Opening Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
Here is the opening installment from my 2004-2005 series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. Look for the closing installment in a separate post. In these two pieces I try laying out the scope of achievements that distinguishes this group of athletes, the way that sports provided advancement opportunities for these individuals that may otherwise have eluded them, and the close-knit cultural and community bonds that enveloped the neighborhoods they grew up in. It was a pleasure doing the series and getting to meet legends Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, et cetera. I learned a lot working on the project, mostly an appreciation for these athletes’ individual and collective achievements. You’ll find most every installment from the series on this blog, including profiles of the athletes and coaches I interviewed for the project. The remaining installments not posted yet soon will be.
Opening Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha’s African American community has produced a heritage rich in achievement across many fields, but none more dramatic than in sports, Despite a comparatively small populace, black Omaha rightly claims a legacy of athletic excellence in the form of legends who’ve achieved greatness at many levels, in a variety of sports, over many eras.
These athletes aren’t simply neighborhood or college legends – their legacies loom large. Each is a compelling story in the grand tale of Omaha’s inner city, both north and south. The list includes: Bob Gibson, a major league baseball Hall of Famer. Bob Boozer, a member of Olympic gold medal and NBA championship teams. NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers. Marlin Briscoe, the NFL’s first black quarterback. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers. Pro hoops “iron man” Ron Boone. Champion wrestling coach Don Benning
“Some phenomenal athletic accomplishments have come out of here, and no one’s ever really tied it all together. It’s a huge story. Not only did these athletes come out of here and play, they lasted a long time and they made significant contributions to a diversity of college and professional sports,” said Briscoe, a Southside product. “I mean, per capita, there’s probably never been this many quality athletes to come out of one neighborhood.”
An astounding concentration of athletic prowess emerged in a few square miles roughly bounded north to south, from Ames Avenue to Lake Street, and east to west from about 16th to 36th. Across town, in south Omaha, a smaller but no less distinguished group came of age.
“You just had a wealth of talent then,” said Lonnie McIntosh, a teammate of Gibson and Boozer at Tech High.
Many inner city athletes resided in public housing projects. Before school desegregation dispersed students citywide, blacks attended one of four public high schools – North, Tech, Central or South. It was a small world.
During a Golden Era from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s, all manner of brilliant talents, including future all-time greats, butted heads and rubbed shoulders on the same playing fields and courts of their youth, pushing each other to new heights. It was a time when youths competed in several sports instead of specializing in one.
“In those days, everybody did everything,” said McIntosh, who participated in football, basketball and track.
Many were friends, schoolmates and neighbors, often living within a few doors or blocks of each other. It was an insular, intense, tight-knit athletic community that formed a year-round training camp, proving ground and mutual admiration society all rolled into one.
“In the inner city, we basically marveled at each other’s abilities. There were a lot of great ballplayers. All the inner city athletes were always playing ball, all day long and all night long,” said Boozer, the best player not in the college hoops hall of fame. “Man, that was a breeding ground. We encouraged each other and rooted for each other. Some of the older athletes worked with young guys like me and showed us different techniques. It was all about making us better ballplayers.”
NFL legend Gale Sayers said, “No doubt about it, we fed off one another. We saw other people doing well and we wanted to do just as well.”
The older legends inspired legends-to-be like Briscoe.
“We’d hear great stories about these guys and their athletic abilities and as young players we wanted to step up to that level,” he said “They were older and successful, and as little kids we looked up to those guys and wanted to emulate them and be a part of the tradition and the reputation that goes with it.”
The impact of the older athletes on the youngsters was considerable.
“When Boozer went to Kansas State and Gibson to Creighton, that next generation – my generation – started thinking, ‘If I can get good enough, I can get a scholarship to college so I can take care of my mom‚’” Briscoe said. “That’s the way all of us thought, and it just so happened some of us had the ability to go to the next level.”
With that next level came a new sense of possibility for younger athletes.
“It got to the point where we didn’t think anything was impossible,” Johnny Rodgers said. “It was all possible. It was almost supposed to happen. We were like, If they did it, we can do it, too. We were all in this thing together.”
In the ’50s and ’60s, two storied tackle football games in the hood, the annual Turkey and Cold Bowls, were contested at Burdette Field over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Drawing players of all ages, they were no-pads, take-no-prisoners rumbles where adolescent prodigies like Gale Sayers and Johnny Rodgers competed against grown men in an athletic milieu rich with past, present and future stars.
“They let us play ball with them because we were good enough to play,” Rodgers said. “None of us were known nationally then. It really was gratifying as the years went on to see how guys went on and did something.”
When Rodgers gained national prominence, he sensed kids “got the same experience seeing me as I got seeing those legends.”
Among the early legends that Rodgers idolized was Bob Gibson. Gibson gives Omaha a special sports cachét. He’s the real thing — a major league baseball Hall of Famer, World Series hero and Cy Young Award winner. The former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher was among the most dominant hurlers, intense competitors and big game performers who ever played. Jim Morrison, a teammate on the High Y Monarchs coached by Bob’s brother, Josh, recalled how strong Gibson was.
“He threw so hard, we called it a radio ball. You couldn’t see it coming. You just heard it.”
Morrison said Gibson exhibited his famous ferocity early on.
“On the sideline, Bob could be sweet as honey, but when he got on the mound you were in big trouble. I don’t care who you were, you were in big trouble,” he said.
Gibson was also a gifted basketball player, as Boozer, a teammate for a short time at Tech and with the Travelers, attested.
“He was a finer basketball player than baseball player. He could play. He could get up and hang,” Boozer said.
Gibson starred on the court for the hometown Creighton University Bluejays, then played with the Harlem Globetrotters for a year, but it was only after being denied a chance with the NBA that he made baseball his life. Gibson’s all-around athleticism and fierce game face was aided and abetted by his older brother, Josh, a formidable man and coach who groomed many of Omaha’s top athletes from the inner city.
Bob Gibson may be The Man, but Josh was a legend in his own time as a coach of touring youth teams (the Monarchs and Travelers) out of North Omaha’s YMCA.
“He was a terrific coach. If you were anything in athletics, you played for those teams under Josh Gibson,” Boozer said.
“Josh was the one that guys like myself looked up to,” said Ron Boone. Jim Morrison said Josh had “the ability to elicit the best out of young potential stars. He started with the head down, not the body up. He taught you how to compete by teaching the fundamentals. It’s obvious it worked because his brother went on to be a great, great athlete.”
Josh Gibson is part of a long line of mentors, black and white, who strongly affected inner city athletes. Others included Logan Fontenelle rec center director Marty Thomas, the North O Y’s John Butler, Woodson Center director Alice Wilson, Bryant Center director John Nared and coaches Bob Rose of Howard Kennedy School, Neal Mosser of Tech, Frank Smagacz of Central, Cornie Collin of South, Carl Wright and Lonnie McIntosh of the North O Boys Club, Richard Nared and Co. with the Midwest Striders track program, Forest Roper with the Hawkettes hoops program, Petie Allen with the Omaha Softball Association, and Joe Edmonson of the Exploradories Wrestling Club. Each commanded respect, instilled discipline and taught basics.
Mosser, Tech’s fiery head hoops coach for much of the ‘50s and ‘60s, coached Boozer and Gibson along with such notables as Fred Hare, whom Boone calls “one of the finest high school basketball players you’d ever want to see,” Bill King and Joe Williams. A hard but fair man, Mosser defied bigoted fans and biased officials to play black athletes ahead of whites.
“Neal Mosser fought a tremendous battle for a lot of us minority kids,” McIntosh said. “He and Cornie Collin. At that time, you never had five black kids on the basketball court at the same time.”
But they did, including a famous 1954 Tech-South game when all 10 kids on the court were black.
“Their jobs were on the line, too,” McIntosh said of the two coaches.
Wherever they live, athletes will always hear about a real comer to the local scene. Like when Josh Gibson’s little brother, Bob, began making a name for himself in hoops.
The buzz was, “This kid can really jump, man,” Lonnie McIntosh recalled. “He had to duck his head to dunk.” But nobody could hang like Marion Hudson, an almost mythic-like figure from The Hood who excelled in soccer, baseball, football, basketball and track and field. Former Central High athlete Richard Nared said, “Marion was only 6’0, but he’d jump center, and go up and get it every time. The ref would say, ‘You’re jumping too quick,’ and Marion would respond, ‘No, you need to throw the ball higher.’”
Admirers and challengers go to look over or call out the young studs. Back in the day, the proving grounds for such showcases and showdowns included Kountze Park, Burdette Field, the North O YMCA, the Logan Fontenelle rec center, the Kellom Center and the Woodson Center. Later, the Bryant Center on North 24th became the place to play for anyone with game, Boone said.
“I mean, the who’s-who was there. We had teams from out west come down there to play. There was a lot of competition.”
Black Omaha flourished as a hot bed of talent in football, basketball, baseball and track and field. At a time when blacks had few options other than a high school degree and a minimum-wage job, and even fewer leisure opportunities, athletics provided an escape, an activity, a gateway. In this highly charged arena, youths proved themselves not by gang violence but through athletic competition. Blacks gravitated to sports as a way out and step up. Athletics were even as a mode of rebellion against a system that shackled them. Athletic success allowed minority athletes to say, oh, yes, I can.
“Back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s the racial climate was such we had nothing else to really look forward to except to excel as black athletes,” said Briscoe. “In that era, we didn’t get into sports with that pipe dream of being a professional athlete. Mainly, it was a rite of passage to respect and manhood. We were told, ‘You can’t do anything with your life other than work in the packing house.’ We grew up seeing on TV black people getting hosed down and clubbed and bitten by dogs and not being able to go to school. So sports became a way to better ourselves and hopefully bypass the packing house and go to college.”
Richard Nared, a former track standout at Central, said speed was the main barometer by which athletic ability was gauged.
“Mostly, all the guys had speed. You were chosen that way to play. The guys that were the best and fastest were picked first,” he said.
Toughness counted for something, too, but speed was always the separating factor.
“You had to be able to fight a little bit, too. But, yeah, you had to be fast. You were a second class citizen if you couldn’t run,” Bob Gibson said.
And second class wasn’t good in such a highly competitive community.
“The competition was so strong Bob Boozer did not make the starting five on the freshman basketball team I played on at Tech,” Jim Morrison said.
It was so strong that Gale Sayers was neither the fastest athlete at Central nor at home, owing to older brother Roger, an elite American sprinter who once beat The Human Bullet, Bob Hayes. Their brother, Ron, who played for the NFL’s San Diego Chargers, may also have been faster than Gale.
The competition was so strong that Ron Boone, who went on to a storied college and pro hoops career could not crack Tech’s starting lineup until a senior.
Bob Boozer, remembered today as a sweet-shooting, high-scoring, big-rebounding All-America power forward at Kansas State and a solid journeyman in the NBA, did not start out a polished player. But he holds the rare distinction of winning both Olympic gold as a member of the U.S. squad at the 1960 Rome Games, and an NBA championship ring as 6th man for the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks.
Boozer showed little promise early on. After a prodigious growth spurt of some six inches between his sophomore and junior years in high school, Boozer was an ungainly, timid giant.
“I couldn’t walk, chew gum and cross the street at the same time without tripping,” he said.
Hoping to take advantage of his new height, Boozer enlisted John Nared, a friend and star at arch-rival Central, and Lonnie McIntosh, a teammate at Tech, to help his coordination, conditioning, skills and toughness catch up to his height.
“Lonnie was always a physical fitness buff. He would work me out as far as strength and agility drills,” Boozer recalled. “And John was probably one of the finest athletes to ever come out of Omaha. He was a pure basketball player. John and I would go one-on-one. He was 6’3. Strong as a bull. I couldn’t take him in the paint. I had to do everything from a forward position. And, man, we used to have some battles.”
Boozer dominated Nebraska prep ball the next two years and, in college, led the KSU Wildcats to national glory. When Boozer prepared to enter the NBA with the Cincinnati Royals, he again called-on Nared’s help and credits their one-on-one tussles with teaching him how to play against smaller, quicker foes. The work paid off, too, as Boozer became a 20-point per game scorer and all-star with the Chicago Bulls.
Around the time Boozer made a name for himself in the NBA, Don Benning took over then-Omaha U.’s lowly wrestling program. He was the first black head coach at a predominantly white university. Within a few years, Benning , a North High and UNO grad who competed in football and wrestling, built the program into the perennial power it remains today. He guided his 1969-70 squad to a national NAIA team championship, perhaps the first major team title won by a Nebraska college. His indomitable will led a diverse mix of student-athletes to success while his strong character steered them, in the face of racism, to a higher ground.
After turning down big-time coaching offers, Benning retired from athletics in his early 30s to embark on a career in educational administration with Omaha Public Schools, where he displayed the same leadership and integrity he did as a coach.
The Central High pipeline of prime-time running backs got its start with Roger and Gale Sayers. Of all the Eagle backs that followed, including Joe Orduna, Keith “End Zone” Jones, Leodis Flowers, Calvin Jones, Ahman Green and David Horne, none quite dazzled the way Gale Sayers did. He brandished unparalleled cutting ability as an All-American running back and kick returner at Kansas University and, later, for the Chicago Bears. As a pro, he earned Rookie of the Year, All-Pro and Hall of Fame honors.
Often overlooked was Gale’s older but smaller brother, Roger, perhaps the fastest man ever to come out of the state. For then-Omaha U. he was an explosive halfback-receiver-kick returner, setting several records that still stand, and a scorching sprinter on the track, winning national collegiate and international events. When injuries spoiled his Olympic bid and his size ruled out the NFL, he left athletics for a career in city government and business.
Ron Boone went from being a short, skinny role player at Tech to a chiseled 6’2 star guard at Idaho State University, where his play brought him to the attention of pro scouts. Picking the brash, upstart ABA over the staid, traditional NBA, Boone established himself as an all-around gamer. He earned the title “iron man” for never missing a single contest in his combined 13-year ABA-NBA career that included a title with the Utah Stars. His endurance was no accident, either, but rather the result of an unprecedented work ethic he still takes great pride in.
Marlin Briscoe was already a pioneer when he made small college All-America as a black quarterback at mostly white Omaha U., but took his trailblazing to a new level as the NFL’s first black QB. Pulled from cornerback duty to assume the signal calling for the Denver Broncos in the last half of his 1968 rookie season, he played big. But the real story is how this consummate athlete responded when, after exhibiting the highly mobile, strong-armed style now standard for today’s black QBs, he never got another chance behind center. Traded to Buffalo, he made himself into a receiver and promptly made All-Pro. After a trade to Miami, he became a key contributor at wideout to the Dolphins two Super Bowl winning teams, including the perfect 17-0 club in 1972. His life after football has been a similar roller-coaster ride, but he’s adapted and survived.
Finally, there is the king of bling-bling, Johnny Rodgers, the flamboyant Nebraska All-American, Heisman Trophy winner and College Football Hall of Fame inductee. Voted Husker Player of the Century and still regarded as one of the most exciting, inventive broken field runners, Rodgers is seemingly all about style, not substance. Yet, in his quiet, private moments, he speaks humbly about the mysteries and burdens of his gift and the disappointment that injuries denied him a chance to strut his best stuff in the NFL.
Other, less famous sports figures had no less great an impact, from old-time football stars like Charles Bryant and Preston Love Jr., to more recent gridiron stars like Junior Bryant and Calvin Jones, right through Ahman Green. In 2003, Green, the former Nebraska All-American and current Green Bay Packers All-Pro, rushed for more yards, 1,883, in a single season, than all but a handful of backs in NFL history, shattering Packers rushing records along the way.
Hoops stars range from John Nared, Bill King, Fred Hare and Joe Williams in the ‘50s and ‘60s to Dennis Forrest, John C. Johnson, Kerry Trotter, Mike McGee, Ron Kellogg, Cedric Hunter, Erick Strickland, Andre Woolridge, Maurtice Ivy and Jessica Haynes in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. After torrid prep careers, King, Nared, Hare and Williams had some college success. The others starred for Division I programs, except for Forrest, who starred at Division II UNO. Ex-NU star Strickland made the NBA, where he’s still active.
The prolific McGee, who set Class A scoring marks at North and topped the University of Michigan’s career scoring chart, played on one of Magic Johnson’s-led Lakers title teams in the ‘80s. Ivy made the WBA. Others, like Woolridge, played in Europe.
Multi-sport greats have included Marion Hudson, Roger Sayers and Mike Green from the ‘60s and Larry Station from the ‘70s, all of whom excelled in football. A Central grad, Hudson attended Dana College in Blair, Neb. where he bloomed into the most honored athlete in school history. He was a hoops star, a record-setting halfback and a premier sprinter, long-jumper and javelin thrower, once outscoring the entire Big Seven at the prestigious Drake Relays.
He was the Lincoln Journal Star’s 1956 State College Athlete of the Year.
Among the best prep track athletes ever are former Central sprinter Terry Williams, Boys Town distance runner Barney Cotton, Holy Name sprinter Mike Thompson, Creighton Prep sprinter/hurdler Randy Brooks and Central’s Ivy.
The elite wrestlers are led by the Olivers. Brothers Archie Ray, Roye and Marshall were state champs at Tech and collegiate All-Americans. Roye was an alternate on the ’84 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. The latest in this family mat dynasty is Archie Ray‚s son Chris, a Creighton Prep senior, who closed out a brilliant career with an unbeaten record and four state individual titles.
Joe Edmonson developed top wrestlers and leaders at his Exploradories Wrestling Club, now the Edmonson Youth Outreach Center. Tech’s Curlee Alexander became a four-time All-American and one-time national champ at UNO and the coach of seven state team championships, including one at Tech, where he coached the Oliver brothers, and the last six at North. And Prep’s Brauman Creighton became a two-time national champ for UNO.
A few black boxers from Omaha made their mark nationally. Lightweight prizefighter Joey Parks once fought a draw with champ Joe Brown. A transplanted Nebraskan via the Air Force, Harley Cooper was a two-time national Golden Gloves champion out of Omaha, first as a heavyweight in 1963 and then as a light heavyweight in 1964. He was slated for the 1964 U.S. Olympic Team as light heavyweight at the Tokyo Games and sparred with the likes of Joe Frazier, when, just before leaving for Japan, a congenital kidney condition got him scratched. Despite offers to turn pro, including an overture from boxing legend Henry Armstrong, Cooper opted to stay in the military. Lamont Kirkland was a hard-hitting terror during a light heavyweight amateur and pro middleweight career in the ’80s.
With the advent of Title IX, girls-women’s athletics took-off in the ‘70s, and top local athletes emerged. Omaha’s black female sports stars have included: Central High and Midland Lutheran College great Cheryl Brooks; Central High and NU basketball legend Maurtice Ivy, a Kodak All-America, WBA MVP and the founder-director of her own 3-on-3 Tournament of Champions; Ivy’s teammate at Central, Jessica Haynes, an impact player at San Diego State and a stint in the WNBA; Maurtice’s little sister, Mallery Ivy Higgs, the most decorated track athlete in Nebraska prep history with 14 gold medals; Northwest High record-setting sprinter Mikaela Perry; Bryan High and University of Arizona hoops star Rashea Bristol, who played pro ball; and NU softball pitching ace Peaches James, a top draftee for a new pro fastpitch league starting play this summer.
The stories of Omaha’s black sports legends contribute to a vital culture and history that demand preservation. This ongoing, 12-part series of profiles is a celebration of an inner city athletic lore that is second to none, and still growing.
- Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Hoops Legend John C. Johnson: Fierce Determination Tested by Repeated Run-Ins with the Law (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- One Peach of a Pitcher: Peaches James Leaves Enduring Legacy in the Circle as a Nebraska Softball Legend (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)