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What if Creighton’s hoops destiny team is not the men, but the women?

February 8, 2017 Leave a comment

What if Creighton’s hoops destiny team is not the men, but the women?

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Wouldn’t it be weird if the local college hoops team of destiny this year wasn’t the men’s squad as we all assumed through mid-January, but in fact their female counterparts on campus? Maybe, just maybe, we got this narrative wrong. No worry, there’s still time to jump on the bandwagon and rewrite history. Sound crazy? Not so fast. The Bluejay men are not the same since losing Maurice Watson and even though the Jays are still a quaity team and even still control their own fate, each loss from here on out during the remainder of the regular season and on through the Big East tournament will only further hurt their standing in the eyes of the national pollsters and NCAA selection committee. Unless CU can play very strong the rest of the way, its once realistic if not probable shot at a No. 2 seeding will be long gone and the Jays could very well end up in their customary No. 8 or 9 spot. The once 17-0 Jays have come back down to earth and are not 3-4 in their last seven games. More importantly. they are now exceedingly fragile bunch mentally speaking. Meanwhile, the women’s team, which traditionally gets off to slow starts, once again struggled mightly early in the year, opening at 1-3. They entered the 2016-2017 campaign with a deep, talented and experienced roster, but injuries hurt them early on. Since getting healthier and adjusting to the loss of one of their own top players, they have gelled to go 16-3. The team gets steady contributions from nine, even ten players. At 17-6 and 11-2 the Lady Jays sit just outside the Top 25 and are poised to enter the Big East Tournament in great shape and further enhance their chances for a decent NCAA seed that could help them advance to the second weekend of March Madness. Steady at the helm is veteran head coach Jim Flanery, who has established himself as one of the state’s better college hoops coaches, men’s or women’s side, in the last quarter century. He seems to get the most ouf of his players year in and year out.

 

Bluejays Bytes Podcast: Episode 15, Sponsored by Lawlor’s Custom Sportswear

 

 

The great thing about the CU women’s program is that it’s heavily built on Midwest student-athletes. Almost all the players come from within an 8-hour driving radius. There are three Nebraska kids on the roster and the rest come from Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. The lone outlier is from Oklahoma. The Jays doesn’t do any one thing particularly well but they do most everything pretty well and their balance and depth is hard for other teams to match even though CU is often overmatched athletically at certain spots. Being fundamentally sound and hard-nosed can make up for a lot of deficiencies, especially against teams that are about even in terms of overall talent. I’m not saying the Hilltop women’s team will go farther than the men’s team, but they do have the advantage of being on a roll that is weeks long in process and showing no signs of slowing down whereas the guys are still in herky jerk mode trying to adapt to the loss of their indisputable leader on and off the court. Even though his career was prematurely cut short and he only played one and a half seasons in a CU uniform, Watson will go down as one of the school’s all-time top talents in the same category as Silas, Portman, Harmon, Apke, Johnson, McKenna, Benjamin, Gallagher, Harstad, Buford, Sears, Walker, Korver, Tolliver, Funk, McDermott. The same is true of Justin Patton, who may be off to the NBA as soon as next year, and Khryi Thomas, who before all is said and done may be the best of the lot. Marcus Foster has the potential to be in this conversation, too, but he needs to be better than he has been since Watson went out or else he will be remembered as no more than a pretty good scorer and super athlete but certainly not a great or even a difference-maker of a player. I mention all this because by contrast the Creighton women don’t have any one player who can be considered a certifiable star compared to all-time program greats like Halligan, Gradoville, Yori, Nenman, Janis. They are all about team and the whole being greater than the parts. Audrey Faber, Marissa Janning, Brianna Rollerson, Sydney Lamberty. Jaylyn Agnew. Laura Works and Baily Norby are the interchangable heart and soul cogs of the team and have had to be since M.C. McGrory was lost for the season after only nine games. Because the Lady Jays lost one of their best players so early compared to the men losing their best player mid-season the women have had the advantage of more time adjusting to her absence and they’ve compensated well enough that they’re in contention for the Big East title and a nice NCAA tourney seeding.

 

Creighton locks down Villanova in the second half to remain unbeaten at D.J. Sokol Arena

 

 

To be fair, the women losing McGrory was not nearly the blow the men endured when Watson went down, but what the Lady Jays have done since is not only comendable but darn impressive. And coach Jim Flanery deserves much credit for the job he’s done in taking over for school legend Connie Yori and turning out competitive teams year after year with less than eye-popping talent. What he’s done compares favorably with what CU volleyball coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth – reigning National Coach of the Year – has done. Bernthal Booth led CU to the Elite Eight this past season and I would love to see Flanery get his hoops program there one of these years. It would be a long shot, for sure, but, hey, it was a longshot for the volleyball team to get there, too. But they did it. Maybe this is the year he makes it happen. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the women’s basketball team does it the same season the volleyball team did? Why stop there? How about both the men’s and women’s teams advancing to the Sweet Sixteen? Neither program has ever done it. Why not this year? Why not do it when both team

Leonard Thiessen social justice triptych deserves wider audience

January 21, 2017 Leave a comment

There is a compelling social justice triptych by the late great Nebraska artist Leonard Thiessen that should be more widely seen. Every year around Black History Month I encourage folks to visit the worship space that houses the piece for the express purpose of taking in the powerful images and ideas expressed in the work. The piece is called “Crucifixion” and it can be found affixed to a wall just inside the sanctuary at Church of the Resurrection, a small but mighty Episcopal faith community at 3004 Belvedere Boulevard directly across the street from Miller Park and just northwest of 30th and Kansas. The blended congregation is a mix of African-Americans, Caucasians and Africans.

The Thiessen work is not like anything you’d expect to find there or in any worhsip place for that matter. “Crucifixon” juxtaposes jarring, disturbing scenes of lynching, gas attacks, warmaking, want, industrialization and propoganda with the crucified Christ. Passages drawn from scripture proffer warnings about sins against our fellow man and being led astray by false prophets. These abnomitions are leavened by promises of recknoning and salvation. Thiessen created the triptych many decades ago but it is still relevant today in its rumination on things that instill fear and conflict in the hearts and minds of human beings and that cause us to look to a redemptive Higher Power for mercy and justice.

The words that appear at the bottom of the panels read:

“In time of peace, men suffer from drouth and want. Fear not, for I am with thee. I will bring they seed from the Earth.”

“They are made with machines, slaves of other machines. Be strong, fear not, your God will come with recompense.”

“Other men incite them to persecution and destruction. Keep ye judgment and do justice for my salvation is near.”

“From all sides their faith is confused and confounded. Behold, I create new heavens and a new Earth and the former shall not be remembered.”

The artist created “Crucifixion” in memory of his aunt, Wilhemina Berg, who was a member of the former St. John’s Church before it merged with St. Philip”s to create Church of the Resurrection,  The work is an example of Thiessen’s ability to employ and transform classical forms into modern interpretations. The piece is regarded as one of Thiessen’s most important.

In an interview shortly after his retirement, Thiessen said he had worked to “break down the idea that the arts were the prerogative of the elite. Nowadays the arts, like boating, skiing, tennis and wines, are all for the person in the street.”

Thiessen spoke four languages and was particularly known for his wit, often trying to slip puns past his editors at the Omaha World-Herald, for whom he was an art critic. Over the years, he taught at many area institutions, including Creighton, UNL and UNO.

He is classified as belonging to the period as the First Nebraskans, an era in Nebraska’s art history from 1901 to 1950 when the various forms of modernism were flourishing.

His vision and passion for the arts in Nebraska laid an influential foundation.

A good way to see the triptych and get a sense for the church where it’s displayed is to attend a service there. The 10 a.m. Sunday service is an intimate experience animated by the choir most Sundays and the guest band ReLeaseT the third Sunday of the month. On Feb. 26 come to Soul Food Sunday for some great eats. But whenever you come, make sure you see the triptych.

Link to the Church of the Resurrection website here:

http://coromaha.episcopal-ne.org/

 

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Link here to a Museum of Nebraska Art page devoted to Thiessen:

https://mona.unk.edu/collection/thiessen.shtml

Here is an extended bio of the artist copied from the MONA page:

Leonard Thiessen was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. His family was small and his paternal ancestry had roots to the Swedish and German pioneer settlers of Grand Island, Nebraska. For a very short time, the family lived in Grand Island where, as a boy, Thiessen was employed in the mail department of The Grand Island Independent newspaper. His parents, Charles Leonard Thiessen and Jean Louise Berg Thiessen, together with his mother’s favorite sister Wilhemina, were all involved in various creative endeavors and had a profound influence on Leonard’s development. His father worked in the printing industry and introduced the young Leonard to the trade. Jean was a talented self-taught artist in her own right who produced on-edge felt mosaics that are fine examples of early 20th century fiber art. (MONA has seven pieces of her work in its collection.) The Thiessens were involved in Omaha’s music, dance, and theater groups and deeply connected to the neighborhood Episcopal Church. They were not wealthy but had many friends in the community and had an impressive social calendar.

Thiessen attended Omaha’s Miller Park Public School and St. John’s Protestant School and graduated from Central High School in 1919. His school years were privileged with experiences that helped to foster his development as an artist. While in high school, he decided to follow formal study in the visual arts and began to draw cartoons and illustrations for the school newspaper. During his teen years, he worked as an office assistant for an architectural firm in downtown Omaha, a job that offered a perk that proved helpful to his future employment. During his free time, Leonard would sit and read the collection of architectural books found in the office. After graduation he worked for the Omaha Bureau of Advertising and Engineering editing illustrations and photographs for an agricultural livestock catalog.

He attended the University of Omaha (now University of Nebraska at Omaha) for three semesters in 1921 and 1922 studying journalism and fine arts and producing illustrations and graphic layouts for the University newspaper The Gateway. During this time, he worked as a gallery assistant for the Art Institute of Omaha which was located on the top floor of the old public library building designed by Thomas Kimball. Thiessen became disillusioned with the University’s conservative art courses and left Omaha to continue his studies in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln from 1925 to 1926. He was not interested in “serious painting” and majored primarily in design and architecture. His professors were the artists Dwight Kirsch, Louise Mundy, Francis Martin (a contemporary of the portraitist J. Laurie Wallace), and Emily Burchard Moore. In the 1920s, Lincoln, Nebraska was an incredibly fervent environment. Some of Thiessen’s circle of friends and classmates included artists as well as writers and intellectuals among them Katherine “Kady” Faulkner, Louise Austin (who had studied in Munich with Hans Hoffman), Mari Sandoz, Weldon Kees, Loren Eiseley, and Dorothy Thomas. In the late 1920s, Thiessen pursued a highly successful commercial career as an interior designer and decorator with several design and architectural firms in Lincoln and Omaha. Additionally, he did freelance work and began to receive commissions as a mural painter. Later he studied at the museums of New York City, Boston, and Miami with his Aunt Wilhemina.

In 1929, while on a trip to Paris, Thiessen learned of the stock market crash in the United States and decided to stay in Europe. He enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris where he studied drawing and painting for one summer and later moved to London to study at the Heatherly School of Art. While in London, Thiessen studied wood engraving and graphics. In 1932, he applied and was accepted at the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and studied with Otto Skold who later became the director of the National Museum at Stockholm. At the Academy, Thiessen studied the classical manner, graphic arts, and the traditional forms of fresco and mural painting. He described himself as a “designer of interiors and mural painter in the Middle West, U.S.” Taking several short breaks in between his studies to return to the United States, he finally received his diploma in 1938. While in Sweden, Thiessen made a trip to Tallin, Estonia, to sketch the local architecture.

After returning to the United States in the late 1930s, he found that demand for interior decorators had fallen with the depression. He used his charm and talent to persuade the editors of the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star to allow him to write an arts review column. He became the Omaha World-Herald’s first art critic and his now legendary column first appeared in 1939 and continued on and off for the next 30 years.

He had exhibitions at Morrill Hall, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1938 and Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum in 1940. He also resumed his friendships with artist Milton Wolsky and Alysen Flynn. Later he accepted a position in Des Moines as Iowa’s State Director of the Federal Artists and Writers Program of the Works Projects Administration in 1941. The program employed 300 people and Leonard supervised over 100 individuals in eight departments. Thiessen left Iowa in 1942 to join the Army and was officially promoted to the Office of Intelligence in 1944. Because of his training in architectural design and graphic arts, Thiessen was particularly suited for the position of draftsman in the intelligence department. He studied and made reports of pertinent visual data, maps, and serial photos during the war. He was stationed in Kettering, England, the place that would become the subject of many of his works on paper.

In the 1950s, Thiessen made another trip to London, returning to the United States to serve two years as director of the Herbert Memorial Institute of Art in Augusta, Georgia. In the 1960s, Thiessen took several other trips to Europe and returned to Nebraska where he immediately continued his involvement with the Omaha World-Herald, the Joslyn Art Museum and the Sheldon Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. By this time he was recognized as the authority on Nebraska’s developing art history and served as editor of the catalogue, Nebraska Art Today, by Mildred Goosman, curator at the Joslyn Art Museum published in 1967. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Nebraska Arts Council becoming its first Executive Secretary (a position now known as Executive Director) from 1966 to 1975. In addition, he taught classes at Isabella Threlkeld’s studio in Omaha for eight years. He became a close friend and professional colleague of the professors at Kearney State College (now University of Nebraska Kearney) and encouraged the establishment of the Nebraska Art Collection in the 1970s. He served on the board of the Museum of Nebraska Art for over ten years and was one of its founding members. In 1972 Thiessen received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Creighton University and was honored with the first Governor’s Arts Award in 1978. His work can be found at Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln; Kansas Wesleyan University, Salina; the Alfred East Gallery, Kettering, England; the Herbert Memorial Institute of Art, Augusta, Georgia; and in many private collections

Thiessen lived in Omaha, Nebraska, for most of his adult life. He eventually converted two upstairs rooms of the now famous house on Stone Avenue for his studio. Artwork dominated both floors, much of it his own. Thiessen remained a bachelor his entire life, and had an amazing number of friends and colleagues from the various Nebraska arts communities. He was respected by many prominent Nebraska artists who honored him by making him the subject of their work including Kent Bellows, Bill Farmer, Larry Ferguson, Frances Kraft, Paul Otero, John Pusey, and John Thein.

Leonard Thiessen died March 27, 1989.

The Museum of Nebraska Arts holds 109 works by Leonard Thiessen in addition to archival material.

Researched and written by Josephine Martins, 2002

NOTE: Biographical information was derived from a variety of sources, including unpublished biographical notes by William Wallis, 2001,  a recorded interview with Thiessen by Gary Zaruba, 1983 and compilations by COR member Keith Winton.

Poverty in Omaha: Breaking the Cycle and the High Cost of Being Poor

January 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Vicious Circle

Breaking the cycle of poverty in Omaha

The December 2016 issue of the Reader featured a cover package on Poverty in Omaha, The High Cost of Being Poor. There are three stories on poverty and I have two of them, including this lead piece titled Vicious Circle, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty in Omaha. My other piece is headlined The High Cost of Being Poor, Aggressive Creditors Exploit Nebraska Law. My blog, leoadambiga.com, features many other social justice stories I have written over the years.

 

 

Owing money makes the poor a vulnerable target

Predatory creditors stop at nothing to collect from impoversihed minority communities

Economic Justice

 

Back to the future: Anne and Craig McVeigh bring Beacon Hills take on American comfort cuisine back to where their food careers started

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Anne and Craig McVeigh both got their restaurant starts in Omaha but it was in Lincoln they made their mark on the area culinary scene with their Beacon Hills restaurant and after a long, succesful run there they’ve closed it and opened a new Beacon Hills in Omaha’s emerging destination place, Aksarben Village. Like so many restauranters today, the McVeighs do their variation on American comfort food by adding fresh, refined touches to familiar old dishes. This profile I wrote for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) covers their journey in the industry from worker bees learning the ropes to entrepreneurs spinning their own take on food that makes us happy.

 

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Anne and Craig McVeigh bring Beacon Hills take on American comfort cuisine back to where their food careers started 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in 2016-2017 winter issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

It is back to the future for Anne and Craig McVeigh and their new Beacon Hills restaurant at 6750 Mercy Road in Aksarben Village.

The restauranteurs got their industry start at M’s Pub and the Garden Cafe in Omaha before moving to Lincoln. As franchisees, they opened two successful Gardens in the capital city and eventually their own signature place – the original Beacon Hills.

They did American comfort food before it turned trendy. That was Garden’s staple brand and the couple refined the cuisine concept at Beacon Hills.

Craig McVeigh, who supervises the kitchen, said he and his wife are bemused by the whole comfort food revolution that’s made the tried-and-true cuisine fashionable.

“We’re not trying to catch up, we’re trying to just keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing it all along. We were doing it without even realizing the comfort food march was going on. It was cool way before it got cool.”

Anne McVeigh said, “I look at what other people are doing but I’m more concerned with what we’re doing and the product we put out.”

They long ago sold their Garden Cafes. This past summer they closed the old Beacon Hills after a 16-year run. Now the pair’s trying to make magic again with their Omaha eatery. The combined restaurant, catering operation and banquet facility opened in the Pacific Life building on October 14. Stinson Park is just to the south and Baxter Arena just beyond it. The Keystone Trail and College of St. Mary campus are to the west. A large patio features a stone fireplace, decorative pavers and a distinctive wrought-iron gate. The relaxed outdoor area is just off the Elmwood Room, an informal Beacon Hills party space that can accommodate 72 seated diners.

The Elmwood Room and main dining area feature a wood and stone motif of earthen-colors. The exposed, industrial ceiling is given warmth and texture by a fan of big wood beams and stone-splashed walls. Salvaged artifacts serve as vintage wall art. Mounted in the dining room are weathered windmill blades. Between the restrooms’ hangs an old unpainted barn door. On a back wall are splays of Spanish oak branches.

“We didn’t want to do anything cookie-cutter,” Anne said. “We’re not just going to throw something up to throw something up. We’re going to put stuff up we really like .”

The dining room is dominated by the granite-topped bar. The Elmwood Room features an over-sized credenza. Large windows let in ample light throughout.

Anne, who runs the front of the house with daughter Beth, said diners like the intended cozy, neighborhood feel. Comfort is behind much of Beacon Hills. It’s in the homey, familiar dishes like meatloaf, fried chicken, chicken pot pie, pot roast, mac and chess and crab cakes. A signature dish is the garlic-mustard-butter sauced sirloin steak.

Craig said, “The comfort food thing – it’s just good food that doesn’t go out of style. I think sometimes it goes away for a little while. But it you get a slice of perfectly baked meatloaf or fried chicken that’s crispy not soggy, who’s not going to like that. My description has always been we take the classics and put our spin on them.”

Anne said, “There’s a lot of things on this menu we’ve been doing since the first menu (in Lincoln). It all started with the crab cakes. People love them. The recipe comes from a 1940s-era Maryland cookbook. Our crab cakes are very simple. Crab meat is the star.

“Friends say that Craig and I are together because of his crab rangoon. They’re so delicious. They’re super-stuffed with real crab.”

“On the creative side,” she said “we have pretty good palates. We are not fussy people but we try to put selections on our menu that everybody will like. Our chef Elizabeth Reissig-Anderson has worked for us for 25 years. The three of us bring all of our unique backgrounds together to put together menus.”

Since their Garden Cafe adventures until now, the McVeighs have worked virtually every day together for 30 years

“Most people would say that’s insane,” Anne said, “but the reason it works so well is that what Craig does he does very well and what I do I think I do very well but we don’t do the same job. It’s always his decision when it comes to anything in the kitchen. He’s the wheel or the ramrod.”

As the expeditor, no order leaves the kitchen without Craig’s approval. Anne handles the business side, writing all the checks. It’s not to say they never butt heads.

“Now. have we had some spirited conversations from time to time? I think so,” she said, smiling.

The key is letting the small stuff go and getting together on the big stuff. It helps that they both thrive on hard work and in putting customers first.

“This comes with our shared Midwestern upbringing and value system. Nobody works as hard as Craig and I do,” she said.

The point of putting in long hours and seeing to every detail is customer satisfaction.

“When we can be part of making people’s day a little bit better for the short time they’re here with us, that really makes us happy,” Anne said.

Just as in Lincoln. their new Beacon Hills is already drawing notables and creating regulars. Craig said the goal is giving everyone, no matter who you are, the same quality service and experience.

“We just want you to come back.”

He was born and raised in Tekamah, Nebraska. Anne, in Omaha. He came here as a young man to help his brother frame houses. He did that by day and at night worked food jobs. He learned the kitchen ropes at the old Playboy Club and the Acapulco, then did a stint at Bonanza, before a chance meeting with an M’s co-owner got him hired there.

He acknowledges he “fibbed a bit” about his skill set. But with help from his old boss at the club he learned the essentials of food costing and executing fancy culinary techniques.

Meanwhile, Anne’s grandfather and father were cattle brokers at the Omaha stockyards, where she spent much time as a girl. She traces her love of restaurants to Sunday family dinners at Johnny’s Cafe. Anne worked her way through college waitressing at various venues before joining M’s, which is where she and Craig met. They both mourn the loss of M’s to fire in 2015. The “anchor” Old Market spot gave many others their start in the food industry.

The ambitious couple then caught on with Garden Cafe just as the Omaha-based business begun by Ron Popp (Wheafields) began expanding and franchising.

“We got in on the ground floor,” Craig said.

They moved quickly up the corporate ladder before seizing an opportunity they saw to buy the franchise rights for Lincoln. While other Garden Cafes struggled and the company downsized, the McVeighs’ first facility was such a hit that they built a second.

Lincoln developer Larry Price asked them to do a new venture tied to a hotel complex under construction. He died before its completion but a new developer finished the project and invited the McVeighs to open their Beacon Hills restaurant there on a handshake deal.

Developers came to them, Anne said, “because we’d established ourselves as good operators.” Craig said their Garden Cafes “did numbers that I don’t know we’ll ever match anywhere again – Lincoln was so ripe for that (concept) at the time.”

Beacon Hills cultivated many loyal restaurant, catering and banquet customers. The McVeighs’ experience helping Garden Cafe grow prepared them for having their own food ventures. It helps that Craig enjoys working through challenges until he finds solutions.

“I like problem-solving. Because of how fast Garden Cafe moved, we spent every day solving growth problems. I wasn’t involved in planning new stores but once new ones came on board I was involved in hiring people in and getting things organized.”

He said the hardest transition they ever undertook was implementing PSO or Point of Sell. Twenty years he devised a custom system he still uses today that automatically updates food costs as prices change.

The couple meant to keep the flagship Lincoln store even after deciding to open the new one in Omaha. But the hotel their Lincoln facility rented space in changed ownership and when lease negotiations stalled, Craig said “we saw the writing on the wall.” The couple have brought some veteran Lincoln staff to Omaha

Aksarben was their choice for the Omaha startup because of its dense residential-commercial surroundings, high traffic and vibrant goings-on.

“This is an A plus location and it’s only going to get better with the new HDR headquarters and the new hotel coming in,” Craig said. “Our location in Lincoln was a C.”

Being at historic Aksarben is full-circle for Anne, whose family has long ties to the rodeo, coronation and ball and foundation. She loves “the symmetry of it all,” adding, “I just love being back at home.”

The couple didn’t doubt they wanted to do a new Beacon Hills, but Anne said, “we weren’t sure we could do this again physically – we’re not young.” They’ve proved they can. Besides, not much can throw them by now. As she put it, “We’ve seen it all.”

While she appreciates imitation is high flattery, she believes some local eateries copied Beacon Hills dishes without crediting the source and, as her cattle broker family used to say, “It chaps my hide.”

But as the McVeighs know, all is fair in love, war and restaurant competition. After all, they reinvented Garden Cafe in Beacon Hills. Now they’ve reinvented Beacon Hills in Omaha. Let the good times roll.

Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Call 402-033-3115 for reservations.

Visit http://beaconhills.com/ for details.

Chef-owner Jenny Coco proves she can hang with the boys

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Jenny Coco is well aware she’s an outlier as a female chef in a profession that’s still very much a man’s world, but she hasn’t let it deter her from carving out a successful niche in Omaha’s dynamic restaurant scene. After making a name for herself and her food at the Flatiron Cafe, she’s made her mark as chef-owner of J Coco, where she does American comfort cuisine in a fine dining way, and now she’s embarking on a second restaurant that will feature a distinct concept all its own. Chefs are artists and just like visual and performing artists, they develop a following and fan base, and Jenny Coco has cultivated a large and loyal group of foodies who’ve followed her from V Mertz to the Flatiron to J Coco. They will no doubt support her new as yet unnamed new place as well. My profile of Jenny for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) charts some of her journey and what makes her passionate about what she does.

 

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Chef-owner Jenny Coco proves she can hang with the boys

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in 2016-2017 winter issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

In the male-dominated culinary field men get the lion’s share of attention. In Omaha, Clayton Chapman and Paul Kulik headline a deep roster of acclaimed chefs. But at least one woman, Jenny Coco, has proved her chops compare with anyone’s, regardless of gender.

Coco doesn’t make a big deal about breaking down the doors to this exclsuive boys club.

“It takes a certain personality, male or female, to do this and we all have the same type of mentality I think,” she said. “Since our brains are wired very similarly, it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman. I mean, if I wasn’t meant to be doing this, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Besides, she added, “I know I can hang with them.”

Like the best of her male colleagues in town, she’s been nominated for the prestigious James Beard prize. Unlike them, she never went to culinary school. She’s learned everything she knows working on the line, reading and absorbing things where she finds them. The Omaha native paid her dues at landmark Omaha eateries. She did her first professional cooking at the Baking Company in an all women-staffed kitchen – a rarity then and now.

Though she doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer, she’s well aware that women chefs are still few and far between and often face a tough road.

“I don’t want to see that keeping other women from jumping in and I’m finally seeing that change,” she said. “I can count on one hand how many women I worked with after the Baking Company 30 years ago. There’s just not a lot of women chefs. A lot of them still do pastry.

There’s so much more, there’s so much talent.”

She’s heartened by the many talents, male and female, emerging from Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for Culinary Arts.

“They’re woven into the fabric of kitchens all over the city.”

“There’s so many restaurants in this town,” she said, that opportunities abound for young chefs starting out here or going away for more experience and coming back to make their mark.

Coco really honed her skills at V. Mertz and the Flatiron Cafe, where she developed a following.

Then, in 2012, ready to break from her chef-for-hire career, she opened her own J. Coco restaurant. The chic, not fussy spot at 5203 Leavenworth is all about her fresh take on traditional dishes using refined yet simple techniques and fresh, quality ingredients. Like so many of her contemporaries, she passionately elevates American comfort food to new heights, whether the espresso and chili-rubbed pork chop or peppercorn and porcini-dusted ribeye.

Directly across the street is a venerable bakery and cafe, Gerda’s, that features a German slant on comfort food. It’s namesake proprietor is also female. Indeed, Coco said the stretch of Leavenworth from 52nd to 48th Streets includes more than a dozen female-owned businesses.

It’s a full circle life for Coco. As a girl she ate home-cooked meals that her mother, Joan Militti, who went from lunch lady to school District 66 food services manager, prepared. Now Coco’s putting a gourmet stamp on things like oxtails, short ribs and mac and cheese that she grew up eating.

“It’s just taking what everybody recognizes and maybe showing them   something different or doing a new twist on things. I want to make sure my food is prepared properly and is as approachable and clean and simple as possible, so that we’re always on people’s radar. Maybe we’re not breaking down the culinary walls, but you’re going to get a wonderful meal here and we work very hard at that.”

Tradition is important to Coco, who located her restaurant in the former Wohlner’s grocery store. The iconic Wohlner’s occupied the brick building from the 1940s until moving a few years back. Before that, the structure housed another grocer, Newman’s. All this matters to Coco because her great-grandfather was part owner of Kotera & Sloup Staple and Fancy Groceries generations ago. A blown-up black and white photograph of that store’s proprietors proudly standing in front of their wares pops at one end of J. Coco. Adorning another wall are oversized prints picturing vintage goods from Wohlner’s.

Always wanting a neighborhood place of her own, she knew she wanted the Aksarben-Elmwood space as soon as it became available.

“It’s a beautiful building with a good history to it. We wanted to keep the neighborhood connection. There were such strong feelings after the store left. People were so mad. They liked seeing their neighbors here.

They liked coming every day and grabbing the food for that evening’s dinner. It was part of their thing, their day, their routine and then it was gone and being in this neighborhood here I know that’s who’s going to support us here day in and day out.

“Residents of this neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods are dedicated, devoted, supportive. They prove it over and over again.

They’re not going past 72nd (Street) – they’re here and they don’t want to go anywhere else.”

She said she’s taken pains to make her place “very comfortable,” adding, “It’s like eating in my dining room at my house. We have family pictures up at home, so why wouldn’t we here?”

With J. Coco established, she’s about to open a second, as-yet-unnamed, spot on the southeast corner of 50th and Underwood, in a building that’s seen much turnover and recently suffered a fire.

 

“It’s a big space we’re planning on dividing to have two concepts under one roof. One side will be a lounge-bar with craft cocktails and late night food. That’s where the restaurant side comes in. It will keep regular restaurant hours and then close down, but the bar side will be able to serve food later. There’s nobody doing late night food.

“What I’d like to move into now is more playful. Like doing a food truck inside that serves street cuisine or updating the Cheese Frenchee. I want to feature small plates that people can share. That’s how my friends and I eat when we go out.”

She said she meant to take J. Coco in a similar direction, though she has pared down its entrees and expanded the starters, but she and her patrons weren’t ready for it.

“I wanted this to be a complete break from what I’ve always done

but the customers wanted to see an extension of Flatiron. That was my comfort zone, too. I knew how to cook that style of food.”

Having her own branded place in J. Coco meant quite a leap for her.

“After spending 20 years hiding in the kitchen to now having my name on the wall has been different. People expect to see me when they come. They want to talk to me. So, now I split my time half and half between the kitchen and the front of the house. It was difficult at first. But if people can’t put the face to the experience, they’re not coming back. They like that connection. They like you to remember their name or their favorite drink or entree, and that’s nice, too, because people have been supporting me for so many years. It’s just a small gesture to be able to thank them face to face.”

She’s out front more, too, because she’s overseeing construction of the second restaurant, which she expects to open May 1 or after.

Another reason her kitchen time’s reduced these days is that she has a capable cook in Pedro Garcia, who was with her many years at Flatiron before following her to J. Coco. Another member of the kitchen team she led at Flatiron also followed her to her restaurant.

“They’re just blossoming and that was my goal. At Flatiron I got to spread my wings and experiment and teach myself and that’s the kind of kitchen I want here. While I might not be cooking every day, I’m a resource. But mainly it’s their turn and they’re taking the ball and running with it. If I’m there blocking their rise, then what’s the point.”

She said whether cooking in the back or meeting-greeting up front, it’s evident how much more sophisticated diners’ palates have become.

“The Food Network and Food Channel have brought a great education to everybody,” she said. “People are more engaged with what they’re eating. They want to talk it about more. They want more explanation.

People want to know what they’re eating, where it’s from. They want to feel involved, where years ago I think they just wanted to be told what to eat. They just don’t want to be told anymore.”

She said diners want farm to table food that showcase fresh, local, organic, sustainable products, which are the same things Coco strives to provide with the help of area small growers and producers. While she said ingredients once difficult to find here are now available, more work needs to be done to cultivate farmer-chef relationships in order to take full advantage of Nebraska’s vast arable land.

Coco said the restaurant business isn’t for everyone because of the long, crazy hours that mean missing family events.

“I know what I’ve given up,” said Coco, who’s married with two step-daughters.

Knowing that her artistry satisfies patrons makes it all worthwhile.

“When people love it, well, what could be better. I have a talent, a gift and I want to share it and when people love it that’s pretty amazing. When the room’s humming, it’s a pretty awesome feeling, it really is.

There’s like no better feeling.”

Coco’s never been tempted to try her hand outside her hometown.

“I don’t mind being in a little pond if I can be a little bit bigger fish.”

Now that J. Coco’s going on five years, she wants it to be an institution.

“I want to be here for the long haul. We don’t have to be top of the heap – we just want to be part of the heap. Slow and steady wins the race, We’re here to finish.”

Business is good.

“I think we’re doing okay. Our weekends are always booked. You always need reservations.”

Frequent parties and a brisk catering trade boost revenues.

Though several blocks south of the hot Dundee food strip that has Mark’s, Dario’s, Avoli, Pitch, Paragon, Amsterdam Falafel and others, J. Coco’s benefits from the foodies those places draw,

“Dundee had paved the way.They were already bringing people to the area when we opened. That was a big thing. We need more. That’s what makes it all work.”

Meanwhile, Coco’s doing her part for girl power on Leavenworth.

J. Coco is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to close.

Call or 402-884-2626 or visit jcocoomaha.com.

Doing things the Dario Way nets Omaha two of its most distinctive restaurants

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

As anyone who’s even a little familiar with the evolution of the Omaha culinary scene knows,  this burg has seen an elevation in quality and variety of cuisines, especially in chef-owner eateries that routinely push the envelope. One of the leaders in this movement has been Dario Schicke, a native of Bosnia who learned his craft in Europe and New York before making a dramatic impact here, first with Dario’s Brassiere, which continues strong, and now with his second place, Avoli Osteria. Two eateries within a block apart in Dundee, which boasts the best strip of restaurants in town can outside the Old Market, with two totally different cuisines and aesthetics. Dario has a big personality and a big story to match. This is my profile of him in the winter 2016/2017 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine.

 

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Doing things the Dario way nets Omaha two of its most distinctive restaurants

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in winter 2016/2017 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

Half measures don’t cut it with Dario Schicke, the Bosnian chef-owner who bears a striking resemblance to Alec Baldwin. Schicke’s helped raise the Omaha culinary scene through a pair of Dundee restaurants dedicated to distinct, authentic European cuisines.

His Dario’s Brassiere and Avoli Osteria located within a block of each other on Underwood Avenue represent unique concepts at the upper end of casual fine dining. Dario’s features a French and Belgian-influenced menu complemented by imported beers. Avoli’s features northern Italian fare paired with wines of the region.

Each eatery contributes to Dundee’s foodie haven reputation. Though widely acclaimed, including a James Beard nomination for Dario’s, they were risky niche ventures made more risky by Schicke adamantly sticking to his vision. He admits he used to be even “more hardcore” demanding things be done his way but he’s relaxed some since putting together systems and staff that execute his vision.

His stubborn refusal to compromise makes sense when you understand all he went through to earn the right to do things his own way. He fled his homeland at age 20 only a few months after the Bosnian War erupted. His refugee experience began in Croatia before he moved to Germany and reunited with fellow refugees who could work but couldn’t travel. He met his wife Amy, a native of Kearney, Nebraska, at a Munich beer house where he worked.

He grew up in a restaurant family in Sarajevo. While surviving in Germany he worked various food jobs. Then he and Amy moved to New York City, where they soon took over a Greek deli that sold imported beers he set about studying. That search led him to train at the French Culinary Institute and he used those skills to transform the deli into a French bistro. The couple planned moving to the south of France when Amy got pregnant. The first of their two daughters was born in NYC. Amy got pregnant again. Then 9/11 happened – with the twin towers collapsing less than a mile away. The business suffered and the trauma led Amy and the girls to resettle in Omaha while a shell-shocked Schicke tried salvaging the business, then searching for a buyer until recouping his investment and joining his family here.

He briefly worked at the French Cafe before landing at the Market Basket. His classically prepared chef dinners found enough of a following that he and Amy invested everything they owned in order to open Dario’s. Its staple entrees and beers set it apart. For less adventurous diners it proved too much an outlier.

“At the beginning it wasn’t easy. I can’t tell you how many people would look at our menu and just walk out,” Schicke said. “We didn’t sell  anything but Belgian beers, That was unheard of at the time. We lost a lot of business but it was the only way I could push our waiters and front of house staff to learn about those beers. All those beers didn’t exist in Nebraska, We had to special order them.”

Some customers resisted the hefty prices but he explained these hearty brews are far different than even domestic crafts. Besides, he argues, you get more for your money at Dario’s.

“Nobody has a problem paying $6 or $7 for a glass of so-so house wine with their meal, but in this case you get 11 ounces of the best of the best beer.”

People who tried it, invariably liked it. The same with the well north of $10 burger and fries, “I knew our burger and fries were going to be a hit because they’re delicious, but if we sold that for $6.99 that’s all we were going to sell. We had duck breast and scallops and mussels and crepes and chicken and pork chop. We brought our sandwich and entree prices as close as we could so we didn’t turn into a burger joint.

But even if you order a hamburger you’re still going to get braisserie service – you’re going to get bread and butter, a huge beer glass and water glass, both hand-washed and polished. You’re going to get all that, plus fries, for $11. Our fries are hand-peeled, hand-cut, soaked in water overnight, then blanched. You get what you pay for. There was nothing to compare to it at the time.”

He recalled a disgruntled customer who complained about a burger, fries and beer costing nearly $30 with tax.

“This guy told me, ‘I’m not happy.’ I was like, ‘Sorry.’ Two days later the same guy came in, even angrier, saying, ‘Damn it. I couldn’t stop thinking about that burger and fries.’ Exactly. So we just stuck with our passion and now the culture’s caught up with us.”

Then, with Avoli, he filled a local gap in northern Italian food. In keeping with that cuisine’s tenets, there’s no pizza or lasagna or spaghetti and meatballs on the menu, rather a curated selection of fresh, homemade and imported dry pasta dishes.

“Both of our places are focused on a region in Europe and that’s what we’ve stayed true to from day one. Dario’s ten years now and three and a half years with Avoli. We don’t change for any trends or influences. That was the idea. As a chef and restaurant owner I really want to commit to the style and region we’re going to represent. We don’t want to deviate in any way.”

He couldn’t have crested more different eateries.

“They are so opposite these two restaurants that I can’t even mix a single person working in both places,” Schicke said. “Everything about them is different. There’s no overlapping menu items. I went so extreme even our security companies and computer systems are different. I didn’t want to open a second Dario’s – I wanted to start       something new.”

Besides, he said, “the only way for me to step outside of Dario’s was to do something else.” With Dario’s already well-established and having a “great crew there,” he devotes more of his hands-on time to supporting Avoli with its complex menu and larger kitchen and dining room. But he still starts and ends every night at his namesake spot, Dario’s.

He, Amy and friends did the interior designs of both places themselves.

“It’s very personal to us. Why pay somebody a lot of money to tell you what you like?”

Schicke’s passion for getting thing right and his hunger for always learning new things finds him taking off to hone his craft at restaurants. To prep for Avoli, he said, “I went to italy and worked in a whole bunch of Italian restaurants because I wanted to do it right. I wanted to do what today’s Italian food is. So I went all the way down deep, from product to menu to how people eat, what they eat, how they source and how we translate that in Omaha.”

There are no fussy fusions at his restaurants. The dishes are created using the same ingredients and preparations as in Europe.

“At Avoli we use only Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele. We don’t cut our parmesan, we get a wheel of parmesan every few months that’s about 95 to 110 pounds. It’s like a $1,200 to $1,400 piece of cheese. That’s what we use exclusively. When we grate our parmesan it’s like snow flakes and it just melts into the pasta. It’s a huge difference. We use certified olive oils. We went out and sourced authentic Italian olive oils. We get double zero flour from Italy. San Marzano tomatoes, farm fresh eggs. That’s what we do.”

He acknowledges his ability to adhere to such standards is made possible by the independence he maintains.

“I’m really lucky I have people at home supporting me because it could easily be a situation where partners say, “We could be making a lot more money serving something else.’ But we don’t have investors – we don’t have a lot of people involved. I don’t have anybody telling me what to do.”

If he took shortcuts, it would only spoil things for this perfectionist and traditionalist.

“I do this for passion but also you have to make a living doing it. I have a family to raise, I have a house. You have to be able to build a life around it. It’s exciting and challenging. Running a restaurant, dealing  with business aspects, being creative and cooking every day for two places, not easy, and a lot of times not fun. To mix all that in one bowl, it’s rough. That’s when those Belgian beers come in handy.

“Raising teenage girls – I need stronger than Belgian beer to get over that,” he said, laughing.

In the restaurant business there’s no option but to be committed,

“There’s too many moving parts, it’s too expensive,” he said. “Our art is probably the most expensive art in the world. We have to have heat, air conditioning, plumbing, electrical. insurance, all this stuff to practice our art. You need like a thousand bucks a day to practice, so you have to be smart about it. I tell people, if you don’t have passion, just don’t do it, do something else.

“Otherwise, you’ll get burned out.”

He said the success of his restaurants is simply a function of “our crazy passion and not giving up – we just do what we do and I’m very proud of what we’ve done.”

Even though both places feature staples that never change, Schicke allows himself and his chefs freedom to experiment with new dishes. He recently introduced Avoli staff and diners to Croatian pasta.

“You make like a bread dough, roll it really thin, then bake it. Then you break it into pieces and cook it like pasta, so it’s twice-cooked pasta that has like a bread quality. We’re going to serve goose and the dried pasta’s going to be rehydrated and cooked in those goose juices, with

chestnuts and all that stuff. That’s my comfort food.”

Some inspiration is tied to the seasons. At Avoli, for example, he said, “You get to the summer and it’s all about great olive oil, vinegars, tomatoes, basil. You can’t help it. But as soon as it gets colder, the nights are a little longer, that’s when I shine with flavorful marinades and braises. A little more complex food – using less expensive ingredients and making them luxurious,”

Meanwhile, he’ll keep pushing his skills by guest working in kitchens.

“It’s fun, it keeps me excited, I learn to do things better. Then I come back here torturing everybody with what I saw.”

 

Dario’s, 4920 Underwood Ave.

Tuesday-Sunday, Dinner, 5-10 p.m.

Saturday Brunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

Sunday Brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

402-933-0799

 

Avoli Osteria, 5013 Underwood Ave.

Tuesday-Sunday, Dinner, 5-10 p.m.

402-933-7400

 

Visit http://www.dariosbrasserie.com and http://www.avoliosteria.com.

Marlin Briscoe: The Magician Finally Gets His Due

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

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

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

Link to my Omaha Black Sports Legends series at–

 

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Marlin Briscoe

The Magician Finally Gets His Due

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit marlinbriscoemovie.com for more information.

 

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