UPDATE: I was fortunate enough to attend the Thursday, Sept. 22 An Evening with the Magician event honoring Marlin Briscoe. It was a splendid affair. Omaha’s Black Sports Legends are out in force this week in a way that hasn’t been seen in years, if ever. A Who’s-Who was present for the Magician event at Baxter Arena. They’re back out at Baxter on Sept. 23 for the unveiling of a life-size statue of Marlin. And they’re together again before the kickoff of Omaha South High football game at Collin Field. Marlin is a proud UNO and South High alum. This rare gathering of luminaries is newsworthy and historic enough that it made the front page of the Omaha World-Herald.
It’s too bad that the late Bob Boozer, Fred Hare and Dwaine Dillard couldn’t be a part of the festivities. The same for Don Benning, who now resides in a Memory Care Center. But they were all there in spirit and in the case of Benning, who was a mentor of Marlin Briscoe’s, his son Damon Benning represented as the emcee for the Evening with The Magician event.
So much is happening this fall for Marlin Briscoe, who is finally getting his due. There is his induction in the high school and college football halls of fame. John Beasley, who was a teammate of Marlin’s, is producing a major motion picture, “The Magician,” about his life. This week’s love fest for Briscoe has seen so many of his contemporaries come out to honor him, including Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Roger Sayers, Ron Boone and Johnny Rodgers. Many athletes who came after Marlin and his generation are also showing their love and respect. Having all these sports greats in the same room together on Thursday night was a powerful reminder of what an extraordinary collection of athletic greats came out of this city in a short time span. Many of these living legends came out of the same neighborhood, even the same public housing project. They came up together, competed with and against each other, and influenced each other. They were part of a tight-knit community whose parents, grandparents, neighbors, entrepreneurs, teachers, rec center staffers and coaches all took a hand in nurturing, mentoring and molding these men into successful student-athletes and citizens. It’s a great story and it’s one I’ve told in a series called Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, I plan to turn the series into a book.
Check out the stories at–
Marlin Briscoe finally getting his due
©by Leo Adam Biga
In the afterglow of the recent Rio Summer Olympics, I got to thinking about the athletic lineage of my home state, Nebraska. The Cornhusker state has produced its share of Olympic athletes. But my focus here is not on Olympians from Nebraska, rather on history making athletic figures from the state whose actions transcended their sport. One figure in particular being honored this week in his hometown of Omaha – Marlin Briscoe – shines above all of the rest of his Nebraska contemporaries.
Briscoe not only made history with the Denver Broncos as the first black starting quarterback in the NFL, he made one of the most dramatic transitions in league history when he converted from QB to wide receiver to become all-Pro with the Buffalo Bills. He later became a contributing wideout on back to back Super Bowl-winning teams in Miami. He also made history in the courtroom as a complainant in a suit he and other players brought against then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. The suit accused the league of illegal trust activities that infringed on players’ pursuit of fair market opportunities. When a judge ruled against the NFL, Briscoe and his fellow players in the suit won a settlement and the decision opened up the NFL free-agency market and the subsequent escalation in player salaries.
The legacy of Briscoe as a pioneer who broke the color barrier at quarterback has only recently been celebrated. His story took on even more dramatic import upon the publication of his autobiography, which detailed the serious drug addiction he developed after his NFL career ended and his long road back to recovery. Briscoe has devoted his latter years to serving youth and inspirational speaking. Many honors have come his way, including selection for induction in the high school and college football halls of fame. He has also been the subject of several major feature stories and national documentaries. His life story is being told in a new feature-length film starting production in the spring of 2017.
You can read my collection of stories about Briscoe and other Omaha’s Black Sports Legends at–
Briscoe’s tale is one of many great stories about Nebraska-born athletes. Considering what a small population state it is, Nebraska has given the world an overabundance of great athletes and some great coaches. too, The most high-achieving of these individuals are inducted in national sports halls of fame. Some made history for their competitive exploits on the field or court.
Golfer Johnny Goodman defeated living legend Bobby Jones in match play competition and became the last amateur to win the U.S. Open. Gridiron greats Nile Kinnick, Johnny Rodgers and Eric Crouch won college football’s most prestigious award – the Heisman Trophy. Pitcher Bob Gibson posted the lowest ERA for a season in the modern era of Major League Baseball. Bob Boozer won both an Olympic gold medal and an NBA championship ring. Ron Boone earned the distinction of “Iron Man” by setting the consecutive games played record in professional basketball. Gale Sayers became the youngest player ever inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Rulon Gardner defeated three-time Olympic gold medalist Alexander Karelin in the 2000 Sydney Games to record one of the greatest upsets in Games history.
Terence Crawford has won two world prizefighting titles and in the process single-handedly resurrected the sport of boxing in his hometown of Omaha, where he’s made three title defenses before overflow crowds. He also has a gym in the heart of the inner city he grew up in that serves as a sanctuary for youth and young adults from the mean streets.
Some Nebraskans have made history both for what they did athletically and for what the did away from the field of competition. For example, Marion Hudson integrated Dana College in the early 1950s in addition to being a multi-sport star whose school records in track and field and football still stood on the books decades when the college closed in 2010. Tom Osborne became the first person to be named both the high school and college state athlete of the year in Nebraska. He played three seasons in the NFL before becoming the top assistant to Bob Devaney at the University of Nebraska, where he succeeded Devaney and went to a College Football Hall of Fame coaching career that saw his teams win 250 games and three national titles. After leaving coaching he served as an elected U.S. House of Representatives member. The Teammates mentoring program he established decades ago continues today.
There are many more stories of Nebraska athletes doing good works during and after their playing days. Yet no one from the state has made more of an impact both on and off the playing field than Marlin Briscoe. He is arguably the most important athletic figure to ever come out of Nebraska because his accomplishments have great agency not only in the athletic arena but in terms of history, society and race as well. Growing up in the public housing projects of South Omaha in the late 1950s-early 1960s, Briscoe emerged as a phenom in football and basketball. His rise to local athletic stardom occurred during a Golden Era that saw several sports legends make names for themselves in the span of a decade. He wasn’t the biggest or fastest but he might have been the best overall athlete of this bunch that included future collegiate all-Americans and professional stars.
Right from the jump, Briscoe was an outlier in the sport he’s best remembered for today – football. On whatever youth teams he tried out for, he always competed for and won the starting quarterback position. He did the same at Omaha South High and the University of Omaha. This was at a time when predominantly white schools in the North rarely gave blacks the opportunity to play quarterback. The prevailing belief then by many white coaches was that blacks didn’t possess the intellectual or leadership capacity for the position. Furthermore, there was doubt whether white players would allow themselves to be led by a black player. Fortunately there were coaches who didn’t buy into these fallacies. Nurtured by coaches who recognized both his physical talent and his signal-calling and leadership skills, Briscoe excelled at South and OU.
His uncanny ability to elude trouble with his athleticism and smarts saw him make things happen downfield with his arm and in the open field with his legs, often turning busted plays into long gainers and touchdowns. He also led several comebacks. His improvisational knack led local media to dub him “Marlin the Magician.” The nickname stuck.
Briscoe played nine years in the NFL and thrived as a wide receiver, quarterback, holder and defensive back. He may be the most versatile player to ever play in the league.
He also made history as one of the players who brought suit against the NFL and its Rozelle Rule that barred players from pursuing free market opportunities. A judge ruled for the players and that decision helped usher in modern free agency and the rise in salaries for pro athletes.
His life after football began promisingly enough. He was a successful broker and invested well. He was married with kids and living a very comfortable life. Then the fast life in L.A, caught up with him and he eventually developed a serious drug habit. For a decade his life fell apart and he lost everything – his family. his home, his fortune, his health. His recovery began in jail and through resilience and faith he beat the addiction and began rebuilding his life. He headed a boys and girls club in L.A.
His autobiography told his powerful story of overcoming obstacles.
Contemporary black quarterbacks began expressing gratitude to him for being a pioneer and breaking down barriers.
Much national media attention has come his way, too. That attention is growing as a major motion picture about his life nears production. That film, “The Magician,” is being produced by his old teammate and friend John Beasley of Omaha. Beasley never lost faith in Briscoe and has been in his corner the whole way. He looks forward to adapting his inspirational story to the big screen. Briscoe, who often speaks to youth, wants his story of never giving up to reach as many people as possible because that’s a message he feels many people need to hear and see in their own lives, facing their own obstacles.
Briscoe is being inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame this fall. A night in his honor, to raise money for youth scholarships, is happening September 22 at UNO’s Baxter Arena. Video tributes from past and present NFL greats will be featured. The University of Nebraska at Omaha is also unveiling a life size statue of him on campus on September 23. That event is free and open to the public.
There is an effort under way to get the Veterans Committee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to select Briscoe as an inductee and it’s probably only a matter of time before they do.
The fact that he succeeded in the NFL at three offensive positions – quarterback, wide receiver and holder for placekicks – should be enough to get him in alone. The cincher should be the history he made as the first black starting QB and the transition he made from that spot to receiver. His career statistics in the league are proof enough:
97 completions of 233 attempts for 1697 yards with 14 TDs and 14 INTs.
49 attempts for 336 yards and 3 TDs
224 catches for 3537 yards and 30 TDs
Remember, he came into the league as a defensive back, only got a chance to play QB for part of one season and then made himself into a receiver. He had everything working against him and only belief in himself working for him. That, natural ability and hard work helped him prove doubters wrong. His story illusrates why you should never let someone tell you you can’t do something. Dare, risk, dream. He did all that and more. Yes, he stumbled and fell, but he got back up better and stronger than before. Now his story is a testament and a lesson to us all.
The Marlin Briscoe story has more drama, substance and inspiration in it than practically anything you could make up. But it all really happened. And he is finally getting his due.
UNO makes it public: I’m going to Africa with The Champ as a 2015 winner of the Andy Award for International Journalism
Here is the official UNO announcment of the 2015 winners of the Andy Award for International Journalism: Matthew Hansen of the Omaha World-Herald and yours truly. Matthew’s going to Cuba to explore Nebraska’s historic connections to Cuba and where that relationship will go in light of restoration of normalized relations and the lift of travel bans. I’m going to Rwanda and Uganda, Africa with two-time world boxing champion Terence Crawford of Omaha and a cadre of other Omahans to shed light on the efforts of Nebraskans and others in responding to needs in those nations and lessons learned there that can be applied here.
For more about my trip, link to-
UNO Announces 2015 Winners of Andy Award for International Journalism
OMAHA – The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) announced today the latest winners of the Andy Award for international journalism.
Named in honor of former Omaha World-Herald Publisher Harold W. Andersen, the annual award funds new international reporting projects proposed by Nebraska-based journalists and news organizations.
This year’s winners are Omaha World-Herald journalist Matthew Hansen and freelance journalist Leo Adam Biga.
Hansen will travel to Cuba to explore its historic connections to Nebraska and how the relationship will blossom as travel and trade bans are lifted after 53 years. The resulting editorial piece will give Omaha World-Herald readers a window into Cuba: its culture, history, struggles, and future.
Biga’s travels will take him to Rwanda and Uganda, Africa, with former world lightweight boxing champion and newly crowned welterweight champion, Terrence Crawford, and Pipeline Worldwide co-founder, Jamie Nollette. The group will visit projects building fresh water wells and growing food, while meeting with aid workers and those affected by years of genocide and hunger. The group plans to travel to Africa in June 2015 and Biga’s resulting story will be published in Omaha Metro Magazine’s “Journeys” series.
“We are excited to be able to award two exceptional journalists this year,” said Tom Gouttierre, Dean of International Studies and Programs and chair of the Andy Award committee. “Both stories will show readers that there are connections between Nebraska and Rwanda, Nebraska and Cuba, and that international collaboration, or the absence of it, has a real impact on a country and its people.
The Andy Award has honored Nebraska’s best international reporting since 1987. For the past 12 years, winners have received monetary awards, thanks to the generosity of Harold and Marian Andersen. The award committee accepts proposals to fund future reporting projects as a way to encourage more international journalism. This year’s awards are $5,000 each.
Applications for the 2016 Andy Awards will be accepted in Fall 2016. The competition is open to Nebraska-based news organizations – print, broadcast, and online – as well as freelance reporters.
More information is available at http://world.unomaha.edu/andy.php or by contacting UNO’s International Studies and Programs, 402.554.2376.
Past Winners of the Andy Award for international journalism:
2014 Julie Cornell and Andrew Ozaki, KETV Newswatch 7
2011 Joseph Morton, Alyssa Schukar, Matthew Hansen and Cate Folsom, Omaha World-Herald
2009 Carol Katzman, The Jewish Press
2008 KIOS-FM Radio
2005 Ted Kirk and Gordon Winters, Lincoln Journal Star
2004 Jared Hart and Gary Sadlemyer, KFAB Radio
2003 Joe Duggan, Catherine Huddle and Ken Blackbird, Lincoln Journal Star
2002 Gordon Winters, Lincoln Journal Star
2002 Charles Reinken, Omaha World-Herald
2001 Scott Bauer and Nati Harnik, Associated Press
2001 Stephen Buttry and Kiley Christian Cruse, Omaha World-Herald
2000 Angela Heywood-Bible and Ted Kirk, Lincoln Journal Star;
2000 UNO Television
1999 David C. Kotok, Omaha World-Herald
1998 Jeff Carney, Robert Nelson and Rick Ruggles, Omaha World-Herald
1997 Charley and Norma Najacht, Custer County Chief
1997 Henry Trysla, South Sioux City Star
1996 Dewaine and Bobbie Gahan, Oakland Independent and Lyons Mirror-Sun
1996 Jeff Bundy and Jason Gertzen, Omaha World-Herald
1995 Stephen Kent, The Catholic Voice
1994 Bill Eddy, Lincoln Journal
1993 Kay Lavene, Kearney Hub
1992 Bob Reeves, Lincoln Star
1991 Mary Williams, KMTV Channel 3 Omaha
1990 Steve Jordan, Omaha World-Herald
1989 Loretta Carroll, KMTV Channel 3 Omaha
1988 Ken Campbell, Scottsbluff Star Herald
1987 Harold W. Andersen, Omaha World-Herald
About the University of Nebraska at Omaha
Located in one of America’s best cities to live, work and learn, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is Nebraska’s premier metropolitan university. With more than 15,000 students enrolled in 200-plus programs of study, UNO is recognized nationally for its online education, graduate education, military friendliness and community engagement efforts. Founded in 1908, UNO has served learners of all backgrounds for more than 100 years and is dedicated to another century of excellence both in the classroom and in the community.
Don’t look now, but UNO hockey may be on the verge of making the kind of noise and capturing the kind of attention traditionally reserved for Nebraska football and Creighton basketball. My Reader (www.thereader.com) story charts some of the reasons why this already has beenand continues being a special season for the program. For the first time this late in the season UNO’s nationally ranked and in a contending position for accomplishing big things in their conference and perhaps in the NCAA tournament. The Mavs play their last regular season home series this weekend, March 6-7, at the CenturyLink and it’s an important opportunity to keep momentum and maintain a solid spot heading into the post-season.
UNO Hockey Staking its Claim
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since launching hockey in 1997 to subsidize its non-revenue generating sports UNO’s netted a nice return on investment. Maverick hockey crowds rank among the best nationally, with annual ticket revenues of $2 million. When the school dropped football and wrestling in 2011, it added pressure on hockey to be the signature sport.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha has enriched the city’s hockey legacy. The minor league professional Omaha Knights (1939 to 1975) began the love affair. The amateur Omaha Lancers (1986 through today) continued it. UNO found its niche as Neb.’s only collegiate hockey team. Despite gritty performances and many upsets its first 18 seasons. UNO didn’t emerge as a title threat. Until perhaps now.
Coach Dean Blais, tasked with making Mav hockey nationally relevant when hired in 2009, has guided UNO through conference changes, player suspensions, stars leaving for the NHL and solid if not stellar play. Now, for the first time this late in the season, he has UNO contending. His team’s defeated several highly ranked clubs, splitting four games, three in overtime, with perennial power North Dakota, where Blais won two national titles.
His best offensive player, sophomore forward All-America candidate Austin Ortega, recently tied the NCAA single-season record with his nation-leading 10th game-winning goal.
UNO, 17-10-3 at press time, climbed to No. 4 in the Division I ratings. It’s led the powerful National Collegiate Hockey Conference most of the year. Entering the final regular season home series versus Colorado College at CenturyLink Center, UNO hopes for momentum that carries into the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and the NCAA tournament.
As UNO hockey enters the local sports conversation reserved for Husker football and Bluejay basketball, it may establish itself as a must-see attraction and traditional power. The timing’s apt since it gets its own facility next year when the UNO sports arena opens on the Ak-Sar-Ben campus, where the Knights played. Touted underclassmen helping drive this special season were recruited to the new venue.
Sophomore center Jake Guentzel is enjoying the ride, “We’re more on the map, more fans are coming, so it’s pretty special.” He’s not surprised by the success. “I thought we had the players to do it, I just didn’t know if we had the experience. We’re bottom-heavy with freshmen and sophomores but we’ve adapted pretty well. We’ve been fortunate we’ve had the opportunity to play and we’ve taken advantage of it.”
He says preseason predictions of UNO finishing sixth in the league provided motivation. He credits an early road trip to Western Michigan, where UNO got a sweep. as a confidence-booster and bonding experience. The right mix of leadership has team chemistry just right.
Senior goalie Ryan Massa has waited four years for UNO to break out. “It’s nice to finally see all the hard work pay off for the guys.” He feels a humbling exhibition loss to Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in October was a necessary rude awakening. “It kind of opened the new guys’ eyes to understand the level we’re playing at and helped them grow and mature a little bit faster than maybe anticipated.”
Senior forward Dominic Zombo likes this team’s make-up. “I do see a component I haven’t seen in the past. We’ve got a really tight-knit group. We don’t have any passengers here, nobody’s just going through the motions, everybody’s here to get better, to win games. Every single guy’s committed to their job. That’s what makes us so competitive as a team.”
Blais doesn’t know if UNO’s truly arrived but he’s confident it soon will.
“I would think so but you never know from year to year. This is a special group of guys and for them I hope we win a league championship, get to the Target Center (home to the Frozen Faceoff), advance to the national tournament. Those are benchmarks for a program and our seniors know they’re paving the way for the underclassmen. Hopefully getting to the tournament isn’t a big accomplishment, it’s an expected accomplishment every year.
“We have a new arena coming that’s going to take the program to another level.”
UNO athletic director Trev Alberts says the arena signifies that Mav hockey matters.
“You can tell people hockey is very important to your school but if you don’t even have a place you can call home and practice in, it’s difficult to get the kind of talent in here you ultimately need.”
He says the arena will put the program on near equal footing with its stiffest competitors.
“When I hired Dean I really wanted to have somebody who’d been there, done that, who knew what it took to win at the highest levels.
There’s built-in disadvantages to being in Omaha, so far from hockey hotbeds. I just feel good we’re finally able to give he and his staff some tools necessary to assemble the kind of talent we hope to have here.”
Having its own intimate space will benefit UNO, which shares the huge CenturyLink with Creighton. The average hockey crowd of 8,000 downtown still leaves the venue half-empty. That same crowd fills the new arena. It should spike demand from fans and corporate sponsors.
Die-hard hockey fan Ernie May, who’s never missed a UNO home game, says, “I can’t wait to get into our own building. I think that’s going to be fantastic and make the interest grow.”
“Clearly this will be the best opportunity we’ve ever had to have a branded-out facility of excellence our student athletes can compete in,” says Alberts.
Omaha hockey historian and former UNO sports information director Gary Anderson says, “They’re going to go into an arena exactly the right size they need for the fan base they’ve created.” He says there was never any doubt Omaha could sustain college hockey. “When the program was born you still did have a lot of old-time hockey fans and the Lancers were around the peak of their success, so consequently UNO built a really good fan base right from the start.”
That loyal base bodes good times ahead.
“I’ve been absolutely amazed and humbled by the support UNO hockey fans give to this team, even in some pretty poor years,” Alberts says. “Our fans are hungry and we’re hungry to give them what they want, which is a consistent winner on the ice.”
May enjoys that the Mavs are meshing to put themselves in position to make history: “For me this year almost has as much excitement as the first years we had hockey.”
Coach Blais is trying to ensure his team attends to all the details heading into the intense post-season, where little things become magnified and championship teams find ways to win. UNO getting swept on the road at St. Cloud State (Feb. 20-21) resembled the late season swoons it’s suffered in past years.
“I don’t know if we have any more than we’ve given already,” he says. “How many times can you go to the well? My teams at North Dakota could operate at 70 percent and still win. We’re not there yet. Our margin for error’s slim. We’ve got to be all engines going, we can’t have one engine not running. We’re darn close. It starts with recruiting and we’ve been lucky enough to land some dandies.”
Even if UNO should reach the top, he says, “it’s one thing to get there, it’s another thing to stay there.” First things, first.
Massa says, “Every single one of us believes in our potential. None of us doubts we can be playing at the Boston Garden (site of the Frozen Four) competing for a national championship this year. We’ve played against the best all year and we’ve done well against the best.”
Zombo can’t imagine what a UNO hockey title would mean.
“I wouldn’t be able to explain. I’ve never been a part of anything like that that’s a dream.”
UNO’s dream ride continues at home Friday, March 6 and Saturday, March 7. Listen on 1180 The Zone 2.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
As much as I enjoy writing about the arts and artists, I equally enjoy writing about athletics and athletes. I finally caught up with a former football great from Nebraska, Joe Arenas, who has never really gotten his full due. If the name isn’t familiar, it’s because his professional and college exploits happened about 60 years ago. And though he was a very fine player – so good that he is still among the NFL’s all-time leaders in career kick return average – his jack of all trades verstality as a returner, running back, receiver, and defensive back made it hard for him to really stand out except as a returner. When you come right down to it, how many returners other than maybe Gale Sayers, Travis Williams, Brian Mitchell, Eric Metcalf, and Devin Hester really made a dent in the national consciousness? Sayers was of course a great running back in addition to being a great returner. The other thing working against Arenas was that he had two future NFL Hall of Fame teammates, in Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny, who got most of the offensive touches out of the backfield. Before playing pro ball Arenas starred in the single-wing at then-Omaha University, where again he did a little of everything. In the single-wing Joe played a half-back spot in that offense but he did everything a quarterback does. Before he ever played college ball Joe served as a U.S. Marine in World War II. He was wounded at Iwo Jima. My story about Joe for El Perico newspaper refers to the fact that Arenas was among a small number of Hispanic football players who made a mark in the game. I also reference how Omaha U., which today is the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is where another athlete of color, Marlin Briscoe, played quarterback in an era when that was very rare at a predominantly white university. What I didn’t mention in the article is that a third athlete of color with local ties, Wilburn Hollis, played quarterback at two mostly white institutions, first at Boys Town and then at the University of Iowa. I was delighted to find Joe a still vital man in his late 80s.
Homegrown Joe Arenas made his mark in college and the NFL
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
The longer out it is from the University of Nebraska at Omaha dropping football in 2011, the more its gridiron greats recede into obscurity.
No one should forget (Guadalupe) Joe Arenas.This son of Mexican immigrants was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and grew up in Lincoln, Neb. during the Depression. Small but determined, Little Joe didn’t play organized football until college yet he still made the National Football League. The high school basketball standout made the varsity hoops squad at the University of Nebraska before transferring to then-Omaha University, where he played both sports, becoming one of America’s most accomplished Hispanic athletes.
He won All-American football honors as UNO’s do-everything offensive cog (1947-1950), averaging 200-plus yards total offense as a junior and finishing sixth in the nation in total offense as a senior. As the go-to back in the single-wing, a precursor to the spread formation, he received snaps from center, called plays, ran, handed-off, passed, caught and punted the ball. He returned kicks and played defense, too.
Two decades later another athlete of color, Marlin Briscoe, became the first black starting quarterback at UNO and in the NFL.
San Francisco made Arenas UNO’s first NFL draftee as an 8th round pick. He enjoyed seven productive years (1951-1957) at halfback, returner and defensive back. He once led the league in kickoff returns and retired as the all-time returns leader. He still ranks ninth in league history in career kickoff return average (27.3).
“If I got one or two blocks, that’s all I needed,” Arenas says. “Just get me started and I’d try to maneuver around and shake ’em off. Just shifty, that’s all. I used to get out early to see teams practice. I’d study their punter and kicker – where they hit it, how far they hit it, getting to know their habits, so I’d know where to stand and what to do.”
After fielding the ball, he let his smarts, instincts and athletic ability take over, netting career marks of 3,798 kickoff return yards and 774 punt return yards. He brought back both a punt and a kickoff for scores. From scrimmage he compiled 987 rushing and 675 receiving yards and scored 16 touchdowns. He also threw a touchdown.
Upon leaving the 49ers he laid off two years to mend injuries before trying out with the Boston Patriots of the new AFL. He soon retired for good. En route home to San Francisco his back flared up and he recuperated in Houston, falling in love with his physical therapist. He stayed, they married and the couple raised two daughters.
He remained in Texas coaching football, working with receivers for College Football Hall of Famer Bill Yeoman at the University of Houston. In the 1980 Cotton Bowl the Cougars upset Nebraska 17-14 when an Arenas receiver made the game-winning grab in the end zone with 19 seconds left. Arenas sent several proteges to the NFL.
Long before any of that, he put athletics on hold and his life on the line serving in the U.S. Marines. He took part in the amphibious landing on the Japanese-fortified volcanic island of Iwo Jima, where he and his fellow “no guts-no glory” grunts staged the bloodiest assault of the Pacific theater. American troops storming the beach were pinned down under heavy fire. Arenas dug in and prayed.
“I got hit the very next day. It was a shrapnel wound and they carried me down the beach, where I got evacuated, and I’m glad I did because that was quite some campaign there. Oh man, I’ll tell you, I was probably fortunate to get hit and get the hell out of there. All my buddies got shot up.
“That was the worst place anybody could have been. The Marine Corps lost more on that island than they ever lost anywhere. The Japanese had the advantage. They were up on two highlands and we were down in a valley. They could see everything going on right down below them. All they had to do was look down their scopes. They were picking us off like clay pigeons. But we had enough force and enough people and material and guts (to prevail).”
He didn’t let his back wound slow his athletic career. He competed with the best, including three 49ers teammates who made the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny and Y.A. Tittle.
Playing in an era before collective bargaining and free agency, he never made more than $10,000. Like other players then Arenas worked a regular off-season job to make ends meet. He was a salesman for spice giant McCormick and Company.
He “never thought” himself or the few other Hispanic players active then, like Tom Fears or Eddie Saenz, as groundbreakers. He’s proud Hispanics have since shined: Joe Kapp, Tom Flores, Jim Plunkett, Jeff Garcia. At 49er gatherings he’s met franchise legends John Brodie, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice. But there, like at UNO alumni events, few teammates are around. “There’s not too many left,” says Arenas, who at 89 is now a widower living in a Webster, Texas retirement center.
Coming back to Neb. gets harder. Besides, there’s no more football at UNO. “I’m really saddened by UNO not playing football anymore.”
He still enjoys watching the game on television, the coach in him critiquing players’ techniques and lack of hustle. He still signs bubble gum cards with his likeness on them that fans and collectors send him.
Gone, but not forgotten.
UNO resident folk hero Dana Elsasser’s softball run coming to an end: Hard-throwing pitcher to leave legacy of overcoming obstacles
No sooner did my profile of University of Nebraska at Omaha softball ace Dana Elsasser get posted and published than she went out and threw three straight shutouts, including a no-hitter, and she’ll go for a fourth in her final home appearance on Wednesday, April 30. Her great run as a collegiate pitcher is fast coming to an end and one has to wonder what might have been if UNO has remained Division II instead of transitioning to Division I during her career. To what heights might she had lead the Mavericks? The transition cost her and her teammates any chance to play in the postseason. The move also made it difficult for UNO to schedule a full slate of regular season games. All of that meant she made many fewer appearances than she would have otherwise. On top of that, upon entering the program she largely had to sit her freshman year behind two returning All-America pitchers. That cost her even more chances. If she’d had those added opportunities her career stats, which are outstanding as is, would be even more impressive. But that’s all beside the point because what makes her folk hero in my mind is how she seemingly came out of nowhere to become the face of a storied program and how she made herself into a great player despire all kinds of challenges that’s she never looked at as obstacles.
UNO resident folk hero Dana Elsasser’s softball run coming to an end
Hard-throwing pitcher to leave legacy of overcoming obstacles
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The University of Nebraska at Omaha has a veritable folk-hero in its midst in hard-throwing senior softball ace Dana Elsasser, who’s overcame serious challenges to become a pitching phenom. With her near legendary career fast nearing its end, fans have only a few chances left to catch her in action.
In her No. 1 pitcher role she’ill get the ball at least twice in this weekend’s (April 25-26) three-game home series against Summit League foe IUPUI. She enters the circle for the final time at home versus Drake on April 30. UNO, with an RPI in the 60s, concludes its season May 2-3 at Western Illinois. The team’s guaranteed to finish with a winning record and Elsasser should climb UNO’s career pitching charts.
Entering Tuesday’s doubleheader versus North Dakota she was 21-7 on the year and 65-24 in her career with a lifetime ERA of 1.44.
Though soon exhausting her eligibility, her legend’s sure to grow as a foundational figure in UNO’s transition from Division II to D-I.
Her departure’s coming too soon for head coach Jeanne Scarpello. She’s been enamored with Elsasser’s ability and character since first laying eyes on her in 2010.
“From day one you could tell she’s a different kid – just the drive and what she wanted to do and what she wanted to be. She’s never going to back down from a challenge. She gives 100 percent and expects the rest of us to do the same. She pushes us to be better.”
Scarpello’s admiration only grew upon learning the obstacles Elsasser faced en route to becoming a winner.
“She does have quite a story,” the coach says.
Born “a premie” in San Antonio, Texas to a teenage mother, Dana started life in foster care. After raising kids of their own Rick and Barb Elsasser of Hershey, Neb. were looking to adopt and the white couple got matched with Dana, an African-American, when she was a week old. She became the only black resident of Hershey until the Elsassers adopted more children of color.
Dana was an athletic prodigy, proving a natural at seemingly whatever she tried, including softball, basketball, volleyball and track.
“Dana’s balance, hand-eye coordination and kinesthetic sense have always been exceptional,” says her father, a principal and coach who worked with her on her fundamentals. especially her pitching mechanics. “Every time she was shown a new skill she would master it quickly. She has always hated to lose but she used to become discouraged easily when her team was behind and that affected her play. Experience in athletics has given her the tenacity to fight through disappointment. Her UNO coaches deserve a great deal of credit for instilling a fierce competitive spirit.”
Just as she was turning heads athletically as a teen she developed scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine. She underwent fusion surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Pieces of her hip bone were fused to her spine with “rods, nuts and bolts to keep everything intact,” Dana says.
“The scoliosis thing was scary. Dana faced it all with great courage and determination,” Rick says.
Once cleared to resume athletics she and her dad left the hospital and drove around until they found a ball diamond and began playing catch.
“I was a little scared I wouldn’t be able to pitch again but I recovered relatively quickly from the back thing and it just gave me fuel to get stronger because I had to work two times as hard to get where other people were. I just did as much as I could. I ran a lot, I did sprints. I was in the weight room. I got really strong. I think strengthening my body is what helped me be prepared for college,” says Dana, who’s known to workout on game days and on off days following games.
“I feel I need to do to get in the mood of It’s go time. Otherwise, I feel tired and sluggish and just not ready to go.”
After opting to specialize in softball her pitching took off under her dad’s tutelage. Her high school didn’t field a team, She made a name for herself out west playing summers with the North Platte Sensations.
Typical of the upbeat Elsasser, she takes in stride everything that’s been put in front of her.
“Honestly, when I was growing up I really didn’t see much of the adversity I overcame as a disadvantage. I haven’t thought of it as things that set me back. When I tell people my story they’re like, ‘Wasn’t it weird being the only black person in town?’ I never thought of it like that. My parents did a really good job of just making things normal for me.”
Rick Elsasser says Dana has an innate sbility to adapt and persevere.
“Dana has always had tremendous resolve. I remember when she was about 5 or 6 years old, I spent about 15 minutes showing her how to shoot a basketball and then left her to practice. I went back outside about two hours later and found her still shooting. I had to make her stop and eat.”
Scarpello long ago gave up trying to get Elsasser to ease off. The coach still smiles at nearly missing on this model student-athlete who outworks everyone. After all, Dana was a-best-kept secret in the sticks, where her exploits four-hours away fell on deaf ears here.
Scarpello first heard of her via a letter Dana wrote her while a senior in high school. Dana mentioned she was (then) 5-foot-4 and threw 65. Scarpello didn’t buy it. She’d never heard of someone so short throwing so hard. It took corroboration from two coaches before she decided to see this little dynamo for herself.
Scarpello and pitching coach Cory Petermann drove to Hastings expecting to see Elsasser pitch in a game only to have it forfeited when the opposing club didn’t show. The coaches had Dana warm up with her father for a private audition. Rick had caught his daughter countless times in the yard of their home sitting on a bucket as she threw from a make-do mound. This was different. The stakes were higher, though that didn’t register with Dana until reminded of it.
“I was really nervous but actually I don’t think I even realized how important it was when they were watching me – that if I do good I’m going to have college paid for,” Dana says. “When I started out I wasn’t throwing my hardest. My dad told me, ‘Get it together, this is your time right here to do it.” Then I knew it was a big deal.'”
With a radar gun trained on her she consistently clocked 65 and Scarpello had seen enough to be convinced.
Rising to the occasion is something Scarpello and Co. have come to rely on from Elsasser, who acknowledges she thrives in such situations.
“I like it when I’m in pressure spots and everyone is looking to me. I just like how my team puts their trust in me and it just motivates me to do better. I like being in charge in that moment.”
Five years since discovering her, Elsasser will leave UNO as one of the storied program’s best pitchers. She’s proven herself against elite competition despite being lightly recruited and not looking the part of a mound master with her lithe frame and diminutive stature. Her long limbs, strong core and compact delivery allow her to average 68 miles an hour on her “go-to” pitch, the drop-ball. She’s hit 70. Her effortless appearing motion, honed over thousands of hours, makes it appear she’s not throwing as hard as she is.
Armed with her heater, a change-up and a rise-ball, plus pin-point control, she has enough stuff to hold her own with the best.
“She is a go-right-at-you kind of kid. She’s not a strikeout pitcher, though she’s getting a lot more strike outs this year, but she really just lets batters put the ball in play and lets the defense work behind her,” Scarpello says. “And she’s a great defender as a pitcher.”
Last year Elsasser one-hit perennial Big 12 power Oklahoma State iand three weeks ago she beat Big 10 heavyweight and in-state rival Nebraska 3-2 in Lincoln. She calls the victory over NU “the greatest moment I’ve ever had.” The win followed UNO coming up short against the Huskers several times and redeemed a 10-0 drubbing at their hands earlier this year that Elsasser blamed on herself.
“I means everything to me. I got that win for my dad. That was our goal when I made my commitment to UNO – beat the Huskers. I told myself I’m not going to let them make a fool of me on the mound again.”
Per usual, her folks were there to cheer her on and as always she heard her dad’s voice above everyone else.
“I could him during that game yelling at me from the stands. I looked up there and I saw him jumping around. It was really emotional.”
Scarpello says Elsasser has shown she “can play with the big dogs,” adding, “She could be playing at any of those programs.”
Elsasser says she and her teammates are often underestimated and use their underdog status as fuel to prove they belong.
“We always hear, ‘Who’s this Omaha team that keeps winning? Who are these people?’ But we know we’re capable of getting it done.”
Overturning doubters seems hard-wired in Elsasser.
She would have been UNO’s ace as a true freshman if not for two returning All-America pitchers. She made the most of her limited opportunities, going 10-1. Her pitching mates got most of the starts based on experience, not talent. She also struggled with illegal pitches due to a habit of lifting her foot off the mound during her delivery. She corrected the problem over the summer and prior to the following season Scarpello handed her “the torch to carry the program.” Elsasser ran with it to become “our identity” but she first had to make a tough decision. UNO went D-I, initiating a transition period that made it ineligible for the postseason. Scarpello gave her players permission to transfer and she feared Elsasser might move on.
“She knew she would not to get to play for championships and that’s what she came here to do,” Scarpello says, “and I knew that bothered her because she wanted to make a mark. We’ve tried in various ways to give her some great opportunities, to challenge her, so she could make her mark and have no regrets she stayed here. Those games against top teams have become a measuring stick for her and for us.”
Elsasser’s sure of her legacy as a program builder but she can’t imagine life without softball.
“What I’m going to miss the most is the relationships and being in the circle. The field feels like home to me. If I come to practice in a bad mood I always leave in a good mood. These girls are my best friends, we do everything together. We’re just like a big family. It’s kind of unsettling to know I won’t have that type of bond and closeness I’ve been used to every day for four years.”
Everyone says she’d make a great coach. “She’s a real student of the game,” says Scarpello, adding, “I’d hire her in a heartbeat.”
“Coaching could be my career,” says Elsasser. She”ll be coaching a younger sister this summer who’s showing great promise as, you guessed it, a pitcher. Clearly, this legacy has legs.