OUT TO WIN – THE ROOTS OF GREATNESS:
OMAHA’S BLACK SPORTS LEGENDS
A Multi-Part Series
©by Leo Adam Biga
In 2004-2005 series my multi-part series Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends was published in The Reader (www.thereader.com). The idea behind the series is that for a relatively small African-American population or community, Omaha has produced a staggering number of high achieving black athletes across a wide spectrum of sports. All of these individuals were great youth, high school and college athletes and some went onto distinction at the professional level as well. Many were collegiate All-Americans. They are inductees in numerous athletic halls of fame. They include a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, several members of the College Football Hall of Fame, a Heisman Trophy winner and a member of both Olympic Gold Medal and NBA title winning teams. Some made history. One became the first full-time black faculty member and head coach at then-Omaha University, which made him the first black head coach at a predominantly white institution in America. Another became the NFL’s first black starting quarterback. Still another became the youngest inductee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In the opening and closing installments I lay out the scope of achievements that distinguishes this group of athletes, the way that sports provided advancement opportunities for these individuals that may otherwise have eluded them, and the close-knit cultural and community bonds that enveloped the neighborhoods they grew up in. The bulk of the series was dozens of profiles of individual athletes and in some cases groups of athletes. It was a pleasure doing the series and getting to meet legends Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, et cetera. I learned a lot working on the project, mostly an appreciation for these athletes’ individual and collective achievements. I didn’t get to everyone I meant to, but I got to most of them. The biggest omission here from my point of view is Mike McGee, who has successfully avoided me for 11 years and counting. This is the first time I have culled most of the series together online in one spot. Here and there I have added related stories I’ve done over the years that help further expand and explore this subject. Explore and enjoy.
NOTE: I have several more existing pieces to add to this series , including profiles of John C. Johnson, Alvin Mitchell, Akoy Agau, Larry Station, Mike Green and Dick Davis, Yvonne Turner, Joe Edmonson and many others. And as I cultivate new stories related to the subject they will find their way here, too.
My Series Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
©by Leo Adam Biga
Omaha’s African American community has produced a heritage rich in achievement across many fields, but none more dramatic than in sports, Despite a comparatively small populace, black Omaha rightly claims a legacy of athletic excellence in the form of legends who’ve achieved greatness at many levels, in a variety of sports, over many eras.
These athletes aren’t simply neighborhood or college legends – their legacies loom large. Each is a compelling story in the grand tale of Omaha’s inner city, both north and south. The list includes: Bob Gibson, a major league baseball Hall of Famer. Bob Boozer, a member of Olympic gold medal and NBA championship teams. NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers. Marlin Briscoe, the NFL’s first black quarterback. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers. Pro hoops “iron man” Ron Boone. Champion wrestling coach Don Benning
“Some phenomenal athletic accomplishments have come out of here, and no one’s ever really tied it all together. It’s a huge story. Not only did these athletes come out of here and play, they lasted a long time and they made significant contributions to a diversity of college and professional sports,” said Briscoe, a Southside product. “I mean, per capita, there’s probably never been this many quality athletes to come out of one neighborhood.”
An astounding concentration of athletic prowess emerged in a few square miles roughly bounded north to south, from Ames Avenue to Lake Street, and east to west from about 16th to 36th. Across town, in south Omaha, a smaller but no less distinguished group came of age.
“You just had a wealth of talent then,” said Lonnie McIntosh, a teammate of Gibson and Boozer at Tech High.
Many inner city athletes resided in public housing projects. Before school desegregation dispersed students citywide, blacks attended one of four public high schools – North, Tech, Central or South. It was a small world.
During a Golden Era from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s, all manner of brilliant talents, including future all-time greats, butted heads and rubbed shoulders on the same playing fields and courts of their youth, pushing each other to new heights. It was a time when youths competed in several sports instead of specializing in one.
“In those days, everybody did everything,” said McIntosh, who participated in football, basketball and track.
Bob Boozer, photo ©L.A. Times
Many were friends, schoolmates and neighbors, often living within a few doors or blocks of each other. It was an insular, intense, tight-knit athletic community that formed a year-round training camp, proving ground and mutual admiration society all rolled into one.
“In the inner city, we basically marveled at each other’s abilities. There were a lot of great ballplayers. All the inner city athletes were always playing ball, all day long and all night long,” said Boozer, the best player not in the college hoops hall of fame. “Man, that was a breeding ground. We encouraged each other and rooted for each other. Some of the older athletes worked with young guys like me and showed us different techniques. It was all about making us better ballplayers.”
NFL legend Gale Sayers said, “No doubt about it, we fed off one another. We saw other people doing well and we wanted to do just as well.”
The older legends inspired legends-to-be like Briscoe.
“We’d hear great stories about these guys and their athletic abilities and as young players we wanted to step up to that level,” he said “They were older and successful, and as little kids we looked up to those guys and wanted to emulate them and be a part of the tradition and the reputation that goes with it.”
The impact of the older athletes on the youngsters was considerable.
“When Boozer went to Kansas State and Gibson to Creighton, that next generation – my generation – started thinking, ‘If I can get good enough, I can get a scholarship to college so I can take care of my mom‚’” Briscoe said. “That’s the way all of us thought, and it just so happened some of us had the ability to go to the next level.”
With that next level came a new sense of possibility for younger athletes.
“It got to the point where we didn’t think anything was impossible,” Johnny Rodgers said. “It was all possible. It was almost supposed to happen. We were like, If they did it, we can do it, too. We were all in this thing together.”
In the ’50s and ’60s, two storied tackle football games in the hood, the annual Turkey and Cold Bowls, were contested at Burdette Field over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Drawing players of all ages, they were no-pads, take-no-prisoners rumbles where adolescent prodigies like Gale Sayers and Johnny Rodgers competed against grown men in an athletic milieu rich with past, present and future stars.
“They let us play ball with them because we were good enough to play,” Rodgers said. “None of us were known nationally then. It really was gratifying as the years went on to see how guys went on and did something.”
When Rodgers gained national prominence, he sensed kids “got the same experience seeing me as I got seeing those legends.”
Among the early legends that Rodgers idolized was Bob Gibson. Gibson gives Omaha a special sports cachét. He’s the real thing — a major league baseball Hall of Famer, World Series hero and Cy Young Award winner. The former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher was among the most dominant hurlers, intense competitors and big game performers who ever played. Jim Morrison, a teammate on the High Y Monarchs coached by Bob’s brother, Josh, recalled how strong Gibson was.
“He threw so hard, we called it a radio ball. You couldn’t see it coming. You just heard it.”
Morrison said Gibson exhibited his famous ferocity early on.
“On the sideline, Bob could be sweet as honey, but when he got on the mound you were in big trouble. I don’t care who you were, you were in big trouble,” he said.
Gibson was also a gifted basketball player, as Boozer, a teammate for a short time at Tech and with the Travelers, attested.
“He was a finer basketball player than baseball player. He could play. He could get up and hang,” Boozer said.
Gibson starred on the court for the hometown Creighton University Bluejays, then played with the Harlem Globetrotters for a year, but it was only after being denied a chance with the NBA that he made baseball his life. Gibson’s all-around athleticism and fierce game face was aided and abetted by his older brother, Josh, a formidable man and coach who groomed many of Omaha’s top athletes from the inner city.
Bob Gibson may be The Man, but Josh was a legend in his own time as a coach of touring youth teams (the Monarchs and Travelers) out of North Omaha’s YMCA.
“He was a terrific coach. If you were anything in athletics, you played for those teams under Josh Gibson,” Boozer said.
“Josh was the one that guys like myself looked up to,” said Ron Boone. Jim Morrison said Josh had “the ability to elicit the best out of young potential stars. He started with the head down, not the body up. He taught you how to compete by teaching the fundamentals. It’s obvious it worked because his brother went on to be a great, great athlete.”
Josh Gibson is part of a long line of mentors, black and white, who strongly affected inner city athletes. Others included Logan Fontenelle rec center director Marty Thomas, the North O Y’s John Butler, Woodson Center director Alice Wilson, Bryant Center director John Nared and coaches Bob Rose of Howard Kennedy School, Neal Mosser of Tech, Frank Smagacz of Central, Cornie Collin of South, Carl Wright and Lonnie McIntosh of the North O Boys Club, Richard Nared and Co. with the Midwest Striders track program, Forest Roper with the Hawkettes hoops program, Petie Allen with the Omaha Softball Association, and Joe Edmonson of the Exploradories Wrestling Club. Each commanded respect, instilled discipline and taught basics.
Mosser, Tech’s fiery head hoops coach for much of the ‘50s and ‘60s, coached Boozer and Gibson along with such notables as Fred Hare, whom Boone calls “one of the finest high school basketball players you’d ever want to see,” Bill King and Joe Williams. A hard but fair man, Mosser defied bigoted fans and biased officials to play black athletes ahead of whites.
“Neal Mosser fought a tremendous battle for a lot of us minority kids,” McIntosh said. “He and Cornie Collin. At that time, you never had five black kids on the basketball court at the same time.”
But they did, including a famous 1954 Tech-South game when all 10 kids on the court were black.
“Their jobs were on the line, too,” McIntosh said of the two coaches.
Wherever they live, athletes will always hear about a real comer to the local scene. Like when Josh Gibson’s little brother, Bob, began making a name for himself in hoops.
The buzz was, “This kid can really jump, man,” Lonnie McIntosh recalled. “He had to duck his head to dunk.” But nobody could hang like Marion Hudson, an almost mythic-like figure from The Hood who excelled in soccer, baseball, football, basketball and track and field. Former Central High athlete Richard Nared said, “Marion was only 6’0, but he’d jump center, and go up and get it every time. The ref would say, ‘You’re jumping too quick,’ and Marion would respond, ‘No, you need to throw the ball higher.’”
Admirers and challengers go to look over or call out the young studs. Back in the day, the proving grounds for such showcases and showdowns included Kountze Park, Burdette Field, the North O YMCA, the Logan Fontenelle rec center, the Kellom Center and the Woodson Center. Later, the Bryant Center on North 24th became the place to play for anyone with game, Boone said.
“I mean, the who’s-who was there. We had teams from out west come down there to play. There was a lot of competition.”
Black Omaha flourished as a hot bed of talent in football, basketball, baseball and track and field. At a time when blacks had few options other than a high school degree and a minimum-wage job, and even fewer leisure opportunities, athletics provided an escape, an activity, a gateway. In this highly charged arena, youths proved themselves not by gang violence but through athletic competition. Blacks gravitated to sports as a way out and step up. Athletics were even as a mode of rebellion against a system that shackled them. Athletic success allowed minority athletes to say, oh, yes, I can.
“Back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s the racial climate was such we had nothing else to really look forward to except to excel as black athletes,” said Briscoe. “In that era, we didn’t get into sports with that pipe dream of being a professional athlete. Mainly, it was a rite of passage to respect and manhood. We were told, ‘You can’t do anything with your life other than work in the packing house.’ We grew up seeing on TV black people getting hosed down and clubbed and bitten by dogs and not being able to go to school. So sports became a way to better ourselves and hopefully bypass the packing house and go to college.”
Richard Nared, a former track standout at Central, said speed was the main barometer by which athletic ability was gauged.
“Mostly, all the guys had speed. You were chosen that way to play. The guys that were the best and fastest were picked first,” he said.
Toughness counted for something, too, but speed was always the separating factor.
“You had to be able to fight a little bit, too. But, yeah, you had to be fast. You were a second class citizen if you couldn’t run,” Bob Gibson said.
And second class wasn’t good in such a highly competitive community.
“The competition was so strong Bob Boozer did not make the starting five on the freshman basketball team I played on at Tech,” Jim Morrison said.
It was so strong that Gale Sayers was neither the fastest athlete at Central nor at home, owing to older brother Roger, an elite American sprinter who once beat The Human Bullet, Bob Hayes. Their brother, Ron, who played for the NFL’s San Diego Chargers, may also have been faster than Gale.
The competition was so strong that Ron Boone, who went on to a storied college and pro hoops career could not crack Tech’s starting lineup until a senior.
Bob Boozer, remembered today as a sweet-shooting, high-scoring, big-rebounding All-America power forward at Kansas State and a solid journeyman in the NBA, did not start out a polished player. But he holds the rare distinction of winning both Olympic gold as a member of the U.S. squad at the 1960 Rome Games, and an NBA championship ring as 6th man for the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks.
Boozer showed little promise early on. After a prodigious growth spurt of some six inches between his sophomore and junior years in high school, Boozer was an ungainly, timid giant.
“I couldn’t walk, chew gum and cross the street at the same time without tripping,” he said.
Hoping to take advantage of his new height, Boozer enlisted John Nared, a friend and star at arch-rival Central, and Lonnie McIntosh, a teammate at Tech, to help his coordination, conditioning, skills and toughness catch up to his height.
“Lonnie was always a physical fitness buff. He would work me out as far as strength and agility drills,” Boozer recalled. “And John was probably one of the finest athletes to ever come out of Omaha. He was a pure basketball player. John and I would go one-on-one. He was 6’3. Strong as a bull. I couldn’t take him in the paint. I had to do everything from a forward position. And, man, we used to have some battles.”
Boozer dominated Nebraska prep ball the next two years and, in college, led the KSU Wildcats to national glory. When Boozer prepared to enter the NBA with the Cincinnati Royals, he again called-on Nared’s help and credits their one-on-one tussles with teaching him how to play against smaller, quicker foes. The work paid off, too, as Boozer became a 20-point per game scorer and all-star with the Chicago Bulls.
Around the time Boozer made a name for himself in the NBA, Don Benning took over then-Omaha U.’s lowly wrestling program. He was the first black head coach at a predominantly white university. Within a few years, Benning , a North High and UNO grad who competed in football and wrestling, built the program into the perennial power it remains today. He guided his 1969-70 squad to a national NAIA team championship, perhaps the first major team title won by a Nebraska college. His indomitable will led a diverse mix of student-athletes to success while his strong character steered them, in the face of racism, to a higher ground.
After turning down big-time coaching offers, Benning retired from athletics in his early 30s to embark on a career in educational administration with Omaha Public Schools, where he displayed the same leadership and integrity he did as a coach.
The Central High pipeline of prime-time running backs got its start with Roger and Gale Sayers. Of all the Eagle backs that followed, including Joe Orduna, Keith “End Zone” Jones, Leodis Flowers, Calvin Jones, Ahman Green and David Horne, none quite dazzled the way Gale Sayers did. He brandished unparalleled cutting ability as an All-American running back and kick returner at Kansas University and, later, for the Chicago Bears. As a pro, he earned Rookie of the Year, All-Pro and Hall of Fame honors.
Often overlooked was Gale’s older but smaller brother, Roger, perhaps the fastest man ever to come out of the state. For then-Omaha U. he was an explosive halfback-receiver-kick returner, setting several records that still stand, and a scorching sprinter on the track, winning national collegiate and international events. When injuries spoiled his Olympic bid and his size ruled out the NFL, he left athletics for a career in city government and business.
Ron Boone went from being a short, skinny role player at Tech to a chiseled 6’2 star guard at Idaho State University, where his play brought him to the attention of pro scouts. Picking the brash, upstart ABA over the staid, traditional NBA, Boone established himself as an all-around gamer. He earned the title “iron man” for never missing a single contest in his combined 13-year ABA-NBA career that included a title with the Utah Stars. His endurance was no accident, either, but rather the result of an unprecedented work ethic he still takes great pride in.
Marlin Briscoe was already a pioneer when he made small college All-America as a black quarterback at mostly white Omaha U., but took his trailblazing to a new level as the NFL’s first black QB. Pulled from cornerback duty to assume the signal calling for the Denver Broncos in the last half of his 1968 rookie season, he played big. But the real story is how this consummate athlete responded when, after exhibiting the highly mobile, strong-armed style now standard for today’s black QBs, he never got another chance behind center. Traded to Buffalo, he made himself into a receiver and promptly made All-Pro. After a trade to Miami, he became a key contributor at wideout to the Dolphins two Super Bowl winning teams, including the perfect 17-0 club in 1972. His life after football has been a similar roller-coaster ride, but he’s adapted and survived.
Finally, there is the king of bling-bling, Johnny Rodgers, the flamboyant Nebraska All-American, Heisman Trophy winner and College Football Hall of Fame inductee. Voted Husker Player of the Century and still regarded as one of the most exciting, inventive broken field runners, Rodgers is seemingly all about style, not substance. Yet, in his quiet, private moments, he speaks humbly about the mysteries and burdens of his gift and the disappointment that injuries denied him a chance to strut his best stuff in the NFL.
Other, less famous sports figures had no less great an impact, from old-time football stars like Charles Bryant and Preston Love Jr., to more recent gridiron stars like Junior Bryant and Calvin Jones, right through Ahman Green. In 2003, Green, the former Nebraska All-American and current Green Bay Packers All-Pro, rushed for more yards, 1,883, in a single season, than all but a handful of backs in NFL history, shattering Packers rushing records along the way.
Hoops stars range from John Nared, Bill King, Fred Hare and Joe Williams in the ‘50s and ‘60s to Dennis Forrest, John C. Johnson, Kerry Trotter, Mike McGee, Ron Kellogg, Cedric Hunter, Erick Strickland, Andre Woolridge, Maurtice Ivy and Jessica Haynes in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. After torrid prep careers, King, Nared, Hare and Williams had some college success. The others starred for Division I programs, except for Forrest, who starred at Division II UNO. Ex-NU star Strickland made the NBA, where he’s still active.
The prolific McGee, who set Class A scoring marks at North and topped the University of Michigan’s career scoring chart, played on one of Magic Johnson’s-led Lakers title teams in the ‘80s. Ivy made the WBA. Others, like Woolridge, played in Europe.
Multi-sport greats have included Marion Hudson, Roger Sayers and Mike Green from the ‘60s and Larry Station from the ‘70s, all of whom excelled in football. A Central grad, Hudson attended Dana College in Blair, Neb. where he bloomed into the most honored athlete in school history. He was a hoops star, a record-setting halfback and a premier sprinter, long-jumper and javelin thrower, once outscoring the entire Big Seven at the prestigious Drake Relays.
He was the Lincoln Journal Star’s 1956 State College Athlete of the Year.
Among the best prep track athletes ever are former Central sprinter Terry Williams, Boys Town distance runner Barney Cotton, Holy Name sprinter Mike Thompson, Creighton Prep sprinter/hurdler Randy Brooks and Central’s Ivy.
The elite wrestlers are led by the Olivers. Brothers Archie Ray, Roye and Marshall were state champs at Tech and collegiate All-Americans. Roye was an alternate on the ’84 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. The latest in this family mat dynasty is Archie Ray‚s son Chris, a Creighton Prep senior, who closed out a brilliant career with an unbeaten record and four state individual titles.
Joe Edmonson developed top wrestlers and leaders at his Exploradories Wrestling Club, now the Edmonson Youth Outreach Center. Tech’s Curlee Alexander became a four-time All-American and one-time national champ at UNO and the coach of seven state team championships, including one at Tech, where he coached the Oliver brothers, and the last six at North. And Prep’s Brauman Creighton became a two-time national champ for UNO.
A few black boxers from Omaha made their mark nationally. Lightweight prizefighter Joey Parks once fought a draw with champ Joe Brown. A transplanted Nebraskan via the Air Force, Harley Cooper was a two-time national Golden Gloves champion out of Omaha, first as a heavyweight in 1963 and then as a light heavyweight in 1964. He was slated for the 1964 U.S. Olympic Team as light heavyweight at the Tokyo Games and sparred with the likes of Joe Frazier, when, just before leaving for Japan, a congenital kidney condition got him scratched. Despite offers to turn pro, including an overture from boxing legend Henry Armstrong, Cooper opted to stay in the military. Lamont Kirkland was a hard-hitting terror during a light heavyweight amateur and pro middleweight career in the ’80s.
With the advent of Title IX, girls-women’s athletics took-off in the ‘70s, and top local athletes emerged. Omaha’s black female sports stars have included: Central High and Midland Lutheran College great Cheryl Brooks; Central High and NU basketball legend Maurtice Ivy, a Kodak All-America, WBA MVP and the founder-director of her own 3-on-3 Tournament of Champions; Ivy’s teammate at Central, Jessica Haynes, an impact player at San Diego State and a stint in the WNBA; Maurtice’s little sister, Mallery Ivy Higgs, the most decorated track athlete in Nebraska prep history with 14 gold medals; Northwest High record-setting sprinter Mikaela Perry; Bryan High and University of Arizona hoops star Rashea Bristol, who played pro ball; and NU softball pitching ace Peaches James, a top draftee for a new pro fastpitch league starting play this summer.
The stories of Omaha’s black sports legends contribute to a vital culture and history that demand preservation. This ongoing, 12-part series of profiles is a celebration of an inner city athletic lore that is second to none, and still growing.
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Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legend
The first time I met Major League BaseballHall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson he threw me for a loop, pun fully intended, when instead of the hour or so interview he agreed to he accorded me nearly five hours of his time. I had been steeled to expect the worst, having read and heard how difficult he could be to media types like me, but he was thoroughly charming, patiently answering question after question. Only once or twice I was on the receiving end of his icy stare, the same glowering, suffer-no-fools-gladly stare that had intimidated hundreds of batters. That marathon interview ended up feeding two profiles I did of him on the occasion of his second autobiography’s release.
The following story resulted from a second interview he gave me, this time by phone, that concentrated on his relationship with his late older brother Josh. He confirmed for me what an important figure Josh was in his life and in the lives of many young blacks in north Omaha. As the story reveals, it was Josh who really drove Bob to be the supreme competitor we came to marvel at. It was Josh, himself a fine athlete and coach in his day, who like so many blacks of an earlier era never got his own chance to shine.
A version of this story first appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of an Omaha black sports legends series I wrote called Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. I later updated it for Nebraska Life Magazine.
My Brother’s Keeper, The Competitive Drive MLB Hall of Fame Pitcher Bob Gibson’s Older Brother, Josh, Instilled in Him
©by Leo Adam Biga
When Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson dreams, he dreams baseball. “Oh, I dream all the time about it. It drives me crazy. I guess I’m going to do that the rest of my life,” he said. He may even relive some of the boyhood nights spent throwing from the crude mound his oldest brother Josh fashioned for him. He may see himself pitching and Josh catching, critiquing his every move. Together again, two brothers linked in a legacy of competitive excellence.
Gibson perfected the art of intimidation in a 17-year playing career with the St. Louis Cardinals. From atop the mound, he threw glaring daggers into batters, who felt the fury of his inscrutable game-face. Those foolish or brazen enough to lean-out over the plate got his trademark calling-card — a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, riding-in high-and-tight, perhaps grazing their shirt or helmet, sending the cowed interlopers cartwheeling backwards or even sprawling face down in the dirt.
The brushback or knockdown pitch sent a clear message: Back off, sucker, or I’ll put you down if you crowd the plate. It was all a mind game meant to gain Gibson an edge. He was a master at it. If anyone molded him to be this ultimate competitor it was his late brother, Leroy Josh Gibson, a guru, mentor, coach, teacher and worst nightmare all rolled into one. Growing up in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects of north Omaha, Bob learned from Josh how to be a winner.
Bob Gibson at Tech High
Born into a poor family, Bob was the asthmatic youngest of five brothers whose father, Pack, died before he was born, leaving much of his rearing up to Josh, 15 years his senior. From the time Josh wrapped a sickly 3-year-old Bob in a quilt and carried him to the hospital, his big brother was his “protector.” The formidable Josh was a hard-boiled World War II Army vet disenchanted by racism in the service and at home. A standout athlete, he briefly attended Alabama State, where he played some football. He was also adept at basketball and baseball. Bob wasn’t around to see Josh in his athletic prime, but he said even in his 30s his older brother “could run. He could move for a big guy.
Intent on being a public school teacher and coach, Josh found opportunities denied him and settled, temporarily, for a Swift packinghouse job. He began working at the local north Omaha YMCA and Boys Club, organizing and coaching teams in basketball, baseball and softball (with the late Marty Thomas), all the while pursuing a bachelor’s degree from then Omaha University and, later, a master’s from Creighton University. Before they were called select teams, Josh recruited top athletic talent from north O to form the High Y Travelers, an elite adult basketball team, and the High Y Monarchs, a crack youth baseball team. “He got the best of the best,” said former Traveler John Nared. The teams, comprised wholly of blacks, took on all-comers across Nebraska, western Iowa and northern Kansas.
Josh left a big impression on Bob and hundreds more he taught athletic and life lessons to. “More than anything else, he was a father-figure to most of the kids down in the housing projects, me included,” Bob said. “There were a lot of kids there like me that didn’t have fathers at home and he was respected even more for the role he played in that capacity than for being a coach. What impressed us more than anything else was him coming down to the ballpark carrying his college text books, which he’d put aside to train us. We figured, Hell, here’s an ‘old man’ still going to school — it’s gotta be important. You’d be surprised how many of those kids out of the housing project were influenced by that.”
Jim Morrison, a teammate of Bob’s, said Josh had “the ability to elicit the best out of young potential stars. He started with the head down, not the body up. He taught you how to compete by teaching the fundamentals.”
Indeed, Bob called Josh “a fundamentals freak.” Bob explained, “We would have a basketball practice and everybody, you know, wanted to shoot and score points and, instead, he’d make us play defense for I-don’t-know-how-long while he and some of his friends played offense. He made sure we knew how to play the game and that every one of us knew exactly what to do and when to do it. He taught us to think on our feet more than anything else.”
Josh was not content with players knowing the basics and going hard. They had to win, too. “You know how you’re growing up and people are always telling you, It’s not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game? Well,” Bob said, “he didn’t have that thought. Winning is everything — that’s the attitude he had, and I grew up with that. It was like, Hey, I’m not out here just to play and have fun — I’m out here to win. I want to be better than the next guy.”
Josh’s fire burned so deep he sometimes lit off during games when he felt his team was getting jobbed or dis’sed. “Oh, no, he wouldn’t stand for it at all,” Bob said. “He was a fierce competitor.” He recalled how during Monarchs road game, typically played in some backwoods town, an irate Josh would get so worked-up he’d walk “out to the middle of the field… challenging to fight everybody there. Nobody wanted to take him on. You know, he was a pretty big guy. I mean, he was an imposing figure…about 5’11 and 240 pounds.”
That defiance came to define Bob’s own disposition. “You see that stuff and that gets in the back of your mind,” he said, “and you ask yourself, Is this the way it’s supposed to be? Maybe you’re supposed to fight like that. Well, I had no problem fighting.” Bob also felt Josh’s fury during pick-up basketball games, something the Gibson brothers often engaged in. Even with his little brother, Josh gave no quarter, “Oh, yeah, Josh was a bully,” Bob said, laughing. “He wouldn’t hesitate to run right over you…It was really kind of funny because as a real young kid I was small and skinny. I was 5’0 tall and weighed 99 pounds when I got to high school. But as I got older and I got bigger he used to try and run over me and couldn’t do it because I was just as much a competitor as he was.”
As hard as Josh drove his charges, he drove baby brother hardest. In his 1994 book Stranger to the Game Gibson writes, “There were…times when I wondered if Josh was going kill me himself. He was much harder on me than he was on the rednecks…no doubt because I had committed myself to becoming a pro ballplayer and Josh wasn’t going to let me default on the commitment. The other guys on the team would watch silently after practice when Josh would order me back on the field and hit me vicious ground balls until the sun set.”
It was the summer of 1947 when Josh first sat him down for a tough lecture about the then-11-year-old’s future as a “professional man,” by which Josh meant a pro athlete, a once distant dream made more real that summer by Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in major league baseball. Bob recalls Josh talking to him about making “the commitment” to become a ballplayer and for the next few years the big brother pushed his young sibling to the edge and back. Bob, who says his best sport from early youth on through college was basketball, naturally figured playing hoops would be his best shot at the pros. “I was actually a better basketball player and he realized that, too.” But he suspects Josh saw baseball as his ultimate ticket out of the ghetto. Indeed, it was Josh who first taught the future Hall of Famer how to pitch, even catching the wild but hard throwing youngster on a makeshift diamond outside Kellom School. Josh built-up a mound and marked-off a spot for home plate for what became a daily ritual.
“He used to have me pitch a lot,” Bob said.” He’d correct me on various things and teach me things. After I got a little bit older and I started doing a little thinking on my own, I disagreed with him a lot…the way kids do.” Under Josh’s tutelage, Bob’s natural gifts became apparent. “From March until the snow flew I had him out there throwing at me — starting at 10-minute stretches and moving up to a half hour,” Josh said in a 1964 Omaha World-Herald interview. “It wasn’t long before Robert could really hum that ball. There were times when he wanted to be off with the other boys, but I kept him at it.”
In games, Josh rarely pitched Bob. “I played outfield or shortstop most of the time, but I also played first base and I caught, too,” Bob said. The molding of Gibson did not go unnoticed and led to Bob and his friend, the late Jerry Parks, playing for different legion and sandlot teams. The pair were even recruited to play for a frequent road competitor — the Woodbine (Iowa) Whiz Kids, coached by Red Brummer. “We were kind of like ringers.”
But baseball was neither Gibson’s first love, nor his best sport. Former college basketball great and NBA All-Pro Bob Boozer, a teammate of Gibson’s for a short time at Omaha Technical High School and with the High Y Travelers, said, “He was a finer basketball player than baseball player. He could play. He could get up and hang.” When Gibson was coming up, word traveled fast that Josh’s kid brother had game. The buzz was, “This kid can really jump, man,” Tech teammate Lonnie McIntosh recalled. “He had to duck his head to dunk.”
As a prep hoops star, Gibson had few peers. His Tech High basketball coach, Neal Mosser, said, “He could have played today — that’s how good he was.”
Despite the time he spent developing his skills on the mound, Bob said Josh did not try swaying him to pursue baseball in favor of basketball. “He never tried to influence me one way or the other which I should do. Not at all.”
While his baseball prowess was more raw potential than reailty, Jim Morrison said, “He threw so hard, we called it a radio ball. You couldn’t see it coming. You just heard it.” He said Gibson exhibited his famous ferocity early on. “On the sideline, Bob could be sweet as honey, but when he got on the mound you were in big trouble. I don’t care who you were, you were in big trouble.”
During the summer American Legion baseball season before his junior year at Tech, Gibson earned all-city honors as a utility player. His talent was such that before graduating he got an offer from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues and long looks from scouts of several major league clubs. Even those credentials could not overcome racism back home in an era when public school coaches were uniformly white and either openly opposed playing blacks or did so sparingly. He even found himself turned-away by then-Tech baseball coach Ken Kennedy. It wasn’t until his senior year, under new coach Tom Murphy, he even got a chance to play baseball for Tech, making the team at shortstop.
Where the hard-driving Josh left off grooming Bob, Tech’s Mosser took over. “Neal Mosser was so much like my brother,” Bob said. “He taught fundamentals, too. He did a lot as far as me going from a young boy to a young man. It was more the way he carried himself than anything else and the respect he had for us as players.” By all accounts, Mosser was color-blind. “Race just never seemed to be a part of his thinking,” Gibson said. “As a matter of fact, we went to the state tournament in Lincoln my senior year and he started five black players. I give him a lot of credit for that. That night, you could hear a pin drop. And he didn’t give a shit. He just wanted to win.”
With the fast-breaking Tech team frustrated by Fremont High’s slow-down tactics, the referees seemingly conspired to give the edge in the nip-and-tuck stalemate to the Tigers. It was neither the first time nor the last time that a predominantly black team from Omaha got the shaft. As if he still can’t accept it, Gibson said, “By the end of the first-half four out of our five starters fouled-out, and within a couple minutes of the second half I fouled out, and I never fouled out. They were cheating us. It was that blatant. And Mosser did the same thing Josh did — he was out in the middle of the floor screaming, and I thought he was going to have a heart attack.”
There was nothing Mosser or anyone could do. Tech lost 40-39. Losing a game is one thing. Having it taken away is quite another. The pain of it made Gibson cry. He said it was the last time he ever shed a tear over a loss.
‘Desire to Win’
Gibson had his sights set on a major college hoops scholarship. He played summer AAU ball in an effort to capture the interest of powerhouse Indiana University. When Mosser contacted the Hoosiers’ head coach, he was told the program already had its “quota of blacks.” At Josh’s urging, hometown Creighton courted Bob and he accepted their scholarship offer, thus breaking the sports color line in the modern era there. He became CU’s career scoring leader. He also showed promise on the mound, further cementing his status as a pro prospect with his play in summer semi-pro ball.
Bob Gibson at Creighton University
Upon graduation, the only NBA feelers came from the Minneapolis Lakers, but when his play for a college all-star team sparked a rare win over the famed Harlem Globetrotters, he was promptly offered a contract to join the traveling hoops circus. Around the same time, he also signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. For a year, he pulled a Bo Jackson — playing two pro sports, pitching for the Cardinals Class A club in Omaha and, in the off-season, hooping it up with the Trotters on cross-country tours.
He moved quickly up the Cardinals’ farm system, joining the big league club in 1959. He became an everyday starter in ’61 and, by the mid-’60s, established himself as one of baseball’s premiere pitchers. In a 10-year stretch from 1963 to 1972 he was arguably the game’s best hurler, posting a 191-105 record, winning two Cy Young Awards, annually ranking near the top in strikeouts and ERA and leading the Cardinals to two World Series titles, capturing the series MVP award each time. His dominant 1968 MVP season was, as he put it in his book, “the year I mastered my craft.” In compiling a 1.12 ERA, 13 shut outs and 28 complete games, he enjoyed perhaps the best single year performance by a pitcher in the modern era.
Gibson, who’s observed his share of fine athletes during his days as a pitcher, coach (with the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves) and broadcaster, believes all the greats share some qualities. It’s no coincidence they include some of the same characteristics Josh helped instill in him years before. “Desire to win. Desire to be better than average,” he said. Then there are the unteachable things. “The will to stick with it. The focus to block out everything else going on around you. Ability doesn’t hurt, either.”
Along the way, Josh reveled in Bob’s ride to stardom and 1981 first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame, although the two rarely talked about it. Not long before his enshrinement, Bob paid Josh the ultimate compliment, saying, “He’s the one who taught me to be an athlete.”
During and after his career Gibson earned a reputation as a blunt, uncompromising man in speaking out against unfair housing practices and employment opportunities in St. Louis and Omaha, where he had various business ventures. For the past two decades, he’s lived with his second wife and family in Bellevue. Today, he maintains ties with the sports world by serving as a Cardinals special instructor in spring training and participating in fantasy baseball camps. From 1997 to 2004, he hosted an annual charity golf tournament that brought in dozens of sports legends.
He enjoys getting together with other athletes from the past and reminiscing about their shared youth. “I think one of the things that makes athletes different than the rest of society,” he said, “is that regardless of what game you play it allows you to remain as a youth…a child. You don’t get any older. You have that same type of feeling. As an athlete you want to cry when you have to quit. It’s something you’ll never be tired of.”
Hanging with Sandy Koufax or Bill Russell, Gibson feels young again. Then, too, there’s the unspoken warrior fraternity he and the others embody.
“There’s a mutual respect you have without even talking about it. It’s just simply understood.”
It’s the same way he and Josh felt about each other.
MORE BOB GIBSON STORIES FROM MY ARCHIVES
Omaha’s bevy of black sports legends has only recently begun to get their due here. With the inception of the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame a few years ago, more deserving recognition has been accorded these many standouts from the past, some of whom are legends with a small “l” and some of whom are full-blown legends with a capital “L.” As a journalist I’ve done my part bringing to light the stories of some of these individuals. The following story is about someone who is a Legend by any standard, Bob Gibson. This is the third Gibson story I’ve posted to this blog site, and in some ways it’s my favorite. When you’re reading it, keep in mind it was written and published 13 years ago. The piece appeared in the New Horizons and I’m republishing it here to coincide with the newest crop of inductees in the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame. Gibson was fittingly inducted in that Hall’s inaugural class, as he is arguably the greatest sports legend, bar none, ever to come out of Nebraska.
Bob Gibson, the Master of the Mound Remains His Own Man Years Removed from the Diamond
©by Leo Adam Biga
Bob Gibson. Merely mentioning the Hall of Fame pitcher’s name makes veteran big league baseball fans nostalgic for the gritty style of play that characterized his era. An era before arbitration, Astro-Turf, indoor stadiums and the Designated Hitter. Before the brushback was taboo and going the distance a rarity.
No one personified that brand of ball better than Gibson, whose gladiator approach to the game was hewn on the playing fields of Omaha and became the stuff of legend in a spectacular career (1959-1975) with the St. Louis Cardinals. A baseball purist, Gibson disdains changes made to the game that promote more offense. He favors raising the mound and expanding the strike zone. Then again, he’s an ex-pitcher.
Gibson was an iron man among iron men – completing more than half his career starts. The superb all-around athlete, who starred in baseball and basketball at Tech High and Creighton University, fielded his position with great skill, ran the bases well and hit better than many middle infielders. He had a gruff efficiency and gutsy intensity that, combined with his tremendous fastball, wicked slider and expert control, made him a winner.
Even the best hitters never got comfortable facing him. He rarely spoke or showed emotion on the mound and aggressively backed batters off the plate by throwing inside. As a result, a mystique built-up around him that gave him an extra added edge. A mystique that’s stuck ever since.
Now 61, and decades removed from reigning as baseball’s ultimate competitor, premier power pitcher and most intimidating presence, he still possesses a strong, stoic, stubborn bearing that commands respect. One can only imagine what it felt like up to bat with him bearing down on you.
As hard as he was on the field, he could be hell to deal with off it too, particularly with reporters after a loss. This rather shy man has closely, sometimes brusquely, guarded his privacy. The last few years, though, have seen him soften some and open up more. In his 1994 autobiography “Stranger to the Game” he candidly reviewed his life and career.
More recently, he’s promoted the Bob Gibson All-Star Classic – a charitable golf tournament teeing off June 14 at the Quarry Oaks course near Mahoney State Park. Golfers have shelled out big bucks to play a round with Gibson and fellow sports idols Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford, Lou Brock and Oscar Robertson as well as Nebraska’s own Bob Boozer, Ron Boone and Gale Sayers and many others. Proceeds will benefit two causes dear to Gibson – the American Lung Association of Nebraska and BAT – the Baseball Assistance Team.
When Gibson announced the event many were surprised to learn he still resides here. He and his wife Wendy and their son Christopher, 12, live in a spacious home in Bellevue’s Fontenelle Hills.
His return to the public arena comes, appropriately enough, in the 50th anniversary season of the late Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Growing up in Omaha’s Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects, Gibson idolized Robinson. “Oh, man, he was a hero,” he told the New Horizons. “When Jackie broke in, I was just a kid. He means even more now than he did then, because I understand more about what he did” and endured. When Gibson was at the peak of his career, he met Robinson at a Washington, D.C. fundraiser, and recalls feeling a deep sense of “respect” for the man who paved the way for him and other African-Americans in professional athletics.
In a recent interview at an Omaha eatery Gibson displayed the same pointedness as his book. On a visit to his home he revealed a charming Midwestern modesty around the recreation room’s museum-quality display of plaques and trophies celebrating his storied baseball feats.
His most cherished prize is the 1968 National League Most Valuable Player Award. “That’s special,” he said. “Winning it was quite an honor because pitchers don’t usually win the MVP. Some pitchers have won it since I did, but I don’t know that a pitcher will ever win it again. There’s been some controversy whether pitchers should be eligible for the MVP or should be limited to the Cy Young.” For his unparalleled dominance in ‘68 – the Year of the Pitcher – he added the Cy Young to the MVP in a season in which he posted 22 wins, 13 shutouts and the lowest ERA (1.12) in modern baseball history. He won the ‘70 Cy Young too.
Despite his accolades, his clutch World Series performances (twice leading the Cardinals to the title) and his gaudy career marks of 251 wins, 56 shutouts and 3,117 strikeouts, he’s been able to leave the game and the glory behind. He said looking back at his playing days is almost like watching movie images of someone else. Of someone he used to be.
“That was another life,” he said. “I am proud of what I’ve done, but I spend very little time thinking about yesteryear. I don’t live in the past that much. That’s just not me. I pretty much live in the present, and, you know, I have a long way to go, hopefully, from this point on.”
Since ending his playing days in ‘75, Gibson’s been a baseball nomad, serving as pitching coach for the New York Mets in ‘81 and for the Atlanta Braves from ‘82 to ‘84, each time under Joe Torre, the current Yankee manager who is a close friend and former Cardinals teammate. He’s also worked as a baseball commentator for ABC and ESPN. After being away from the game awhile, he was brought back by the Cardinals in ‘95 as bullpen coach. Since ‘96 he’s served as a special instructor for the club during spring training, working four to six weeks with its talented young pitching corps, including former Creighton star Alan Benes, who’s credited Gibson with speeding his development.
Who does he like among today’s crop of pitchers? “There’s a lot of guys I like. Randy Johnson. Roger Clemens. The Cardinals have a few good young guys. And of course, Atlanta’s got three of the best.”
Could he have succeeded in today’s game? “I’d like to think so,” he said confidently.
He also performs PR functions for the club. “I go back several times to St. Louis when they have special events. You go up to the owners’ box and you have a couple cocktails and shake hands and be very pleasant…and grit your teeth,” he said. “Not really. Years ago it would have been very tough for me, but now that I’ve been so removed from the game and I’ve got more mellow as I’ve gotten older, the easier the schmoozing becomes.”
His notorious frankness helps explain why he’s not been interested in managing. He admits he would have trouble keeping his cool with reporters second-guessing his every move. “Why should I have to find excuses for something that probably doesn’t need an excuse? I don’t think I could handle that very well I’m afraid. No, I don’t want to be a manager. I think the door would be closed to me anyway because of the way I am – blunt, yes, definitely. I don’t know any other way.”
Still, he added, “You never say never. I said I wasn’t going to coach before too, and I did.” He doesn’t rule out a return to the broadcast booth or to a full-time coaching position, adding: “These are all hypothetical things. Until you’re really offered a job and sit down and discuss it with somebody, you can surmise anything you want. But you never know.”
He feels his outspokenness off the field and fierceness on it cost him opportunities in and out of baseball: “I guess there’s probably some negative things that have happened as a result of that, but that really doesn’t concern me that much.”
He believes he’s been misunderstood by the press, which has often portrayed him as a surly, angry man. “
When I performed, anger had nothing to do with it. I went out there to win. It was strictly business with me. If you’re going to have all these ideas about me being this ogre, then that’s your problem. I don’t think I need to go up and explain everything to you. Now, if you want to bother to sit down and talk with me and find out for yourself, then fine…”
Those close to him do care to set the record straight, though. Rodney Wead, a close friend of 52 years, feels Gibson’s occasional wariness and curtness stem, in part, from an innate reserve.
“He’s shy. And therefore he protects himself by being sometimes abrupt, but it’s only that he’s always so focused,” said Wead, a former Omaha social services director who’s now president and CEO of Grace Hill Neighborhood Services in St. Louis.
Indeed, Gibson attributes much of his pitching success to his fabled powers of concentration, which allowed him “to focus and block out everything else going on around me.” It’s a quality others have noted in him outside sports.
“Mentally, he’s so disciplined,” said Countryside Village owner Larry Myers, a former business partner. “He has this ability to focus on the task at hand and devote his complete energy to that task.”
If Gibson is sometimes standoffish, Wead said, it’s understandable: “He’s been hurt so many times, man. We’ve had some real, almost teary moments together when he’s reflected on some of the stuff he wished could of happened in Omaha and St. Louis.” Wead refers to Gibson’s frustration upon retiring as a player and finding few employment-investment opportunities open to him. Gibson is sure race was a factor. And while he went on to various career-business ventures, he saw former teammates find permanent niches within the game when he didn’t. He also waited in vain for a long-promised Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship from former Cardinals owner, the late August Busch. He doesn’t dwell on the disappointments in interviews, but devotes pages to them in his book.
Gibson’s long been outspoken about racial injustice. When he first joined the Cardinals at its spring training facility in St. Petersburg, Fla., black and white teammates slept and ate separately. A three-week stay with the Cardinals’ Columbus, Ga. farm team felt like “a lifetime,” he said, adding, “I’ve tried to erase that, but I remember it like it was yesterday.” He, along with black teammates Bill White and the late Curt Flood, staged a mini-Civil Rights movement within the organization – and conditions improved.
He’s dismayed the media now singles out baseball for a lack of blacks in managerial posts when the game merely mirrors society as a whole. “Baseball has made a lot more strides than most facets of our lives,” he said. “Have things changed in baseball? Yes. Have things changed everywhere else? Yes. Does there need to be a lot more improvement? Yes. Some of the problems we faced when Jackie Robinson broke in and when I broke in 10 years later don’t exist, but then a lot of them still do.”
He’s somewhat heartened by acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s recent pledge to hire more minorities in administrative roles. “I’m always encouraged by some statements like that, yeah. I’d like to wait and see what happens. Saying it and doing it is two different things.”
He’s also encouraged by golfer Tiger Woods’ recent Masters’ victory.“What’s really great about him being black is that it seems to me white America is always looking for something that black Americans can’t do, and that’s just one other thing they can scratch off their list.” Gibson’s All-Star Classic will be breaking down barriers too by bringing a racially mixed field into the exclusive circle of power and influence golf represents.
Some have questioned why he’s chosen now to return to the limelight. “It’s not to get back in the public eye,” Gibson said of the golf classic. “The reason I’m doing this is to raise money for the American Lung Association and BAT.”
Efforts to battle lung disease have personal meaning for Gibson, who’s a lifelong asthma sufferer. A past Lung Association board member, he often speaks before groups of young asthma patients “to convince them that you can participate in sports even though you have asthma…I think it’s helpful to have somebody there that went through the same thing and, being an ex-baseball player, you get their attention.”
He serves on the board of directors of BAT – the tourney’s other beneficiary. The organization assists former big league and minor league players, managers, front office professionals and umpires who are in financial distress. “Unfortunately, most people think all ex-players are multimillionaires,” he said. “Most are not. Through BAT we try to do what we can to help people of the baseball family.”
He hopes the All-Star Classic raises half-a-million dollars and gives the state “something it’s never seen before” – a showcase of major sports figures equal to any Hall of Fame gathering. Gibson said he came up with the idea over drinks one night with his brother Fred and a friend. From there, it was just a matter of calling “the guys” – as he refers to legends like Mays. Gibson downplays his own legendary status, but is flattered to be included among the game’s immortals.
What’s amazing is that baseball wasn’t his best sport through high school and college – basketball was. His coach at Tech, Neal Mosser, recalls Gibson with awe: “He was unbelievable,” said Mosser. “He would have played pro ball today very easily. He could shoot, fake, run, jump and do everything the pros do today. He was way ahead of his time.”
Gibson was a sports phenom, excelling in baseball, basketball, football and track for area youth recreation teams. He enjoyed his greatest success with the Y Monarchs, coached by his late brother Josh, whom Mosser said “was a father-figure” to Gibson. Josh drilled his younger brother relentlessly and made him the supreme competitor he is. After a stellar career playing hardball and hoops at Creighton, Gibson joined the Harlem Globetrotters for one season, but an NBA tryout never materialized.
No overnight success on the pro diamond, Gibson’s early seasons, including stints with the Omaha Cardinals, were learning years. His breakthrough came in ‘63, when he went 18-9. He only got better with time.
Gibson acknowledges it’s been difficult adjusting to life without the competitive outlet sports provided. “I’ll never find anything to test that again,” he said, “but as you get older you’re not nearly as competitive. I guess you find some other ways to do it, but I haven’t found that yet.”
What he has found is a variety of hobbies that he applies the same concentrated effort and perfectionist’s zeal to that he did pitching. One large room in his home is dominated by an elaborate, fully-operational model train layout he designed himself. He built the layout’s intricately detailed houses, buildings, et all, in his own well-outfitted workshop, whose power saw and lathe he makes use of completing frequent home improvement projects. He’s made several additions to his home, including a sun room, sky lights, spa and wine cellar.
“I’m probably more proud of that,” he said, referring to his handiwork, “than my career in baseball. If I hadn’t been in baseball, I think I would of probably ended up in the construction business.”
The emotional-physical-financial investment Gibson’s made in his home is evidence of his deep attachment to Nebraska. Even at the height of his pro career he remained here. His in-state business interests have included radio station KOWH, the Community Bank of Nebraska and Bob Gibson’s Spirits and Sustenance, a restaurant he was a partner in from
1979 to 1989. Nebraska, simply, is home. “I don’t know that you can find any nicer people,” he said, “and besides my family’s been here. Usually when you move there’s some type of occupation that takes you away. I almost moved to St. Louis, but there were so many (racial) problems back when I was playing…that I never did.”
His loyalty hasn’t gone unnoticed. “He didn’t get big-headed and go away and hide somewhere,” said Jerry Parks, a Tech teammate who today is Omaha’s Parks, Recreation and Public Property Director. “What I admire most about him is that he’s very loyal to people he likes, and that’s priceless for me,” said Rodney Wead. “He’s helped a lot of charitable causes very quietly…He’s certainly given back to Omaha over the years,” said Larry Myers.
Jerry Mosser may have summed it up best: “He’s just a true-blue guy.”
Because Gibson’s such a private man, his holding a celebrity golf tournament caught many who know him off-guard. “I was as surprised as anyone,” said Wead, “but so pleased – he has so much to offer.” Gibson himself said: “I have never done anything like this before. If I don’t embarrass myself too badly, I’ll be fine.”
If anything, Gibson will rise to the occasion and show grace under fire. Just like he used to on the mound – when he’d rear back and uncork a high hard one. Like he still does in his dreams. “Oh, I dream about it (baseball) all the time,” he said. “It drives me crazy. I guess I’m going to do that the rest of my life.”
Thanks for the memories, Bob. And the sweet dreams.
_ _ _
Omaha‘s produced many black sports legends, and I’ve had the privilege of meeting, interviewing, and profiling most of them. Arguably, the biggest name of this group is Bob Gibson, the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) introduced me to Gibson, who had agreed to an hour or so interview and thereupon shocked and delighted me when he ended up giving me almost five hours. The occasion for the interview and story was a charitable golf tournament he was starting up. He had no idea who I was and by rights I had no business getting that much of his time, but I believe he indulged me because, one, he was motivated to get the word out about his new event, and two, I had done my homework, which I assume he respected. Also, not long before the interview his second autobiography had come out, and so he was probably also interested in promoting that. He also had me and a photographer over his home for another couple hours. Whatever the reasons, I’m glad he did share himself with me so generously, as it led to this quite extensive piece and a few others. Look for more Gibson posts. There is a second Gibson story already on the site, entitled “My Brother’s Keeper,” which details the story of how his older brother Josh schooled him to become the great competitor he became. Another, titled “Master of the Mound,” goes into the dominance Bob Gibson displayed out on the field.
Bob Gibson, A Stranger No More
©by Leo Adam BIga
Homegrown baseball icon Bob Gibson normally shuns the media spotlight. Even during a Hall of Fame pitching career with the St. Louis Cardinals (1959-1975), this sober, wary, intensely private man barely tolerated reporters’ intrusions.
But the Omaha native is letting his guard down now to promote the Bob Gibson All-Star Classic, a June 14 charitable golf tournament at the Quarry Oaks course near Mahoney State Park. The event will benefit two groups he’s long been involved with – the American Lung Association of Nebraska and the Baseball Assistance Team, an organization helping indigent ex-baseball personnel. He serves on BAT’s board of directors.
He will host an impressive array of sports figures and celebrities at Quarry Oaks, including fellow baseball Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Lou Brock, Sandy Koufax and Stan Musial, basketball Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, actor Bill Murray and former NBC sportscaster and Today Show host Bryant Gumbel. He’ll also welcome some high-profile Omaha natives, including former NBA players Bob Boozer and Ron Boone, football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers and world-class investor Warren Buffett.
Gibson’s return to the public arena is apropos given this is the 50th anniversary of the late Jackie Robinson’s breaking of major league baseball’s color barrier. Growing up in Omaha’s Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects, Gibson idolized Robinson. “Oh man, he was a hero,” he told The Reader. “When Jackie broke in, I was just a kid. He means even more nowthan he did then, because I understand more about what he did” and endured. When Gibson was at the peak of his career, he met Robinson at a Washington, D.C. fund-raiser, and recalls feeling a deep sense of “respect.”
A baseball-basketball standout at Tech High and Creighton University, Gibson became, in 1957, a two sport pro athlete – playing hardball with the Cardinals’ Triple AAA club in Omaha and hoops with the famed Harlem Globetrotters. After making the St. Louis roster in ’59, he concentrated solely on baseball and within a few years became a premier pitcher.
Gibson was in the forefront of black athletes who, following Robinon’s lead, helped secure African-Americans’ foothold in professional sports. Like Robinson, he’s distinguished himself as a fiercely proud, highly principled man with, as author David Halberstam put it, a “samurai” sense of honor and duty.
“He has certain beliefs and he sticks with those. He doesn’t waver one way or another in his decision-making. I admired him as a young man and teammate, and I admire him as an individual to this day,” said Jerry Parks, a teammate of Gibson’s at Tech, who today is Omaha’s Parks, Recreation and Public Property Director.
“Not only as a baseball player, but as a man, he’s got a lot of dignity,” said Preston Love, Sr., an Omaha musician who’s known Gibson for years. “He’s really an exquisite man. An elegant man. A class act. is private life, during and after his years in baseball, has been just exemplary.”
Friends appreciate the fact that Gibson has never left the area or abandoned his roots. He and his wife, Wendy, and their 12-year-old son, Christopher, live in a spacious home in Bellevue’s Fontenelle Hills.
“He didn’t get big-headed and go away and hide somewhere,” said Parks. “He continues to stay in communication with all of his teammates.”
“What I admire about him most is that he’s very loyal to people he likes, and that’s priceless for me,” said Rodney Wead, a close friend. Wead, who grew up with Gibson and became a noted social services director, is president and CEO of Grace Hill Neighborhood Services in St. Louis.
In a recent interview at a mid-town Omaha eatery, Gibson spoke about Robinson’s legacy, about racism in and out of baseball and about his own pitching prowess. A trim, handsome man of 61, he arrived promptly, sans entourage, dressed in a sweater and slacks. At times he displayed the same no-nonsense, I don’t suffer fools gladly, bluntness of his 1994 autobiography, “Stranger to the Game,” and at other times revealed an engaging, shy congeniality that suits him well.
To Gibson’s dismay, media coverage of the Robinson anniversary has focused on the paucity of blacks filling managerial roles in baseball and not on the larger issue –- that 50 years later blacks continue facing widespread discrimination. He feels it’s hypocritical to make baseball a scapegoat for what’s a systemic problem.
“This is a perfect opportunity for anybody to cleanse their soul through baseball,” he said. “But the problem with racial prejudice goes far beyond baseball. And as soon as this Jackie Robinson thing wears off, everybody’s going right back to where they were before. That’s why when people talk about the lack of black managers and coaches, I just laugh, because we’re talking about a sport where we’re supposedly accepted. But you get into the business world, and we’re not accepted. We’re only able to go so high and then we’re limited to making some lateral movements.”
Gibson’s playing career coincided with the nation’s civil rights struggle, when change in baseball, as everywhere else, came slowly. When he joined the Cardinals the franchise adhered to custom at its spring training complex in St. Petersburg, Fla. by having black and white players stay in separate quarters. By the time Gibson firmly established himself in the early ‘60s, he and his black teammates had begun confronting even the hint of racism head-on, fostering a progressive, tolerant attitude throughout the organization that led the Cardinals to flaunt existing Jim Crow laws.
In his book Gibson describes the camaraderie on the club as “practically revolutionary in the way it cut across racial lines.” Perhaps the best testament to it is his friendship with former Cardinal catcher and present FOX network sportscaster Tim McCarver, a Southern-born and bred white, who credits Gibson with helping him move beyond his bigotry.
Gibson said the brotherhood the Cardinals forged then could be a model for America today, if we only let it: “Just like it happens in sports, it can happen in other aspects of our lives, but people won’t allow it to. They just won’t allow it. A couple of my best friends just happen to be white. Now, I don’t know if I hadn’t been playing baseball if that would be possible. It could be…I don’t know.” He adds the special feeling between him, McCarver and their old teammates “will always be there.”
His St. Louis experience wasn’t always blissful, however. He and his first wife, Charline (with whom he has two grown daughters), were discouraged from moving into predominately white areas during the ‘60s. They met similar resistance in Omaha.
He confronted blatant racism during a brief ‘57 stay with the Cardinal farm team in Columbus, Ga. “I was there for three weeks, but that was a lifetime,” he said. “I’ve tried to erase that, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It opened my eyes a little bit, yeah. You can see movies, you can hear things, but there’s nothing like experiencing it yourself.”
He acknowledges the progress made in and out of baseball, but sees room for improvement: “Some of the problems we faced when Jackie Robinson broke in and when I broke in 10 years later don’t exist, but then a lot of them still do. I think people are a little bit more sophisticated now in their bigotry, but they’re still bigots.”
He cautiously welcomes the recent pledge by acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig to hire more blacks in administrative roles. “I’m always encouraged by some statements like that, yeah. I’d just like to wait and see what happens. Saying it and doing is two different things.”
He’s encouraged too by golfer Tiger Woods’ recent Masters’ triumph. “What’s really great about him being black,” he said, “is that it seems to me white America is always looking for something that black Americans can’t do, and that’s one other thing they can scratch off their list.” Gibson’s All-Star Classic will be breaking down barriers too by bringing a racially mixed field into the exclusive circle of power and influence golf represents.
When the very private Gibson announced he was holding the very public event, it took many people aback. Gibson himself said at a press conference: “I have never done anything like this before.” “I was as surprised as anyone,” said Wead, “but so pleased. He has so much to offer.” Why then is he returning to the limelight? “The golf tournament is not to get back in the public eye,” Gibson elaborated for The Reader. “That’s not what it’s for.” The purpose is “to raise money” for two causes very close to him and do it via an event “unlike any Omaha’s ever seen before.” Efforts to treat and cure lung disease have personal meaning for Gibson, who’s a lifelong asthma sufferer. A past Lung Association board member, he often speaks before groups of young asthma patients.
“I’ve been going around talking to kids with asthma and trying to convince them that you can participate in sports even though you have asthma, as long as you have a doctor who’s on top of everything. The kids listen. They ask questions. They’re interested. A lot of them are frightened when they’re out running around and they get a little short of breath and don’t quite understand what it’s all about…when, a lot of times, all they need is a little TLC. I think it’s helpful to have somebody there that went through the same thing, and being an ex-baseball player, you get their attention.”
His involvement with BAT dates to its 1986 inception. The organization assists former big league and minor league players, mangers, front office professionals, and even umpires, who are in financial distress. “Unfortunately, most people think all ex-players are multimillionaires,” Gibson said. “Most are not. Through BAT we try to do what we can to help people of the baseball family.”
Gibson hopes the All-Star Classic raises half-a-million dollars. The event will feature, arguably, the greatest gathering of sports idols in Nebraska, something Gibson takes obvious pride in, but characteristically doesn’t dwell on. An indication of his standing in the sports world is that no one he contacted to participate turned him down, although some have since bowed out due to scheduling conflicts. It promises to be an event befitting a living legend like Gibson, even if he winces at being called one.
But living legend he is. His career marks support it: 251 wins, including 56 shutouts; 3,117 strikeouts; and a lifetime 2.91 ERA. The two-time Cy Young Award winner and perennial All-Star was also a superb fielding and hitting pitcher. His record-setting feats in three World Series earned the admiration, even the awe, of hard-bitten fans, sportswriters and players. He was named Series MVP in ‘64 and ‘67, each time leading the Cardinals to the title.
Then there’s Gibson’s legend-making 1968 season, when he won the Cy Young and MVP awards, threw 13 shutouts and posted the lowest ERA (1.12) in modern baseball history. Many observers consider it the greatest season ever by a pitcher and rank his performance alongside Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Roger Maris’ swatting of 61 homers as an all-time standard. In that Year of the Pitcher, no one was more dominant than Gibson, and baseball’s rulesmakers responded by lowering the mound and shrinking the strike zone to level the playing field.
But statistics alone can’t capture his brilliance. What set him apart, beyond great stuff and superb control, was a fearsome burning intensity. He exuded a commanding presence on the field unlike anyone else’s. He simply gave no quarter. His competitiveness was reflected in an inscrutable game-face whose icy glare bore in on batters as ruthlessly as his searing fastballs. He pitched with an attitude. He messed with opponents’ minds.
His book is full of testimonials about the daunting figure he cut on the mound, including this one by Richie Ashburn, the Tilden, Neb.- native and former Philadelphia Phillies great: “…Gibson dominated…with a vengeance that savaged the batters….His fastball was equal to Koufax’s and Ryan’s, and his slider had no equal. And more’s the pity, Gibson was mean on the mound. He had a menacing, glowering intensity that more than occasionally deepened into a sneer. His intimidating demeanor, his lack of concern for the welfare of the hitter, combined with his almost-unhittable pitches, put Gibson in a class by himself.”
Gibson swears his bad-ass persona was not a facade he developed. “No, I didn’t cultivate that. That’s the way people perceived me. It was strictly business with me, and that’s the way it was. They (opponents) saw it some other way, which was fine, and I didn’t do anything to try and defuse it, but just leave it be. If I had known they felt that way, I would have been a lot worse than that. I would have really played the part,” he said, smiling.
His equally sharp, direct manner off the mound, especially with the press, got him saddled with a reputation for being “difficult.” Looking back, he feels he was “respected” by the press, “but not liked,” adding, “I wasn’t concerned whether they liked me or didn’t like me.”
He resents the public’s and media’s expectation that he explain or expose more of himself. It’s why he’s never been interested in managing.
“Well, I don’t think I need to be understood, and that’s the whole thing. Yes, they misunderstood what they saw, not that I was concerned about it. When you’re in the public eye people want to know all about you,…and I’m not so sure it’s their business. But that’s the only time they want to understand you. If you’re not in the public eye, they could care less.”
Wead said Gibson’s occasional aloofness and curtness stems, in part, from an innate reserve: “He’s shy. And therefore he protects himself by being sometimes abrupt…but’s it’s only that he’s always so focused.”
Gibson suspects he’s paid a price for being a black man who’s dared to speak his mind and go his own way. It’s why he chose “Stranger to the Game” as his book’s title. “I’ve found out that people don’t want you to be truthful about most things. People don’t like honesty. It hurts their feelings. But I don’t know any other way. I’ve been basically like that all my life – blunt. Definitely.”
It’s an apt description of the way he pitched too. He epitomized the hard-nosed style of his era, a style dictating whenever a batter cheated –- by leaning too far out over the plate – the pitcher felt obligated to throw inside. In classic brushback tradition, Gibson hummed a 95-plus mile per hour dart toward the batter’s ribs, sending the guy bailing out for cover. The idea then or now wasn’t to hit somebody, although a wild pitch occasionally did, but instead make him feel insecure up there. To plant a seed of doubt for the next swing, the next at-bat, the next game. To gain “an edge” in the confrontation with the batter.
“What you want him to think about is the ball inside,” Gibson said. “He can’t look for a ball inside and away at the same time. That’s why you throw in there…to make him think about it. You can actually see guys thinking. They give it away with their body language and everything.”
Gibson, who admits to having strong opinions “about everything,” dislikes the “kinder-gentler” version of baseball played today, when the brushback is frowned on. e said rulesmakers have essentially taken the purpose pitch away from today’s hurlers. To the point that when pitches sail too far inside, fights often ensue and umpires eject offending pitchers and their managers. He said the reason pitchers get lit up for more runs these days isn’t due to lack of talent, but to changes which penalize pitchers and favor hitters (the near ban on brushbacks, the lowered mound, the reduced strike zone, more tightly wound balls, the Designated Hitter, smaller parks).
“They’ve screwed with the game enough where it’s taken away a lot of the effectiveness of pitchers,” he said.
If it was up to him, he’d raise the mound and do away with the DH. Despite its changes, he still savors the game. He even dreams baseball: “Oh, I dream all the time about it,” he said. “It drives me crazy. I guess I’m going to do that the rest of my life.” After a certain restlessness, he said, he’s grown more “mellow” in retirement –- devoting his energy to hobbies and home improvement projects. He enjoys working with his hands.
Although he’s kept a hand in the game, he’s never found a permanent niche within the baseball establishment. In the ‘80s he served as pitching coach for the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves (each time under current Yankee skipper Joe Torre, a close friend and former teammate) and as an expert commentator for ABC and ESPN. He was a full-time coach with the Cardinals in ‘95, and the past two spring training camps has worked as a special instructor with the club’s pitching staff. During the season he performs PR duties at special club functions –- “schmoozing” with officials and VIP guests at Busch Stadium.
He also conducts baseball clinics, including one last fall at the Strike Zone, an indoor baseball academy in Omaha. Strike Zone general manager Joe Siwa said Gibson was a hit with participants: “He did a fabulous job working with the pitchers. The kids really enjoyed being around a Hall of Famer. He did a big autograph session afterwards.”
Whether working with Little Leaguers or professionals, Gibson stresses fundamentals. What made him such a successful pitcher? His velocity? Control? Intensity? “All of those things,” he said. “Ability doesn’t hurt. But I think it’s concentration, as much as anything. eing able to focus and block out everything else going on around you. I think you’re probably born with it. There’s a lot of guys with great ability –- with more ability than I had –- but they don’t master it because they can’t focus.“
It’s a quality others have noted in him off the field. Countryside Village owner Larry Myers, a partner of Gibson’s in a now closed bar-restaurant, said he often marveled at his “ability to focus on the task at hand and devote all his energy to that task. Mentally, he’s so disciplined.”
Parks recalls even as a youth Gibson demonstrated the qualities he later displayed as a pro. “Bob was very dedicated and conscientious. As far as that drive, he always did have that,” he said. “I know his brother Josh worked him real hard too.”
Gibson credits his late brother Josh, who was 15 years his senior, with instilling in him an indomitable will to win and a strong work ethic. Josh, a beloved YMCA coach in North Omaha, was father figure to his younger brother (their father died months before Bob was born). Josh coached and Bob starred on the Y Monarchs, a youth baseball squad that traveled to all-white Iowa burgs for games. Gibson recalls how whenever Josh felt the team was getting homered, his big brother would “walk out to the middle of the field and challenge to fight everybody there. He was very competitive. And we’d all be sittin’ there thinkin’ we’re going to get killed…You see enough of that, and that gets in back of your mind. You think, ‘Is this the way it’s supposed to be? Maybe you’re supposed to fight like that.’ Well, I had no problem fighting.”
Gibson’s fought “the racist thing” during his remarkable life‘s journey -– from the projects’ poverty to college privilege to minor league limbo to major league stardom. He’s never backed down, never given up. His tenaciousness has seen him through tough times, like his divorce from Charline, and the loss of his mother Victoria, brother Josh and close friend and former Cardinal teammate Curt Flood. It’s helped him endure various slights, like being denied a promised Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship by former Cardinals’ owner, the late August Busch. Or waiting 20 years before being brought back as a coach. Or finding employment-investment opportunities closed to him in his hometown and then seeing various business interests go sour. His book’s dedication sums it up: “To my son… May your life be as rewarding as mine, and, I hope, a little easier.”
If Gibson is sometimes standoffish, Wead said, it’s understandable: “He’s been hurt so many times, man. We’ve had some real, almost teary moments together when he’s reflected on some of the stuff he wished could of happened in Omaha and St. Louis.”
Publicly, Gibson’s borne the snubs and disappointments with characteristic stoicism. Through it all, he’s remained faithful to his hometown. “He’s helped a lot of charitable causes very quietly and without a lot of fanfare,” said Myers. “He likes helping people. He’s certainly given back to Omaha over the years. He’s very sincere.”
Some question Omaha’s commitment to him. The city threw a parade and day in his honor years ago, but there’s no lasting monument. “Omaha has never recognized him the way it should,” said Wead. “For instance, there’s no question the North Expressway should be the Bob Gibson Expressway.“ Efforts by Wead and others to name a park, street or facility after him have come up empty. If it happened, Gibson would undoubtedly be annoyed by all the fuss, but probably secretly cherish the sentiment.
Until then, the June 14 golf classic is Omaha’s chance to embrace one of its best and brightest. To let him know he’s a stranger no more.
_ _ _
Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
UPDATE: It is with a heavy heart I report that the hoops legend subject of this story, Bob Boozer, passed away May 19. As fate had it, I had a recent encounter with Boozer that ended up informing a story I was working on about comedian Bill Cosby. Photographer Marlon Wright and I were in Cosby’s dressing room May 6 when Boozer appeared with a pie in hand for the comedian. As my story explains, the two went way back, as did the tradition of Boozer bringing his friend the pie. You can find that story on this blog and get a glimpse through it of the warm regard the two men had for each other. For younger readers who may not know the Boozer name, he was one of the best college players ever and a very good pro. He had the distinction of playing in the NCAA Tournament, being a gold medal Olympian, and winning an NBA title.
Unless you’re a real student of basketball history, chances are the name Bob Boozer doesn’t exactly resonate for you. But it should. The Omaha native is arguably the best basketball player to ever come out of Nebraska and when he decided to spurn the University of Nebraska for Kansas State, it was most definitely the Huskers’ loss and the Wildcats’ gain. At KSU Boozer became an All-American big man who put up the kind of sick numbers that should make him a household name today. But he starred in college more than 50 years ago, and while KSU was a national power neither the team nor Boozer ever captured the imagination of the country the way, say, Cincinnati and Oscar Robertson did in the same era. But hoop experts knew Boozer was a rare talent, and he proved it by making the U.S. Olympic team, the orignal Dream Team, that he helped capture gold in Rome. And in a solid, if not spectacular NBA career he made All-Pro and capped his time in the league as the 6th man for the Milwaukee Buck’s only title.
Boozer retired relatively young and unlike many athletes he prepared for life after sports by working off-seasons in the corporate world, where he landed back in his hometown after leaving the game. If you look at the body of his work in college, he should be a sure fire college basketball hall of fame inductee, but somehow he’s been kept out of that much deserved and long overdue honor. The fact that he helped the U.S. win Olympic gold and also earned an NBA title ring puts him in rare company and makes a pretty strong case for NBA Hall of Fame consideration. Some measure of validation happened this week when the 1960 Olympic team was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Boozer with the Los Angeles Lakers
Bob Boozer, Basketball Immortal (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Omahan Bob Boozer chartered a bus to Manhattan for a February 5 engagement with immortality. By the way, that’s Manhattan, Kansas, where 50 of his closest friends and family members joined him to see his jersey retired at half-time of the Kansas State men’s basketball game.
In case you didn’t know, Boozer is a Wildcat hoops legend. In the late-1950s, he was a dominant big man there. In each of his three years, he was first team all-conference. He was twice a concensus first-team All-American. And that doesn’t even speak to his elite-level AAU play, his winning an Olympic gold medal on the original “Dream Team” and his solid NBA career capped by a championship.
Unless you’re a serious student of the game or of a certain age, the name Bob Boozer may only be familiar as one adorning a road in his hometown. But, in his time, he was the real deal. He had some serious game. He overwhelmed opponents as an all-everything pivot man at Omaha Technical High from 1952-55, earned national accolades as a high-scoring, fierce-rebounding forward at K-State from 1955-59, led an AAU squad to a title, played on the legendary 1960 U.S. Olympic basketball squad and was a member of the 1971 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks. It’s a resume few can rival.
“There’s very few guys that really had it all every step of the way, like I did. All City. All State. All Conference. All-American. Olympic gold medal. NBA world championship. Those are levels everybody would like to aspire to but very few have the opportunity,” he said.
He is, arguably, the best player not in the college hoops hall of fame. He is, by the way, in the Olympic Hall of Fame. His collegiate credentials are unquestionable. Take this career line with the Wildcats: 22 points and 10 rebounds a game. And this came versus top-flight competition, including a giant named Wilt at arch-rival Kansas, when K-State contended for the national title every year. If anything, the Feb. 5 tribute is long overdue.
Of his alma mater feting him, he said, “It’s quite an honor to have your jersey retired. That means in the history of that school you have reached the pinnacle.”
The pinnacle is where Boozer dreamed of being. His Olympic experience fulfilled a dream from his days at the old North YMCA, mere blocks from his childhood home at 25th and Erskine. Then, he reached the pinnacle of his sport in the NBA. A starter most of his pro career, he was a productive journeyman who could be counted on for double figures in points and rebounds most nights. His career NBA averages are 14.8 points and 8.1 rebounds a game. The 6’8 Boozer played in the ‘68 NBA All-Star game, an honor he just missed other years. He led the Chicago Bulls in scoring over a three-year period. He was the Bucks’ valuable 6th man in their title run.
Still, he was more a role player than a leading man. His game, like his demeanor, was steady, not sensational. He was, in his own words, “a blue-collar worker.” He could shoot like few other men his size, utilizing deadly jumpers and hook shots.
“I was a good player. I would make you pay if you made a mistake. I could move out for the jump shot and the hook shot or make a quick move for a layup,” he said.
While he admires the athleticism of today’s players, he doesn’t think much of their basic skills.
“We could flat-out outshoot these kids today. We worked awfully hard at being able to shoot the jump shot. I used to always say that a 15- to 18-foot jump shot is just like a layup. That was my mind set — that if I got it clear, it was going down.”
He perfected his shot to such a degree that in practice he could find his favorite spots on the court and nail the ball through the hoop with his eyes closed.
“It’s just something that with thousands and thousands of repetitions gets to be automatic. And when I shot I always used to try to finger the ball for the seams and to swish it because if the ball left my hand with a backward rotation and went through the net, it would hit the floor and come right back to you. That way, when you’re shooting by yourself, you don’t have to run after the ball very much,” he said, chortling with his booming bass voice.
Unlike many players who hang around past their peak, once Boozer captured that coveted and elusive ring, he left the game.
“I had made up my mind that once I walked, I walked, and would never look back. Besides, your body tells you when it’s getting near the end. I started hating the training camps a little more. The last few years I knew it was coming to an end,” he said. “The championship season with the Bucks was the culmination of my career. It was great.”
Indeed, he left without seeking a coaching or front office position. The championship was made sweeter as he shared it with an old pal, Oscar Robertson. As players, they were rivals, teammates and friends. Both were college All-Americans for national championship contending teams. As a junior, Boozer and his KSU Wildcats eliminated “The Big O” and his Cincinnati Bearcats from the 1957-58 NCAA quarterfinals. The next year Robertson turned the tables on Boozer by knocking the No. 1-ranked ‘Cats out of the regionals.
The two were teammates on the 1960 US Olympic basketball team, considered by many the best amateur basketball talent ever assembled. Besides Boozer and Robertson, the team featured future NBA stars Jerry West, Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy. It destroyed all comers at the Rome games, winning by an average margin of 34-plus. Then Boozer and Robertson were reunited with the Cincinnati Royals. Cincy was the site of some fat times for Boozer, who was popular and productive there. It’s also where he met his wife, Ella. The couple has one grown child and one grandchild.
After a trade to the New York Knicks that he protested, Boozer bounced around the league. He played a few years with the expansion Chicago Bulls, where he enjoyed his biggest scoring seasons — averaging about 20 points a game. He led the Bulls to the playoffs in their inaugural season — the first and last time a first-year expansion team did that.
A card from his time with the Cincinnati Royals
He had one happy season with the Los Angeles Lakers, spelling the great Elgin Baylor, before he joined Robertson in Milwaukee. With the incomparable Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center, smooth Bob Dandridge at forward, playmaker Robertson at guard and the steady Boozer coming off the bench (he averaged 9 points and 5 boards), the Bucks, in only their second year, blew away opponents en route to a 66-16 regular season mark. They captured the franchise’s first and only championship by sweeping the Baltimore Bullets in four games.
By then, Boozer was 34 and a veteran of 11 NBA seasons with five different teams. He left the league and his then-lofty $100,000 salary to build a successful career off the court with the former Northwestern Bell-US West, now called Qwest.
Now retired from the communications giant, the 67-year-old Boozer enjoys a comfortable life with Ella in their spacious, richly adorned Pacific Heights home in Omaha, a showplace he refers to as “the fruits of my labor.” He moves stiffly from the wear and tear his body endured on the hardcourt those many years. His inflamed knee joints ache. But he recently found some relief after getting a painful hip replaced.
With his sports legacy secured and his private life well-ordered, his life appears to have been one cozy ride. Viewed more closely, his journey included some trying times, not least of which was to be denied the chance to buy a home in some of Omaha’s posher neighborhoods during the late 1960s. The racism he encountered made him angry for a long time, but in the end he made peace with his hometown.
Boozer grew up poor in north Omaha, the only son of transplanted Southerners. His father worked the production line and cleanup crew at Armour’s Packinghouse. His mother toiled as a maid at the old Hill Hotel downtown. Neither got past the 9th grade and these “God-fearing, very strict” folks made sure Bob and his older sister understood school was a priority.
“They knew racial prejudice and they said education was the way out. Their philosophy was, you kids will never have to work as hard as we did if you go get your education. We had to get good grades,” Boozer said. “My junior year in high school my mother and dad set my sister and I down and said, ‘We‚ve got enough money to send your sister to Omaha U. (UNO). You’re on your own, Bob.’ Well, it just so happened I started growing and I started hitting the basket and I figured I was probably going to get a basketball scholarship, and that came to fruition.”
No prodigy, Boozer made himself into a player. That meant long hours at the YMCA, on playgrounds and in school gyms. His development was aided by the stiff competition he found and the fine coaching he received. He came along at a time when north Omaha was a hotbed of physical talent, iron will and burning desire.
“That was a breeding ground,” he said. “All the inner city athletes were always playing ball. All day long. All night long. If you were anything in athletics, you played for the Y Travelers, a basketball team, or the Y Monarchs, a baseball team, under Josh Gibson (Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s older brother), who was a fine coach.”
Boozer, #20, in front row, in NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks team photo
Boozer said he spent so much time at the Y that its executive director, John Butler, “used to let me have the keys to the place. Butler provided the arena where I could work out and become an accomplished player and Josh Gibson provided the opportunity to play with older players.”
He said his dedication was such that while his buddies were out dating, “I was shooting hoops. It was a deep desire to excel. I always wanted to be a basketball player and I always wanted to be one of the best. I realized too at an early age athletics could provide me with an education.”
Athletics then, like now, were not merely a contest but a means of self-expression and self-advancement. Boozer was part of an elite lineage of black athletes who came out of north Omaha to make their mark. Growing up amid this athletic renaissance, he emulated the older athletes he saw in action, eventually placing himself under the tutelage of athletes like Bob Gibson — or “Gibby” as Boozer calls his lifelong friend, who is a year his senior. They were teammates one year each with the Y Travelers and at Tech.
“Some of the older athletes worked with me and showed me different techniques. In the inner city we basically marveled at each other’s abilities. There were a lot of great ballplayers. We rooted for each other. We encouraged each other. We were there for each other. It was like an inner city fraternity,” Boozer said. “I used to sit in the stands at Burdette Field and watch ‘Gibby’ pitch. As good a baseball player as he was, he was a finer basketball player. He could play. He could get up and hang.”
By the time Boozer played for Tech coach Neal Mosser, he was a 6’2” forward with plenty of promise but not yet an impact player. No one could foresee what happened next.
“Between my sophomore and junior years I grew six inches. With that extra six inches I couldn’t walk, chew gum and cross the street at the same time without tripping,” Boozer said. “That’s when I enlisted my friends, Lonnie McIntosh and John Nared, to help me. Lonnie, a teammate of mine at Tech, was a physical fitness buff, and John, who later played at Central, was probably one of the finest athletes to ever come out of Omaha.
“We’d go down to the Y every week. Lonnie would put me through agility drills on some days and then John and I would go one-on-one other days. John was only 6’3” but strong as a bull. I couldn’t take him in the post. I had to do everything from a guard-forward position. And, man, we used to have some battles.”
By his junior season Boozer was an imposing force — a big man with little-man skills. He could not only post-up down low to score, rebound and block shots, he could also shoot from outside, drive the lane and run the floor. With Boozer in the middle and a talented supporting cast around him, Tech was a powerhouse comprised mainly of black starters when that was rare. Then came the state tournament in Lincoln, and the bitterness of racism was brought home to Boozer and his mates.
“We had the state championship taken away from us in 1955. We played Scottsbluff. We figured we were the better team. I was playing center and I literally had guys hanging on me. The referees wouldn’t call a foul. I’d say, ‘Ref, why don‚t you call a foul?‚ and all I heard was, ‘Shut up and play ball,’ he said. “On one play, Lonnie McIntosh stole the ball and was dribbling down the sideline when one of their guys stuck his foot out and tripped him. There was Lonnie sprawled out on the floor and the referee called traveling and gave the ball to Scottsbluff. I will never forget that.
“We were outraged, but what could we do? If we had really got on the refs we’d have got a technical foul. So we had to suck it up and just play the best we could and hope we could beat ‘em by knocking in the most shots.”
Tech lost the game on the scoreboard but Boozer said players from that Scottsbluff team have since come up to him and admitted the injustice done that day. “It’s a little late,” he tells them. According to Boozer, Tech bore the brunt of discrimination in what should have been color-blind competition.
“Tech High always used to get the shaft, particularly in the state tournament.” He said Mosser, whom he regards as one of Nebraska’s finest coaches, helped him deal with “the sting of racism” by instilling a certain steeliness.
“Neal was a real disciplinarian. And he used to always tell us that life was not going to be easy. That you‚ve got to forge ahead.”
That credo was tested when Boozer became a hot recruit his senior year but was rejected by his top choice, the University of Iowa.
“Neal showed me a letter that Iowa coach Bucky O’Connor wrote telling him he had his quota of black players. “Neal said, ‘Bob, these are things you’re going to have to face and you’ve just got to persevere in spite of it.’ It hardens you. It makes you tougher.’”
Kansas was in the running until Wilt Chamberlain signed to play there. Boozer settled on Kansas State, where he made a name for himself and the Wildcats. Under coach Tex Winter, Boozer was the go-to-guy in the triangle post, an offense made famous years later by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
“A lot of plays flashed across the middle. We had a double screen where I’d start underneath and come back. The off forward and guard would come down and pinch and I’d brush my guy off into them and pop out for my jump shot.”
During his three-year varsity career, the Cats went 62-15 and won two Big Eight titles. Boozer was unstoppable. His 25.6 scoring average as a senior remains a single-season record. He ranks among KSU’s all-time leaders in points and boards.
In a famous 1958 duel for league, intrastate and national bragging rights, he led a 75-73 double overtime win over Wilt Chamberlain and KU in Manhattan. He outscored Wilt 32 to 25.
“Nobody could go one-on-one with Wilt. He was just too powerful. From his waist up he was almost like a weight lifter. You always had to be aware of where he was because he’d knock the ball in the 13th row. I had one move where I’d face him and fake him and he’d take a step back and I would do a crossover hook shot. He’d be up there with it and always miss it by about like that,” Boozer said, holding his index finger and thumb an inch apart. “I’d say, ‘In your face, big fella.’ And he’d say, ‘I’ll get you next time.’ Wilt and I always enjoyed each other.”
After his banner senior year the NBA came calling, with the Cincinnati Royals making Boozer the No. 1 overall draft pick, but Boozer had other ideas.
“I delayed going pro one year to keep my amateur standing and get a shot at the Olympic Trials.”
To stay sharp he played a year with the Peoria Cats of the now-defunct National Industrial Basketball League, an AAU-sanctioned developmental league not unlike today’s CBA or NBDL. Boozer worked at the Caterpillar Tractor Co. by day and played ball at night. He led his team to the NIBL title, which qualified the team and its players to showcase their talents at the Olympic Trials in Denver. Boozer and a teammate made the grade. The Rome Olympics are still among his personal highlights.
“I was a history buff and just the idea of being on the Appian Way, where the Caesars trod, and all the beauty of Rome — it was magnificent. And winning the gold medal for my country was very, very meaningful.”
Even after entering the NBA, Boozer honed his game in the off-season back home with John Nared in one-on-one duels at the Y. “If he could guard me, as small and quick as I was, he could guard anybody in the NBA,” Nared said.
Boozer in his corporate best
Boozer found pro ball no longer just a game but a business, too. He weathered unwanted trades and salary disputes. There were compensations, of course. He played the game he loved with the best players in the world. He made good money, if only a fraction of what today’s players make. And he made close friends. Some of his fondest memories are of he and Oscar Robertson winding down after games.
“We used to go out and get dinner, go back to our rooms, light up some cigars, pop open some beers and talk basketball until the wee hours of the morning.”
Boozer prepared for post-hoops life years before he retired by participating in a summer management training program with the phone company. By the time he quit playing ball, he had a job and career waiting.
“You see, I never forgot how my mom and dad stressed getting an education and looking after your family.”
In 1997, he retired after 27 years as a community affairs executive and federal lobbyist with the communications company. Restless in retirement, he accepted an appointment that year from then-Gov. Ben Nelson to the Nebraska Parole Board. Gov. Mike Johanns reappointed him to a new six-year term running through 2006. Boozer enjoys his work.
“It’s almost like being a counselor. I’ll pull an offender aside, especially a young male from the inner city, and have a common sense conversation with him, and most times he’ll listen. I think my athletic name helps me because most young males identify with an athlete.”
Boozer’s not just any ex-athlete. He’s an immortal.
Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
GALE SAYERS AND ROGER SAYERS
Whether you’re visiting this blog for the first time or you’re returning for a repeat visit, then you should know that among the vast array of articles featured on this site is a series I penned for The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 20045-2005 that explored Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. We called the 15-part, 45,000 word series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. The following story is one installment from that series. It features a pair of brothers, Gale Sayers and Roger Sayers, whose athletic brilliance made each of them famous in their own right, although the fame of Gale far outstripped that of Roger. Gale, of course, became a big-time football star at Kansas before achieving superstardom with the NFL‘s Chicago Bears. An unlikely set of circumstances saw his playing career end prematurely yet make him an even larger-than-life figure. A made-for-TV movie titled Brian’s Song (since remade) that detailed his friendship with cancer stricken teammate Brian Piccolo, cemented his immortal status, as did being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame at age 29. Roger’s feats in both football and track were impressive but little seen owing to the fact he competed for a small college (the then-University of Omaha) and never made it to the NFL or Olympics, where many thought he would have excelled, the one knock against him being his diminutive size.
The Sayers brothers are among a distinguished gallery of black sports legends that have come out of Omaha. Others include Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, and Johnny Rodgers. You will find all their stories on this site, along with the stories of other athletic greats whose names may not be familiar to you, but whose accomplishments speak for themselves.
The Brothers Sayers: Big Legend Gale Sayers and Little Legend Roger Sayers
©by Leo Adam Biga
This is the story of two athletically-gifted brothers named Sayers. The younger of the pair, Gale, became a sports figure for the ages with his zig-zagging runs to daylight on a football field. His name is synonymous with the Chicago Bears. His oft-played highlight-reel runs through enemy lines form the picture of quicksilver grace. His well-documented friendship with the late Brian Piccolo endear him to new generations of fans.
The elder brother, Roger, forged a distinguished athletic career of his own, one of blazing speed on cinder and grass, but one overshadowed by Gale’s success.
From their early impoverished youth on Omaha’s near north side in the 1950s the Brothers Sayers dominated whatever field of athletic competition they entered, shining most brightly on the track and gridiron. As teammates they ran wild for Roberts Dairy’s midget football squad and anchored Central High School’s powerful football-track teams. Back then, Roger, the oldest by a year, led the way and Gale followed. For a long time, little separated the pair, as the brothers took turns grabbing headlines. Each was small and could run like the wind, just like their ex-track man father. But, make no mistake about it, Roger was always the fastest.
Each played halfback, sharing time in the same Central backfield one season. Heading into Gale’s sophomore year nature took over and gave Gale an edge Roger could never match, as the younger brother grew a few inches and packed-on 50 pounds of muscle. He kept growing, too. Soon, Gale was a strapping 6’0, 200-pound prototype halfback with major-college-material written all over him. Roger remained a diminutive 5’9, 150-pound speedster whose own once hotly sought-after status dimmed when, bowing to his parents’ wishes, he skipped his senior year of football rather than risk injury. Ironically, he tore a tendon running track the next spring. His major college prospects gone, he settled for then Omaha University.
Roger went on to a storied career at UNO, where he developed into one of America’s top sprinters and one of the school’s all-time football greats. He won the 100-meters at the 1964 Drake Relays. He captured both the 100-yard and 100-meter dashes at the 1963 Texas Relays. He took the 100 and 200 at the 1963 national NAIA meet. He ran well against Polish and Soviet national teams in AAU meets. The Olympic hopeful even beat the legendary American sprinter Bob Hayes in a race, but it was Hayes, known as “The Human Bullet,” who ended up with Olympic and NFL glory, not Sayers.
As an undersized but explosive cog in UNO’s full backfield, Sayers, dubbed “The Rocket,” averaged nearly eight yards per carry and 19 yards per reception over his four-year career. But it was as a return specialist he really stood out. Using his straight-away burst, he took back to the house three punts and five kickoffs for touchdowns. He holds several school records, including highest rushing average for a season (10.2) and career (7.8) and highest punt return average for a season (29.5) and career (20.6). His 99-yard TD catch in a 1963 game versus Drake is the longest scoring play from scrimmage in UNO history.
Roger Sayers running track for then-Omaha University
In football, size matters. For most of his playing career, however, Roger said his acute lack of size “never was a factor. I didn’t pay much attention to it. I didn’t lack any confidence when I got on the field. I always thought I could do well.”
Even with his impressive track credentials, Sayers, coming off an injury, was unable to find a sponsor for a 1964 Olympic bid. Even though his small stature never held him back in high school or college, it posed a huge obstacle in pro football, which after graduation he did not pursue right away because the studious and ambitious Sayers already had opportunities lined-up outside athletics. Still, in 1966, he gave the NFL a try when, after prodding from “the guys” at the Spencer Street Barbershop and a little help from Gale, he signed a free agent contract with his brother’s team, the Chicago Bears. Roger lasted the entire training camp and exhibition season with the club before bowing to reality and taking an office job.
“That’s when I realized I was too small,” Roger said of his NFL try.
Gale, the family superstar, is inducted in the college and pro football Halls of Fame but his glory came outside Nebraska, where he felt unappreciated. Racism likely prevented him being named Nebraska High School Athlete of the Year after a senior year of jaw-dropping performances. In leading Central to a share of the state football title, he set the Class A single season scoring record and made prep All-American. In pacing Central to the track and field title, he won three gold medals at the state meet, shattering the Nebraska long jump record with a leap of 24 feet, 10 inches, a mark that still stands today. He got revenge in the annual Shrine all-star game, scoring four touchdowns en route to being named outstanding player.
Recruited by Nebraska, then coached by Bill Jennings, Sayers considered the Huskers but felt uncomfortable at the school, which had ridiculously few black students then — in or out of athletics. Spurning the then-moribound NU football program for the University of Kansas, he heard people say he’d never be able to cut it in school. Sayers admits academics were not his strong suit in high school, not for lack of intelligence, but for lack of applying himself.
It took his father, a-$55-a-week car polisher, who’d walked away from his own chance at college, to set him straight. “People said I would fail. They called me dumb. But my dad said to me one time, ‘Gale, you are good enough,’ and just those words gave me the incentive that somebody believed in me. That’s all I needed. And I proved that I could do it.”
Sayers was also motivated by his brother, Roger, the bookish one who preceded him to college. Each went on to get two degrees at their respective schools.
On the field, Gale showed the Huskers what they missed by earning All-Big 8 and All-America honors as a Jayhawk and, in a 1963 game at Memorial Stadium the “Kansas Comet” lived up to his nickname by breaking-off a 99 yard TD run that still stands as the longest scoring play by an NU opponent. He was also a hurdler and long-jumper for the elite KU track program.
Upon entering the NFL with the Bears in 1965, Sayers made the most dramatic debut in league history, setting season records for total offense, 2,272, and touchdowns, 22, and a single game scoring record with 6 TDs. Named Rookie of the Year and All-Pro, he continued his brilliant play the next four seasons before the second of two serious knee injuries cut short his career in 1970. A mark of the impact he made is that despite playing only five full seasons, he’s routinely listed among the best running backs to ever play in the NFL.
Gale Sayers with the Bears
His immortality was ensured by two things: in 1970, the story of his friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo, who died tragically of cancer, was dramatically told in a TV movie-of-the-week, Brian’s Song, (recently remade); and, in 1977, he was inducted into the pro football Hall of Fame at age 29, making him the youngest enshrine of that elite fraternity.
A quadruple threat as a rusher, receiver out of the backfield, kickoff return man and punt returner, Sayers’ unprecedented cuts saw him change directions — with the high-striding, gliding moves of a hurdler — in the blink of an eye while somehow retaining full-speed. In a blurring instant, he’d be in mid-air as he head-faked one way and swiveled his hips the other way before landing again to pivot his feet to race off against the grain. In the introduction to Gale’s autobiography, I Am Third, comic Bill Cosby may have come closest to describing the effect one of Sayers’ dramatic cuts left on him while observing from the sidelines and on the hapless defenders trying to corral him.
“I was standing there and Gale was coming around this left end. And there are about five or six defensive men ready, waiting for him…And I saw Gale Sayers split. I mean, like a paramecium. He just split in two. He threw the right side of his body on one side and the left side of his body kept going down the left side. And the defensive men didn’t know who to catch.”
The way Gale tells it, his talent for cutting resulted from his “peripheral vision,” a gift he had from the get-go. “When I was running I could see the whole field. I knew how fast the other person was running and the angle he was taking, and I knew all I had to do was make a certain move and I’m past him. I knew it — I didn’t have to think about it. I could see where people were and that gave me the ability to make up my mind what I would do before I got to a person,” he said. He reacted, on the fly, in tenths or hundreds of a second, to what he saw. “
All the so-called great moves in football are instinct,” he said. “It’s not planned. I don’t go down the football field saying, ‘Oh, this fella’s to my right, I better cut left,’ or whatever. You don’t plan it. You’re running with the football and you just do what comes natural…There were so many times in high school, college and pro ball when I was going around left end or right end and there was nothing there, and then I went the other way. You can’t teach that. That’s instinctive.”
He said his greatest asset was not speed, but quickness — combined with that innate ability to improvise on the run. “Every running back has speed, but a lot of running backs don’t have the quickness to hit a hole or to change directions, and I always could do that. A lot of times a hole is clogged and then you’ve got to do something else — either change directions or hit another hole or bounce it to the outside and go someplace else.”
Lightning fast moves may have sprung from an unlikely source — flag football, something Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers also credits with helping develop his dipsy-doodle elusiveness.
“The flags were pretty easy to grab and pull out,” Sayers said, “and so, yes, you had to develop some moves to keep people away from the flags.” The Sayers boys got their first exposure to organized competition playing in the Howard Kennedy Grade School flag football program coached by Bob Rose. An old-school disciplinarian who mentored many of north Omaha’s greatest athletes when they were youths, Rose embodied respect.
“He was a tough coach. I think he had a little attitude that said, in being black, you’ve got to be twice as good, and I think he tried to instill that in us at an early age. He’d say things like, ‘You have to be faster, you have to be tougher, you’ve got to hit harder.’ We all developed that attitude that, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do better because we’re black.’ And I think that stuck with me,” Gale said.
According to Roger, coaches like Rose and the late Josh Gibson (Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s oldest brother), whom the brothers came in contact with playing summer softball, “made it possible for people to succeed. They were good coaches because they taught you the fundamentals, they taught you to be respectful of people and they taught you the ethics of the game. These were folks that…made sure you played in an organized, structured event, so you could get the most out of it. They also had an uncanny ability to identify athletes and to motivate athletes to want to play and to achieve. They were part of an environment we had growing up where we had strong support systems around us.”
From the mid-1950s through the late 1960s Omaha’s inner city produced a remarkable group of athletes who achieved greatness in a variety of sports. Many observers have speculated on the whys and hows of that phenomenal run of athletic brilliance. The consensus seems to be that athletes from the past didn’t have to contend with a lot of the pressures and distractions kids face today, thus allowing a greater concentration on and passion for sports.
“Growing up, we didn’t have access to cars or play stations or arcade games,” Roger said. “We didn’t have to deal with the intense peer pressure kids are influenced by today. Because we didn’t have these things, we were able to focus in on our sports.”
For black youths like the Sayers and their buddies, options were even more confining in the ‘50s, when racial minorities were denied access to recreational venues such as the Peony Park pool and were discouraged from so-called country-club activities such as golf, which left more time and energy to devote to traditional inner city sports. “
Every day after school we were in Kountze park or some place playing a sport — football, basketball, baseball, whatever it may be. There wasn’t a whole lot else we could do,” Gale said. “So, we were in the park playing sports. Our mamas and daddies had to call us to come eat dinner because we were out there playing.”
Gale said that as youths he and his friends had such a hunger for football that after completing flag football practice, they would then go to the park to knock heads “with the big kids” from local high schools in pick-up games. “It’s a wonder no one ever got seriously injured because we had no pads, no nothing, and we played tackle. It really made us tougher.”
Dennis Fountain, a friend and fellow athlete from The Hood, said the Sayers would often compete for opposing sides in those informal games. “You wouldn’t think those two guys were brothers,” he said. “They would mix it up good.”
Speaking of tough, the brothers tussled in a pair of now mythic neighborhood football games held around the holidays. There was the Turkey Bowl played on Thanksgiving and the Cold Bowl played on Christmas. “We had some knock-down, drag-out athletic contests out there,” said Gale, referring to the annual games that drew athletes of all ages from Omaha’s north and south inner city projects. “We were a little young, but the fellas’ saw the talent we had and let us play.”
Then, there was the rich proving ground he and Roger found themselves competing in — playing with or against such fine athletes as the Nared brothers (Rich and John), Vernon Breakfield, Charlie Gunn, Bruce Hunter, Ron Boone. “No doubt about it, we fed off one another. We saw other people doing well and we wanted to do just as well,” Gale said. As the Sayers began asserting themselves, they pushed each other to excel.
“When he achieved something, I wanted to achieve something, and vice versa,” Roger said. “I mean, you never wanted to be upstaged or outdone, but by the same token we were always proud and overjoyed by each other’s success. We were as competitive as brothers are.”
Roger and Gale had so much ability that the exploits of their baby brother, Ron, are obscured despite the fact he, too, possessed talent, enough in fact for the UNO grad to be a number two draft pick by the San Diego Chargers in 1968.
Each also knew his limitations in comparison with the other. Roger played some mean halfback himself, but he knew on a football field he was only a shadow of Gale, whom nature blessed with size, speed, vision and instinct. Where Gale was a fine hurdler, relay man and long-jumper, he knew he could not beat Roger in a sprint. “I wasn’t going to get into the 100 or 220-yard dash and run against him because he was much, much faster than I was,” Gale said. “He was great in track.”
As much as he downplays his own track ability, Gale held his own in one of the strongest collegiate track programs at Kansas. It was under KU track and field coach Bill Easton he discovered a work ethic and a mantra that have guided his life ever since.
“I thought I worked hard getting ready for football,” he said, “but when I joined his track team I couldn’t believe the amount of work he put me through and I couldn’t believe I could do it. But within months I could do everything he asked me to, and I was in excellent shape. He told me, ‘Gale, you cannot work hard enough in any sport, especially in track.’ The things I did for him on the track team carried on through my pro career in football.
“Every training camp I came in shape, and I mean I came in shape. I was ready to play and put the pads on the first day of camp, where many guys would go to camp to get in shape.”
On the eve of his pro career, Sayers was entertaining some doubts about how he would do when Easton reminded him what made him special. “You go for broke every time you go.” Sayers said it’s a lesson he’s always tried to follow.
A saying printed on a card atop the desk in Easton’s office intrigued Sayers. The enigmatic words said, I Am Third. When he asked his coach their meaning, he was told they came from a kind of proverb that goes, The Lord is First, My Friends are Second, I Am Third. The athlete was so taken with its meaning he went out and had it inscribed on a medallion he wore for years afterwards. His wife Linda now has it.
The saying became the title of his 1970 autobiography. The philosophy bound up in it helped him cope with the abrupt end of his playing days. “All the talent I had, the Lord gave me. And it was the Lord that decided to take it away from me,” Gale said. “That probably helped me accept the fact that, hey, I couldn’t do it anymore. I had a very short career, but a very good career. I was satisfied with that.”
Life after athletic competition has been relatively smooth for Gale and his brother. Roger embarked on a long executive corporate career, interrupted only by a stint as the City of Omaha’s Human Relations Director under Mayor Gene Leahy. He retired from Union Pacific a few years ago. Today, he’s a trustee with Salem Baptist Church. Gale served as athletic director at Southern Illinois University before starting his own sports marketing and public relations firm, Sayers and Sayers Enterprises. Next, he launched Sayers Computer Source, a provider of computer products and technology solutions to commercial customers. Today, SCS has brnaches nationwide and revenues in excess of $150 million. Besides running his companies, Sayers is in high demand as a motivational speaker.
Both men have tried distancing themselves from being defined by their athletic prowess alone.
“I want people to view me as an individual that brings something to the table other than the fact I could run track and play football. That stuff is behind me. There are other things I can do,” said Roger. For Gale, it was a matter of being ready to move on. “I’ve always said, As you prepare to play, you must prepare to quit, and I prepared to quit. I didn’t have to look back and say, What am I going to do now? I did other things.”
Getting on with their lives has been a constant with the brothers since growing up with feuding, alcoholic parents, sparse belongings and little money in “The Toe,” as Gale said residents referred to the north Omaha ghetto. His family moved to Omaha from bigoted small towns in Kansas, where the Sayers lived until Gale was 8, but instead of the fat times they envisioned here they only found despair.
Finding a way out of that cycle became an overriding goal for Gale and his brothers.
“Yes, we had tough times, but everybody in the black neighborhood had a tough time. Our dad always said, ‘Gale, Roger, Ronnie…sorry it didn’t work out for your mother and I, but you need to get your education and make something better for yourselves.’” The fact he and Roger went on to great heights taught Gale that “if you want to make it bad enough, no matter how bad it is, you can make it.”
_ _ _
Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
I never saw Marlin Briscoe play college football, but as I came of age people who had see The Magician perform regaled me with stories of his improvisational playmaking skills on the gridiron, and so whenever I heard or read the name, I tried imagining what his elusive, dramatic, highlight reel runs or passes looked like. Mention Briscoe’s name to knowledgable sports fans and they immediately think of a couple things: that he was the first black starting quarterback in theNational Football League; and that he won two Super Bowl rings as a wide receiver with the Miami Dolphins. But as obvious as it seems, I believe that both during his career and after most folks don’t appreciate (1) how historic the first accomplishment was and (2) don’t recognize how amazing it was for him to go from being a very good quarterback in the league, in the one year he was allowed to play the position, to being an All-Pro wideout for Buffalo. Miami thought enough of him to trade for him and thereby provide a complement to and take some heat off of legend Paul Warfield.
The following story I did on Briscoe appeared not long after his autobiography came out. I made arrangements to inteview him in our shared hometown of Omaha, and he was every bit as honest in person as he was in the pages of his book, which chronicles his rise to stardom, the terrible fall he took, and coming back from oblivion to redeem himself. The story appeared in a series I did on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, for The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 2004-2005. Since then, there’s been a campaign to have the NFL’s veterans committee vote Briscoe into the Hall of Fame and there are plans for a feature film telling his life story.
Prodigal Son, Marlin Briscoe Takes the Long Road Home
©by Leo Adam Biga
Imagine this is your life: Your name is Marlin Briscoe. A stellar football-basketball player at Omaha South High School in the early 1960s, you are snubbed by the University of Nebraska but prove the Huskers wrong when you become a sensation as quarterback for then Omaha University, where from 1963 to 1967, you set more than 20 school records for single game, season and career offensive production.
Because you are black the NFL does not deem you capable of playing quarterback and, instead, you’re a late round draft choice, of the old AFL, at defensive back. Injured to start your 1968 rookie season, the offense sputters until, out of desperation, the coach gives you a chance at quarterback. After sparking the offense as a reserve, you hold down the game’s glamour job the rest of the season, thus making history as the league’s first black starting quarterback. When racism prevents you from getting another shot as a signal caller, you’re traded and excel at wide receiver. After another trade, you reach the height of success as a member of a two-time Super Bowl-winning team. You earn the respect of teammates as a selfless clutch performer, players’ rights advocate and solid citizen.
Then, after retiring from the game, you drift into a fast life fueled by drugs. In 12 years of oblivion you lose everything, even your Super Bowl rings. Just as all seems lost, you climb out of the abyss and resurrect your old self. As part of your recovery you write a brutally honest book about a life of achievement nearly undone by the addiction you finally beat.
You are Marlin Oliver Briscoe, hometown Omaha hero, prodigal son and the man now widely recognized as the trailblazer who laid the path for the eventual black quarterback stampede in the NFL. Now, 14 years removed from hitting rock bottom, you return home to bask in the glow of family and friends who knew you as a fleet athlete on the south side and, later, as “Marlin the Magician” at UNO, where some of the records you set still stand.
Now residing in the Belmont Heights section of Long Beach, Calif. with your partner, Karen, and working as an executive with the Roy W. Roberts Watts/Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club in Los Angeles, your Omaha visits these days for UNO alumni functions, state athletic events and book signings contrast sharply with the times you turned-up here a strung-out junkie. Today, you are once again the strong, smart, proud warrior of your youth.
Looking back on what he calls his “lost years,” Briscoe, age 59, can hardly believe “the severe downward spiral” his life took. “Anybody that knows me, especially myself, would never think I would succumb to drug addiction,” he said during one of his swings through town. “
All my life I had been making adjustments and overcoming obstacles and drugs took away all my strength and resolve. When I think about it and all the time I lost with my family and friends, it’s a nightmare. I wake up in a cold sweat sometimes thinking about those dark years…not only what I put myself through but a lot of people who loved me. It’s horrifying.
“Now that my life is full of joy and happiness, it just seems like an aberration. Like it never happened. And it could never ever happen again. I mean, somebody would have to kill me to get me to do drugs. I’m a dead man walking anyway if I ever did. But it’s not even a consideration. And that’s why it makes me so furious with myself to think why I did it in the first place. Why couldn’t I have been like I am now?”
Or, like he was back in the day, when this straight arrow learned bedrock values from his single mother, Geneva Moore, a packing house laborer, and from his older cousin Bob Rose, a youth coach who schooled him and other future greats in the parks and playing fields of schools and recreation centers in north and south Omaha.
For Briscoe, the pain of those years when, as he says, “I lost myself,” is magnified by how he feels he let down the rich, proud athletic legacy he is part of in Omaha. It is a special brotherhood. One in which he and his fellow members share not only the same hometown, but a common cultural heritage in their African–American roots, a comparable experience in facing racial inequality and a similar track record of achieving enduring athletic greatness.
Briscoe came up at a time when the local black community produced, in a golden 25-year period from roughly 1950 to 1975, an amazing gallery of athletes that distinguished themselves in a variety of sports. He idolized the legends that came before him like Bob Boozer, a rare member of both Olympic Gold Medal (at the 1960 Rome Games) and NBA championship (with the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks) teams, and MLB Hall of Famer and Cy Young Award winner Bob Gibson. He honed his skills alongside greats Roger Sayers, one of the world’s fastest humans in the early 1960s, NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers and pro basketball “Iron Man” Ron Boone. He inspired legends that came after him like Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers.
Each legend’s individual story is compelling. There are the taciturn heroics and outspoken diatribes of Gibson. There are the knee injuries that denied Gale Sayers his full potential by cutting short his brilliant playing career and the movies that dramatically portrayed his bond with doomed roommateBrian Piccolo. There are the ups and downs of Rodgers’ checkered life and career. But Briscoe’s own personal odyssey may be the most dramatic of all.
Born in Oakland, Calif. in 1945, Briscoe and his sister Beverly were raised by their mother after their parents split up. When he was 3, his mother moved the family to Omaha, where relatives worked in the packing houses that soon employed her as well. After a year living on the north side, the family moved to the south Omaha projects. Between Kountze Park in North O and the Woodson Center in South O, Briscoe came of age as a young man and athlete. In an era when options for blacks were few, young men like Briscoe knew that athletic prowess was both a proving ground and a way out of the ghetto, all the motivation he needed to work hard.
“Back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s we had nothing else to really look forward to except to excel as black athletes,” Briscoe said. “Sports was a rite-of-passage to respect and manhood and, hopefully, a way to bypass the packing houses and better ourselves and go to college. When Boozer (Bob) went to Kansas State and Gibson (Bob) went to Creighton, that next generation — my generation — started thinking, If I can get good enough in sports, I can get a scholarship to college so I can take care of my mom. That’s how all of us thought.”
Like many of his friends, Briscoe grew up without a father, which combined with his mother working full-time meant ample opportunity to find mischief. Except that in an era when a community really did raise a child, Briscoe fell under the stern but caring guidance of the men and women, including Alice Wilson and Bob Rose, that ran the rec centers and school programs catering to largely poor kids. By the time Briscoe entered South High, he was a promising football-basketball player.
On the gridiron, he’d established himself as a quarterback in youth leagues, but once at South shared time at QB his first couple years and was switched to halfback as a senior, making all-city. More than just a jock, Briscoe was elected student council president.
Scholarship offers were few in coming for the relatively small — 5’10, 170-pound — Briscoe upon graduating in 1962. The reality is that in the early ‘60s major colleges still used quotas in recruiting black student-athletes and Briscoe upset the balance when he had the temerity to want to play quarterback, a position that up until the 1980s was widely considered too advanced for blacks.
But UNO Head Football Coach Al Caniglia, one of the winningest coaches in school history, had no reservations taking him as a QB. Seeing limited duty as a freshman backup to incumbent Carl Meyers, Briscoe improved his numbers each year as a starter. After a feeling-out process as a sophomore, when he went 73 of 143 for 939 yards in the air and rushed for another 370 yards on the ground, his junior year he completed 116 of 206 passes for 1,668 yards and ran 120 times for 513 yards to set a school total offense record of 2,181 yards in leading UNO to a 6-5 mark.
What was to originally have been his senior year, 1966, got waylaid, as did nearly his entire future athletic career, when in an indoor summer pickup hoops game he got undercut and took a hard, headfirst spill to the floor. Numb for a few minutes, he regained feeling and was checked out at a local hospital, which gave him a clean bill of health.
Even with a lingering stiff neck, he started the ‘66 season where he left off, posting a huge game in the opener, before feeling a pop in his throbbing neck that sent him “wobbling” to the sidelines. A post-game x-ray revealed a fractured vertebra, perhaps the result of his preseason injury, meaning he’d risked permanent paralysis with every hit he absorbed. Given no hope of playing again, he sat out the rest of the year and threw himself into academics and school politics. After receiving his military draft notice, he anxiously awaited word of a medical deferment, which he got. Without him at the helm, UNO crashed to a 1-9 mark.
Then, a curious thing happened. On a follow-up medical visit, he was told his broken vertebra was recalcifying enough to allow him to play again. He resumed practicing in the spring of ‘67 and by that fall was playing without any ill effects. Indeed, he went on to have a spectacular final season, attracting national attention with his dominating play in a 7-3 campaign, compiling season marks with his 25 TD throws and 2,639 yards of total offense, including a dazzling 401-yard performance versus tough North Dakota State at Rosenblatt Stadium.
Projected by pro scouts at cornerback, a position he played sparingly in college, Briscoe still wanted a go at QB, so, on the advice of Al Caniglia he negotiated with the Denver Broncos, who selected him in the 14th round, to give him a look there, knowing the club held a three-day trial open to the public and media.
“I had a lot of confidence in my ability,” Briscoe said, “and I felt given that three-days at least I would have a showcase to show what I could do. I wanted that forum. When I got it, that set the tone for history to be made.”
At the trial Briscoe turned heads with the strength and accuracy of his throws but once fall camp began found himself banished to the defensive backfield, his QB dreams seemingly dashed. He earned a starting cornerback spot but injured a hamstring before the ‘68 season opener.
After an 0-2 start in which the Denver offense struggled mightily out of the gate, as one QB after another either got hurt or fell flat on his face, Head Coach Lou Saban finally called on Briscoe in the wake of fans and reporters lobbying for the summer trial standout to get a chance. Briscoe ran with the chance, too, despite the fact Saban, whose later actions confirmed he didn’t trust a black QB, only gave him a limited playbook to run. In 11 games, the last 7 as starter, Briscoe completed 93 of 224 passes for 1,589 yards with 14 TDs and 13 INTs and he ran 41 times for 308 yards and 3 TDs in helping Denver to a 5-6 record in his 11 appearances, 5-2 as a starter.
Briscoe proved an effective improviser, using his athleticism to avoid the rush, buy time and either find the open receiver or move the chains via scrambling. “Sure, my percentage was low, because initially they didn’t give me many plays, and so I was out there played street ball…like I was down at Kountze Park again…until I learned the cerebral part of the game and then I was able to improve my so-called efficiency,” is how Briscoe describes his progression as an NFL signal caller.
By being branded “a running” — read: undisciplined — quarterback in an era of strictly drop back pocket passers, with the exception of Fran Tarkenton, who was white, Briscoe said blacks aspiring to play the position faced “a stigma” it took decades to overcome.
Ironically, he said, “I never, ever considered myself a black quarterback. I was just a quarterback. It’s like I never thought about size either. When I went out there on the football field, hey, I was a player.”
All these years later, he still bristles at the once widely-held notions blacks didn’t possess the mechanics to throw at the pro level or the smarts to grasp the subtleties of the game or the leadership skills to command whites. “How do you run in 14 touchdown passes? I could run, sure. I could buy more time, yeah. But if you look at most of my touchdown passes, they were drop back passes. I led the team to five wins in seven starts. We played an exciting brand of football. Attendance boomed. If I left any legacy, it’s that I proved the naysayers wrong about a black man manning that position…even if I never played (QB) again.”
Despite his solid performance — he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting — he was not invited to QB meetings Saban held in Denver the next summer and was traded only weeks before the ‘69 regular season to the Buffalo Bills, who wanted him as a wide receiver.
His reaction to having the quarterback door slammed in his face? “I realized that’s the way it was. It was reality. So, it wasn’t surprising. Disappointing? Yes. All I wanted and deserved was to compete for the job. Was I bitter? No. If I was bitter I would have quit and that would have been the end of it. As a matter of fact, it spurred me to prove them wrong. I knew I belonged in the NFL. I just had to make the adjustment, just like I’ve been doing all my life.”
The adversity Briscoe has faced in and out of football is something he uses as life lessons with the at-risk youth he counsels in his Boys and Girls Club role. “I try to tell them that sometimes life’s not fair and you have to deal with it. That if you carry a bitter pill it’s going to work against you. That you just have to roll up your sleeves and figure out a way to get it done.”
While Briscoe never lined up behind center again, soon after he left Denver other black QBs followed — Joe Gilliam, Vince Evans, Doug Williams and, as a teammate in Buffalo, James Harris, whom he tutored. All the new faces confronted the same pressures and frustrations Briscoe did earlier. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when Williams won a Super Bowl with the Redskins and Warren Moon put up prolific numbers with the Houston Oilers, that the black QB stigma died.
Briscoe was not entirely aware of the deep imprint he made until attending a 2001 ceremony in Nashville remembering the late Gilliam. “All the black quarterbacks, both past and present, were there,” said Briscoe, naming everyone from Aaron Brooks (New Orleans Saints) to Dante Culpepper (Minnesota Vikings) to Michael Vick (Atlanta Falcons).
“The young kids came up to me and embraced me and told me, ‘Thank you for setting the tone.’ Now, there’s like 20 black quarterbacks on NFL rosters, and for them to give me kudos for paving the way and going through what I went through hit me. That was probably the first time I realized it was a history-making event. The young kids today know about the problems we faced and absorbed in order for them to get a fair shot and be in the position they are.”
Making the Buffalo roster at a spot he’d never played before proved one of Briscoe’s greatest athletic challenges and accomplishments. He not only became a starter but soon mastered the new position, earning 1970 All-Pro honors in only his second year, catching 57 passes for 1,036 yards and 8 TDs. Then, in an example of bittersweet irony, Saban was named head coach of the moribund Bills in 1972 and promptly traded Briscoe to the powerful Miami Dolphins. The move, unpopular with Bills’ fans, once again allowed Briscoe to intersect with history as he became an integral member of the Dolphins’ perfect 17-0 1972 Super Bowl championship team and the 1973 team that repeated as champs.
Following an injury-plagued ‘74 season, Briscoe became a vagabond — traded four times in the space of one year — something he attributes to his involvement in the 1971 lawsuit he and five other players filed against then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, an autocrat protecting owners’ interests, in seeking the kind of free agency and fair market value that defines the game today. Briscoe and his co-complainants won the suit against the so-called Rozelle Rule but within a few years they were all out of the game, labeled troublemakers and malcontents.
His post-football life began promisingly enough. A single broker, he lived the L.A. high life. Slipping into a kind of malaise, he hung with “an unsavory crowd” — partying and doing drugs. His gradual descent into addiction made him a transient, frequenting crack houses in L.A.’s notorious Ho-Stroll district and holding down jobs only long enough to feed his habit. The once strapping man withered away to 135 pounds. His first marriage ended, leaving him estranged from his kids. Ex-teammates like James Harris and Paul Warfield, tried helping, but he was unreachable.
“I strayed away from the person I was and the people that were truly my friends. When I came back here I was trying to run away from my problems,” he said, referring to the mid-’80s, when he lived in Omaha, “and it got worse…and in front of my friends and family. At least back in L.A. I could hide. I saw the pity they had in their eyes but I had no pride left.”
Perhaps his lowest point came when a local bank foreclosed on his Super Bowl rings after he defaulted on a loan, leading the bank to sell them over e-bay. He’s been unable to recover them.
He feels his supreme confidence bordering on arrogance contributed to his addiction. “I never thought drugs could get me,” he said. “I didn’t realize how diabolical and treacherous drug use is. In the end, I overcame it just like I overcame everything else. It took 12 years…but there’s some people that never do.” In the end, he said, he licked drugs after serving a jail term for illegal drug possession and drawing on that iron will of his to overcome and to start anew. He’s made amends with his ex-wife and with his now adult children.
Clean and sober since 1991, Briscoe now shares his odyssey with others as both a cautionary and inspirational tale. Chronicling his story in his book, The First Black Quarterback, was “therapeutic.” An ESPN documentary retraced the dead end streets his addict’s existence led him to, ending with a blow-up of his fingers, bare any rings. Briscoe, who dislikes his life being characterized by an addiction he’s long put behind him, has, after years of trying, gotten clearance from the Dolphins to get duplicate Super Bowl rings made to replace the ones he squandered.
For him, the greatest satisfaction in reclaiming his life comes from seeing how glad friends and family are that the old Marlin is back. “Now, they don’t even have to ask me, ‘Are you OK?’ They know that part of my life is history. They trust me again. That’s the best word I can use to define where I am with my life now. Trust. People trust me and I trust myself.”
MORE GRIDIRON GREATS STORIES FROM MY ARCHIVES
Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
A decade ago I wrote a year-long series for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. This story on former Husker great and then-still active Green Bay Packers star running back Ahman Green, who starred at Omaha North and Omaha Central, was not officially part of the series but since it ran in close proximity to it most readers probably assumed it was. In any event, Green certainly qualifies as a legend. The now retired football star is arguably the most accomplished offensive skill player from Nebraska to play at the sport’s highest level. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers may have been a more gifted athlete but his pro dominance occurred in the Canadian Football League, not the NFL, where his playing time was cut to almost nothing due to serious injuries. Green enjoyed a near Hall of Fame-worthy NFL career. He probably needed another healthy year or two, to go over 10,000 yards rushing, in order to secure a spot and he fell somewhat short. But in his prime he was right there with the best backs in the league. You can read several of my Omaha Black Sports Legends articles, which appeared under the heading Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, on this blog, including profiles of Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Roger Sayers, Don Benning, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, and maybe the greatest of them all and someone you’ve likely never heard of before – Marion Hudson.
Green Bay Packers All-Pro Running Back Ahman Green Channels Comic Book Hero Batman and Gridiron Icons Walter Payton and Bo Jackson on the Field
©by Leo Adam Biga
Green Bay Packers All-Pro running back Ahman Green has a well-publicized fascination with Batman. It makes sense considering the player applies the same old-school, no-frills style to his game as the comic book caped-crusader does to crime fighting. Instead of super powers, Batman gets by with well-hewn brain and brawn. Just like his favorite action figure, the former Omaha Central High School and University of Nebraska All-American, is all about the work. Gifted with size, strength and speed, Green’s worked hard honing himself into a chiseled, fluid dynamo. He is that rare combination of plower who won’t be stopped in short-yardage situations and burner who’s a threat to go the distance on every carry.
The same way Batman disdains trendy martial arts in favor of more basic ass whuppings, Green eschews any fancy moves on the field and, instead, sheds tacklers with brute force, cat quickness, superb balance and unerring instinct.
While his foes on the field may not be as maniacal as the Green Goblin, the NFL’s second leading rusher from a year ago confronts his own terrors in the form of bull rushing linemen, heat-seeking backers and hard-hitting corners. Green’s slashing style may deflect the full brunt of hits, but he still absorbs the force of a car crash every time he gets thrown down, blown up or taken out like a ten-pin. He just keeps on coming though, with a bring-it-on durability that’s his trademark.
And much like his alter ego has a dark side, Green does, too. He was charged with fourth-degree domestic assault against his first wife, who filed for divorce soon after the couple were cited for disturbing the peace in 2002. “I had a lot of stuff going on,” he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “Outside of football I had to juggle a lot of things.” Besides dealing with problems at home, he struggled healing from a series of nagging injuries and finding time to complete his college studies at UNL. Then, last year he got his degree and found a new bride. There’s a sense that by dealing with his personal issues and getting well again, emotionally and physically, he set the stage for his record-setting, busting-loose 2003 performance.
Coming off three straight 1,000-yard years, Green raised his game to a new level in ‘03, setting personal and club records for most carries, 355, rushing yards, 1883, and combined yards, 2,250, in a season, as well as most yards in a game, 218, and longest run from scrimmage, 98. Barring injury, he appears primed, at age 27, to challenge some of those same marks. His 1,883 rushing yards was among the highest single season figures in NFL history. At this pace, he breaks Packers great Jim Taylor’s career rushing milestones in 2005, and gets himself mentioned with the game’s all-time best backs. A case can be made for his inclusion now.
Records are meaningful to Green in-so-far as they are a benchmark for his own progress. “That’s important to me because if a person doesn’t set goals, where are they going? I keep setting goals. After I knock ‘em out, I put another one in and I just keep going. That’s it.” Coming from the tradition-rich Nebraska program made his adjustment to the storied Packers franchise a little easier. “It was kind of old-hat by the time I got here,” he said. “I know what’s happened here in the past and I’m like, Let’s make some new history and let’s roll.”
After a slow start in the NFL with Seattle, where he was never given a chance to be an every down back, he’s evolved into the league’s prototype workhorse. An average game now finds him lugging the ball from scrimmage 20 or more times and catching three or four passes out of the backfield, not to mention all the times he’s called on to block. With a maturity that belies his age, Green is putting the team on his back and taking a pounding, while dealing out some serious hurting, too. It’s just the way he did it as a junior at NU, when he had more than 2,200 combined yards on 300-plus touches (counting bowl stats). With his luxury package design of power and explosiveness, he’s dominating the field again, only against the best players in the world. Taking on such a big role doesn’t faze him. “I don’t even look at it as that. I don’t worry about what’s on my shoulders or what’s not. I just go out there and play football. Whatever happens, it happens. That’s it,” he said.
Erased now is the tag of fumbler that dogged him from Seattle and that surfaced last year when he had trouble holding onto the ball. “Oh, yeah, it’ll probably never be forgotten, but it’s behind me. It’s definitely behind me. But some people never let stuff go,” he said. “I just go out there and play every game knowing that stuff can happen. That’s just part of football. You’re competing. It’s a back and forth battle. You’re not going to have a perfect game. Well, I don’t want to say never.”
That he remains productive and healthy carrying such a heavy load defies the odds and speaks not only to his good fortune but to his great work ethic. His penchant for paying the price with grueling workouts in the off-season is something he took from his real-life idol, Walter Payton, a righteous back Batman would have loved. The late-great Chicago Bear was renowned for his toughness on the field and his extreme conditioning drills off it that culminated in running, full out, a hell hill few dared testing and fewer yet conquered.
“What I do when I am working out, whether lifting weights or running, is I push myself to the end, to where I ain’t got nothing left,” Green said. “That’s what Walter Payton did when he worked out during the off-season. The intensity of his off-season workouts was higher than any training camp or game. He pushed himself harder than anybody else did, so that when the season came along he was in top shape and he didn’t worry about being tired or getting hurt.”
To give himself that same edge, Green religiously pumps iron and runs stairs until his muscles and lungs burn. “If I’m going to be in the right kind of shape, I’ve got to make sure I have my butt in the weight room lifting weights — getting stronger, bigger, faster — because if I don’t I’m going to start getting hurt” and wearing down, he said. “I’m trying to find a hill to run the way Walter Payton did.”
Payton also embodied the warrior figure Green sees himself as. Growing up in L.A., where he lived before returning to his native Omaha for high school, Green adopted a style Sweetness made famous. “He was the kind of runner I was. I was scrappy. I never went down easy. I was just tough. That was something I learned out in L.A. because, you know, you have to be tough to get along in this sport, especially there, where the competition’s real high. And that was the way my idol ran. He ran tough. He didn’t die easy. He was just the type of running back I Iike.” For his pre-game inspirational ritual, Green watches the Pure Payton highlight tape.
Bo Jackson was another back he patterned himself after. “He was blessed with the ability. He was fast and he was big and he took that and he ran very hard with it.”
The legendary feats of Payton-Jackson and the mythic heroics of Batman aside, Green’s work ethic springs from a more prosaic source, his parents, Edward and Glenda Scott. “My parents were older, and with that I developed that work ethic that if I want something I’m going to have to work for it — it’s not going to be given to me,” he said. “And some days it’s going to hurt, but if you really want it, you’ve got to fight through the hurt, fight through the pain, fight through the sweat, the blood and the tears to get where you want to be. And that’s how I think.”
If he could, Green said he would incorporate into his regimen a drill that simulates the hits he takes during a game. “I wish I could, because that would be my workout every single day of the week, but you can’t. You can’t imitate a football game.”
Getting himself ready to weather the hits and the upsets of a pro football career is all about focus, he said. “My philosophy on life is, just attend to the things you can control like your body. I control my body. I control what goes into my body. With my job, I’ve got to make sure I’m eating the right foods and that I’m in the right kind of shape. Anything on the outside — the stuff that you don’t hold in your hand and that you can’t control — don’t worry about it.”
Consistent with this no-nonsense approach is Green’s grounding in the fundamentals of the game. “I was fortunate to have a line of good coaches that taught me the basics. That’s the biggest thing,” he said. “Once you get taught that at an early age, everything else will come easier and you’ll be able to excel faster just by knowing the fundamentals of your sport.”
Green got his football start playing in Los Angeles midget leagues. He said the talent pool there steeled him for his return to Nebraska. “I played pretty well and I knew if I could survive out there, which I did, I could come out pretty good in high school ball here.” Once back in Omaha, where he lived with his grandma, he made his first splash on the local gridiron starring for the North Omaha Bears, which he helped lead to the 1991 national youth football (ages 13-14) title in Daytona, Florida. He began his prep career at North High, playing little as a freshman before starting on the varsity as a sophomore, when he ran for more than 1,000 yards. Two decades earlier his uncle, Michael Green, ran roughshod for North.
Ahman then heeded the wishes of his mother to attend her alma mater, Central, where he transferred prior to his junior year. He said switching schools was more about honoring his mom than any dissatisfaction with North or any desire to join Central’s fabled roster of running backs. “My mom wanted me to graduate from the high school she graduated from as a keep-it-in-the-family type thing.”
As far as Central’s rich tailback legacy, he said, “I wasn’t really into it. I just knew from the year before they had a guy — Damion Morrow — running the ball real good. I knew he was there, but I didn’t know all the other running backs that came out of there, like Calvin Jones, Leodis Flowers and Keith Jones. There’s been a long line of running backs there that I didn’t know about till I got there.” One name he did hear growing up was Gale Sayers, who set an exceedingly high bar for the Eagles’ running back tradition by earning All-America honors at the University of Kansas and NFL Hall of Fame status with the Chicago Bears.
Since then, Central’s become a prime feeder of college football talent. Its pipeline of talented backs dates back to at least the late ‘50s with Roger Sayers, the older brother of Gale. The Brothers Sayers even played one season together (1960) in the same backfield. Long overshadowed by Gale, Roger was a top American top sprinter and a spectacular small college back-kick returner for then-Omaha University.
Distinguished Central backs of more recent vintage include ex-NU stars Joe Orduna (Giants, Colts), Keith Jones (Browns, Cowboys), Leodis Flowers and Calvin Jones (Raiders, Packers) and current Husker David Horne. There was also Jamaine Billups, who switched to defense at Iowa State. And there were guys with brilliant prep resumes who, for one reason or another, never duplicated that success in college. Terry Evans was one. Damion Morrow, another. After an unprecedented sophomore year in which he ran for more than 1,700 yards, Morrow shared the ball with Ahman Green his last two years at Central, when each topped 1,000 yards. The pair are on a short list of backs in Nebraska 11-man prep football history to ever rush for 1,000 or more yards in three seasons.
According to Green, Morrow was “an awesome back” and just one of many “great athletes” he was around while coming up in Omaha. “Just pure athletes. Some of them didn’t get the opportunities that I got. Damion Morrow, Ronnie Doss. Zanie Adams. Stevie Gordon. The list goes on and on.” Green is well aware of his hometown’s considerable athletic tradition and brags on it whenever he can. “I’m always defending Omaha here in Green Bay,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Who else is from Omaha?’ I tell ‘em. ‘Ya’ll just don’t know that we’ve got a great line of athletes. Not just from football, but from all other sports.’”
Knowing he’s now considered in the same company as Omaha’s athletic elite — with legends Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers — makes him “proud,” he said, “because those are names I heard about and how great they were. I’m just proud, because it goes to show that my hard work has paid off for me and is continuing to pay off for me and my family.”
With most of his family still in Omaha, Green gets back often and stays active in the community. “I do a lot of stuff with the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club,” he said. “Just recently, we had our third annual high school all-star basketball night, where we had men’s and women’s games, a three-point shootout and a dunk contest.” And in that way things have of coming full circle, he will soon be teaching football basics. “This summer I’m having my first Ahman Green Youth Football Camp, for kids 8 to 14. It’s a non-contact camp for boys and girls where I teach the fundamentals.” The June 28 and 29 camp is at North High School.
After his break-out 2003 season, Green’s fame is on the rise but his ego is not. “I haven’t changed. I’m still that little kid that grew up in Los Angeles and that was born in Omaha. If you talk to my family members, they’ll tell you — I’m still Ahman.”
Coming off his monster year, when the 10-6 Packers added a wild card win before being knocked out of the playoffs by Philadelphia, Green feels the club is ready for a title run. “We’ve got the tools in line to do big things,” he said.
Heading into his seventh NFL campaign, he knows he’s in the prime of a career that also has its limits. The end isn’t in sight yet, but he knows it’s only a matter of time. “I think about it,” he said, “but it’s something where I just play it by ear, like I always do. My body will let me know if I’ve had enough. I’ll listen to that. I’ve been listening to it for awhile now. When my body says it’s enough, it’s enough.”
Any talk of walking away from football is premature as long as he stays healthy and keeps producing. Then there’s the elusive perfect game he feels may not be so impossible, after all. “I just go into every game knowing I’m going to give it my best that day for my team. Who knows? It might happen. I might have a perfect game.” KAPOW. BAM. ZOOM. No. 30 saves the day again for Gotham City, er Green Bay.
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Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
Though not a sports writer per se, I love writing about sports and I think I have a certain flair for it. So while I write about anything and everything in the course of a typical year, and certainly do not specialize in sportswriting, I like to keep my hand in it. The following article is an example from about nine or 10 years ago. The subject is an impressive young man named Adam Wright who made his mark on the football field at Omaha Nigh High and at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, my alma mater, as a running back. He wasn’t recruited by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but the way he developed and dominated at the Division II level at UNO he certainly indicated he could have excelled in Division I and helped the Huskers. He even made it all the way to the National Football League as a free agent, but successive knee injuries stopped him in his tracks before he ever got to play a down. This story originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, a paper that no longer exists.
Wright On, Adam Wright Has it All Figured Out Both On and Off the Football Field
©by Leo Adam Biga
Adam Wright has been so indestructible for the streaking UNO Maverick football team this year that no one foresaw this walking Adonis being sidelined by injury. After all, the senior has been the one constant and main workhorse for the often sputtering UNO offense in 2000, lugging the ball 30 times per contest the first seven outings. Time and again, the big bruising tailback with the ripped body crashed into a human wall at the line of scrimmage and came out the other side still intact, if not unscathed. He has taken many hard knocks, but delivered some too, usually leaving a litter of bodies in his wake. “I take pride in knowing I’m not going to be stopped by any one guy, no matter who he is, no matter how big he is,” Wright said. “I’m always looking to turn into somebody to dish out some punishment.”
But Wright, a bright and amiable student-athlete with a career in engineering (he is a civil engineering major) awaiting him if a hoped-for stint in pro football fizzles, was not always so assertive. The Omaha North High School graduate played quarterback as a prepster and arrived at UNO lacking the requisite toughness to be a hard-nosed tailback. As a freshman, he was even moved to wide receiver for a week. His passivity on the field was an off-shoot of his desire to blend in off it, where he grew up in an interracial home struck by tragedy. After losing his father at age 8, he watched his two older siblings make some bad life choices and set about being a model child for the sake of his mother.
He did anything to avoid being branded a troublemaker, even to the point of not using his God-given size to run over smaller players on the gridiron. Even after bulking up in college from 195 to his present 230 pounds, the 6’1 back steered clear of putting all of himself into runs. It took an attitude change, plus watching tapes of great backs, before he became the physical runner he is today. UNO Offensive Coordinator Lance Leipold recalls a heart-to-heart talk he had with his ballcarrier: “I said, ‘You’ve built yourself into this big back, now you’ve got to play like one.’” He said Wright, a devoted weightlifter, now not only “finishes off runs” but possesses a keen sense for the game: “He’s learned the blocking schemes better. He knows what’s really happening up front — where the hole is going to hit.”
His brute-force style, smarts and occasional breakaway speed (He cut his 40-yard dash time by two-tenths of a second over the summer — to a 4.7 electronic.), put Wright atop the NCAA Division II individual rushing chart for a time and allowed him to shatter UNO’s career rushing mark. He has 1,216 yards this season (just 100 yards short of the UNO single season record) and 3,761 overall. Earlier this year he recorded a stretch of three straight 200-yard-plus rushing performances. It’s been that kind of productivity that’s made him a regional finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy (Division II’s Heisman).
By mid-season, he was a bruised but unbowed target for opposing defenses, absorbing hit upon hit but always picking himself up off the turf to get back into the fray. More often than not, tacklers were worn down by game’s end, not him.
Late, when defenses are tiring, he said, “you go for the kill. You put your head down a little lower, squeeze the ball tighter, fire out and go stronger.” Indeed, his late game heroics sealed wins against Northern Colorado and South Dakota. But with one twist of the knee early in the first quarter of UNO’s October 28 game versus South Dakota State, Wright went down in a heap, the medial collateral ligament in his left knee sprained. The injury happened on his first carry, a draw designed to go up the middle that he bounced wide. A defensive back came up on the play, making helmet contact just below Wright’s bent knee. As Wright tried to pull out of the tackle, his leg extended back and he felt his knee “wobble.” Playing in pain all season from tendinitis, he stayed in for a second carry, then with the knee only “getting worse,” he limped off, unable to return to a game UNO won 24-7 thanks in part to the steady play of his backup, redshirt freshman Justin Kammrad.
After week-long treatments, Wright was available for emergency duty last Saturday but with UNO dominating and Kammrad running wild (for a school record 239 yards) in a 45-7 win over Augustana. Wright did not see action. Instead, he nervously paced the sidelines — loudly encouraging his teammates. He should be close to full strength for this Saturday’s regular season finale at home against Top 20 foe and North Central Conference rival North Dakota (8-2). A healthy Wright will be a timely addition, as the 1 p.m. contest at Al Caniglia Field has major regional and national implications. Featuring a swarming defense that allows less than 10 points a game and a battering-ram offense that runs the ball down opponents’ throats, No. 5 UNO, now 9-1 and on a nine-game winning streak, is poised to capture just its second outright NCC title ever and to secure home field for the opening rounds of the NCAA playoffs. With their go-to guy back, look for the Mavs to feed the ball to No. 6 and, if his knee holds up, to ride his strong back as many times as needed.
Wright will gladly bear the load, too. “If it takes 40 carries for our offense to be successful, then give it to me 40 times,” he said. Following a 37-carry, 151-yard performance versus UNC on October 7, including gaining 38 yards on a crucial 4th quarter drive, Wright gouged South Dakota for 130 yards on 34 attempts the very next week. The more carries he gets, the more he starts “getting into a rhythm.” When he and his linemen get into that flow, running turns effortless. “It seems like once the ball is snapped, I’m beyond the hole. I’m in the secondary already. It’s kind of weird. It’s like, all of a sudden I’m there. I don’t even remember the run.”
The last few minutes of the SDU game offered another gut-check for UNO and Wright when, tied 7-7 in the 4th, the Mavs ground out two drives — with Wright the main weapon — to secure a 21-7 victory. With only minutes left, he was feeling the effects of all the pounding, but refused to sit out for even a play. “To tell you the truth, there was a point in time when I got up really slow and I was pretty sore. It was ridiculous. It was like being hit by a car — twice. My teammates were telling me in the huddle to get out of the game, but I knew J.J. (reserve tailback James Johnson) had sprained his knee and that Justin Kammrad was only a redshirt freshman. I felt I had to stay in. It was a close ballgame. And with only four minutes to go, I was like, ‘Ah, I’ve already been hit 30 times, what’s four more?’” Wright made his last four carries count, too, tearing through a tiring Coyotes defense on a short drive he capped with a nifty 23-yard touchdown run.
Doing whatever it takes has been ingrained in Wright since he lost his father, Jesse, to cancer in 1985. He has fond memories of the man, who was a packing house laborer. “The weird thing is, I can hardly remember his face, but I can remember a lot of lessons he taught me about life — about honesty, about integrity, about loyalty.” Prior to his father’s death, Wright’s mother, Liz, had been a stay-at-home mom. She returned to school (to study nursing) and entered the work force to provide for her three children. The demands took her away from her family more than she wanted. By the time her two oldest kids reached their teens, they were running wild. Adam, the youngest, sat back and saw how much grief his siblings’ behavior caused her and determined he would do nothing to add to her worries.
“My brother and sister pushed the limits to see how far they could go,” he said. “I saw how hard our mom was working just so we could have a chance for a better life and I didn’t want to disappoint her and make all the things she was doing be in vain. I tried not to disappoint anybody. Today, all of us are on the straight and narrow, but we each took different paths to get there.”
Liz Wright, an RN, recalls how as a child Adam displayed a maturity beyond his years. “Adam sort of comes from an underdog situation — being of mixed race, growing up in a poor area of the city and losing his father so young. I could have easily lost him to the crime environment in north Omaha.” She said his coming of age amid the near northside’s gang culture offered real temptations he resisted. “He didn’t take that path. A lot of his friends did. And what I admire most about him now is he doesn’t judge people who live that life. He’s a fair person. He’s kind of a keeper of justice.” Such congeniality, combined with male model good looks and a penchant for doing the right thing (he mentors disadvantaged youths), endear Wright to just about anyone he meets. For example, he was elected co-captain of the football squad and was recently voted vice president of the UNO student government.
His coaches — past and present — uniformly sing his praises. Herman Colvin, the head football coach at North High during Wright’s two years on the varsity there, became a father figure to the player. “He’s somebody I have a tremendous amount of respect and love for,” said Colvin, now assistant principal at Monroe Middle School in Omaha. “I really love the guy. He has made some good choices and I’m really happy with his choices. Has he done a lot to make me proud? He certainly has.” UNO Head Football Coach Pat Behrns said, “Adam’s a great guy. He does any type of public service work we ask him to. He’s great with young people. He’s a very classy young man. We’re going to hate to see him go.” Wright’s position coach, Lance Leipold, added, “He’s been a pleasure to work with because of his outstanding work ethic. He’s done a lot of little things to make himself a very quality back for us. But he’s not going to be one of those guys who’s going to be real frustrated if pro football doesn’t work out. Adam, from day one, has had such a plan in life. Someday, I might be working for him.”
The man instrumental in getting Wright to refuse Division I scholarship offers for UNO, Mid-American Energy CEO and fellow North High alum David Sokol, also commends Wright, whom he speaks of as a kind of protege (Wright has been an intern at Mid-American since 1996). “He has two characteristics I think are particularly important. One is, he has a very high character level. He is very cautious about keeping himself out of situations where, you know, bad things are liable to happen. The second thing is, he is extremely hard working and he has his priorities pretty well laid out. I think he can probably do anything he wants to, whether it’s the NFL or corporate America. We certainly would be more than happy to hire him after graduation.”
Clearly, the NFL is not an all-or-nothing proposition for Wright. It remains what his mom calls “a little boy’s dream.” As Wright himself said, “I’m a realist. I know it’s extremely hard to get there. If the opportunity presents itself, fine. But I’m going to leave my options open and do what’s in the best interests for my future.”
Carrying extra weight as “a cushion” against all the wear and tear he can expect to incur, Wright has his sights set on helping the Mavs make a run for the national title. “The way our defense is playing, if our offense can just control the clock, grind out the yards, get first downs and keep getting in the end zone, we have the potential to win every game.” Being on the sidelines has almost been more than he can take. “It’s killing me. I want to be on the field when we win.” he said. He will do whatever it takes to return. “I’ll argue, scratch and claw to get out there.”
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Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
This is a story of one who got away. If you grow up playing football in Nebraska and show real potential to play in college it’s sort of assumed or ordained that you will wind up playing for the University of Nebraska, whether as a recruited scholarship or walk-on student-athlete. The Cornhuskers nearly always get the cream of the state’s football crop to come to Lincoln. But once in a while and with greater frequency these days NU loses out on a real gem who decides for various reasons, sometimes because the brain trust in Lincoln doesn’t recognize or appreciate the local talent, to play their college ball elsewhere. The Huskers have lost out on some stellar players that way in the last decade, including several who went on to excel in college and to make it all the way to the NFL. This is a profile of one of these who got away – Kenton Keith of Omaha. The running back thought he had showed enough in high school to get the Huskers to bite but it didn’t happen. Well, actually, NU did show initial interest but then a shakeup there found him in the lurch, without the scholarship offer he’d expected. The rest is history. He went on to star at New Mexico State and after toiling in the Canadian Football League he made it in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts, where he helped the club win a division title as a solid number two back. Things unraveled a bit for him after that but he had already found his football redemption by proving he could play at the highest level. Xavier Omon and Danny Woodhead followed him as in-state backs ignored by Nebraska and finding college stardom and making NFL rosters. Woodhead, of course, has become a popular and valuable contributor with the Patriots.
Kenton Keith’s Long and Winding Journey to Football Redemption
©by Leo Adam Biga
Omaha native Kenton Keith’s circuitous path to football nirvana took him to the gridiron wilderness of New Mexico and Canada before he made it to the NFL. When he landed a roster spot last off-season with the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts it marked the end of a nine-year odyssey for the fleet tailback.
“You can look at my football life and almost understand how my whole life has been. Nothing was given me. Everything was hard-earned. I always had to play against the odds and God has blessed me for every hurdle that I got over,” he said.
It all began in 1998. As a senior at Omaha Benson High School Keith was a prime target of elite Division I schools. He’d narrowed his choices to Nebraska and Penn State. He leaned toward the Huskers, where his father, Percy Keith, played. Tom Osborne was a close family friend.
“Everything was so perfect at one time,” Keith, 27, said.
Once Oz resigned, Keith said Frank Solich and Co. backed away from him late in the recruiting game. Other schools that once coveted Keith suddenly gave him “the cold shoulder” too. Why would a kid branded a phenom for his exploits with the North Omaha Bears and Benson and for his rare combo of speed, size and instinct find himself a pariah? Keith said his stock fell as a result of a Benson administrator labeling him a gang member and a poor student.
The truth, Keith said. is “I was busting my butt to make my grades right and they were actually already good.” He said he was never in a gang, only a rap music group. Music is still a huge part of his life.
He ended up with but two scholarship offers — from NAIA Morningside and D-I New Mexico State. A last gasp effort by NU, including a call from Oz, did not sway his decision to play for the Aggies down in Las Cruces, N.M., far from family, friends, media centers and NFL scouts.
The way NU did him left Keith “discouraged and upset.” “A lot of stuff happened between me and Nebraska that nobody knows about,” he said.
Instead of being embittered, he said, “I made the best of it I could.” After a stellar if injury-plagued four-year career at NMSU, Keith went undrafted by the NFL in 2001. He was devastated. He quit football before the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL called in 2002. He spent a year-and-a-half on the team’s practice squad. Then, in 2003, his chance finally came and he blew up the league. Three-and-a-half productive seasons and one failed NFL tryout (with the New York Jets) later, he’s now a contributor for the most watched team in all pro sports.
Despite the many “backstreets” he took to get there, he never doubted he could play with the big boys. “I always knew what I could do,” he said.
He’s not only “beaten the odds” but proven a valuable addition. Signed as a free agent in January, he enjoyed a strong training camp and by the Sept. 6 opener the 5’11, 209-pound rookie established himself as the No. 2 back behind Joseph Addai. Keith saw spot relief duty the first three games. Then, when Addai got dinged in the Sept. 30 game versus Denver, Keith came in to gain 80 yards on 10 carries as the Colts won 38-20. With Addai out nursing an injury, Keith started the Oct. 7 Tampa Bay game and showed his dependability and durability by rushing for 121 yards on 28 carries and one touchdown and catching five passes for 37 more yards in a 33-14 Indy win.
In the next two games Keith also saw significant action. In a 29-7 win over Jacksonville he split time with Addai — gaining 56 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. In a 31-7 win over Carolina he tallied 36 yards rushing. His playing time decreased in Indy’s Nov. 4 marquee showdown with New England. But in a near comeback over San Diego last Sunday night he got the call on a critical second-half drive and responded. His running set up the Colts in the red zone and he converted a dump pass into an 7-yard TD reception to draw Indy within seven. For the season he’s totaled 369 yards rushing and three TDs, averaging a solid 4.6 yards per attempt, and he’s added 62 yards receiving and one more score.
He’s shown glimpses in the NFL of the breakaway ability he’s always possessed.
“I’ve always been told I’m a big play type of guy. I don’t know if I really look to do it, it just always happens,” he said. “I think my vision is what separates me from a lot of runners. I read people’s body language to see where I can go…turn. If a guy is committed to one side, then there’s no way he can get back to the cutback if you can get there first.
“I think it’s just something that you feel. It’s almost like you can feel it before you can see it. It’s weird, man.”
He’s put his moves on hold for now, content playing it safe getting “positive yards and first downs. It’s almost like when you’re playing the backup role and you’re just put in for one game you don’t want to do anything wrong,” he said. “I’ve been getting to the secondary a lot…and I think maybe there’s been times where I could have put a move on somebody and taken it outside and gone the distance. I mean, that’s going to come soon when I get a little bit more comfortable.”
He’s “95 percent comfortable” with the playbook now. The “learning process,” he said, is more challenging than any physical adjustment he’s had to make. To his surprise the 7-2 Colts are smaller than his former Roughriders’ teammates. But the Colts speed and the game’s tempo, he said, are faster than up north.
For Keith, who’s mostly played on mediocre teams, the Colts’ winning attitude is a breath of fresh air. He doesn’t know when his next major playing time will come, but he’s sure he’ll be ready when it does.
“I really believe the way you practice is how you’re going to play…so I try to make sure I practice real hard and stay mentally focused out there.”
Whatever happens, he’s glad he stuck this long and winding journey out. “It seems like it’s a big reward for the way things have been going throughout my football career,” he said. “God blessed me to come here with the Colts and to be like a perfect fit for what this team needed.”
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Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
Omaha high school and greater Nebraska prep football programs have a tradition of producing running backs who go on to play in college, including a pipeline from Central High to the University of Nebraska, though in the last decade or so that tradition has been interrupted and that pipleline has dried up. That may be changing. The premier high school back in the state right now, at least in terms of the eye-popping numbers he puts up, is Omaha North senior Calvin Strong, the subject of this profile for The Reader (www.thereader.com). He became the state’s first back to reach 3,000 yards in a season when he rushed for 3,008 yards and scored 43 touchdowns in leading his Vikings to the state Class A championship in 2013. He is not alone. Just the other night Central’s Tre Sanders exploded for 279 yards, including a handful of breakaway runs, in the Eagles opening game win over Lincoln North Star. Sanders and Strong have size working against them. The former is listed at 5’8, 160 pounds and the latter at 5’9, 175 pounds, neither measurement lines that would preclude them being recruited by FBS schools, but it just might put some off. Sanders has a measurable advantage over Strong in that his 40 yard dash time is listed at 4.4 seconds while Strong, a notoriously poor tester in the 40, can only muster a 4.6 or 4.7. While there’s some interest in Sanders to be sure and much more might be coming his way if he keeps producing the way he did in the opener, Strong has even more interest, but he surprised a lot of folks when he recently gave a verbal commit to South Dakota. The Coyotes were on him a long time, yes, and they had extended the only outright offer to Strong, that’s true, but according to North Coach Larry Martin there was a lot of interest in the player from FBS and FCS schools, only they were waiting to see how Strong performed again on the field this season and more importantly how he performed in the classroom and on the ACT, because his academics have been a problem. Strong could always change his mind, of course, and end up going to a football factory, but it might just be his comfort level was the deciding factor and he wanted to take a relatively sure thing rather than sweat out his grades and test scores and see what other offers came his way. Whatever happens, it doesn’t appear that Strong or Sanders or any of the other in-state prep backs are likely to be D-I sensations the way Gale Sayers, Joe Orduna, Keith Jones, Calvin Jones, Ahman Green, Kenton Keith were. But maybe, just maybe, Strong can be the next Danny Woodhead, who was snubbed by the big schools because of his small stature and less than electrifying speed and set small college records on his way to the NFL. Of course, as my article goes into, Strong has even more serious things to worry about, like staying clear of the gang culture that surrounds him in his inner city neighborhood and that has claimed some of his friends.
Strong and his Vikings open their season tonight, Friday, August 29, at home against Millard West.
Omaha North superstar back Calvin Strong overcomes bigger obstacles than tacklers Record-setting rusher poised to lead defending champion Vikings to another state title
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha North running back sensation and recent South Dakota verbal commit Calvin Strong put up sick numbers last season leading his school to its first state football title in the playoff era. His 3,008 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns set state and metro single season Class A records, shattering anything done by past star Omaha prep backs such as Gale Sayers and Ahman Green.
Despite measuring 5’9, 175 pounds, he runs like his name, strong, right into the heart of defenses, where his uncanny vision and agility allow him to avoid big hits. Even when he does run into contact he breaks tackles thanks to his superb balance, low center of gravity and ample strength. With his legs churning forward and his head on a swivel, he probes for creases, then spins, darts. bounces, bursts through heavy traffic into open lanes for big gains.
Known for a positive attitude, ready smile and being a vocal, emotional team leader, he saves his best moves for the off-field. There he does a precarious dance to avoid the gang-banging culture around him.
Strong and his pre-season No. 1 Vikings play Friday night’s season opener at home versus Millard West. All eyes will be on the senior when he touches the ball, which figures to be a lot given his 27-plus carries per game average last year. His 3,000 yard season came on the heels of a nearly 1,900 yard sophomore campaign, when he led North to the title game only to fall just short. He’s a two-time first-team all-state selection.
For someone with his credits it’s unusual he only had one college offer – from South Dakota. It may be more unusual yet he accepted it with a resume-enhancing session before him. North Head Coach Larry Martin confirms “there was a ton of interest out there” from FBS and FCS schools. Programs held off because Strong’s struggled academically and he’s posted sub-par 40-yard dash times (4.6-4.7) at camps.
The South Dakota commitment took Martin by surprise, though he confirms the school showed the most consistent interest in Strong. Martin, who’s “extremely close” to Strong and his family, said only two weeks ago, “I know he’s on a lot of people’s boards and people are waiting to see where all the intangibles measure out. Everybody wants to know where he’s at academically. Right now he’s a non-qualifier. If he was a qualifier, he’d have more offers right now. Somebody’s going to take him and is going to get a helluva running back.”
The pressure to perform well in the classroom and on standardized tests has sometimes gotten the better of Strong, whose commitment eases one stressor.
“He’s broke down on me multiple times about it,” Martin says.
Then there was the out-of-school suspension Strong served earlier this year for unspecified reasons. Martin says Strong put it behind him.
“He handled what he had to work through like a man. He came back and went right to work and he had his best summer since he’s been here. I thought our teachers did a great job of getting him his homework. He’s a very genuine young man. If he tells you he’s going to do something he’s going to follow through and do it. His word means something to him. I feel real confident with what I’ve seen. He’s learned from his mistakes, been apologetic for it, and moved on.”
©MEGAN FARMER/Lincoln Journal Star
Strong’s a celebrity wherever he goes in North Omaha and Martin believes even though the player is humble, a sense of entitlement creeped in.
“Sometimes kids think they can get away with a little bit more because of their status and I think he got caught up in that. I think he’s understanding that consequences apply to everybody.”
Martin has been pleased with Strong’s progress in and out of school and feels he’s prepared himself for what comes next.
“He has the grades – we’ve just got to get the ACT score up and we’ve taken the measures to get that headed in the right direction. God bless he stays healthy he’s going to be one of the more decorated football players coming out of this state in quite a few years.”
There’s never been any doubt, barring injury, Strong would play somewhere on a big stage at the next level. He may have a chance of being an impact player there, too. Of course, it’s always possible Strong could de-commit from the Coyotes and go to a football factory. It that happens, it would make him the first local back in a while to breakthrough after decades of guys doing it.
His coach won’t venture to guess, but Strong may even follow the path of two recent North players, in Niles Paul and Philip Bates, who went D-I and landed in the NFL. The path to the NFL doesn’t need to go through a big program either. Just ask Bates (Ohio) and Danny Woodhead (Chadron State).
The fact that Strong is even in this position is an achievement worth celebrating if for no other reason than he’s escaped the fate of friends lost to guns and gangs.
That harsh street life co-exists with his sometimes storybook, folk hero saga.
His school is in a neighborhood – Strong lives just down the hill from North – beset by poverty and crime. Drug dealing and turf wars pose dangers. Minus boundaries, gang culture exerts a pull. Strong, like his name, has stood firm against the allure and trap of that lifestyle, one that cost at least six of his buddies’ their lives. He continues knowing people caught up in it. He’s flirted with it himself. But he’s made known he wants nothing to do with it. The Gs know he’s off-limits.
“I still have friends that are in the gang life or whatever but they know and I know where I need to be at. It’s really not hard to x that stuff out of my life because I know and they know what I got going for myself and what’s in store for me,” Strong says.
“My freshman year I was pulled to doing dumb things but I’ve matured throughout these years to know what’s right from wrong, so I’ve been keeping myself away. Basically this whole summer I’ve just been with my coaches and teammates. I really ain’t been focused on anything else but football and studies so I can get to college.”
Martin’s aware of the pressures Strong faces. The coach and his family offer a respite when Calvin needs it.
“There is a pull and you can’t ignore it but he’s got his outs and when things get a little bit tough he calls coach and he comes stays with us, sometimes for a couple nights. We’re more than happy to provide that for him because he is a high quality young man.
“It’s also just to help take the burden off the family.”
In Martin, Strong appreciates he has a mentor and advocate, saying, “The only pressure that’s on me right now is finishing what he’s helped me with. Me and him have always had a relationship outside football. I’ll go to his house, chill out, eat steak. I’m like one of his own kids. He’s like a second dad to me. He’s always been there for me through anything. He has my back and I have his.
“He’s a real special guy and I give my heart to him. He’s prepared us for life, not just football. His speeches, they really just get to you, they spark something in you.”
Martin sees Strong mostly doing the right things these days.
“He’s really worked hard in terms of making sure he’s doing everything he can to make the right decisions. We’re just here to help continue to support him, provide him more options. Our total pursuit is to get that college education.”
Strong lives at home with his father, Calvin Strong Sr., and his younger brother, Jordan Strong. As a 6’2, 250 pound sophomore nose guard, Strong’s 15-year-old “little brother” is already getting hard looks from colleges. Because of his size, Jordan’s always played a couple grade levels up from his age group and thus he and his superstar older brother have been teammates growing up. The siblings are cogs in what may be a dynasty for years to come given the talent-rich depth and winning habits Martin’s built-up.
Calvin himself is only 17, so he may be fill out some come college, though in today’s sprint offenses size isn’t the factor it used to be.
Martin has always said, “it’s going to be about finding the right fit for him. I think people want to see him one more year. He did what he needed to do this summer and then we’ll let the first three or four games take care of themselves. We’ve got tough games right away – we open up with Millard West and Burke. If he does well in those games people are going to want to see that film.”
Among other things coaches will see, Martin says, is a dynamic back who’s “motivated and very competitive,” adding, “The one concern the bigger schools have is his top-end speed. Calvin just doesn’t test well in the 40. But I don’t know that top-end speed has to be the number one factor. He has so many other things he can do. Number one, he doesn’t turn the ball over. I mean, he just doesn’t fumble. He has taken extremely good care of the football. I think he has great vision. I think he anticipates where things are going to come open so well. He’s very durable. He’s elusive – he can make guys miss. He’s got great hips. His core and overall body strength is very good. His feet never stop moving, they’re constantly going.”
Strong has the ability to read defenses and anticipate where trouble lurks and then when things break down to change direction on a dime.
He says, “I see how everybody’s lined up. It’s really hard to tackle me unless the play gets all bunched up. I just keep my eyes focused and I shut everything else out, and once I break everything comes back loud again, all the screaming, and I can relax and have fun after I’ve gotten a first down or I’ve scored.
“Plus, I’m real small and my linemen are really big, so it’s good I can hide behind ’em and just choose where I can break off. It makes it real difficult for the linebackers to read me.”
He acknowledges he’s also run behind an exceptional line anchored by Nebraska commit and fellow all-stater Michael Decker, who returns.
But not every defender’s blocked every play and Strong doesn’t back down from the one-on-one challenge of a backer trying to blow him up.
“I’m just a real strong small guy – I don’t take nothing from nobody. Playing against some of the biggest linebackers in the state I’ve always gone heads up with ’em, I never try to fall down when they’re coming – I take it to ’em. I’m a small back but I’m going to show you I have power. I’m not afraid of contact.”
The contact part is funny because Strong confirms he once hated even the idea of being tackled before playing organized football. His dad and uncle forced him to play to toughen him up. His first full year at running back for the Little Vikes, after a year wasted on the line, he’d curl up to avoid hits but after dominating the youth ranks he decided the contact was no big deal, though he rarely took a clean hit. When tackled today he takes it as a personal defeat, which only makes him come back harder the next time. At the end of the day his heart and will are what separate him from others.
“I feel like that’s what it is because I want it more than a lot of people. I’m always competitive. Everything is competition to me.”
As for his less than stellar 40 clocking, he discounts it with, “My speed and everything shows on the field.” Indeed, he’s rarely if ever caught from behind. Martin, who coached current NFL players Phil Bates and Niles Paul, is waiting to see what Strong shows this year before comparing him to those elite athletes.
“I’ll know a lot more with him after our first couple games. You know, we tell our kids that the guys from North who’ve made it to the next level are the hardest working players every day. I will say Calvin’s work ethic has definitely increased. I think we’ve got him to the point where he understands if he wants to be the elite of the elite then he needs to continue to work harder.”
Besides what’s on the line for him personally, Strong’s dedicated himself to getting North back to the title game again.
“I worked very hard. I’m determined this year to come out with a real big bang. I really want that ring again. I really want that experience again.”
He’s aware no Omaha Public Schools team has made it to three straight finals games and he wants North to be the first to do it.
The North program’s come to the point where winning’s the expectation. Playing for the title two years ago and then winning the championship last year has meant a huge boost in confidence.
“It really set the bar for us,” Strong says. “Now nobody can really bring us down. Nobody can say they’re better than us. Nobody can say anything about us being an underdog team because we showed we’ve climbed all those obstacles. It was very heartwarming to me because we’d been talking about it since my freshman year and just to have it after we should have had it my sophomore year was really nice.”
Strong’s also keenly aware of his role model and celebrity status. He still finds all the attention, as in everyone from children to adults wanting his autograph or screaming his name, a bit surreal, saying, “It’s crazy.” He adds, “There’s not a lot of 17-year olds that can give little kids hope.”
The importance he attaches to his gift for football as his gateway out of The Hood is clearly reflected in a Tweet he made:
“If I didn’t have this I’d be nothing. That’s why thrive (sic) to be the best to do it.”
The way he sees it, realizing his dreams also honors the memory of his late friends who encouraged him to pursue football as far it would take him. Strong was en route to a game two years ago when he got word his friend Tyler had shot himself in the head playing Russian Roulette. He found out during the game Tyler died from his wounds.
In a Tweet, Strong wrote:
“Rip to my brother Tyler Brent Hickerson
When I die I want my BROTHERS walking my casket down …the ones who stood next to me when I once stood#cant get know Realer
If only u was here to see me shine … I miss u”
Strong’s grown up a Husker fan and Nebraska definitely has him on their radar. The only camp he attended this past summer was in Lincoln, where he’s got to know NU’s premier back, Ameer Abdullah, to whom he’s often compared. Before saying yes to South Dakota Strong hinted he’d like to reestablish the once continuous running back pipeline there from Omaha that’s gone dry the last decade-and-a-half.
He said, “I’d love to keep it in state just to show everybody how good North Omaha competition is. Playing for Nebraska would make a lot of people happy in Omaha.”
If Strong were to renege and select another school’s offer, assuming one’s proffered, there’s still those test scores. Martin felt the junior college route was a distinct possibility for Strong. His own son, Zach Martin, who quarterbacked North to the 2012 title game, is thriving at Iowa Western Community College, which sends many players to D-I.
Once Strong’s South Dakota decision sunk in, Martin understood it because the player’s developed a trust with the Coyote coaches that reminds him of what Strong has with him and his coaches at North.
“Calvin and his family mean so much to me, he’s almost like my own son. My message to Calvin has always been I will find a place that’s going to be the right fit for you. I’m just not going to turn you over to somebody that hasn’t invested that much time in you. We’re going to take care of you.”
He says for nearly every dream Strong wants to accomplish, South Dakota will be able to provide that for him. If not, Martin’s sure there are plenty of other places that will fit the bill.
Stay strong, Calvin, stay strong.
North hosts No. 3 Millard West this Friday at Kinnick Stadium on the Northwest High campus. Kickoff is for 7 p.m.
_ _ _
Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
Never is anyone simply what they appear to be on the surface. Deep rivers run on the inisde of even the most seemingly easy to peg personalties and lives. Many of those well guarded currents cannot be seen unless we take the time to get to know someone and they reveal what’s on the inside. But seeing the complexity of what is there requires that we also put aside our blinders of assumptions and perceptions. That’s when we learn that no one is ever one thing or another. Take the late Charles Bryant. He was indeed as tough as his outward appearance and exploits as a one-time football and wrestling competitor suggested. But as I found he was also a man who carried around with him great wounds, a depth of feelings, and an artist’s sensitivity that by the time I met him, when he was old and only a few years from passing, he openly expressed.
My profile of Bryant was originally written for the New Horizons and then when I was commissioned to write a series on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends entitled, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, I incorporated this piece into that collection. You can read several more of my stories from that series on this blog, including profiles of Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, and Johnny Rodgers.
Charles Bryant at UNL
Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: The Charles Bryant Story
©by Leo Adam Biga
“I am a Lonely Man, without Love…Love seems like a Fire many miles away. I can see the smoke and imagine the Heat. I travel to the Fire and when I arrive the Fire is out and all is Grey ashes…
–– “Lonely Man” by Charles Bryant, from his I’ve Been Along book of poems
Life for Charles Bryant once revolved around athletics. The Omaha native dominated on the gridiron and mat for Omaha South High and the University of Nebraska before entering education and carving out a top prep coaching career. Now a robust 70, the still formidable Bryant has lately reinvented himself as an artist, painting and sculpting with the same passion that once stoked his competitive fire.
Bryant has long been a restless sort searching for a means of self-expression. As a young man he was always doing something with his hands, whether shining shoes or lugging ice or drawing things or crafting woodwork or swinging a bat or throwing a ball. A self-described loner then, his growing up poor and black in white south Omaha only made him feel more apart. Too often, he said, people made him feel unwelcome.
“They considered themselves better than I. The pain and resentment are still there.” Too often his own ornery nature estranged him from others. “I didn’t fit in anywhere. Nobody wanted to be around me because I was so volatile, so disruptive, so feisty. I was independent. Headstrong. I never followed convention. If I would have known that then, I would have been an artist all along,” he said from the north Omaha home he shares with his wife of nearly hald-a-century, Mollie.
Athletics provided a release for all the turbulence inside him and other poor kids. “I think athletics was a relief from the pressures we felt,” he said. He made the south side’s playing fields and gymnasiums his personal proving ground and emotional outlet. His ferocious play at guard and linebacker demanded respect.
“I was tenacious. I was mean. Tough as nails. Pain was nothing. If you hit me I was going to hit you back. When you played across from me you had to play the whole game. It was like war to me every day I went out there. I was just a fierce competitor. I guess it came from the fact that I felt on a football field I was finally equal. You couldn’t hide from me out there.”
Even as a youth he was always a little faster, a little tougher, a little stronger than his schoolmates. He played whatever sport was in season. While only a teen he organized and coached young neighborhood kids. Even then he was made a prisoner of color when, at 14, he was barred from coaching in York, Neb., where the all-white midget-level baseball team he’d led to the playoffs was competing.
Still, he did not let obstacles like racism stand in his way. “Whatever it took for me to do something, I did it. I hung in there. I have never quit anything in my life. I have a force behind me.”
Bryant’s drive to succeed helped him excel in football and wrestling. He also competed in prep baseball and track. Once he came under the tutelage of South High coach Conrad “Corney” Collin, he set his sights on playing for NU. He had followed the stellar career of past South High football star Tom Novak — “The toughest guy I’ve seen on a football field.” — already a Husker legend by the time Bryant came along. But after earning 1950 all-state football honors his senior year, Bryant was disappointed to find no colleges recruiting him. In that pre-Civil Rights era athletic programs at NU, like those at many other schools, were not integrated. Scholarships were reserved for whites. Other than Tom Carodine of Boys Town, who arrived shortly before Bryant but was later kicked off the team, Bryant was the first African-American ballplayer there since 1913.
No matter, Bryant walked-on at the urging of Collin, a dandy of a disciplinarian whom Bryant said “played an important role in my life.” It happened this way: Upon graduating from South two of Bryant’s white teammates were offered scholarships, but not him; then Bryant followed his coach’s advice to “go with those guys down to Lincoln.’” Bryant did. It took guts. Here was a lone black kid walking up to crusty head coach Bill Glassford and his all-white squad and telling them he was going to play, like it or not. He vowed to return and earn his spot on the team. He kept the promise, too.
“I went back home and made enough money to pay my own way. I knew the reason they didn’t want me to play was because I was black, but that didn’t bother me because Corney Collin sent me there to play football and there was nothing in the world that was going to stop me.”
Collin had stood by him before, like the time when the Packers baseball team arrived by bus for a game in Hastings and the locals informed the big city visitors that Bryant, the lone black on the team, was barred from playing. “Coach said, ‘If he can’t play, we won’t be here,’ and we all got on the bus and left. He didn’t say a word to me, but he put himself on the line for me.”
Bryant had few other allies in his corner. But those there were he fondly recalls as “my heroes.” In general though blacks were discouraged, ignored, condescended. They were expected to fail or settle for less. For example, when Bryant told people of his plans to play ball at NU, he was met with cold incredulity or doubt.
“One guy I graduated with said, ‘I’ll see you in six weeks when you flunk out.’ A black guy I knew said, ‘Why don’t you stay here and work in the packing houses?’ All that just made me want to prove myself more to them, and to me. I was really focused. My attitude was, ‘I’m going to make it, so the hell with you.’”
Bryant brought this hard-shell attitude with him to Lincoln and used it as a shield to weather the rough spots, like the death of his mother when he was a senior, and as a buffer against the prejudice he encountered there, like the racial slurs slung his way or the times he had to stay apart from the team on road trips.
As one of only a few blacks on campus, every day posed a challenge. He felt “constantly tested.” On the field he could at least let off steam and “bang somebody” who got out of line. There was another facet to him though. One he rarely shared with anyone but those closest to him. It was a creative, perceptive side that saw him write poetry (he placed in a university poetry contest), “make beautiful, intricate designs in wood” and “earn As in anthropolgy.”
Bryant’s days at NU got a little easier when two black teammates joined him his sophomore year (when he was finally granted the scholarship he’d been denied.). Still, he only made it with the help of his faith and the support of friends, among them teammate Max Kitzelman (“Max saved me. He made sure nobody bothered me.”) professor of anthropology Dr. John Champe (“He took care of me for four years.”) former NU trainers Paul Schneider and George Sullivan (who once sewed 22 stitches in a split lip Bryant suffered when hit in the chops against Minnesota), and sports information director emeritus Don Bryant.
“I always had an angel there to take care of me. I guess they realized the stranger in me.”
Charles Bryant’s perseverance paid off when, as a senior, he was named All-Big Seven and honorable mention All-American in football and all-league in wrestling (He was inducted in the NU Football Hall of Fame in 1987.). He also became the first Bryant (the family is sixth generation Nebraskan) to graduate from college when he earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1955.
He gave pro football a try with the Green Bay Packers, lasting until the final cut (Years later he gave the game a last hurrah as a lineman with the semi-pro Omaha Mustangs). Back home, he applied for teaching-coaching positions with OPS but was stonewalled. To support he and Mollie — they met at the storied Dreamland Ballroom on North 24th Street and married three months later — he took a job at Brandeis Department Store, becoming its first black male salesperson.
After working as a sub with the Council Bluffs Public Schools he was hired full-time in 1961, spending the bulk of his Iowa career at Thomas Jefferson High School. At T.J. he built a powerhouse wrestling program, with his teams regularly whipping Metro Conference squads.
In the 1970s OPS finally hired him, first as assistant principal at Benson High, then as assistant principal and athletic director at Bryan, and later as a student personnel assistant (“one of the best jobs I’ve ever had”) in the TAC Building. Someone who has long known and admired Bryant is University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling Head Coach Mike Denney, who coached for and against him at Bryan.
Said Denney, “He’s from the old school. A tough, hard-nosed straight shooter. He also has a very sensitive, caring side. I’ve always respected how he’s developed all aspects of himself. Writing. Reading widely. Making art. Going from coaching and teaching into administration. He’s a man of real class and dignity.”
Bryant found a new mode of expression as a stern but loving father — he and Mollie raised five children — and as a no-nonsense coach and educator. Although officially retired, he still works as an OPS substitute teacher. What excites him about working with youth?
“The ability to, one-on-one, aid and assist a kid in charting his or her own course of action. To give him or her the path to what it takes to be a good man or woman. My great hope is I can make a change in the life of every kid I touch. I try to give kids hope and let them see the greatness in them. It fascinates me what you can to do mold kids. It’s like working in clay.”
Since taking up art 10 years ago, he has found the newest, perhaps the strongest medium for his voice. He works in a variety of media, often rendering compelling faces in bold strokes and vibrant colors, but it is sculpture that has most captured his imagination.
“When I’m working in clay I can feel the blessings of Jesus Christ in my hands. I can sit down in my basement and just get lost in the work.”
Recently, he sold his bronze bust of a buffalo soldier for $5,000. Local artist Les Bruning, whose foundry fired the piece, said of his work, “He has a good eye and a good hand. He has a mature style and a real feel for geometric preciseness in his work. I think he’s doing a great job. I’d like to see more from him.”
Bryant has brought his talent and enthusiasm for art to his work with youths. A few summers ago he assisted a group of kids painting murals at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. He directs a weekly art class at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, where he worships and teaches Sunday School.
Much of Bryant’s art, including a book of poems he published in the ‘70s, deals with the black experience. He explores the pain and pride of his people, he said, because “black people need black identification. This kind of art is really a foundation for our ego. Every time we go out in the world we have to prove ourselves. Nobody knows what we’ve been through. Few know the contributions we’ve made. I guess I’m trying to make sure our legacy endures. Every time I give one of my pieces of art to kids I work with their eyes just light up.”
These days Bryant is devoting most of his time to his ailing wife, Mollie, the only person who’s really ever understood him. He can’t stand the thought of losing her and being alone again.
“But I shall not give in to loneliness. One day I shall reach my True Love and My fire shall burn with the Feeling of Love.”
–– from his poem “Lonely Man”
Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
I never saw Ron Boone play ball, but I didn’t need to in order to write this story about his magnificent commitment to the game, one made manifest by his sheer doggedness. His commitment and toughness ran so deep that he earned the nickname “Iron Man” for never missing a single game during a very long and grueling 13-year professional basketball career in the ABA and NBA. More than a body you could count on to suit up and get on the court, Boone was a consummate player who ranked among the best guards of his era. He could do it all: score, handle the ball, pass, rebound, defend, you name it. He was a key cog on a championship team. He played alongside and against many legends, always holding his own. He’s another of the Omaha born and raised figures who went from the ghetto and projects here to become a sports legend. His devotion to the game has remained intact many years after his retirement as a player.
Ron Boone, Still an Iron Man After All These Years (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
©by Leo Adam Biga
During a 13-year professional basketball career that spanned two leagues and six teams, Omaha native and Tech High grad Ron Boone became an “iron man” of legendary proportions.
A chiseled 6’2” guard known for his toughness, Boone saw action in each and every one of the 1,041 regular season contests his clubs played. His consecutive games-played streak set a record for pro hoops unbroken until years later. In fact, Boone said he doesn’t recall ever missing a game — preseason, regular season, post season — in a playing career that included elementary school, high school, college and the pros.
This feat is important to Boone. Since his 1981 retirement from the Utah Jazz, he has worked as a color commentator on Jazz radio and television broadcasts. Since 1988 Boone has been a full-time resident of Salt Lake City, the site of his greatest triumphs, where he is active in private business and community efforts.
“The longer I’m out of the game, the prouder I am of it,” said Boone, who at age 58 is buff and just over his peak playing weight of 205 pounds. “I know how very difficult it is to get through an entire season without getting hurt, not to mention 13 seasons or 1,041 consecutive games.”
Of course, he sustained the game’s usual bumps and bruises, ankle sprains and worse, but he never sat out a single game because of them. There was the shoulder separation he suffered in a collision with another player during a regular season game. On that occasion, a reluctant Boone followed the team doctor’s advice to undergo acupuncture the next day and by the following night he was able to shoot and play through the pain. The only other injury that set him back, if only momentarily, was the broken nose he suffered in a playoff series. He simply got the broken bone set, taped and protected by a mask he wore the rest of the series.
“Other than those two injuries, there was never a remote chance I was not going to play,” he said.
Fortitude and ferociousness came to be Boone’s signature qualities as an athlete, for which he credits several people. Hailing from a family of athletes — he and his five siblings all won college basketball scholarships — Boone was first schooled by his older brother Don. Two of his early coaches, Josh Gibson and Neal Mosser, are remembered for their old-school emphasis on fundamentals, discipline and, above all else, winning.
The late older brother of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, Josh Gibson, was a former jock who shaped many fine athletes as a youth sports coach in northeast Omaha. Boone, whose first love was baseball, played ball under Gibson, whose fiery demeanor — he was known to physically challenge cheating officials and abusive fans — taught him to never back down.
The strict Mosser coached many greats while head basketball coach at Omaha Technical High School. Boone recalls Mosser as being “a very fine coach, but a very tough coach,” whose formidable presence and insistence on perfection ensured “you did what he said.” Quitting on a play or sitting out to pamper a boo-boo were unacceptable.
But the real story is how this late-bloomer became a professional all-star and record holder at all after an unheralded prep career at Tech, where he didn’t start until his final year. As a kid, he had some serious game, but he was small and came up when Tech was a talent-laden powerhouse. As late as his junior year he rode the bench on the fabled 1963 Tech squad led by the great Fred Hare, a phenom Boone and others call “the best basketball player to come out of the state.”
When Boone became a starter, he helped keep Tech a contender, but was thought unlikely to play major college ball due to his height — even on tip-toes, about 5’8” — and his 140-pound frame. Yet he still harbored big-time hoop dreams. He wouldn’t let anything stop him from achieving them either, even if he had to will himself to grow, which perhaps he did. Then there was his secret motivation.
“I remember playing in a league down at the local YMCA and just having a good time — scoring points — and this friend of mine asked one of the officials if he thought I could play major college basketball and the guy said, ‘No way,’ Boone recalled. “That was always in the back of my mind because I thought I could. If there was anything in my life that I can say inspired me, it was those comments.”
The short, scrawny Boone yearned to follow in the footsteps of near north side athletic greats like Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer and Gale Sayers. The youngster showcased his playing abilities at Kountze Park and in the rough-and-tumble leagues at Bryant Center, the mecca of north Omaha hoops, where he went head-to-head with Omaha’s finest players.
Yet his dreams seem stalled. There was, of course, his nagging lack of size, as well as the absence of interest from college recruiters. Boone, who grew up poor in the Logan Fontenelle housing project, knew an athletic scholarship was his only sure ticket to college. Then two things happened to give him a chance.
First, he and a Tech High teammate were offered a package deal to Clarinda Community College. These days, junior college ball in Clarinda, Iowa, a rural town whose white-bread, slow-paced life was “a culture shock,” is as far from major college hoops as you get. But Boone made the most of his only season there by averaging about 26 points a game. In a matchup versus the University of Nebraska junior varsity squad, which included future star Stu Lantz, Boone burned the Huskers. But a hoped-for invitation to join Nebraska never came from then-head coach Joe Cipriano.
Second, a sudden, dramatic growth spurt at season’s end turned Boone into a strapping physical specimen, but with the quickness he had as a smaller player. He finally had the look of a major college prospect.
“As I started to grow, I started to inch up and to get bigger and stronger. I started to get muscles naturally, without lifting weights,” Boone said.
Just as Boone got some feelers from Iowa’s two state universities, Mosser pointed him out to Idaho State University head coach Claude Retherford, a roommate and teammate of Mosser’s at Nebraska. Retherford took Mosser’s word that Boone was a diamond-in-the-rough and signed him unseen. Boone headed to Boise, Idaho, little realizing it would be the start of a long and fruitful association with the Rocky Mountain West that continues to this day.
Playing in a full-court running scheme that complemented his coast-to-coast style, Boone soon developed into a bona fide pro prospect. In addition to being able to run the floor and dog opponents all night long, his strength and fierce competitiveness added intimidating dimensions to his all-around game.
“I was a very strong player. I was a guy who even though I was only 6’2”, could go up and play forward, and I did on a number of occasions because of the strong physical style I had. I didn’t back down. I didn’t take any shit from anyone. I would fight,” Boone said.
Far more than an enforcer on the court, he was also a capable scorer, an excellent free-throw shooter, passer and rebounder.
By his senior season he was being courted by both the Dallas Chaparrals of the fledgling ABA and the NBA’s expansion Phoenix Suns. On Retherford’s advice, Boone opted for the ABA, a league renowned then and fondly remembered for its free, open, playground style of fast-breaks and flamboyant dunks. That attitude extended to its innovative rules, including the 3-point shot and the use of a red, white and blue ball. After being traded to the ABA’s Utah Stars, Boone enjoyed his best seasons, leading his Salt Lake City-based club to the 1971 ABA title. Teaming with fellow ABA legends Willie Wise and Zelmo Beaty, Boone sparked the Stars to the championship, a feat he ranks as the “greatest accomplishment” of his career.
“That’s the ultimate thing you can achieve in a team sport, regardless of all the individual accomplishments you had as a player,” he said. “Very few teams get there.”
While he will forever be associated with The Streak, he is quick to point out he was fundamentally sound. Boone, the third leading scorer in ABA history, owns career league averages of 18.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists a game. His lifetime field goal percentage is 46 percent and his lifetime free throw percentage is 84 percent.
As a starter his first two years in the NBA, Boone continued his dominant play, posting 20 points a game in two seasons with the Kansas City Kings before spending his last three years as a valuable reserve and role player, first with the Los Angeles Lakers and then the Utah Jazz.
While gaining NBA validation was important to Boone, his years in the wild and woolly ABA are the ones he remembers most fondly. After all, it was in the circus-like, street-ball atmosphere of the upstart league where the thing he is best remembered for — The Streak — began.
“It was a fun league. It was a very attractive league and fun to watch because it was so wide open. The league was different from the NBA. The style of play was run and gun. I think that approach right there is the reason we ended up with your Julius Ervings and George Gervins right out of college and why guys like Rick Barry jumped leagues (early in his career, going from the NBA to the ABA),” Boone said. “Even today, if you talk to people who grew up in it, they’ll tell you we had the most popular brand of basketball you’d ever want to see.”
Before the leagues merged in 1976, a red-hot rivalry existed between the ABA and NBA, and debate raged over which featured the better players. As Boone saw it, the ABA had a decided talent advantage except in one category. “We had all the best guards and forwards and the NBA had the big men. I thought the NBA was a little afraid of us.”
Other than the occasional player defection or draft coup, it was a rivalry existing in people’s minds, not on the basketball court. The exceptions were hotly contested inter-league exhibition games staged in the years leading up to the merger. For the ABA, it was a chance to gain respect. For the NBA, an opportunity to put the brash young pretenders in their place.
“We took it as a challenge,” Boone said, “because not only were we looked at as a minor league, guys like Red Auerbach (the Boston Celtics’s famed former coach and general manager) had the attitude that we would just go away. I think we took pride in beating them.”
In the overall interleague rivalry, the ABA edged the NBA 79 wins to 76. In particular, Boone recalls the throttling his Utah Stars dealt the NBA’s Kansas City Kings, a team he joined only a year later after the merger made him the third player selected in the NBA dispersal draft.
In the spirit of fairness, however, Boone acknowledges that in a much-hyped 1972 meeting between the two leagues‚ defending champions — his Utah Stars and the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks — his Stars got whipped by the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-led Bucks. Jabbar dropped his trademark shot, the “sky hook,” on them all night.
Early in Boone’s career his consecutive games played streak was something he was largely unaware of. It only assumed bigger-than-life dimensions when the number of games played reached into the hundreds, and club officials and media types brought it to his attention. “The longer it continued the more you started to think about it,” he said.
The streak is a remarkable feat considering Boone’s bruising style of play and the wear and tear anyone accumulates over the course of each 80-game regular season. Basketball is, after all, a running, jumping sport filled with contact on rebounds, picks, screens and post-up moves, and by head-first dives for loose balls on an unforgiving hard court. “It’s a blessing I was able to do that,” he said.
Besides an iron will and gritty attitude, Boone attributes the streak to the care he took in preparing for games and in staying fit.
“I never had a pulled muscle, hamstring, groin or anything like that and I attribute that to my old high school coach, Neal Mosser, who always had us stretch and take care of ourselves like that. Conditioning is something I took a lot of pride in. It was very difficult for me to work out with someone because it just seemed like they didn’t work out as hard as I did, and so it would set me back,” Boone said.
“My workouts were always basketball drills and road running, but more sprints. The key was my weight never fluctuated. Unlike a lot of guys who had to play themselves into shape and were two to three weeks behind, whenever I got to camp I was ready to go.”
Like other old-school warriors, Boone looks at his iron man streak as a badge of honor and derides the trend among modern athletes to coddle themselves and their injuries by “sitting out with everything from a hang-nail to a bad attitude.”
After a storied 13-year ride as a pro, Boone retired at age 35. Like many retired athletes, Boone struggled to find an outlet for his competitiveness.
“Very, very tough, especially if you want to continue playing basketball,” he said of the recreational leagues he participated in. “The NBA is physical and after retiring I found myself having to go back to high school rules. A tough adjustment. I tried it, but stopped because again I was a physical player.”
Boone’s aggressiveness was not appreciated. He wasn’t out to be a bully, he said, it’s just that’s the only way he knew how to play.
“It’s basic. Sports for the most part is muscle-memory. A lot of things just naturally happen out there, especially if you’ve been doing it for a number of years, and it’s awfully difficult to stop it.”
He next tried fast-pitch softball but after competing for several years in local leagues he lost interest when he realized the friends who’d talked him into playing in the first place had all quit. And so at age 41 he came to the sport that’s his new passion — golf.
“The greatest game I found for an ex-athlete who is so competitive and such a perfectionist is golf. It’s an individual sport. If you screw up you kick yourself in the butt. It’s so challenging that you want to beat the game and only Tiger Woods and the other guys on the tour can beat this game.”
He gets in some golf when he returns for the annual Bob Gibson Classic, an event he enjoys because of the opportunity it affords to hang out with other sports legends. He feels camaraderie among his fellow old lions.
“There’s so many stories. We all recognize each other for what we did. Even though there may be a guy you didn’t care for, you have respect for him for what he was able to do on the field or on the court,” he said. “The older you get, there’s more respect and a lot of the things you disliked about a person go away. It’s like a reunion. You wouldn’t believe the ribbing guys take. It’s a lot of fun.”
While Boone still gets back to Omaha, where he has family, Salt Lake City is his home.
“Salt Lake City is where I had my best years and where I have a lot of respect. When I retired I moved back to Omaha for about six years before going back to Salt Lake City. Yes, I’m from Omaha, but even though people talk about me being from here — it wasn‚t like I was ever a star here. I was a star in Salt Lake City. Being who I am there I can get things done. It makes a difference.”
Boone rues the disappearance of the Omaha he once knew.
“I just know the areas I grew up proud of and patronizing on North 24th Street are no longer there.”
Like the in-progress Loves Jazz & Arts Center to pay homage to North Omaha’s rich musical heritage, Boone would like to see something done to commemorate its great athletes. There is talk about plans for a north Omaha athletic museum or hall of fame.
“So many athletes came out of Omaha that were not only great college players but ended up being great professional players,” he said.
Whether or not such a showcase ever is built, Boone plans to add to his newest streak — since starting as the Jazz color commentator 15 years ago, he hasn’t missed a single game. An “iron man” to the end.
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Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
This is another installment from the series I wrote about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. That series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 2004-2005. The subject of this article is Don Benning, who like Marion Hudson, broke barriers left and right. Most of his groundbreaking accomplishments came at Omaha University, now known as the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he was head wrestling coach, an assistant football coach, and a professor. To find out more about Benning’s time as UNO wrestling coach read my story, UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change, on this same blog site. Look for more of my stories from the Out to Win series in coming weeks.
Former UNO Wrestling Coach Don Benning: Man of Steel
©by Leo Adam Biga
Wrestling is a proving ground. In an ultimate test of will and endurance, the wrestler first battles himself and then his opponent until one is left standing with arms raised overhead in victory. In a life filled with mettle-testing experiences both inside and outside athletics, Don Benning has made the sport he became identified with a personal metaphor for grappling with the challenges a proud, strong black man like himself faces in a racially intolerant society.
A multi-sport athlete at North High School and then-Omaha University (now UNO), the inscrutable Benning brought the same confidence and discipline he displayed as a competitor on the mat and the field to his short but legendary coaching tenure at UNO and he’s applied those same qualities to his 42-year education career, most of it spent with the Omaha Public Schools. Along the way, this man of iron and integrity, who at 68 is as solid as his bedrock principles, made history.
At UNO, he forged new ground as America’s first black head coach of a major team sport at a mostly white university. He guided his 1969-70 squad to a national NAIA team championship, perhaps the first major team title won by a Nebraska college or university. His indomitable will led a diverse mix of student-athletes to success while his strong character steered them, in the face of racism, to a higher ground.
When, in 1963, UNO president Milo Bail gave the 26-year-old Benning, then a graduate fellow, the chance to he took the reins over the school’s fledgling wrestling program, the rookie coach knew full well he would be closely watched.
“Because of the uniqueness of the situation and the circumstances,” he said, “I knew if I failed I was not going to be judged by being Don Benning, it was going to be because I was African-American.”
Besides serving as head wrestling coach and as an assistant football staffer, he was hired as the school’s first full-time black faculty member, which in itself was enough to shake the rafters at the staid institution.
“Those old stereotypes were out there — Why give African-Americans a chance when they don’t really have the ability to achieve in higher education? I was very aware those pressures were on me,” he said, “and given those challenges I could not perform in an average manner — I had to perform at the highest level to pass all the scrutiny I would be having in a very visible situation.”
Benning’s life prepared him for proving himself and dealing with adversity.
“The fact of the matter is,” he said, “minorities have more difficult roads to travel to achieve the American Dream than the majority in our society. We’ve never experienced a level playing field. It’s always been crooked, up hill, down hill. To progress forward and to reach one’s best you have to know what the barriers or pitfalls are and how to navigate them. That adds to the difficulty of reaping the full benefits of our society but the absolute key is recognizing that and saying, ‘I’m not going to allow that to deter me from getting where I want to get.’ That was already a motivating factor for me from the day I got the job. I knew good enough wasn’t good enough — that I had to be better.”
Shortly after assuming his UNO posts his Pullman Porter father and domestic worker mother died only weeks apart. He dealt with those losses with his usual stoicism. As he likes to say, “Adversity makes you stronger.”
Toughing it out and never giving an inch has been a way of life for Benning since growing up the youngest of five siblings in the poor, working-class 16th and Fort Street area. He said, “Being the only black family in a predominantly white northeast Omaha neighborhood — where kids said nigger this or that or the other — it translated into a lot of fights, and I used to do that daily. In most cases we were friends…but if you said THAT word, well, that just meant we gotta fight.”
Despite their scant formal education, he said his parents taught him “some valuable lessons scholars aren’t able to teach.” Times were hard. Money and possessions, scarce. Then, as Benning began to shine in the classroom and on the field (he starred in football, wrestling and baseball), he saw a way out of the ghetto. Between his work at Kellom Community Center, where he later coached, and his growing academic-athletic success, Benning blossomed.
“It got me more involved, it expanded my horizons and it made me realize there were other things I wanted,” he said.
But even after earning high grades and all-city athletic honors, he still found doors closed to him. In grade school, a teacher informed him the color of his skin was enough to deny him a service club award for academic achievement. Despite his athletic prowess Nebraska and other major colleges spurned him.
At UNO, where he was an oft-injured football player and unbeaten senior wrestler, he languished on the scrubs until “knocking the snot” out of a star gridder in practice, prompting a belated promotion to the varsity. For a road game versus New Mexico A&M he and two black mates had to stay in a blighted area of El Paso, Texas — due to segregation laws in host Las Cruces, NM — while the rest of the squad stayed in plush El Paso quarters. Terming the incident “dehumanizing,” an irate Benning said his coaches “didn’t seem to fight on our behalf while we were asked to give everything for the team and the university.”
Upon earning his secondary education degree from UNO in 1958 he was dismayed to find OPS refusing blacks. He was set to leave for Chicago when Bail surprised him with a graduate fellowship (1959 to 1961). After working at the North Branch YMCA from ‘61 to ‘63, he rejoined UNO full-time. Still, he met racism when whites automatically assumed he was a student or manager, rather than a coach, even though his suit-and-tie and no-nonsense manner should have been dead giveaways. It was all part of being black in America.
To those who know the sanguine, seemingly unflappable Benning, it may be hard to believe he ever wrestled with doubts, but he did.
“I really had to have, and I didn’t know if I had it at that particular time, a maturity level to deal with these issues that belied my chronological age.”
Before being named UNO’s head coach, he’d only been a youth coach and grad assistant. Plus, he felt the enormous symbolic weight attending the historic spot he found himself in.
“You have to understand in the early 1960s, when I was first in these positions, there wasn’t a push nationally for diversity or participation in society,” he said. “The push for change came in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act, when organizations were forced to look at things differently. As conservative a community as Omaha was and still is it made my hiring more unusual. I was on the fast track…
“On the academic side or the athletic side, the bottom line was I had to get the job done. I was walking in water that hadn’t been walked in before. I could not afford not to be successful. Being black and young, there was tremendous pressure…not to mention the fact I needed to win.”
Win his teams did. In eight seasons at the helm Benning’s UNO wrestling teams compiled an 87-24-4 dual mark, including a dominating 55-3-2 record his last four years. Competing at the NAIA level, UNO won one national team title and finished second twice and third once, crowning several individual national champions. But what really set UNO apart is that it more than held its own with bigger schools, once even routing the University of Iowa in its own tournament. Soon, the Indians, as UNO was nicknamed, became known as such a tough draw that big-name programs avoided matching them, less they get embarrassed by the small school.
The real story behind the wrestling dynasty Benning built is that he did it amid the 1960s social revolution and despite meager resources on campus and hostile receptions away from home. Benning used the bad training facilities at UNO and the booing his teams got on the road as motivational points.
His diverse teams reflected the times in that they were comprised, like the ranks of Vietnam War draftees, of poor white, black and Hispanic kids. Most of the white athletes, like Bernie Hospodka, had little or no contact with blacks before joining the squad. The African-American athletes, empowered by the Black Power movement, educated their white teammates to inequality. Along the way, things happened — such as slights and slurs directed at Benning and his black athletes, including a dummy of UNO wrestler Mel Washington hung in effigy in North Carolina — that forged a common bond among this disparate group of men committed to making diversity work in the pressure-cooker arena of competition.
“We went through a lot of difficult times and into a lot of hostile environments together and Don was the perfect guy for the situation,” said Hospodka, the 1970 NAIA titlist at 190 pounds. “He was always controlled, always dignified, always right, but he always got his point across. He’s the most mentally tough person you’d ever want to meet. He’s one of a kind. We’re all grateful we got to wrestle for Don. He pushed us very hard. He made us all better. We would go to war with him anytime.”
Brothers Roy and Mel Washington, winners of five individual national titles, said Benning was a demanding “disciplinarian” whom, Mel said, “made champions not only on the mat but out there in the public eye, too. He was more than a coach, he was a role model, a brother, a father figure.” Curlee Alexander, 115-pound NAIA titlist in 1969 and a wildly successful Omaha prep wrestling coach, said the more naysayers “expected Don to fail, the more determined he was to excel. By his look, you could just tell he meant business. He had that kind of presence about him.”
Away from the mat, the white and black athletes may have gone their separate ways but where wrestling was concerned they were brothers rallying around their perceived identity as outcasts from the poor little school with the black coach.
“It’s tough enough to develop a team to such a high skill level that they win a national championship if you have no other factors in the equation,” Benning said, “but if you have in the equation prejudice and discrimination that you and the team have to face then that makes it even more difficult. But those things turned into a rallying point for the team.
“The white and black athletes came to understand they had more commonalities than differences. It was a sociological lesson for everyone. The key was how to get the athletes to share a common vision and goal. We were able to do that. The athletes that wrestled for me are still friends today. They learned about relationships and what the real important values are in life.”
His wrestlers still have the highest regard for him and what they shared.
“I don’t think I could have done what I did with anyone else,” Hospodka said. “Because of the things we went through together I’m convinced I’m a better human being. There’s a bond there I will never forget.” Mel Washington said, “I can’t tell you how much this man has done for me. I call him the legend.” The late Roy Washington, who changed his name to Dhafir Muhammad, said, “I still call coach for advice.” Alexander credits Benning with keeping him in school and inspiring his own coaching/teaching path.
After establishing himself as a leader Benning was courted by big-time schools to head their wrestling and football programs. Instead, he left the profession in 1971, at age 34, to pursue an educational administration career. Why leave coaching so young? Family and service. At the time he and wife Marcidene had begun a family — today they are parents to five grown children and two grandkids — and when coaching duties caused him to miss a daughter’s birthday, he began having second thoughts about the 24/7 grind athletics demands.
Besides, he said, he was driven to address “the inequities that existed in the school system. I thought I could make a difference in changing policies and perhaps making things better for all students, specifically minority students. My ultimate goal was to be superintendent.”
Working to affect change from within, Benning feels he “changed attitudes” by showing how “excellence could be achieved through diversity.” During his OPS tenure, he operated, just like at Omaha University, “in a fish bowl.” Making his situation precarious was the fact he straddled two worlds — the majority culture that viewed him variously as a token or a threat and the minority culture that saw him as a beacon of hope.
But even among the black community, Benning said, there was a militant segment that distrusted one of their own working for The Man.
“You really weren’t looked upon too kindly if you were viewed as part of the system,” he said. “On the other side of it, working in an overwhelmingly majority white situation presented its own particular set of challenges.”
What got him through it all was his own core faith in himself. “Evidently, some people would say I’m a confident individual. A few might say I’m arrogant. I would say I’m highly confident. I can’t overemphasize the fact you have to have a strong belief in self and you also have to realize that a lot of times a leader has to stand alone. There are issues and problems that set him or her apart from the crowd and you can’t hide from it. You either handle it or you fail and you’re out.”
Benning handled it with such aplomb that he: brought UNO to national prominence, laying the foundation for its four-decade run of excellence on the mat; became a distinguished assistant professor; and built an impressive resume as an OPS administrator, first as assistant principal at Central High School, then as director of the Department of Human-Community Relations and finally as assistant superintendent.
During his 26-year OPS career he spearheaded Omaha’s smooth desegregation plan, formed the nationally recognized Adopt-a-School business partnership and advocated for greater racial equity within the schools through such initiatives as the Minority Intern Program and the Pacesetter Academy, an after school program for at-risk kids. Driving him was the responsibility he felt to himself, and by extension, fellow blacks, to maximize his and others’ abilities.
“I had a vision and a mission for myself and I set about developing a plan so I could reach my goal, and that was basically to be the best I could be. As a coach and educator what I have really enjoyed is helping people grow and reach their potential to be the best they can be. That’s my goal, that’s my mission, and I try to hold to it.”
His OPS career ended prematurely when, in 1997, he retired after being snubbed for the district’s superintendency and being asked by current schools CEO John Mackiel to reapply for the assistant superintendent’s post he’d held since 1979. Benning called it “an affront” to his exemplary record and longtime service.
About his decision to leave OPS, he said, “I could have continued as assistant superintendent, but I chose not to because who I am and what I am is not negotiable.” A critic of neighborhood schools, he did not bend on a practice he deems detrimental to the quality of education for minorities. “I compromised on a lot of things but not on those issues. The thing I’ve tried not to do, and I don’t think I have, is negotiate away my integrity, my beliefs, my values.”
Sticking to his guns has exacted a toll. “I’ve battled against the odds all my life to achieve the successes I have and there’s been some huge prices to pay for those successes.”
His unwavering stances have sometimes made him an unpopular figure. His staunch loyalty to his hometown has meant turning down offers to coach and run school districts elsewhere. His refusal to undermine his principles has found him traveling a hard, bitter, lonely road, but it’s a path whose direction is true to his heart.
“I found out long ago there were things I would do that didn’t please every one and in those types of experiences I had to kind of stand alone or submit. I developed a strong inner being where I somewhat turned inward for strength. I kind of said to myself, I just want to do what I know to be right and if people don’t like it, well, that’s the way it is. I was ready to deal with the consequences. That’s the personality I developed from a very young age.”
Those who’ve worked with Benning see a man of character and conviction. Former OPS superintendent Norbert Schuerman described him as “proud, determined, disciplined, opinionated, committed, confident, political,” adding, “Don kept himself very well informed on major issues and because he was not bashful in expressing his views, he was very helpful in sensitizing others to race relations. His integrity and his standing in the community helped minimize possible major conflicts.”
OPS Program Director Kenneth Butts said, “He’s a very principled man. He’s very demanding. He’s very much about doing what is right rather than what is politically expedient. He cares. He’s all about equity and folks being treated fairly.”
After the flap with OPS Benning left the job on his own terms rather than play the stooge, saying, “The Omaha Public Schools situation was a major disappointment to me…To use a boxing analogy, it staggered me, but it didn’t knock me down and it didn’t knock me out. Having been an athlete and a coach and won and lost a whole lot in my life I would be hypocritical if I let disappointment in life defeat me and to change who I am. I quickly moved on.”
Indeed, the same year he left OPS he joined the faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he is coordinator of urban education and senior lecturer in educational administration in its Teachers College. In his current position he helps prepare a new generation of educators to deal with the needs of an ever more diverse school and community population.
Even with the progress he’s seen blacks make, he’s acutely aware of how far America has to go in healing its racial divide.
“This still isn’t a color-blind society. I don’t say that bitterly — that’s just a fact of life. But until we resolve the race issue, it will not allow us to be the best we can be as individuals and as a country,” he said.
As his own trailblazing cross-cultural path has proven, the American ideal of epluribus unum — “out of many, one” — can be realized. He’s shown the way.
“As far as being a pioneer, I never set out to be a part of history. I feel very privileged and honored having accomplished things no one else had accomplished. So, I can’t help but feel that maybe I’ve made a difference in some people’s lives and helped foster inclusiveness in our society rather than exclusiveness. Hopefully, I haven’t given up the notion I still can be a positive force in trying to make things better.”
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Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
Dana College in Blair, Neb. unexpectedly closed its doors this month, bringing an end to a small but proud institution. One chapter in the school’s history concerns an almost mythic-like figure named Marion Hudson. The following article tells the remarkable story of this gifted, multi-sport athlete who seemingly came out of nowhere to leave his mark behind at Dana. It was the early 1950s and he was a black student-athlete of legendary ability on Omaha‘s north side. Circumstances prevented him from ever demonstrating his talents in sanctioned high school competition, but the word got out and when all white Dana was looking to integrate its campus school officials asked around who might be a good candidate and they were referred to Hudson. He went there and immediately made an impact as a student-athlete. As you’ll read, his athletic exploits read like something out of fiction, but they were quite real. The reason you’ve never heard of Hudson is he never tried out for the Olympics in track and field and he never turned pro in football, levels of competition many felt he was capable of. Hudson’s life after college revolved around work and family, and then a series of health problems began breaking down his body. When I met him at the nursing home he resided in he was but a shell of his former self physically, but he still retained a fighting spirit and a sense of humor. He’s since passed.
My story was part of a series I wrote on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends entitled Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. It appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) during 2004-2005. I hope to turn the series into a book. Dana College and Marion Hudson are both gone now, but they’ve left behind a rich legacy, and this is my small tribute to them.
In the coming days I will be adding more stories from the series on this site, including profiles of legends Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, and Johnny Rodgers, and profiles of other great athletes who, like Marion Hudson, you may not have heard of but deserve your attention.
Dana College Legend Marion Hudson, The Greatest Athlete You’ve Never Heard of Before
©by Leo Adam Biga
You may think you know a lot about Omaha’s rich inner city athletic heritage. Sure, you know Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, Mike McGee, Ahman Green. But chances are you’ve never even heard of Marion Hudson, which doesn’t change the fact he’s arguably the greatest athlete to ever come out of Omaha or, for that matter, Nebraska, and consequently among the finest athletes in American history.
Outside the small circle of survivors who competed with him or watched his athletic brilliance unfold in sport after sport, this little-known giant from the 1950s is rarely mentioned. He remains obscure today because he competed for a tiny private school, Dana College near Blair, Neb., and never went pro. But, as you will see, he should be known alongside those others, both for the unique circumstances that brought him there and for his possessing such phenomenal all-around skills that some of his football and track records still stand 50 years later.
Choose any measure or cliche of athletic prowess and it can be accurately applied to Hudson. He could run like the wind. He was as strong as a bull. He could swing a bat with power. Throw a ball a mile. Jump out of the gym. “Yeah, they called me the Boy with Springs in His Legs,” he said from the Sorensen Rehabilitation and Assisted Living Facility in north Omaha he now calls home. Words are a struggle. What’s left of his body contorts from the strain, his gnarled fingers twitching and his wide face screwing up in a grimace. His once strapping body ravaged by the affects of diabetes and a series of strokes.
Hudson navigates his power wheelchair in the center’s dining hall to greet a rare visitor. His legs above his knees were amputated years ago and his left side is partially paralyzed. He wears a T-shirt and his sweat pants are knotted at the nubs of his stumps. An ever-present cap reads Pilgrim Baptist Church, where he was married and still worships today. He flashes the winning smile that made him the big man on campus at Dana long ago, and where he’s been recently rediscovered. In 2003, Dana hosted a Marion Hudson Day and dedicated a scholarship in his name. Friends take him up to the school to catch an occasional athletic event.
There, he is a symbol for possibilities. Before he enrolled in 1952, the school never had a black student. Like his boyhood hero, Jackie Robinson, Hudson endured indignities in breaking down barriers. He couldn’t stay or eat with the team on road trips. He absorbed name calling. His character and achievement set an example. Within a year of his arrival, more blacks followed. A quiet man, he let his performances on the field, the cinder track and the court speak loudest for him.
He dominated whatever sport was in season. But it was in track and field he showed the full range of his abilities. For proof of his extraordinary gifts, one only has to look at the numbers. A versatile competitor in college, Hudson would routinely enter as many as seven or eight individual events in a single meet. There was the javelin, the discus and shot put, the 120 high hurdles, the 220 low hurdles, the 100 and 220-yard dashes, the broad jump, hop-step-and-jump and high jump and the 880-yard relay. On average, he’d win four or five, placing highly in others, often going up against big school foes. At his last college meet, he won seven events and placed second in another. He was among the nation’s leaders in his specialities. All the more remarkable considering he had a bad throwing hand, a collapsed lung and chronic asthma. It was difficult for him to recover from one event to the next.
But, as usual, Hudson found a way. “He was built so good, he was able to compensate,” said Rodney Wead, a former Omaha social services director who grew up with Hudson and competed with him at Central High School and at Dana, where Wead, a year younger, followed him. “I can’t tell you the number of times he would run a 9-point something 100-yard-dash and come back and jump 23-8 or 24-feet and then run over and throw the javelin 200-feet and then anchor our relay team.”
“He could do so many things,” said Richard Nared, a cousin and former fine athlete himself at Central High. Don Benning, the UNO wrestling coaching legend who played one season in the same backfield with Hudson at Dana, said, “He had tremendous speed and strength. He could do a lot of things really well. He was ahead of his time in terms of his ability in track. He was a great all-around athlete.” Benning said any conversation about Omaha’s athletic greats must include Hudson.
The Dana community has even come to refer to Hudson as “our own Jim Thorpe,” a comparison not without merit.
Nebraska (R) Congressman Tom Osborne’s superb athletic career at Hastings College roughly coincided with Hudson’s Dana glory years. In a fax sent to Hudson on the eve of his special day at Dana, Osborne described him as “one of the best athletes in Nebraska’s history.” Wead said Osborne has told him Hudson “was probably the most gifted individual in track and field he had ever seen.”
The points Hudson earned all by himself outpaced entire teams and accounted for most of Dana’s totals, helping the Vikings become a track powerhouse. He was a champion at major events like the Kansas Relays. He once outscored the combined Big 7 at the Drake Relays. His career personal record marks in his three best events — 9.9 in the 100-yard-dash, 24-6 in the broad jump, 46-2 1/4 in the hop-step-and- jump and 208-8 1/2 in the javelin — ranked near the top in the country, regardless of division. His broad jump and javelin bests were near 1952 Olympic-winning marks. His school long jump and javelin records have yet to be broken.
But, as usual with Hudson, there’s a story behind these numbers that puts in perspective what he did and offers tantalizing speculation about how much more he may have achieved. For example, Hudson never competed in organized track and field before college. He can’t recall using starting blocks early in his college sprinting career. He taught himself how to high jump. The javelin he threw was an awkward, unstable wood model that wobbled.
“Of all his events, I think the javelin was his best,” Wead said. “If only there’d been a coach to teach him how to really throw it. The good javelin throwers hold the javelin behind them as they approach their mark and they use a crossover step for momentum and balance in their release. Well, he would hold it out front and kind of juggle it as he was running, and then he’d almost come to a complete stop before throwing it. Can you imagine if someone taught him the proper footwork and mechanics, how much farther he would have thrown that darn thing?”
Hudson said his most enduring memory from his track days is the 202-foot missile he launched to win the 1954 Drake Relays.
“I threw it, and it sang. It vibrated as it left my hand. Yeah, any time I got a good one off, it would whistle in the air,” he said, breaking into a big smile and laugh.
How he even came to throw the javelin is a tale befitting his legend. The story goes that Hudson was walking across the track infield, where a teammate, Lynn Farrens, let loose some javelin tosses. His interest peaked, Hudson asked if he could give it a try. Using an unorthodox grip, Hudson let one fly far beyond Farrens’ marks. His teammates recount a similar Paul Bunyan moment in the long jump. Hudson was just messing around in the pit at practice one day when he uncorked a series of jumps that landed clear outside the pit, some 24 feet from the take-off board.
Observers feel Hudson may have had a shot at the Olympics as a decathlete, but the opportunity never presented itself. He did not fare well one of the few times he competed in the decathlon — finishing 10th at the 1955 Kansas Relays. Wead said Hudson was at a distinct disadvantage due to his asthma and impaired lung.
Dana College Pioneer Memorial
On the gridiron, Hudson was an explosive runner who, despite missing much of his junior year due to injury and playing in a Split-T formation offense that spread the ball around, he still racked up 2,383 rushing yards, on an eye-popping 7.78 yards per carry, and 30 touchdowns for his career. His rushing average has never been approached. He broke off dozens of long runs from scrimmage, displaying a combination of speed and power rarely found then.
“All I needed was a crack in the line, and I was gone,” Hudson said.
Nared, who made the pilgrimage up to Dana to see his cuz play, said, “They didn’t even see him coming because he’d either run by you or he’d run over you. He was awesome. They couldn’t really touch him. He had the speed of a Marshal Faulk. The moves of a Gale Sayers. The power of a Walter Payton. They hated to see him come through the line.” Hudson was, by all accounts, also a dangerous receiver and kick returner and played a mean defensive back.
He was a star from the start for Dana, showcasing his big play capabilities right away with a 75-yard touchdown reception versus Tarkio and an 87-yard scoring scamper against Iowa Central his freshman season. He also had a flair for the dramatic — tearing free for that 87-yarder on the first play from scrimmage. “The very first time I took a handoff, I squeezed between the line and I took off running and 100 yards later I was in the end zone. I remember that just like it was yesterday,” he said. The very next year he burned Iowa Central on another 87-yard scoring jaunt, this time to open the second half in wet and muddy conditions. “People from Dana still talk about that run,” said Wead, who has served on the school’s board of trustees.
Nared said Hudson developed a following from Omaha. “People would come to see Marion play. Even the older guys. They all knew about him. They knew he was a tremendous athlete. You’d have 60-70 cars full of people come up and see him play on a Friday night. They wanted to see something different, and they saw it.” “Yeah, they’d come out to see Hudson run,” Marion confirmed with pride. “He was so awesome in college he would literally have crowds of people follow him,” recalled Wead, who ran track with him. “They knew he was coming. Sometimes it was hard for him to get his jumps together for all the fans milling about. They loved to watch him throw the javelin. Then or now it’s rare to see a black javelin thrower. And here was this handsome, strong black man throwing it 200-odd feet.”
In basketball, Hudson played a different game from the rest. His was an air-born artist of swooping, soaring drives and slam dunks in an era of set shooters and backdoor cutters. The 6-0 Hudson, able to dunk from a standing jump under the basket, was a solid contributor, averaging about 9 points a game for the Vikings, although he did go-off some nights, like the career-high 31 he had versus Luther College. “Everything I threw up at the basket that game went in,” he said.
Multi-sport phenom Jim Thorpe was often a point of comparison for Marion Hudson and his athletic versatility
Like any bigger-than-life figure, Hudson’s legend began in childhood. A Floridian by birth, he did part of his early growing up in Omaha, where his family moved just prior to the start of World War II. The packing houses drew them and other blacks who migrated here from the deep south. The newcomer quickly earned a rep as a great natural athlete. He competed for the High Y Monarchs, a select North Omaha YMCA-based basketball team coached by Josh Gibson, an older brother of pitching great Bob Gibson. He ran roughshod over older players in the infamous Cold Bowl, an annual no-holds-barred football contest at Burdette Field. He outran and outkicked everybody in soccer, a sport once hugely popular in the inner city. In softball, he swatted balls so far they broke windows in the school across the way.
Whatever the action was, he was in the thick of it. “He was always exceptional. Always gifted,” Wead said. “Every time the guys would see Marion coming, they wanted him for their team,” Nared said. “Whatever team got him, they would always win.” Like any great athlete, Hudson worked at it. He mastered any sport he attempted and developed his own innovative training methods. As Wead recalled, obstacles, like fences, became hurdles Hudson cleared with ease.
At the cramped old Y Hudson would sky “higher than the rim on dunks and almost bump his head on the ceiling,” Nared said. Hudson’s hops were so explosive that when jumping center, Nared said, “the refs would blow their whistles and have them re-jump, telling him, ‘You’re jumping too soon.’ You know what Marion would say ‘Throw the ball higher.’ And he’d go up and get it again.”
Hudson improvised homemade pole vaults from sticks or branches for negotiating taller structures. He built himself up physically by shoveling loads of coal and lugging blocks of ice. He’s credited with introducing weight training at Dana, where dumbbells and barbells became the rage
“Marion was a good 195-pounds. All muscle. Quite dangerous and intimidating if you were in his way,” Wead said.
Just before starting high school, Hudson left with his family for Alaska, where his father was stationed with the Navy Air Corps during the war. Living in Kodiak, Hudson played some prep hoops and, in true mythic tradition, once had a run-in with a bear. He was delivering newspapers on his bicycle when, he said, “I came around a bend and there HE stood. I scared him. I took off down the hill and he was running behind me. But I made it back to the car. I got there, and there were bears all around it. Sniffing at it. I scared them, too.”
The family moved back here in 1951, just in time for his senior year at Central, but too late for him to compete athletically. Already a legend in The Hood for his remarkable running, jumping, throwing skills in area youth leagues and pickup games, he sat on the sidelines the entire term. Well, not quite. Football coach Frank Smagacz let him practice with the team even though he was ineligible to play. The coach knew he had a gem who loved the game. By virtue of never officially competing at the prep level in Nebraska, Hudson never had a chance to earn a letter, much less add his name to any state high school boys record books.
Still, his athletic and academic props were enough that when Dana College sought to integrate its student ranks, officials put out feelers for a suitable candidate and Hudson was recommended by Central coaches and faculty. This was 1952, only a few years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball and still years before the Freedom Fighter marches of Martin Luther King.
Dana students raised the funds to establish the scholarship Hudson received. The rest is history. His record-breaking athletic feats stand out, but he was more than just a jock. “He’s a bright and able guy,” Wead said. “He was a good biologist. He put his skills to work after college. He had a great baritone and toured with the Dana chorus.” Then there was how he dealt with the burden of his pioneering role.
Hudson has always said he felt welcomed and supported by his mostly white teammates, Wead said, “He had his buddies protecting him.” As black student-athletes, Wead and Hudson avoided trouble by staying away from Blair, where racial epithets were known to fly. Hudson was denied service and rooms on road trips to Kansas and Texas. As his rep grew, he was a targeted athlete. “They tried to hurt him a few times with dirty shots. Once, he lay there on the field for awhile and then he finally got up. It was scary,” Nared said. “I limped off,” Hudson said.
Wead said Hudson weathered the discrimination the same way he’s responded to the devastation of his body: “It was hard, but he handled it with grace.”
Beyond the glory, Hudson’s post-Dana life has been bittersweet. He lived in Minnesota after college, working for Honeywell 3M. Hard times forced him to change jobs. He went through two marriages. By the ‘70s, he moved back to Omaha, where he met and married Ella, with whom he raised a family, including foster children. He lent his singing voice to various choirs. He moved from job to job. His health problems then surfaced. “I began to see things happen to his body when he was in his early 40s,” Wead said. Complications from asthma and diabetes debilitated him and after the strokes and amputations he was placed in the professional care setting. “Hudson’s had a tough life. He just didn’t get a good shot in life. He’s kind of become a forgotten guy,” Wead said.
That ignoble fate prompted retired Scribner, Neb. schoolteacher Alex Meyer, a former track athlete who grew up idolizing Hudson, to befriend his idol. Meyer convinced Dana to hold its Marion Hudson Day, which Hudson attended with his family. Meyer visits Hudson often and takes him back to Dana for events. “Marion needed some attention. He deserves it. I was concerned that one of the great legends of Nebraska was wasting away with hardly anybody coming to see him,” Meyer said. “He did some superhuman things. He inspired me. I just try to keep Marion and others focused on his accomplishments. It’s my magnificent obsession.”
The humble Hudson called the new found attention “very nice. It seems like everything I went through was all worthwhile now.” His only regrets are not giving pro football a try. He has no doubt he could have played at the next level.
If nothing else, Hudson’s tale reveals how the story of Omaha’s inner city athletic greats is bigger than you imagined and remains incomplete without his legacy being included with that of his more famous counterparts. Hail, hail Marion Hudson.
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Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
Omaha has never been much of a boxing hotbed. Oh, there’s been the occasional fighter worth following from here who’s shown well in the amateur ranks at, say, the national golden gloves (though I’m not sure any native Nebraskan has made it to the Olympic Games in boxing) and in the pro ranks. Precious few have ever fought for a championship or even in the prelims of a title card. Unless you’re from Nebraska or live here or you have a strong rooting interest in or connection to Omaha boxers chances are you can’t name more than two or three ring worthies to ever come out of the state and do something memorialized in the boxing annals or the sport’s bible, Ring Magazine. The following story from my Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness series about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends does highlight a few of the better fighters Omaha’s produced though it’s by no means a comprehensive list. You’ll find the rest of my Out to Win installments by going to the Categories drop down menu or typing the title in the Search box.
The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood
©by Leo Adam Biga
If any Omaha inner city boxing legend had most of the prized fighting attributes, it was Harley Cooper, a two-time national Golden Gloves champion and 1964 Olympic qualifier. A tough Savannah, Ga. native, Cooper grew up fighting in ‘the hood,‘ but learned to box in the military. After he won the second of his Gloves titles while based at Offutt Air Force Base, he then became the U.S. Olympic light heavyweight entry. In peak form and riding an unbeaten streak, he was primed to bust heads in Tokyo. But on the eve of leaving for Japan, he was medically disqualified.
After transferring to Omaha, his new training ground became Hawk’s Gym, where his sparring partners included future pro heavyweight Lou Bailey. He shot up the amateur ranks by sweeping his first Golden Gloves. But he was no rookie, having compiled hundreds of hours in the ring and dozens of military bouts, winning service titles wherever he was assigned, including Japan and Europe.
“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” said Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren, a former prize fight matchmaker and longtime local observer. “The first time anybody saw him in the gym they knew this guy was going to be a national champion. He could punch. He could box. He could do it all. He was the most complete fighter I ever saw from around here. I never saw Harley Cooper lose a round in amateur fights in Omaha. He was that dominant.”
Cooper twice won the Gloves Trinity when he took the Omaha, Midwest and National tournaments in both ’63 and ’64. His first title run came, unexpectedly, as aheavyweight and culminated at the ’64 Chicago finals.
Cooper was a natural light-heavyweight, but after an overseas transfer to Nebraska he didn’t meet the weight requirements before the local Gloves tourney. Over the light-heavyweight limit, his handlers convinced him, against his better judgment, to compete as a heavyweight. He was an undersized 183 pounds. Even after he won the local-regional heavyweight titles, he wanted to move back to light-heavy, where he was more comfortable. “They wouldn’t let me move down,” he said of his trainers. “They kept saying, ‘Well, let’s see how far you can go.’” He went all the way. The underdog used superior quickness to offset his opponents’ size and power advantages to win just the second national Gloves title by a Nebraskan since the 1930s. In ’64, Cooper fought at his accustomed light-heavy spot and plowed through to the Nationals in Nashville. Cooper’s win in Nashville put him into the Olympic Trials box-off in New York, which he won.
Despite attractive offers, he never turned pro. First, there was his Air Force career. Second, he had a big family to feed, and a sure thing was better than a dream. Since retiring in ’73, his life has centered on kids at the North Omaha Boys Club, Glenwood State School and the Cornhusker Striders track program. But the pull of boxing never left, and so for 30 years he’s volunteered with the Great Plains Amateur Boxing Association. That body organizes and sanctions local-regional boxing cards like the Golden Gloves. He recently announced Omaha will host the 2006 national Gloves tournament.
“I love boxing. I’m lucky I have a wife that understands it’s such a big part of me.”
Occasional what-might-have-beens creep into his conversation. “There’s still some times when I kind of wish I had of (turned pro),” he said. “I was better than I realized I was at the time. I see these guys now and they just don’t look that good to me, man.”
An earlier Golden Gloves star who did go pro is Joey Parks, a lightweight contender in the late ’50s-early ’60s. A Kansas native, Parks moved to Omaha in 1950. Back home, he competed in football, basketball and baseball and always listened to the Friday night fights on the radio. His late brother, Jerry Parks, was a fine baseball player and longtime Omaha Parks and Recreation director.
Joey trained at the old City Mission Boxing Club at 22nd and Cass under legendary trainer Leonard Hawkins, who later became his father-in-law. Parks’ amateur career began slowly – he lost his first Gloves bout. He developed his skills during an Army hitch in South Korea and, when he returned, dominated. He won City and Midwest Gloves titles in ’55 and ’56, and advanced to the national finals the first year and to the semi-finals the next.
Parks went pro in ’57 and once held a No. 9 world ranking. His career highlights include three close, 10-round, non-title bouts with all-time lightweight champion Joe “Old Bones” Brown. Their first tussle, fought at the State Fair Coliseum in Albuquerque, NM, ended in a disputed draw that cost Parks a title shot. Parks opened a cut over Brown’s eye and dropped him for a one-count in the final round.
Parks lost the rematches by decisions. As great as Brown was, Parks said his toughest foe was future welterweight champ Curtis Cokes, who stopped him.
“He hit like a mule,” he said.
Parks took pride in being a busy, crowd-pleasing favorite. “I had the type of style where I pressed the fight. I kept going forward all the way. I always carried the fight to my opponent. I wouldn’t short change nobody. They got their money’s worth.” The Omahan relied on superb conditioning. “I stayed in tip-top shape. I did my road work every morning. I chopped wood. I sparred.”
He quit the ring in ’63 after a rope gave way in a fight down in Santa Fe, NM and he was sent sprawling, head first, into the ring apron. He was out cold for three minutes. Weeks of double vision later, he hung up his gloves. “A cat has nine lives, but I only have one.” Now 71, he stays fit walking and dancing. Long gone is the popularity that meant people stopped him on the street and treated him to meals, but he remembers his boxing career with pleasure. “It was sweet.”
One of the most devastating Omaha punchers is Lamont Kirkland. From 1975 to 1980 he won a record-tying six Midwest Golden Gloves titles by simply pummeling people into submission. After coming close, including a loss to future light-heavy champ Michael Spinks, Kirkland finally won a national championship – at 165-pounds – in 1980. He’s the last local fighter to win a national Gloves title. He enjoyed a good pro career that climaxed in a 1987 USBA super middleweight title fight against Lindell Holmes that Kirkland lost by TKO. “I never saw anybody give him a tough fight here,” local boxing expert Tom Lovgren said.
More Fighters and Some Coaches/Trainers
Midge Minor won multiple Omaha and Midwest Golden Gloves titles in the 1950s. Reggie Hughes and Willie “Boots” Washington were among other good boxers from that era’s inner city. Illinois-native Lou Bailey moved to Omaha and had a pro heavyweight career that saw him fight a future champ in George Foreman and many contenders. His son, Lou Bailey, Jr. won three light-heavy Midwest amateur titles.
Heavyweight Morris Jackson was the main rival of Ron “Bluffs Butcher” Stander, whom he met five times as an amateur and pro. “Yeah, we had some knockdown-dragouts,” said Jackson, who once beat the British Commonwealth champ.
After a run-in with the law (for armed robbery) that saw him do 29 months in jail, Jackson turned his life around and, in ’88, was ordained a minister in the Independent Assemblies of God Church. Now the chaplain at the Douglas County Correctional Center, he finds satisfaction in “being able to see men take responsibility for their lives and become better citizens, husbands, fathers. You can’t go through life without believing.” He received a full pardon from then-Gov. Ben Nelson in 1995.
Among Midwest champs, a trio of three-time titlists stands out: Sammy Cribbs was a ferocious puncherin the early ’80s; Kenny Friday was a sharp boxer in the early ’90s; and Bernard Davis was the class of 1998-2001. These and other champion boxers came out of Omaha’s CW Boxing Club. Carl Washington, the CW’s founder, director and namesake, coached with great success before assembling staffers like Midge Minor to continue training champions.
The late Leonard Hawkins was a trainer and coach for scores of amateur champions. His teams won numerous city titles. Based out of a series of gyms over the years, Hawkins also trained a talented stable of pros, most notably at the Fox Hole Gym, where he worked with Art Hernandez, Ron Stander and Lamont Kirkland, among others.
Midge Minor, left, fighting as an amateur
MORE BOXING STORIES FROM MY ARCHIVES
Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends MORRIS JACKSON
I knew the name Morris Jackson growing up because my older brother Dan was a boxing fan and I think he saw one of the grudge bouts between Jackson, the slick boxer, and Ron Stander, the Great White Hope slugger. Jackson was undeniably the superior boxer but it was Stander not Jackson who got a title shot against Joe Frazier. As the years went by I lost track of Jackson, only to read one day in the local daily about how he had gotten in trouble with the law and done time behind bars. There, he had a born again experience of such magnitude that after serving his time he went on to become a minister. His chosen ministry is poetic justice, too, as he pastors to incarcerated men. I finally got to meet and profile Jackson a few years ago. The story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Jackson and his transformation follows. My stories about Morris’ then-nemesis, Ron Stander, can also be found in this blog site, along with other stories about Omaha boxers, boxing coaches and gyms. Like most writers, I am always down for a good boxing story. There are several yet in me that I wish to tell and I am sure that others will reveal themselves when I least expect it.
Ex-Prizefighter and Con Turned-Preacher Man Morris Jackson Spreads the Good News
©by Leo Adam Biga
In his best three-piece, GQ-style suit, Morris Jackson looks like just another slick do-gooder to prisoners seeing him for the first time at the Douglas County Correctional Facility, where he’s chaplain with Good News Jail and Prison Ministry. But the large man soon separates himself from the pack when he tells them he used to be a prizefighter. Rattling off the famous names he met inside the ring — Ron Stander, Ernie Shavers, Ron Lyle, Larry Holmes — usually gets their attention. If not, what he says next, does. “My number is 30398.” That’s right, this preacher man did time. The former convict now stands on the other side of the cell as a born-again Christian and International Assemblies of God-ordained minister.
His 1975 armed robbery conviction sent him to the Nebraska Men’s Reformatory for a term of three to nine years. He served 22 months, plus seven more on work release. But being locked away wasn’t enough to reform Morris. His rebirth only happened years later, after squandering his freedom in a fast life leading to perdition. Referring to that transformation, one of several makeovers in his life, is enough to make even hardcore recidivists listen to his message of redemption.
“Then they hang on every word you’ve got to say, because they see a change. They really can’t believe you were there once yourself. Having Christ in your life really makes a big difference. Actually, it’s almost a visible presence — in your eyes, in your demeanor, in your voice, in your conversation — that people can notice,” said Jackson, whose prison ministry work dates back to 1992.
He first returned to the correctional system doing mission work for northwest Omaha’s Glad Tidings Church, where he still worships today. Reliving his incarceration experience behind the secured walls made him anxious.
“The first time I went, it was with fear and trembling because the last place I wanted to be in was anybody’s jail, hearing the doors close behind me,” he said.
To his relief, though, he sensed he had found a calling as an evangelist to cons.
“It was just as if I was right where I was supposed to be. The words were there. The life. The testimony. The word of God. My studies. The first time I did a service in the county jail there were 66 men present and 44 of those professed faith in Jesus Christ when given the opportunity. I said, ‘Man, I like this. I could do this all the time.’ Like I tell people, ‘Be careful what you say, because God is listening.’ I’m exactly where God wants me to be and I’m doing exactly what he wants me to do.”
Jackson’s had many occasions to reinvent himself, stemming back to his Texas childhood. As a youth, he lived with his family in an upper middle class part of Dallas. Then, he found out the man he thought was his father was actually his step-father. His real father was killed when Jackson was a year-old. Soon after this revelation, his mother and step-father split up and his world unraveled again. His mother got custody of him and his sister, but she could only afford a place in the projects. Already distraught over the divorce and the discovery he’d been lied to, he expressed his rage on the streets, where fighting was a rite of passage and survival mechanism in an area ruled by gangs.
“In Dallas, in the projects, you either had to be a good fighter or a fast runner, and I never could run too fast. I went from being a person who would see a fight coming and move away from it, to initiating fights. If you’d so much as look at me wrong, I’d haul off and hit you. I was getting into three-four fights a week. It was crazy. I guess I was an angry young man. Yet, I considered myself a meek person. I describe a meek person as a steel fist in a velvet glove. I would do everything I could to get out of a fight, but when I got cornered and I had to fight, I never lost one. Sometimes, I lost my temper and did something stupid.”
During this time, he lived a kind of double life. He was a star high school football and basketball player and a regular churchgoer, but also a notorious gangsta. His mother had grown up in the church before drifting away. When she found religion again, she made Morris and his sister attend services. He chafed at the fire-and-brimstone admonitions hollered down from the pulpit.
“The church I was raised in, you never heard a lot about grace. It was a lot of dos and donts and laws. You don’t smoke…don’t chew…don’t drink…don’t mess with girls. Of course, when I came of age where I could make my own decisions, there was no way I could live that kind of life when everybody else was having fun and I wasn’t doing anything.”
When his rebellion got to be too much, his mother kicked him out of the house. He went to live with his sister, stealing food to help support themselves.
His mother relocated to Omaha, where she had family, and she sent for her unrepentant son, hoping he’d find himself here. For a time, he did. He even prayed to lose his hair’s-edge temper, and it did leave him. When a neighbor training for the Golden Gloves prodded the strapping Jackson to join him at the old Swedish Auditorium, the newcomer did and soon found a home in the sport. Recognizing his talent, veteran handlers Harley Cooper, Leonard Hawkins, Ronnie Sutton, Don Slaughter and Yano DiGiacomo variously worked with him at the Foxhole Gym.
In his first amateur bout, he laid out cold his hulking opponent in a Lincoln smoker. His very next fight pitted him against the man who proved to be his main nemesis — Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander. From the late 1960s through the early 1970s, they met six times — four as amateurs and twice as pros — in highly competitive, well-attended bouts. “People came out to see us fight,” said Jackson. Their matches drew crowds of 6,000-7,000. Each took the measure of the other, although Stander, Omaha’s then-Great White Hope, usually came out on top. Stander took four of the contests, including one by KO, Morris won a decision and a sixth encounter ended in a controversial draw most felt should have been a Morris win.
“Every time I turned around, there was Morris. He was my biggest, toughest opponent,” Stander said.” “Yeah, we went at it quite a bit. We just happened to come along at the same time,” Jackson said.
The intense rivalry was tailor-made for fans as the fighters embodied the classic adage that styles make fights. Jackson was the boxer, Stander the puncher. Jackson relied on his feet. Stander, on his brawn. One was black, the other white. In the era of militant Muhammad Ali, Jackson was the closest thing Omaha had to a righteous Brother bringing down The Man. Stander, meanwhile, was a real-life Rocky who got his shot at the title in a 1972 bout with champ Joe Frazier.
Morris Jackson in his fighting days
“I don’t know if I patterned myself after Ali, but I was somewhat like him because I would stick, move, think, box. I was light on my feet. But I wasn’t the type of person who talked a lot. I didn’t have any gimmicks or shuffles. I just got in and took care of business,” Jackson said.
The two long retired fighters reside in Omaha, but rarely mix. While their rivalry was too close for them to ever be friends outside the ring during their fighting days, they’ve always maintained the mutual respect warriors have for each other.
Stander is well aware of the transformation Jackson has undergone and admires his old foe for it. “He turned himself around. Yeah, he went from bad to good in a big way. God blessed him. God grabbed Morris by the neck and said, ‘Come over to me.’ Yeah, he’s a beautiful man now, I’ll tell ya.”
By most measures, Stander’s career surpassed Jackson’s, whose early promise ended in missed chances, bad matches, poor management, and too small takes. The familiar litany of a club fighter who never got his shot the way Stander did. Former Omaha matchmaker Tom Lovgren feels Jackson could have gone farther. Still, the fighter was once in line to join promoter Don King’s stable. He was a main eventer in Omaha’s last Golden Era of boxing. A two-time Midwest Golden Gloves champion, he compiled a 28-5-1 career pro record, including a KO of then-British Commonwealth champion Dan McALinden, a win Lovgren rates as the top by any Omaha boxer in the ‘70s. Jackson was also a sparring partner for ring legends Ron Lyle, Ernie Shavers, Joe Bugner and future champ Larry Holmes.
But then the good times ended. His run-in with the law came during a dry spell when the journeyman “couldn’t get any fights.” As he tells it, “I started running with some old friends who’d been in the joint and I was influenced by them to make some quick money in the hold up a Shaver’s food mart.” Once nabbed, he was almost grateful, he said, “because eventually somebody was going to get hurt.”
His crime spree was brief but telling and foreshadowed a later descent that threatened to land him back in jail or kill him.
While serving his stretch, Jackson studied Islam and became a Black Muslim. His dalliance with spirituality was short-lived, however. After getting out, he tried resurrecting his career but after three fights called it quits. Like many an ex-pug, he had few prospects beyond the ring and, so, he grabbed the first thing offered — bouncing at strip clubs.
“I got caught up in this lifestyle. I got to smoking marijuana and doing all the things that go with that lifestyle. My wife was working days and I was bouncing nights. We hardly ever saw each other. I was just kind of in limbo and that led to the brawls and the drinking and the drugs,” he said.
He never imagined being saved. “No. If someone would have told me, I would have said, ‘Yeah, right, you’re crazy man. Give me some of what you’re smoking.’” It was his mother who finally pulled him from the brink and back into the fold of the church. In March 1983 she staged a one-woman intervention with her wayward son. “My mother came over to my house to talk to me about what my life was like and how Christ was calling me. She shared the gospel with me in such a way as I’d never heard it before. She spoke of God’s grace. How He loves you. How He has a purpose and a plan for your life. And how it’s up to you to accept and follow the path God has for you.” What came next can only be called salvation.
“I had this sense and I heard this voice that said. ‘The line is drawn in the sand and if you don’t make the decision now, you’ll never get another chance.’ I know just as sure as I’m sitting here today that if I wouldn’t have accepted Jesus Christ in my life, I’d be gone. I’d be dead. My mother prayed. We prayed. And the next day I went to church with her.”
Church bible classes led to college religious studies and, ultimately, his ordination. His first ministry was on the streets of north Omaha. Then came the prison gig. In the mid-’90s, then-Nebraska Governor Ben Nelson granted him a full pardon.
Now, he can’t imagine going back to that old life, although he keeps memories of it nearby as a reminder of where he came from. “There’s a peace in my life. Serenity. Stability. Certainty. It makes a difference when you come from darkness to light,” he said. “I know what my life used to be like. The turmoil, the uncertainty. Spinning my wheels. Living for the weekends. No purpose.”
Living his faith, which he loudly proclaims from the inscription above his home’s front door to the message on his answering machine, is his way of telling the good news. As he tells prisoners: “You’ve got to believe in something.” He’s seen enough cons turn their lives around to know his story is not an aberration.
The proud old fighter sees his ministry as his new battleground, only instead of knocking heads, he’s about saving souls and staying straight. “Most of my teaching is biblical principles applied to our lives. I’m still a warrior. Only now when I put on my armor and go to war every day, I don’t feel turmoil. My wars are fought in my prayer closet. I pray before I do anything,” he said.
But once a fighter, always a fighter. He repeated something Ron Stander said: “If they told us to lace ‘em up again, we’d go at it.” The Preacher versus the Butcher. Now wouldn’t that be a card?
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Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
MIDGE MINOR AND TERENCE CRAWFORD
As I’ve said before on this blog nearly every writer gets around to writing about boxing at one time or another. I did my first boxing story in the late 1990s and every now and then I get the craving to do a new one. I’ve built up quite a collection of boxing pieces this way and you can access them all on the blog. The following story for the New Horizons in Omaha profiles an up and coming pro lightweight contender, Terence “Bud” Crawford, and the older man in his corner who is trainer, friend, father figure and more to him, Midge Minor. They are as tight as two people nearly 50 years apart in age can be. Crawford has been under the wing of Minor from the time he was a little boy and he still relies on his sage advice today as he prepares for an expected world title fight. The loyal Crawford is an Omaha native and resident who’s never left his hometown or the gym he grew up in, the CW, and he’s not about to leave the man who’s guided him this far.
In His Corner: Midge Minor is Trainer, Friend and Father Figure to Pro Boxing Contender Terence “Bud” Crawford
by Leo Adam Biga
Nebraska‘s best ever hope for a world professional boxing champion works out of the CW Boxing Gym in north downtown Omaha.
As 25-year-old lightweight contender Terence “Bud” Crawford goes through his paces, he’s watched intently by an older man in a sweatsuit, Midge Minor. Though separated in age by four-plus decades, the two men enjoy a warm, easy relationship marked by teasing banter.
Crawford: “I’ll beat this dude up right now.”
Minor: “You’re scared of me, you know that.”
Crawford: “You be dreaming about me.”
Minor: “You stick that long chin out to the wrong man.”
They’ve been going back and forth like this for decades. At age 7 Crawford got his boxing start under Minor at the CW, 1510 Davenport St., and he still trains there under Minor’s scrutiny all these years later.
The facility is part of the CW Youth Resource Center, whose founder and director, Carl Washington, spotted Crawford when he was a kid and brought him to the gym.
Crawford, an Omaha native and resident, owns a 21-0 pro record and a reputation among some experts as the best fighter in the 135-pound division. The smart money says it’s only a matter of time before he wins a title. That time may come in January when the Top Rank-promoted boxer is expected to get his title shot and the opportunity to earn his first six-figure payday.
Since showing well in two recent HBO-telecast fights, he’s riding a wave of fame. He’s the pride of the CW, where the number of fighters is up because he learned to box there, made it big and never left.
“He’s one of the causes of our gym being full now,” says Minor. “They all look up to him. It’s kind of like he put us on the map.”
Crawford doesn’t act the star though.
“I’m the same person, I’m regular, I just want to be able to make it and provide for my family,” he says earnestly.
He engages everyone at the gym and offers instruction to fighters.
“I’m always going to have CW somewhere inside of me because this is where I started from. Never forget where you came from. I’m always going to be a CW fighter. I just feel comfortable here. It does feel like home when I walk through them doors because it’s the only gym I knew when I was coming up. I’ve been coming here and going to the donut shop (the adjacent Pettit’s Pastry) ever since I was 7.”
For a long time he was pressured to leave Omaha, where quality sparring partners are rare and pro boxing cards even rarer. But he’s remained true to his team and his home.
“A lot of people came at me with deals wanting to get me to fight for them, sign with them and move out of town. They kept telling me I can’t make it from Omaha and need new cornermen – that they took me as far as they could. But I’m loyal and a lot of people respect me for it. My coaches have faith in me and trust me that I’m not going to do nothing to jeopardize our relationship, and I trust them and have faith in them.
“I’ve just stayed with it and continued to have confidence in my team. I just keep pushing forward.”
He keeps a tight circle of confidantes around him and all share his same CW and Omaha lineage.
“We all family,” he says..”Every person I turn to in my corner that’s giving me instructions came up under Midge.”
CW Boxing Club is located in the CW Youth Resource Center
For his last fight Crawford, who always sports Big Red gear to show his Nebraska pride, wore trunks emblazoned with “Omaha” on them.
As Crawford shadow boxes inside the ring, looking at his reflected image in a bank of mirrors against the near wall, the 73 year-old Minor takes it all in from his spot in the corner, just outside the ropes. Minor has been in Crawford’s corner, both literally and figuratively, since the fighter first got serious about the sport at age 12. They initially met five years before that, when Crawford became argumentative with the trainer. Minor demands obedience. He barks orders in his growl of a voice. He’s known to curse, even with kids. He doesn’t take guff from anyone, especially a brash, back-talking little boy. When Crawford wouldn’t mind him, Minor banned him from the CW.
The trainer hated letting Crawford go, too, because he recognized the kid as something special.
“I saw that he had a lot of heart and that goes a long way in boxing. He never wanted to quit on me.”
The boy’s heart reminded Minor of his own. Back in the day, Minor was a top amateur flyweight, twice winning the Midwest Golden Gloves. But prospect or no prospect, Minor wasn’t going to stand for disrespect. The two eventually reconnected.
“I kicked him out of the gym for five years,” says Minor, a father many times over, “and then I brought him back when he got a little more mature and then we went from there.”
Crawford acquired some rough edges growing up in The Hood. Being physically tested was a rite of passage in his family and neighborhood. It toughened him up. He needed to be tough too because he was small and always getting into scuffles and playing against bigger, older guys in football, basketball, whatever sport was in season. He learned to always stand his ground. The more he held his own, the more courage and confidence he gained.
“I was taught to never be scared…to never back down. That was instilled in me at a young age,” Crawford says. “My big cousins pushing me, punching me, slamming me, roughing me up. My dad wrestling me. After going against them it wasn’t nothing to me going against somebody my size, my age.
“I’d fall and get jacked up or get bitten by dogs or get scratched. I’d need stitches here and there, and my mom would be like, ‘You’re all right.’ There was no going home and crying to your parents or nothing like that. No babying me. I don’t know what it feels like to be babied.”
There was something about Crawford, even as a child, that pegged him for greatness.
“Before I even started boxing my dad used to make me punch on his hands, teach me wrestling moves, throw the ball with me. He always said, ‘You’re going to be a million dollar baby.’ Ever since I was little he was like, ‘You can be whatever you want to be, just go out there and do it, don’t let nobody hold you down or hold you back.’”
His father, grandfather and an uncle all boxed and wrestled in their youth. His dad and uncle trained at the CW. His grandfather boxed with Minor. They all had talent.
“It was just in me, it was in the blood line for me. I just took after them. My dad always gave me pointers.”
By the time Crawford came back to the gym, he was less belligerent and more ready to learn. The non-nonsense Minor and the hot-tempered youth bonded. Like father and son.
“When I came back to the gym Midge and I were like instantly close.
Midge was like my dad,” says Crawford.
What was the difference the second time around?
“I don’t know. maybe it’s because I accepted Midge ain’t going to change for nobody. I didn’t really know him like that at the start. so for him to be talking to me crazy I took that as disrespect. I was offended by it. But when i came back I realized that’s just Midge being Midge. Some people get intimidated by him but one thing about Midge is if he likes you he’s going to roll with you. If he don’t like you, he don’t like you and there’s nothing nobody can do to make him like you. And if he’s with you he’s with you to the end.
“When I got to know him more I realized Midge will have my back till the day he dies and I’ll have his back to the day I die, and that’s just how close we are. Midge put a real big hold on me.”
When you ask Crawford if he could have gotten this far without him he says, “Probably not because Midge kept me out of the streets. He taught me a lot. Without Midge, I don’t think so, He taught me a lot of responsibility.”
Crawford came to know he could depend on Minor for anything, which only made him trust him more and made him want to please him more.
“I used to ride my bike to the gym with a big old bag on my back, that’s how dedicated I was. Then Midge started taking me to the gym. Over holidays he’d come to my house to take me to the gym. On school days he’d come get me at school and take me to his house. We’d just sit there together and watch boxing tapes. I would watch any kind of fighter just for the simple fact that you never know when you might see that style. He’d tell me what they’re doing wrong and what I could do to beat ’em.”
Minor also became Crawford’s mentor.
“Anytime I needed anything or needed someone to talk to he was always there,” says Crawford. “He’s a great father figure in my life.
Just an all around good guy. He loves kids.”
All of Minor’s work with Crawford inside and outside the ring had the full support of Bud’s mother.
“It was a little like school to me. Sometimes I’d try to duck him and tell my mom to tell him I wasn’t there and she wasn’t having it. Sometimes my mom would call him and say, ‘Come and get him Midge’ and I’d spend the night at his house, watch tapes, work out. It was like that.”
When he got in trouble at school his mother informed Minor because she knew he’d hold him accountable. When Minor got his hands on him he worked him extra hard. it was all about getting the young man to learn lessons and to pay his dues. Instead of resisting it, Crawford took it all in stride. He says, “It was instilled in me early that what don’t kill you will make you stronger.I looked at it that it was helping me.”
“He appreciated it. He respected me,” says Minor. “We got along real well.”
The troubled boy no one could reach found a friend and ally to push him and inspire him.
“Midge always instilled in me, ‘Nobody can beat you, especially if you work hard and put your heart into your training.’ He drilled that in my head. He believed in me so much. There were times I kind of doubted myself in my mind and he was just like, ‘Nobody can beat you.’ The fight’s the easy part. Preparing for it, that’s the hard part. I’ve been fighting all my life so to get in there and fight, that’s easy. That’s 30 minutes. Sometimes only three minutes or 30 seconds if I get an early knockout. That’s compared to training for hours and hours a day.”
Minor routinely put him in the ring with much more experienced guys.
“That’s how much confidence he had in me. Seeing him have that much confidence in me made me even more confident,” says Crawford.
“It didn’t make no difference who I fought him with because he was going to fight ’em. I’ve had a lot fighters but they didn’t have the heart that he has.”
The legend of Terence “Bud” Crawford began to grow when as a teen amateur he sparred pros and outfought them. Even today he likes to spar bigger guys.
“I like to try myself.”
Crawford is now on the cusp of boxing royalty and Minor is still the one Bud puts his complete faith in.
“He’s still there for me taking good care of me,” Crawford says. “I’m always going to have his back. You know he looked out for me when I was little and I’m going to look out for him now that he’s older.”
Having Minor in his camp as he preps for the biggest fight of his life is exactly where Crawford wants him. Having him in his corner on fight night is where he needs him.
“It means a lot to have Midge there. Midge is the brain. Everything goes through Midge before it’s all said and done for me to go in there and fight. Without the brain we can’t do nothing, so it’s very important that Midge is there.
“Before every fight I bring him a disc of who I’m fighting and I ask him what he thinks about the guy and he tells me what I should do and we go from there.”
The strategy for any fight, he says, is “a team effort” between his co-managers Brian McIntyre and Cameron Dunkin, trainer Esau Diegez, Minor and himself.
“We all work together and dissect our opponent but Midge is always the one that’s like, ‘Alright, this is what you’re going to do to beat this guy. This is how you’re going to fight ’em.’ And we all go by what Midge sats. He’s great for seeing things I don’t see and making me see it.
“He gives me the instructions to beat ’em, and all I have to do is follow ’em. He’s got the wisdom.”
Minor says Crawford is a great student who picks things up quickly, including a knack for altering his style to counter his opponent’s style.
“He can observe different fighters and he can adapt to their styles. He doesn’t have no problem adjusting to them,” says Minor. “He listens to me and he produces for me.”
“Oh yeah. I see it one time and I do it,” Crawford says. “You gotta practice it to though, you can’t just think you’re going to perfect it by doing it one time. You gotta keep on trying it in the gym. You might not get it the first time, you might not get it the second time, but you gotta keep trying until you get it right.”
Still, when all is said and done, it’s Crawford who’s alone in the ring come fight night.
“You can tell me this, you can tell me that, at the end of the day I’m the one that’s gotta take those punches and get hit upside my head. The difference between me and other people is that I’m willing to go through the fire to see the light.”
Midge Minor, left, fighting as an amateur
Crawford’s aware of the strides he’s made in recent years.
“I feel like I’m more relaxed in the ring. I know more about the game.
I know what to do, when to do it, and I’m not just throwing punches just to be throwing them. I’m pinpointing my shots more. Yeah, all around my whole arsenal is just way better.”
“Early in his career he used to just throw punches,” says Minor. “He learned to settle down and adjust.”
Crawford says his overall skill set has developed to the point that he doesn’t have an obvious weakness.
“I can adapt to any style. I’m a boxer, a puncher, I’m elusive, I’m whatever I need to be. I’m always confident and I just come to win.
I’ve got it all – hand speed, power, movement, smarts. I can take a punch.”
He’s always in shape and lives a clean lifestyle, Minor says admiringly. The trainer never has to worry his fighter’s not working hard enough.
Minor’s trained several successful pros, including Grover Wiley and Dickie Ryan, but he says he’s never had anyone as accomplished as Crawford this early in their career.
Neither feels he’s reached his full potential.
“I’ve got a lot of things to work on,” says Crawford. “So I figure once I get those bad habits out of the way then I’ll be better than I am now. Little things like not keeping my hands up, not moving my head. Sometimes I’ll get in there and I’ll feel like he can’t hurt me, and I just want to walk through him without coming with the jab.”
Minor’s always watching to make sure Crawford doesn’t abandon his fundamentals. The veteran trainer guided Crawford through a highly successful amateur career that saw the fighter compete on the U.S, Pan American Games team and advance all the way to the national Golden Gloves semi-finals in his hometown of Omaha. Crawford dropped a controversial decision in the semis that left him disillusioned by the politics of amateur scoring and Minor “broken-hearted.”
Minor continues to be the guru Crawford turns to for advice. Perhaps a turning point in their relationship and in the fighter’s development was getting past the anger that seemed to fuel Crawford early on and that threatened to derail his career.
When his temper got the better of him Crawford was suspended from the U.S, national team. He says American amateur boxing officials “put a bad rep out for my name,” adding, “They called me hot-headed and a thug.” He feels the stigma hurt him in his bid to make the U.S. Olympic team.
The fighter acknowledges he had issues. He got expelled from several schools for fighting and arguing. He grew up playing sports and fighting in the streets, parks and playgrounds of northeast Omaha, where his mother mostly raised him and his two older sisters. His father, Terence Sr., served in the U.S, Navy and was separated from his mother, only periodically reappearing in Bud’s life.
No one seemed able to get to the root of Crawford’s rage. Not even himself.
“I really can’t say about my temper. It was just something that was in me. Everybody asked me, ‘Why do you be so mad?’ and I never could pinpoint it or tell them why. I’d be like, ‘I’m not angry.’ But deep down inside I really was. I was ready to fight at any given time and that’s how mainly I got kicked out of all the schools.
“I was in counseling, anger management, all that stuff. None of it ever worked…”
His favorite way of coping with the turmoil was to go fishing at the Fontenelle Park pond.
He knows he could have easily fallen prey to the lures and risks of the inner city. Friends he ran with included gang members. On the eve of his first big nationally televised pro fight he got shot in the head after leaving a heated dice game he had no business being in in the first place. He was told by doctors that if the bullet hadn’t been slowed by the window it passed through in his car it would have likely killed him.
“I was lucky, I was blessed. That just opened my eyes more. I took it as a sign, as a wakeup call.”
Becoming a father – he and his girlfriend Alindra are raising their son and her daughter – also helped him mature.
Through it all Minor was that steadying voice telling him to do the right thing.
Crawford’s temper cooled and his life got more settled.
“It took him a while,” says Minor. “He was hard-headed. I used to make him come over to my house and I’d sit em down to watch boxing tapes and the more he observed other fighters he learned that his temperament had to change to be where he’s at now.”
Crawford also credits two men who took him under their wing at Omaha Bryan High School, then principal Dave Collins and assistant principal Todd Martin.
“They would always talk to me if I got in trouble. They put it in terms like I was in the gym training. They’d say, ‘You cant talk back to the teachers when they’re trying to tell you something you need to know. You don’t talk back to your coach when he’s teaching you how to throw a punch.’ I began to look at it like that and I said, ‘You’re right, i messed up.’ That really got me through my high school years doing what I had to do.”
Now that Crawford’s come so far he’s looking “to give back” to the community through his own boxing gym in the same community he grew up in. He wants his North O-based B & B Boxing Academy, which he recently opened with Brian McIntyre, to be a place that keeps kids off the street and gives them something structured to do.
Bringing a world title belt back to Omaha is his main focus though.
“Oh, it would be great. A lot of people look up to me so for me to bring that belt home to Omaha it would mean a lot, not only to me but to Omaha. Boxing is not real big in Omaha. I used to be and I’m trying to bring it back and I feel I can do that. I could inspire some little guy that later on could be the champion of the world. Who knows?”
He’s not leaving anything to chance in his bid for glory.
“I’ve got my mind made up, I’ve got my goals set, and I’m going to get it. I’m not going to let nothing or nobody keep me from conquering my dreams.”
“That’s that confidence.” Minor says. “I’m so proud of him.”
Crawford knows he wouldn’t be where he is today without Minor. “He’s played a big factor in my life.” He values all that Minor’s meant to him.
“You got to. Nothing lasts forever, so cherish it while it’s here.”
_ _ _
Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
UPDATE: The subject of this story, Terence “Bud” Crawford of Omaha, won the WBO world lightweight championship in convincing fashion on March 1 over Ricky Burns in Glasgow, Scotland. My Reader cover story about Crawford appeared right on the eve of his title bid and just as was his gameplan he left no doubt and nothing to chance in claiming a unanimous 12-round decision.
Boxing in Omaha was never necessarily big the way it’s been in certain cities and towns but for a long time it definitely exerted a presence and enjoyed a loyal following here on both the amateur and professional ends of the sport. Starting around the 1980s and certainly by the 1990s interest among participants and spectators fell off rather dramatically. Part of that is explained by the general decline in boxing that happened nationwide as the sport found itself increasingly criticized for the injuries and deaths and longterm disabilities suffered by fighters as well as scandalized by the lax rules and ethics attending the game that allowed professional opponents like Omaha’s own Bruce “The Mouse” Strauss to take fight after fight in close order under assumed names and with little or no training. The reprehensible and mondo bizzaro antics of various high profile fighters didn’t help its standing. With boxing under attack and more and more relegated to a frringe actviity mixed martial arts arrived on the scene to offer something new and different and ever since then boxing’s struggled to keep apace or even hold on in some cases. It’s not so much that society rejects violent or extreme sports, otherwise how to explain the popularity of MMA, but that boxing is seen as something archaic or passe in a world of many high adrenalin, high risk sports that push the envelope, whether it be MMA, snowboarding, skateboarding, hang gliding, windsurfing, base jumping, rock climbing, mountain biking, et cetera. The list goes on and on. Omaha boxing gyms used to number a dozen or more at any given time but now that number is a fraction of what it used to be. Many gyms offer heavy and speed bags and perhaps even a ring for shadowboxing but these are more fitness centers focused on the conditioning benefits of boxing rather than on specifically training boxers to do actual combat. A sure sign of boxing’s decline here was when Omaha hosted the National Golden Gloves a few years ago and the crowds numbered a few thousand at most, which was less than what local-regional boxing tournaments here used to draw.
Nebraska’s produced some good fighters over time but very, very few who could be considered world class. The top flight fighters out of here have become even fewer and farther between. With this as the background and context for where boxing resides in Omaha a local fighter named Terence “Bud” Crawford is contending for the WBO lightweight championship in Glasgow, Scotland on March 1. Considering what Crawford is going for there should be more buzz around here about his title bid but then again the lack of attention, awareness, and excitement is an accurate reflection of boxing’s tenuous position these days. As I say in the following cover story about Crawford I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) , which hits the stands Feb. 27, if this were happening decades ago Crawford would be the toast of this sports town. But these days Creighton men’s basketball is the preferred sports flavor and its superstar Doug McDermott is the man of the hour, not Crawford. There are a lot of reasons for that beyond those I described above and I allude to some of them in my Reader piece.
On this blog you can find an earlier New Horizons story I wrote about Crawford and his close relationship with trainer Midge Minor. You can also find stories about the CW Boxing Gym, also known as the CW Boxing Club and CW Youth Resource Center, which is where Crawford got his start. And for that matter you can find several more boxing pieces I’ve done over the years about Ron Stander, Morris Jackson, the Hernandez Brothers, Servando Perales, Tom Lovgren, Kenny Wingo and the Downtown Boxing Club, et cetera.
A photo montage of Terence “Bud’ Crawford:
Terence “Bud” Crawford in the fight of his life for lightweight title: top contender from Omaha’s mean streets looks to make history
©by Leo Adam Biga
As Omaha glories in Creighton Bluejays hoops superstar Doug McDermott’s historic season, another local sports figure going for greatness flies under the radar.
Boxer Terence “Bud” Crawford challenges for the WBO lightweight title March 1 against champion Ricky Burns in the title holder’s native Scotland. The scheduled 12-rounder is being televised in the States by AWE, a hard to find cable-satellite network. The fight is scheduled for 2 p.m. (CST).
The CU campus McDermott’s put on the map is mere few blocks from The Hood Crawford grew up in and where his recently opened gym, B & B Boxing Academy, 3034 Sprague Street, is located. But these two stars might as well be worlds apart. McDermott’s a product of white privilege. His biggest challenge was deciding whether to return for his senior year or sign an NBA contract. The African-American Crawford is a product of the inner city. He grew up fighting in the streets and getting kicked out of schools. On the eve of his first pro bout he was shot in the head on the same mean streets of his youth.
McDermott, soon to be a three-time All-American, is the consensus favorite to win national player of the year honors. He competes before 18,000 adoring home fans. Crawford’s compiled a 22-0 record, 16 by knockout, yet he’s never once fought professionally in his hometown though he trains and resides here. Where McDermott excels at a team sport embedded in popular culture, Crawford toils at a lone wolf game that’s lost traction in this mixed martial arts age. While McDermott’s every move is celebrated and scrutinized, Crawford operates in relative obscurity. Unless you follow boxing on HBO, you’ve likely not seen him fight and until reading this were oblivious to his upcoming title shot.
Decades ago, when boxing still mattered in places like Omaha and when there weren’t alphabet soup titles with deluded value, Crawford’s world championship bid would have been big news. Still, just getting in this position should be cause for celebration today. If he prevails in Glasgow – oddsmakers and experts give him anywhere from a decent to an excellent chance – he’d be the first major boxing champ from Neb. since heavyweight Max Bear in 1934. The last time a local fought for an undisputed title was 1972, when Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander met heavyweight king Joe Frazier at the Civic Auditorium and got bloodied like a stuck pig for his trouble.
Co-manager-trainer Brian “BoMac” McIntyre feels Omaha’s not embracing this historic moment involving one of its own. He says given the way Crawford represents by proudly identifying his hometown on his trunks and giving it props in interviews, it’s a shame Omaha doesn’t “stand up” for him in return. If that lack of love bothers Crawford the hard-as-nails pragmatist with washboard abs isn’t admitting it. He’s aware boxing is dead here and he’s intent on reviving it. He did soak up support from friends, family and well-wishing fans at a send-off party at Brewsky’s before Team Crawford left Feb. 22.
Ask what winning a world title might mean to his community and Crawford answers, “Honestly, I really don’t know because Omaha is really big on MMA, Creighton and Nebraska and nobody really talks about boxing that much. I feel if I was to bring that title back here it could boost us or it could just stay the same, where like a handful of people acknowledge what just happened and the rest are still like, Oh, it’s just boxing.
“We’ve got a lot of talent in Omaha but a lot of people give up because of no resources and backing. As a professional you have to go to your opponent’s backyard because we don’t really have professional boxing in Omaha. I can’t remember the last time we had a full professional boxing card in Omaha. It’s real down here, so it’s real hard to get motivated on boxing.”
He hopes his academy does for youth what the CW Boxing Club where he started and still has ties did for him and many others.
“We want to help kids that need help with that father figure in their life by talking to them, teaching them to stay in school and listen to their parents and elders, things like that. A lot of kids in the neighborhood don’t have nowhere to be after school. They can just come in here, relieve some stress, relieve some anger. We don’t know what’s going on in their household. They might be going through a lot and boxing might be the outlet to relieve some of that rather than doing something they’ll regret the rest of their life.”
Crawford hasn’t let Omaha’s tepid interest hold him back.
“You know what, he don’t give a f___ about that, I swear to God he don’t,” McIntyre says. “He looks at it like, ‘If they do get behind me so be it, if they don’t, oh well.’ They really weren’t behind him when he was an amateur and now that he’s here they’re really still not behind him. That’s just more fuel to the fire to win the fight.”
McIntyre, a Team Crawford member since the fighter was a top amateur for the CW, whose namesake Carl Washington discovered the young scrapper, says Crawford’s always fought an uphill battle for respect. As a teen Crawford’s hot temper made him a handful. After some false starts, CW coach Midge Minor took him under his wing.
“I was a bad kid, when I came in I was just rough, I didn’t care about training, nothing, I just wanted to fight,” recalls Crawford. “Midge would throw me in there with anybody, he didn’t care. Sometimes I’d get beat up, sometimes I’d win. The thing that separated me from everybody else was if I got beat up by one of the older kids I’d come back the next day like, ‘I want to spar him, I don’t want nobody else but him.’ And Midge would be looking at me, ‘You’ve got heart, I like you.’ So I’d get in there and keep sparring until I started beating them. I think that’s what really elevated me to where I’m at.”
Minor, who’s old enough to be Crawford’s grandpa, has been the main wise counsel and steadying influence for the fighter.
“Anytime I needed anything or needed someone to talk to he was always there,” Crawford says. “He’s played a big factor in my life. He’s a great father figure in my life.”
Following stints at alternative schools, Crawford finally found a home at Bryan High School, where he graduated, Despite great success as an amateur, his hard case attitude alienated him from the boxing establishment. He also ran up against the stigma that fighters from here traditionally fare poorly at nationals. Crawford dispelled that image by advancing to the semis of the National Golden Gloves in Omaha. Outside the Gloves he beat virtually everyone in his weight and age class. But the politics of the sport pegged him a bad apple and so certain opportunities bypassed him.
McIntyre says, “He wasn’t the poster boy for USA boxing. Terence was a bodacious kid. He’s always been the underdog. When he went to the nationals and to the Olympic Trials people said you can’t do it because you’re from Neb. and they always get beat in the first round, so he’s always had something against him.”
Crawford never let those perceptions stop him, even after being kicked off the USA team, thus spoiling any chance of fighting in the Olympics, which was fine with the fighter, who had a bigger dream in mind.
Then, as now, nothing gets in the way of what Crawford wants.
“He was ranked number one and there was a national tournament in Calif. we couldn’t afford to go to,” says McIntyre. “USA Boxing gave him a stipend every other month and he saved his money and paid for his own ticket and hotel. At 17 he went out there by himself, he found a coach to get him to the weigh-ins. He found a way. That will and determination separates him from anybody I’ve ever run into.”
Crawford’s not only kept McIntyre and Minor in his camp. he’s assembled a team made up of his old sparring partners and coaches. Loyalty is big with him. His other co-manager is Cameron Dunkin, a Las Vegas-based boxing magnet who handles the business side.
Some predict the highly skilled Crawford, who combines quick hands and feet with deft moves and some power, will handle the more experienced Burns. The champ’s 36-2-1 record includes many high stakes fights but some recent disputed decisions. Others question how Crawford will deal with such a big stage before a hostile crowd.
Crawford says, “It’s going to be a different atmosphere, everybody’s going to be against me, but I like it like that because that’s just going to feed me energy to shut ’em up and keep ’em quiet.”
He’s well aware he can’t afford to leave anything to chance and give the judges any wiggle room to score the fight in favor of the home boy.
“That’s the plan – to dominate like I’e been doing with all my other opponents. In my 22 fights I can’t think of a fighter I’ve fought that won two rounds, so I’ve just got to be me and do what I do best.”
He’s keeping his emotions in check leading up to the bout
“Honestly, I ain’t got no feeling at all, like I’m not excited whatsoever. The other day BoMac said, ‘Man, ain’t you anxious?’ and I was like, ‘Naw, I’m just ready to fight’ I’ve been doing this all my life, this is my dream. I never wanted to be an Olympian, I never wanted to win a gold medal, I always wanted to be a world champion. I wanted to turn pro at 17 but they insisted I try out for the Olympic team.”
With him finally on the cusp of HIS dream he can’t afford giddiness.
“This is what I wanted to do, so now that it’s here I’m the one who’s got to go in there and handle my business and then when I win it I’m going to be happy. It’s strictly business right now. I’m not happy I’m fighting for a world title, no. I’m going to be happy when I win it though.
“I’m ready to do what I’ve been doing all my life and that’s showing people how good my talent is.”
Many Omaha boxing scene veterans believe Crawford may just be the best fighter, pound-for-pound, to ever come out of here.
Crawford, the father of two children, says his confidence is high because he’s left nothing to chance in training. Sticking with a routine that’s worked before, he began training for Burns in Omaha, then went to Colorado Springs for the added conditioning high altitude promotes and the better sparring available there, the site of USA Boxing. Being away from home also helped eliminate distractions. McIntyre says it’s all about getting focused and following a regimented workout process from 8 to 8 daily that ensures he didn’t peak too early.
After the four-week camp Crawford returned home mid-February to fine-tune, stay sharp and maintain just the right edge.
Even after weeks of intense training that encompassed running, swimming, sit-ups and sparring, Crawford says there’s still an element of doubt that naturally attends any fight.
“There’s always going to be a doubt and a what-if with any fighter, I don’t care who he is. They’re going to always have doubt in the back of their mind. Did they do enough? What if this happens? What if that happens? But that’s when you got to adapt and you got to adjust to the situation and that’s what I plan to do.”
The cover of my New Horizons story on Crawford and his bond with trainer Midge Minor
As for his strategy, he says, “basically it’s just me fighting my fight,” adding “I just always feel like if I fight like I want to fight can’t nobody beat me. I’ve got so many styles, so it’s going to be hard to capitalize on one style because I’ll switch up or change it up.”
All the coaching and strategizing in the world doesn’t mean anything, he says, if you can’t execute it.
“It’s up to me to establish it and carry it on into the ring. We can train all day, every day, we can do this and that. Like Ricky Burns, he can say he’s got something new, he’s going do this and that, but all that don’t matter if you get in the ring and you can’t establish what you want to do. When we get in the ring then it’s all going to tell.”
Crawford refuses to fight out of character. He’s too smart to be drawn into adopting a style or forcing the action that’s not in his best interest. Even when boos rained down on him in Orlando, Fla. as he dismantled Russian Andrey Klimov in an Oct. 4, 2013 fight, Crawford was content to stick with his plan of outboxing his foe even though going for a KO would have pleased onlookers and HBO executives. He says he’ll neither get into a brawling match with Burns nor take undue chances testing the champ’s repaired jaw, which was broken in his last title defense, for the sake of pleasing the crowd or boosting ratings.
“I’m not going to go out there and just go for haymakers and get caught with stupid stuff. I’m just going to go out there and do what I do and if the knockout comes it comes, if it don’t it don’t. I’m just going out there to win that title and that’s the only thing on my mind.”
He maintains a healthy respect for Burns or any opponent.
“I don’t underestimate nobody. Even if it’s a fight I know I’m going to knock the dude out I always go in there like, What if? It keeps me driving, it keeps me on my Ps and Qs, it keeps me more focused because you never know – one punch can beat you.”
He says you also won’t catch him doing any pre-fight grandstanding or gamesmanship at the weigh-in press conference. Not his style, though he’s says if Burns comes at him he’ll come right back. However, Crawford does use those occasions to size up his opponent and what he finds can be revealing.
“Sometimes I’ll see right through you. I can see in your eyes a little twitch. On the outside you look like you’re this big bad guy but on the inside you’re afraid for your life. You’re a nervous wreck.”
At the end of the day, there’s nothing about this fight or any fight that scares him. Compared to a bullet in the head it’s no big deal.
“I’ve been shot, I’m not going over there worried about what’s going to happen in the ring. I’m ready, period. I’ve got my mind made up, I’ve got my goals set, and I’m going up there and I’m going to get it. I’m not going to let nothing or nobody stop me from conquering my dreams.”
Do the right thing Omaha and stand up for your own as he goes for history.
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Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
Historically, Omaha has never been a great fight town the way Detroit or Boston or Philadelphia or New York City or Las Vegas have been and in some instances still are. Outside the local, hardcore boxing set, even a knowledable fight fan would be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of boxers, trainers, managers, and gyms here that ever made a real dent in the sport, amateur or professional. But boxing did once command a loyal and sizable following here for the Golden Gloves and for some of the few pros who made names for themselves, such as the Hernandez brothers and Ron Stander. That support may or may not come back with the emergence of Terence “Bud” Crawford, the recently crowned WBO lightweight champ who defends his title June 28 in his hometown of Omaha. An indication of just how far off the tracks Omaha’s boxing scene went is that his June 28 title defense will be the first time in 24 pro fights Crawford has fought in his hometown. There’s no question he’s already made history as the first world boxing titlist from here since the 1930s (Max Bear) and he’ll be the first from here to defend his title on his home turf. Boxing’s been close to dead here for 20 years and whether or not his bout with challenger Yuriorkis Gamboa will mean the dawn of a new era in boxing here nobody knows. It’s unlikely given the sport’s overall decline in popularity and this city’s traditionally at-arm’s-length approach to the ring business. Even if no boxing revival happens, Crawford’s shaken things up. As one old-line boxing observer who attended the press conference for the Crawford-Gamboa fight told me, “When Bob Arum showed up in Omaha, Neb. I almost dropped my shorts.” Not since Joe Frazier defended his heavyweight title against local Great White Hope Ron Stander in 1972 has there been anything of this magnitude boxing-wise here. But as that same observer noted, Frazier was one of eight total world champs then whereas today there are many dozens of “champions” because of the alphabet soup proliferation of fight sanctioning bodies. In other word, boxing has been dilluted. It’s lost serious lustre and cred in this age of mixed martial arts fighting, whose elite practitioners tend to command as much or more interest and respect than do boxing’s elite. The story that follows on Bud Crawford is my third about him (you can find the others on this blog). This one portrays him in the context of his tight family. I recently enjoyed meeting his mother, grandmother, sisters, and girlfriend, who’s also the mother of his two sons, and their words, along with those of family friend and attorney Hugh Reefe, describe Bud as a family-first man who has come a long way from the immature boy who fell in love with boxing but too often wanted to fight the world.
Bud Rising; Terence “Bud” Crawford’s tight family has his back as he defends title in his own backyard
Sometimes rocky journey for WBO lightweight champ from Omaha comes full circle
©by Leo Adam Biga
When Terence “Bud” Crawford defends his WBO lightweight title June 28 at the CenturyLink Center, he’ll fight for himself, his tight-knit family and a boxing community that’s not seen anything like this since 1972.
Forty-two years ago heavyweight champion Joe Frazier came to town to battle local Great White Hope Ron Stander. Omaha was thrilled to host boxing’s ultimate event, but Stander never had more than a puncher’s chance. Predictably, he was outclassed and dismantled.
This is different. Crawford’s the hometown kid who realized his dream of being a world champ by unanimously decisioning Ricky Burns in Scotland March 1. He’s the title holder and Cuban opponent Yuriorkis Gamboa the contender. The champ and challenger enter this HBO main event with identical 23-0 (16 by KO) records. Crawford’s a skilled technician who’s never been dropped or hurt as a pro. By contrast, Stander was a slugger and bleeder who used brute force, not sweet science, in the ring. Though Stander didn’t hit the canvas much, he lost 21 bouts.
Another important difference is that while The Butcher fought in Omaha, he actually hailed from Council Bluffs. Crawford is Omaha through and through. When it was suggested the Bluffs and its casinos host Crawford’s title defense the fighter flatly refused, offended by the very notion he go across the river.
“I’m the type of person if I don’t want to do something I’m not going to do it,” he says. “I’m my own man. If I felt like they weren’t going to bring it to Omaha then we were going to go somewhere else and it wasn’t going to be Council Bluffs.”
Known for representing with trunks that read “Omaha,” he’s fiercely loyal to his Omaha-based boxing and biological families.
“They’re always going to be there for me, win or lose,” he says. “They’ve been with me the whole way.”
His peeps comprise Team Crawford. Most members of his training camp go back more than a decade when he was pegged a ring prodigy. His longtime trainer Midge Minor is like a father. His co-manager Brian “BoMac” McIntyre is one of his best buddies. They jointly opened the B & B Boxing Academy two years ago.
Omaha attorney Hugh Reefe, a former amateur boxer who now dispenses legal advice to the fighter, recalls seeing the young Crawford at the CW Boxing Club, where Bud got his start. The CW is the through-line that connects the champ’s boxing crew.
“Everybody knew who he was because he was different,” Reefe says. “He was outstanding. He really had all the skills. Everybody was talking about him. He just had a buzz around him. He’s got these cobra eyes that give him the peripheral vision to bob and weave but still have you locked in his sights.”
Victory Boxing coach John Determan, whose unbeaten son Johnny is on the June 28 undercard, says, “I’ve known Bud for a long time. The first time I saw him fight was early in his career in Joplin, Missouri. I remember driving home and telling my family ‘he’s going to be a great one.’ He is a true champion and not the type of guy who gets a big head. He’s worked hard for everything he’s done.”
Longtime boxing observer and historian Tom Lovgren says simply, “He’s the best that I’ve seen in Neb. He’s the Real McCoy.”
Crawford’s seemingly been called to his boxing ascension. His mother Debra Crawford says he came out of the womb “with his fists balled up,” as if ready to fight. He’s from a long line of pugilists: his grandfather, father and uncle all fought. Debra says Bud’s father “always said he’s going to be a million dollar baby boy.” Debra, who’s gone a round or two with her headstrong son and knows the difference between a jab and a cross, says, “God gave him a gift.”
Everyone confirms young Bud himself was convinced he was destined for greatness. “He’d always tell me, ‘Mom, I’m going to make it, I’m going to be something. I’m going to be a world champ,” Debra says.
Lots of kids say that, his friend Kevin notes, “but they ain’t got the same dedication as him,” adding, “He’s been after this for years.”
Terence “Bud” Crawford
Now that he’s done it, Reefe says, “It seems a little surreal.” Even Bud’s mom admits, “Sometimes it’s like a dream.” Especially dreamlike given all he’s overcome. Possessing a notorious temper as a youth, the stubborn Crawford had scores of verbal and physical run-ins.
“Bud used to get in trouble in the gym and they used to send him home,” Debra says. Sometimes, he wanted no part of it. “One time, he hid in his room when Midge came by to pick him up. He told me to tell Midge he ain’t home. I went out and told Midge, ‘He’s in here, come and get him.’ Bud said ‘Mom, you’re a snitch.’ Yeah, I had to keep him out of trouble. I’d rather him be in the gym than out in the street.”
Other times, says maternal grandma Velma Jones, sporting a Team Crawford T-shirt, he couldn’t stand to be away from the ring.
“I used to have him ride along with me when I had to go places and he’d be like, ‘I have to get to the gym…’ He loved that gym.”
Bud and the guys that comprise the coaching-training crew of Team Crawford
Bud showing off his world championship belt, ©photo Chris Farina/Top Rank
Everyone agrees he’s always had a mouth on him. Insubordinate behavior earned Crawford school suspensions and expulsions. He caused his mom headaches.
“Yes, he did,” she says. “He went to a bunch of schools. He even went to a couple alternative schools. Yeah, he stayed in some trouble. One time he shot up the Edmonson (recreation) center with a BB gun. He was on probation for like three or four years.”
Few expected much of him.
“When he was young I know a lot of people told him, ‘Oh, you ain’t going to be nothing, you’ll probably end up in the penitentiary.’ But like I told him, ‘Don’t let them folks get you down talking about you won’t be nothing, you go ahead and do what you have to do.’ And he kept on with it,” his grandma says.
“I’m very proud of him because I told him he wasn’t going to be shit,” Debra says. “He tells me now, ‘Mom, remember what you said?’ We laugh about it.”
She says things really turned around for him at Bryan High School.
“The principal really helped him. He still keeps in touch with him, too. His teachers are surprised he’s made it this far. They’re proud of him. They didn’t think he was going to be able to make it but he made it.”
Debra marvels her once problem son has “put Omaha on the map as a black young man.” It’s been a journey with some stumbles. He was considered an Olympics prospect but fell out of grace with USA Boxing. He was a favorite to win the National Golden Gloves in Omaha but lost a close decision he felt was payback for his bad boy image.
This image and the one above are of a very young Bud at the CW Boxing Club, ©photos courtesy Jim Krantz
Early in his pro career he nearly lost his life in a shooting the week of a fight when he joined a dice game that went sour and as he left in a car someone fired a shot that hit his head. He went to the nearest hospital.
Debra recalls getting the news at home.
“I was asleep when my mom woke me up to tell me. ‘Bud just got shot.’ I waited a minute, got up and came downstairs. Then my sister and I went out there. They wouldn’t let me see him. When they finally called me in Bud was sitting on the edge of the bed laughing, saying, ‘I’m still going to fight on Friday.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not, they’ve got to stitch your head up.’ He was lucky because the bullet bounced off his head. The doctor told me, ‘He’s got a hard head.’”
As if the family needed proof.
Bud and everyone around him traces his new-found maturity to that incident and to becoming a father.
“He’s come a long ways,” grandma Jones says.
“He’s more focused,” Kevin says.
“He’s a great father,” says Iesha. “He took care of me and my daughter before we had a son together.”
Bud’s sister Lastisha says she gets emotional thinking about how far Bud’s come.
“I used to have bad dreams and then when he got shot one of the dreams kind of came true. When he went in that ring and won that championship I thought back to how he was when he was little, hot-headed, and just didn’t want to listen to nobody. And to see him now it’s like, Wow, my little brother for real is world champion. I’m like really, really proud of him.”
Velma says some of her grandson’s drive to excel is fueled by the decisions in the ring he feels he was robbed of as an amateur. It’s why as a pro he takes no chances and strives to dominate from start to finish, just as he did against Burns in taking all three judges’ cards.
“After that fight in Scotland he told me he was scared they were going to take some points away from him. He thought they’d use some kind of technicality to make him lose the fight. But he come on through. He showed ’em y’all cant do no stealing from me, not tonight.’”
Co-manager BoMac says Crawford feeds off “always being the underdog and always having something against him – that lights his fire and makes him train harder.”
Bud’s boisterous family will be out in force come fight night just as they were in Glasgow. Only this time the Crawford contingent will be much larger, with relatives coming from both coasts and lots of points in between. He welcomes their presence, no matter their size.
“It’s not going to be a distraction or anything,” he says. “They’re there any other fight, so it’s just another day in the gym for me. When I was in Scotland…Dallas…Orlando…Vegas, they were there with me, so you know I’m used to having them cheering me on and not letting them interfere with what I’ve got to do in the ring. You’ve got to keep your mind focused on the task at hand.”
Bud training in Colorado Springs
Per his custom, he trained in Colorado Springs several weeks before returning June 22. Back home he’s fine-tuned his body and mind.
“I just chill and visualize what I’m going to do in there and then just go ahead and do it. You’ve got to see it to be able to do it. When I put my mind to it, it’s already done.”
Iesha, who saw him training six-plus hours a day in Colo., admires
that “he puts so much work into it.” “Hard work and dedication” has gotten him this far and he isn’t about to slack off now, Latishsa says.
Crawford’s unsure whether Omaha will ever fully embrace him as its champion. His family’s glad he’s getting his due after years toiling in obscurity. The Gamboa fight will be his first as a pro in his hometown.
“He’s finally getting noticed,” Debra says, adding people claiming to be cousins have been coming out of the woodwork since winning the title.
Hugh Reefe is impressed by how success, fame and big paydays have not changed Crawford’s lifestyle.
“He’s a pretty simple guy and I like that he’s kept everything the same. He’s handling it really well, he’s got really good instincts, He’s intuitive. He’s always concerned and thoughtful about how things affect his family.”
Those closest to him sense that after waiting so long for this stage he’s going to put on a show.
Iesha says, “I know he’s not giving up that belt.”
Everyone agrees Gamboa may regret saying at the press conference Bud hasn’t fought the caliber of fighters he has. Latisha says as soon as he uttered those words Bud vowed, “I’m going to kick your butt.”
Debra and her daughters predict Bud winning by knockout. “I pick the 6th round because Bud likes to figure him out. If Gamboa hits Bud, Bud’s going to angry and it’s going to be all over,” she says.
God forbid it comes down to a controversial decision that goes against Bud. “He’d probably go nuts if he feel he got cheated,” Latisha says.
“But he ain’t got to worry about that,” Shawntay says, “because he ain’t going to lose. We got this.”
Latisha can see he’s ready for Saturday. “I know when he’s serious, he’s got the eye of the tiger. There’s just something about his eyes that you just know that he’s about to go handle it.”
Reefe, who drove Iesha and the kids to see Bud in Colo., saw a fighter in peak condition. “I realized I was watching a world-class athlete. He was getting getting it on in a workmanlike, no-nonsense manner, going from one workout to the next, station to station, not being lazy about anything. He was in charge.”
BoMac confirms that Crawford “just looks at it like he’s got a job to go do,” adding, “He’s like, ‘Let me do my job, everyone else do their job, let’s go about our business and let’s go home.” He says Crawford’s “will and determination” separate him from the pack.
Bud at the press conference for the Gamboa fight, ©www.fightnews.com
That intensity is often masked by his laidback demeanor. “He likes to joke and play around, wrestle, he’s a kid, you know,” Reefe says. “He’s always been like that,” says Debra, fingering a stack of title fight posters. “He’s so easygoing you wouldn’t believe he’s got a big fight coming up,” adds grandma. Shawntay points out, “He don’t ever talk about the fight, he just goes in there and fights.”
As for the fighter himself, he’s using any real or perceived slight – from Gamboa’s words to what he sees as a lack of local corporate sponsors to the Bluffs controversy – as motivation to leave no doubts June 28.
“I’m still hungry to get better and to prove to the world that I belong here. This is just a stepping stone.”
The Crawford-Gamboa fight can be seen live on HBO Boxing After Dark starting at 9 p.m. (CST).
For tickets to the fight, visit http://www.ticketmaster.com.
Bud posing with Gamboa and Top Rank’s Bob Arum at the press conference, ©www.fightnews.com
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Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
My latest story about Omaha’s own world boxing champion, Terence “Bud” Crawford, who is fresh off his Nov. 29 title defense in his hometown. I was at the CenturyLink for the fight and some of what I experienced there is in this story for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/). It’s on the stands now. My blog contains several other articles I’ve written about Terence.
Sparring for Omaha: Boxer Terence Crawford Defends His Title in the City He Calls Home
In a class by himself
©by Leo Adam Biga
Terence “Bud” Crawford grew up a multi-sport athlete in North Omaha, but street fighting most brought out his hyper competitiveness, supreme confidence, fierce determination and controlled fury. He long ago spoke of being a world champion. That’s just what he’s become, too, and he’s now sharing his success with the community that raised him and that he still resides in.
A gifted but star-crossed amateur boxer, he turned pro in 2008 and for years he fought everywhere but Omaha. It was only after winning the WBO title last March against Ricky Burns in Scotland, he finally returned home to fight as a professional. As reigning champion Crawford headlined a June 28 CenturyLink Center card. He successfully defended his title with a rousing 9-round technical knockout over Yuriorkis Gamboa before 10,900 animated fans.
He made a second victorious defense here Nov. 29 against challenger Ray Beltran. Before a super-charged crowd of 11.200 he dismantled Beltran en route to a 12-round unanimous decision. The convincing win made him Ring Magazine’s Fighter of the Year.
Even with everything he’s done, Crawford, who’s expected to move up to the welterweight division, says, “I’m hungry because I want more. I don’t want to just stop at being good, I want to be great. I want to keep putting on performances that will take me to that next level.”
This warrior believes winning is his hard-earned destiny, saying, “If I fight like I want to fight, can’t nobody beat me.”
Through it all he remains devoted to community. Residents reciprocate by turning out in droves, showering him with rock star adulation.
Chants of “Crawford, Crawford, Crawford” and shouts of “We love you” filled the arena Nov. 29. When the ripped, goateed Crawford attacked, fans went wild. He fed off the dynamic energy and high theatrics, his counterpunching, dancing style a perfect fit for the pulsating music, colored lights, fight video montages and amped-up crowd. When the decision was announced family and friends swarmed him in the ring. He climbed the ropes to acknowledge the fans, his face beaming and his gloved hands raised overhead, waving. On his way way to the dressing room, the title belt around his waist and his boy at his side, he humbly accepted congratulations and posed for pictures with admirers.
Known for cool under fire, he doesn’t let the pressure of the big stage get to him.
“With him, man, he don’t give a damn if the fight’s in hell, it’s just another day in the gym,” co-manager Brian “BoMac” McIntyre says. “He knows exactly where he wants to go in this game and he knows how to get there and what it’s going to take to get there.”
North O has a history of producing great athletes. Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Johnny Rodgers and Ahman Green all came out of the same poor neighborhood as Crawford. But where the others achieved their real fame outside here, Crawford’s doing it in his hometown. Now regarded as the best fighter ever from Neb. and as one of the best, pound for pound, in the world today, he’s become a darling of HBO, whose telecasts of his last few bouts scored major ratings. He’s also become a true people’s champion.
His local loyalty is seen in his B&B Boxing Academy located in the heart of The Hood. He wants it to be a launching pad for more champions.
“I want to show we’re not just stepping stones, we do have talent in Omaha and I’m not the only one with the talent – it’s just that people have never been given opportunities like I’ve had.”
He’s “lost count” of the aspiring boxers trying to follow his path. He wants boxing to get kids off the street the way it did for him. “I want to be a positive influence and show them a different route.” His partner in the gym, McIntyre, says they aim “to develop young kids into young men and young men into responsible adults,” adding, “We want to let everyone know if we can make it from this community they can, too.”
Treven Coleman-Avant is among the fighter stable there trying to emulate Crawford’s ring success.
“I pray for many years to come hell be the champion and I plan to come right up along with him,” he says.
It’s not all about fighting. Near Thanksgiving Crawford gave away free turkeys outside the gym, personally greeting recipients and receiving hugs, kisses, thank-yous and God-bless-yous in return.
“If I’m going to have my name out there I want to be in the middle of it interacting with the people I make happy,” he says.
“Much appreciated,” a woman in line offered.
“He’s not forgotten us,” another woman said.
“He takes his and gives back to where he started from,” a man added.
Shawntay Crawford says of her brother, “He’s a loving, caring person.”
“You see him being a true champion outside the ring and that’s what its all about,” Coleman-Avant says.
Bud simply says, “We all make the community and I feel like when you’re going good – give back and help out.”
The fighter takes care of his own. McIntyre. among several Omaha-based coaches and trainers with Team Crawford, says, “Bud’s assured me we’re never going to fall apart. He’s given us that security we’re here to stay.”
Crawford’s also revived boxing in Omaha, where the sport was dormant until his emergence. Few thought Omaha could support a world title card.
“A lot of people doubted and now they’re believers,” Crawford says.
He expects to fight again in Omaha for Top Rank and HBO.
“As long as I keep performing to my best abilities, put on a great show and as long as everybody keeps coming out to support me of course they’re going to keep coming back. Why wouldn’t they?”
“LIke I always say, there’s no place like home.”
Follow the fighter at teamterencebudcrawford.com.
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Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
Leo Biga’s Journey in the Pipeline; Following The Champ, Terence “Bud” Crawford, in Africa
This is the first time I’ve posted the stories I wrote about my travels to Africa with boxing champ Terence “Bud’ Crawford just as they appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/). The publisher and editor generously allotted several pages to this rather epic spread highlighting various facets of the two-week trip to Uganda and Rwanda.
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Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
Terence Crawford Visits Uganda and Rwanda with his former teacher, this reporter and friends
Two-time world boxing champ Terence Crawford of Omaha has the means to do anything he wants. You might not expect then that in the space of less than a year he chose to travel not once but twice to a pair of developing nations in Africa wracked by poverty, infrastructure problems and atrocity scars: Uganda and Rwanda, I accompanied his last trip as the 2015 winner of the Andy Award for international journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Until now I’ve posted a little about the grant that took me to Africa along with a few pictures and anecdotes from the trip. But now I’m sharing the first in a collection of stories I’m writing about the experience, which is of course why I went there in fhe first place. This cover story in the coming July issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) emphasizes Crawford within the larger context of what he and the rest of us saw, who we met and what we did. Future pieces for other publications will go even more into where his Africa sojourns fit into his evolving story as a person and as an athlete. But at least one of my upcoming stories from the trip will try to convey the totality of the experience from my point of view and that of others. I feel privilged to have been given the opportunity to chronicle this journey. Look for new posts and updates and announcements related to this and future stories from my Africa Tales series.