Thoughts on recent gathering of Omaha Black Sports Legends
It is unlikely there will be another communion of Omaha Black Sports Legends like the one that happened on September 22 at Baxter Arena in Omaha. That’s because in a single room there were Omaha native greats of a certain age whose achievements in football, basketball and baseball saw them reach the pinnacles of their sports.
Just consider who was present:
Bob Gibson – Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, CY Young Award-winner, two-time World Series MVP and multiple All-Star with the St. Louis Cardinals
Roger Sayers – Elite sprinter and dynamic football player at the then-University of Omaha set school records in each sport
Marlin Briscoe – College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Small College All-American at Omaha University, NFL’s first black starting quarterback and member of two Super Bowl-winning teams
Ron Boone – Pro basketball “iron man” who led Utah to an ABA title
Johnny Rodgers – College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Heisman Trophy Winner and member of two national championship teams at Nebraska
Who was not there:
Gale Sayers – College and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, All-American at Nebraska and All-Pro with the Chicago Bears
Mike McGee – All-American at Michigan and member of NBA title team with the Los Angeles Lakers
Don Benning – If not for illness that finds him living in a memory care facility, Benning, the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white university, would have been there. Benning began the wrestling dynasty at UNO, where he was a mentor to many.
Bob Boozer – The late Boozer, who won both Olympic gold and an NBA title, would have fit right in with his fellow legends; as would have the late Marion Hudson, who not only integrated Dana College but set football and track and field records there that still stood six decades later.
And lest we forget, the late Fred Hare, the Omaha Technical High and University of Nebraska great, would have been right at home among his peers.
The fact that so many deserving figures were not there due to scheduling conflict, illness or death underscores the fact that these legends are leaving us and will continue leaving us as time marches on. Gibson, Sayers, Briscoe Boone and Rodgers look great for their ages, but they are 80, 73, 70, 71 and 65, respectively. I mean, God grant them many more years but the fact is even these legends will eventually pass on to meet their eternal just reward. Yes, as unthinkable as it is, they will one day all be gone, too.
So, kudos to the committee that organized the An Evening with the Magician event for bringing all these gentlemen together for what could very well be the last time. Without this fitting tribute to one of their own, Marlin Briscoe, happening when it did it could have proved too late if left to some indeterminate time in the future.
That Omaha native film, TV, stage actor John Beasley served on the committee that made it happen was apt since he and Briscoe were teammates at then-Omaha U. and he is producing a major motion picture of Marlin’s life called The Magician.
What an experience it was to be in the presence of these guys who made history in their respective sports. All know and respect each other. Some grew up together. Some tested their abilities against each other. All learned lessons in the tight-knit inner communities they grew up in that, as Briscoe said in his remarks that night, prepared them for the rigors of life. Their personal stories and life experiences have much to teach us. It was great that upwards of 200 Omaha Public Schools students were on hand to witness much of the evening. This is important local history they were exposed to.
More than a decade ago I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing these historic figures (minus McGee) and others for a series I wrote called Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. I personally look forward to catching up with the legends still living for a book I intend writing about their shared Omaha background and athletic success at the highest levels of their sports.
You can check out my series at–
Will the time come when more contemporary Omaha Black Sports Legends have the occasion to gather like their predecessors did Sept. 22? Will John C. Johnson, Larry Station, Randy Brooks, Kerry Trotter, Andre Woolridge, Ron Kellogg, Cedric Hunter, Keith Jones, Calvin Jones, Ahman Green, the Wrestling Olivers, Terence Crawford, Kenzo Cotton, and others find a reason to come together? Will they turn out to celebrate one of their own or to honor their shared roots? I don’t know. But here’s wishing they will – because they should. Not only for themselves, but for the community.
And what about the women? Maurtice Ivy, Mallery Ivy, Jessica Haynes, Angee Henry, Peaches James, Reshea Bristol, LaQue Moen-Davis, Brianna McGhee, Chloe Akin-Otiko and many more, have distinguished themselves through athletics. They deserve their due, too.
Thanks to Ernie Britt for being the driving force behind the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame that does indeed recognize these figures and provide a forum for bringing them together.
Here’s hoping these celebrations continue happening. I would recommend that whenever possible sponsors be found to make these events free and open to the public so that more segments of the community can share in them. And wherever possible, students should be invited to these events. I also advocate that the stories of these and other high achieving African-Americans from Omaha and greater Nebraska be part of an ongoing curriculum in the Omaha Public Schools. Let’s not wait until these figures are gone, Tell these stories while these figures are still alive and cthey an visit classrooms and speak before school assemblies and be the suhject of programs like Making Invisible Histories Visible.
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–
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–
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.
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:
97 completions of 233 attempts for 1697 yards with 14 TDs and 14 INTs.
49 attempts for 336 yards and 3 TDs
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.
Bob Boozer, Basketball Immortal, to be posthumously inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame
Bob Boozer, Basketball Immortal, to be posthumously inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame
I posted this four years ago about Bob Boozer, the best basketball player to ever come out of the state of Nebraska, on the occasion of his death at age 75. Because his playing career happened when college and pro hoops did not have anything like the media presence it has today and because he was overshadowed by some of his contemporaries, he never really got the full credit he deserved. After a stellar career at Omaha Tech High, he was a brilliant three year starter at powerhouse Kansas State, where he was a two-time consensus first-team All-American and still considered one of the four or five best players to ever hit the court for the Wildcats. He averaged a double-double in his 77-game career with 21.9 points and 10.7 rebounds. He played on the first Dream Team, the 1960 U.S. Olympic team that won gold in Rome. He enjoyed a solid NBA journeyman career that twice saw him average a double-double in scoring and rebounding for a season. In two other seasons he averaged more than 20 points a game. In his final season he was the 6th man for the Milwaukee Bucks only NBA title team. He received lots of recognition for his feats during his life and he was a member of multiple halls of fame but the most glaring omisson was his inexplicable exclusion from the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Well, that neglect is finally being remedied this year when he will be posthumously inducted in November. It is hard to believe that someone who put up the numbers he did on very good KSU teams that won 62 games over three seasons and ended one of those regular seasons ranked No. 1, could have gone this long without inclusion in that hall. But Boozer somehow got lost in the shuffle even though he was clearly one of the greatest collegiate players of all time. Players joining him in this induction class are Mark Aguirre of DePaul, Doug Collins of Illinois State, Lionel Simmons of La Salle, Jamaal Wilkes of UCLA and Dominique Wilkins of Georgia. Good company. For him and them. Too bad Bob didn’t live to see this. If things had worked out they way they should have, he would been inducted years ago and gotten to partake in the ceremony.
I originally wrote this profile of Boozer for my Omaha Black Sports Legends Series: Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. You can access that entire collection at this link–
I also did one of the last interviws Boozer ever gave when he unexpectedly arrived back stage at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha to visit his good buddy, Bill Cosby, with whom I was in the process of wrapping up an interview. When Boozer came into the dressing room, the photographer and I stayed and we got more of a story than we ever counted on. Here is a link to that piece–
None of us is perfect. We all have flaws and defects. We all make mistakes. We all carry baggage. Fairly or unfairly, those who enter the public eye risk having their imperfections revealed to the wider world. That is what happened to one of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, John C. Johnson, who along with Clayton Bullard, led Omaha Central to back to back state basketball titles in the early 1970s. Both players got Division I scholarships to play ball: Johnson at Creighton and Bullard at Colorado. John C. had a memorable career for the Creighton Bluejays as a small forward who could play inside and outside equally well. He was a hybrid player who could slide and glide in creating his own shot and maneuver to the basket, where he was very adept at finishing, even against bigger opponents, but he could also mix it up when the going got tough or the situation demanded it. He was good both offensively and defensively and he was a fiine team player who never tried to do more than he was capable of and never played outside the system. He was very popular with fans.His biggest following probably came from the North Omaha African-American community he came out of and essentially never left. He was one of their own. That’s not insignificant either because CU has had a paucity of black players from Omaha over its long history. John C. didn’t make it in the NBA but he got right on with his post-collegiate life and did well away from the game and the fame. Years after John C. graduated CU his younger brother Michael followed him from Central to the Hilltop to play for the Jays and he enjoyed a nice run of his own. But when Michael died it broke something deep inside John C. that triggered a drug addction that he supported by committing a series of petty crimes that landed him in trouble with the law. These were the acts of a desperate man in need of help. He had trouble kicking the drug habit and the criminal activity but that doesn’t make him a bad person, only human. None of this should diminish what John C. did on and off the court as a much beloved student-athlete. He is a good man. He is also human and therefore prone to not always getting things right. The same can be said for all of us. It’s just that most of us don’t have our failings written or broadcast for others to see. John was reluctant to be profiled when I interviewed him and his then-life partner for this story about seven or eight years ago. But he did it. He was forthright and remorseful and resolved. After this story appeared there were more setbacks. It happens. Wherever you are, John, I hope you are well. Your story then and now has something to teach all of us. And thanks for the memories of all that gave and have as one of the best ballers in Nebraska history. No one can take that away.
NOTE: This story is one of dozens I have written for a collection I call: Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. You can find it on my blog, leoadambiga.com. Link to it directly at–
JOHN C. JOHNSON: Standing Tall
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“I got tired of being tired.”
Omaha hoops legend and former Creighton University star John C. Johnson explained why he ended the pattern of drug abuse, theft and fraud that saw him serve jail and prison time before his release last May.
From a sofa in the living room of the north Omaha home he shares with his wife, Angela , who clung to him during a recent interview, he made no excuses for his actions. He tried, however, to explain his fall from grace and the struggle to reclaim his good name.
“Pancho” or “C,” as he’s called, was reluctant to speak out after what he saw as the media dogging his every arrest, sentencing and parole board hearing. The last thing he wanted was to rehash it all. But as one of the best players Omaha’s ever produced, he’s newsworthy.
“I had a lot of great players,” said his coach at Omaha Central High School, Jim Martin, “but I think ‘C’ surpassed them all. You would have to rate him as one of the top five players I’ve seen locally. He’d be right up there with Fred Hare, Mike McGee, Ron Kellogg, Andre Woolridge, Kerry Trotter… He was a man among boys.”
The boys state basketball championship Central won this past weekend was the school’s first in 31 years. The last ones before that were the 1974 and 1975 titles that Johnson led the Eagles to. Those clubs are considered two of the best in Omaha prep history. In the proceeding 30 years Central sent many fine teams down to Lincoln to compete for the state crown, but always came up short — until this year. It’s that kind of legacy that makes Johnson such an icon.
He’s come to terms with the fact he’s fair game.
“Obscurity is real important to me right now,” Johnson said. “I used to get mad about the stuff written about me, but, hey, it was OK when I was getting the good pub, so I guess you gotta take the good with the bad. Yeah, when I was scoring 25 points and grabbing all those rebounds, it’s beautiful. But when I’m in trouble, it’s not so beautiful.”
As a hometown black hero Johnson was a rarity at Creighton. Despite much hoops talent in the inner city, the small Jesuit school’s had few black players from Omaha in its long history.
There was a rough beauty to his fluid game. It was 40 minutes of hell for opponents, who’d wilt under the pressure of his constant movement, quick feet, long reach and scrappy play. He’d disrupt them. Get inside their heads. At 6-foot-3 he’d impose his will on guys with more height and bulk — but not heart.
“John C.’ s heart and desire were tremendous, and as a result he was a real defensive stopper,” said Randy Eccker, a sports marketing executive who played point guard alongside him at Creighton. “He had a long body and very quick athletic ability and was able to do things normally only much taller players do. He played more like he was [6-foot-6]. On offense he was one of the most skilled finishers I ever played with. When he got a little bit of an edge he was tremendous in finishing and making baskets. But the thing I remember most about John C. is his heart. He’d always step up to make the big plays and he always had a gift for bringing everybody together.”
Creighton’s then-head coach, Tom Apke, calls Johnson “a winner” whose “versatility and intangibles” made him “a terrific player and one of the most unique athletes I ever coached. John could break defenses down off the dribble and that complemented our bigger men,” Apke said. “He had an innate ability on defense. He also anticipated well and worked hard. But most of all he was a very determined defender. He had the attitude that he was not going to let his man take him.”
Johnson took pride in taking on the big dudes. “Here I was playing small forward at [6-foot-three] on the major college level and guarding guys [6-foot-8], and holding my own,” he said in his deep, resonant voice.
When team physician and super fan Lee “Doc” Bevilacqua and assistant coach Tom “Broz” Brosnihan challenged him to clean the boards or to shut down opponents’ big guns, he responded.
He could also score, averaging 14.5 points a game in his four-year career (1975-76, 1978-79) at CU. Always maneuvering for position under the bucket, he snatched offensive rebounds for second-chance points. When not getting put-backs, he slashed inside to draw a foul or get a layup and posted-up smaller men like he did back at Central, when he and Clayton Bullard led the Eagles to consecutive Class A state titles.
He modeled his game after Adrian Dantley, a dominant small forward at Notre Dame and in the NBA. “Yeah, A.D., I liked him,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t the biggest or flashiest player in the world, but he was one of the hardest working players in the league.” The same way A.D. got after it on offense, Johnson ratcheted it up on defense. “I was real feisty,” he said. “When I guarded somebody, hell if he went to the bathroom I was going to follow him and pick him up again at half-court. Even as a freshman at Creighton I was getting all the defensive assignments.”
Unafraid to mix it up, he’d tear into somebody if provoked. Iowa State’s Anthony Parker, a 6-foot-7, high-scoring forward, made the mistake of saying something disparaging about Johnson’s mother in a game.
“When he said something about my mama, that was it,” Johnson said. “I just saw fire and went off on him. Fight’s done, and by halftime I have two or three offensive rebounds and I’m in charge of him. By the end, he’s on the bench with seven points. Afterward, he came in our locker room and I stood up thinking he wanted to settle things. But he said, ‘I’m really sorry. I lost my head. I’m not ever going to say anything about nobody’s mama again. Man, you took me right out of my game.’”
Doing whatever it took — fighting, hustling, hitting a key shot — was Johnson’s way. “That’s just how I approached the game,” he said. He faced some big-time competition, too. He shadowed future NBA all-stars Maurice “Mo” Cheeks, a dynamo with West Texas State College; Mark Aguirre, an All-American with DePaul; and Andrew Toney, a scoring machine with Southwest Louisiana State. A longtime mentor of Johnson’s, Sam Crawford said, “And he was right there with them, too.”
He even had a hand in slowing down Larry Bird. Johnson and company held Larry Legend to seven points below his collegiate career scoring average in five games against Indiana State. The Jays won all three of the schools’ ’77-78 contests, the last (54-52) giving them the Missouri Valley Conference title. But ISU took both meetings in ’78-79, the season Bird led his team to the NCAA finals versus Magic Johnson’s Michigan State.
When “C” didn’t get the playing time he felt he deserved in a late season game his freshman year, Apke got an earful from Johnson’s father and from Don Benning, Central’s then-athletic director and a black sports legend himself. If the community felt one of their own got the shaft, they let the school know about it.
Expectations were high for Johnson — one of two players off those Central title teams, along with Clayton Bullard, to go Division I. His play at Creighton largely met people’s high standards. Even after his NBA stint with the Denver Nuggets, who drafted him in the 7th round, fizzled, he was soon a fixture again here as a Boys and Girls Club staffer and juvenile probation officer. That’s what made his fall shocking.
Friends and family had vouched for him. The late Dan Offenberger, former CU athletic director, said then: “He’s a quality guy who overcame lots of obstacles and got his degree. He’s one of the shining examples of what a young man can accomplish by using athletics to get an education and go on in his work.”
What sent Johnson off the deep end, he said, was the 1988 death of his baby brother and best friend, Michael, who followed him to Creighton to play ball. After being stricken with aplastic anemia, Michael received a bone marrow transplant from “C.” There was high hope for a full recovery, but when Michael’s liver was punctured during a biopsy, he bled to death.
“When he didn’t make it, I kind of took it personally,” Johnson said. “It was a really hard period for our family. It really hurt me. I still have problems with it to this day. That’s when things started happening and spinning out of control.”
He used weed and alcohol and, as with so many addicts, these gateway drugs got him hooked on more serious stuff. He doesn’t care to elaborate. Arrested after his first stealing binge, Johnson waived his right to a trial and admitted his offenses. He pleaded no contest and offered restitution to his victims.
His first arrests came in 1992 for a string of car break-ins and forgeries to support his drug habit. He was originally arrested for theft, violation of a financial transaction device, two counts of theft by receiving stolen propperty and two counts of criminal mischief. His crimes typically involved a woman accomplice with a fake I.D. Using stolen checks and credit cards, they would write a check to the fake name and cash it soon thereafter. He faced misdemanor and felony charges in Harrison County Court in Iowa and misdemeanor charges in Douglas County. He was convicted and by March 2003 he’d served about eight years behind bars.
He was released and arrested again. In March 2003 he was denied parole for failing to complete an intensive drug treatment program. Johnson argued, unsuccessfully, that his not completing the program was the result of an official oversight that failed to place his name on a waiting list, resulting in him never being notified that he could start the program.
Ironically, a member of the Nebraska Board of Parole who heard Johnson’s appeal is another former Omaha basketball legend — Bob Boozer, a star at Technical High School, an All-American at Kansas State and a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medal winning Dream Team and the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks NBA title team. Where Johnson’s life got derailed and reputation sullied, Boozer’s never had scandal tarnish his name.
After getting out on in the fall of 2003, Johnson was arrested again for similar crimes as before. The arrest came soon after he and other CU basketball greats were honored at the Bluejays’ dedication of the Qwest Center Omaha. He only completed his last stretch in May 2005. His total time served was about 10 years.
He ended up back inside more than once, he said, because “I wasn’t ready to quit.” Now he just wants to put his public mistakes behind him.
What Johnson calls “the Creighton family” has stood by him. When he joined other program greats at the Jays’ Nov. 22, 2003 dedication of the Qwest Center, the warm ovation he received moved him. He’s a regular again at the school’s old hilltop gym, where he and his buds play pickup games versus 25-year-old son Keenan and crew. He feels welcome there. For the record, he said, the old guys regularly “whup” the kids.
“It feels good to be part of the Creighton family again. They’re so happy for me. It’s kind of made me feel wanted again,” he said.
Sam Crawford, a former Creighton administrator and an active member of the CU family, said, “I don’t think we’ll ever give up on John C., because he gave so much of himself while he was there. If there’s any regret, it’s that we didn’t see it [drug abuse] coming.” Crawford was part of a contingent that helped recruit Johnson to CU, which wanted “C” so bad they sent one of the school’s all-time greats, Paul Silas, to his family’s house to help persuade him to come.
Angela, whom “C” married in 2004, convinced him to share his story. “I told him, ‘You really need to preserve the Johnson legacy — through the great times, your brief moment of insanity and then your regaining who you are and your whole person,’” she said. Like anyone who’s been down a hard road, Johnson’s been changed by the journey. Gone is what’s he calls the “attitude of indifference” that kept him hooked on junk and enabled the crime sprees that supported his habit. “I’ve got a new perspective,” he said. “My decision-making is different. It’s been almost six years since I’ve used. I’m in a different relationship.
Having a good time used to mean getting high. Not anymore. Life behind “the razor wire” finally scared him straight. ”They made me a believer. The penal system made me a believer that every time I break the law the chances of my getting incarcerated get greater and greater. All this time I’ve done, I can’t recoup. It’s lost time. Sitting in there, you miss events. Like my sister had a retirement party I couldn’t go to. My mother’s getting up in age, and I was scared there would be a death in the family and I’d have to come to the funeral in handcuffs and shackles. My son’s just become a father and I wouldn’t wanted to have missed that. Missing stuff like that scared the hell out of me.”
Johnson’s rep is everything. He wants it known what he did was out of character. That part of his past does not define him. “I’ve done some bad things, but I’m still a good person. You’ll find very few people that have anything bad to say about me personally,” he said. “You’ll mostly find sympathy, which I hate.” But he knows some perceive him negatively. “I don’t know if I’m getting that licked yet. If I don’t, it’s OK. I can’t do anything about that.”
He takes full responsibility for his crimes and is visibly upset when he talks about doing time with the likes of rapists and child molesters. “I own up to what I did,” he said. “I deserved to go to prison. I was out of control. But as much trouble as I’ve been in, I’ve never been violent. I never touched violence. The only fights I’ve had have been on the basketball court, in the heat of battle.”
He filled jobs in recent years via the correction system’s work release program. Shortly before regaining his freedom in May, he faced the hard reality any ex-con does of finding long-term work with a felony conviction haunting him. When he’d get to the part of an application asking, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” — he’d check, yes. Where it said, “Please explain,” he’d write in the box, “Will explain in the interview.” Only he rarely got the chance to tell his story.
Then his luck changed. Drake Williams Steel Company of Omaha saw the man and not the record and hired him to work the night shift on its production line. “I really appreciate them giving me an opportunity, because they didn’t have to. A lot of places wouldn’t. And to be perfectly honest, I understand that. This company is employee-oriented, and they like me. They’re letting me learn things.”
He isn’t used to the blue-collar grind. “All my jobs have been sitting behind a desk, pretty much. Now I’m doing manual labor, and it’s hard work. I’m scratched up. I work on a hydro saw. I weld. I operate an overhead crane that moves 3,000-pound steel beams. I’m a machine operator, a drill operator…”
The hard work has brought Johnson full circle with the legacy of his late father, Jesse Johnson, an Okie and ex-Golden Gloves boxer who migrated north to work the packing houses. “My father was a hard working man,” he said. “He worked two full-time jobs to support us. We didn’t have everything but we had what we needed. I’ve been around elite athletes, but my father, he was the strongest man I’ve ever known, physically, emotionally and mentally. He didn’t get past the 8th grade, but he was very well read, very smart.”
His pops was stern but loving. Johnson also has a knack with young people — he’s on good terms with his children from his first marriage, Keenan and Jessica — and aspires one day to work again with “kids on the edge.”
“I shine around kids,” he said. “I can talk to them at their level. I listen. There’s very few things a kid can talk about that I wouldn’t be able to relate to. I just hope I didn’t burn too many bridges. I would hate to think my life would end without ever being able to work with kids again. That’s one of my biggest fears. I really liked the Boys Club and the probation work I did, and I really miss that.”
He still has a way with kids. Johnson and a teammate from those ’74 and ’75 Central High state title teams spoke to the ‘05-’06 Central squad before the title game tipped off last Saturday. “C” told the kids that the press clippings from those championship years were getting awfully yellow in the school trophy case and that it was about time Central won itself a new title and a fresh set of clippings. He let them know that school and inner city pride were on the line.
He’s put out feelers with youth service agencies, hoping someone gives him a chance to . For now though he’s a steel worker who keeps a low profile. He loves talking sports with the guys at the barbershop and cafe. He works out. He plays hoops. Away from prying eyes, he visits Michael’s grave, telling him he’s sorry for what happened and swearing he won’t go back to the life that led to the pen. Meanwhile, those dearest to Johnson watch and wait. They pray he can resist the old temptations.
Crawford, whom Johnson calls “godfather,” has known him 35 years. He’s one of the lifelines “C” uses when things get hairy. “I know pretty much where he is at all times. I’m always reaching out for him … because I know it is not easy what he’s trying to do. He dug that hole himself and he knows he’s got to do what’s necessary. He’s got to show that he’s capable of changing and putting his life back together. He’s got to find the confidence and the courage and the faith to make the right choices. It’s going to take his friends and family to encourage him and provide whatever support they possibly can. But he’s a good man and he has a big heart.”
Johnson is adamant his using days are over and secure that his close family and tight friends have his back. “Today, my friends and I can just sit around and have a good time, talking and laughing, and it doesn’t have nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. There used to be a time for me you wouldn’t think that would be possible. I still see people in that lifestyle and I just pray for them.”
Besides, he said, “I’m tired of being tired.”
From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood
Omaha has never been much of a boxing hotbed. Oh, there’s been the occasional fighter worth following from here who’s shown well in the amateur ranks at, say, the national golden gloves (though I’m not sure any native Nebraskan has made it to the Olympic Games in boxing) and in the pro ranks. Precious few have ever fought for a championship or even in the prelims of a title card. Unless you’re from Nebraska or live here or you have a strong rooting interest in or connection to Omaha boxers chances are you can’t name more than two or three ring worthies to ever come out of the state and do something memorialized in the boxing annals or the sport’s bible, Ring Magazine. The following story from my Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness series about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends does highlight a few of the better fighters Omaha’s produced though it’s by no means a comprehensive list. You’ll find the rest of my Out to Win installments by going to the Categories drop down menu or typing the title in the Search box.
From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
If any Omaha inner city boxing legend had most of the prized fighting attributes, it was Harley Cooper, a two-time national Golden Gloves champion and 1964 Olympic qualifier. A tough Savannah, Ga. native, Cooper grew up fighting in ‘the hood,‘ but learned to box in the military. After he won the second of his Gloves titles while based at Offutt Air Force Base, he then became the U.S. Olympic light heavyweight entry. In peak form and riding an unbeaten streak, he was primed to bust heads in Tokyo. But on the eve of leaving for Japan, he was medically disqualified.
After transferring to Omaha, his new training ground became Hawk’s Gym, where his sparring partners included future pro heavyweight Lou Bailey. He shot up the amateur ranks by sweeping his first Golden Gloves. But he was no rookie, having compiled hundreds of hours in the ring and dozens of military bouts, winning service titles wherever he was assigned, including Japan and Europe.
“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” said Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren, a former prize fight matchmaker and longtime local observer. “The first time anybody saw him 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.”
Cooper twice won the Gloves Trinity when he took the Omaha, Midwest and National tournaments in both ’63 and ’64. His first title run came, unexpectedly, as aheavyweight and culminated at the ’64 Chicago finals.
Cooper was a natural light-heavyweight, but after an overseas transfer to Nebraska he didn’t meet the weight requirements before the local Gloves tourney. Over the light-heavyweight limit, his handlers convinced him, against his better judgment, to compete as a heavyweight. He was an undersized 183 pounds. Even after he won the local-regional heavyweight titles, he wanted to move back to light-heavy, where he was more comfortable. “They wouldn’t let me move down,” he said of his trainers. “They kept saying, ‘Well, let’s see how far you can go.'” He went all the way. The underdog used superior quickness to offset his opponents’ size and power advantages to win just the second national Gloves title by a Nebraskan since the 1930s. In ’64, Cooper fought at his accustomed light-heavy spot and plowed through to the Nationals in Nashville. Cooper’s win in Nashville put him into the Olympic Trials box-off in New York, which he won.
Despite attractive offers, he never turned pro. First, there was his Air Force career. Second, he had a big family to feed, and a sure thing was better than a dream. Since retiring in ’73, his life has centered on kids at the North Omaha Boys Club, Glenwood State School and the Cornhusker Striders track program. But the pull of boxing never left, and so for 30 years he’s volunteered with the Great Plains Amateur Boxing Association. That body organizes and sanctions local-regional boxing cards like the Golden Gloves. He recently announced Omaha will host the 2006 national Gloves tournament.
“I love boxing. I’m lucky I have a wife that understands it’s such a big part of me.”
Occasional what-might-have-beens creep into his conversation. “There’s still some times when I kind of wish I had of (turned pro),” he said. “I was better than I realized I was at the time. I see these guys now and they just don’t look that good to me, man.”
An earlier Golden Gloves star who did go pro is Joey Parks, a lightweight contender in the late ’50s-early ’60s. A Kansas native, Parks moved to Omaha in 1950. Back home, he competed in football, basketball and baseball and always listened to the Friday night fights on the radio. His late brother, Jerry Parks, was a fine baseball player and longtime Omaha Parks and Recreation director.
Joey trained at the old City Mission Boxing Club at 22nd and Cass under legendary trainer Leonard Hawkins, who later became his father-in-law. Parks’ amateur career began slowly – he lost his first Gloves bout. He developed his skills during an Army hitch in South Korea and, when he returned, dominated. He won City and Midwest Gloves titles in ’55 and ’56, and advanced to the national finals the first year and to the semi-finals the next.
Parks went pro in ’57 and once held a No. 9 world ranking. His career highlights include three close, 10-round, non-title bouts with all-time lightweight champion Joe “Old Bones” Brown. Their first tussle, fought at the State Fair Coliseum in Albuquerque, NM, ended in a disputed draw that cost Parks a title shot. Parks opened a cut over Brown’s eye and dropped him for a one-count in the final round.
Parks lost the rematches by decisions. As great as Brown was, Parks said his toughest foe was future welterweight champ Curtis Cokes, who stopped him.
“He hit like a mule,” he said.
Parks took pride in being a busy, crowd-pleasing favorite. “I had the type of style where I pressed the fight. I kept going forward all the way. I always carried the fight to my opponent. I wouldn’t short change nobody. They got their money’s worth.” The Omahan relied on superb conditioning. “I stayed in tip-top shape. I did my road work every morning. I chopped wood. I sparred.”
He quit the ring in ’63 after a rope gave way in a fight down in Santa Fe, NM and he was sent sprawling, head first, into the ring apron. He was out cold for three minutes. Weeks of double vision later, he hung up his gloves. “A cat has nine lives, but I only have one.” Now 71, he stays fit walking and dancing. Long gone is the popularity that meant people stopped him on the street and treated him to meals, but he remembers his boxing career with pleasure. “It was sweet.”
One of the most devastating Omaha punchers is Lamont Kirkland. From 1975 to 1980 he won a record-tying six Midwest Golden Gloves titles by simply pummeling people into submission. After coming close, including a loss to future light-heavy champ Michael Spinks, Kirkland finally won a national championship – at 165-pounds – in 1980. He’s the last local fighter to win a national Gloves title. He enjoyed a good pro career that climaxed in a 1987 USBA super middleweight title fight against Lindell Holmes that Kirkland lost by TKO. “I never saw anybody give him a tough fight here,” local boxing expert Tom Lovgren said.
More Fighters and Some Coaches/Trainers
Midge Minor won multiple Omaha and Midwest Golden Gloves titles in the 1950s. Reggie Hughes and Willie “Boots” Washington were among other good boxers from that era’s inner city. Illinois-native Lou Bailey moved to Omaha and had a pro heavyweight career that saw him fight a future champ in George Foreman and many contenders. His son, Lou Bailey, Jr. won three light-heavy Midwest amateur titles.
Heavyweight Morris Jackson was the main rival of Ron “Bluffs Butcher” Stander, whom he met five times as an amateur and pro. “Yeah, we had some knockdown-dragouts,” said Jackson, who once beat the British Commonwealth champ.
After a run-in with the law (for armed robbery) that saw him do 29 months in jail, Jackson turned his life around and, in ’88, was ordained a minister in the Independent Assemblies of God Church. Now the chaplain at the Douglas County Correctional Center, he finds satisfaction in “being able to see men take responsibility for their lives and become better citizens, husbands, fathers. You can’t go through life without believing.” He received a full pardon from then-Gov. Ben Nelson in 1995.
Among Midwest champs, a trio of three-time titlists stands out: Sammy Cribbs was a ferocious puncherin the early ’80s; Kenny Friday was a sharp boxer in the early ’90s; and Bernard Davis was the class of 1998-2001. These and other champion boxers came out of Omaha’s CW Boxing Club. Carl Washington, the CW’s founder, director and namesake, coached with great success before assembling staffers like Midge Minor to continue training champions.
The late Leonard Hawkins was a trainer and coach for scores of amateur champions. His teams won numerous city titles. Based out of a series of gyms over the years, Hawkins also trained a talented stable of pros, most notably at the Fox Hole Gym, where he worked with Art Hernandez, Ron Stander and Lamont Kirkland, among others.
- Wes Bascomb dies; boxing champ hung up his gloves and went to college to teach in the St. Louis schools (stltoday.com)
- Beaufort legend Joe Frazier honored with Order of the Palmetto (islandpacket.com)
- America’s heavyweight hope (salon.com)
From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Wrestlers – Masters in the Way of the Mat
This post about wrestling and another post today about boxing may be the final two installments from my Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness series about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends to make it to my blog. The series originally ran in 2004-2005 in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and I’ve been looking for ways to reporpose the work ever since. Presenting the stories on this blog is the first attempt to find a new audience. The next goal is to package the stories, along with new ones, in a book I plan to publish by 2015. The Olympic wrestling gold medal won over the weekend by American Jordan Burroughs, a former University of Nebraska mat great, is what motivated me to post this wrestling installment. I encourage you to check out the other stories from the series. You can find the Out to Win series stories in the Categories drop down menu or by typing the title in the Search box.
From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Wrestlers – Masters in the Way of the Mat
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In Nebraska, one family stands apart in wrestling: the Olivers of Omaha. Masters of the grappling art, they form a two-generation mat dynasty whose story is still being written.
First there are the accomplishments of brothers Roye, Marshall and Ray, each a prep stud and college All-American in his day. Then the ongoing achievements of Ray’s son, Chris. Victorious in 568 straight matches in Nebraska dating back to the fourth grade, Chris capped his amazing run at Omaha Creighton Prep, where he was coached by his father, by winning a fourth state title this past season. In the process, he became only the third Nebraska schoolboy to go unbeaten in a four-year career. The prized Nebraska recruit is wrestling at 157 pounds for No. 3 rated NU and appears poised to surpass his father’s and uncles’ own impressive records.
But the story doesn’t end there. Five brothers in all wrestled. Roye, Marshall and Ray all competed overseas. Roye was an alternate on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and now, at age 47, he’s made a dramatic comeback from double knee surgery to win the U.S. Veterans Nationals title at 187.4 pounds in Las Vegas this past April. He qualified for the September world championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia but was unable to attend.
Roye also coaches. He assisted Mike Denney with the perennial Division II power University of Nebraska at Omaha program. He coached with USA Wrestling. He’s worked with select junior national teams in Nebraska and California, where he recently moved. Ray, co-head coach at Prep, started working with Chris when he was 4 and he now schools a nephew, Malcomb McGruder, who’s a highly-regarded junior-to-be at Prep. And the word is a promising new generation of Olivers is developing their moves on the mat at the bantam-cadet levels.
This past summer, the Oliver clan was inducted in the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame for their many wrestling feats.
Wrestling for the Olivers is more than tradition. It’s a way of life and an act of faith that got its start, aptly enough, with their own prophet, Ecclesiastes, the oldest brother and, like his siblings, the son of a preacher man. Originally from Brewton, Ala., the family migrated to Omaha in 1962 when their minister-father felt called to come here.
Ecclesiastes took up wrestling at the north Omaha boys club, where Ron McGruder was the coach.
“He came home and demonstrated some of the techniques to my older brothers Roye and Marshall,” said Ray, “and later on when I got old enough, at about five years of age, they demonstrated the techniques to me and my younger brother Bobby. And that started off a milestone and legacy of us becoming great wrestlers in the state of Nebraska and around the nation.”
Just because their daddy preached didn’t make the Oliver boys immune to the less savory elements around the Pleasantview housing projects, where they lived, which is why their parents approved of wrestling’s structure and discipline.
“Instead of hanging out, my brothers and I would go to the boys club and wrestle,” said Ray. “It offered an outlet.”
Ecclesiastes didn’t so much sell the sport for its character-building attributes, as he later did, but rather as a means “to get tough and to win trophies,” Ray said. “He’d come home with trophies and we’d go, ‘Whoa, we want to do that.’ Winning trophies was the most important thing.” At home and at the club the Olivers often tangled, brother on brother, in a ritual of honing skills and testing limits. Wrestling each other helped to forge the Brothers Oliver into the hard-edged competitors they became. “It pushed us,” Ray said. “It helped us strive for higher heights and to learn how to refuse to accept losing as motivation to improve.” Naturally, the brothers developed a signature style.
“We had a lot of similarities with respect to position and stance and maneuvers and techniques,” Ray said. “I’d say we scored more on our feet than we did anywhere else, but we knew how to pin on top using the different pinning combinations, as we were all excited about using the cradle and the three-quarters. And we knew how to escape on the bottom using switches and stunts and stand-ups.”
The brothers came of age in the 1970s at Omaha Technical High School. Roye and Marshall made the Olivers’ first big splash by winning individual state titles in 1973 under head coach Milt Hearn and top assistant Curlee Alexander, a former Tech wrestler and UNO national champion. Ray won an individual title and served as captain for Tech’s 1978 state championship team coached by Alexander.
In the 1970s, the brothers made several memorable trips behind the Iron Curtain — Roye and Marshall in Bulgaria and Roye and Ray in Poland. Only in their mid-teens at the time, the Olivers squared-off with grown men in their 20s and 30s.
“Back in our day, if you were even 15-, 16-, 17-years-old, you wrestled everybody, regardless of how old they were,” Ray said. “That’s not like the way they have it structured today, where they have junior world and cadet divisions. Still, I was 8-0 over in Europe. We went to these great, unique places. It was a great cultural and wrestling experience.”
Roye and Marshall went on to Arizona State University, with Roye earning All-America honors three times and Marshall once. Ray followed his big brothers to ASU, but after only a few months the homesick wrestler transferred to Nebraska, where he wrestled four years. After a slow start that saw him qualify for nationals once out of his first two years, Ray hit his stride as a junior, when he was 32-7 and ranked third nationally. But an ankle injury suffered in the Big 8 championships prevented him from competing in the NCAA tourney.
Determined “to prove to all my competitors I was just as successful as they were,” Ray said, “I came back with a strong attitude and a good regimen, and bounced back my senior year to excel.” He went 34-5 in qualifying for nationals, where he finally joined his brothers in making All-American.
After college, Roye became a world-class freestyle wrestler with the U.S. national team at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Yet he couldn’t dislodge the men ahead of him at 163 pounds, the legendary Lee Kemp and Dave Schultz. He hoped the veterans world championships would finally net him his first world title, but he couldn’t get enough time off to go compete.
This fall and winter, the Olivers have their collective eyes trained on Chris as he tries to add to his niche inthe family’s elite wrestling heritage. The Oliver he’ll most likely be compared to is his dad, who notched a name for himself in Husker wrestling lore. For his part, Ray hopes his son surpasses him.
“My picture hangs on the conference champions wall down at the Bob Devaney Sports Center,” Ray said, “and I’m pretty excited about that. Hopefully, my son will make his mark and get his picture up there, too, only on the national champions wall.”
Ray said his son is humble about his emerging place in the Oliver wrestling tradition.
“He knows the things we’ve done, and the things he’s done so far are a great achievement, but he’s learned to put it in the right perspective.” For his part, Chris has no interest in competing with his family’s legends. “I mean, I would love to be an All-American,” he said, “but as I enter into wrestling in college, my own personal set of goals are to not really worry about what my relatives did, but just try to go out there and make my own home there.” Beyond admiring their wrestling props, Chris learned from his father and uncles by going one-on-one with them on the mat to soak up some hard-earned wisdom. “It’s been really great to have a chance to pick and choose and learn from all of them,” he said, “because they know a lot.”
Ray feels Chris is well beyond where he or any of his brothers were at a comparable age. “On a scale of one to 10, we were probably a seven and he’s probably a 10. He’s got the ability to be a great one,” he said. The father said he knew Chris was gifted early because even at age four or five he showed a knack for the sport’s intricacies and its heart-of-a-warrior mentality. “I saw his learning ability as far as picking up moves and techniques and as far as being combative. He didn’t mind getting in there and just mixing things up and being physical.”
Chris first stamped himself a top prospect when, at age 6, he finished second in the Tulsa Nationals, a prestigious youth tournament that he won the next year. As he’s evolved into the consummate, dominating wrestler he is today, when he routinely breaks his opponent’s will in the first period, his passion for the sport remains strong.
“I just love the sport of wrestling and all the competition and camaraderie that comes with it,” he said. “I love going out there and having fun. It’s a really tough sport and you gotta be disciplined. You gotta work hard at it. But I think probably the main thing for me is having fun.”
Having fun. That’s what his uncle Roye also referred to ashe continues competing as a middle-aged man in the demanding sport. “It’s still fun,” Roye said.
And so the Oliver wrestling saga marches on. “Our family has paved the way for the sport of wrestling in Neraska,” said Roye, who expects great things from Chris and his younger nephews. “You ain’t heard the last of us yet.”
More Notable Wrestlers
The Olivers are among many inner city wrestling legends.There was Tech High’s Fred Brown, one of only a few four-time state champions in Nebraska prep history. South High’s Richard Brown (no relation) was a four-time Nebraska state finalist and three-time champion in the late 1950s. A promising collegiate career was cut shortwhen Richard Brown dropped out of school to start a family. He’s been active as a youth wrestling coach the past 35 years.
North High has produced several multiple champions, including Dick Davis in the ‘60s, Antoine Parker, Duaine Martin and Darrious Hill in the ‘80s, and Chauncey Parker, Willie Hill, Eric Hill and Curlee Alexander, Jr. in the ‘90s. A former Northern Iowa University All-American, Martin still competes internationally at age 36. He recently vied for a berth on the U.S. Olympic Greco Roman Wrestling team.
Creighton Prep’s Ben Perkins won three state titles and made All-America at Iowa State. Dante Lewis won a title at Omaha Benson and two at Bryan. Two-time state champs include Tech’s Joe Crawford and David Washington and Central’s Pernell Gatson. Prep’s Brauman Creighton never won a state title but won a pair of Division II national titles as a UNO Maverick.
Many of the area’s finest coaches have hailed from the inner city.
Charles Bryant was a tenacious, tough-as-nails football-wrestling standout at South High. Bryant’s life has been one long fight against exclusion. He found an unwelcome climate at NU but he persevered and helped change attitudes, earning All-Big Seven honors in the process. When denied a teaching-coaching job with the Omaha Public Schools, he made his own success in the Bluffs public school system, where he was the architect of a 1960s mat dynasty at Thomas Jefferson High School. He took satisfaction in his T.J. teams regularly thumping Metro Conference squads from OPS. He ended up with OPS, on his own terms, as an administrator and athletic director. A fine sculptor, the retired Bryant pursues his art while battling cancer.
Similarly, Don Benning has never said no to a challenge. Growing up in a white east Omaha neighborhood, he was the target of racial slurs that prompted him to fight. Proving himself almost daily with his brains and brawn, he became a top student and gridiron-mat star at North High and UNO. A bright young teaching candidate who was unable to break through the OPS color barrier, Benning was ready to leave for Chicago when he was convinced to take a graduate fellowship and assistant coaching job at UNO in the early 1960s. When asked to take over the school’s struggling wrestling program, he became the first black head coach at a mostly white university. By decade’s end, he led his team to an NAIA national title before he embarked on an OPS administrative career distinguished by his integrity.
When he began wrestling in the early ‘60s, Curlee Alexander, Sr. showed such little promise that his assignment in high school duals was to avoid getting pinned, thus saving his team points. A hard worker, Alexander got better and by his senior year at Tech he finished second at state. It was in college that he really blossomed. Competing for Don Benning at UNO, he was a four-time All-American, and as a senior he helped UNO claim the 1969 NAIA team title by winning the 115-pound championship at nationals.
Alexander then followed his mentor, Benning, to become a top educator and coach. He led his alma mater, Tech, to a state championship and added six more team titles as North High’s head coach. The retired teacher now serves as North’s associate head coach. He remains the only black head coach to guide a school to a Nebraska team state wrestling title.
And then there was Joe Edmonson. They called him Little Joe, but his presence loomed large. Confined to a wheelchair his entire adult life after a trampoline accident at age 17 that left him paralyzed from the neck down, Little Joe stood figuratively tall. Whether pitching his gruff voice to instruct or squirming in his chair to demonstrate a hold, he held the rapt attention of the many youths who came to learn life and wrestling lessons from him. They always looked up to him.
By the time he died at age 54 in 2002, Edmonson’s Exploradories wrestling club, which got its start in the laundry room at old Immanuel Hospital, had been transformed into the Edmonson Youth Outreach Center in the Fontenelle Park Pavilion. Recognized in 1991 with a Daily Point of Light award from then-President George Bush, one of many honors Joe and his work received, the YMCA-affiliated center offers children athletics, reading enrichment and computer training.
A former wrestler at Tech, where he was a city and state champion at 95 pounds, Joe used wrestling and his own perseverance to deliver a message about enduranceand achieving against all odds.
In the preface of one of his clinic brochures, he spelled out his philosophy: “Everyone, no matter who he is, has potential. While teaching the techniques of wrestling to him, we are also instilling in him the plain simple truth that he is somebody.”
Edmonson produced winners. Scores of his wrestlers earned medals in local, regional, national and international competitions. Perhaps the highlight of his coaching life came as head coach of the USA School Boys Wrestling Team that competed in Mexico City in 1978 and 1980, when he led his charges to third and first place finishes, respectively. Making this showing even more impressive was the fact his teams were community-based squads comprised solely of his own club wrestlers, who more than held their own with opponents drawn from select state and national teams. In 1983, he guided the World USA Greco School Boy Wrestling Team to the World Greco Team championship.
Dozens of state high school champions and collegiate All-Americans came out of his program, including Duane Martin and Ben Perkins. Former North head coach Curlee Alexander said Little Joe’s prodigies were “tough. Whenever I got one, I didn’t have to worry about him folding on me.”
- Burroughs of US wins wrestling gold (nbcolympics.com)
This is a story of one who got away. If you grow up playing football in Nebraska and show real potential to play in college it’s sort of assumed or ordained that you will wind up playing for the University of Nebraska, whether as a recruited scholarship or walk-on student-athlete. The Cornhuskers nearly always get the cream of the state’s football crop to come to Lincoln. But once in a while and with greater frequency these days NU loses out on a real gem who decides for various reasons, sometimes because the brain trust in Lincoln doesn’t recognize or appreciate the local talent, to play their college ball elsewhere. The Huskers have lost out on some stellar players that way in the last decade, including several who went on to excel in college and to make it all the way to the NFL. This is a profile of one of these who got away – Kenton Keith of Omaha. The running back thought he had showed enough in high school to get the Huskers to bite but it didn’t happen. Well, actually, NU did show initial interest but then a shakeup there found him in the lurch, without the scholarship offer he’d expected. The rest is history. He went on to star at New Mexico State and after toiling in the Canadian Football League he made it in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts, where he helped the club win a division title as a solid number two back. Things unraveled a bit for him after that but he had already found his football redemption by proving he could play at the highest level. Xavier Omon and Danny Woodhead followed him as in-state backs ignored by Nebraska and finding college stardom and making NFL rosters. Woodhead, of course, has become a popular and valuable contributor with the Patriots.
Kenton Keith’s Long and Winding Journey to Football Redemption
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha native Kenton Keith’s circuitous path to football nirvana took him to the gridiron wilderness of New Mexico and Canada before he made it to the NFL. When he landed a roster spot last off-season with the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts it marked the end of a nine-year odyssey for the fleet tailback.
“You can look at my football life and almost understand how my whole life has been. Nothing was given me. Everything was hard-earned. I always had to play against the odds and God has blessed me for every hurdle that I got over,” he said.
It all began in 1998. As a senior at Omaha Benson High School Keith was a prime target of elite Division I schools. He’d narrowed his choices to Nebraska and Penn State. He leaned toward the Huskers, where his father, Percy Keith, played. Tom Osborne was a close family friend.
“Everything was so perfect at one time,” Keith, 27, said.
Once Oz resigned, Keith said Frank Solich and Co. backed away from him late in the recruiting game. Other schools that once coveted Keith suddenly gave him “the cold shoulder” too. Why would a kid branded a phenom for his exploits with the North Omaha Bears and Benson and for his rare combo of speed, size and instinct find himself a pariah? Keith said his stock fell as a result of a Benson administrator labeling him a gang member and a poor student.
The truth, Keith said. is “I was busting my butt to make my grades right and they were actually already good.” He said he was never in a gang, only a rap music group. Music is still a huge part of his life.
He ended up with but two scholarship offers — from NAIA Morningside and D-I New Mexico State. A last gasp effort by NU, including a call from Oz, did not sway his decision to play for the Aggies down in Las Cruces, N.M., far from family, friends, media centers and NFL scouts.
The way NU did him left Keith “discouraged and upset.” “A lot of stuff happened between me and Nebraska that nobody knows about,” he said.
Instead of being embittered, he said, “I made the best of it I could.” After a stellar if injury-plagued four-year career at NMSU, Keith went undrafted by the NFL in 2001. He was devastated. He quit football before the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL called in 2002. He spent a year-and-a-half on the team’s practice squad. Then, in 2003, his chance finally came and he blew up the league. Three-and-a-half productive seasons and one failed NFL tryout (with the New York Jets) later, he’s now a contributor for the most watched team in all pro sports.
Despite the many “backstreets” he took to get there, he never doubted he could play with the big boys. “I always knew what I could do,” he said.
He’s not only “beaten the odds” but proven a valuable addition. Signed as a free agent in January, he enjoyed a strong training camp and by the Sept. 6 opener the 5’11, 209-pound rookie established himself as the No. 2 back behind Joseph Addai. Keith saw spot relief duty the first three games. Then, when Addai got dinged in the Sept. 30 game versus Denver, Keith came in to gain 80 yards on 10 carries as the Colts won 38-20. With Addai out nursing an injury, Keith started the Oct. 7 Tampa Bay game and showed his dependability and durability by rushing for 121 yards on 28 carries and one touchdown and catching five passes for 37 more yards in a 33-14 Indy win.
In the next two games Keith also saw significant action. In a 29-7 win over Jacksonville he split time with Addai — gaining 56 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. In a 31-7 win over Carolina he tallied 36 yards rushing. His playing time decreased in Indy’s Nov. 4 marquee showdown with New England. But in a near comeback over San Diego last Sunday night he got the call on a critical second-half drive and responded. His running set up the Colts in the red zone and he converted a dump pass into an 7-yard TD reception to draw Indy within seven. For the season he’s totaled 369 yards rushing and three TDs, averaging a solid 4.6 yards per attempt, and he’s added 62 yards receiving and one more score.
He’s shown glimpses in the NFL of the breakaway ability he’s always possessed.
“I’ve always been told I’m a big play type of guy. I don’t know if I really look to do it, it just always happens,” he said. “I think my vision is what separates me from a lot of runners. I read people’s body language to see where I can go…turn. If a guy is committed to one side, then there’s no way he can get back to the cutback if you can get there first.
“I think it’s just something that you feel. It’s almost like you can feel it before you can see it. It’s weird, man.”
He’s put his moves on hold for now, content playing it safe getting “positive yards and first downs. It’s almost like when you’re playing the backup role and you’re just put in for one game you don’t want to do anything wrong,” he said. “I’ve been getting to the secondary a lot…and I think maybe there’s been times where I could have put a move on somebody and taken it outside and gone the distance. I mean, that’s going to come soon when I get a little bit more comfortable.”
He’s “95 percent comfortable” with the playbook now. The “learning process,” he said, is more challenging than any physical adjustment he’s had to make. To his surprise the 7-2 Colts are smaller than his former Roughriders’ teammates. But the Colts speed and the game’s tempo, he said, are faster than up north.
For Keith, who’s mostly played on mediocre teams, the Colts’ winning attitude is a breath of fresh air. He doesn’t know when his next major playing time will come, but he’s sure he’ll be ready when it does.
“I really believe the way you practice is how you’re going to play…so I try to make sure I practice real hard and stay mentally focused out there.”
Whatever happens, he’s glad he stuck this long and winding journey out. “It seems like it’s a big reward for the way things have been going throughout my football career,” he said. “God blessed me to come here with the Colts and to be like a perfect fit for what this team needed.”
- Joseph Addai Will Reportedly Sign With New England Patriots (boston.sbnation.com)
- Colts Under The Microscope: Austin Collie (stampedeblue.com)