terence Crawford has won two world prizefighting titles and in the process single-handedly resurrected the sport of boxing in his hometown of Omaha, where he’s made three title defenses before overflow crowds. He also has a gym in the heart of the inner city he grew up in that serves as a sanctuary for youth and young adults from the mean streets.

Some Nebraskans have made history both for what they did athletically and for what the did away from the field of competition. For example, Marion Hudson integrated Dana College in the early 1950s in addition to being a multi-sport star whose school records in track and field and football still stood on the books decades when the college closed in 2010. Tom Osborne became the first person to be named both the high school and college state athlete of the year in Nebraska. He played three seasons in the NFL before becoming the top assistant to Bob Devaney at the University of Nebraska, where he succeeded Devaney and went to a College Football Hall of Fame coaching career that saw his teams win 250 games and three national titles. After leaving coaching he served as an elected U.S. House of Representatives member. The Teammates mentoring program he established decades ago continues today.

There are many more stories of Nebraska athletes doing good works during and after their playing days. Yet no one from the state has made more of an impact both on and off the playing field than Marlin Briscoe. He is arguably the most important athletic figure to ever come out of Nebraska because his accomplishments have great agency not only in the athletic arena but in terms of history, society and race as well. Growing up in the public housing projects of South Omaha in the late 1950s-early 1960s, Briscoe emerged as a phenom in football and basketball. His rise to local athletic stardom occurred during a Golden Era that saw several sports legends make names for themselves in the span of a decade. He wasn’t the biggest or fastest but he might have been the best overall athlete of this bunch that included future collegiate all-Americans and professional stars.

Right from the jump, Briscoe was an outlier in the sport he’s best remembered for today – football. On whatever youth teams he tried out for, he always competed for and won the starting quarterback position. He did the same at Omaha South High and the University of Omaha. This was at a time when predominantly white schools in the North rarely gave blacks the opportunity to play quarterback. The prevailing belief then by many white coaches was that blacks didn’t possess the intellectual or leadership capacity for the position. Furthermore, there was doubt whether white players would allow themselves to be led by a black player. Fortunately there were coaches who didn’t buy into these fallacies. Nurtured by coaches who recognized both his physical talent and his signal-calling and leadership skills, Briscoe excelled at South and OU.

His uncanny ability to elude trouble with his athleticism and smarts saw him make things happen downfield with his arm and in the open field with his legs, often turning busted plays into long gainers and touchdowns. He also led several comebacks. His improvisational knack led local media to dub him “Marlin the Magician.” The nickname stuck.

Marlin Briscoe Signed Photograph - #15 Qb 8x10

Autographed Marlin Briscoe Picture - 8x10

Briscoe played nine years in the NFL and thrived as a wide receiver, quarterback, holder and defensive back. He may be the most versatile player to ever play in the league.

He also made history as one of the players who brought suit against the NFL and its Rozelle Rule that barred players from pursuing free market opportunities. A judge ruled for the players and that decision helped usher in modern free agency and the rise in salaries for pro athletes.

His life after football began promisingly enough. He was a successful broker and invested well. He was married with kids and living a very comfortable life. Then the fast life in L.A, caught up with him and he eventually developed a serious drug habit. For a decade his life fell apart and he lost everything – his family. his home, his fortune, his health. His recovery began in jail and through resilience and faith he beat the addiction and began rebuilding his life. He headed a boys and girls club in L.A.

His autobiography told his powerful story of overcoming obstacles.

Contemporary black quarterbacks began expressing gratitude to him for being a pioneer and breaking down barriers.

Much national media attention has come his way, too. That attention is growing as a major motion picture about his life nears production. That film, “The Magician,” is being produced by his old teammate and friend John Beasley of Omaha. Beasley never lost faith in Briscoe and has been in his corner the whole way. He looks forward to adapting his inspirational story to the big screen. Briscoe, who often speaks to youth, wants his story of never giving up to reach as many people as possible because that’s a message he feels many people need to hear and see in their own lives, facing their own obstacles.

Briscoe is being inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame this fall. A night in his honor, to raise money for youth scholarships, is happening September 22 at UNO’s Baxter Arena. Video tributes from past and present NFL greats will be featured. The University of Nebraska at Omaha is also unveiling a life size statue of him on campus on September 23. That event is free and open to the public.

There is an effort under way to get the Veterans Committee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to select Briscoe as an inductee and it’s probably only a matter of time before they do.

The fact that he succeeded in the NFL at three offensive positions – quarterback, wide receiver and holder for placekicks – should be enough to get him in alone. The cincher should be the history he made as the first black starting QB and the transition he made from that spot to receiver. His career statistics in the league are proof enough:

 

Passing

97 completions of 233 attempts for 1697 yards with 14 TDs and 14 INTs.

Rushing

49 attempts for 336 yards and 3 TDs

Receiving

224 catches for 3537 yards and 30 TDs

 

Remember, he came into the league as a defensive back, only got a chance to play QB for part of one season and then made himself into a receiver. He had everything working against him and only belief in himself working for him. That, natural ability and hard work helped him prove doubters wrong. His story illusrates why you should never let someone tell you you can’t do something. Dare, risk, dream. He did all that and more. Yes, he stumbled and fell, but he got back up better and stronger than before. Now his story is a testament and a lesson to us all.

The Marlin Briscoe story has more drama, substance and inspiration in it than practically anything you could make up. But it all really happened. And he is finally getting his due.

Omaha fight doctor Jack Lewis of two minds about boxing

June 21, 2016 1 comment

Omaha’s fight doctor, the late Jack Lewis, was of two minds about boxing. He championed the closely regulated amateur side of the sport but he decried the anything-goes excesses of the professional game. He saw more fights than he could remember as a ringside physician. He was also a sideline physician at countless football games in his role as team doctor for his alma mater, Omaha Central High School. He was an athlete and scholar there and he went on to be an athlete and scholar at Stanford University. The story I’m posting here is an advance piece I did about the 2006 National Golden Gloves tournament held in Omaha. I got Dr. Lewis and two other venerable members of the local boxing community, Harley Cooper and Tom Lovgren, to weigh in on the event and the sport. Lewis was a much honored member of Omaha’s sports and medical community. He was an inductee in the Central High Hall of Fame as well as the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame. He, his father and his son comprised three generations of physicians.
It is worth noting that world pro boxing champion Terence Crawford of Omaha made it to the finals of that National Golden Gloves tournament in his hometown only to lose a controversial decision. It pretty much marked the end of his amateur career and the last time he fought in Omaha until defending his newly won WBO lightweight title at the big arena downtown, which by that time was renamed the CenturyLink Center.
Before leading you to the story, here is an Omaha Central High Foundation announcement about Dr. Jack’s passing:
It is with heavy hearts that we share the passing of Dr. Jack Lewis. A 1952 graduate of Central, Dr. Lewis served as the team doctor at Central for over 50 years, performing thousands of physicals and walking the sidelines of hundreds of football games. Dr. Lewis received numerous recognitions and sat on many different boards, including being inducted into the inaugural Central High School Hall of Fame in 1999, Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame, and Omaha Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame. After receiving his first degree from Stanford University, Dr. Lewis obtained his medical degree from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine where he then served as a professor of internal medicine. Football games won’t feel the same this fall when Dr. Lewis isn’t on the sideline, offering decades of expertise to our student athletes. Dr. Lewis loved Central, and we will miss him dearly.

The visitation will be held on Thursday, June 23, from 4 – 6:30 pm at the Heafey-Hoffmann Dworak & Cutler Bel Air Chapel on 12100 West Center Road. The service will be held on Friday, June 24, at 11 am at the Presbyterian Church of the Cross on 1517 S 114th Street.

 

 

Dr. Jack Lewis, who turns 81 this week, has his physician son watching for mistakes as Lewis sees up to 30 patients a day. “If I made a mistake, I’d be the first one to quit here,” he said.

Dr. Jack Lewis

 

Omaha fight doctor Jack Lewis of two minds about boxing as the city readies to host the National Golden Gloves

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

For the first time since 1988, Omaha plays host to the National Golden Gloves boxing tournament, one of the nation’s showcases for amateur boxing. The 2006 tourney is a six-day event scheduled for April 24-29 at two downtown venues. The preliminary and quarterfinal rounds will be fought at the Civic Auditorium the first four days, with the semi-final and championship bouts at the Qwest Center Omaha the final two days.

Historically, the national Golden Gloves has produced scores of Olympic and world champions. Former Gloves greats include Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield and Roy Jones Jr.

Three men with long ties to the local boxing scene recently shared their thoughts on the Gloves with the New Horizons.

The man heading up the event is Omaha’s fight doctor, Dr. Jack Lewis, a 71-year-old internal medicine physician. As a doctor who loves a sport that gets a bad name from the medical community, he’s a paradox. While a staunch supporter of amateur boxing, Lewis is a fierce critic of the professional fight game, which he has come to abhor.

His experience in the prizefighting arena included serving as ringside physician for the 1972 world heavyweight title fight in Omaha between champ Joe Frazier and contender Ron Stander from Council Bluffs. Lewis stopped the fight after the fourth round with a battered Stander blinded by blood in his eyes.

“I love the sport of amateur boxing. I was involved in pro boxing and I didn’t like that from a medical standpoint,” Lewis said. “After just a few years working with the pros, I quit. In some cases, I didn’t know who the fighters were. They were fighting under fake names. I’d ask all these questions and the boxer would say the last time he lost a fight was a month ago in Chicago, and then some guy would come up later and tell me that same guy got knocked out last night in Chicago.

“Those pro boxers move around, have fake names, won’t give you their true medical history.”

Lewis continued, “Those pro boxing days are behind me. That sport needs to be cleaned up.”

More than just a fan of amateur boxing, Lewis is a veteran ringside doctor and longtime president of the Great Plains Boxing Association, the main organizing body for amateur boxing in Nebraska. This is the second time under his leadership his hometown of Omaha is presenting the Golden Gloves nationals.

Lewis is optimistic the event will fare better than recent national Gloves tourneys in cities like Kansas City, where the event failed miserably at the gate.

“We’ve done this before. I think our sales are going very well,” he said.

With Omaha’s success as College World Series host, with the Qwest Center filled to capacity for Creighton University men’s basketball home games, with the arena slated to host a slew of NCAA post-season events over the next several years, plus the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, the Omaha’s known as an amateur sports-friendly town. That’s why there’s talk of Omaha trying to host the Golden Gloves on a regular basis. The event is bid out a few years in advance, so it would be awhile before Omaha could host the event again after 2006.

“Omaha knows how to put people in the seats. Plus, this is really a fight town,” said Harley Cooper of Omaha. The former two-time national Gloves champion is seving as the 2006 tournament director. “It’s an outstanding event, Fans will see the best boxing in the country and probably see some future Olympic and professional champions.”

Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren joins many others in calling the Qwest “a great facility for boxing.” “The people there do a superb job,” he added.

While he never boxed, Lewis lettered in football and rugby at Stanford University, backing up future NFL great John Brodie at quarterback in the late 1950s. He said his athletic background and internal medicine specialization “lent itself” to begin treating athletes.

After graduation from Standford and the University of Nebraska Medical School, Lewis did his internal medicine residency in Oakland, California. He came back to Omaha in 1964 to practice with his physician father.

Right away, Lewis’ sports medicine interest found him treating a variety of athletes – jockeys at the Ak-Sar-Ben thoroughbred race track, football players at his alma mater Central high School, where he has been team physician since 1964, and boxers at the Omaha and Midwest Golden Gloves tournaments.

Lewis’ passion for amateur boxing has only grown. He enjoys the purity of the sport. He applauds the protective headgear and other measures taken to ensure fighters’ safety. He believes the competition inside the ropes instills discipline in its participants.

“I think the greatest athlete is the guy that steps in the ring and some guy comes after you. I think it builds character. I think it teaches you resraint. It helps you collect yourself. Through those years I’ve been to many meetings and been to many nationals. I’ve been he ringside physician at hundreds of fights and taken care of a lot of medical problems at the fights. Even though I never fought, I’ve educated myself in boxing and in all the trials and tribulations of the kids.”

Lewis said amateur boxing has suffered unfairly from the ills of its pro counterpart.

“There has been a lot of deaths and those deaths really hurt amateur boxing because then parents don’t want their kids to go into boxing. There’s been a lot of unscrupulous stuff. When I started it was a more popular sport. Today, kids are into doing all kinds of other things. They just don’t go into boxing anymore. And the coaching ranks have really declined. It’s an uphill battle.”

Despite the smaller number of young boxers, Tom Lovgren said “there are kids around that can fight and the Golden Gloves is still a major contributor to the U.S. Olympic boxing team. He said a Gloves title still carries weight in the world of boxing.

“If you are a national Golden Gloves champion, you’re highly respected when you make a turn to the pro ranks.”

Lewis said another thing unchanged in the sport over the years is that ethnic-racial minorities are disproportionately drawn to boxing.

“Our best known boxers in the state now are Latino. There’s been a great influx of Spanish-speaking kids. Unfortunately, many of them don’t have U.S. citizenship and the rules require you to be a citizen in order to compete at nationals (Golden Gloves).”

In the history of the Golden Gloves there have been but five national champions from Nebraska. According to Lovgren, the best of the bunch was Harley Cooper, who won his titles in 1963 and 1964 (the first at heavyweight and the second at light heavyweight). He won those titles when he was in his late 20s. which is much older than the typical Gloves fighter. Since retiring from the ring, Cooper’s devoted time to developing and suporting area amateur boxing. He never turned pro.

“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” said Lovgran, a former prize fight matchmaker and a longtime observer of the local fight scene. “The first time anybody saw hiim in the gym they knew this guy was going to be a national champion. He could punch. He could box. He could do it all. He was the most complete fighter I ever saw from around here. I never saw Harley Cooper lose a round in amateur fights in Omaha. He was that dominant.”

Besides Cooper, the only other Nebraska boxers crowned national Gloves champions were Carl Vinciquerra and Paul Hartneck in 1936, Hartneck again in ’37, Ferd Hernandez in 1960 and most recently Lamont Kirkland in 1980. A number of other Nebraskans advanced to the semi-finals or finals, only to lose.

In general, Lewis said, area kids are at a distinct disavantage.

“Amateur programs here are not strong. We don’t have enough coaches to train these kids. We don’t have enough fighters to have regular smokers that season them. Every year, our kids go to nationals with maybe 10 to 12 fights under their belt and they face opponents with 70 to 80 fights.”

Harley Cooper said Omaha holding the nationals can only help raise the level of the amateur boxing scene here.

“It wil let our kids see what they have to strive to obtain – the different skills and knowledge they will need to be a world-class boxer. Seeing is much better than someone explaining it to you.”

He added the biggest difference between “our boxers and the fighters from bigger cities is the opponents’ strength, size and skill.”

“It’s going to be a great weekend for amateur boxing in Omaha, Nebraska” Lovgren said. “I just hope a couple of guys from Omaha can go as far as the finals.

A raucous home crowd could help spur a local fighter to do great things.

“It can’t hurt,” Lovgren said. “Who knows? Anything can happen. Boxing’s a funny game.”

“There’s still some kids out there. We should see some real good boxing,” Lewis said.

A final elimination stage before the nationals will be held March 17 and 18 at the Omaha Civic Auditorium’s Mancuso Hall. Winners in this Midwest Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions will complete Nebraska’s 11-man contingent for the April national tourney.

Tickets for the nationals may be purchased at the Qwest Center box office or via Ticketmaster by phone at 402-1212, or online at http://www.ticketmaster.com.

For more details, call the Qwest Center at 997-9378 or go online at http://www.qwestcenteromaha.com.

Marlin Briscoe – An Appreciation

May 13, 2016 1 comment

Marlin Briscoe – An Appreciation

©by Leo Adam Biga

Some thoughts about Marlin Briscoe in the year that he is:
•being inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame
•having a life-size status of his likeness dedicated at UNO
•and seeing a feature film about himself going into production this fall

 

For years, Marlin Briscoe never quite got his due nationally or even locally. Sure, he got props for being a brilliant improviser at Omaha U. but that was small college ball far off most people’s radar. Even fewer folks saw him star before college for the Omaha South High Packers. Yes, he got mentioned as being the first black quarterback in the NFL, but it took two or three decades after he retired from the game for that distinction to sink in and to resonate with contemporary players, coaches, fans and journalists. It really wasn’t until his autobiography came out that the significance of that achievement was duly noted and appreciated. Helping make the case were then-current NFL black quarterbacks, led by Warren Moon, who credited Briscoe for making their opportunity possible by breaking that barrier and overturning race bias concerning the quarterback position. Of course, the sad irony of it all is that Briscoe only got his chance to make history as a last resort by the Denver Broncos, who succumbed to public pressure after their other quarterbacks failed miserably or got injured. And then even after Briscoe proved he could play the position better than anyone else on the squad, he was never given another chance to play QB with the Broncos or any other team. He was still the victim of old attitudes and perceptions, which have not entirely gone away by the way, that blacks don’t have the mental acuity to run a pro-style offensive system or that they are naturally scramblers and not pocket passers or that they are better with their feet and their athleticism than they are with their arms or their head. Briscoe heard it all, and in his case he also heard that he was too small.

After Briscoe swallowed the bitter pill that he would be denied a chance to play QB in The League after that one glorious go of it in 1968, he dedicated himself to learning an entirely new position – wide receiver – as his only way to stay in the NFL. In truth, he could have presumably made it as a defensive back and return specialist. In fact, he was primarily on the Broncos roster as a DB when he finally got the nod to start at QB after only seeing spot duty there. Briscoe threw himself into the transition to receiver with the Buffalo Bills and was good enough to become an All-Pro with them and a contributing wideout with the back to back Super Bowl winning Miami Dolphins. As unfair as it was, Briscoe didn’t make a big stink about what happened to him and his QB aspirations, He didn’t resist or refuse the transition to receiver. He worked at it and made it work for him and the teams he played on. The successful transition he made from signal caller to received is one of the most remarkable and overlooked feats in American sports history.

About a quarter century after Briscoe’s dreams of playing QB were dashed and he reinvented himself as a receiver, another great Omaha athlete, Eric Crouch, faced a similar crossroads. The Heisman Trophy winner was an option quarterback with great athleticism and not well suited to being a pro style pocket passer. He was drafted by the NFL’s St. Louis Rams as an athlete first, but ostensibly to play receiver, not quarterback. He insisted on getting a tryout at QB and failed. The Rams really wanted him to embrace being a receiver but his heart wasn’t in it and he loudly complained about not being given a shot at QB. He went from franchise to franchise and from league to league chasing a dream that was not only unrealistic but a bad fit that would not, could not, did not fit his skills set at that level of competition. Unlike Briscoe, who lost the opportunity to play QB because he was black, Crouch lost the opportunity because he wasn’t good enough. Briscoe handled the discrimination he faced with great integrity and maturity. Crouch responded to being told the truth with petulance and a sense of denial and entitlement. That contrast made a big impression on me. I don’t know if Crouch would have made a successful transition to receiver the way Brsicoe did, but he certainly had the skils to do it, as he showed at Nebraska. I always thought NU should have kept him at wingback and Bobby Newcombe at QB, but that’s for another post.

But the real point is that when the going got tough for Briscoe, he rose to the occasion. That strong character is what has allowed him to recover from a serious drug addiction and to live a sober, successful life these past two-plus decades. John Beasley is producing a feature film about Briscoe called “The Magician” and its story of personal fortitude will touch many lives.

Link to my profile of Marlin Briscoe at–

Prodigal Son, Marlin Briscoe Takes the Long Road Home (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

Link to my collection of stories on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends: Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness at–

OUT TO WIN – THE ROOTS OF GREATNESS: OMAHA’S BLACK SPORTS LEGENDS

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