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Art in the heart of South Omaha

September 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Until I saw a Facebook post about Omaha South putting on a production of “In the Heights” in collaboration with SNAP! Productions. it had somehow escaped me that South was the Omaha Public Schools’ Visual and Performing Arts Magnet. The show, which I saw and was most impressed by, was a fundraiser for a planned visual and performing arts addition at the school, which has a robust arts curriculum far surpassing anything found in another OPS building. Indeed, the quality of the show was so high that it sold me on writing a story for The Reader about the arts magnet emphasis at the inner city school. I then found out from faculty and students just how much is going on there and how passionate these educators and kids are about what they do in the arts. My resulting story is shared here. It appears in the September 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Art in the heart of South Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appears in the September 13, 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Chances are, you don’t know Omaha has a public high school of performing arts, It may further surprise you that South High School is that Fame-style institution.

South has been the Omaha Public Schools’ Visual & Performing Arts Magnet for two decades. But the architect for the arts emphasis there, retired South drama teacher Jim Eisenhardt, said “by the time we were named an arts magnet, we were already an arts magnet in all but name.”

Dramatic growth in student numbers has seen a corresponding growth in programs that finds South with the district’s most robust arts curriculum. Students can even elect to be an arts major. Seventy percent of all students take at least one arts class. Forty percent take at least two. Participation has exploded, especially in dance and guitar.

The interest and activity have South facing serious space issues to accommodate it all. Thus, the school’s embarked on a $12 million private fundraising campaign for a planned Visual & Performing Arts addition.

Becky Noble, South curriculum specialist and a drts Magnet facilitator, said space is at such a premium that some labs and classrooms meet in cramped former “closets.” Film and music technology classes share the same small digs. Neither has a dedicated studio.

“We can’t grow music tech and film anymore.”

With no permanent spaces for some classes, she said, “they’re constantly moving from place to place.” Even the dance studio is makeshift. The present black box theater lacks flexibility and accessibility.

She described conditions as “maxed out,” adding, “We need space that is appropriate to enhance learning.”

Then there’s the battle for updated technology. She said it can be difficult getting district officials to accept why not just any computers or software programs will do for the high-end things students create in film, digital art and music tech.

“We are so unusual in the district that sometimes they almost don’t know what to do about us.”

Asking for state-of-the-art gear and contracting professionals to teach dance takes some explaining.

“It’s an ongoing kind of beating our heads with having them understand that it is a special thing and it is important, it’s not just a fluff thing. We don’t have students in here for fluff. We have them in here because there is a real, honest curriculum.”

“Our basic philosophy to use art as a springboard to enhance problem-solving and abstract thought,” South theater director Kevin Barratt said.

Noble said the fact teachers make-do and still net great results speaks to their commitment.

“It is really a labor of love.”

The 55,000 square foot addition would add seven general education classrooms, dedicated studio spaces, a new black box theater and an art gallery. Noble said South’s fortunate to have a strong advocate making its case in Toba Cohen-Dunning, executive director of the Omaha Schools Foundation, the project’s fiscal agent.

Administrators, such as former principal Cara Riggs, are arts advocates, too. “She put some additional money behind it and now our current principal Ruben Cano is doing a great job of listening,” Noble said.

“The equity formula of the Omaha Public Schools allowed for dollars to follow students,” Riggs said. “As we received more dollars for our magnet students, we continued to find ways to strengthen our magnet programs, We found it important to create programs in the arts that students couldn’t get anywhere else in the metro: Dance taught by professional dance instructors; a piano lab and a guitar program; a film program and a computer gaming program.

“Our school culture improved and enrollment rocketed, with successful programs and positive word-of-mouth.”

South staffers, past and present, say they hoped the arts would catch fire but Eisenhardt said no one expected this.

“We started a dance class with 12 kids and now it’s up above 400 (with five styles offered). There are over 300 kids in guitar and piano.”

Alum Kate Myers Madsen, who was active in music and theater at South, theorizes why the arts flourish there.

“I think the reason it’s so well-received is that it’s so in the community of people who are incredibly talented but might not come from homes that have the means to put them in private voice or instrument lesson and dance classes. It’s providing huge value to students who normally would not be able to access it.”

This arts infusion didn’t just happen, it was intentionally built by Eisenhardt and Co. from 1982 to his 2006 retirement. He cultivated relationships with community arts organizations that exposed students to professionals in many disciplines. Over time, South became the district’s arts epicenter and the magnet designation naturally followed.

“My colleagues across the district knew what the arts program was at South,” he said. “No one ever asked me why we got it (magnet status) and not somebody else. There were great arts teachers already here like Toni Turnquist and Mary Lou Jackson and Josh Austin working hard to create something important.”

Then-principal Joyce Christensen granted great autonomy and Eisenhardt ran with it.

“She encouraged people to do things that were innovative and making sure the kids had the best experience they could in high school. I would just forge ahead and do something, not necessarily checking with her for permission first, but she supported it. She knew I would never do anything to embarrass South High.

“Roni Huerta, my counterpart as the magnet coordinator for Information & Technology, was a big supporter of what we did in the arts. Because of her we got the dance classes to count as physical education credits.”

Eisenhardt said Jerry Bartee, another former South principal, also lent great support.

Many things make South an arts magnet. Start with the array of class options available and the fact these disciplines have different sections and levels. There are multiple music ensembles as well.

Before coming to South, Eisenhardt was at Omaha Tech, where he formed relationships with Opera Omaha’s Jane Hill and the Omaha Community Playhouse’s Charles Jones. Opera rehearsals were held at Tech. The Nebraska Theatre Caravan rehearsed A Christmas Carol there. When Tech closed, Eisenhardt invited these rehearsals to travel to South. The ties were eventually formalized as Adopt-a-School partnerships.

“Both of those had great impact on our success as a magnet school,” Eisenhardt said.

Omaha music director Hal France worked with Opera Omaha then.

“We had a home on the South High Auditorium stage rehearsing all our shows with international and national opera singers and directors. Despite putting on five shows a year of their own at South, Jim always made the schedule work for us. It was a dream. It was a relationship based on trust that emanated first and foremost from Jim, a magnificent, remarkable host.”

Opera Omaha even collaborated with South on three productions with staff-students. The last of these, Bloodlines, was a 2004 original with a libretto by Jane Hill and Eisenhardt and a score by Deb Teason,

“Jane and I worked with the kids to write a script based on their experiences as immigrants in Omaha,” Eisenhardt said. “The title came from the idea that these immigrants worked the bloodlines in the packinghouses and also the bloodlines of their families.

“That year the Omaha World-Herald named it one of the top ten cultural events in Omaha. It was quite a production and really an important part of the development of the magnet. By the time that was over, the magnet was in full swing.”

Riggs said with those kinds of collaborations, “we were able to create extra-value in the school experience, beyond the many required academic courses.”

Outside district and arts circles, South’s magnet identity is a best-kept-secret. The school’s inner-city location, working-class environment and low achievement scores may not fit some perceptions of what an arts magnet should look like.

“That’s all a big part of it,” Noble said. “It’s our challenge. One of the things we talk a lot about is that we have to continue to get more and more known in the community.”

Noble hopes others see South’s diversity as an asset.

“When we go to some competitions, most of the other schools are all white, but our kids represent what the world looks like.”

Senior arts major Jax Barkhouse, who lives in West Omaha and was expected to follow his friends to a suburban school, battled those perception issues.

“It was especially hard for me because people were like, ‘Why are you going to South?’ They think bad things about it. But I only tell them good things about it.”

South has traditionally been the main receiving school for immigrant, refugee and migrant populations. After a sharp enrollment decline, it’s experienced a renaissance. The rebirth has coincided with the boon of the South 24th business district it borders and the arrival of Latino and Sudanese families in the surrounding neighborhoods it serves.

The school’s home to a dense demographic of Latinos, Africans, Asians, African-Americans and Caucasians. South’s vast arts program and additional magnets in Information & Technology and Dual Language have made it the school of choice for the overwhelming majority of students in its home attendance area.

South also draws students from outside the area attracted to its focused offerings.

Madsen, Barkhouse and junior Ori Parks bypassed their home schools for South due to its arts concentration.

“It surpassed anything I had expected,” said Madsen. “I did a lot of things outside school.”

South funded most of her travel to Great Britain for a Playhouse-sponsored theater immersion. Since graduating in 2006, she’s performed at the Shelterbelt, The Rose and Iowa Western Community College.

“The opportunities afforded me at South allowed me to really identify what it was I loved about the arts and which track I wanted to follow. I had been classically trained up until my freshman year in high school, so the opportunity to do musical theater really allowed me to see what it was that I loved about theater performing,”

Barkhouse followed his heart to South.

“I was supposed to go to Burke, but I chose to come down here because of the performing arts. I’m so glad that I chose South. I love it.”

He plans majoring in musical theater in college.

Parks, who lives closer to Benson, was sold on South because of its rich arts options.

“I was like, whoa, they have all this stuff.”

“Having easy access to the arts here at South is really a great benefit,” said Jennifer Au, among the 80 percent of arts majors on the honor roll. “I think being involved in the arts really helps me with my schoolwork.”

Results like these help explain why there’s such energy and interest from students in going there.

“When I left South, we averaged 1,300 students and now its 2,500,” said Eisenhardt, “and a lot of that’s because of the success the kids have found in the arts, the teachers there supporting the arts and the work the kids do outside the normal classroom.”

It doesn’t hurt that South graduates are findings careers in the arts. Rachel McCutcheon stage managed The Book of Mormon on Broadway. Paul Coate performed with Nebraska Shakespeare, Nebraska Repertory Theatre, Opera Omaha and the Omaha Symphony. Since moving to Minneapolis, he’s acted with the Guthrie Theatre and sung with the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

“My experiences at South were the foundation on which I built my career as a performing artist,” Coate said. “The arts programming and faculty leadership were very strong. I feel very lucky to have been in such a good place at such a pivotal time in my life.

There’s real talent there, too. Just ask director Kevin Lawler, who’s helmed work nationally. He was at the Blue Barn when Hill asked him to direct Bloodlines. In his current post as Great Plains Theatre Conference artistic director, he’s made South an integral part of the annual Playfest series. Visiting L.A. playwright Michael John Garces wrote an original piece called South drawn in part from interviews with students that he and the show’s director, Scott Working, conducted.

“The staff work immensely hard to give the education, tools and positive creative channels to these, the next generation of great young creatives and artists of Omaha,” Lawler said. “There is so much talent and energy packed into South High each day that, with the proper support, the impact that it can have on our city in terms of our cultural life and our community will be immeasurable.”

South, with students as the mainstay performers, premiered at the conference in late May to a warm reception. In July, a joint South-SNAP! Productions mounting of In the Heights elicited raves and kicked off the “Art in the Heart of South Omaha” campaign for the new addition. South theater students worked the show, including Aimee Perez-Valentin, who ran tech. Alums participated as well, including Kate Myers Madsen in the role of Vanessa and Esmeralda Moreno Villanueva stage managing.

“It was very interesting being on the other side of it this time in this more mature role,” Madsen said. “”For me, it was very much coming home because that was my first stage where I stepped out as a musical theater performer. For a lot of these students, it was their first show. They were experiencing what I did the first time. I was blown away by their talent.

“We have a lot of talent, not only in Omaha but at this school specifically.”

Theater students have made the cut for the Playhouse’s apprentice program.

Senior Jax Barkhouse earned a role in the Playhouse’s production of Mamma Mia! opening September 15.

Grad Ja’Taun Markel Pratt is attending the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.

South’s 2016 production of Check Please was selected to perform at the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln. Three students recognized for Outstanding Performances over the last four years

The Show Choir made it to nationals last year.

“We have kids at the top levels of dance who are getting dual enrollment credit at UNO for dance and who are majoring in dance at UNL,” Noble said.

2013 grad and University of Nebraska at Omaha senior Maria Fernanda Reyes performs with UNO’s prestigious Moving Company dance troupe.

Noble said South instrumental music students get a firm foundation in music theory, ear training, sight reading, et cetera. Music tech grads are being prepared to enter audio engineering college studies and careers.

“It’s a pretty amazing curriculum and we have kids going off to college to major in piano performance. Any of our teachers can tell you about the rigor they include in their program. Everyone here understands you meet them where they are and you move them up.

“We want to equip them with whatever they need to go on and be successful at the next level. We want them to be good. We want them to have the right training.”

South’s collaborations with arts professionals continue. Earlier this year vocal students performed in concert with Grammy-recording artist Eric Church at Pinnacle Bank Arena and the CenturyLink Center. “Years ago our choir performed with Michael Buble. We have developed a nice relationship with the Grammy Foundation. We received their Community Award for our wide-ranging arts programs. They are the ones who recommended us for Eric Church, whose people seemed very pleased with our kids.”

Noble knows talent when she sees it.

“I’m obviously biased, but I’m also realistic, and if it wasn’t good, I’d know it.”

Noble is among several staffers with still active careers in the local arts scene. She’s sung with professional ensembles, was the owner-executive director of the Dundee Dinner Theatre and is founder-director of Cabaret Theatre. South theater director Kevin Barratt is a veteran of Omaha stages.

“We have a lot of people on our staff who do work as artists in the community and that’s important to us because that’s how our students learn.”

Guest artists bring additional expertise.

“That’s a big part of the reason why we did In the Heights and brought in some people from the community (including director Michael Simpson from SNAP!). The more people you work with and the more opportunities you have like that the better you get.

“I think a lot of our success has to do with people who are passionate about it and don’t back down. And we are fighters – we do fight for it.”

Eisenhardt said it’s always been this way: “We provided the kids with more opportunities than any other school. The normal school did a couple (theater) shows a year. We did five a year at South (still do). We did things beyond school. We developed Neon Theatre, an improv troupe that provides entertainment for schools and civic groups. Our show choir performs 50 or more times a years. Those kinds of opportunities are important to the development of the magnet.

“South continues to reach out and collaborate with the community. It’s not so insular that it just does its thing and that’s enough. It reaches out to theater groups and art groups and dance groups and music groups and allows the kids to see that there’s more than just school time that needs to be spent on creating great art.”

South hosts a district-wide One-Act-Play Festival. Community professionals do staged readings and judging of the work.

The Opera Omaha and Playhouse partnerships continue, though not as intense.

“I think it’s just a shift in focus on the part of schools and organizations,” Noble said. “Partnerships develop because of a specific project as opposed to just a general partnership. Great Plains and SNAP! are not official partners but we do lots of work with those groups. We enjoy a great relationship with the Omaha Performing Arts education department. They are very supportive of our programs and when touring arts groups come into town, we often have the opportunity for performances-workshops.”

At South, David Weisser teaches the only filmmaking classes offered by an OPS school and he serves on the Film Streams education committee. His students and Josh Austin’s music tech students often collaborate, as do music, theater and dance students.

Noble, who teaches vocal and choral, speaks for her colleagues in describing the charge educators and visiting artists get when things click for students.

“It’s exceptional to see their passion and how they realize that something is speaking to them. You can’t downplay what the arts teach you. You can’t downplay the creativity, the independent thinking, the ability to work together and collaborate and all those things that are the skills you need to succeed in life.”

Esmeralda Moreno Villanueva, a graduate of the Playhouse apprenticeship program, said her intersection with the arts at South “changed my whole life.”

She studied drama, stage craft, guitar, music tech, film, piano and dance all for the first time at South.

“I ended up falling in love with the theater. I had wanted to be a nurse or something and I ended up changing my whole career-life plan. I love where I am right now.”

She’s pursuing an associate’s degree and working shows – currently stage managing Bent for SNAP! at the Shelterbelt.

“I call it my life calling. Theater is my life and I want it to my career. There’s so many things that make this beautiful work of art and I want to help make that art.

“It’s the perfect place for me. It’s my dream job.”

Now, South just needs enhanced facilities to help make more students’ dreams a reality.

“The addition is essential to provide adequate space for the school to develop legitimate “artists-of-the-theater,” Barratt said. “Coupled with our music, dance and visual arts departments, we need the space to help students prepare for the professional world.”

For arts and campaign updates, visit south.ops.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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South Omaha takes center stage


What would Omaha be without South Omaha? Well, for starters, the city would lose a whole lot of history, culture, character and vitality. Just like the murals springing up all over South Omaha, the area is a mash-up of races, ethnicities, cultures, neighborhoods, traditions, colorful characters and intriguing landmarks that express a diverse tapestry of work, family and social life that not only enriches the city’s livability but that helps make Omaha, well, Omaha. Sometimes though it takes an outsider to appreciate the personality of a place. Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces has spent time in South Omaha the last couple years familiarizing himself with the area and its people in prepration for creating stage works that celebrate different aspects of South Omaha for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. In 2015 and again in 2017, the conference’s PlayFest is focusing on South Omaha as part of its Neighborhood Tapestries program and each time Garces has gone into the community to extract its essence. His process involves walking the streets, stopping in places to talk to people and formally collecting people’s stories through interviews and exercises he conducts. His resulting new play “South” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 31 during the free PlayFest at Omaha South High School. Some of that school’s students participated in story circles Garces conducted and will perform in the play. This is my story about the appeciation that Garces has gained for South Omaha. The piece appears in the May 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

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South Omaha takes center stage

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com)

 

South.

When applied to Omaha, the word refers to a neighborhood and a school where cross-cultural intersections happen every day. South is also the working title and setting of a new play by Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces. His original work is having its world premiere at South High on Wednesday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the May 27-June 3 Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC).

South Omaha’s a landing spot for migrants, immigrants and refugees. South High’s a microcosm of the area and its range of social-racial-ethnic diversity. Garces spent time in South O researching his play. He visited there in 2015 for a similar project. His new drama expresses fears, aspirations, issues and traditions of the two primary populations comprising the area today – Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Other ethnicities are represented in the piece as well.

The GPTC production is part of the conference’s community-based PlayFest. The free show featuring South High students will be performed in the school auditorium. South High is at 4519 South 24th Street.

The annual conference hosted by Metropolitan Community College takes turns exploring aspects of inner city Omaha through its Neighborhood Tapestries. Last year’s focus was North Omaha. This year, it’s South Omaha. Garces visited last fall garnering the raw material for the play from story circles convened with people who variously live, work and attend school there or otherwise identify as South Omahans.

“Community-based work creates a story vibrantly alive in the truths of the specific community participating in it,” said GPTC artistic director Kevin Lawler. “It allows for the community to share stories directly, in-person, and with the depth theater provides. With the annual PlayFest Neighborhood Tapestries we are creating a living history of the local neighborhoods of Omaha that is unlike any other that exists for the city.”

For South, Garces created two fictional families. One, Lithuanian-American. The other, Mexican-American. The lives of Lina, younger sister Gabija and their parents are juxtaposed with the lives of Lupe, younger brother Diego and their parents. The two households contend with things universal across cultures but also singular to their own family and life situation.

 

 

 

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Michael John Garces

 

 

Once Donald Trump got elected President, Garces returned for an extra story circle, this time with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, who expressed concerns about anti-immigrant stands.

“It just changed what it meant to write a play at this moment,” Garces said. “I appreciated how my colleagues at the conference stepped up to that and had me come back out to have more conversations with people, which was really necessary.”

The threat of DACA’s repeal, wholesale deportations and a border wall were among the concerns shared.

“There was definitely some trepidation expressed to me about what certain changes would mean for South Omaha, particularly for young people.”

In the play Lina’s intensely curious about the legal status of friends Lupe and Diego, who avoid the subject until something brings it to light. The two girls wind up protesting on behalf of immigration reform. Garces said, “I talked to people with a very wide range of relationships to activism, so I wanted to represent young people who were activists like Lina and Lupe, and others, like Diego, who aren’t so much.”

By play’s end, Diego’s run afoul of the law and he and Lina have grown apart. Lina and Lupe ponder their respective futures. Lina’s free to go and return as she pleases. Lupe and Diego don’t have that luxury.

“Lina is frustrated with some things happening in her community and for her to leave is a different choice then for Lupe to leave because Lina knows she can come back,” said Garces, whose play intentionally explores who America is home to and isn’t today.

“I think this notion of home is challenging and contested right now. What does it mean to live in the United States since you were 2 and be told you have to go back ‘home’ to a place you don’t have any memory of and whose language you may not speak and leave the place where you do speak the language and where everyone you know lives. There’s a high degree of precariousness and uncertainty for people.”

Questions about identity and home resonate for Garces.

“There’s definitely personal connections in the play for me of families being put under stress by political concerns and as a young person having to make those decisions. Some of the interpersonal stuff that happens both within the family and with friends resonates, too.

“My father’s Cuban, my mother’s Anglo-American, and I grew up in South America, which has its own series of complexities. But at the end of the day I have friends who can’t make the same choices I can make. Regardless of how complex my life and how hard the choices may be, regardless of my convictions, there is always the simple fact I have an American passport, which unless I do something very specific cannot be taken away from me. And so I have the option of certain choices some of my friends don’t. Me choosing to leave the United States or stay is a vastly different choice than it is for someone who’s not a citizen.”

In terms of how South Omahans view themselves, Garces sees a dynamic, healthy tension between permanency and transition. It’s a working-class place with rich history and strong cultural ties, yet always reinventing itself. The one constant is aspiration.

“When I talk to people in the taqueria or the school or the Lithuanian Bakery or wherever I go, there’s always this sense of people looking forward to what’s going to be possible for the next generation and what is the neighborhood going to be. It’s been so many things but what it’s going to be is always in question.

“The sense of excitement and possibility around that is very real. The food, the murals, the sense when you’re on the street that lives are being made and that it’s a place of possibility – that’s what I’ve really taken away with me from South Omaha.”

He said even apart from questions about how federal policies, laws or executive orders might crack down on illegal immigrants, currents of change fill the air.

“I hear this from young people, old people, people from a wide range of backgrounds talking very consistently about how the neighborhood is perceived to be changing. People talk about what they think is positive about that change but also express concern.”

He said he finds people there take a “great deal of pride in their origins. whether Lithuania or Mexico or other places, whether they’re first, second or third generation.” He added, “They’re very proud, too. of being from South Omaha. At the same time they feel South Omaha is not highly regarded by people not of South Omaha.”

GPTC associate artistic director Scott Working, who’s directing the play, admires what Garces has wrought.

“He artfully distills dozens of stories and hundreds of images into these beautiful collections of relatable moments. His characters absolutely feel like you ran into them on South 24th Street. Some of our younger cast were a part of the South High discussion and recognize moments in the play that were in that conversation.”

Garces was still tweaking the ending in mid-April. Though he also directs and heads L.A.-based Cornerstone Theater Company, he’s put the production in the hands of Working, co-designers Bill Van Deest and Carol Wisner and costumer Lindsay Pape.

“As a writer I tend to try to create a framework that’s pretty open for the designer and the director to interpret that physical world. I talked to Scott about how from my writer’s perspective I think the play needs to flow and there needs to be rhythm but beyond that I’m trusting in them to capture something sort of essential about what it means to be in South Omaha. I’m actually excited to see what they come up with.”

Garces has enjoyed the experience of representing the former Magic City in a dramatic structure.

“It’s been a really good process. I’ve felt really supported by the conference. I don’t mean to sound all Hallmark about it but you occasionally have those artistic experiences that just feel good and this has been one of them. This has felt really right.”

He’s also come to feel a kinship for South O. Though he’s learned much over two years, he considers himself “more informed guest” than honorary South Omahan.

For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit

http://www.gptcplays.com/.

New approach, same expectation for South soccer

April 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Omaha South High boys soccer is good again. No news there. By now, it’s become a tradition. In a you-can’t-take-anything-for-granted world, few things have become more dependable in Omaha high school sports than this program competing for district and state honors. It’s not exactly a given but at this point the team is expected to win every time out no matter who they play, no matter how few returning starters there on the roster, no matter who’s injured. The 2017 team lacks experience and suffered some key injuries before the season even began and yet the expectations both inside and outside the program remain high. As in get-to-the-state-tournament and win- it-all high. South did it last year and a couple years before tha, toot. The Packers have been in the hunt for the title several other years. Coach Joe Maass has a full-blown dynasty on his hands and he’s trying to learn from the past to help keep his latest defending champion squad hungry and peaking at the right time. Here’s an El Perico story I wrote in late March laying out how Coach Maass sees his team shaping up.

 

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New approach, same expectation for South soccer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Lessons learned when Omaha South boys soccer won it all in 2013 inform the way coach Joe Maass does things now following last year’s second state title. He not only draws on that earlier experience but on a recent family challenge and the expertise of fellow coaches.

Heavy graduation losses from last year’s championship team have him invoking “a Bill Belichick approach.” he said, referring to the New England Patriots head coach. “The Patriots don’t always have the best players yet he’ll grab somebody’s second-team player or a late round draft pick and make them a fit for his system, We’ve focused a lot more on working hard in practice then maybe we did the year after we won it the first time.”

Hard work rubs off the youth on so many new faces.

“We feel like our talent level could drop off because we’re younger,” Maass said. “We only have four or five seniors, so we’ve had to just kind of bring a blue-collar mentality to it.”

He said his Packers reflect South Omaha’s personality.

“Blue-collar tough. That’s South Omaha to me. We’re not the biggest, but we’ll bang with you if you want.”

Attitude’s everything for this perennial power everyone wants to take down.

“These guys have to remember they play for South. Every team we play approaches it like the World Cup, so we can’t let up or coast. The fact we’re defending state champions just adds to it. The first time we won it we took it serious but I didn’t realize how serious it had to be. This time it’s been more of a business-like approach.”

Twin brothers Issac and Israel Cruz, along with Emilio Margarito, are top returnees who model high expectations.

“Those guys get it. The trick is getting some of the younger guys to. Like we’re starting a freshman and a sophomore. But a lot of new players are buying into the culture those older guys set. It’s good to see.”

Regarding the Cruz boys, he said, “They’ve been starting since their freshman year. They’ve always been leaders. Everyone respects them. It’s just how it is.

They set the standard.”

“Same thing for Emilio Margarito. He’s a team captain now.”

Maass believes in open competition at practice. Nobody’s spot is guaranteed.

“If they don’t work hard, they’ll be called out. Every day you’re competing.”

This year even more so because of injuries.

“There’s been a lot of attrition – more than we’ve had in years. One of the things we talk about is next man up.”

That mantra’s extended from preseason tryouts for open spots to now and it’s already paid dividends.

With returning goalkeeper Adrian Feliz out due to injury, his spot came down to two players until one quit. That gave the job to Jeramiah Gonzales, whose brilliant opening weekend performance included a shutout of Burke in his first career start, followed by five stops of penalty kicks in a shootout against South Sioux City.

“Extraordinary,” is how Maass described what Gonzales did. “I’ll probably never see it in my lifetime again.”

He said when Felix comes back, he won’t automatically step into the starter role. He’ll have to earn it.

“They will be competing every day.”

 

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Joe Maass

 

 

Since Maass adopted next-man-up as a team philosophy, he said, “it feels like things are working better – there’s a lot more team harmony.” He added, “Back in the day, with some hot shot kids who wanted to do things their way it caused problems. We might have won, but it wasn’t fun.”

Forward Jose Hernandez is another player who, Maass said, “gets it.” “He was promoted from the sophomore team to the varsity for the Tennessee (Smoky Mountain) tournament last year and he scored the goal that helped us beat one team. He scored the first goal at state last year coming off the bench. He knows this is what you have to do. It’s not how many minutes you get, it’s what you do with them.”

Now in his 18th year, Maass has learned patience.

“We tell our kids, ‘Don’t worry about the first few games, let’s worry about games 17-18.’ As long as we’re clicking at the end, it doesn’t even matter what we’re doing right now. We just have to figure each other out and get better every day.”

His own priorities got a reality check last year when his wife Ann, an ESL instructor at South, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Chemo treatments and a double mastectomy later, the cancer’s in remission.

“When it first hits you, your whole life just kind of spins.”

During Ann’s illness he took a more active hand in their two young children’s lives and extracurricular activities.

“I even contemplated stepping down as coach to be a better family man but at the end of the day we managed it, and here I am. I want to win games and championships but helping younger kids is probably more important after this.”

Having taken South soccer from the bottom to the top, he’s focused on maintaing excellence.

“I just want to keep it moving along.”

He readily acknowledges assistant coaches have helped South become a dynasty.

“I’m not afraid to go out and find someone who challenges me as a coach and who on top of that can run drills and do things at a higher level than myself.

“We evolve with every coach we bring in.”

By May, South aims to win its district, return to state and compete for another title. Packer coaches, players and fans expect it. But, Maass said, “the key is to get there.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

A melting pot magic city gets its own museum

April 13, 2017 Leave a comment

South Omaha’s history is a heady brew of industry, working class families, immigrants, refugees and migrants, tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods, high spirits and fierce pride and though it took more than a century to get one, it finally has its own museum to celebrate all that rich heritage. This is my recent El Perico story about the newly opened South Omaha Museum. It’s a true labor of love for the three men most responsbile for pulling it together: Gary Kastrick, Marcos Mora and Mike Giron. But the heart and soul of it, not to mention most of the collection it displays, comes from Mr. South Omaha, Gary Kastrick, a historian and educator whose dream this museum fufills.

 

A melting pot magic city gets its own museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Just like the community that forged him, the dreams of South Omaha native and historian Gary Kastrick don’t die easy. The educator developed the Project Omaha teaching museum at South High but when he retired the school didn’t want it anymore.

For years he stored his collection’s thousands of artifacts at his home while seeking a venue in which to display them. An attempt at securing a site fell through but a new one recently surfaced and has given birth to the South Omaha Museum. The nonprofit opened March 15 to much fanfare. Fittingly, it’s located in a building at 2314 M Street he helped his late father clean as a boy. It’s also where he found his first artifact.

Building owner Marcos Mora of the South Omaha Arts Institute wanted Kastrick’s font of history to have a permanent home.

“He’s got this knowledge and we need to share it with  everybody,” said Mora. “If we don’t preserve that history now, it’s going to go away.”

 

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A $10,000 City of Omaha historical grant helped but it still took 12-hour days, sweat equity and hustle to open it. Kastrick’s family, friends and former students pitched in. Artist Mike Giron designed the exhibit spaces.

Funding is being sought. Donations are welcome.

The founders are pleased by the strong early response.

“People are overwhelmed,” said Kastrick.

“People come in with expectation and come out with gratitude,” Giron said.

Offers of artifacts are flooding in.

The free admission museum marks the third leg of Kastrick’s three-pronged campaign to spark interest in “a South Omaha renaissance.” Between the museum, historical walking tours he leads and the South Omaha Mural Project he consults, he aims to bring more people to this history-rich district.

“My main goal is to generate traffic.”

The museum’s opening exhibition, “The Smell of Money,” which runs through April 15, chronicles the stockyards and meatpacking plants that were South O’s lifeblood and largest employer.

Kastrick said, “There was a pride in this industry. The owners did everything first-rate. They put money into it. They made innovations. They created state-of-the-art sheep barns. They did everything right. It’s why Omaha’s stockyards kept growing. It wasn’t expected to be bigger than Chicago but in 1955 it became the world’s largest livestock market.”

He estimates it generated $1.7 million a day.

“It was an extremely wealthy area.”

Ancillary businesses and services sprung up: bars, cafes, hardware stores, feed stores, rendering plants, leather mills, a railway, a newspaper, a telegraph office, grocers, banks, brothels. South O’s red light district The Gully offered every vice. The Miller Hotel was notorious.

Fast growth earned South O the name Magic City.

Rural families taking livestock to market also came for provisions and diversions.

“This was their visit to the big city,” Kastrick said, “so they’d do their shopping, playing, gambling here. It was a treat to come into South Omaha.”

For laborers, the work was rigorous and dangerous.

“There was a comradeship of hard labor. It defined who we were and that definition gave us a color and a flavor other parts of the city don’t have,” Kastrick said. “We’ve always been tougher than those who have it easy.”

 

 

The packing plants drew European immigrants and African-American migrants. Then the antiquated plants grew obsolete and got razed. The loss of jobs and commerce triggered economic decline. The South 24th Street business district turned ghost town. New immigration sparked revival. New development replaced the yards and plants. Only the repurposed Livestock Exchange Building remains. Kastrick’s museum recalls what came before through a scale model layout of the yards, photos, signs, posters, narratives. He has hundreds of hours of interviews to draw on.

“It’s a fascinating history.”

He envisions hosting classes and special events, including a scavenger hunt and trivia night.

Future exhibits will range from bars, brothels and barber shops to Cinco de Mayo to ethnic groups.

Kastrick, Mora and Giron all identify with South O’s melting pot heritage as landing spot and gateway for newcomers.

“There’s that common gene in South Omaha of the immigrant,” said Kastrick, whose grandparents came from Poland. “Wherever people are from, they uprooted themselves from security to come here and start over. It takes a lot of guts. It’s a great place because you run into so many different nationalities. We’re such a compact area – it’s hard not to be with each other.”

Mora, whose grandparents came from Mexico, said

“South Omaha is in our heart.”

Giron, the son of Cuban emigre parents, said, “What I see and identify with here is the underdog. People willing to sacrifice, to work hard, to do what it takes but also knowing how to have a good time. It isn’t an area where everybody takes everything for granted.” Giron said the museum’s “not just about history and facts, it’s about people’s lives,” adding, “It’s like you’re touching or expressing their experience.”

Once a South Omahan, always a South Omaha, said

Mora. “People might have moved out, but they still have that connection. Those roots are still down here. It’s a neighborhood community and extended family network.”

Kastrick said, “We have our own unique identity. It’s       something special to be from here. We enjoy who we are. We have kind of a defiant pride because we’ve always been looked down as the working class, the working poor and everything else. We don’t care. We created our own nice little world with everything we need.”

Through changing times and new ethnic arrivals the one constant, he said, “is the South Omaha culture and concept of who we are – tough, good people” who “won’t be stopped.”

For hours, visit http://www.southomahamuseum.org.

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Marlin Briscoe: The Magician Finally Gets His Due

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

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

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

Link to my Omaha Black Sports Legends series at–

 

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Marlin Briscoe

The Magician Finally Gets His Due

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit marlinbriscoemovie.com for more information.

 

UPDATE TO: Marlin Briscoe finally getting his due

September 20, 2016 1 comment

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Marlin Briscoe finally getting his due

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlin Briscoe Signed Photograph - #15 Qb 8x10

Autographed Marlin Briscoe Picture - 8x10

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

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

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

His autobiography told his powerful story of overcoming obstacles.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Passing

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

Rushing

49 attempts for 336 yards and 3 TDs

Receiving

224 catches for 3537 yards and 30 TDs

 

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

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

Storybook hoops dream turns cautionary tale for Omaha South star Aguek Arop

September 18, 2016 Leave a comment

As Division I collegiate athletics have become an ever larger big business segment for insitutions of higher learning, the recruitment of promising young student-athletes has gotten out of hand. Recruitment starts ever earlier and proceeds with an intensity far out of proportion to the reality that finds very few of these kids ever making much of a mark, athletically speaking, in college, much less in the professional ranks. Often times lip service is given to their academics. This pipedream on both ends of the transaction makes kids over-hungry to be courted and colleges over-zealous to secure their pledges and services. When money is at the root of things, as it is here, bad consequences are more apt to occur, including rash, cruel decisions based on cold calculations, not on the best interests of all involved. A cautionary tale of what can happen is the story of Aguek Arop, an Omaha South High hoops phenom who accepted a University of Nebraska scholarship offer tended to him when he was barely 15. After recently learning NU was no longer excited to have him, he’s reopened his recruitment just a few months before the start of his senior season at South. As my El Perico story reports, the way things played out left South Coach Bruce Chubick none too happy. He feels NU did his young star wrong and he’s not mincing words about it. He also feels Arop will wind up in a better situation, as there are several Division I schools now recruiting him, and will use the motivation of this rejection to have a great senior year. Arop and his teammates are defending the state Class A title his Packers won last year.

 

Storybook hoops dream turns cautionary tale for Omaha South star Aguek Arop

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

 

Aguek Arop

 

Aguek Arop

ERIC GREGORY/Journal Star

 

 

In 2014 Omaha South High’s Aguek Arop realized a hoops dream when, at 15, he accepted an athletic scholarship offer from Nebraska. Now this once storybook wedding between promising player and program has turned cautionary tale.

His Husker commitment made him the latest Omaha Sudanese athlete to make waves in local hoops. But he recently re-opened his recruitment after NU coach Tim Miles, who can’t comment per NCAA rules, made the offer conditional. In August, Miles, reportedly asked Arop, now 17 and a senior who led South to the Class A state title last year, to attend a post-graduate prep school for developmental purposes.

Observers say it’s an odd change of heart about a heralded player from a program fresh off two straight losing seasons and lacking any in-state scholarship players. Miles surprised many when he offered Arop so early but shocked more with this twist.

South coach Bruce Chubick Sr. said, “It’s an unknown quantity down there. I think they’re in panic mode.”

Upon getting the news Arop, reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in Nebraska, said, “I think my mind just kind of went blank. I didn’t really know what to think, I’ve now moved on. I didn’t take it personal. I looked at it as business.”

Chubick knows his star felt a deep sting.

“Nobody likes to be rejected. He was hurt and I was hurt. He’s like one of my kids and when your kids hurt, you hurt. I knew it was a tough thing for him. He loves Nebraska. He stayed true to his word. I’m proud of him for that.”

As for questions about Arop’s readiness, Chubick feels he’s ahead of two other Division I players he coached at this same point in their careers: his son Bruce Chubick and John Turek, both of whom starred at NU and professionally overseas. He said Arop has things you can’t measure in terms of “heart and determination,” not to mention a 6-foot-6 frame, 7-foot-plus wing span, high motor and huge athleticism.

“That kind of gets lost in the shuffle.”

Chubick doesn’t like the way NU handled the situation.

“I kind of felt in the spring they were getting cold feet about the fact he hadn’t grown, that he’d got hurt – missing his sophomore season. I mean, there were some indicators we kind of picked up on,” said Chubick.

“If they would have just set Aguek down and told him, nobody would have been happy but at least they would have been up front. You see, he played in all these tournaments all over the country and played really well, but all the college coaches knew he was committed to Nebraska, so they left him alone. So, he pretty much went through the summer circuit and then they (NU) pulled the plug after the fact, when it was too late to be recruited by these schools.”

 

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2017 Omaha South G/F Aguek Arop will move on from Nebraska and has reopened his recruitment.

 

Chubick also didn’t appreciate Miles passing the buck.

“They wanted me to break it to him,” Chubick said, “and I wasn’t real fond of that because it’s not really my place. I mean, he held true to his commitment.”

Though NU technically didn’t de-commit, Chubick said their loss of interest got couched “under the ruse of going to a prep school, which to me meant they didn’t have a plan for him.” He said, “If Nebraska would have said we want you to redshirt that first year, that would have been the indicator they really had a plan.” In his opinion no redshirt option was broached because NU’s “loaded at the 3 spot, which is probably what he would have to play.” He noted, “They have a freshman and a transfer coming in who play Aguek’s position. The math doesn’t add up.” Meaning, he said, even if Arop went the prep school route, “they wouldn’t have a scholarship for that position and they’re all about numbers down there, which I think is a mistake.”

Chubick said, “I’ve told Aguek, things happen for a reason and maybe this is a good thing. A couple schools that have expressed interest in him were in the NCAA tournament.”

He expects Arop to play his final South season proving a point.

“Oh, I think he’s going to be hungry as all get out. I want him to be pissed and have the I’m-going-to-show-you attitude, and I think he’s got that. ”

Arop simply said, “I can’t wait for the season to start.” He appreciates his coach having his back. “He’s always looking out for us. He doesn’t let anyone try to take advantage of us.”

As for where he’ll play in college, he said he’ll choose “the best fit for me” and one “somewhat close to home.”

South opens its season in December.

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