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North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with Omaha Public Schools and North High School

December 2, 2014 1 comment

In the 1960s the Omaha Public Schools was in need of African-American educators and not finding enough suitable college-educated candidates here the district looked to historically black colleges in the South. The irony of this is that many candidates from Omaha were denied teaching, coaching and administrative positions by a district that practiced blatant racism for much of its history. For decades OPS only hired a small number of black educators and then restricted them to predominantly black schools in the inner city. For years black public educators in Omaha were also restricted to elementary schools. It took a long time for OPS to dismantle those barriers and open the gates of fair employment and placement. One of the many educators recruited here from the South under those conditions was Gene Haynes, a native Mississipian who had actually followed his older brothers to Omaha and lived and worked here for a time before going back to Miss. to attend Rust College, a private historically black college. After he graduated from Rust he applied with and accepted an offer from OPS to teach and in 1967 he began what is now going on a 50-year career in the district. His first 18 years were at Omaha Technical High School and the last 31 have been at Omaha North High School, where he’s been principal since 2001. He’s helped lead a major turnaround at North, whose academic and athletic programs are doing great things. My New Horizons cover profile of Haynes follows.

 

North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with Omaha Public Schools and North High School

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horixons

 

It is a marvel Omaha North High Magnet School pxrincipal Gene Haynes relates so well to students given how far removed his life experience is from theirs.

The 70 year-old Mississippi native came of age in a time and place unlike anything his students know. Haynes grew up in the grip of poverty and segregation in the post-World War II South. Yet he’s current and cool enough to accept either a handshake or a fist bump from students. He either calls them by name or by “brother man” or “sister girl” as he makes his presence known in the hallways, cafeteria and other common areas every school day.

“When you say their name they know you’re paying attention to them,” he says. “I take a lot of pride in going to the activities and seeing what the young people are doing and encouraging them to do their best.”

He’s such a fixture at North and in the community that he knows most students’ extended families. Omaha Public Schools superintendent Mark Evans says, “It makes a huge difference when the person telling you which direction to go knows not only your mom and dad but your aunt and uncle, your grandma and grandpa. I think it makes kids so responsive to Gene – much more so than most administrators.”

A message Haynes conveys to students is, “Do your best when no one is around.” When he’s around and sees students applying themselves, he says he knows “they want to be highlighted” and thus he singles them out. North students increasingly shine academically and athletically in the transformation he’s leading there.

“When you treat people right, good things happen,” he says. “I make it a point every day I come to this building to be outside greeting kids as they come in. They see this crusty old man. I’m not an office person. I have to do my paperwork on Saturdays or after school. When the kids are moving to and from class I’m out there to see what the kids are doing. You can’t stay in one place, you have to be able to move, and I do, which prompts kids to ask, ‘Are there two of you?’ I show up when they least expect it, not looking to catch them in anything but to give them that extra encouragement they need.

“We have a staff at North High School that cares about every student. The kids know that. I think that’s the key. You have to go in with a positive attitude. Every student is worth something. The young people you’re working with on a daily basis are going to be your future.”

For Haynes, there’s no conflict about his mission.

“The bottom line has been and always will be what’s best for young people, not personally for me. It’s to make a difference in the lives of young people that you come across in your path.”

It’s all about setting expectations.

“If you don’t expect anything from them they’re not going to give you anything but if you have those high expectations and you communicate that there’s no wiggle room. You need to know how to do that. I’ve kind of mellowed in my latter years. I was very aggressive (before). It goes back to my father who said, ‘You’ll catch more bees with honey than you will with a stick.'”

When he sees students acting out he handles it differently today than in the past, though he still bellows “Hit the bricks” to stragglers.

“If you reprimand or put them down in front of their peers you’re not going to get anywhere. The best thing to do is to approach them and treat them with all due respect.”

 

 

 

A credo he likes imparting is, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to worry about repeating it – it’s always going to be there.”

Haynes realizes students confront a lot these days between the pressure to have sex at an early age, the lure of drugs, the threat of bullying and the high incidence of teen depression and suicide. He’s aware many inner city students come from broken families and live in active gang areas where instability and fear rule.

“I think the biggest challenge we face is we don’t have enough time for the magnitude of issues students bring to school. It’s not about books, it’s about time and effort to convince these young people there’s a better way of dealing with issues.”

Rather than an extended school day or extended school year, he advocates schools and communities “provide the best opportunities” for students to develop.

He says parents are vital cogs in their children’s education and he actively solicits their participation.

“I pick up the phone and call them. If I need to go make a home visit I do that. We make them a part of the equation.”

He says “the trust level has improved” among North’s parent base. He
suspects some had bad experiences in school, making it incumbent on himself and his staff “to ease any apprehensions they feel,” adding, “There’s a support system in place to eliminate some of those concerns. We have a very strong PTSO (Parent Teacher Student Organization).”

Coming out of Miss. in an era when blacks were denied basic human and civil rights, he knows about hard times and perseverance. You don’t forge a 47-year career without overcoming odds.

Haynes grew up the youngest of four sons to a sharecropping father and homemaking mother in a country hamlet between Gholson and Preston, Miss. During the off-season his father drove a truck. Like his brothers and cousins he was delivered by his midwife grandmother.

“We came in with the blessings of my grandmother,” is how he puts it.

In that tight-knit community he says, “We kind of looked out after for each other.”

In the fully segregated South he attended all black schools that got “hand-me-down” textbooks from the white schools. As a child he walked miles to a one-room schoolhouse. At 9 he started taking a bus to school. By high school the routine found one bus picking up a white neighbor girl and another bus picking him up, the vehicles taking the youths to “separate and unequal schools.”

Blacks were treated as second-class citizens in every way.

“That was the way of life back in that time. Growing up in the Jim Crow South toughened your skin up.”

His parents never got as far as high school but they stressed education’s importance. The black teachers who taught at the choolhouse boarded with the Haynes family during the week. That close proximity to educators made “a big impact on me,” he says.

An influential figure in his life was a landed white man, Vardaman Vendevender, who took an interest in young Gene.

“This gentleman was very dear to my family. On the weekends I worked for him. I did things around his house. I had access to his tractor, truck, jeep. If he needed things from the store I was able to go into town and get them. He called me Gene Robert after my grandfather. He once said to me, ‘If you ever want to be successful you have to leave the state of Miss.’ Here was a white guy sharing that with me. That was a relationship I treasured for years. Up until he passed every time I would go back to Miss. I would visit him.”

Vendevender’s son, Jake, visited him at North a few years ago. “He said, ‘When I pulled up I couldn’t believe a young skinny kid from Miss. is the principal of this big high school. My father must have made an impression on you.’ That’s something that sticks with me even right now.” Haynes returned the favor, visiting Jake below the Mason-Dixon Line. “We talked about the olden days.”

Haynes was in high school, where he excelled in sports, when the civil rights movement came to Miss. and all hell broke loose. Native son James Meredith integrated “Ole Miss” in 1962 but only with the full force of the nation’s highest court and National Guard troops behind him.

“The most frightening thing in my life was riding the bus to school and having federal marshals on every corner. Tension ran very high.”

 

Every time activists or lawmakers threatened dismantling segregation, racist stakeholders in that apartheid system reacted violently. In 1964, his freshman year in college. a trio of Freedom Riders were killed. The deaths of the Mississippi Three further heightened fear.

Haynes says despite the obstacles and dangers he never despaired things wouldn’t improve. He believed in the power of education and in letting the truth shine through ignorance.

“I could see that because of my training and my teachers, who were always discussing how important it was to get an education. They embedded that into us – that education is a key for success.”

Blacks were also resourceful to find some kind of way through barriers to pursue their goals and dreams.

“We managed in spite of the opportunities denied us.”

Haynes says that as a college-bound African-American then his higher ed choices in the South were severely limited. In much of the region at that time blacks could not attend anything but historically black colleges. “When I was coming out of high school if you were black and you didn’t go to Jackson State, Alcorn, Mississippi Valley State, Rust College or one of the other private black schools, you couldn’t go.”

During the ’60s some challenged this exclusion but not without the federal government enforcing it. Even then there were serious, often ugly consequences. It would be some time before blacks were able to attend schools of their choice without incident.

Haynes was fortunate to have as a mentor a male high school biology teacher who also coached him in football.

“He was very instrumental in working with me from grade 10 on, preparing me for college. He had gone to Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss, and he was very instrumental in my attending Rust. I felt that was the opportunity for me to do the things I need to do.”

Before attending Rust, however, Haynes followed his brothers to Omaha, where the extended family put down roots during the Great Migration blacks made from the South to the North in search of a better life. Omaha’s booming meat packing plants and railroad operations drew many unskilled blacks and other minorities here.

“We had relatives here and they hooked my oldest brother, who came here in ’59. with a job. iI was a kind of networking that went on. He came here on a weekend and he went to work at the packinghouse on Monday. That started a chain of events,” says Haynes, whose other brothers followed. In 1963, Gene did, too. His brothers went to Miss. for his high school graduation and no sooner did the ceremony end then they took him back to Omaha with them.

“I left to the chagrin of my mom and dad. I was the baby and now the nest was empty. In 1964 my mother and father pulled up stakes and moved to Omaha. Mom couldn’t stand not being around her boys.”

 

 

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Gene Haynes

 

 

Unlike his brothers, Gene didn’t work in the packinghouses. Instead, a relative got him on at the fancy Blackstone Hotel, with its distinctive exterior, ornate interior and popular Golden Spur and Orleans Room.

He returned to Miss. to attend Rust, majoring in social studies and economics.

“They provided me with a great education,” he says of his alma mater. The school also served as his introduction to his life partner. “I met a great lady whom I ended up marrying – my wife Annie. We graduated from Rust in 1967 and we got married in 1968.”

Haynes and his wife are the parents of one son, Jerel, and the grandparents of Caleb and Jacob.

Work-study and a scholarship put Haynes through college. He toiled in the dorms and athletic offices to pay his way in becoming his family’s first college graduate. Given the sway educators had in his life, he naturally looked at teaching as a career. Places like Omaha had a dearth of black college grads then, so OPS looked to historically black colleges for candidates. He joined other newly minted educators from the South as OPS hires, including Sam Crawford, Jim Freeman and Tom Harvey, all of whom enjoyed long careers like him.

“A large group of us that went to predominantly black schools came to Omaha to teach,” he says. “We’ve been very blessed because we have carved out a legacy that’s been great. We stuck together.”

Haynes didn’t intend staying in Omaha. When he started at OPS in 1967, at Omaha Technical High School. he came alone while Annie pursued teaching opportunities in Alabama and then Cleveland, Ohio.

“My plan was to teach here one year and go to Miami, where I also applied. I lived with my parents to save money. Forty-seven years later I’m still here and I haven’t saved any money yet,” he says, laughing.

 

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    Haynes with one of his Omaha Tech High basketball squads

 

 

After that first year in Omaha he went to Cleveland to court Annie.

“I convinced her Omaha was the place she needed to be.”

She got a job teaching 3rd grade at Lothrop Elementary. Annie ended up teaching 37-plus years in the district.

Haynes, who earned a master’s degree in education, administration supervision from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1974, taught and coached at Tech until the school closed in 1984. The massive Tech building is now the OPS headquarters, He was an assistant football coach when future University of Nebraska All-American and Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers played for the school. During his tenure at Tech Haynes became the state’s first black head basketball coach. Breaking that new ground meant dealing with some racist coaches, officials and fans.

“With a predominantly black team we had some skewed eyes looking at us. I had to tell the kids, ‘You have to play above that because let’s face it if it’s close, you can forget it,'” says Haynes, referring to blatantly bad calls that went against his team and other minority-laden teams then at Omaha Central and Omaha South.

“I told the kids, ‘You have to be twice as good as your competition.’ And so we tried to prepare them for that.”

He says he instilled in his players the philosophy – “You give it your best. Winning is not everything, but a sincere effort is.” He says he still believes that today. “It’s not about wins and losses it’s about the success of the young people at the end of their high school term.”

He has fond memories of his time at Tech.

“I can think about so many young people I was fortunate enough to work with.”

One of those is Thomas Warren Sr., who became Omaha Police chief and is now president-CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska. Warren played basketball for Haynes and remembers his old coach as “a strict disciplinarian who had the respect of his players” because he went the extra mile for them. He sees Haynes doing the same thing today.

“For many of his players he was responsible for facilitating scholarship opportunities. For me individually, he drove me to Sioux City, Iowa in his personal vehicle for my recruitment visit to Morningside College, where I eventually attended. I have watched him spend countless hours serving the students of Omaha North High School and our community. He has been an advocate for at-risk students and I have never seen him give up on a kid. I consider Gene Haynes a friend, mentor and role model and I will always refer to him as ‘Coach.'”

Other students Haynes molded became entrepreneurs, lawyers and professionals in one field or another. He finds it ironic many of them are now retired while he’s still working.

“Doesn’t seem right,” he says, smiling.

He says “the passion the staff developed caring about individual students made all the difference in the world” at Tech “and that’s what I’ve attempted to do and incorporate here at North.” He and his staff work to create an environment where students “feel they can come and talk to us about their concerns and we’ll address the situation.”

When Tech closed Haynes became assistant principal and athletic director at McMillan Magnet School for a year before joining the North High staff in 1987. At North he served as assistant principal and athletic director for 14 years until assuming the principal post in 2001.

Since taking over at North, whose 4410 North 36th Street campus borders some of Omaha’s highest crime areas, he’s credited with leading a turnaround there. But he says the transformation began under predecessor Tom Harvey, who changed the school’s image. Starting in the 1980s North’s once proud reputation suffered under the strain of urban pressures that saw school dropouts and disruptive behaviors rise, along with test scores decline. Haynes says Harvey began the process of turning this wasteland into an oasis of success.

“Tom Harvey was a driving force behind the resurrection of North.”

 

 

 

 

The impoverished neighborhoods around North had fallen into a mire of drugs, gangs, violence, vacant homes and hopelessness but have rebounded with help from community building organizations like Abide.

North’s leaders, Haynes says, made a conscious effort to make the school an anchor and resource in a community hungering for something it could be proud of and call its own.

“Tom Harvey invited the alums and the Vikings of Distinction to turn North High School around. They talked about what would it take to change the perception. There used to be a fence around the place.
When you saw that fence you thought about the prison mentality and we had to change that. The fence came down and there was a trust factor then within the community that North is the place to be.”

Haynes has continued to enhance North’s community engagement.

“North High School is a key component of this community. We have opened up North for community events and activities. We found that when people in the community feel they are part of something your vandalism goes down. They feel they have ownership in this. The second Saturday of the month the Empowerment Network uses our facility. Every Sunday Bridge Church holds services here.”

He says if northeast Omaha is to realize its hoped-for revival then North High and its companion schools must be actors in it.

“If it’s going to change North High School and the Omaha Public Schools are going to be key players in turning things around. Right now I see we’re moving in the right direction.”

Haynes welcomes community partners.

John Backus, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in North Omaha, says, “When we approached him about ways to be helpful in his school he was ready with ideas, answers and the sort of willing spirit that accomplishes things. Gene Haynes is a capable leader and intensely interested in the well-being of his students.”

Perhaps the biggest sea change for North came when it was made a magnet center for STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.

“Haynes says, “We wanted the best and the brightest people to be a part of North High School – students and staff. We went out and brought in the best and the brightest and we will continue to do so.”

 

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To accommodate this influx of students and new curriculum Haynes invited the entire North community of staff, students, alums and neighbors to weigh-in on a vision for a new addition. A group of students took the initiative and drew up the initial design for what became the 34,000 square foot, multi-million dollar Haddix Center.

“When the students are active I think it’s important you allow them to have input,” says Haynes. “It took 11 years from the time we started to plan until we were able to build. That was huge. We cherish the fact the alumni association and one gentleman, George Haddix, gave up $5 million. The district bought the project and supported it. We dedicated it in 2010. This is our fifth year in that facility.”

As a magnet center North draws students from around the metro. Haynes says one third of its students come from outside its attendance area. The school’s test scores have soared and the number of academic college scholarship awarded graduates has exploded. OPS superintendent Mark Evans says, “It’s a great success story and his leadership has made a difference there not only in the classrooms but in the extracurriculars. The principal sets the tone and is the leader of that culture and Gene Haynes is one of the best examples of that. When you say North High, you think Gene Haynes – that’s how much identification there is with him there.”

Evans adds that North’s success has a ripple effect on its student body and the surrounding community. “I think it’s huge. I think it sends a message of hope that we can and will succeed. We’ve got some young people who haven’t always thought they were going to be successful but because of North High and Gene Haynes they all believe they can be successful now and they are being successful.”

Haynes feels the STEM experience students receive there is preparing them for working living wage 21st century jobs that demand tech savvy employees. He’s confident as technology becomes ever more important that North’s on the cutting edge of utilizing it in the classroom. For example, some algebra classes are entirely taught on iPads. A new Samsung Smart School Solutions pilot program invites students to use a 75-inch touch interactive display and tablets to make stock market purchases, deliver tech-driven business presentations and get hands-on learning experiences with real life business partners.

“We have the best technology persons in Rich Molettiere and Tracy Sage,” Haynes says of North’s technology coordinators. “We really appreciate what they’ve been able to do. If someone tried to take them out of North High School, it’s on.”

North’s academic progress is matched by the success of its athletic programs. Until recently the school was known for its wrestling dominance, including multiple team and individual champions and at least one Olympic hopeful, Vikings grad RaVaughn Perkins. But more recently North’s football team has been the dominant force, winning back to back Class A state titles behind superstar running back Calvin Strong, a South Dakota commit. and Husker lineman recruit Michael Decker. The 2014 Vikings finished 13-0 and are widely considered one of the top teams in Nebraska prep football history.

 

 

 

 

North has done all this without having a true home field to play on. Its football team plays at Northwest High’s Kinnick Stadium some four miles away. A proposal for North High to build a stadium of its own, right in the neighborhood, is being looked at. As with the earlier Haddix Center, North students did an initial design. Haynes and the school’s foundation are assessing if there’s enough support in the community for what would be a privately funded project costing millions of dollars.

“We want it be state of the art,” Haynes says.

He believes the stadium would be another “bright light for this community” and he says the facility would be available for use by nearby Skinner Magnet School and the Butler Gast YMCA.

Haynes keeps long hours at North, whose doors hardly ever seem to close for all the activity there. He says he goes home satisfied when “I see the kids leaving school with a smile on their face and a pat on the back from the principal and they acknowledge it.” He adds, “I have a post I go to at dismissal that borders the neighborhood. From my perch I can see kids coming and going and if anything’s going to happen from the outside that’s where it’s going to come from. The kids know that and I know that. That’s why I choose to go out there. As the kids walk by I acknowledge them and give them encouragement. That’s what I consider a most gratifying day.

“I try not take anything from school home, and vice versa.”

As for how much longer he’ll be doing this, he’s promised the class of 2017 he’ll walk with them at their graduation.

“That’s the plan – if my health stays good.”

That would make 50 years at OPS.

He won’t have any say in his successor but he and others will be keeping a close eye to make sure this sweet ride continues.

“I feel whoever comes in is going to do the right thing, and if not it’ll be a short tenure.”

Whoever follows him will have big shoes to fill. A measure of the high esteem he’s held in is the street named after him right outside the school. At the dedication for it last summer and on social media people offered tributes, calling him “humble, genuine, dedicated, a role model – commands true respect.” A grateful Haynes takes it all in stride, saying, “The Omaha community has been very gracious to me and my family and now I have to live up to it.”

 

 

Omaha North superstar back Calvin Strong overcomes bigger obstacles than tacklers; Record-setting rusher poised to lead defending champion Vikings to another state title

August 29, 2014 3 comments

 

 

Omaha high school and greater Nebraska prep football programs have a tradition of producing running backs who go on to play in college, including a pipeline from Central High to the University of Nebraska, though in the last decade or so that tradition has been interrupted and that pipleline has dried up.  That may be changing.  The premier high school back in the state right now, at least in terms of the eye-popping numbers he puts up, is Omaha North senior Calvin Strong, the subject of this profile for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  He became the state’s first back to reach 3,000 yards in a season when he rushed for 3,008 yards and scored 43 touchdowns in leading his Vikings to the state Class A championship in 2013.   He is not alone.  Just the other night Central’s Tre Sanders exploded for 279 yards, including a handful of breakaway runs, in the Eagles opening game win over Lincoln North Star.  Sanders and Strong have size working against them.  The former is listed at 5’8, 160 pounds and the latter at 5’9, 175 pounds, neither measurement lines that would preclude them being recruited by FBS schools, but it just might put some off.  Sanders has a measurable advantage over Strong in that his 40 yard dash time is listed at 4.4 seconds while Strong, a notoriously poor tester in the 40, can only muster a 4.6 or 4.7.  While there’s some interest in Sanders to be sure and much more might be coming his way if he keeps producing the way he did in the opener, Strong has even more interest, but he surprised a lot of folks when he recently gave a verbal commit to South Dakota.  The Coyotes were on him a long time, yes, and they had extended the only outright offer to Strong, that’s true, but according to North Coach Larry Martin there was a lot of interest in the player from FBS and FCS schools, only they were waiting to see how Strong performed again on the field this season and more importantly how he performed in the classroom and on the ACT, because his academics have been a problem.  Strong could always change his mind, of course, and end up going to a football factory, but it might just be his comfort level was the deciding factor and he wanted to take a relatively sure thing rather than sweat out his grades and test scores and see what other offers came his way.  Whatever happens, it doesn’t appear that Strong or Sanders or any of the other in-state prep backs are likely to be D-I sensations the way Gale Sayers, Joe Orduna, Keith Jones, Calvin Jones, Ahman Green, Kenton Keith were.  But maybe, just maybe, Strong can be the next Danny Woodhead, who was snubbed by the big schools because of his small stature and less than electrifying speed and set small college records on his way to the NFL.  Of course, as my article goes into, Strong has even more serious things to worry about, like staying clear of the gang culture that surrounds him in his inner city neighborhood and that has claimed some of his friends.

Strong and his Vikings open their season tonight, Friday, August 29, at home against Millard West.

 

Omaha North superstar back Calvin Strong overcomes bigger obstacles than tacklers                                                                                                                               Record-setting rusher poised to lead defending champion Vikings to another state title

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Omaha North running back sensation and recent South Dakota verbal commit Calvin Strong put up sick numbers last season leading his school to its first state football title in the playoff era. His 3,008 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns set state and metro single season Class A records, shattering anything done by past star Omaha prep backs such as Gale Sayers and Ahman Green.

Despite measuring 5’9, 175 pounds, he runs like his name, strong, right into the heart of defenses, where his uncanny vision and agility allow him to avoid big hits. Even when he does run into contact he breaks tackles thanks to his superb balance, low center of gravity and ample strength. With his legs churning forward and his head on a swivel, he probes for creases, then spins, darts. bounces, bursts through heavy traffic into open lanes for big gains.

Known for a positive attitude, ready smile and being a vocal, emotional team leader, he saves his best moves for the off-field. There he does a precarious dance to avoid the gang-banging culture around him.

Strong and his pre-season No. 1 Vikings play Friday night’s season opener at home versus Millard West. All eyes will be on the senior when he touches the ball, which figures to be a lot given his 27-plus carries per game average last year. His 3,000 yard season came on the heels of a nearly 1,900 yard sophomore campaign, when he led North to the title game only to fall just short. He’s a two-time first-team all-state selection.

For someone with his credits it’s unusual he only had one college offer – from South Dakota. It may be more unusual yet he accepted it with a resume-enhancing session before him. North Head Coach Larry Martin confirms “there was a ton of interest out there” from FBS and FCS schools. Programs held off because Strong’s struggled academically and he’s posted sub-par 40-yard dash times (4.6-4.7) at camps.

The South Dakota commitment took Martin by surprise, though he confirms the school showed the most consistent interest in Strong. Martin, who’s “extremely close” to Strong and his family, said only two weeks ago, “I know he’s on a lot of people’s boards and people are waiting to see where all the intangibles measure out. Everybody wants to know where he’s at academically. Right now he’s a non-qualifier. If he was a qualifier, he’d have more offers right now. Somebody’s going to take him and is going to get a helluva running back.”

The pressure to perform well in the classroom and on standardized tests has sometimes gotten the better of Strong, whose commitment eases one stressor.

“He’s broke down on me multiple times about it,” Martin says.

Then there was the out-of-school suspension Strong served earlier this year for unspecified reasons. Martin says Strong put it behind him.

“He handled what he had to work through like a man. He came back and went right to work and he had his best summer since he’s been here. I thought our teachers did a great job of getting him his homework. He’s a very genuine young man. If he tells you he’s going to do something he’s going to follow through and do it. His word means something to him. I feel real confident with what I’ve seen. He’s learned from his mistakes, been apologetic for it, and moved on.”

 

 

 

Strong’s a celebrity wherever he goes in North Omaha and Martin believes even though the player is humble, a sense of entitlement creeped in.

“Sometimes kids think they can get away with a little bit more because of their status and I think he got caught up in that. I think he’s understanding that consequences apply to everybody.”

Martin has been pleased with Strong’s progress in and out of school and feels he’s prepared himself for what comes next.

“He has the grades – we’ve just got to get the ACT score up and we’ve taken the measures to get that headed in the right direction. God bless he stays healthy he’s going to be one of the more decorated football players coming out of this state in quite a few years.”

There’s never been any doubt, barring injury, Strong would play somewhere on a big stage at the next level. He may have a chance of being an impact player there, too. Of course, it’s always possible Strong could de-commit from the Coyotes and go to a football factory. It that happens, it would make him the first local back in a while to breakthrough after decades of guys doing it.

His coach won’t venture to guess, but Strong may even follow the path of two recent North players, in Niles Paul and Philip Bates, who went D-I and landed in the NFL. The path to the NFL doesn’t need to go through a big program either. Just ask Bates (Ohio) and Danny Woodhead (Chadron State).

The fact that Strong is even in this position is an achievement worth celebrating if for no other reason than he’s escaped the fate of friends lost to guns and gangs.

That harsh street life co-exists with his sometimes storybook, folk hero saga.

His school is in a neighborhood – Strong lives just down the hill from North – beset by poverty and crime. Drug dealing and turf wars pose dangers. Minus boundaries, gang culture exerts a pull. Strong, like his name, has stood firm against the allure and trap of that lifestyle, one that cost at least six of his buddies’ their lives. He continues knowing people caught up in it. He’s flirted with it himself. But he’s made known he wants nothing to do with it. The Gs know he’s off-limits.

“I still have friends that are in the gang life or whatever but they know and I know where I need to be at. It’s really not hard to x that stuff out of my life because I know and they know what I got going for myself and what’s in store for me,” Strong says.

“My freshman year I was pulled to doing dumb things but I’ve matured throughout these years to know what’s right from wrong, so I’ve been keeping myself away. Basically this whole summer I’ve just been with my coaches and teammates. I really ain’t been focused on anything else but football and studies so I can get to college.”

Martin’s aware of the pressures Strong faces. The coach and his family offer a respite when Calvin needs it.

“There is a pull and you can’t ignore it but he’s got his outs and when things get a little bit tough he calls coach and he comes stays with us, sometimes for a couple nights. We’re more than happy to provide that for him because he is a high quality young man.

“It’s also just to help take the burden off the family.”

In Martin, Strong appreciates he has a mentor and advocate, saying, “The only pressure that’s on me right now is finishing what he’s helped me with. Me and him have always had a relationship outside football. I’ll go to his house, chill out, eat steak. I’m like one of his own kids. He’s like a second dad to me. He’s always been there for me through anything. He has my back and I have his.

“He’s a real special guy and I give my heart to him. He’s prepared us for life, not just football. His speeches, they really just get to you, they spark something in you.”

Martin sees Strong mostly doing the right things these days.

“He’s really worked hard in terms of making sure he’s doing everything he can to make the right decisions. We’re just here to help continue to support him, provide him more options. Our total pursuit is to get that college education.”

 

 

 

Strong lives at home with his father, Calvin Strong Sr., and his younger brother, Jordan Strong. As a 6’2, 250 pound sophomore nose guard, Strong’s 15-year-old “little brother” is already getting hard looks from colleges. Because of his size, Jordan’s always played a couple grade levels up from his age group and thus he and his superstar older brother have been teammates growing up. The siblings are cogs in what may be a dynasty for years to come given the talent-rich depth and winning habits Martin’s built-up.

Calvin himself is only 17, so he may be fill out some come college, though in today’s sprint offenses size isn’t the factor it used to be.

Martin has always said, “it’s going to be about finding the right fit for him. I think people want to see him one more year. He did what he needed to do this summer and then we’ll let the first three or four games take care of themselves.  We’ve got tough games right away – we open up with Millard West and Burke. If he does well in those games people are going to want to see that film.”

Among other things coaches will see, Martin says, is a dynamic back who’s “motivated and very competitive,” adding, “The one concern the bigger schools have is his top-end speed. Calvin just doesn’t test well in the 40. But I don’t know that top-end speed has to be the number one factor. He has so many other things he can do. Number one, he doesn’t turn the ball over. I mean, he just doesn’t fumble. He has taken extremely good care of the football. I think he has great vision. I think he anticipates where things are going to come open so well. He’s very durable. He’s elusive – he can make guys miss. He’s got great hips. His core and overall body strength is very good. His feet never stop moving, they’re constantly going.”

Strong has the ability to read defenses and anticipate where trouble lurks and then when things break down to change direction on a dime.
He says, “I see how everybody’s lined up. It’s really hard to tackle me unless the play gets all bunched up. I just keep my eyes focused and I shut everything else out, and once I break everything comes back loud again, all the screaming, and I can relax and have fun after I’ve gotten a first down or I’ve scored.

“Plus, I’m real small and my linemen are really big, so it’s good I can hide behind ’em and just choose where I can break off. It makes it real difficult for the linebackers to read me.”

He acknowledges he’s also run behind an exceptional line anchored by Nebraska commit and fellow all-stater Michael Decker, who returns.

But not every defender’s blocked every play and Strong doesn’t back down from the one-on-one challenge of a backer trying to blow him up.

“I’m just a real strong small guy – I don’t take nothing from nobody. Playing against some of the biggest linebackers in the state I’ve always gone heads up with ’em, I never try to fall down when they’re coming – I take it to ’em. I’m a small back but I’m going to show you I have power. I’m not afraid of contact.”

The contact part is funny because Strong confirms he once hated even the idea of being tackled before playing organized football. His dad and uncle forced him to play to toughen him up. His first full year at running back for the Little Vikes, after a year wasted on the line, he’d curl up to avoid hits but after dominating the youth ranks he decided the contact was no big deal, though he rarely took a clean hit. When tackled today he takes it as a personal defeat, which only makes him come back harder the next time. At the end of the day his heart and will are what separate him from others.

“I feel like that’s what it is because I want it more than a lot of people. I’m always competitive. Everything is competition to me.”

As for his less than stellar 40 clocking, he discounts it with, “My speed and everything shows on the field.” Indeed, he’s rarely if ever caught from behind.  Martin, who coached current NFL players Phil Bates and Niles Paul, is waiting to see what Strong shows this year before comparing him to those elite athletes.

“I’ll know a lot more with him after our first couple games. You know, we tell our kids that the guys from North who’ve made it to the next level are the hardest working players every day. I will say Calvin’s work ethic has definitely increased. I think we’ve got him to the point where he understands if he wants to be the elite of the elite then he needs to continue to work harder.”

Besides what’s on the line for him personally, Strong’s dedicated himself to getting North back to the title game again.

“I worked very hard. I’m determined this year to come out with a real big bang. I really want that ring again. I really want that experience again.”

He’s aware no Omaha Public Schools team has made it to three straight finals games and he wants North to be the first to do it.

The North program’s come to the point where winning’s the expectation. Playing for the title two years ago and then winning the championship last year has meant a huge boost in confidence.

“It really set the bar for us,” Strong says. “Now nobody can really bring us down. Nobody can say they’re better than us. Nobody can say anything about us being an underdog team because we showed we’ve climbed all those obstacles. It was very heartwarming to me because we’d been talking about it since my freshman year and just to have it after we should have had it my sophomore year was really nice.”

Strong’s also keenly aware of his role model and celebrity status. He still finds all the attention, as in everyone from children to adults wanting his autograph or screaming his name, a bit surreal, saying, “It’s crazy.” He adds, “There’s not a lot of 17-year olds that can give little kids hope.”

The importance he attaches to his gift for football as his gateway out of The Hood is clearly reflected in a Tweet he made:

“If I didn’t have this I’d be nothing. That’s why thrive (sic) to be the best to do it.”

The way he sees it, realizing his dreams also honors the memory of his late friends who encouraged him to pursue football as far it would take him. Strong was en route to a game two years ago when he got word his friend Tyler had shot himself in the head playing Russian Roulette. He found out during the game Tyler died from his wounds.

In a Tweet, Strong wrote:

“Rip to my brother Tyler Brent Hickerson
When I die I want my BROTHERS walking my casket down …the ones who stood next to me when I once stood#cant get know Realer
If only u was here to see me shine … I miss u”

Strong’s grown up a Husker fan and Nebraska definitely has him on their radar. The only camp he attended this past summer was in Lincoln, where he’s got to know NU’s premier back, Ameer Abdullah, to whom he’s often compared. Before saying yes to South Dakota Strong hinted he’d like to reestablish the once continuous running back pipeline there from Omaha that’s gone dry the last decade-and-a-half.

He said, “I’d love to keep it in state just to show everybody how good North Omaha competition is. Playing for Nebraska would make a lot of people happy in Omaha.”

If Strong were to renege and select another school’s offer, assuming one’s proffered, there’s still those test scores. Martin felt the junior college route was a distinct possibility for Strong. His own son, Zach Martin, who quarterbacked North to the 2012 title game, is thriving at Iowa Western Community College, which sends many players to D-I.

Once Strong’s South Dakota decision sunk in, Martin understood it because the player’s developed a trust with the Coyote coaches that reminds him of what Strong has with him and his coaches at North.

“Calvin and his family mean so much to me, he’s almost like my own son. My message to Calvin has always been I will find a place that’s going to be the right fit for you. I’m just not going to turn you over to somebody that hasn’t invested that much time in you. We’re going to take care of you.”

He says for nearly every dream Strong wants to accomplish, South Dakota will be able to provide that for him. If not, Martin’s sure there are plenty of other places that will fit the bill.

Stay strong, Calvin, stay strong.

North hosts No. 3 Millard West this Friday at Kinnick Stadium on the Northwest High campus. Kickoff is for 7 p.m.

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