High-flying McNary big part of Creighton volleyball success; Senior outside hitter’s play has helped raise program stature
I have long followed the athletic programs of the major universities in my home state of Neb. Thus, I have noted with interest the emergence of African-Americans in collegiate volleyball yet their absence from the University of Nebraska’s elite program. To my knowledge NU volleyball has never had a black player on its roster, which is strange because its peer programs increasingly do. One need only look at the volleyball program at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., for example, to see evidence of this trend. CU has three black players on its roster. I profile one of them, Leah McNary, in this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com), not because she’s black but because she’s a skilled player who has helped the Bluejays establish themselves as equals to the big girls down in Lincoln. An art major interested in perhaps one day going into art therapy, McNary comes from an athletic family but she wasn’t even that keen on playing competitive athletics in high school while growing up in Florida. But when she settled on volleyball and enjoyed success with a club team she found herself commiting to CU. During her four years at the Jesuit school she’s helped elevvate the volleyball program and along the way she’s had the opportunity to travel to China, Nicaragua, Mexico, New York City, et cetera.
High-flying McNary big part of Creighton volleyball success; Senior outside hitter’s play has helped raise program stature
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Leah McNary has been there for much of Creighton volleyball’s ascendancy from weak little sister program in the shadow of Big Red to all-grown-up competitor holding its own.
“It’s exciting being a part of a process of building a program,” she says. “We’ve progressed a long way. I think we are up there with them (Nebraska) now.”
The Florida native came to Omaha after only three years of serious volleyball competition. Many colleges missed on this classic late-bloomer. What she lacked in refined skills she made up for with athleticism, something that runs deep in her family. Two older sisters were major college scholarship track athletes and her father played college basketball. Though her mother didn’t play competitive college sports, she was a cheerleader. McNary was leaning to cheerleading herself after finding basketball too physical but settled on volleyball.
Her club play brought her to the attention of CU head coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth, who couldn’t help but see what gets everyone pumped about McNary – explosive jumping ability and ridiculous elevation. Combined with a long arm span and the ability to strike the ball with great force, McNary has all the tools of an elite outside hitter. Except she’s 5’10 – 5’8 3/4 without shoes. Despite being susceptible to the block, she’s been an elite attacker all four years at CU and she’s heavily contributed to the Bluejays becoming a Top 25-caliber team and making two consecutive NCAA postseason appearances.
Where CU invariably got swept by the Huskers, they regularly take a set now. They even beat NU in an exhibition. McNary’s a reason why CU now hangs with the big girls, though they’ve struggled against ranked foes this year.
She nearly bypassed athletics altogether to follow her true passion – the arts. She’s played music from a young age and she’s now a studio art major. She’s interested in doing art therapy one day. Booth says it’s the first time she’s coached someone who identifies as an artist. That artistic inclination is expressed in McNary’s highly emotional and empathetic nature. She’s channeled her feeling-creative side into being an intense competitor, though her emotions still get the better of her. Booth says McNary’s at her best on the court when she has her emotions in check and her confidence on high.
After a solid start to this senior season McNary’s scuffled. Her season attack percentage is well below .200 owing to excessive hitting errors. Getting kills has never been a problem but even finding clean hits is a chore lately. Aware she’s pressing, she’s intent on correcting her mechanics, particularly her approach to the net. A sign of how far the program’s come is that even a year ago CU would have been in trouble with McNary slumping like this but Booth’s built such quality depth the team’s dominating Big East play (8-1) and doing fine overall (15-7) despite McNary’s decreased production.
Given her history she’s sure to get back on track.
“Coach says we’re a really resilient team and I think I’ve become a resilient player. When obstacles and tough situations present themselves I keep pushing through. I’m a very determined person. Working hard is something I take pride in. I want to be the best at whatever I do, even in art. That’s driven me. I think my drive is what pushes me over the edge. I have such a competitive edge because I hold myself to high standards. It hurts me to not do well “
She’s led the team in kills each of the past two years and is on pace to finish in the top five in kills all-time at the school. She carried CU to its only Missouri Valley Conference regular season and tournament titles in 2012 and to a second place finish in its inaugural Big East campaign last year.
Pegged to redshirt as a freshman, McNary developed so quickly and the team struggled so badly that three weeks into that season Booth inserted her into a match for the first time. It just happened to be against in-state rival and perennial measuring stick Nebraska. She proved she belonged and hasn’t looked back since.
“I was new to such a high level of volleyball. I think I’ve grown into being a confident player.”
One reason why she stood out in the NU match is that she was the lone African-American on the court. That situation occurs less and less frequently as volleyball becomes more inclusive.
“I feel like the sport’s getting more diverse, which is awesome. It’s an encouraging thing,” says McNary, who idolized Destiny Hooker growing up and now has two black teammates in Marysa Wilkinson and Brittany Lawrence. NU has its first ever black commit in Tiani Reeves. McNary hopes more girls who look like them are inspired to pursue the sport.
A big early confidence boost came between her freshman and sophomore years when she made a spring 2012 developmental trip to China with NU’s Alicia Ostrander to train with Chinese national players.
“I was so nervous. I wondered, What if I’m not good enough? It actually ended up being one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I for sure learned a high level of play. I think it made me appreciate the sport more.”
The grueling, multi-hour practices steeled her for anything.
“When I got back for summer two-a-day workouts it seemed so much easier. I had already prepared myself for a really tough season. China was like my preseason before preseason. I felt like I was more prepared, especially conditioning-wise, and I found myself getting after it more because everything there you had to go one-hundred percent.
“That trip showed me what I was capable of. It showed me what could be my future if I worked hard.”
As a sophomore she made first team All-MVC and was named to the league’s All-Tournament team. Last year she was a first-team All-Big East selection. She and teammate Kelli Browning were selected by USA Volleyball to participate in the U.S. Collegiate National Team program.
She now has aspirations of playing professionally (beach volleyball) after college. Major expectations spring from her high-achieving, super competitive family. Her mother’s a county judge in Florida.
“It makes me believe I can do anything in life.”
McNary, who has a heart for children, enjoyed a team trip to Nicaragua last summer that saw her and her teammates train and play matches but also do community service work with kids. She’s also made an Athletes in Action trip to Mexico that involved service work.
A perk about playing in the Big East is getting to visit places like New York City and the nation’s capital.
McNary’s started a family legacy at Creighton, where her sister Madison now attends law school.
With a big home stand this weekend against Big East foes Marquette (Friday) and DePaul (Sunday), CU can polish its resume for the NCAA selection committee. Should McNary and her mates make it back to the post-season, as they fully expect to, they plan advancing deeper in the tournament than before.
“We have all the pieces to do it. We just need to get over that hump.”
McNary and Co. play at 7 p.m. Friday and at 1 p.m. Sunday at D.J. Sokol Arena. For tickets, visit http://www.gocreighton.com.
Doug McDermott’s Magic Carpet Ride to College Basketball Immortality: The Stuff of Legends and Legacies
NOTE: Now that Doug McDermott’s NBA life has offcially begun as the 11th round pick of the Denver Nuggets, who immediately dealt him to the player’s first choice, the Chicago Bulls, I thought it made sense to repost this feature article I wrote about the CU hoops legend.
As a longtine Creighton basketball fan part of me delighted in the magical season that Doug McDermott and his teammates enjoyed this past season but another part of me despaired because I had no outlet to write about what was happening, at least not for pay. Then, a couple weeks after the season concluded I was presented the opportunity to write about McDermott and the incredible ride that was his senior season and the singular legacy he established over his four-year career as a Bluejay playing for his father. The publishers of Hail Varsity magazine, which nornally covers Husker sports, arranged with CU officials to create a commemortative yearbook on the special 2013-2014 season and I was offered the assignment of writing the 120-page book’s profile of McDermott. I jumped at the chance and that story follows below. Read much more about McDermott and his teammates in the “Leaving a Legacy” yearbook featuring exhaustive story and photo coverage of this once in a generation player and this historic season to remember. Order yours today at http://creighton.myshopify.com. Also available at all Omaha area Barnes & Noble locations.
Doug McDermott’s Magic Carpet Ride to College Basketball Immortality: The Stuff of Legends and Legacies
©By Leo Adam Biga
Read much more about McDermott and his teammates in the Creighton Men’s Basketball Commemorative Yearbook, “Leaving a Legacy,” from the publishers of Hail Varsity magazine. Order yours today at http://creighton.myshopify.com. Also available at all Omaha area Barnes & Noble locations.
Reigning consensus national player of the year Doug McDermott wears his living legend status comfortably. That’s a good thing, too, as his iconic status in college hoops history will likely only grow from here.
Playing for Creighton’s mid-major program in the Missouri Valley Conference kept him off the national radar his first three years, though insiders knew he was special. With CU’s move to the Big East in 2013-2014, where the Bluejays exceeded expectations and McDermott’s dominant play made headlines, he became a marquee name. With all of college basketball’s eyes trained on him, his monster senior year and steady climb up the NCAA’s career statistical charts was documented across every media platform. Virtually every week he passed a legend on the all-time scoring list. His 26.7 scoring average led the nation. He led CU to a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance and Top 25 ranking. Interview, autograph and picture requests flooded him at home and on the road. In Omaha he was the headliner for the greatest show in town that set attendance records.
Showing a grace and poise beyond his 22 years, he took it all in stride and became a Golden Boy symbol for the best in student-athletes.
“The most impressive thing is how he’s handled everything,” says Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen. “He’s been humble, he’s been very mature, he’s been enthusiastic. He didn’t expect to be treated any differently than any of the non-scholarship players.”
Despite attaining the kind of stardom reserved for only a select few of the game’s greats, Rasmussen says “it didn’t change” McDermott. “It never affected him. You never had to worry about how he represented himself, this program, the university, the community. He would be the poster child for any university, not just any athletics department but any university for how you want your students represented. He’s the winner of the national Senior Class Award, which doesn’t just look at your athletic accomplishments but your community service and academics.”
Teammate Grant Gibbs says, “He’s a throwback in many aspects – in his game, in his personality, being a four-year player, committing to a program, seeing through the goals he set out to accomplish when he got here. That’s a great model for college basketball. It’s refreshing.”
McDermott shrugs if off, saying he’s simply tried to do the right thing. It hasn’t always been easy.
“I’ve just tried to embrace every single moment. I’ve tried not to let it get to me but I’ve had some bad days where I didn’t want to sign autographs or take pictures. But at the same time I remembered being that kid who went up to certain guys for signatures and pictures and if they weren’t cool about it it stuck with me. You get frustrated with the attention, especially if you take a loss. There’s been times when I’ve had to take a step back and calm down and realize how special this really is and this is why I came back – for stuff like this.”
Rasmussen says McDermott will be remembered as much for his high character as for his high scoring numbers.
Greg McDermott, who coached his son all four years at CU, agrees, saying, “I’m far more proud of how he handled his success off the floor than of the success he’s had on the floor because those characteristics of understanding how to treat people and the need to be humble and to credit those around you for your success are traits that will take him a long ways in life. Doug’s blessed with the ability to do that and he’s done it with a smile on his face. He understands this university and community has given a lot to him. A lot of people have done many things so he could have this opportunity and I think he recognizes the need to give back to that and I’m very proud of the way he’s done that.
“I will use him as an example for the rest of my coaching career on how to handle success.”
Once “discovered” last season. the press found McDermott a bright antidote to the one-and-done trend prevalent today. He’s the rare star player who put off the NBA to complete college, a decision that proved fortuitous the way his storybook final campaign unfolded.
After the 2012-2013 season he says he was 75 percent certain he’d declare for the NBA until a talk with former Jays great Kyle Korver, changed his mind. “He said you can’t put a price tag on that senior year. That stuck with me and from there on I felt it was best to come back. I’m so glad I did because this last year was probably the best this city has ever seen Creighton basketball. The fans had a chance to be part of something really special. We’ve got the new logo, the new brand. I feel like so many more people know about us now. The Big East definitely helped.”
He’s satisfied, too, he struck a blow for players finishing college.
‘Obviously some of these kids are good enough to leave after one year or two years. Maybe they need it financially. But I just feel it’s really good for college basketball to see a good player for four years. It really doesn’t get much better than that. I feel like that’s when college basketball has been at its best.”
In his case, staying meant intersecting with basketball history. The attention that came his way dwarfed anything in the annals of CU athletics and achieved the Gold Standard when Sports Illustrated put him on the cover of its March 12 issue in a homage to the classic 1977 cover featuring McDermott’s boyhood idol Larry Bird.
Calling McDermott “college basketball’s best kept secret”, SI laid out how no one, not even his dad, expected him to be an elite college player, much less the most decorated in recent memory. As one of only a handful of three-time consensus 1st Team All Americans he put up numbers few have ever posted. His 3,150 career points are the fifth-most in NCAA history. Over four years he averaged 21.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, making just under 46 percent of his 3-point tries and 83 percent of his free throws.
Being a multiple All-American may not happen again with so many top players leaving college early for the pros. He may be the last four-year college great. What most resonated with him about coming back was having one more go-round with his buddies, the guys who set the table for him, especially his fellow seniors, and with his father.
“Relationships are everything, especially on this team,” Doug says. “We all get along so well. Grant Gibbs I’ve known since I was a kid. He was an iowa guy two years older than me. I always looked up to him. I thought he was the coolest thing ever.”
Gibbs’ unexpected return for a medical hardship 6th year saw McDermott give up his scholarship for his teamate.
Another teammate, Jahenns Manigat, hailed from north of the border.
“I remember on signing day talking on the phone with Jahenns, a Canadian kid no one had ever heard of, and him saying, ‘I look forward to winning multiple championships with you.'”
The pair roomed together on campus for three years.
McDermott’s other senior running mate, Ethan Wragge was already at CU when Doug got there. The two competed for the same spot.
“He obviously didn’t want to see a coach’s kid come in at the same position but he never showed one ounce of frustration because of that. He’s probably the best teammate I’ve ever had.”
Wragge recalls the first time the two matched up.
“I’m a year older and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to let this little freshman score on me,’ and he starts throwing up this stuff and he hits the rim, hits the rim and the ball keeps going in. ‘Maybe he’s just getting lucky,’ I thought.’ But he kept doing it and doing it until it didn’t seem like luck.”
Manigat marvels how four distinct paths crossed to make their magical run possible.
“Four years ago this group wasn’t necessarily meant to be together. All the stars kind of aligned for us to go on this incredible journey. I was committed to another school before de-committing and coming here. Doug was supposed to go to Northern Iowa, Grant was still at Gonzaga and Ethan was a freshman here under Coach (Dana) Altman. Coach Altman leaves – domino effect. Just to see how it all came together and how one little thing could have destroyed this entire journey we’ve been on is special and something I’ll remember fondly for sure.”
McDermott enjoyed the journey so much he wanted to extend it and do it in the big-time glare of the Big East
“I wanted to do it all for Creighton. I think a goal of any player and coach is to want to make the place better than when we first got there and I think that’s what we did.”
No one saw it coming. In 2010 all the meta analysis missed on McDermott. At Ames (iowa) High School he played in the long shadow of top recruit Harrison Barnes, who went on to play two years at North Carolina before heading to the NBA. Those Ames teams won back-to-back state titles with McDermott as the 6th man his junior season and as the high scoring sidekick his senior season.
“Having very little expectations, I didn’t see this coming,” McDermott says. “I didn’t come into college with a lot of hype or expectations. I just kind of came in with a chip on my shoulder. No one really knew who I was and just assumed I was on the team because I was the coach’s kid. I used that as motivation to get better”
It wasn’t as if no one recognized he had talent. He possessed good range on his jumper, an uncanny craftiness around the basket and a motor that kept him in constant motion But a rail thin frame, a lack of athleticism and the absence of any intermediate game did not project into being a major conference prospect. No one could have guessed he’d be a lock for future enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame or a likely NBA lottery pick.
Grant Gibbs recalls McDermott not making much of an impression.
“Doug and I played together at a showcase event. I was a junior, he was a freshman. He was just a quiet kid, really skinny, had some skill but probably wasn’t even projected as a D-I player at that point. When I was at Gonzaga he came to our prospects camp. We spent a weekend and he had gotten a lot better. He still wasn’t at the point where Gonzaga or anybody like that was going to offer him a scholarship.”
McDermott’s emergence as a legit D-! player and then some is all tied to his development, which everyone credits to a fierce work ethic. Gibbs witnessed it but didn’t fully appreciate it in the moment.
“When you’re engulfed in it and you’re a part of it every day you take for granted everything he was able to accomplish. Day in and day out he came with that workmanship mentality and all those days added up and that’s how people become great at wherever they do.”
Greg McDermott says of his son. “He’s invested a lot in this game and the results speak for themselves.”
“It’s so satisfying,” says Doug. “I remember all those long walks from my dorm to the gym. If I couldn’t sleep I’d throw on my backpack and walk to the gym at 11 or 12. It was always a pain in the butt to get in and find balls to shoot with and having the lights shut off on you. It just puts it all in perspective – all those moments of going through the grind. I wish I could go back right now because I didn’t realize how cool it was trying to get better every single night.”
His work ethic first kicked into high gear when he played with Harrison Barnes, whom he describes as “the best worker I’ve ever been around,” adding, “Ever since playing with him it was so easy to go to the gym and get better because I saw how much it was paying off for him, so I really followed his lead once I got to Creighton.”
Rasmussen says McDermott’s a model for doing what it takes.
“There’s been a lot written about what he’s accomplished. I don’t know if there’s been enough written about why Doug has accomplished things virtually no college basketball player has. Doug was always willing to do what others were unwilling to do and he did it with enthusiasm. He’s a great example for all of us. Doug approached practice every day not with the attitude, I’ll get through practice, but I’ll use practice to find out what I need to work on to improve and then go on my own and work on it. Practice was a minimum job description.
“It wasn’t just he gave a great effort the day before big games or gave a great effort every day, he gave a great effort every drill and he was locked in and focused to get better where he was weak. You would think in athletics you would see more of that and the reality is Doug is unique in his accomplishments because he’s unique in his approach.”
Doug says, “I knew I had the drive, I really did. I’m always trying to work on my all-around game but each summer I definitely added something new I wasn’t able to do the year before. It took about a whole summer to perfect those, to have the coaches feel comfortable with me doing that stuff. A lot of credit goes to our coaching staff because they worked with me so hard every day.”
He’s perhaps fondest of his “Dirk Fadeaway,” a step back jumper, ala Dirk Nowitzki’s, refined over time.
“That’s become a pretty much signature move of mine. I did it a little bit my sophomore and junior years but this year it was almost one of my go-tos. Some of these Big East guys were a little bigger so you couldn’t really body ‘em down in the post. I had to find other ways to get my shot off against them.”
His progress grew as his confidence grew.
“I realized how good a scorer I could become on the Bahamas trip we took as a team before my sophomore year. Gregory (former CU post Echenique) wasn’t with us, he was playing with his Venezuelan team, and I scored 25 a game. That’s when I started to realize I could do this with this team. That they might need me to be a little more aggressive. And that sophomore year I averaged 22 (up from 15 as a frosh) and from there I averaged about 23 and this year 26.
His experiences with Team USA over two summers also helped him polish skills and build confidence. Last summer in Vegas he was among a select group of college kids invited to play with NBAers.
“It helped my confidence out like none other just because I played against some of the best players in the world. It felt right. I wasn’t trying to do too much or too little, I was just playing my game and I happened to fit in a lot more than I thought I would. I think I kind of turned some eyes there. That was huge coming into my senior year.”
“I just think that took him to a whole other level,” says his dad. “I think in the back of his mind he always wondered, How well will I stack up when I actually play against NBA players.”
Those opportunities also exposed Doug to more great coaching. “Being around those great minds really helps you going forward,” says McDermott, who acknowledges he draws insights from many sources.
Doug’s not one to define is legacy, so let Rasmussen articulate it.
“It’s his passion for what he does, There are people who are stronger, who are bigger, who jump higher, who run faster, but his intelligence in the game and his basketball instincts are off the charts. His skill level is very good and that isn’t something that comes naturally, that comes from repetition.”
As Doug prepares for the next chapter of his life, his father’s sure his son will once again do what he must in order to succeed.
“I think there will be a process with Doug in the NBA game of where do I fit and what do I have to add to my game so I can maximize this opportunity. Is it being better around the rim? Is it my in-between game? Do I need to become an even better 3-point shooter? He’ll figure that out early in his career and build upon what he already has.”
Doug has no doubt he’ll adapt as necessary.
“I’ve added something new to my game every year. I think it’s time to add something new again. Defensively I can maybe be a little more aggressive. I don’t have to worry about getting fouls because at Creighton I had to be on the floor as much as possible for my team. My ball-handling could use some work. A lot of it will be just fitting into a different role.”
Whatever happens with him in the NBA, his deep affection for Creighton will remain.
“Deep down I never want to leave this place. I’ve developed so much love for this place.”
But move on he must, so sit back and watch the legend grow.
UNO resident folk hero Dana Elsasser’s softball run coming to an end: Hard-throwing pitcher to leave legacy of overcoming obstacles
No sooner did my profile of University of Nebraska at Omaha softball ace Dana Elsasser get posted and published than she went out and threw three straight shutouts, including a no-hitter, and she’ll go for a fourth in her final home appearance on Wednesday, April 30. Her great run as a collegiate pitcher is fast coming to an end and one has to wonder what might have been if UNO has remained Division II instead of transitioning to Division I during her career. To what heights might she had lead the Mavericks? The transition cost her and her teammates any chance to play in the postseason. The move also made it difficult for UNO to schedule a full slate of regular season games. All of that meant she made many fewer appearances than she would have otherwise. On top of that, upon entering the program she largely had to sit her freshman year behind two returning All-America pitchers. That cost her even more chances. If she’d had those added opportunities her career stats, which are outstanding as is, would be even more impressive. But that’s all beside the point because what makes her folk hero in my mind is how she seemingly came out of nowhere to become the face of a storied program and how she made herself into a great player despire all kinds of challenges that’s she never looked at as obstacles.
UNO resident folk hero Dana Elsasser’s softball run coming to an end
Hard-throwing pitcher to leave legacy of overcoming obstacles
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The University of Nebraska at Omaha has a veritable folk-hero in its midst in hard-throwing senior softball ace Dana Elsasser, who’s overcame serious challenges to become a pitching phenom. With her near legendary career fast nearing its end, fans have only a few chances left to catch her in action.
In her No. 1 pitcher role she’ill get the ball at least twice in this weekend’s (April 25-26) three-game home series against Summit League foe IUPUI. She enters the circle for the final time at home versus Drake on April 30. UNO, with an RPI in the 60s, concludes its season May 2-3 at Western Illinois. The team’s guaranteed to finish with a winning record and Elsasser should climb UNO’s career pitching charts.
Entering Tuesday’s doubleheader versus North Dakota she was 21-7 on the year and 65-24 in her career with a lifetime ERA of 1.44.
Though soon exhausting her eligibility, her legend’s sure to grow as a foundational figure in UNO’s transition from Division II to D-I.
Her departure’s coming too soon for head coach Jeanne Scarpello. She’s been enamored with Elsasser’s ability and character since first laying eyes on her in 2010.
“From day one you could tell she’s a different kid – just the drive and what she wanted to do and what she wanted to be. She’s never going to back down from a challenge. She gives 100 percent and expects the rest of us to do the same. She pushes us to be better.”
Scarpello’s admiration only grew upon learning the obstacles Elsasser faced en route to becoming a winner.
“She does have quite a story,” the coach says.
Born “a premie” in San Antonio, Texas to a teenage mother, Dana started life in foster care. After raising kids of their own Rick and Barb Elsasser of Hershey, Neb. were looking to adopt and the white couple got matched with Dana, an African-American, when she was a week old. She became the only black resident of Hershey until the Elsassers adopted more children of color.
Dana was an athletic prodigy, proving a natural at seemingly whatever she tried, including softball, basketball, volleyball and track.
“Dana’s balance, hand-eye coordination and kinesthetic sense have always been exceptional,” says her father, a principal and coach who worked with her on her fundamentals. especially her pitching mechanics. “Every time she was shown a new skill she would master it quickly. She has always hated to lose but she used to become discouraged easily when her team was behind and that affected her play. Experience in athletics has given her the tenacity to fight through disappointment. Her UNO coaches deserve a great deal of credit for instilling a fierce competitive spirit.”
Just as she was turning heads athletically as a teen she developed scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine. She underwent fusion surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Pieces of her hip bone were fused to her spine with “rods, nuts and bolts to keep everything intact,” Dana says.
“The scoliosis thing was scary. Dana faced it all with great courage and determination,” Rick says.
Once cleared to resume athletics she and her dad left the hospital and drove around until they found a ball diamond and began playing catch.
“I was a little scared I wouldn’t be able to pitch again but I recovered relatively quickly from the back thing and it just gave me fuel to get stronger because I had to work two times as hard to get where other people were. I just did as much as I could. I ran a lot, I did sprints. I was in the weight room. I got really strong. I think strengthening my body is what helped me be prepared for college,” says Dana, who’s known to workout on game days and on off days following games.
“I feel I need to do to get in the mood of It’s go time. Otherwise, I feel tired and sluggish and just not ready to go.”
After opting to specialize in softball her pitching took off under her dad’s tutelage. Her high school didn’t field a team, She made a name for herself out west playing summers with the North Platte Sensations.
Typical of the upbeat Elsasser, she takes in stride everything that’s been put in front of her.
“Honestly, when I was growing up I really didn’t see much of the adversity I overcame as a disadvantage. I haven’t thought of it as things that set me back. When I tell people my story they’re like, ‘Wasn’t it weird being the only black person in town?’ I never thought of it like that. My parents did a really good job of just making things normal for me.”
Rick Elsasser says Dana has an innate sbility to adapt and persevere.
“Dana has always had tremendous resolve. I remember when she was about 5 or 6 years old, I spent about 15 minutes showing her how to shoot a basketball and then left her to practice. I went back outside about two hours later and found her still shooting. I had to make her stop and eat.”
Scarpello long ago gave up trying to get Elsasser to ease off. The coach still smiles at nearly missing on this model student-athlete who outworks everyone. After all, Dana was a-best-kept secret in the sticks, where her exploits four-hours away fell on deaf ears here.
Scarpello first heard of her via a letter Dana wrote her while a senior in high school. Dana mentioned she was (then) 5-foot-4 and threw 65. Scarpello didn’t buy it. She’d never heard of someone so short throwing so hard. It took corroboration from two coaches before she decided to see this little dynamo for herself.
Scarpello and pitching coach Cory Petermann drove to Hastings expecting to see Elsasser pitch in a game only to have it forfeited when the opposing club didn’t show. The coaches had Dana warm up with her father for a private audition. Rick had caught his daughter countless times in the yard of their home sitting on a bucket as she threw from a make-do mound. This was different. The stakes were higher, though that didn’t register with Dana until reminded of it.
“I was really nervous but actually I don’t think I even realized how important it was when they were watching me – that if I do good I’m going to have college paid for,” Dana says. “When I started out I wasn’t throwing my hardest. My dad told me, ‘Get it together, this is your time right here to do it.” Then I knew it was a big deal.'”
With a radar gun trained on her she consistently clocked 65 and Scarpello had seen enough to be convinced.
Rising to the occasion is something Scarpello and Co. have come to rely on from Elsasser, who acknowledges she thrives in such situations.
“I like it when I’m in pressure spots and everyone is looking to me. I just like how my team puts their trust in me and it just motivates me to do better. I like being in charge in that moment.”
Five years since discovering her, Elsasser will leave UNO as one of the storied program’s best pitchers. She’s proven herself against elite competition despite being lightly recruited and not looking the part of a mound master with her lithe frame and diminutive stature. Her long limbs, strong core and compact delivery allow her to average 68 miles an hour on her “go-to” pitch, the drop-ball. She’s hit 70. Her effortless appearing motion, honed over thousands of hours, makes it appear she’s not throwing as hard as she is.
Armed with her heater, a change-up and a rise-ball, plus pin-point control, she has enough stuff to hold her own with the best.
“She is a go-right-at-you kind of kid. She’s not a strikeout pitcher, though she’s getting a lot more strike outs this year, but she really just lets batters put the ball in play and lets the defense work behind her,” Scarpello says. “And she’s a great defender as a pitcher.”
Last year Elsasser one-hit perennial Big 12 power Oklahoma State iand three weeks ago she beat Big 10 heavyweight and in-state rival Nebraska 3-2 in Lincoln. She calls the victory over NU “the greatest moment I’ve ever had.” The win followed UNO coming up short against the Huskers several times and redeemed a 10-0 drubbing at their hands earlier this year that Elsasser blamed on herself.
“I means everything to me. I got that win for my dad. That was our goal when I made my commitment to UNO – beat the Huskers. I told myself I’m not going to let them make a fool of me on the mound again.”
Per usual, her folks were there to cheer her on and as always she heard her dad’s voice above everyone else.
“I could him during that game yelling at me from the stands. I looked up there and I saw him jumping around. It was really emotional.”
Scarpello says Elsasser has shown she “can play with the big dogs,” adding, “She could be playing at any of those programs.”
Elsasser says she and her teammates are often underestimated and use their underdog status as fuel to prove they belong.
“We always hear, ‘Who’s this Omaha team that keeps winning? Who are these people?’ But we know we’re capable of getting it done.”
Overturning doubters seems hard-wired in Elsasser.
She would have been UNO’s ace as a true freshman if not for two returning All-America pitchers. She made the most of her limited opportunities, going 10-1. Her pitching mates got most of the starts based on experience, not talent. She also struggled with illegal pitches due to a habit of lifting her foot off the mound during her delivery. She corrected the problem over the summer and prior to the following season Scarpello handed her “the torch to carry the program.” Elsasser ran with it to become “our identity” but she first had to make a tough decision. UNO went D-I, initiating a transition period that made it ineligible for the postseason. Scarpello gave her players permission to transfer and she feared Elsasser might move on.
“She knew she would not to get to play for championships and that’s what she came here to do,” Scarpello says, “and I knew that bothered her because she wanted to make a mark. We’ve tried in various ways to give her some great opportunities, to challenge her, so she could make her mark and have no regrets she stayed here. Those games against top teams have become a measuring stick for her and for us.”
Elsasser’s sure of her legacy as a program builder but she can’t imagine life without softball.
“What I’m going to miss the most is the relationships and being in the circle. The field feels like home to me. If I come to practice in a bad mood I always leave in a good mood. These girls are my best friends, we do everything together. We’re just like a big family. It’s kind of unsettling to know I won’t have that type of bond and closeness I’ve been used to every day for four years.”
Everyone says she’d make a great coach. “She’s a real student of the game,” says Scarpello, adding, “I’d hire her in a heartbeat.”
“Coaching could be my career,” says Elsasser. She”ll be coaching a younger sister this summer who’s showing great promise as, you guessed it, a pitcher. Clearly, this legacy has legs.
In His Corner: Midge Minor is Trainer, Friend and Father Figure to Pro Boxing Contender Terence “Bud” Crawford
As I’ve said before on this blog nearly every writer gets around to writing about boxing at one time or another. I did my first boxing story in the late 1990s and every now and then I get the craving to do a new one. I’ve built up quite a collection of boxing pieces this way and you can access them all on the blog. The following story for the New Horizons in Omaha profiles an up and coming pro lightweight contender, Terence “Bud” Crawford, and the older man in his corner who is trainer, friend, father figure and more to him, Midge Minor. They are as tight as two people nearly 50 years apart in age can be. Crawford has been under the wing of Minor from the time he was a little boy and he still relies on his sage advice today as he prepares for an expected world title fight. The loyal Crawford is an Omaha native and resident who’s never left his hometown or the gym he grew up in, the CW, and he’s not about to leave the man who’s guided him this far.
by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
As 25-year-old lightweight contender Terence “Bud” Crawford goes through his paces, he’s watched intently by an older man in a sweatsuit, Midge Minor. Though separated in age by four-plus decades, the two men enjoy a warm, easy relationship marked by teasing banter.
Crawford: “I’ll beat this dude up right now.”
Minor: “You’re scared of me, you know that.”
Crawford: “You be dreaming about me.”
Minor: “You stick that long chin out to the wrong man.”
They’ve been going back and forth like this for decades. At age 7 Crawford got his boxing start under Minor at the CW, 1510 Davenport St., and he still trains there under Minor’s scrutiny all these years later.
The facility is part of the CW Youth Resource Center, whose founder and director, Carl Washington, spotted Crawford when he was a kid and brought him to the gym.
Crawford, an Omaha native and resident, owns a 21-0 pro record and a reputation among some experts as the best fighter in the 135-pound division. The smart money says it’s only a matter of time before he wins a title. That time may come in January when the Top Rank-promoted boxer is expected to get his title shot and the opportunity to earn his first six-figure payday.
Since showing well in two recent HBO-telecast fights, he’s riding a wave of fame. He’s the pride of the CW, where the number of fighters is up because he learned to box there, made it big and never left.
“He’s one of the causes of our gym being full now,” says Minor. “They all look up to him. It’s kind of like he put us on the map.”
Crawford doesn’t act the star though.
“I’m the same person, I’m regular, I just want to be able to make it and provide for my family,” he says earnestly.
He engages everyone at the gym and offers instruction to fighters.
“I’m always going to have CW somewhere inside of me because this is where I started from. Never forget where you came from. I’m always going to be a CW fighter. I just feel comfortable here. It does feel like home when I walk through them doors because it’s the only gym I knew when I was coming up. I’ve been coming here and going to the donut shop (the adjacent Pettit’s Pastry) ever since I was 7.”
For a long time he was pressured to leave Omaha, where quality sparring partners are rare and pro boxing cards even rarer. But he’s remained true to his team and his home.
“A lot of people came at me with deals wanting to get me to fight for them, sign with them and move out of town. They kept telling me I can’t make it from Omaha and need new cornermen – that they took me as far as they could. But I’m loyal and a lot of people respect me for it. My coaches have faith in me and trust me that I’m not going to do nothing to jeopardize our relationship, and I trust them and have faith in them.
“I’ve just stayed with it and continued to have confidence in my team. I just keep pushing forward.”
He keeps a tight circle of confidantes around him and all share his same CW and Omaha lineage.
“We all family,” he says..”Every person I turn to in my corner that’s giving me instructions came up under Midge.”
CW Boxing Gym is located in the CW Youth Resource Center
For his last fight Crawford, who always sports Big Red gear to show his Nebraska pride, wore trunks emblazoned with “Omaha” on them.
As Crawford shadow boxes inside the ring, looking at his reflected image in a bank of mirrors against the near wall, the 73 year-old Minor takes it all in from his spot in the corner, just outside the ropes. Minor has been in Crawford’s corner, both literally and figuratively, since the fighter first got serious about the sport at age 12. They initially met five years before that, when Crawford became argumentative with the trainer. Minor demands obedience. He barks orders in his growl of a voice. He’s known to curse, even with kids. He doesn’t take guff from anyone, especially a brash, back-talking little boy. When Crawford wouldn’t mind him, Minor banned him from the CW.
The trainer hated letting Crawford go, too, because he recognized the kid as something special.
“I saw that he had a lot of heart and that goes a long way in boxing. He never wanted to quit on me.”
The boy’s heart reminded Minor of his own. Back in the day, Minor was a top amateur flyweight, twice winning the Midwest Golden Gloves. But prospect or no prospect, Minor wasn’t going to stand for disrespect. The two eventually reconnected.
“I kicked him out of the gym for five years,” says Minor, a father many times over, “and then I brought him back when he got a little more mature and then we went from there.”
Crawford acquired some rough edges growing up in The Hood. Being physically tested was a rite of passage in his family and neighborhood. It toughened him up. He needed to be tough too because he was small and always getting into scuffles and playing against bigger, older guys in football, basketball, whatever sport was in season. He learned to always stand his ground. The more he held his own, the more courage and confidence he gained.
“I was taught to never be scared…to never back down. That was instilled in me at a young age,” Crawford says. “My big cousins pushing me, punching me, slamming me, roughing me up. My dad wrestling me. After going against them it wasn’t nothing to me going against somebody my size, my age.
“I’d fall and get jacked up or get bitten by dogs or get scratched. I’d need stitches here and there, and my mom would be like, ‘You’re all right.’ There was no going home and crying to your parents or nothing like that. No babying me. I don’t know what it feels like to be babied.”
There was something about Crawford, even as a child, that pegged him for greatness.
“Before I even started boxing my dad used to make me punch on his hands, teach me wrestling moves, throw the ball with me. He always said, ‘You’re going to be a million dollar baby.’ Ever since I was little he was like, ‘You can be whatever you want to be, just go out there and do it, don’t let nobody hold you down or hold you back.'”
His father, grandfather and an uncle all boxed and wrestled in their youth. His dad and uncle trained at the CW. His grandfather boxed with Minor. They all had talent.
“It was just in me, it was in the blood line for me. I just took after them. My dad always gave me pointers.”
Crawford in action
By the time Crawford came back to the gym, he was less belligerent and more ready to learn. The non-nonsense Minor and the hot-tempered youth bonded. Like father and son.
“When I came back to the gym Midge and I were like instantly close.
Midge was like my dad,” says Crawford.
What was the difference the second time around?
“I don’t know. maybe it’s because I accepted Midge ain’t going to change for nobody. I didn’t really know him like that at the start. so for him to be talking to me crazy I took that as disrespect. I was offended by it. But when i came back I realized that’s just Midge being Midge. Some people get intimidated by him but one thing about Midge is if he likes you he’s going to roll with you. If he don’t like you, he don’t like you and there’s nothing nobody can do to make him like you. And if he’s with you he’s with you to the end.
“When I got to know him more I realized Midge will have my back till the day he dies and I’ll have his back to the day I die, and that’s just how close we are. Midge put a real big hold on me.”
When you ask Crawford if he could have gotten this far without him he says, “Probably not because Midge kept me out of the streets. He taught me a lot. Without Midge, I don’t think so, He taught me a lot of responsibility.”
Crawford came to know he could depend on Minor for anything, which only made him trust him more and made him want to please him more.
“I used to ride my bike to the gym with a big old bag on my back, that’s how dedicated I was. Then Midge started taking me to the gym. Over holidays he’d come to my house to take me to the gym. On school days he’d come get me at school and take me to his house. We’d just sit there together and watch boxing tapes. I would watch any kind of fighter just for the simple fact that you never know when you might see that style. He’d tell me what they’re doing wrong and what I could do to beat ‘em.”
Minor also became Crawford’s mentor.
“Anytime I needed anything or needed someone to talk to he was always there,” says Crawford. “He’s a great father figure in my life.
Just an all around good guy. He loves kids.”
All of Minor’s work with Crawford inside and outside the ring had the full support of Bud’s mother.
“It was a little like school to me. Sometimes I’d try to duck him and tell my mom to tell him I wasn’t there and she wasn’t having it. Sometimes my mom would call him and say, ‘Come and get him Midge’ and I’d spend the night at his house, watch tapes, work out. It was like that.”
When he got in trouble at school his mother informed Minor because she knew he’d hold him accountable. When Minor got his hands on him he worked him extra hard. it was all about getting the young man to learn lessons and to pay his dues. Instead of resisting it, Crawford took it all in stride. He says, “It was instilled in me early that what don’t kill you will make you stronger.I looked at it that it was helping me.”
“He appreciated it. He respected me,” says Minor. “We got along real well.”
The troubled boy no one could reach found a friend and ally to push him and inspire him.
“Midge always instilled in me, ‘Nobody can beat you, especially if you work hard and put your heart into your training.’ He drilled that in my head. He believed in me so much. There were times I kind of doubted myself in my mind and he was just like, ‘Nobody can beat you.’ The fight’s the easy part. Preparing for it, that’s the hard part. I’ve been fighting all my life so to get in there and fight, that’s easy. That’s 30 minutes. Sometimes only three minutes or 30 seconds if I get an early knockout. That’s compared to training for hours and hours a day.”
Minor routinely put him in the ring with much more experienced guys.
“That’s how much confidence he had in me. Seeing him have that much confidence in me made me even more confident,” says Crawford.
“It didn’t make no difference who I fought him with because he was going to fight ‘em. I’ve had a lot fighters but they didn’t have the heart that he has.”
The legend of Terence “Bud” Crawford began to grow when as a teen amateur he sparred pros and outfought them. Even today he likes to spar bigger guys.
“I like to try myself.”
Crawford is now on the cusp of boxing royalty and Minor is still the one Bud puts his complete faith in.
“He’s still there for me taking good care of me,” Crawford says. “I’m always going to have his back. You know he looked out for me when I was little and I’m going to look out for him now that he’s older.”
Having Minor in his camp as he preps for the biggest fight of his life is exactly where Crawford wants him. Having him in his corner on fight night is where he needs him.
“It means a lot to have Midge there. Midge is the brain. Everything goes through Midge before it’s all said and done for me to go in there and fight. Without the brain we can’t do nothing, so it’s very important that Midge is there.
“Before every fight I bring him a disc of who I’m fighting and I ask him what he thinks about the guy and he tells me what I should do and we go from there.”
The strategy for any fight, he says, is “a team effort” between his co-managers Brian McIntyre and Cameron Dunkin, trainer Esau Diegez, Minor and himself.
“We all work together and dissect our opponent but Midge is always the one that’s like, ‘Alright, this is what you’re going to do to beat this guy. This is how you’re going to fight ‘em.’ And we all go by what Midge sats. He’s great for seeing things I don’t see and making me see it.
“He gives me the instructions to beat ‘em, and all I have to do is follow ‘em. He’s got the wisdom.”
Minor says Crawford is a great student who picks things up quickly, including a knack for altering his style to counter his opponent’s style.
“He can observe different fighters and he can adapt to their styles. He doesn’t have no problem adjusting to them,” says Minor. “He listens to me and he produces for me.”
“Oh yeah. I see it one time and I do it,” Crawford says. “You gotta practice it to though, you can’t just think you’re going to perfect it by doing it one time. You gotta keep on trying it in the gym. You might not get it the first time, you might not get it the second time, but you gotta keep trying until you get it right.”
Still, when all is said and done, it’s Crawford who’s alone in the ring come fight night.
“You can tell me this, you can tell me that, at the end of the day I’m the one that’s gotta take those punches and get hit upside my head. The difference between me and other people is that I’m willing to go through the fire to see the light.”
Crawford’s aware of the strides he’s made in recent years.
“I feel like I’m more relaxed in the ring. I know more about the game.
I know what to do, when to do it, and I’m not just throwing punches just to be throwing them. I’m pinpointing my shots more. Yeah, all around my whole arsenal is just way better.”
“Early in his career he used to just throw punches,” says Minor. “He learned to settle down and adjust.”
Crawford says his overall skill set has developed to the point that he doesn’t have an obvious weakness.
“I can adapt to any style. I’m a boxer, a puncher, I’m elusive, I’m whatever I need to be. I’m always confident and I just come to win.
I’ve got it all – hand speed, power, movement, smarts. I can take a punch.”
He’s always in shape and lives a clean lifestyle, Minor says admiringly. The trainer never has to worry his fighter’s not working hard enough.
Minor’s trained several successful pros, including Grover Wiley and Dickie Ryan, but he says he’s never had anyone as accomplished as Crawford this early in their career.
Neither feels he’s reached his full potential.
“I’ve got a lot of things to work on,” says Crawford. “So I figure once I get those bad habits out of the way then I’ll be better than I am now. Little things like not keeping my hands up, not moving my head. Sometimes I’ll get in there and I’ll feel like he can’t hurt me, and I just want to walk through him without coming with the jab.”
Minor’s always watching to make sure Crawford doesn’t abandon his fundamentals. The veteran trainer guided Crawford through a highly successful amateur career that saw the fighter compete on the U.S, Pan American Games team and advance all the way to the national Golden Gloves semi-finals in his hometown of Omaha. Crawford dropped a controversial decision in the semis that left him disillusioned by the politics of amateur scoring and Minor “broken-hearted.”
Minor continues to be the guru Crawford turns to for advice. Perhaps a turning point in their relationship and in the fighter’s development was getting past the anger that seemed to fuel Crawford early on and that threatened to derail his career.
When his temper got the better of him Crawford was suspended from the U.S, national team. He says American amateur boxing officials “put a bad rep out for my name,” adding, “They called me hot-headed and a thug.” He feels the stigma hurt him in his bid to make the U.S. Olympic team.
The fighter acknowledges he had issues. He got expelled from several schools for fighting and arguing. He grew up playing sports and fighting in the streets, parks and playgrounds of northeast Omaha, where his mother mostly raised him and his two older sisters. His father, Terence Sr., served in the U.S, Navy and was separated from his mother, only periodically reappearing in Bud’s life.
No one seemed able to get to the root of Crawford’s rage. Not even himself.
“I really can’t say about my temper. It was just something that was in me. Everybody asked me, ‘Why do you be so mad?’ and I never could pinpoint it or tell them why. I’d be like, ‘I’m not angry.’ But deep down inside I really was. I was ready to fight at any given time and that’s how mainly I got kicked out of all the schools.
“I was in counseling, anger management, all that stuff. None of it ever worked…”
His favorite way of coping with the turmoil was to go fishing at the Fontenelle Park pond.
He knows he could have easily fallen prey to the lures and risks of the inner city. Friends he ran with included gang members. On the eve of his first big nationally televised pro fight he got shot in the head after leaving a heated dice game he had no business being in in the first place. He was told by doctors that if the bullet hadn’t been slowed by the window it passed through in his car it would have likely killed him.
“I was lucky, I was blessed. That just opened my eyes more. I took it as a sign, as a wakeup call.”
Becoming a father – he and his girlfriend Alindra are raising their son and her daughter – also helped him mature.
Through it all Minor was that steadying voice telling him to do the right thing.
Crawford’s temper cooled and his life got more settled.
“It took him a while,” says Minor. “He was hard-headed. I used to make him come over to my house and I’d sit em down to watch boxing tapes and the more he observed other fighters he learned that his temperament had to change to be where he’s at now.”
Crawford also credits two men who took him under their wing at Omaha Bryan High School, then principal Dave Collins and assistant principal Todd Martin.
“They would always talk to me if I got in trouble. They put it in terms like I was in the gym training. They’d say, ‘You cant talk back to the teachers when they’re trying to tell you something you need to know. You don’t talk back to your coach when he’s teaching you how to throw a punch.’ I began to look at it like that and I said, ‘You’re right, i messed up.’ That really got me through my high school years doing what I had to do.”
Now that Crawford’s come so far he’s looking “to give back” to the community through his own boxing gym in the same community he grew up in. He wants his North O-based B & B Boxing Academy, which he recently opened with Brian McIntyre, to be a place that keeps kids off the street and gives them something structured to do.
Bringing a world title belt back to Omaha is his main focus though.
“Oh, it would be great. A lot of people look up to me so for me to bring that belt home to Omaha it would mean a lot, not only to me but to Omaha. Boxing is not real big in Omaha. I used to be and I’m trying to bring it back and I feel I can do that. I could inspire some little guy that later on could be the champion of the world. Who knows?”
He’s not leaving anything to chance in his bid for glory.
“I’ve got my mind made up, I’ve got my goals set, and I’m going to get it. I’m not going to let nothing or nobody keep me from conquering my dreams.”
“That’s that confidence.” Minor says. “I’m so proud of him.”
Crawford knows he wouldn’t be where he is today without Minor. “He’s played a big factor in my life.” He values all that Minor’s meant to him.
“You got to. Nothing lasts forever, so cherish it while it’s here.”
- Terence Crawford – The World Awaits! (boxingjunkie.wordpress.com)
- BSO Interview: Lightweight Boxing Prospect Terence “Bud” Crawford (blacksportsonline.com)
- Terence Crawford Gets a 6th-Round KO Win Over Alejandro Sanabria (sportsnippets.com)
From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood
Omaha has never been much of a boxing hotbed. Oh, there’s been the occasional fighter worth following from here who’s shown well in the amateur ranks at, say, the national golden gloves (though I’m not sure any native Nebraskan has made it to the Olympic Games in boxing) and in the pro ranks. Precious few have ever fought for a championship or even in the prelims of a title card. Unless you’re from Nebraska or live here or you have a strong rooting interest in or connection to Omaha boxers chances are you can’t name more than two or three ring worthies to ever come out of the state and do something memorialized in the boxing annals or the sport’s bible, Ring Magazine. The following story from my Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness series about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends does highlight a few of the better fighters Omaha’s produced though it’s by no means a comprehensive list. You’ll find the rest of my Out to Win installments by going to the Categories drop down menu or typing the title in the Search box.
From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
If any Omaha inner city boxing legend had most of the prized fighting attributes, it was Harley Cooper, a two-time national Golden Gloves champion and 1964 Olympic qualifier. A tough Savannah, Ga. native, Cooper grew up fighting in ‘the hood,‘ but learned to box in the military. After he won the second of his Gloves titles while based at Offutt Air Force Base, he then became the U.S. Olympic light heavyweight entry. In peak form and riding an unbeaten streak, he was primed to bust heads in Tokyo. But on the eve of leaving for Japan, he was medically disqualified.
After transferring to Omaha, his new training ground became Hawk’s Gym, where his sparring partners included future pro heavyweight Lou Bailey. He shot up the amateur ranks by sweeping his first Golden Gloves. But he was no rookie, having compiled hundreds of hours in the ring and dozens of military bouts, winning service titles wherever he was assigned, including Japan and Europe.
“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” said Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren, a former prize fight matchmaker and longtime local observer. “The first time anybody saw him in the gym they knew this guy was going to be a national champion. He could punch. He could box. He could do it all. He was the most complete fighter I ever saw from around here. I never saw Harley Cooper lose a round in amateur fights in Omaha. He was that dominant.”
Cooper twice won the Gloves Trinity when he took the Omaha, Midwest and National tournaments in both ’63 and ’64. His first title run came, unexpectedly, as aheavyweight and culminated at the ’64 Chicago finals.
Cooper was a natural light-heavyweight, but after an overseas transfer to Nebraska he didn’t meet the weight requirements before the local Gloves tourney. Over the light-heavyweight limit, his handlers convinced him, against his better judgment, to compete as a heavyweight. He was an undersized 183 pounds. Even after he won the local-regional heavyweight titles, he wanted to move back to light-heavy, where he was more comfortable. “They wouldn’t let me move down,” he said of his trainers. “They kept saying, ‘Well, let’s see how far you can go.'” He went all the way. The underdog used superior quickness to offset his opponents’ size and power advantages to win just the second national Gloves title by a Nebraskan since the 1930s. In ’64, Cooper fought at his accustomed light-heavy spot and plowed through to the Nationals in Nashville. Cooper’s win in Nashville put him into the Olympic Trials box-off in New York, which he won.
Despite attractive offers, he never turned pro. First, there was his Air Force career. Second, he had a big family to feed, and a sure thing was better than a dream. Since retiring in ’73, his life has centered on kids at the North Omaha Boys Club, Glenwood State School and the Cornhusker Striders track program. But the pull of boxing never left, and so for 30 years he’s volunteered with the Great Plains Amateur Boxing Association. That body organizes and sanctions local-regional boxing cards like the Golden Gloves. He recently announced Omaha will host the 2006 national Gloves tournament.
“I love boxing. I’m lucky I have a wife that understands it’s such a big part of me.”
Occasional what-might-have-beens creep into his conversation. “There’s still some times when I kind of wish I had of (turned pro),” he said. “I was better than I realized I was at the time. I see these guys now and they just don’t look that good to me, man.”
An earlier Golden Gloves star who did go pro is Joey Parks, a lightweight contender in the late ’50s-early ’60s. A Kansas native, Parks moved to Omaha in 1950. Back home, he competed in football, basketball and baseball and always listened to the Friday night fights on the radio. His late brother, Jerry Parks, was a fine baseball player and longtime Omaha Parks and Recreation director.
Joey trained at the old City Mission Boxing Club at 22nd and Cass under legendary trainer Leonard Hawkins, who later became his father-in-law. Parks’ amateur career began slowly – he lost his first Gloves bout. He developed his skills during an Army hitch in South Korea and, when he returned, dominated. He won City and Midwest Gloves titles in ’55 and ’56, and advanced to the national finals the first year and to the semi-finals the next.
Parks went pro in ’57 and once held a No. 9 world ranking. His career highlights include three close, 10-round, non-title bouts with all-time lightweight champion Joe “Old Bones” Brown. Their first tussle, fought at the State Fair Coliseum in Albuquerque, NM, ended in a disputed draw that cost Parks a title shot. Parks opened a cut over Brown’s eye and dropped him for a one-count in the final round.
Parks lost the rematches by decisions. As great as Brown was, Parks said his toughest foe was future welterweight champ Curtis Cokes, who stopped him.
“He hit like a mule,” he said.
Parks took pride in being a busy, crowd-pleasing favorite. “I had the type of style where I pressed the fight. I kept going forward all the way. I always carried the fight to my opponent. I wouldn’t short change nobody. They got their money’s worth.” The Omahan relied on superb conditioning. “I stayed in tip-top shape. I did my road work every morning. I chopped wood. I sparred.”
He quit the ring in ’63 after a rope gave way in a fight down in Santa Fe, NM and he was sent sprawling, head first, into the ring apron. He was out cold for three minutes. Weeks of double vision later, he hung up his gloves. “A cat has nine lives, but I only have one.” Now 71, he stays fit walking and dancing. Long gone is the popularity that meant people stopped him on the street and treated him to meals, but he remembers his boxing career with pleasure. “It was sweet.”
One of the most devastating Omaha punchers is Lamont Kirkland. From 1975 to 1980 he won a record-tying six Midwest Golden Gloves titles by simply pummeling people into submission. After coming close, including a loss to future light-heavy champ Michael Spinks, Kirkland finally won a national championship – at 165-pounds – in 1980. He’s the last local fighter to win a national Gloves title. He enjoyed a good pro career that climaxed in a 1987 USBA super middleweight title fight against Lindell Holmes that Kirkland lost by TKO. “I never saw anybody give him a tough fight here,” local boxing expert Tom Lovgren said.
More Fighters and Some Coaches/Trainers
Midge Minor won multiple Omaha and Midwest Golden Gloves titles in the 1950s. Reggie Hughes and Willie “Boots” Washington were among other good boxers from that era’s inner city. Illinois-native Lou Bailey moved to Omaha and had a pro heavyweight career that saw him fight a future champ in George Foreman and many contenders. His son, Lou Bailey, Jr. won three light-heavy Midwest amateur titles.
Heavyweight Morris Jackson was the main rival of Ron “Bluffs Butcher” Stander, whom he met five times as an amateur and pro. “Yeah, we had some knockdown-dragouts,” said Jackson, who once beat the British Commonwealth champ.
After a run-in with the law (for armed robbery) that saw him do 29 months in jail, Jackson turned his life around and, in ’88, was ordained a minister in the Independent Assemblies of God Church. Now the chaplain at the Douglas County Correctional Center, he finds satisfaction in “being able to see men take responsibility for their lives and become better citizens, husbands, fathers. You can’t go through life without believing.” He received a full pardon from then-Gov. Ben Nelson in 1995.
Among Midwest champs, a trio of three-time titlists stands out: Sammy Cribbs was a ferocious puncherin the early ’80s; Kenny Friday was a sharp boxer in the early ’90s; and Bernard Davis was the class of 1998-2001. These and other champion boxers came out of Omaha’s CW Boxing Club. Carl Washington, the CW’s founder, director and namesake, coached with great success before assembling staffers like Midge Minor to continue training champions.
The late Leonard Hawkins was a trainer and coach for scores of amateur champions. His teams won numerous city titles. Based out of a series of gyms over the years, Hawkins also trained a talented stable of pros, most notably at the Fox Hole Gym, where he worked with Art Hernandez, Ron Stander and Lamont Kirkland, among others.
- Wes Bascomb dies; boxing champ hung up his gloves and went to college to teach in the St. Louis schools (stltoday.com)
- Beaufort legend Joe Frazier honored with Order of the Palmetto (islandpacket.com)
- America’s heavyweight hope (salon.com)
From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Grapplers – Masters in the Way of the Mat
This post about wrestling and another post today about boxing may be the final two installments from my Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness series about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends to make it to my blog. The series originally ran in 2004-2005 in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and I’ve been looking for ways to reporpose the work ever since. Presenting the stories on this blog is the first attempt to find a new audience. The next goal is to package the stories, along with new ones, in a book I plan to publish by 2015. The Olympic wrestling gold medal won over the weekend by American Jordan Burroughs, a former University of Nebraska mat great, is what motivated me to post this wrestling installment. I encourage you to check out the other stories from the series. You can find the Out to Win series stories in the Categories drop down menu or by typing the title in the Search box.
From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Grapplers – Masters in the Way of the Mat
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In Nebraska, one family stands apart in wrestling: the Olivers of Omaha. Masters of the grappling art, they form a two-generation mat dynasty whose story is still being written.
First there are the accomplishments of brothers Roye, Marshall and Ray, each a prep stud and college All-American in his day. Then the ongoing achievements of Ray’s son, Chris. Victorious in 568 straight matches in Nebraska dating back to the fourth grade, Chris capped his amazing run at Omaha Creighton Prep, where he was coached by his father, by winning a fourth state title this past season. In the process, he became only the third Nebraska schoolboy to go unbeaten in a four-year career. The prized Nebraska recruit is wrestling at 157 pounds for No. 3 rated NU and appears poised to surpass his father’s and uncles’ own impressive records.
But the story doesn’t end there. Five brothers in all wrestled. Roye, Marshall and Ray all competed overseas. Roye was an alternate on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and now, at age 47, he’s made a dramatic comeback from double knee surgery to win the U.S. Veterans Nationals title at 187.4 pounds in Las Vegas this past April. He qualified for the September world championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia but was unable to attend.
Roye also coaches. He assisted Mike Denney with the perennial Division II power University of Nebraska at Omaha program. He coached with USA Wrestling. He’s worked with select junior national teams in Nebraska and California, where he recently moved. Ray, co-head coach at Prep, started working with Chris when he was 4 and he now schools a nephew, Malcomb McGruder, who’s a highly-regarded junior-to-be at Prep. And the word is a promising new generation of Olivers is developing their moves on the mat at the bantam-cadet levels.
This past summer, the Oliver clan was inducted in the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame for their many wrestling feats.
Wrestling for the Olivers is more than tradition. It’s a way of life and an act of faith that got its start, aptly enough, with their own prophet, Ecclesiastes, the oldest brother and, like his siblings, the son of a preacher man. Originally from Brewton, Ala., the family migrated to Omaha in 1962 when their minister-father felt called to come here.
Ecclesiastes took up wrestling at the north Omaha boys club, where Ron McGruder was the coach.
“He came home and demonstrated some of the techniques to my older brothers Roye and Marshall,” said Ray, “and later on when I got old enough, at about five years of age, they demonstrated the techniques to me and my younger brother Bobby. And that started off a milestone and legacy of us becoming great wrestlers in the state of Nebraska and around the nation.”
Just because their daddy preached didn’t make the Oliver boys immune to the less savory elements around the Pleasantview housing projects, where they lived, which is why their parents approved of wrestling’s structure and discipline.
“Instead of hanging out, my brothers and I would go to the boys club and wrestle,” said Ray. “It offered an outlet.”
Ecclesiastes didn’t so much sell the sport for its character-building attributes, as he later did, but rather as a means “to get tough and to win trophies,” Ray said. “He’d come home with trophies and we’d go, ‘Whoa, we want to do that.’ Winning trophies was the most important thing.” At home and at the club the Olivers often tangled, brother on brother, in a ritual of honing skills and testing limits. Wrestling each other helped to forge the Brothers Oliver into the hard-edged competitors they became. “It pushed us,” Ray said. “It helped us strive for higher heights and to learn how to refuse to accept losing as motivation to improve.” Naturally, the brothers developed a signature style.
“We had a lot of similarities with respect to position and stance and maneuvers and techniques,” Ray said. “I’d say we scored more on our feet than we did anywhere else, but we knew how to pin on top using the different pinning combinations, as we were all excited about using the cradle and the three-quarters. And we knew how to escape on the bottom using switches and stunts and stand-ups.”
The brothers came of age in the 1970s at Omaha Technical High School. Roye and Marshall made the Olivers’ first big splash by winning individual state titles in 1973 under head coach Milt Hearn and top assistant Curlee Alexander, a former Tech wrestler and UNO national champion. Ray won an individual title and served as captain for Tech’s 1978 state championship team coached by Alexander.
In the 1970s, the brothers made several memorable trips behind the Iron Curtain — Roye and Marshall in Bulgaria and Roye and Ray in Poland. Only in their mid-teens at the time, the Olivers squared-off with grown men in their 20s and 30s.
“Back in our day, if you were even 15-, 16-, 17-years-old, you wrestled everybody, regardless of how old they were,” Ray said. “That’s not like the way they have it structured today, where they have junior world and cadet divisions. Still, I was 8-0 over in Europe. We went to these great, unique places. It was a great cultural and wrestling experience.”
Roye and Marshall went on to Arizona State University, with Roye earning All-America honors three times and Marshall once. Ray followed his big brothers to ASU, but after only a few months the homesick wrestler transferred to Nebraska, where he wrestled four years. After a slow start that saw him qualify for nationals once out of his first two years, Ray hit his stride as a junior, when he was 32-7 and ranked third nationally. But an ankle injury suffered in the Big 8 championships prevented him from competing in the NCAA tourney.
Determined “to prove to all my competitors I was just as successful as they were,” Ray said, “I came back with a strong attitude and a good regimen, and bounced back my senior year to excel.” He went 34-5 in qualifying for nationals, where he finally joined his brothers in making All-American.
After college, Roye became a world-class freestyle wrestler with the U.S. national team at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Yet he couldn’t dislodge the men ahead of him at 163 pounds, the legendary Lee Kemp and Dave Schultz. He hoped the veterans world championships would finally net him his first world title, but he couldn’t get enough time off to go compete.
This fall and winter, the Olivers have their collective eyes trained on Chris as he tries to add to his niche inthe family’s elite wrestling heritage. The Oliver he’ll most likely be compared to is his dad, who notched a name for himself in Husker wrestling lore. For his part, Ray hopes his son surpasses him.
“My picture hangs on the conference champions wall down at the Bob Devaney Sports Center,” Ray said, “and I’m pretty excited about that. Hopefully, my son will make his mark and get his picture up there, too, only on the national champions wall.”
Ray said his son is humble about his emerging place in the Oliver wrestling tradition.
“He knows the things we’ve done, and the things he’s done so far are a great achievement, but he’s learned to put it in the right perspective.” For his part, Chris has no interest in competing with his family’s legends. “I mean, I would love to be an All-American,” he said, “but as I enter into wrestling in college, my own personal set of goals are to not really worry about what my relatives did, but just try to go out there and make my own home there.” Beyond admiring their wrestling props, Chris learned from his father and uncles by going one-on-one with them on the mat to soak up some hard-earned wisdom. “It’s been really great to have a chance to pick and choose and learn from all of them,” he said, “because they know a lot.”
Ray feels Chris is well beyond where he or any of his brothers were at a comparable age. “On a scale of one to 10, we were probably a seven and he’s probably a 10. He’s got the ability to be a great one,” he said. The father said he knew Chris was gifted early because even at age four or five he showed a knack for the sport’s intricacies and its heart-of-a-warrior mentality. “I saw his learning ability as far as picking up moves and techniques and as far as being combative. He didn’t mind getting in there and just mixing things up and being physical.”
Chris first stamped himself a top prospect when, at age 6, he finished second in the Tulsa Nationals, a prestigious youth tournament that he won the next year. As he’s evolved into the consummate, dominating wrestler he is today, when he routinely breaks his opponent’s will in the first period, his passion for the sport remains strong.
“I just love the sport of wrestling and all the competition and camaraderie that comes with it,” he said. “I love going out there and having fun. It’s a really tough sport and you gotta be disciplined. You gotta work hard at it. But I think probably the main thing for me is having fun.”
Having fun. That’s what his uncle Roye also referred to ashe continues competing as a middle-aged man in the demanding sport. “It’s still fun,” Roye said.
And so the Oliver wrestling saga marches on. “Our family has paved the way for the sport of wrestling in Neraska,” said Roye, who expects great things from Chris and his younger nephews. “You ain’t heard the last of us yet.”
More Notable Wrestlers
The Olivers are among many inner city wrestling legends.There was Tech High’s Fred Brown, one of only a few four-time state champions in Nebraska prep history. South High’s Richard Brown (no relation) was a four-time Nebraska state finalist and three-time champion in the late 1950s. A promising collegiate career was cut shortwhen Richard Brown dropped out of school to start a family. He’s been active as a youth wrestling coach the past 35 years.
North High has produced several multiple champions, including Dick Davis in the ‘60s, Antoine Parker, Duaine Martin and Darrious Hill in the ‘80s, and Chauncey Parker, Willie Hill, Eric Hill and Curlee Alexander, Jr. in the ‘90s. A former Northern Iowa University All-American, Martin still competes internationally at age 36. He recently vied for a berth on the U.S. Olympic Greco Roman Wrestling team.
Creighton Prep’s Ben Perkins won three state titles and made All-America at Iowa State. Dante Lewis won a title at Omaha Benson and two at Bryan. Two-time state champs include Tech’s Joe Crawford and David Washington and Central’s Pernell Gatson. Prep’s Brauman Creighton never won a state title but won a pair of Division II national titles as a UNO Maverick.
Many of the area’s finest coaches have hailed from the inner city.
Charles Bryant was a tenacious, tough-as-nails football-wrestling standout at South High. Bryant’s life has been one long fight against exclusion. He found an unwelcome climate at NU but he persevered and helped change attitudes, earning All-Big Seven honors in the process. When denied a teaching-coaching job with the Omaha Public Schools, he made his own success in the Bluffs public school system, where he was the architect of a 1960s mat dynasty at Thomas Jefferson High School. He took satisfaction in his T.J. teams regularly thumping Metro Conference squads from OPS. He ended up with OPS, on his own terms, as an administrator and athletic director. A fine sculptor, the retired Bryant pursues his art while battling cancer.
Similarly, Don Benning has never said no to a challenge. Growing up in a white east Omaha neighborhood, he was the target of racial slurs that prompted him to fight. Proving himself almost daily with his brains and brawn, he became a top student and gridiron-mat star at North High and UNO. A bright young teaching candidate who was unable to break through the OPS color barrier, Benning was ready to leave for Chicago when he was convinced to take a graduate fellowship and assistant coaching job at UNO in the early 1960s. When asked to take over the school’s struggling wrestling program, he became the first black head coach at a mostly white university. By decade’s end, he led his team to an NAIA national title before he embarked on an OPS administrative career distinguished by his integrity.
When he began wrestling in the early ‘60s, Curlee Alexander, Sr. showed such little promise that his assignment in high school duals was to avoid getting pinned, thus saving his team points. A hard worker, Alexander got better and by his senior year at Tech he finished second at state. It was in college that he really blossomed. Competing for Don Benning at UNO, he was a four-time All-American, and as a senior he helped UNO claim the 1969 NAIA team title by winning the 115-pound championship at nationals.
Alexander then followed his mentor, Benning, to become a top educator and coach. He led his alma mater, Tech, to a state championship and added six more team titles as North High’s head coach. The retired teacher now serves as North’s associate head coach. He remains the only black head coach to guide a school to a Nebraska team state wrestling title.
And then there was Joe Edmonson. They called him Little Joe, but his presence loomed large. Confined to a wheelchair his entire adult life after a trampoline accident at age 17 that left him paralyzed from the neck down, Little Joe stood figuratively tall. Whether pitching his gruff voice to instruct or squirming in his chair to demonstrate a hold, he held the rapt attention of the many youths who came to learn life and wrestling lessons from him. They always looked up to him.
By the time he died at age 54 in 2002, Edmonson’s Exploradories wrestling club, which got its start in the laundry room at old Immanuel Hospital, had been transformed into the Edmonson Youth Outreach Center in the Fontenelle Park Pavilion. Recognized in 1991 with a Daily Point of Light award from then-President George Bush, one of many honors Joe and his work received, the YMCA-affiliated center offers children athletics, reading enrichment and computer training.
A former wrestler at Tech, where he was a city and state champion at 95 pounds, Joe used wrestling and his own perseverance to deliver a message about enduranceand achieving against all odds.
In the preface of one of his clinic brochures, he spelled out his philosophy: “Everyone, no matter who he is, has potential. While teaching the techniques of wrestling to him, we are also instilling in him the plain simple truth that he is somebody.”
Edmonson produced winners. Scores of his wrestlers earned medals in local, regional, national and international competitions. Perhaps the highlight of his coaching life came as head coach of the USA School Boys Wrestling Team that competed in Mexico City in 1978 and 1980, when he led his charges to third and first place finishes, respectively. Making this showing even more impressive was the fact his teams were community-based squads comprised solely of his own club wrestlers, who more than held their own with opponents drawn from select state and national teams. In 1983, he guided the World USA Greco School Boy Wrestling Team to the World Greco Team championship.
Dozens of state high school champions and collegiate All-Americans came out of his program, including Duane Martin and Ben Perkins. Former North head coach Curlee Alexander said Little Joe’s prodigies were “tough. Whenever I got one, I didn’t have to worry about him folding on me.”
- Burroughs of US wins wrestling gold (nbcolympics.com)