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Marlin Briscoe: The Magician Finally Gets His Due

December 27, 2016 1 comment

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

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

Link to my Omaha Black Sports Legends series at–

 

briscoe-cover

Marlin Briscoe

The Magician Finally Gets His Due

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit marlinbriscoemovie.com for more information.

 

MY OLD FRIEND, HUSKER FOOTBALL, YOU ARE BADLY IN NEED OF A 12-STEP INTERVENTION RECOVERY PROGRAM

November 1, 2015 2 comments

The more the University of Nebraska football program’s woes continue and indeed only get worse, the more capital I believe my semi-mock diagnosis of the program’s mental imbalance has actual traction. But I’ll let you be the judge.

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE HUSKER FOOTBALL PROGRAM-
MY OLD FRIEND, YOU ARE BADLY IN NEED OF A 12-STEP INTERVENTION RECOVERY PROGRAM
Offered in the spirit of satire or don’t take any of this too seriously.

Dear Nebraska Football Program:

It is with great concern and compassion that I appeal to your better angels and ask you to accept a therapeutic regimen that can address your chronic mental illness. Please consider letting those who have your best interests at heart intercede on your behalf so that you can get the help that you need in order to return to health, which is to say sanity, sobriety and serenity.

Let us not mince words but rather state the obvious – you are sick. There is no use in denying it. You have all the symptoms. Low self-esteem. Depression. Performance anxiety. Paranoia. Anger issues. Irrational, inconsistent decisions and behaviors. Inability to develop trusting relationships. Doing the same thing over and over again and failing at it and yet expecting a different result, which as any rational person knows is a classic marker for insanity.
But, my troubled friend, you are so deeply lost in your illness that you cannot see these things for yourself.
The first step to getting better is to admit that you have a problem. Simply going about business as usual and acting as if everything is normalt is a self-deluding proposition that will only keep you right where you are at – in the depths of your addiction.

I can hear you protesting already – I’m no addict…what addiction? Your addiction my friend is to self-inflicted pain. Since 2004 and even before then, you have struggled to find your way as one by one the caring, supporting, guiding figures in your life left you and the infrastructures that once made you strong began falling away. You have had trouble adjusting and transitioning to the succession of leaders who have followed because of your profound abandonment and identity issues.

The near constant scrutiny and criticism directed at you have weighed on you and frayed your nerves and impaired your decision-making.

So much has changed in your environment from those days when you were well and robust and the envy of so many others. As that landscape has become increasingly competitive and pressure-filled and as you have lost what few supports you had around you, you have more and more come to interpret the world as a cruel, harsh place. Negative thoughts have replaced positive thoughts. You live in fear and doubt that the next shoe will drop or that the current regime will let you down just as surely as the previous ones did.

When you get in close games, you freeze up or, well let’s just say, have difficulty doing the right thing.
You have endless rationalizations for why these things happen, but that is only deflecting the problem from the true source: yourself.

Just when you need stability, one leadership team is replaced by another and you have to learn new ways of dong things before you even mastered the old ways.

All of this feeds your insecurity. Little problems get inflated into big problems. Your sense of isolation is increased. You revert to unhealthy old habits and patterns that become ever more entrenched the more you act on them. You have trouble investing in the present or the future because your sense of being all-in is not there. Hope is dim.
When all those around you share the same mindset and tendencies, well, then bad attitudes and behaviors only get reinforced.

In short, your confidence is shattered and your ability to make sound decisions compromised. The more you act out, the more hard wired that becomes, thus making it even harder to enact positive changes.

Making matters worse, many of the decision-makers behind Husker Football and many of your fans, friends and family members are enablers. Out of good intentions they actually fuel your mistaken belief that you are whole and well, when in fact you are broken and sick.

A sure sign of disturbance is when your relationships suffer as a result of your acting out and there are untold examples of how as a program you have alienated, embarrassed, insulted the very fan, alumni and media base that helped give you life and that sustains you. What’s worse, you don’t seem to care that you have caused injury and estrangement. And yes I know that elements of that same base have said and done hurtful things to you, but this is where balance and forgiveness must prevail. Making amends.

Another sign of illness is, of course, impaired job performance. Here, the record of shortcomings speaks for itself.
Furthermore, you have continually resisted, ignored or criticized genuine efforts to offer you advice and counsel. You must acknowledge that your affliction is unmanageable and that you cannot handle it alone. Your only recourse is surrendering to a Higher Power. But you get highly agitated and defensive when remedies and assitance are broached.

There is also a decided tendency to overreact to things. In the name of progress, you have recklessly trampled on and discarded tried and true traditions that gave the program an identity for new systems and styles that have repeatedly proven a poor fit. You keep trying to be something you are not and were never intended to be and that disconnect only causes you more internal confusion and cognitive dissonance. The more separated you become from your true self and the resources available to you, the less resilient you become to change or challenge.

The longer this crisis has gone on the more you have become used to conflict, chaos, failure, despair and even hopelessness. Oh, you put on a good face, but it is clear that you no longer believe in yourself or in what you’re doing.
Things have come to the point where an intervention is called for. Since the board of regents, university administration and athletic department leadership have effectively failed to act responsibly, which is to say without due diligence in making the three most recent head coach hiring decisions, I am proposing that legislation be enacted to take the football program out of their hands and be given to an executive committee comprised of rank and file fans as well as past and present players, coaches and university officials. The majority members would be fans. In so doing, the voices of Nebraskans who are both close to the situation and who have the perspective of outsiders looking in would not only be heard but would have a definite say in things.

Our money, after all, is funding the entire athletics apparatus as taxpayers, season ticket subscribers and boosters. The program would not be what it is without the fans. They should be a part of determining whatever direction the program takes and whatever hires and fires it makes.

Radical? Unrealistic? Never happen? Probably. Then again, Nebraska Football is a unique phenomenon in this state for the disproportionate impact it has on the collective psyche. There is nothing else in the state to unite its disparate, geographically isolated populations the way the program does. The program’s crisis and failure, if left unchecked and unmitigated, is likely to get worse before it gets better, that is if it ever does get better. It is the considered opinion of myself and others that the program is actually heading for rock bottom right now. Rather than let another scenario play out whereby the current coaching staff manages to give the program a fix to prop the program back on its feet only to see it fall back into relapse again, I propose a more dramatic and thorough treatment plan that undoes the current model and gives fans a real say in what happens now and moving forward.

Call it crazy if you will, but I prefer to call it recovery.

Then again, it is only football.

Sincerely,

A Fan in Search of Solutions and with Clearly Too Much Time on My Hands

Firmly Rooted: The Story of Husker Brothers

October 9, 2015 2 comments

Here is the complete Hail Varsity (http://hailvarsity.com/) cover story I did on Husker football brothers.  As the 2015 team struggles to find its way under a new coaching staff, this is a look back at sets of brothers who played during some of the glory years in the program, though a couple of these brothers also weathered the ups and downs of coaching transitions themselves. The story doesn’t so much focus on how the teams they played on fared as it does on the bonds that made these dudes so fiercely loyal to family and to Nebraska. As the headline puts it, these studs were firmly rooted in each other and in Big Red and nothing could shake them loose.

 

Volume 04, Issue 10 - Sept. 30, 2015

 

 

Firmly Rooted: The Story of Husker Brothers

Husker football sometimes truly becomes a band of brothers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Hail Varsity Magazine (http://hailvarsity.com/)
Nebraska recruits football players where it finds them. sometimes even in the same family. Several brother combos have played for NU. Once in a while they’re part of the same recruiting class but usually they arrive a few years apart.

Once in a great while a set of twins plays for the Huskers, including Josh and Daniel Bullocks (2001-2004). The 2015 recruit class includes another pair in Khalil and Carlos Davis, whose uncle is former Husker Lorenzo Hicks. The two freshmen are redshirting this year.

More than a few uncles, nephews and cousins have shared a familial Nebraska football lineage. There’ve been some father-son sets as well as father-son-grandson combos.

Some Husker brother duos have achieved fame on different sides of the ball (Grant and Tracey Wistrom) but most left their mark on the same side of the field, usually defense. Clete and Jim Pillen, Toby and Jimmy Williams, Christian and Jason Pete were all defensive stalwarts as were the Craver, Shanle and Booker brothers. In most cases, brother sets have been solid contributors rather than stars. That’s true of the Cottons, only that clan added a generational element. The patriarch, Barney, played at NU and sons Jake, Ben and now Sam have suited up for the Big Red. He coached two of them.

Waves of brothers come and go. The 1998 through 2003 classes saw a bumper crop. There was a dry spell until Jake and Spencer Long and the Cotton boys came long. More than a decade passed between Kris Brown and his much younger brother Drew playing for NU.

Saturday’s gridiron warriors are the subject of intense scrutiny at a Nebraska. When siblings wear the scarlet and cream, one’s success creates expectations for the other. It doesn’t always happen but more often than not success does carry over.

Four sets of siblings emblematic of this family heritage tradition are the Craigs (Curtis and Roger), the Makovickas (Jeff and Joel), the Ruuds (Barrett and Bo) and the Kelsays (Chad and Chris) Standout players, all. The Craigs and Makovickas did their thing on offense, while the Ruuds and Kelsays did theirs on defense. In each case, a younger brother followed an older brother’s lead. Their stories reveal genetics play a role, as do shared traits and values. Having a brother precede you or be there helps, but you still have to earn it yourself.

 

 

roger craig:   Roger Craig

 

 

Curtis Craig was a Big Deal at Davenport (Iowa) Central High in the early 1970s. The all-everything back selected NU over other powerhouse programs. Bothered by a nagging high ankle sprain suffered at the end of his prep career, he never played I-back in Lincoln but found his niche at wingback.

By his senior year, his little brother Roger was making hay back in Davenport playing for the same coaches, Jim Fox and Jack Leabo, who mentored him. Separated by almost five years, Curtis was conscious of being a model for those behind him.

“I’m the oldest of seven kids,” he says. “The younger ones were watching me because they looked up to me, so I felt I had to step up and set the example. All I was doing was giving back what was given to me. That’s kind of how the tradition is. Whatever you learn in your time you look to give back to those trying to follow your footsteps.”

Roger took careful note of his big brother.

“I always followed him. He was kind of like my hero as a kid growing up. He was a great role model for me. He did all the right things. Without him I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Roger, who starred at I-back and fullback at NU before a Hall of Fame-worthy NFL career.

Roger credits hanging around and playing pickup games with Curtis and his buddies for helping mature him beyond his years.

“I watched how he trained and practiced and I got in there and did things with him.”

Curtis says he was motivated to earn a college scholarship because his folks couldn’t afford to pay for school. His experience exposed Roger to NU coaches and provided an inside look at the program.

“I told him this is what’s going to happen, this is what you need to do.”

Curtis didn’t have that luxury when he arrived at NU.

“I didn’t have anybody to tell me what to do when I got there. I had to just kind of figure it out and then go from there.”

When Curtis was a senior he was still putting Roger through his paces

“He worked with me. He was like a coach,” Roger says.

Big brother touted his little brother to Husker coaches.

Curtis recalls, “I knew he was going to have the possibility to do more than what I did. I said to the staff, ‘ You need to go look at my brother, he’s going to be a good one,’ They did and the rest is history. When you come from a family that has a scholarship athlete the coaches always go back to try and recruit your siblings who are good athletes, too.”

As a tribute to Curtis, whose No. 33 was retired at Davenport Central, Roger wore that number with the San Francisco 49rs.

“I carried Curt with me in the NFL,” Roger says. “I have a lot of respect for my brother.”

 

Jeff and Joel Makovicka

 

A duo who took the walk-on route to Husker glory, Jeff and Joel Makovicka, may be the only brother ball carrier combo in Husker history. Reared on a Brainard, Neb. farm, these siblings separated by four years learned values about doing your best that carried them through 8-man football, careers at NU and all the way to the NFL.

Big brother Jeff says with kid brother Joel watching him, “it increased the importance that I did the right thing.”

The pair always saw themselves playing at NU, they just weren’t sure they’d ever get the chance.

Joel says seeing Jeff make, fueled his own fire.

“When Jeff got there and he succeeded I knew it became not just a goal that was a dream, it was more an attainable and achievable goal and so it made me work that much harder.”

Once Joel joined him on campus, Jeff showed him the ropes. “I knew i had to carry on what we were taught at home. We were in Lincoln, but I told Joel, ‘That doesn’t mean you leave the farm – the farm’s still in you and dad’s still around in your head.'”

Joel relied on Jeff to get him through his first year.

“I remember talking to him not knowing if this was going to be right for me and him saying, ‘Hang in there, everybody goes through this.’
There’s a lot of times I had to lean on him to get to where I wanted to be and he was there for me. It was an adjustment, especially from where we came from, playing 8-man football.”

Joel appreciates that Jeff’s road was tougher than his.

“It was lot harder for him to go to Nebraska because he was the first one to go. He kind of paved the way. He got his foot in the door and then widened the door for me to get there.”

Another advantage of Jeff being there ahead of him was Joel meeting the coaching staff, watching practice and “knowing what to expect.”

Jeff says it wasn’t all him helping Joel but Joel helping him as well.

“It provided a great amount of benefit to me having a younger brother there, especially when I was a senior. We roomed together on the road. For the pre-game routine we made a point to be out there stretching together. We’d often discuss points of the game. During the game, when I’d come off the field, I’d say to him, ‘Hey, did you see that set. Did you see that tendency?’ Did i get the cut block?’ And you’d get such a brutally honest assessment because it was your brother.”

Jeff recognizes the long odds he and Joel overcame to become fullbacks for national title teams (Jeff in 1994 and 1995 and Joel in 1997). Joel was Jeff’s backup in ’95.

“It’s really special. I knew he was going to be this great one because I’d seen him playing with guys three-four years older than him,” Jeff says.

In the ’95 season finale versus Oklahoma NU was driving late when Jeff came out and Joel went in and broke off a memorable scoring run marked by broken tackles, grit and determination.

“That kind of run in that game against that team solidified in my mind he was going to be OK and represented everything we’re about,” says Jeff about that passing-the-torch moment.

The Makovickas are proud of setting the physical tone for NU then.

“Theres no question,” Joel says. “We also take pride in carrying the banner for the walk-ons and kind of having that chip on our shoulder that, you know what, maybe you didn’t think we were good enough coming out of high school to earn a scholarship but you’re damn well going to give us one when we get there.”

Joel went onto a fine NFL career but injuries never allowed Jeff to stay healthy long enough to secure a spot.

The family pipeline continued with younger brothers Justin and Jordan, who grew up around the NU program, until they opted to leave.

Nebraska Cornhuskers linebacker (51) Bo Ruud in action against the Missouri Tigers in the second half at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, NE. Nebraska won the game 34-20.   Bo Ruud

 

 

Speaking of pipelines, the Ruuds are a three-generation Husker clan. Clarence Swanson was an early 20th century stud. His great-grandson Tom Ruud was a force at linebacker six decades later. Other relatives and close family friends also played for the Huskers.

Tom’s two boys, Barrett and Bo, followed his example to become linebackers. They developed under the tutelage of youth coaches and Lincoln Southeast coach Chuck Mizerski and alongside future Division I athletes. it was like growing up in the “family business.”

“It was never like a pipe-dream to be successful at football,” Barrett says. “We saw a lot guys up close and personal live that out, so we knew it was attainable. The one thing our dad would point out to us is it takes a lot of work to get there and that the guys that work the hardest tend to have the most success. We weren’t pushed into any sports but once we decided that’s what we wanted to do we had a lot of resources as far as what it took to be successful. A lot of kids have no idea when they first start playing sports. The more serious we got we could ask questions about what did it take to reach the next level.”

Only a year-and-a-half apart, the Ruud boys grew up doing pretty much everything together, so whatever Barrett got into first, Bo followed suit.

Bo says, “We grew up playing against each other from day one. It was always great competition. We both loved it. We both loved playing football and basketball and golf and whatever we could do to play and compete at.”

When he first got to Nebraska, Barrett had to make his own way. When Bo arrived, his big brother had his back.

“I went in there as a freshman learning on the fly,” Barrett says, “as opposed to Bo coming in and having me already there. He had a little more of a comfort zone. He already knew the work he was getting into for the most part. That’s probably the biggest difference to having a brother in the program.”

Bo agrees, saying, “I think there’s a big advantage being the younger brother. You get to see how it’s done a little bit before you get there.
Plus, having your brother is another friend you’ve got on the team.”

Bo says playing together for a dynasty high school program and the storied Nebraska program they grew up idolizing is “a pretty neat deal.” “It just happened the way it happened without planning it. We both had a desire to make it to the next level and we obviously grew up in a Husker family. It’s just something we always wanted to do.” The brothers were with each on their respective NFL draft days. While Barrett’s long NFL career with Tampa Bay is well-documented, it’s not widely known that Bo’s final three weeks in The League were spent with Barrett in the Buccaneers’ preseason camp before being cut.

Always close, the brothers drew even closer when their mother, who was their biggest fan, died suddenly of a heart attack.

“You naturally lean on each other and your whole family when something like that happens,” Barrett says.

The brothers enjoy fly fishing together.

Chris Kelsay

  Chad Kelsay

Before Chad and Chris Kelsay came along, their hometown of Auburn, Neb. hadn’t produced a scholarship Husker football player in decades. Chad, the eldest by two years, was a Big Red fan but wasn’t sure he was D-I material until attending an NU camp.

“I tested out real well and that kind of put me on the radar of Nebraska.”

With Chris wrecking havoc the next year for Auburn, he became a hot recruiting target, too.

Chad says, “Chris got to know the coaching staff real well and as Chris was coming up through high school it was obvious he was going to have an opportunity to play football at the collegiate level he knew the coaching staff and they started recruiting him.”

“Having two brothers from a community the size of Auburn play at Nebraska was exciting for the town,” Chad says.

Two years apart in age, the brothers were there years apart in school.
Chad’s exploits at rush end naturally inspired Chris, who says his transition to college life and football was helped by having Chad there..

“Ever since we were little kids growing up I always looked up to him both in the classroom and on the football field in how he went about his business. So it was definitely a benefit I tried to take advantage of and I think in the long run it kind of put me ahead of the cart compared to a lot of guys coming in there.”

Neither brother was the most athletically gifted player, but they made up for it with a work ethic they ascribe to their rural growing up.

“If you don’t have it in you and its not how you’ve been brought up, it’s harder to just flip a switch and all of a sudden be a guy that’s going to work harder than everybody else,” Chad says.

Once again defying the odds, both made it to the NFL, though Chad’s stint there ended before Chris joined the league.

“That’s pretty special. Not too many people can say that. We’re blessed to have had the opportunity to do what we’ve done,” Chris says.

Long retired from the game, the Kelsays are together again, this time as sales representatives at Truck Center Companies in Omaha.

Homegrown Joe Arenas made his mark in college and the NFL

March 5, 2015 1 comment

As much as I enjoy writing about the arts and artists, I equally enjoy writing about athletics and athletes.  I finally caught up with a former football great from Nebraska, Joe Arenas, who has never really gotten his full due.  If the name isn’t familiar, it’s because his professional and college exploits happened about 60 years ago.  And though he was a very fine player – so good that he is still among the NFL’s all-time leaders in career kick return average – his jack of all trades verstality as a returner, running back, receiver, and defensive back made it hard for him to really stand out except as a returner.  When you come right down to it, how many returners other than maybe Gale Sayers, Travis Williams, Brian Mitchell, Eric Metcalf, and Devin Hester really made a dent in the national consciousness?  Sayers was of course a great running back in addition to being a great returner.  The other thing working against Arenas was that he had two future NFL Hall of Fame teammates, in Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny, who got most of the offensive touches out of the backfield.  Before playing pro ball Arenas starred in the single-wing at then-Omaha University, where again he did a little of everything.  In the single-wing Joe played a half-back spot in that offense but he did everything a quarterback does.  Before he ever played college ball Joe served as a U.S. Marine in World War II.  He was wounded at Iwo Jima.  My story about Joe for El Perico newspaper refers to the fact that Arenas was among a small number of Hispanic football players who made a mark in the game.  I also reference how Omaha U., which today is the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is where another athlete of color, Marlin Briscoe, played quarterback in an era when that was very rare at a predominantly white university. What I didn’t mention in the article is that a third athlete of color with local ties, Wilburn Hollis, played quarterback at two mostly white institutions, first at Boys Town and then at the University of Iowa.  I was delighted to find Joe a still vital man in his late 80s.

 

 

Danny Woodhead, The Mighty Mite from North Platte Makes Good in the NFL

October 5, 2010 4 comments

In 2004 I first became enamored with the story of Danny Woodhead, a North Platte, Neb. all-around athlete who became a living legend in high school for his exploits in football, basketball, and track.  He set all kinds of records on the gridiron but large colleges were put off by his small size. He was maybe 5’8 and 180-190 pounds then.  Many a big school has bypassed a great player by only looking at the measurables and not assessing an individual’s heart, worth ethic, competitiveness, and instincts for the game.  Woodhead clearly had those qualities and if coaches had only believed their own eyes they would have seen a special athlete with big-time running capability.  Without an attractive offer in hand, however, Woodhead decided to stay close to home and attend nearby Chadron State College, an obscure Division II school. There, his legend only increased.  Long story short, he became the leading rusher in NCAA history, regardless of division. He personally ran for more yards from scrimmage than the majority of college teams did during his four-year career.  He helped lead a turnaround at Chadron, which went from doormat to contender, I finally caught up with him in 2006, when he won the Harlon Hill Trophy as D-II’s best player for the first time.  The award is D-II’s equivalent of the Heisman, and he won it again at the end of the 2007 season.  No one will ever know what Woodhead would have done at a D-I football power like Nebraska, which showed only tepid interest in him at best when he was in high school, but it’s safe to say that after what he did in college and what he’d done by not only making it to the National Football League but thriving there, that he would have performed very well had he been given the opportunity.

In 2008  he was signed as a free agent by the New York Jets, and he so impressed the coaching staff that after suffering a serious injury in preseason camp he was retained by the team, and he once again made the squad for the 20o9 season.  He shined in some exhibition games and though he saw limited action during the regular season he did produce well when given the chance.  He became a darling of the Jet press corps and fan base, and his legend grew more when he was featured in the HBO reality show, “Hard Knocks. ” Head coach Rex Ryan often praised Woodhead. Woodhead recovered from his injury and made the team to start the 2010 season but he was released only two weeks into the campaign.  That’s when the folktale of Woodhead took another fateful turn:  the NFL’s premier franchise did what it’s done innumerable times before by picking up a cast-off that the brain trust of coach Bill Belichick & Co. recognized as having real value.  The Pats’ acquisition of the no-name Woodhead has more than panned out, as Woodhead has scored a touchdown in each of his first two games with the club, earning praise from his new coaches and teammates, and along the way he’s become an instant folk hero in New England.

The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared after Woodhead’s Harlon Hill-winning junior season at Chadron, when the thought of an NFL career was yet a distant dream. That dream has now been fulfilled and it still has a long way to go before it’s finished.  Indeed, Woodhead is only just getting started.

 

Danny Woodhead, The Mighty Mite from North Platte Makes Good in the NFL

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

By winning the Harlon Hill Trophy last weekend as the nation’s best Division II college football player for 2006 Danny Woodhead won one for all the guys told they’re too small, too slow or from the wrong athletic pedigree. Coming out of North Platte, Woodhead, now the super stud, record-setting tailback for Chadron State College (Neb.), heard doubts about his ability despite being Nebraska Class A football’s all-time rushing-scoring leader.

The modest Woodhead isn’t sure his award is vindication so much as inspiration for underdogs. “I don’t know if it’s a win for ‘em, but I think it’s encouraging,” he said. “It makes ‘em think they have a chance because if I had a chance of doing it I think anyone can. It’s not about your size. It’s about how if you keep working hard something like this could happen. It probably teaches don’t let people tell you you can’t do it, because I’ve been told I couldn’t do stuff since I was in 8th grade.”

D-I schools gave him a look after high school but no offers. A pair of D-II schools courted him and the one he chose, Chadron, lacked a powerhouse program. He followed older brother Ben there. Besides, it was closer to home than his only other suitor, the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

At North Platte High he compiled huge numbers, but didn’t meet the profile of a big-time back. In the eyes of major college recruiters he was under weight, (190 pounds) and a step slow (4.6 in the 40). Also hurting his cred was where he played. Western Nebraska doesn’t produce many D-I prospects. Most of his yards came against the Grand Islands and Cretes, not Lincoln or Metro Omaha schools. The theory went, You-may-be-all-that-in-the-sticks, but-you-ain’t-shit-where-it-counts. Then, too, he’s white, when the prototype ballcarrier is black. What’s a guy to do?

Well, in Woodhead’s case he got bigger, stronger and faster and in the process put up eye-popping stats his freshman and sophomore years, rushing 562 times for 3,609 yards and scoring 46 touchdowns for Chadron teams that were competitive but lost as often as they won. He also proved a dangerous receiver. Each year he made the Associated Press Little All-America Team. Combining great lower body strength, superb balance, uncanny vision, excellent speed and rare endurance, he sheds tacklers and makes people miss and just keeps coming at you.

Then he took his game up a notch in 2006. In a year in which Chadron went 12-1, advanced to the playoffs and nearly beat D-II finalist Northwest Missouri State, he went off the way Barry Sanders did his Heisman year. Woodhead earned 1st Team All America honors and D-II’s Heisman equivalent when he gained 2,736 rushing yards and 3,158 all-purpose yards and scored 38 touchdowns and 228 points, tops in each NCAA category. To put it in perspective, by himself he outrushed and outscored most collegiate gridiron teams. His 2,736 rushing yards set the all-division single season mark. With a full season to play, Woodhead, a junior, has 6,345 rushing yards and 84 touchdowns. He’s on pace to break every NCAA career rushing, all-purpose yardage and scoring record. He may eclipse some marks by huge margins.

Like all great athletes he’s not content. “I don’t want to be satisfied with what I’ve done,” he said. “I want to work just as hard as I can to get better.” He intends leading Chadron to the D-II title game, which the return of 19 players with starting experience makes plausible. He’ll be the favorite to win a second Harlon Hill.

Whatever he does next, he knows people will ask, Could he have done it in D-I? “We could play the what if game,” he said, “but honestly it’s not going to get us anywhere. I’m happy where I’m at. I’m having a blast playing football. It’s something you don’t want to end, so I’m just going to cherish it while I have it and I’m not really worried about what I could be or would be doing in Division I.”

The next question is, Can he make it in the NFL? It doesn’t matter. You see, he’s already a legend. His feats should do wonders for recruiting. Thanks to him, other  guys who don’t fit the mold may be dreaming big . Now that’s a legacy, man.

 

 

 

 

Woodhead compiled just under 10,000 all-purpose yards during his Chadron State career.  Here are a few of his college stats:

RUSHING
GP    NO.     YDS    LOSS   NET    RSH AVG   TDS   LNG   PER GM-AVG
11    250     1646   49     1597   6.4       21    89    145.2
13    344     2854   98     2756   8.0       34    88    212.0
10    278     1854   85     1769   6.4       21    91    176.9
10    284     1892   52     1840   6.5       25    73    184.0
44   1156     8266          7962            101
RECEIVING
GP     NO.     YDS   AVG.   TDS  LNG
11     38      484   12.7   2    85
13     45      403    9.0   4    43
10     30      367   12.2   0    32
10     16      163   10.2   2    55
44    129     1417          8
SCORING
GP     TDS      PTS

11            23               138

13             38              228

10             21              126

10             27             162

44           109            654

Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

August 18, 2010 Leave a comment

 

 

In the constellation of University of Nebraska football legends, Johnny Rodgers is probably still the brightest star, even though it’s been going on 40 years since he last played for the Huskers.  So dazzling were his moves and so dominant was his play that this 1972 Heisman Trophy winner , who was the one big play threat on the 1970 and 1971 national championship teams, remains the gold standard for NU playmakers.  The fact that he was such a prominent player when NU first reached modern day college football prominence, combined with his being an Omaha product who overcame a tough start in life, puts him in a different category from all the other Husker greats.  The style and panache that he brought to the field and off it helps, too.  He’s also remained one of the most visible and accessible Husker legends.

 

 

 

 

Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

“Man, woman and child…the Jet has put ‘em in the aisles again.”

Viewing again on tape one of Johnny Rodgers’ brilliant juking, jiving broken field runs, one has the impression of a jazz artist going off on an improvisational riff and responding note by note, move by move, instant by instant to whatever he’s feeling on the field.

Indeed, that is how Rodgers, the quicksilver University of Nebraska All-American and Heisman Trophy winner known as The Jet, describes the way his instinctive playmaking skills expressed themselves in action. Original, spontaneous, unplanned, his dance-like punt returns and darting runs after catches unfolded, like riveting dramatic performances, in the moment. Poetry in motion. All of which makes his revelation that he did this in a kind of spellbound state fascinating.

“I remember times when I’d go into a crowd of players and I’d come out the other side and the first time I’d know anything about what really happened was when I watched it on film,” he said. “It was like I was in a trance or guided or something. It was not ever really at a conscious level. I could see it as it’s happening, but I didn’t remember any of it. In any of the runs, I could not sit back and say all the things I’d just done until I saw them on film. Never. Not even once.”

This sense of something larger and more mysterious at work is fitting given Rodgers unlikely life story. In going from ghetto despair and criminal mischief to football stardom and flamboyant high life to wheeler-dealer and ignominious failure to sober businessman and community leader, his life has played out in surreal fashion. For a long time Rodgers seemed to be making his legend up, for better or worse, as he went along.

Once viewed as an incorrigible delinquent, Rodgers grew up poor and fatherless in the Logan Fontenelle projects and, unable to get along with his mother, ran away from home at age 14 to Detroit. He was gone a year.

“You talk about a rude awakening. It was a trip,” he said.

He bears scars from bashings and bullets he took in violent clashes. He received probation in his late teens for his part in a Lincoln filling station robbery that nearly derailed his college football career. He served 30 days in jail for driving on a suspended license. Unimaginable — The Jet confined to a cell. His early run-ins with the law and assundry other troubles made him a romantic outlaw figure to some and a ne’er-do-well receiving special treatment to others.

“People were trying to make me out to be college football’s bad boy,” is how he sums up that tumultuous time.

Embracing his rebel image, the young Rodgers wore shades and black leather and drove fast. Affecting a playboy image, J.R. lived a Player’s lifestyle. By the time he signed a big contract with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, he was indulging in a rich young man’s life to the hilt — fur capes, silk dashikis, fancy cars, recreational drugs, expensive wines and fine babes. Hedonism, baby.

Controversy continued dogging him and generating embarrassing headlines, like the time in 1985 he allegedly pulled a gun on a cable television technician or the two times, once in 1987 and again in 1998, when his Heisman was confiscated in disputes over non-payment of bills. Then there were the crass schemes to cash in on his fame.

Rodgers, whose early life could have gone seriously astray if not for strong male figures around him, said, “I really wish I would have had mentors in mid-life like I had coming up so I could have been prepared for a lot of things I found myself getting into and out of, whether good or bad. I really don’t have any regrets as far as whatever has happened, one way or the other, because I’ve grown on both sides. I’ve learned probably more from my mistakes than from my successes.”

It is only in recent years he has settled down into the kind of calm, considered, conservative life of a reborn man who, in conversation, often refers to his Creator and to giving back.

As he was quoted in a 2001 Omaha World-Herald story, “I’m a little boring now. I make people nervous these days because they have to put their drugs away now.”

Not that this inveterate risk-taker and spotlight lover still isn’t capable of surprises, just that his escapades are less brazen. In the late 1990s he went back to school to finish his degree and added a second degree for good measure. In 1996 he started a sports apparel, bedding and accesories business, JetWear, located in the Business and Technology Center at 24th and Lake, that got him named entrepreneur of the year. He and his wife Jawana own and operate it  today. Then, cementing his lofty status as a sports hero, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and named Husker Player of the Century.

These days, Rodgers, looking fit with his shirt-popping muscular physique and jaunty with the gold bling-bling draping his every appendage, seems comfortable in his role as venerable legend. The media seeks his opinions on the state of the Husker Nation in the aftermath of last season’s debacle.

However much he plays the role of wizened old football warrior, he is forever seen as the dangerous artful dodger whose unique combo of strength, quickness and intuitiveness let him do the unexpected on the gridiron — leaving people grasping thin air with magical now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t moves. In an interview from his office, adorned with images and clippings from his glory days, he spoke like a man still in touch with the electrifying, enigmatic athletic genius that left fans breathless and opponents befuddled. Still every inch the star, he’s finally come to terms with himself.

When viewed in the context of a rather rash fellow who follows his instincts, then his punt returns — the plays where he improvised the most, displayed the most creativity and took the greatest chances — make more sense just as some of his reckless off-the-field antics can be better understood if not excused. For better or worse, his let’s-wing-it, go-for-broke attitude explains his life inside and outside of athletics.

“When you’re a risk taker you do make mistakes because you’re going for it all the time,” he said. “You don’t always make the right move. You can fake yourself right into harm’s way or you can shake yourself right through it. But you have to be willing to take a chance. In a lot of ways I should have been more conservative about things but it’s just not my nature.”

Just like calling a fair catch or lining up behind a wall of blockers was not about to happen when fielding a punt.

“You don’t think, you just react. You don’t know, you just feel,” is how Rodgers describes what it’s like for an impulsive person like himself to feed off whatever is happening around him at any given time, including the chaos swirling about when running back a punt in a preternatural daze. “It’s not like being in what athletes call a zone. You get yourself ready in a zone so you can think about what you need to do and you can get it done. Being in a trance is a whole other level. It’s not a planned thing. You don’t know what’s going to happen. If you make a plan, you’re already wrong because it hasn’t happened yet. The plan is, there is no plan.”

Because of Rodgers’ unusual, innate gifts, then NU head coach Bob Devaney gave him great latitude.

“I had a green light returning punts. I just did whatever came natural,” Rodgers said. “I’d call a punt return right and I’d go left in a heartbeat. When I saw everybody going left, I’d change direction. I never would know. I was never ever told to fair catch the football, even in dangerous situations. There were never any rules for me. I was given that freedom. It got to the point where the only thing I could tell my guys is, ‘Get that first man and meet me down field’ because I didn’t know myself what I was going to do.”

Some of his most famous returns illustrate Rodgers at his extemporaneous best. Take the famous 72-yard touchdown versus Oklahoma in the 1971 Game of the Century.

“It was a right return and I started off right but the whole darn thing happened on the left. On that return my guys didn’t get the first man. I had to shake the first man, who was Greg Pruitt. Joe Blahak broke one way and I went the other way, but still he circled all the way back around the field to pick the last guy off my back and that was because we always agreed to meet down field.

“Where most players would be satisfied getting one block and be jogging the rest of the way my guys, like Blahak and (Rich) Glover, were still fighting until the whistle blew. They knew to meet me down field and that attitude really panned out.”

Call it a sixth sense or a second set of eyes, but Rodgers possessed an uncanny ability to elude defenders he couldn’t possibly see. “I watch myself returning punts on film and I see guys reaching at my head and I’m ducking and you can see clearly that I can’t see them, but I can feel them. At the exact right time I make the move. It’s an instinct. A spiritual thing. Unconscious.”

In a remarkable series of sideline returns against Colorado in 1972, Rodgers executed some fancy arabesques and tightrope maneuvers that defied logic and balance as he repeatedly made sharp cuts, spins and leaps to escape trouble.

On offense, he also enjoyed a degree of freedom. When the Huskers needed a play, he and quarterback Jerry Tagge would collaborate in the huddle. “When push came to shove we called plays ourselves. Tagge would ask, ‘What can you do? What can we get?’ because I was setting up the guy covering me for something. I’d be running down-and-outs all day long just so I could run the post-and-go or whatever we needed. ‘Is he ready yet? Tagge would ask. ‘He’s ready,’ I’d say. I always had the attitude if we were in trouble I want the ball because I could get it done.”

He got things done to the tune of setting numerous single season and career school marks for catches, yards receiving, punt returns and total offense. Amazingly, Rodgers isn’t sure he could be successful today in NU’s highly regimented schemes.

“I was fortunate enough to come along when I did. I don’t know if I could make it now,” he said. “Coaches don’t let you be who you are. They try to coach you to who they are. They’re not letting the great ones be great. You can’t teach this stuff. If you have to think, you’re already too slow. It’s reaction. You have to react. You have to be free and open to sense it and feel it.”

Precociously talented from an early age, Rodgers first made headlines at age 8 by diving over a human pyramid his Lothrop Grade School tumbling teammates formed with their interlaced bodies in tumbling shows. Despite being much younger and smaller than the youths playing at Kountze Park his athleticism gained him entry into sandlot football and baseball contests there that included such future greats as Gale Sayers, Marlin Briscoe and Ron Boone.

“I was ‘too small’ to play but they let me play ball with them because I was good enough.” He honed his repertoire of fakes playing flag football and, later, tackle with teams sponsored by the Boys Club and Roberts Dairy. By the time he starred at Tech High in football, baseball and basketball, Rodgers had a sense of his own destiny. “I noticed I seemed to be special. I saw these older guys go on and do something nationally and I felt if they could, I could, too. It was almost supposed to happen.”

Rodgers wasn’t always comfortable with his own prodigious talents. He said early on his gift, as he calls it, was “definitely a burden because I didn’t know why I was so good and whether I was chosen or something. I didn’t know if I even wanted to have that type of a burden. I was almost upset because I had it. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I really wasn’t spiritually grown enough to really appreciate this gift, which it really was.” Then there was the fact his prowess caused grief off the field. “My gift was getting me in fights every single weekend…and for no other reason than I was popular, I had notoriety and people were jealous. Girls were telling their guys we were together or whatever. I had people coming down where I lived trying to beat me up. I remember having to crawl out the gall darn window.”

Things got so bad during junior high school he took extra precautions walking to and from the home of his grandmother, who’d taken him in after his brash runaway stunt. “I’d walk in the middle of 25th Street so that if anybody came after me I could get away,” he said. “And it would never be one on one. It would always be several guys and they could never catch me.” If nothing else, being chased helped him develop his broken field moves. One day, Rodgers wasn’t so sure he’d make it past the gauntlet facing him. He and his pal Leroy had just left a friend’s house when they were surrounded by a gang of boys.

As Rodgers describes it, “I had a dog chain and he had a knife and I said, ‘Leroy, you ready?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ So, I’m looking around to check out the situation and when I turn back around Leroy is turning the corner up the street. He ran off and left me. So, I started swinging my chain until I got me a little opening and I broke. In those days, when I broke I was going to be alright because I had it covered. Well, those guys started chasing me, except they sent one guy out while the rest of them stayed back jogging.” That’s when he got a sinking feeling. Not long before the incident he’d watched a Western on television about a lone settler chased by Indians, who sent a series of runners out after the man until they wore him down and caught him.

“I remember thinking, They saw the same movie. I couldn’t believe it. They had me scared to death because I saw what happened to that cowboy. Luckily, I escaped down the street and ducked into an alley and dove in a car. I laid down on the floor in back and they went on by,” he said, laughing and flashing his best Johnny “The Jet” smile.

 

 

 

 

Growing up in The Hood then didn’t pose quite the same dangers as it does now, but there is no doubt Rodgers narrowly skirted the worst of its ills thanks to the influence of some black men who nurtured and guided him.

“I see how easily I could have went totally in the other direction and what it really took came from my athletic background.”

There was George Barber, his gym coach at Lothrop, who got him started in athletics. There was Josh Gibson, his baseball coach at the Boys Club. The older brother of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, Josh was a legendary baseball coach and “a hard disciplinarian.”

Rodgers, a good enough baseball prospect to be drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers, credits Gibson with teaching him to switch hit. His basketball coach at Horace Mann Junior High, Bob Rose, taught him to shoot layups with both hands. Perhaps the greatest lesson learned from Gibson and Rose, Rodgers said, was that “we weren’t there just to play the game, we were there to win. Of course, we lost some games but we learned you never quit. You went back and worked harder and got better.”

And at the YMCA there was Don Benning, still years away from coaching UNO to an NAIA wrestling title, a man whom Rodgers said “has been like a father to me.”

By the time Rodgers emerged as the star of NU’s 1970 and 1971 championship teams and as the 1972 Heisman front runner he was befriended by two more key men in his life — the late community activist Charles Washington and high living attorney Robert Fromkin. A friend to many athletes, Washington helped Rodgers out with expenses and other favors.

But, Rodgers said, what he really gleaned from Washington was “a responsibility to help others. I learned a lot from him about helping out the community.” According to Rodgers what he got from Fromkin, who represented him after one of his arrests, were free lessons in style.

“Bobby was responsible for me having maybe just a touch of class. He always had an elaborate place and a brand new El Dorado. He would invite me to the fights and to shows. We’d have the whole front row. Then we’d go out to the French Cafe and he’d pick up the whole tab. That was stuff I looked forward to at an early age. That showed me how to do it. How to live right. It added to my flamboyance. The thing he taught me is the only shame you have is to aim low. You’ve got to aim high. You’ve got to go for the gusto. It only takes a little bit more to go first class.”

When, on the advice of Fromkin, Rodgers surprised the football world by spurning the NFL for the CFL, he found a perfect fit for his garishness in cosmo Montreal and its abundant night life. “I loved Montreal. It was the city of love. There were some great times in Montreal. The French people and I got along great. We were flamboyant together.” The dash he exhibited off the field complemented his flash on the field, where Rodgers again dominated. After four banner years, it was time to meet his next challenge. “The only thing left to do was to go to the NFL and prove myself there.” He signed with the club that originally drafted him — the San Diego Chargers — and worked like he never had before.

“Because I had so much natural ability I never pushed myself as hard as I really could have. When I got to San Diego I was really determined to go to the next level. I wanted to see just how good I could be. I made sure I was in the best condition I could be in.”

He was coming off a monster preseason showing against Kansas City when his dream fell apart. A series of torn muscles and hamstrings severely curtailed his rookie NFL season. He came back ready the next year only to suffer an ugly, career-ending knee injury. “That was it,” said Rodgers, who after surgery spent much of the next year in a wheelchair and crutches. For him, the biggest disappointment was “never really getting a chance to showcase what I could do. It hurt me, but I’m not bitter about it. I mean, I could have gone crazy but instead I grew from it.”

A perpetual optimist and opportunist, Rodgers has bounced around some since his retirement. For several years he made San Diego his home, starting up a cable TV magazine there that had some success. He returned to Nebraska in the late ‘80s to help support his son Terry during an injury-shortened NU career. Over the years he’s announced several business-community projects that have not come to fruition and some that have. In addition to JetWear, which he hopes to expand, he owns a sports memorabilia business and a promotion arm organizing events like his Husker/Heisman Weekend and public speaking engagements.

Rather than slow down in his mid-50s, he’s poised to make a big move.

“I feel like I had a rejuvenation on life at 50 and so I feel I’m just getting started. I think the best is truly still ahead of me. I have only touched on a small part of the potential I have. Because of my history and my visibility I can create a better future for myself, for my family and for my community.”

Eying Omaha’s riverfront redevelopment, he looks forward to being part of a north Omaha rebirth to match his own. “I think north Omaha’s future is so bright you have to wear shades.” Burn, Jet, burn.

 

The Brothers Sayers: Big legend Gale Sayers and little legend Roger Sayers (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

August 15, 2010 3 comments

East quarterback Terrelle Pryor of Jeannette, ...

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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 2004-2005 that explored Omaha’s Black Sports Legends.  We called the 13-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 (from my  Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader  (www.theeader.com) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out the Win: The Roots of Greatness

 

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

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.”

Prodigal Son: Marlin Briscoe takes long road home (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

August 13, 2010 4 comments

 

 

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 the National 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 long road home (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness

 

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 AfricanAmerican roots, a comparable experience in facing racial inequality and a similar track record of achieving enduring athletic greatness.

 

 

Marlin Briscoe, a South High alum, is honored with a street named in his honor on Oct. 22, 2014.

 

 

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 roommate Brian 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.”

Wright On, Adam Wright Has it All Figured Out Both On and Off the Football Field

July 6, 2010 2 comments

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

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

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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