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Closing Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends

April 10, 2012 3 comments

 

Here is the closing installment from my 2004-2005 series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends.   In this and in the recently posted opening installment 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 SayersRon 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.

 

 

Don Benning

 

 

Closing Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Appreciation of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Any consideration of Omaha’s inner city athletic renaissance from the 1950s through the 1970s must address how so many accomplished sports figures, including some genuine legends, sprang from such a small place over so short a span of time and why seemingly fewer premier athletes come out of the hood today. As with African-American urban centers elsewhere, Omaha’s inner city core saw black athletes come to the fore, like other minority groups did before them, in using sports as an outlet for self-expression and as a gateway to more opportunity.

As part of an ongoing OWR series exploring Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, this installment looks at the conditions and attitudes that once gave rise to a singular culture of athletic achievement here that is less prevalent in the current feel-good, anything-goes environment of plenty and World Wide Web connectivity.

The legends and fellow ex-jocks interviewed for this series mostly agree on the reasons why smaller numbers of youths these days possess the right stuff. It’s not so much a lack of athletic ability, observers say, but a matter of fewer kids willing to pay the price in an age when sports is not the only option for advancement. The contention is that, on average, kids are neither prepared nor inclined to make the commitment and sacrifice necessary to realize, much less pursue, their athletic potential when less demanding avenues to success abound.

“Kids today are changed — their attitudes about authority and everything else,” says Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, an Omaha Tech High grad who grew up in the late’40s-early ‘50s under the stern but steady hand of coaches like his older brother, Josh. “They’re like, I’m not going to let somebody tell me what to do, where we had no problem with that in our day.”

 

Bob Gibson
Josh Gibson

 

 

 

 

Gibson says coaches like Josh, a bona fide legend on the north side, used to be viewed as an extension of the family, serving, “first of all,” as “a father figure,” or as Clarence Mercer, a top Tech swimmer, puts it, as “a big brother,” providing discipline and direction to that era’s at-risk kids, many from broken homes.

Josh Gibson, along with other strong blacks working as coaches, physical education instructors and youth recreation directors in that era, including Marty Thomas, John Butler, Alice Wilson and Bob Rose, are recalled as superb leaders and builders of young people. All had a hand in shaping Omaha’s sports legends of the hood, but perhaps none more so than Gibson, who, from the 1940s until the 1960s, coached touring baseball-basketball teams out of the North Omaha Y. “Josh was instrumental in training most of these guys. He was into children, and into developing children. He carried a lot of respect. If you cursed or if you didn’t do what he wanted you to do or you didn’t make yourself a better person, than you couldn’t play for him,” says John Nared, a late ‘50s-early ’60s Central High-NU hoops star who played under Gibson on the High Y Monarchs and High Y Travelers. “He didn’t want you running around doing what bad kids did. When you came to the YMCA, you were darn near a model child because Josh knew your mother and father and he kept his finger on the pulse. When you got in trouble at the Y, you got in trouble at home.”

Old-timers note a sea change in the way youths are handled today, especially the lack of discipline that parents and coaches seem unwilling or unable to instill in kids. “You see young girls walking around with their stuff hanging out and boys bagging it with their pants around their ankles. In our time, there were certain things you had to do and it was enforced from your family right on down,” says Milton Moore, a track man at Central in the late ‘50s.

The biggest difference between then and now, says former three-sport Tech star and longtime North Omaha Boys Club coach Lonnie McIntosh, is the disconnected, permissive way youths grow up. Where, in the past, he says, kids could count on a parent or aunt or neighbor always being home, youths today are often on their own, in a latchkey home, isolated in their own little worlds of self-indulgence.

“What’s missing is a sense of family. People living on the same street may not even know each other. Parents may not know who their kids are running with. In our day, we all knew each other. We were a family. We would walk to school together. Although we competed hard against one another, we all pulled for one another. Our parents knew where we were,” McIntosh says.

“There were no discipline problems with young people in those days,” Mercer adds somewhat apocryphally.

Former Central athlete Jim Morrison says there isn’t the cohesion of the past. “The near north side was a community then. The word community means people are of one mind and one accord and they commune together.” “There’s no such thing as a black community anymore,” adds John Nared. “The black community is spread out. Kids are everywhere. Economics plays a part in this. A lot of mothers don’t have husbands and can’t afford to buy their kids the athletic shoes to play hoops or to send their kids to basketball camps. Some of the kids are selling drugs. They don’t want a future. We wanted to make something out of our lives because we didn’t want to disappoint our parents.”

 

 

 

Omaha Technical High School
Omaha Central High School

 

 

 

 

The close communion of days gone by, says Nared, played out in many ways. Young blacks were encouraged to stay on track by an extended, informal support system operating in the hood. “The near north side was a very small community then…so small that everybody knew each other.” In what was the epitome of the it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-child concept, he says the hood was a community within a community where everybody looked out for everybody else and where, decades before the Million Man March, strong black men took a hand in steering young black males. He fondly recalls a gallery of mentors along North 24th Street.

“Oh, we had a bunch of role models. John Butler, who ran the YMCA. Josh Gibson. Bob Gibson. Bob Boozer. Curtis Evans, who ran the Tuxedo Pool Hall. Hardy “Beans” Meeks, who ran the shoe shine parlor. Mr. (Marcus “Mac”) McGee and Mr. (James) Bailey who ran the Tuxedo Barbershop. All of these guys had influence in my life. All of ‘em. And it wasn’t just about sports. It was about developing me. Mr. Meenks gave a lot of us guys jobs. In the morning, when I’d come around the corner to go to school, these gentlemen would holler out the door, ‘You better go up there and learn something today.’ or ‘When you get done with school, come see me.’

“Let me give you an example. Curtis Evans, who ran the pool hall, would tell me to come by after school. ‘So, I’d…come by, and he’d have a pair of shoes to go to the shoe shine parlor and some shirts to go to the laundry, and he’d give me two dollars. Mr. Bailey used to give me free haircuts…just to talk. ‘How ya doin’ in school? You got some money in your pocket?’ I didn’t realize what they were doing until I got older. They were keeping me out of trouble. Giving me some lunch money so I could go to school and make something of myself. It was about developing young men. They took the time.”

Beyond shopkeepers, wise counsel came from Charles Washington, a reporter-activist with a big heart, and Bobby Fromkin, a flashy lawyer with a taste for the high life. Each sports buff befriended many athletes. Washington opened his humble home, thin wallet and expansive mind to everyone from Ron Boone to Johnny Rodgers, who says he “learned a lot from him about helping the community.” In hanging with Fromkin, Rodgers says he picked-up his sense of “style” and “class.”

 

Marcus “Mac” McGee’s Tuxedo Barbershop operated in the Jewell Building on North 24th

 

 

 

Super athletes like Nared got special attention from these wise men who, following the African-American tradition of — “each one, to teach one” — recognized that if these young pups got good grades their athletic talent could take them far — maybe to college. In this way, sports held the promise of rich rewards. “The reason why most blacks in that era played sports is that in school then the counselors talked about what jobs were available for you and they were saying, ‘You’ll be a janitor,’ or something like that. There weren’t too many job opportunities for blacks. And so you started thinking about playing sports as a way to get to college and get a better job,” Nared says.

Growing up at a time when blacks were denied equal rights and afforded few chances, Bob Gibson and his crew saw athletics as a means to an end. “Oh, yeah, because otherwise you didn’t really have a lot to look forward to after you got out of school,” he says. “The only black people you knew of that went anywhere were athletes like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson or entertainers.” Bob had to look no further than his older brother, Josh, to see how doors were closed to minorities. The holder of a master’s degree in education as well as a sterling reputation as a coach, Josh could still not get on with the Omaha Public Schools as a high school teacher-coach due to prevailing hiring policies then.

“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,” says Marlin Briscoe, the Omaha South High School grad who made small college All-America at then-Omaha University and went on to be the NFL’s first black quarterback. “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.”

 

John Nared
Marlin Briscoe
Ron Boone

 

 

 

Besides, Nared, says, it wasn’t like there was much else for black youths to do. “Back when we were coming up we didn’t have computers, we didn’t have this, we didn’t have that. The only joy we could have was beating somebody’s ass in sports. One basketball would entertain 10 people. One football would entertain 22 people. It was very competitive, too. In the neighborhood, everybody had talent. We played every day, too. So, you honed in on your talents when you did it every day. That’s why we produced great athletes.”

With the advent of so many more activities and advantages, Gibson says contemporary blacks inhabit a far richer playing ground than he and his buddies ever had, leaving sports only one of many options. “In our time, if you wanted to get ahead and to get away from the ghetto or the projects, you were going to be an athlete, but I don’t know if that’s been the same since then. I think kids’ interests are other places now. There’s all kinds of other stuff to think about and there’s all kinds of other problems they have that we never had. They can do a lot of things that we couldn’t do back then or didn’t even think of doing.”

Milton Moore adds, “It used to be you couldn’t be everything you were, but you could be a baseball player or you could be a football player. Now, you can be anything you want to be. Kids have more opportunities, along with distractions.”

Ron Boone, an Omaha Tech grad who went to become the iron man of pro hoops by playing in all 1,041 games of his combined 13-year ABA-NBA career, finds irony in the fact that with the proliferation of strength training programs and basketball camps “the opportunities to become very good players are better now than they were for us back then,” yet there are fewer guys today who can “flat out play.” He says this seeming contradiction may be explained by less intense competition now than what he experienced back in the day, when everyone with an ounce of game wanted to show their stuff and use it as a steppingstone.

If not for the athletic scholarships they received, many black sports stars of the past would simply not have gone on to college because they were too poor to even try. In the case of Bob Gibson, his talent on the diamond and on the basketball court landed him at Creighton University, where Josh did his graduate work.

By the time Briscoe and company came along in the early ‘60s, they made role models of figures like Gibson and fellow Tech hoops star Bob Boozer, who parlayed their athletic talent into college educations and pro sports careers. “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. 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.”

Young athletes of the inner city still use sports as an entry to college. The talent pool may or may not be what it was in urban Omaha’s heyday but, if not, than it’s likely because many kids have more than just sports to latch onto now, not because they can’t play. At inner city schools, blacks continue to make up a disproportionately high percentage of the starters in the two major team sports — football and basketball. The one major team sport that’s seen a huge drop-off in participation by blacks is baseball, a near extinct sport in urban America the past few decades due to the high cost of equipment, the lack of playing fields and the perception of the game as a slow, uncool, old-fashioned, tradition-bound bore.

Carl Wright, a football-track athlete at Tech in the ‘50s and a veteran youth coach with the Boys Club and North High, sees good and bad in the kids he still works with today. “There’s a big change in these kids now. I’ll tell a kid, ‘Take a lap,’ and he’ll go, ‘I don’t want to take no lap,’ and he’ll go home and not look back. I’ve seen kids with talent that can never get to practice on time, so I kick them off the team and it doesn’t mean anything to them. They’ve got so much talent, but they don’t exploit it. They don’t use it, and it doesn’t seem to bother them.”

On the other hand, he says, most kids still respond to discipline when it’s applied. “I know one thing, you can tell a kid, no, and he’ll respect you. You just tell him that word, when everybody else is telling him, yes, and they get to feeling, Well, he cares about me, and they start falling into place. There’s really some good kids out there, but they just need guidance. Tough love.”

Tough love. That was the old-school way. A strict training regimen, a heavy dose of fundamentals, a my-way-or-the-highway credo and a close-knit community looking out for kids’ best interests. It worked, too. It still works today, only kids now have more than sports to use as their avenue to success.

 

 

 

 

 

Gale Sayers
 Bob Boozer
Johnny Rodgers

Opening Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends

April 10, 2012 6 comments

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.

 

 

Bob Gibson photographed by Walter Iooss/SI, ©sportsillustrated.cnn.com

 

 

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.

Bob Boozer, photo ©L.A. Times

 

 

Many were friends, schoolmates and neighbors, often living within a few doors or blocks of each other. It was an insular, intense, tight-knit athletic community that formed a year-round training camp, proving ground and mutual admiration society all rolled into one.

“In the inner city, we basically marveled at each other’s abilities. There were a lot of great ballplayers. All the inner city athletes were always playing ball, all day long and all night long,” said Boozer, the best player not in the college hoops hall of fame. “Man, that was a breeding ground. We encouraged each other and rooted for each other. Some of the older athletes worked with young guys like me and showed us different techniques. It was all about making us better ballplayers.”

NFL legend Gale Sayers said, “No doubt about it, we fed off one another. We saw other people doing well and we wanted to do just as well.”

The older legends inspired legends-to-be like Briscoe.

“We’d hear great stories about these guys and their athletic abilities and as young players we wanted to step up to that level,” he said “They were older and successful, and as little kids we looked up to those guys and wanted to emulate them and be a part of the tradition and the reputation that goes with it.”

The impact of the older athletes on the youngsters was considerable.

“When Boozer went to Kansas State and Gibson to Creighton, that next generation – my generation – started thinking, ‘If I can get good enough, I can get a scholarship to college so I can take care of my mom‚’” Briscoe said. “That’s the way all of us thought, and it just so happened some of us had the ability to go to the next level.”

Marlin Briscoe

 

 

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.”

Johnny Rodgers

 

 

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.

Others agreed.

“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.”

Gale Sayers

 

 

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

 

 

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.

 

 

Marion Hudson

 

 

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

March 27, 2012 23 comments

When I wrote this piece several years ago the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame was a concept, not a reality, but I am happy to report that much of its vision has been realized.  The men behind the hall, Ernie Britt and Robert Faulkner, know better than most that the state has produced and been a proving ground for an impressive gallery of accomplished black athletes for the better part of a century but that little formal recognition existed commemorating their accomplishments.  Britt and Faulkner thought the time long overdue to organize a hall that gives these high achievers a permanent place of honor, particularly when many African-American youths today do not know about these greats and could draw inspiration from them.  The founders also wanted to make the hall a vehicle for honoring top black prep athletes of today and for showcasing their talents.  The hall’s early inductees include figures whose names are familiar to anyone, anywhere with more than a passing knowledge of sports history: Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers.  They are all Omaha natives.  But the hall is open to any black athlete, male or female, who made their mark in Nebraska, even if they just went to school here or played professionally here.  Thus, this expanded pool of honorees encompasses figures like Bob Brown, Paul Silas, Charlie Green, Nate Archibald, Mike Rozier, Will Shields, and Tommy Frazier. There have been several induction classes by now and I must admit that each year there’s someone I didn’t know about before or had forgotten about, and that’s why the organization and its recogniton is so important – it educates the public about individuals deserving our attention. Britt and Faulkner, by the way, are inducted members of the hall themselves: the former as an athlete and the latter as a coach.

Ernie Britt
Robert Faulkner

 

Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Robert Faulkner feels it’s a shameful thing African American visitors to Omaha, much less area residents, can barely point to a single venue where local black achievements hold a place of honor. As the native Omahan is quick to note, the black community here can claim many accomplished individuals as its own. These figures encompass the breadth of human endeavor. But perhaps none are more impressive than the athletic greats who excelled in and out of Omaha’s inner city.

“What do you have for some of the greatest athletes that have ever walked the playing fields or the courts? Where can you see them up on a pedestal? There is nothing,” Faulkner said. “You’re talking about some of the greatest athletes in the world right from here,” said his lifelong friend Ernie Britt III, who rattled off the names Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlon Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers and Ahman Green as a sampling of Omaha’s black athletic progeny.

The distinguished list grows larger when you include area coaches (Don Benning at UNO) and talents who came to coach (Willis Reed at Creighton) or compete (Mike Rozier at Nebraska, Nate Archibald with the Kansas City/Omaha Kings, etc.).

All of this is why Faulkner and Britt recently formed the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (NBSHF). The grassroots non-profit is a hall of fame in name only thus far, but that doesn’t stop these former athletes from sharing their vision for the real thing — a brick-and-mortar hall where folks can learn a history otherwise absent.

“It’s about remembering and promoting legacy and culture,” Faulkner said. “Our kids need to realize there are people they can look up to. There are people we looked up to. And these heroes…can live on. In our community pur kids don’t have those kinds of heroes because they’re never promoted anymore. They’re forgotten about. None of their exploits outside athletics is publicized. If they didn’t reach the highest levels in sport, then even their athletic exploits fade.”

He and Britt maintain there’s a serious disconnect between today’s black youths and the local athletic legends that could serve as role models. They sense even young athletes don’t know the greats who preceded them.

“Right now you walk into any school or onto any playground and go up to the finest athlete and throw out those names to him or her, and they don’t know what you’re talking about,” Faulkner said. “They don’t know who Bob Boozer is, and that’s the best basketball player ever from here. An all-state and all-American, an Olympic gold medalist, a first-round draft choice, an NBA champion.” They don’t even know who Johnny Rodgers is, and he’s a Heisman Trophy winner.

“They don’t know because there’s no center or vehicle or forum where kids can be exposed to this history. That’s what we don’t have and trying to develop the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame is one of the things we need to do so our kids can see the legacy of people who did all these things.”

Faulkner, an Omaha Public Schools specialist, said his 35-year career as an educator/coach of high risk youth has taught him “our kids right now need people they can look up to. We have to really show them there is something to work for and to word toward and to work beyond. So exposing them to things our people have achieved is something our culture needs. You’re supposed to know heritage, you’re supposed to know legacy, you’re supposed to have heroes. You’re supposed to honor the people who paved the way in order to keep your culture going.”

Aside from heroes they might be introduced to, he said visitors to a hall might well see a family member, friend or old schoolmate, coach or teacher feted there. Other than small displays at the Durham Western Heritage Museum and at the now closed Great Plains Black History Museum, he said, “there hasn’t been anything in terms of trying to get that exposure out there.” The Durham’s in the midst of a permanent gallery reorganization that is to include an Omaha Sports Hall of Fame.

Strapped for resources, the NBSHF’s still more concept than reality. During its first public event, a metro all-star high school basketball game at North High on June 10, Congressman and former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne spoke at halftime and four area students received athlete of the year awards. Proceeds went to a fund the group hopes to tap for the hall’s future home.

“Getting a building is very, very important because if you don’t have a place of enshrinement you don’t have a hall of fame,” Faulkner said. “So we need a place to enshrine names” and display plaques and memorabilia. Until a permanent site is secured, he and Britt say the North Omaha Boys & Girls Club has agreed to provide temporary space. No date’s set for when the hall’s first displays will go up there.

The two men are future hall enshrinees themselves. As head football, basketball and track coach at Dominican, later, Father Flanagan High Schools, Faulkner consistently produced winning teams. Britt was an all-state football and basketball player and a gold medalist sprinter at Omaha Tech High.

Once a home for the hall’s found, Faulkner wants to honor men/women who’ve succeeded in and out of athletics, people like Boozer, Rodgers, Mike Green, Dick Davis, Larry Station, Paul Bryant, Maurtice Ivy. “I think it would be very good for the entire Omaha community to see these fantastic success stories,” he said. Realizing this “will be an uphill battle, he concedes, “but the fact is we’re going to keep trying because we know it’s important.” “We’re going to make it,” Britt said.

The pair plan to produce a booklet that lets potential donors see the vision for the hall on paper. A website is also planned. New fundraisers are in the works. Tax deductible gifts or memorabilia donations can be made by phone 250-0383 or by mail to Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame, P.O. Box 19417, Omaha, Neb., 68119.

UPDATE: The hall does indeed have a website now.  Check it out at www.nbshof.com.  The organization still lacks a permanent brick-and-mortar home, though it does have a dedicated space displayin inductees’ plaques at the North Omaha Boys & Girls Club.

After a Steep Decline, the Wesley House Rises Under Paul Bryant to Become a Youth Academy of Excellence in the Inner City

August 27, 2011 5 comments

The headline attached to this story is misleading, not because it’s untrue, but because it’s outdated. The headline reflected the facts when I wrote the story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) a few years ago, but since then Paul Bryant has left the Wesley House and the organization itself has disbanded. Indeed, there’s a story on this blog entitled “An Omaha Legacy Ends” and filed under the Paul Bryant and Wesley House categories that details the Wesley House’s closing after 139 years of service. Before that closure, Bryant led a revival of a once proud community center that had lost its way and its lustre. Bryant frequented the Wesley House as a youth, when it was a community force, but by the time he found success in the corporate world it had fallen on hard times. As this profile explains bryant left a corporate career to lead the nonprofit and to reinvent it as a youth academy of excellence. You will read about some of the great things he did there in a short time and about some of the dreams he had in store for down the line. In the end, the resources couldn’t match the vision. Paul is doing very much the same work he began at the Wesley House, only now through his own Leadership Institute for Urban Education. Paul is the author of the book, The Purpose Driven Leader.

NOTE: This blog also contains a story entitled “Artist Therman Statom Works with Children…” that profiles how the noted glass artist worked with youths from the Wesley House.

 

 

Paul Bryant

 

 

After a Steep Decline, the Wesley House Rises Under Paul Bryant to Become a Youth Academy of Excellence in the Inner City 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Founded as the Omaha City Mission by the Christian Workers Association in 1872, the United Methodist Community Centers-Wesley House is the oldest social service agency in Nebraska. Traditionally focused on the underprivileged, the agency’s adapted over the years to target different groups, trends and needs among the poor. The Wesley House itself has seen hard times, but nothing like the financial quagmire that closed its doors the end of 2004 and start of 2005.

Since executive director Paul Bryant took over in May of 2005– leaving behind a career in banking — the agency’s gained a new lease on life as the Wesley House Leadership Academy of Academic and Artistic Excellence. While trying to get its house in order, it’s embarked on year two of a program to nurture high achievement among inner city children through tutoring, academic and life skills training and enrichment activities. Students are taught everything from small business and stock market concepts to good manners. Kids greet visitors with a firm handshake, direct eye contact and the words “Welcome to the Wesley House.”

The ACADEMIC Summer Academy targets boys ages 7 to 12. An after school program works with boys and girls, ages 7 to 12, over the school year.

In the spare conference room where he teaches a Business in the Boardroom class to 3rd and 4th graders, Bryant fits the exec profile with his crisp attire, tall frame and on-point demeanor. The fact he sounds like a banker, a brother and a preacher bodes well for building the broad-based support the organization needs.

In the Wesley House’s brick and glass building at 2001 North 35th Street the hope stirred by the new program is expressed in the eager faces, urgent voices and insistent raised hands of children vying for coveted blue blazers. Both a prize and a symbol, the jackets are reserved for students who demonstrate a grasp of business principles usually taught in high school or college.

Bryant puts the boys, many from single-parent homes, through their paces. Most are too small to rest their elbows on the table. “What’s the calculation for a balance sheet?” In unison, they answer, “Assets minus liabilities equals net worth.” “What about an income statement?” “Revenues minus expenses equals net income.” “When an asset loses value, what’s that called?” “Depreciation.” “What is it when it gains value?” “Appreciation.”

What may seem too dry or advanced is fun. “It’s structured, it’s cerebral, and they like it. They’re not bouncing off the walls,” he said. “This is a ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you,’ ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, sir’ environment. There’s no sagging here. You’ve got to pull your pants up. There’s no cursing, no fighting. You can lose your privileges. That’s just the way it is, and we’re not apologetic about it.”

Holding kids to a higher plain is what it’s all about. Bryant feels so strongly about it that his son Paul (P.J.) attends the academy/after school.

“We’re changing lives,” he said. “I truly believe that. There’s a lot of programs that teach our kids how to score baskets and touchdowns and everything else, but we’re teaching them how to think and how to operate in the real world.”

A lifetime Omahan and a member of the storied Bryant-Fisher family that owns a long history of community service here, Bryant volunteered summers in an after school program operated by Wesley, located near where he grew up. He knew first-hand the positive activities offered there. When he heard about its problems, he felt “an obligation” to help rescue what’s been a community anchor.

 

 

 

 

“I said, ‘Not the Wesley House. Not another minority-managed organization going down the tubes on hard times. The Wesley House can’t go down’”

He applied for the job and soon left corporate America to head the troubled non-profit. “I was a leader looking for an organization and this is an organization that’s in dire need of some leadership,” he said. “My challenge is to bring this organization to its rightful place of prominence in this community.”

Eyebrows arched and tongues wagged when he left a Wells Fargo VP post to start from scratch with a tarnished agency whose vital signs read critical. He’s fine going from a sure thing to a long shot — and taking a pay cut — as long as kids succeed.

“My happiness really is not associated with money. Wealth isn’t the end all. It’s what you do. I’ve had dinner with President Clinton, I’ve had lunch with Colin Powell. I’ve had cocktails with Henry Kissinger. I’ve taken a seven-day cruise with Oprah Winfrey. I’ve been in Evander Holyfield’s house. My biggest client was Isaiah Thomas. I got no better feeling being in any of those circumstances than I do being with these kids here. When I see them get it. When I see them desire those blazers…I mean, they want ‘em. They want ‘em bad.”

Bryant, who holds master’s degrees in urban studies and urban education, is not an academic per se, but he professes to know what ails the community he calls home.

“I’m from this community. I’m a Bryant-Fisher. I don’t need to do scientific research to know what goes on. I see a culture floundering to find relevance in society post-Martin Luther King, Jr. How to fit into a society that really hasn’t found the value in who you are, and still be true to and proud of who you are.

“Somehow, we’ve got to a point in the inner city where black people think being smart is white behavior, and we’ve got to change that. This is a community that’s not identified by its talent. Ask anybody. Close your eyes and picture a junior high school African-American male. The mental picture you have isn’t going to be of a magna cum laude. But there is no correlation between intellect and income at birth. It’s a matter of what kids are exposed to. We’ve got to start identifying the success stories — the kids who like to read and write and learn science.”

 

 

 

 

He said the Gallup Organization surveyed the boys in last year’s academy and found some “have higher expectations than their parents. We want to raise standards, and we work with parents to do that.” He said post-testing revealed an increase in kids’ self-esteem. Anecdotally, the students seem to be doing better in school.

“What we want to do is expose inner city kids to cerebral activities and create an environment where it’s cool to be smart,” he said. “Our motto is, ‘Smart People Win.’ If you come here and pick up a book, nobody’s going to call you egghead and push you around and take your lunch money. If you want to write, we encourage you. We want the smart kids to know they’re not islands. We tell them, ‘If you stay in school and get good grades, you’re going to be at the top of your class and get a scholarship to college. And if you keep getting good grades, you’re going to get a good job. If you keep your nose to the grindstone, it’s really going to pay off.’”

Attitudes outside the inner city can get in the way, too, he said. “When I shared with a foundation president that I want these kids to aspire to Ivy-league schools, she told me, ‘Well, wouldn’t Metro (Metropolitan Community College) be more realistic?’” He knew he’d lost her, but he told her anyway that “kids at this age haven’t lost the game — they have the potential to succeed” anywhere.

His message has reached others. At a March 9 press conference he trotted out reps from many partnering organizations. Tutors from UNO, Creighton University, Metro and the Civil Air Patrol aid students with homework and “augment the educational process” with special training in math, reading, the arts, science, technology, etc. Kids display their handiwork in fairs and exhibits. They learn about different careers from professionals they meet on field trips or at Wesley. They track/trade stocks. Their summer garden project is also a small business venture.

A partnership with Mutual of Omaha has created the Technology Project, a pilot program to help bridge the digital divide. Mutual is to donate 60 computers annually to the Wesley House for use by kids in an on-site computer lab now under development and for ACADEMIC Summer Academy students to use at home.

If he can secure funding, Bryant envisions “keeping these kids together for 10 years. At that point, they’re going to be a group of smart young men that understand public and private sector finance and economics. They can truly help make north Omaha a vital part of the city’s growth and development, where we’re no longer the weakest link.” He has plans for early childhood and teen programs.

Opening an academy in an area associated with remedial and recreation programs is a bold move for an agency that appeared on its way out.

Before its recent change of course, Wesley House was providing services to youth in the state juvenile justice system. When juvenile justice staff expressed concerns over Wesley’s program outcomes and reporting methods, referrals made to the agency dropped. Soon, United Way raised its own questions about “the effectiveness” of Welsey programs and services. By 2003, all UW money was pulled. Wesley shifted to serving youth and families in the foster care system, but couldn’t bring in enough clients. With the loss of officials’ trust and of any steady revenue stream, Wesley exhausted $500,000 in reserves on operating expenses, saw its executive director resign and eventually let go all staff and shut down all programs.

 

 

 

 

Board chairman Dan Johnston confirmed closing the venerable institution was an option, but a decision was made “to give it one more good shot.”

By then, Wesley was decades removed from its days as a model community revitalization engine in the 1960s-early ‘70s War on Poverty. It was the agency’s shining hour. Money poured in and national recognition followed an array of initiatives to empower blacks. Then-executive director Rodney Wead led efforts that spawned a black owned radio station (KOWH), community bank (Community Bank of Nebraska), credit union (Franklin Federal Community Credit Union), minority scholarship program and an ethnic culture center. Later, north side redevelopment organizations led by Michael Maroney (New Community Development Corporation) and Alvin Goodwin (Omaha Economic Development Corporation) sprung up there.

Long before, the organization reached out to help youth, women and families living on the edge. One of 105 UMCC missions/institutions in the U.S., the agency began as a mission serving newly arrived immigrants then settling the Nebraska territory, one of many such shelters that grew out of the Progressive Area’s settlement house movement. Charged by a social reform agenda, these centers provided the types of programs and services then not being offered by government.

As the times dictated, the agency shifted its response. The early 20th century migration of rural families into the city, along with the growing Native American underclass and homeless population, became a prime focus. After years operating downtown, the local UMCC mission relocated to its present site in 1958, just a few blocks from Franklin Elementary School, and with the move made serving the area’s poor black residents a top priority. The neighborhood reflects north Omaha’s dual identity. While many low income families are stuck in a cycle of poverty and the area is run down by distressed houses and vacant lots, pockets of pricey new housing (Miami Heights) and resurgent business/service centers (the revitalized Lake Street corridor from 24th to 30th Streets) can be found.

Although Wesley receives some United Methodist church support, it’s long depended on most of its funding from the United Way and other public/private sources, leaving it vulnerable to the vicissitudes of donors.

Only 12 months into Bryant’s reign the center is still reeling from the aftermath of the United Way pull out. That severing meant the loss of not only hard-to-replace monies — some $300,000 worth annually — but the even more valuable endorsement that comes with UW support. Aware of how much stature Wesley lost in the eyes of the establishment, Bryant, a paradox of by-the-numbers-cruncher, deeply spiritual Christian and community-minded legacy-keeper, approaches his task to reinvent and redeem the agency as nothing less than a calling from above. To justify leaving behind a six-figure income with Wells Fargo (previous to that he was at Gallup and First National Bank), he’s put aside cold hard calculations and proceeded on faith.

“I am operating on faith every step of the way. My moves have not been thought out, studied and projected. When I accepted this job I didn’t have any staff. We had no revenues and a $40,000 debt I’d just found out about. I took a leap of faith. Quite frankly, I don’t have five-year projections. Right now, it’s a matter of survival for this organization. But, hey, I’m on a mission and I’m not too proud to beg,”

Bryant also felt it was time to give back. “I was at a point in my life when I was really looking for significance, and I felt this is what I’m supposed to do.” The agency’s bleak prospects gave him pause, but not enough to deter him. “I just felt pricked in my heart. Something’s got to be done, I thought.”

In short order, he introduced his new vision and set about restoring the agency’s good name. He promised to retire its $40,000 debt in a Biblically-inspired 40 days. He wiped out the deficit in 36 days. But getting there was never a sure thing.

“I can’t tell you how nervous I was. It wasn’t like I had some trump card up my sleeve. The fact is I didn’t have some big corporation in my hip pocket. I stepped out on faith and it happened. Just like this new direction we’re going. The largest contribution was $5,000. There was only one of those. There were several $1,000 donations. The rest was a whole lot of $500, $100, $25, $10 and $5 checks.”

The margin for error is still slim given the $20,000 in monthly operating expenses. “When I came, we had two weeks before our doors could be shut. Now, we’ve probably got a two-month cushion. We are not where we need to be but things are looking much better then they were this time last year,” he said. Another concern is the small number of children being served. Sixteen boys graduated last summer’s academy. Enrollment begins next week for this summer’s academy. A Summer Fun Club currently has 24 kids signed up. About 48 kids attended this past school year’s after school program. It’s not all about numbers, but as numbers go, monies flow. That’s why Bryant, who emphasizes recruitment is largely by word-of-mouth, hopes to see a spike in enrollees.

To bolster the financial footing, ensure continued operations and endow future growth, he hopes grant applications made to foundations and corporations pay off. Getting back in the UWs good graces is another goal. He’s also organized benefit events involving Omaha native and pro football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers and his wife Ardie, who are making Wesley House their official Omaha charitable cause. On April 28, a DVD big screen projection of the original 1971 made-for-television movie Brian’s Song was screened at Omaha Central High School’s auditorium. Bryant said the event raised about $2,000, enough for the agency to pay off a line of credit.

 

 

 

Gale Sayers

 

 

 

On June 19, the Gale Sayers Wesley House Classic is set for the Players Club at Deer Creek. Entries for the golf tournament sold out a month in advance. Among the celebrities expected to hit the links are National Baseball Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, Cornhusker quarterback legend Jerry Tagge, the NFL’s first black quarterback in Marlin Briscoe, former NBA All-Star Bob Boozer and Creighton University head basketball coach Dana Altman. Tee-off is at 10 a.m.

Bryant knows public events like this can only do so much. Bottom line, he and the Wesley House must prove the agency is back to stay and demonstrate they’ve found a sustainable niche that others buy into. One indication he is there to say, is the new house he and wife Robin are building in the nearby Miami Heights development.

“It’s about longevity. There’s a lot of people who’ve heard about the bad recent history and they want to see if this is a flash in the pan. Will it still be here? Will I still be here? I can’t see going anywhere. I want to be part of the solution. I want to be a bridge-builder.” To bridge the achievement gap. The desired end result is summed up in the academy creed the kids recite from memory. It ends with, “Through self-discipline we will grow into adults of honor and integrity. Our legacy will be a source of pride to our families and communities.”

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

August 15, 2010 1 comment

East quarterback Terrelle Pryor of Jeannette, ...

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Whether you’re visiting this blog for the first time or you’re returning for a repeat visit, then you should know that among the vast array of articles featured on this site is a series I penned for The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 20045-2005 that explored Omaha’s Black Sports Legends.  We called the 13-part, 45,000 word series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. The following story is one installment from that series.  It features a pair of brothers, Gale Sayers and Roger Sayers, whose athletic brilliance made each of them famous in their own right, although the fame of Gale far outstripped that of Roger. Gale, of course, became a big-time football star at Kansas before achieving superstardom with the NFL‘s Chicago Bears. An unlikely set of circumstances saw his playing career end prematurely yet make him an even larger-than-life figure.  A made-for-TV movie titled Brian’s Song (since remade) that detailed his friendship with cancer stricken teammate Brian Piccolo, cemented his immortal status, as did being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame at age 29. Roger’s feats in both football and track were impressive but little seen owing to the fact he competed for a small college (the then-University of Omaha) and never made it to the NFL or Olympics, where many thought he would have excelled, the one knock against him being his diminutive size.

The Sayers brothers are among a distinguished gallery of black sports legends that have come out of Omaha. Others include Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, and Johnny Rodgers. You will find all their stories on this site, along with the stories of other athletic greats whose names may not be familiar to you, but whose accomplishments speak for themselves.

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

This is the story of two athletically-gifted brothers named Sayers. The younger of the pair, Gale, became a sports figure for the ages with his zig-zagging runs to daylight on a football field. His name is synonymous with the Chicago Bears. His oft-played highlight-reel runs through enemy lines form the picture of quicksilver grace. His well-documented friendship with the late Brian Piccolo endear him to new generations of fans.

The elder brother, Roger, forged a distinguished athletic career of his own, one of blazing speed on cinder and grass, but one overshadowed by Gale’s success.

From their early impoverished youth on Omaha’s near north side in the 1950s the Brothers Sayers dominated whatever field of athletic competition they entered, shining most brightly on the track and gridiron. As teammates they ran wild for Roberts Dairy’s midget football squad and anchored Central High School’s powerful football-track teams. Back then, Roger, the oldest by a year, led the way and Gale followed. For a long time, little separated the pair, as the brothers took turns grabbing headlines. Each was small and could run like the wind, just like their ex-track man father. But, make no mistake about it, Roger was always the fastest.

Each played halfback, sharing time in the same Central backfield one season. Heading into Gale’s sophomore year nature took over and gave Gale an edge Roger could never match, as the younger brother grew a few inches and packed-on 50 pounds of muscle. He kept growing, too. Soon, Gale was a strapping 6’0, 200-pound prototype halfback with major-college-material written all over him. Roger remained a diminutive 5’9, 150-pound speedster whose own once hotly sought-after status dimmed when, bowing to his parents’ wishes, he skipped his senior year of football rather than risk injury. Ironically, he tore a tendon running track the next spring. His major college prospects gone, he settled for then Omaha University.

Roger went on to a storied career at UNO, where he developed into one of America’s top sprinters and one of the school’s all-time football greats. He won the 100-meters at the 1964 Drake Relays. He captured both the 100-yard and 100-meter dashes at the 1963 Texas Relays. He took the 100 and 200 at the 1963 national NAIA meet. He ran well against Polish and Soviet national teams in AAU meets. The Olympic hopeful even beat the legendary American sprinter Bob Hayes in a race, but it was Hayes, known as “The Human Bullet,” who ended up with Olympic and NFL glory, not Sayers.

As an undersized but explosive cog in UNO’s full backfield, Sayers, dubbed “The Rocket,” averaged nearly eight yards per carry and 19 yards per reception over his four-year career. But it was as a return specialist he really stood out. Using his straight-away burst, he took back to the house three punts and five kickoffs for touchdowns. He holds several school records, including highest rushing average for a season (10.2) and career (7.8) and highest punt return average for a season (29.5) and career (20.6). His 99-yard TD catch in a 1963 game versus Drake is the longest scoring play from scrimmage in UNO history.

 

 

Roger Sayers

Roger Sayers running track for then-Omaha University

 

 

In football, size matters. For most of his playing career, however, Roger said his acute lack of size “never was a factor. I didn’t pay much attention to it. I didn’t lack any confidence when I got on the field. I always thought I could do well.”

Even with his impressive track credentials, Sayers, coming off an injury, was unable to find a sponsor for a 1964 Olympic bid. Even though his small stature never held him back in high school or college, it posed a huge obstacle in pro football, which after graduation he did not pursue right away because the studious and ambitious Sayers already had opportunities lined-up outside athletics. Still, in 1966, he gave the NFL a try when, after prodding from “the guys” at the Spencer Street Barbershop and a little help from Gale, he signed a free agent contract with his brother’s team, the Chicago Bears. Roger lasted the entire training camp and exhibition season with the club before bowing to reality and taking an office job.

“That’s when I realized I was too small,” Roger said of his NFL try.

Gale, the family superstar, is inducted in the college and pro football Halls of Fame but his glory came outside Nebraska, where he felt unappreciated. Racism likely prevented him being named Nebraska High School Athlete of the Year after a senior year of jaw-dropping performances. In leading Central to a share of the state football title, he set the Class A single season scoring record and made prep All-American. In pacing Central to the track and field title, he won three gold medals at the state meet, shattering the Nebraska long jump record with a leap of 24 feet, 10 inches, a mark that still stands today. He got revenge in the annual Shrine all-star game, scoring four touchdowns en route to being named outstanding player.

Recruited by Nebraska, then coached by Bill Jennings, Sayers considered the Huskers but felt uncomfortable at the school, which had ridiculously few black students then — in or out of athletics. Spurning the then-moribound NU football program for the University of Kansas, he heard people say he’d never be able to cut it in school. Sayers admits academics were not his strong suit in high school, not for lack of intelligence, but for lack of applying himself.

It took his father, a-$55-a-week car polisher, who’d walked away from his own chance at college, to set him straight. “People said I would fail. They called me dumb. But my dad said to me one time, ‘Gale, you are good enough,’ and just those words gave me the incentive that somebody believed in me. That’s all I needed. And I proved that I could do it.”

Sayers was also motivated by his brother, Roger, the bookish one who preceded him to college. Each went on to get two degrees at their respective schools.

On the field, Gale showed the Huskers what they missed by earning All-Big 8 and All-America honors as a Jayhawk and, in a 1963 game at Memorial Stadium the “Kansas Comet” lived up to his nickname by breaking-off a 99 yard TD run that still stands as the longest scoring play by an NU opponent. He was also a hurdler and long-jumper for the elite KU track program.

Upon entering the NFL with the Bears in 1965, Sayers made the most dramatic debut in league history, setting season records for total offense, 2,272, and touchdowns, 22, and a single game scoring record with 6 TDs. Named Rookie of the Year and All-Pro, he continued his brilliant play the next four seasons before the second of two serious knee injuries cut short his career in 1970. A mark of the impact he made is that despite playing only five full seasons, he’s routinely listed among the best running backs to ever play in the NFL.

 

 

Gale Sayers with the Bears

 

 

His immortality was ensured by two things: in 1970, the story of his friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo, who died tragically of cancer, was dramatically told in a TV movie-of-the-week, Brian’s Song, (recently remade); and, in 1977, he was inducted into the pro football Hall of Fame at age 29, making him the youngest enshrine of that elite fraternity.

A quadruple threat as a rusher, receiver out of the backfield, kickoff return man and punt returner, Sayers’ unprecedented cuts saw him change directions — with the high-striding, gliding moves of a hurdler — in the blink of an eye while somehow retaining full-speed. In a blurring instant, he’d be in mid-air as he head-faked one way and swiveled his hips the other way before landing again to pivot his feet to race off against the grain. In the introduction to Gale’s autobiography, I Am Third, comic Bill Cosby may have come closest to describing the effect one of Sayers’ dramatic cuts left on him while observing from the sidelines and on the hapless defenders trying to corral him.

“I was standing there and Gale was coming around this left end. And there are about five or six defensive men ready, waiting for him…And I saw Gale Sayers split. I mean, like a paramecium. He just split in two. He threw the right side of his body on one side and the left side of his body kept going down the left side. And the defensive men didn’t know who to catch.”

The way Gale tells it, his talent for cutting resulted from his “peripheral vision,” a gift he had from the get-go. “When I was running I could see the whole field. I knew how fast the other person was running and the angle he was taking, and I knew all I had to do was make a certain move and I’m past him. I knew it — I didn’t have to think about it. I could see where people were and that gave me the ability to make up my mind what I would do before I got to a person,” he said. He reacted, on the fly, in tenths or hundreds of a second, to what he saw. “

All the so-called great moves in football are instinct,” he said. “It’s not planned. I don’t go down the football field saying, ‘Oh, this fella’s to my right, I better cut left,’ or whatever. You don’t plan it. You’re running with the football and you just do what comes natural…There were so many times in high school, college and pro ball when I was going around left end or right end and there was nothing there, and then I went the other way. You can’t teach that. That’s instinctive.”

He said his greatest asset was not speed, but quickness — combined with that innate ability to improvise on the run. “Every running back has speed, but a lot of running backs don’t have the quickness to hit a hole or to change directions, and I always could do that. A lot of times a hole is clogged and then you’ve got to do something else — either change directions or hit another hole or bounce it to the outside and go someplace else.”

Lightning fast moves may have sprung from an unlikely source — flag football, something Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers also credits with helping develop his dipsy-doodle elusiveness.

“The flags were pretty easy to grab and pull out,” Sayers said, “and so, yes, you had to develop some moves to keep people away from the flags.” The Sayers boys got their first exposure to organized competition playing in the Howard Kennedy Grade School flag football program coached by Bob Rose. An old-school disciplinarian who mentored many of north Omaha’s greatest athletes when they were youths, Rose embodied respect.

“He was a tough coach. I think he had a little attitude that said, in being black, you’ve got to be twice as good, and I think he tried to instill that in us at an early age. He’d say things like, ‘You have to be faster, you have to be tougher, you’ve got to hit harder.’ We all developed that attitude that, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do better because we’re black.’ And I think that stuck with me,” Gale said.

According to Roger, coaches like Rose and the late Josh Gibson (Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s oldest brother), whom the brothers came in contact with playing summer softball, “made it possible for people to succeed. They were good coaches because they taught you the fundamentals, they taught you to be respectful of people and they taught you the ethics of the game. These were folks that…made sure you played in an organized, structured event, so you could get the most out of it. They also had an uncanny ability to identify athletes and to motivate athletes to want to play and to achieve. They were part of an environment we had growing up where we had strong support systems around us.”

From the mid-1950s through the late 1960s Omaha’s inner city produced a remarkable group of athletes who achieved greatness in a variety of sports. Many observers have speculated on the whys and hows of that phenomenal run of athletic brilliance. The consensus seems to be that athletes from the past didn’t have to contend with a lot of the pressures and distractions kids face today, thus allowing a greater concentration on and passion for sports.

“Growing up, we didn’t have access to cars or play stations or arcade games,” Roger said. “We didn’t have to deal with the intense peer pressure kids are influenced by today. Because we didn’t have these things, we were able to focus in on our sports.”

For black youths like the Sayers and their buddies, options were even more confining in the ‘50s, when racial minorities were denied access to recreational venues such as the Peony Park pool and were discouraged from so-called country-club activities such as golf, which left more time and energy to devote to traditional inner city sports. “

 

 

 

 

Every day after school we were in Kountze park or some place playing a sport — football, basketball, baseball, whatever it may be. There wasn’t a whole lot else we could do,” Gale said. “So, we were in the park playing sports. Our mamas and daddies had to call us to come eat dinner because we were out there playing.”

Gale said that as youths he and his friends had such a hunger for football that after completing flag football practice, they would then go to the park to knock heads “with the big kids” from local high schools in pick-up games. “It’s a wonder no one ever got seriously injured because we had no pads, no nothing, and we played tackle. It really made us tougher.”

Dennis Fountain, a friend and fellow athlete from The Hood, said the Sayers would often compete for opposing sides in those informal games. “You wouldn’t think those two guys were brothers,” he said. “They would mix it up good.”

Speaking of tough, the brothers tussled in a pair of now mythic neighborhood football games held around the holidays. There was the Turkey Bowl played on Thanksgiving and the Cold Bowl played on Christmas. “We had some knock-down, drag-out athletic contests out there,” said Gale, referring to the annual games that drew athletes of all ages from Omaha’s north and south inner city projects. “We were a little young, but the fellas’ saw the talent we had and let us play.”

Then, there was the rich proving ground he and Roger found themselves competing in — playing with or against such fine athletes as the Nared brothers (Rich and John), Vernon Breakfield, Charlie Gunn, Bruce Hunter, Ron Boone. “No doubt about it, we fed off one another. We saw other people doing well and we wanted to do just as well,” Gale said. As the Sayers began asserting themselves, they pushed each other to excel.

“When he achieved something, I wanted to achieve something, and vice versa,” Roger said. “I mean, you never wanted to be upstaged or outdone, but by the same token we were always proud and overjoyed by each other’s success. We were as competitive as brothers are.”

Roger and Gale had so much ability that the exploits of their baby brother, Ron, are obscured despite the fact he, too, possessed talent, enough in fact for the UNO grad to be a number two draft pick by the San Diego Chargers in 1968.

Each also knew his limitations in comparison with the other. Roger played some mean halfback himself, but he knew on a football field he was only a shadow of Gale, whom nature blessed with size, speed, vision and instinct. Where Gale was a fine hurdler, relay man and long-jumper, he knew he could not beat Roger in a sprint. “I wasn’t going to get into the 100 or 220-yard dash and run against him because he was much, much faster than I was,” Gale said. “He was great in track.”

As much as he downplays his own track ability, Gale held his own in one of the strongest collegiate track programs at Kansas. It was under KU track and field coach Bill Easton he discovered a work ethic and a mantra that have guided his life ever since.

“I thought I worked hard getting ready for football,” he said, “but when I joined his track team I couldn’t believe the amount of work he put me through and I couldn’t believe I could do it. But within months I could do everything he asked me to, and I was in excellent shape. He told me, ‘Gale, you cannot work hard enough in any sport, especially in track.’ The things I did for him on the track team carried on through my pro career in football.

“Every training camp I came in shape, and I mean I came in shape. I was ready to play and put the pads on the first day of camp, where many guys would go to camp to get in shape.”

On the eve of his pro career, Sayers was entertaining some doubts about how he would do when Easton reminded him what made him special. “You go for broke every time you go.” Sayers said it’s a lesson he’s always tried to follow.

 

 

 

 

A saying printed on a card atop the desk in Easton’s office intrigued Sayers. The enigmatic words said, I Am Third. When he asked his coach their meaning, he was told they came from a kind of proverb that goes, The Lord is First, My Friends are Second, I Am Third. The athlete was so taken with its meaning he went out and had it inscribed on a medallion he wore for years afterwards. His wife Linda now has it.

The saying became the title of his 1970 autobiography. The philosophy bound up in it helped him cope with the abrupt end of his playing days. “All the talent I had, the Lord gave me. And it was the Lord that decided to take it away from me,” Gale said. “That probably helped me accept the fact that, hey, I couldn’t do it anymore. I had a very short career, but a very good career. I was satisfied with that.”

Life after athletic competition has been relatively smooth for Gale and his brother. Roger embarked on a long executive corporate career, interrupted only by a stint as the City of Omaha’s Human Relations Director under Mayor Gene Leahy. He retired from Union Pacific a few years ago. Today, he’s a trustee with Salem Baptist Church. Gale served as athletic director at Southern Illinois University before starting his own sports marketing and public relations firm, Sayers and Sayers Enterprises. Next, he launched Sayers Computer Source, a provider of computer products and technology solutions to commercial customers. Today, SCS has brnaches nationwide and revenues in excess of $150 million. Besides running his companies, Sayers is in high demand as a motivational speaker.

Both men have tried distancing themselves from being defined by their athletic prowess alone.

“I want people to view me as an individual that brings something to the table other than the fact I could run track and play football. That stuff is behind me. There are other things I can do,” said Roger. For Gale, it was a matter of being ready to move on. “I’ve always said, As you prepare to play, you must prepare to quit, and I prepared to quit. I didn’t have to look back and say, What am I going to do now? I did other things.”

Getting on with their lives has been a constant with the brothers since growing up with feuding, alcoholic parents, sparse belongings and little money in “The Toe,” as Gale said residents referred to the north Omaha ghetto. His family moved to Omaha from bigoted small towns in Kansas, where the Sayers lived until Gale was 8, but instead of the fat times they envisioned here they only found despair.

Finding a way out of that cycle became an overriding goal for Gale and his brothers.

“Yes, we had tough times, but everybody in the black neighborhood had a tough time. Our dad always said, ‘Gale, Roger, Ronnie…sorry it didn’t work out for your mother and I, but you need to get your education and make something better for yourselves.’” The fact he and Roger went on to great heights taught Gale that “if you want to make it bad enough, no matter how bad it is, you can make it.”

A Woman Under the Influence

July 5, 2010 1 comment

Leontyne Price, American opera singer

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Vivacious Robinlyn Sayers seemingly came out of nowhere to mesmerize Omaha theatergoers with her captivating portray of Hattie McDaniel in a one-woman show at the Blue Barn Theatre.  The niece of football legend Gale Sayers and the daughter of the less well known but equally gifted Roger Sayers, Robinlyn was in the process of trying to reinvent herself when I met her.  She was already a distinguished medical professional but she also possessed serious chops as a singer and actress and was intrigued with the idea of doing something professionally with those skills, too, perhaps even transforming herself into a full-time performer.  The show at the Blue Barn was her Omaha stage debut and after its success she moved to Texas for another medical position.  I lost contact with her along the way and now I see she’s working as the chief financial officer for Family Service Center of Galveston County.  I trust she still performs now and then, because she’s been blessed with a great gift and it was her desire to heal people not just through health and medical services but through song and theater.  My story about her originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly.

A Woman Under the Influence

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published by the Omaha City Weekly

After a diverse medical career that ranged from molecular research to community health, Omahan Robinlyn Sayers, M.D., now applies a form of healing arts, with a capital A, in service of the theater, where she’s found a home for her many dreams and talents. Fresh off a one-woman tour de force portraying the late Academy Award-winning actress Hattie McDaniel in the Blue Barn Theater production of Larry Parr‘s Hi Hat Hattie, for which her singing and acting drew raves, Sayers sees a parallel between what she did in medicine and what she does in drama. That congruence is like the kinship she feels with McDaniel, a kind of alter ego for her.

“I feel like I’m still healing on the stage,” said Sayers, a living-out-loud figure whose juke joint voice drips with honey, gin, sex and smoke and whose round, expressive eyes fill easily with tears. “I always wanted to cure. I never wanted to be somebody to just push a thermometer or check a yeast infection. I never wanted to be that simplistic. Now, it’s so gratifying to go up there for two hours on the stage and make people cry or smile or forget what happened at home. I just want to make people feel inspired, motivated, hopeful. Afterwards, they come to you and they’re so fulfilled. Like this is the best thing in their life. It’s like I’m their wonder drug.”

Sayers herself finds acting such an elixir that she’s put her work in medicine on hiatus to forge a new life in the theater, an arena she plans using to reach people. “I’m going to be very selective in the types of pieces I become involved in,” she said. “I really want to only be involved in things that are both educational and entertaining. They need to have some element of truth to them. They need to convey some sort of a message or theme or issue or be somewhat political.”

That she made her Omaha dramatic debut as Hattie McDaniel, a woman whose story intersects with her own, makes it all seem fated. “It was just God for me to be able to do this show,” Sayers said. “My goodness…there’s so many things that are similar in our lives.” Both are the youngest of Midwest families. Each dreamed of going on stage from an early age. Each married more than once without bearing a child. Like Hattie, Sayers possesses what Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, who directed her in the play, called “a zest for life and a passion for the work. She’s so intelligent and she has such a desire to tell the story.”

Like Hattie, she’s soldiered on. “I like the struggles and challenges of life,” said Sayers, whose Birth of the Blues rendition is a soul-stirring summation of the black experience. And, like high-living Hattie, she said, “I give the best parties in town.”

Throwing herself into the demanding one-woman show that encompasses 80 pages of dialog and song, Sayers did extensive research on McDaniel and the Jazz Era and spent extra hours working with Toberer on character nuances. “I had to be so focused for that show,” Sayers said. “I had to isolate everybody from my life. I put in six hours a day with Susan (Toberer), not to mention what I did at home. I put a lot into it.” During the February 6 through 29 run Sayers also cultivated some rituals to help her get in character and commune with Hattie’s spirit. For example, before the curtain went up she got in the habit of quickly running through the show backstage and she enlisted the crew, including Toberer and the play’s musical director, Keith Hart, who also played the mute pianist on stage, to pray with her.

“It was all about ushering in Hattie,” Sayers explained. “There were times when we had ushered in so many feelings, it would be scary. I wouldn’t even feel like me. I mean, there were times I felt like I was Hattie McDaniel. There was one night, and it was the last night, when I really, truly felt it. She’d won her Oscar 65 years ago that same day (as brassy Mammy in Gone with the Wind).”

“Even now,” months removed from the show, “I’m not quite separated from her,” said Sayers, adding the experience of getting so close to a figure she admires “was magical for me.” The connection she feels is so acute, she said she likes to think that “if Hattie could have chosen someone to do this role — someone with balls enough to really get her record straight for the fabulous actress and entertainer she was — that I would be the one to do it.”

She’s likely to get a chance at playing Hattie again if the Blue Barn can secure the rights to the show for an as yet undetermined revival that may go on tour.

Performing has been a dream of Sayers, a native of north Omaha’s Florence area, forever. But until a couple years ago, she’d done little to heed her hunger aside from playing the lead in two Little Theater dramas at Tuskegee University, where she earned a biology degree. Despite scoring successes on stage in college, her drama aspirations were deferred in favor of her burgeoning genetic research career.

She first made a splash in academia when her research won her awards and opportunities to present papers at national conferences. Then, using her bravura persona to get noticed, she landed a job, at age 24, with the National Cancer Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. Her NIH stint found her working in the lab of Robert Gallo, the renowned medical scientist who first isolated the AIDS virus. It was the late 1980s, a momentous period in the scientific-medical community’s investigation of AIDS and a heady time for Sayers.

“I was able to get into it (AIDS research) when it was just blowing up,” she said. “All the talents I have and all the things I learned over the years — to be able to isolate and sequence and clone — I got from working with the AIDS virus. I was blessed to be right there when they were just starting to do some really fundamental things in molecular biology. It just opened up a whole bunch of other things for me.”

Sayers has been something of a curiosity in the various labs she’s worked in over the years because she’s an M.D. without a Ph.D. “My expertise as a molecular biologist is just from OST — On the Job Training,” she said, adding there’s a weird gulf between holders of the alphabet soup titles, so much so that Ph.Ds responded to her with incredulity. “They were like, ‘Who do you think you are? We’ve gone to graduate school and defended our dissertations. Why didn’t you go to graduate school?’ And I’d tell ‘em, ‘Because I have a million other things I want to do.’ And I didn’t ever want to be just clinical. Never did.”

 

 

Hattie McDaniel

 

Doing cutting edge research appealed to Sayers’ sense of discovery, but since she didn’t want always to be confined to a lab, she went after and got her M.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Any acting thoughts were put on hold during medical school, especially when she got married. The marriage didn’t last.

After college, she worked with Boys Town National Research Hospital’s renowned Dominic Cosgrove in exploring Alports Syndrome, an inherited kidney disease that can result in deafness. Then, she and her second husband moved to Texas, where she was a microbiology and immunology research associate at the Baylor College of Medicine. Her days revolved around research, leaving little time for anything else.

“It’s a very consuming life. You’re talking 80 hours a week, seven days a week,” she said. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure I had to put on my technicians and on myself to pay very close attention to details. In science, you can’t have flaws. Your data has to be statistically significant and reproducible. You spend many hours not sleeping because you’re worried whether your incubation period is going to work out and if the temperature is going to be all right.”

Deferring one dream to pursue another has been the pattern of her life. Acting just had to wait until her passion for research ran its course. “I’m a dreamer. And the thing with me is…I have all these dreams and I know it’s just a matter of time before I knock them all out. I just go for one, and go for the other, and go for the other…and just live.” For a long time, she kept her performing ambition to herself. “A lot of times I’m afraid to share my dreams because people, you know, poison them and get you distracted and make you doubt yourself,” she said.

The youngest child of straight-laced parents, Roger Sayers and Madeline Adams Sayers, she never acted before college, but instead threw herself into her passion for animals — she was forever bringing home stray dogs — and science — she and her brother dissected salamanders and frogs. She worked for local veterinarian Bill Lofton. Her love for animals was so great, she began her Tuskegee studies in animal science, but she changed her mind after a mentor convinced her that as a bright, bold African-American female she could go far in human medicine.

As a kid, she did sing briefly with the Salem Baptist Church youth choir. Otherwise, the Northwest High grad strutted her stuff in cheerleading, gymnastics, swimming and track activities. The fact she found an outlet for self-expression in sports is no accident, as she hails from one of Nebraska’s most prominent athletic families. Her father Roger was a top American sprinter and NAIA football player at then-Omaha University in the early 1960s. Her legendary uncle, Gale, is a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame following All-America and All-Pro careers with Kansas University and the Chicago Bears, respectively.

All her other performing was done privately, before friends and family, or secretly, as when she learned all the lines of a play her siblings appeared in at north Omaha’s old Afro-Academy. She was, she said, “a closet performer.” As she got older, she rarely performed publicly. There were the two plays she starred in in college. Then, while an NU Medical School student, she let her hair down singing a cover of Roberta Flack’s The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face at an on-campus multicultural affairs concert. When an unexpectedly large crowd showed up, she got stage fright. As if the packed house wasn’t bad enough, she was unfamiliar with the lyrics. Then, the canned music went out mid-song, forcing her to finish acapella.

“I went all the way back in the closet,” she said of that performance nightmare.

 

 


Robinlyn Sayers

 

 

It wasn’t until moving to Texas she ventured on stage again when, at the prodding of her second husband, who “loved to hear me sing,” she sang at a string of honky tonk karaoke bars. With a penchant for singing country music and overturning people’s stereotypes, she’d go into a black bar and defiantly belt out a Shania Twain hit. “When the twang would start up,” she said, “people would be like,’Wrong song, wrong song,’ and by the end they would be like, ‘Yee-haw.’ We’d have ‘em going, and it’d be so great that I’d think, Hey, I might be kinda good.”

Still, she didn’t try out for her first play in Omaha for two years after moving back here in 2001. Her second marriage had ended. She wasn’t ready. “I was down that I couldn’t stick it out like other women and stay married,” she said. As usual, she immersed herself in work, this time at the Charles Drew Health Center, advocating  for the homeless and running the center’s chronic disease management program.

Finally, in 2003, she reached a now-or-never point in her drama dreams. “I was like, ‘I have left both of my husbands. I have no children. I’m about to turn 39, so go for it, girl, go for it.'” Without telling a soul, she auditioned for a staging of the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the John Beasley Theater and won a part. Theater founder and guru, John Beasley, the film and TV actor, took her under his wing, telling her, “You∂ve got it” — meaning the acting gift. “She’s definitely got it,” he said. “She has the talent, the presence and the personality.”

She followed up Ain’t Misbehavin with a part in Little Shop of Horrors at the Millenium. It was there she met Keith Hart, who told her she’d be perfect for Hi Hat Hattie, a production of which he’d worked in in Kansas City. He sold the Blue Barn on the play and about “how completely” Sayers “threw herself into a character and a song” and how “tough and gutsy” she was. “I knew Hattie needed to be kind of a tough broad,” Hart said. One thing led to another and the Blue Barn added the play to its season and Sayers won the part in an open audition.

As much as her talent impressed Toberer and Hart, her work ethic may have won them over even more. For the audition and rehearsal process, Sayers steeped herself in all things Hattie. Untrained as an actress, she gave herself over to Toberer’s direction, learning to “link” and “pull” emotions from her own life to serve her character; for certain scenes, she drew on troubled relationsips and disturbing memories of racism. “There was unlimited discovery for me,” she said.

Among the discoveries was a tolerance for things not going according to plan, something “the control freak” struggled with in the tyranny of the lab. “It’s made me, at 39, give myself a break in life,” she said. “The last week of the show, I felt like I was running track again. When you start rockin’ and you own the show, you feel like you’re in the starting blocks again. It’s fun…crazy…exciting. I love it.”

She hopes to “ride” the momentum from Hi Hat as long as it lasts. On John Beasley’s advice, she’s taken the plunge and is seeking regional theater and film gigs in larger markets, the very path he took in launching his career. Now residing in Galveston, Texas, she recently turned heads at a Houston audition where 25 theater directors saw her. “I’m auditioning like crazy. I get great comments every time. I have been using a monologue from Hi Hat Hattie. So Hattie is still helping me.” She’s intent on going after any role that interests her and on avoiding being typecast.  If acting doesn’t work out, well, she’s already been back to school preparing for a health administration career and is in the running for a research associate spot. Either way, she said, “This is what I’m supposed to do…inspire people to dream.”

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