Doug McDermott’s Magic Carpet Ride to College Basketball Immortality: The Stuff of Legends and Legacies
NOTE: Now that Doug McDermott’s NBA life has offcially begun as the 11th round pick of the Denver Nuggets, who immediately dealt him to the player’s first choice, the Chicago Bulls, I thought it made sense to repost this feature article I wrote about the CU hoops legend.
As a longtine Creighton basketball fan part of me delighted in the magical season that Doug McDermott and his teammates enjoyed this past season but another part of me despaired because I had no outlet to write about what was happening, at least not for pay. Then, a couple weeks after the season concluded I was presented the opportunity to write about McDermott and the incredible ride that was his senior season and the singular legacy he established over his four-year career as a Bluejay playing for his father. The publishers of Hail Varsity magazine, which nornally covers Husker sports, arranged with CU officials to create a commemortative yearbook on the special 2013-2014 season and I was offered the assignment of writing the 120-page book’s profile of McDermott. I jumped at the chance and that story follows below. Read much more about McDermott and his teammates in the “Leaving a Legacy” yearbook featuring exhaustive story and photo coverage of this once in a generation player and this historic season to remember. Order yours today at http://creighton.myshopify.com. Also available at all Omaha area Barnes & Noble locations.
Doug McDermott’s Magic Carpet Ride to College Basketball Immortality: The Stuff of Legends and Legacies
©By Leo Adam Biga
Read much more about McDermott and his teammates in the Creighton Men’s Basketball Commemorative Yearbook, “Leaving a Legacy,” from the publishers of Hail Varsity magazine. Order yours today at http://creighton.myshopify.com. Also available at all Omaha area Barnes & Noble locations.
Reigning consensus national player of the year Doug McDermott wears his living legend status comfortably. That’s a good thing, too, as his iconic status in college hoops history will likely only grow from here.
Playing for Creighton’s mid-major program in the Missouri Valley Conference kept him off the national radar his first three years, though insiders knew he was special. With CU’s move to the Big East in 2013-2014, where the Bluejays exceeded expectations and McDermott’s dominant play made headlines, he became a marquee name. With all of college basketball’s eyes trained on him, his monster senior year and steady climb up the NCAA’s career statistical charts was documented across every media platform. Virtually every week he passed a legend on the all-time scoring list. His 26.7 scoring average led the nation. He led CU to a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance and Top 25 ranking. Interview, autograph and picture requests flooded him at home and on the road. In Omaha he was the headliner for the greatest show in town that set attendance records.
Showing a grace and poise beyond his 22 years, he took it all in stride and became a Golden Boy symbol for the best in student-athletes.
“The most impressive thing is how he’s handled everything,” says Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen. “He’s been humble, he’s been very mature, he’s been enthusiastic. He didn’t expect to be treated any differently than any of the non-scholarship players.”
Despite attaining the kind of stardom reserved for only a select few of the game’s greats, Rasmussen says “it didn’t change” McDermott. “It never affected him. You never had to worry about how he represented himself, this program, the university, the community. He would be the poster child for any university, not just any athletics department but any university for how you want your students represented. He’s the winner of the national Senior Class Award, which doesn’t just look at your athletic accomplishments but your community service and academics.”
Teammate Grant Gibbs says, “He’s a throwback in many aspects – in his game, in his personality, being a four-year player, committing to a program, seeing through the goals he set out to accomplish when he got here. That’s a great model for college basketball. It’s refreshing.”
McDermott shrugs if off, saying he’s simply tried to do the right thing. It hasn’t always been easy.
“I’ve just tried to embrace every single moment. I’ve tried not to let it get to me but I’ve had some bad days where I didn’t want to sign autographs or take pictures. But at the same time I remembered being that kid who went up to certain guys for signatures and pictures and if they weren’t cool about it it stuck with me. You get frustrated with the attention, especially if you take a loss. There’s been times when I’ve had to take a step back and calm down and realize how special this really is and this is why I came back – for stuff like this.”
Rasmussen says McDermott will be remembered as much for his high character as for his high scoring numbers.
Greg McDermott, who coached his son all four years at CU, agrees, saying, “I’m far more proud of how he handled his success off the floor than of the success he’s had on the floor because those characteristics of understanding how to treat people and the need to be humble and to credit those around you for your success are traits that will take him a long ways in life. Doug’s blessed with the ability to do that and he’s done it with a smile on his face. He understands this university and community has given a lot to him. A lot of people have done many things so he could have this opportunity and I think he recognizes the need to give back to that and I’m very proud of the way he’s done that.
“I will use him as an example for the rest of my coaching career on how to handle success.”
Once “discovered” last season. the press found McDermott a bright antidote to the one-and-done trend prevalent today. He’s the rare star player who put off the NBA to complete college, a decision that proved fortuitous the way his storybook final campaign unfolded.
After the 2012-2013 season he says he was 75 percent certain he’d declare for the NBA until a talk with former Jays great Kyle Korver, changed his mind. “He said you can’t put a price tag on that senior year. That stuck with me and from there on I felt it was best to come back. I’m so glad I did because this last year was probably the best this city has ever seen Creighton basketball. The fans had a chance to be part of something really special. We’ve got the new logo, the new brand. I feel like so many more people know about us now. The Big East definitely helped.”
He’s satisfied, too, he struck a blow for players finishing college.
‘Obviously some of these kids are good enough to leave after one year or two years. Maybe they need it financially. But I just feel it’s really good for college basketball to see a good player for four years. It really doesn’t get much better than that. I feel like that’s when college basketball has been at its best.”
In his case, staying meant intersecting with basketball history. The attention that came his way dwarfed anything in the annals of CU athletics and achieved the Gold Standard when Sports Illustrated put him on the cover of its March 12 issue in a homage to the classic 1977 cover featuring McDermott’s boyhood idol Larry Bird.
Calling McDermott “college basketball’s best kept secret”, SI laid out how no one, not even his dad, expected him to be an elite college player, much less the most decorated in recent memory. As one of only a handful of three-time consensus 1st Team All Americans he put up numbers few have ever posted. His 3,150 career points are the fifth-most in NCAA history. Over four years he averaged 21.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, making just under 46 percent of his 3-point tries and 83 percent of his free throws.
Being a multiple All-American may not happen again with so many top players leaving college early for the pros. He may be the last four-year college great. What most resonated with him about coming back was having one more go-round with his buddies, the guys who set the table for him, especially his fellow seniors, and with his father.
“Relationships are everything, especially on this team,” Doug says. “We all get along so well. Grant Gibbs I’ve known since I was a kid. He was an iowa guy two years older than me. I always looked up to him. I thought he was the coolest thing ever.”
Gibbs’ unexpected return for a medical hardship 6th year saw McDermott give up his scholarship for his teamate.
Another teammate, Jahenns Manigat, hailed from north of the border.
“I remember on signing day talking on the phone with Jahenns, a Canadian kid no one had ever heard of, and him saying, ‘I look forward to winning multiple championships with you.'”
The pair roomed together on campus for three years.
McDermott’s other senior running mate, Ethan Wragge was already at CU when Doug got there. The two competed for the same spot.
“He obviously didn’t want to see a coach’s kid come in at the same position but he never showed one ounce of frustration because of that. He’s probably the best teammate I’ve ever had.”
Wragge recalls the first time the two matched up.
“I’m a year older and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to let this little freshman score on me,’ and he starts throwing up this stuff and he hits the rim, hits the rim and the ball keeps going in. ‘Maybe he’s just getting lucky,’ I thought.’ But he kept doing it and doing it until it didn’t seem like luck.”
Manigat marvels how four distinct paths crossed to make their magical run possible.
“Four years ago this group wasn’t necessarily meant to be together. All the stars kind of aligned for us to go on this incredible journey. I was committed to another school before de-committing and coming here. Doug was supposed to go to Northern Iowa, Grant was still at Gonzaga and Ethan was a freshman here under Coach (Dana) Altman. Coach Altman leaves – domino effect. Just to see how it all came together and how one little thing could have destroyed this entire journey we’ve been on is special and something I’ll remember fondly for sure.”
McDermott enjoyed the journey so much he wanted to extend it and do it in the big-time glare of the Big East
“I wanted to do it all for Creighton. I think a goal of any player and coach is to want to make the place better than when we first got there and I think that’s what we did.”
No one saw it coming. In 2010 all the meta analysis missed on McDermott. At Ames (iowa) High School he played in the long shadow of top recruit Harrison Barnes, who went on to play two years at North Carolina before heading to the NBA. Those Ames teams won back-to-back state titles with McDermott as the 6th man his junior season and as the high scoring sidekick his senior season.
“Having very little expectations, I didn’t see this coming,” McDermott says. “I didn’t come into college with a lot of hype or expectations. I just kind of came in with a chip on my shoulder. No one really knew who I was and just assumed I was on the team because I was the coach’s kid. I used that as motivation to get better”
It wasn’t as if no one recognized he had talent. He possessed good range on his jumper, an uncanny craftiness around the basket and a motor that kept him in constant motion But a rail thin frame, a lack of athleticism and the absence of any intermediate game did not project into being a major conference prospect. No one could have guessed he’d be a lock for future enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame or a likely NBA lottery pick.
Grant Gibbs recalls McDermott not making much of an impression.
“Doug and I played together at a showcase event. I was a junior, he was a freshman. He was just a quiet kid, really skinny, had some skill but probably wasn’t even projected as a D-I player at that point. When I was at Gonzaga he came to our prospects camp. We spent a weekend and he had gotten a lot better. He still wasn’t at the point where Gonzaga or anybody like that was going to offer him a scholarship.”
McDermott’s emergence as a legit D-! player and then some is all tied to his development, which everyone credits to a fierce work ethic. Gibbs witnessed it but didn’t fully appreciate it in the moment.
“When you’re engulfed in it and you’re a part of it every day you take for granted everything he was able to accomplish. Day in and day out he came with that workmanship mentality and all those days added up and that’s how people become great at wherever they do.”
Greg McDermott says of his son. “He’s invested a lot in this game and the results speak for themselves.”
“It’s so satisfying,” says Doug. “I remember all those long walks from my dorm to the gym. If I couldn’t sleep I’d throw on my backpack and walk to the gym at 11 or 12. It was always a pain in the butt to get in and find balls to shoot with and having the lights shut off on you. It just puts it all in perspective – all those moments of going through the grind. I wish I could go back right now because I didn’t realize how cool it was trying to get better every single night.”
His work ethic first kicked into high gear when he played with Harrison Barnes, whom he describes as “the best worker I’ve ever been around,” adding, “Ever since playing with him it was so easy to go to the gym and get better because I saw how much it was paying off for him, so I really followed his lead once I got to Creighton.”
Rasmussen says McDermott’s a model for doing what it takes.
“There’s been a lot written about what he’s accomplished. I don’t know if there’s been enough written about why Doug has accomplished things virtually no college basketball player has. Doug was always willing to do what others were unwilling to do and he did it with enthusiasm. He’s a great example for all of us. Doug approached practice every day not with the attitude, I’ll get through practice, but I’ll use practice to find out what I need to work on to improve and then go on my own and work on it. Practice was a minimum job description.
“It wasn’t just he gave a great effort the day before big games or gave a great effort every day, he gave a great effort every drill and he was locked in and focused to get better where he was weak. You would think in athletics you would see more of that and the reality is Doug is unique in his accomplishments because he’s unique in his approach.”
Doug says, “I knew I had the drive, I really did. I’m always trying to work on my all-around game but each summer I definitely added something new I wasn’t able to do the year before. It took about a whole summer to perfect those, to have the coaches feel comfortable with me doing that stuff. A lot of credit goes to our coaching staff because they worked with me so hard every day.”
He’s perhaps fondest of his “Dirk Fadeaway,” a step back jumper, ala Dirk Nowitzki’s, refined over time.
“That’s become a pretty much signature move of mine. I did it a little bit my sophomore and junior years but this year it was almost one of my go-tos. Some of these Big East guys were a little bigger so you couldn’t really body ‘em down in the post. I had to find other ways to get my shot off against them.”
His progress grew as his confidence grew.
“I realized how good a scorer I could become on the Bahamas trip we took as a team before my sophomore year. Gregory (former CU post Echenique) wasn’t with us, he was playing with his Venezuelan team, and I scored 25 a game. That’s when I started to realize I could do this with this team. That they might need me to be a little more aggressive. And that sophomore year I averaged 22 (up from 15 as a frosh) and from there I averaged about 23 and this year 26.
His experiences with Team USA over two summers also helped him polish skills and build confidence. Last summer in Vegas he was among a select group of college kids invited to play with NBAers.
“It helped my confidence out like none other just because I played against some of the best players in the world. It felt right. I wasn’t trying to do too much or too little, I was just playing my game and I happened to fit in a lot more than I thought I would. I think I kind of turned some eyes there. That was huge coming into my senior year.”
“I just think that took him to a whole other level,” says his dad. “I think in the back of his mind he always wondered, How well will I stack up when I actually play against NBA players.”
Those opportunities also exposed Doug to more great coaching. “Being around those great minds really helps you going forward,” says McDermott, who acknowledges he draws insights from many sources.
Doug’s not one to define is legacy, so let Rasmussen articulate it.
“It’s his passion for what he does, There are people who are stronger, who are bigger, who jump higher, who run faster, but his intelligence in the game and his basketball instincts are off the charts. His skill level is very good and that isn’t something that comes naturally, that comes from repetition.”
As Doug prepares for the next chapter of his life, his father’s sure his son will once again do what he must in order to succeed.
“I think there will be a process with Doug in the NBA game of where do I fit and what do I have to add to my game so I can maximize this opportunity. Is it being better around the rim? Is it my in-between game? Do I need to become an even better 3-point shooter? He’ll figure that out early in his career and build upon what he already has.”
Doug has no doubt he’ll adapt as necessary.
“I’ve added something new to my game every year. I think it’s time to add something new again. Defensively I can maybe be a little more aggressive. I don’t have to worry about getting fouls because at Creighton I had to be on the floor as much as possible for my team. My ball-handling could use some work. A lot of it will be just fitting into a different role.”
Whatever happens with him in the NBA, his deep affection for Creighton will remain.
“Deep down I never want to leave this place. I’ve developed so much love for this place.”
But move on he must, so sit back and watch the legend grow.
UNO resident folk hero Dana Elsasser’s softball run coming to an end: Hard-throwing pitcher to leave legacy of overcoming obstacles
No sooner did my profile of University of Nebraska at Omaha softball ace Dana Elsasser get posted and published than she went out and threw three straight shutouts, including a no-hitter, and she’ll go for a fourth in her final home appearance on Wednesday, April 30. Her great run as a collegiate pitcher is fast coming to an end and one has to wonder what might have been if UNO has remained Division II instead of transitioning to Division I during her career. To what heights might she had lead the Mavericks? The transition cost her and her teammates any chance to play in the postseason. The move also made it difficult for UNO to schedule a full slate of regular season games. All of that meant she made many fewer appearances than she would have otherwise. On top of that, upon entering the program she largely had to sit her freshman year behind two returning All-America pitchers. That cost her even more chances. If she’d had those added opportunities her career stats, which are outstanding as is, would be even more impressive. But that’s all beside the point because what makes her folk hero in my mind is how she seemingly came out of nowhere to become the face of a storied program and how she made herself into a great player despire all kinds of challenges that’s she never looked at as obstacles.
UNO resident folk hero Dana Elsasser’s softball run coming to an end
Hard-throwing pitcher to leave legacy of overcoming obstacles
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The University of Nebraska at Omaha has a veritable folk-hero in its midst in hard-throwing senior softball ace Dana Elsasser, who’s overcame serious challenges to become a pitching phenom. With her near legendary career fast nearing its end, fans have only a few chances left to catch her in action.
In her No. 1 pitcher role she’ill get the ball at least twice in this weekend’s (April 25-26) three-game home series against Summit League foe IUPUI. She enters the circle for the final time at home versus Drake on April 30. UNO, with an RPI in the 60s, concludes its season May 2-3 at Western Illinois. The team’s guaranteed to finish with a winning record and Elsasser should climb UNO’s career pitching charts.
Entering Tuesday’s doubleheader versus North Dakota she was 21-7 on the year and 65-24 in her career with a lifetime ERA of 1.44.
Though soon exhausting her eligibility, her legend’s sure to grow as a foundational figure in UNO’s transition from Division II to D-I.
Her departure’s coming too soon for head coach Jeanne Scarpello. She’s been enamored with Elsasser’s ability and character since first laying eyes on her in 2010.
“From day one you could tell she’s a different kid – just the drive and what she wanted to do and what she wanted to be. She’s never going to back down from a challenge. She gives 100 percent and expects the rest of us to do the same. She pushes us to be better.”
Scarpello’s admiration only grew upon learning the obstacles Elsasser faced en route to becoming a winner.
“She does have quite a story,” the coach says.
Born “a premie” in San Antonio, Texas to a teenage mother, Dana started life in foster care. After raising kids of their own Rick and Barb Elsasser of Hershey, Neb. were looking to adopt and the white couple got matched with Dana, an African-American, when she was a week old. She became the only black resident of Hershey until the Elsassers adopted more children of color.
Dana was an athletic prodigy, proving a natural at seemingly whatever she tried, including softball, basketball, volleyball and track.
“Dana’s balance, hand-eye coordination and kinesthetic sense have always been exceptional,” says her father, a principal and coach who worked with her on her fundamentals. especially her pitching mechanics. “Every time she was shown a new skill she would master it quickly. She has always hated to lose but she used to become discouraged easily when her team was behind and that affected her play. Experience in athletics has given her the tenacity to fight through disappointment. Her UNO coaches deserve a great deal of credit for instilling a fierce competitive spirit.”
Just as she was turning heads athletically as a teen she developed scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine. She underwent fusion surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Pieces of her hip bone were fused to her spine with “rods, nuts and bolts to keep everything intact,” Dana says.
“The scoliosis thing was scary. Dana faced it all with great courage and determination,” Rick says.
Once cleared to resume athletics she and her dad left the hospital and drove around until they found a ball diamond and began playing catch.
“I was a little scared I wouldn’t be able to pitch again but I recovered relatively quickly from the back thing and it just gave me fuel to get stronger because I had to work two times as hard to get where other people were. I just did as much as I could. I ran a lot, I did sprints. I was in the weight room. I got really strong. I think strengthening my body is what helped me be prepared for college,” says Dana, who’s known to workout on game days and on off days following games.
“I feel I need to do to get in the mood of It’s go time. Otherwise, I feel tired and sluggish and just not ready to go.”
After opting to specialize in softball her pitching took off under her dad’s tutelage. Her high school didn’t field a team, She made a name for herself out west playing summers with the North Platte Sensations.
Typical of the upbeat Elsasser, she takes in stride everything that’s been put in front of her.
“Honestly, when I was growing up I really didn’t see much of the adversity I overcame as a disadvantage. I haven’t thought of it as things that set me back. When I tell people my story they’re like, ‘Wasn’t it weird being the only black person in town?’ I never thought of it like that. My parents did a really good job of just making things normal for me.”
Rick Elsasser says Dana has an innate sbility to adapt and persevere.
“Dana has always had tremendous resolve. I remember when she was about 5 or 6 years old, I spent about 15 minutes showing her how to shoot a basketball and then left her to practice. I went back outside about two hours later and found her still shooting. I had to make her stop and eat.”
Scarpello long ago gave up trying to get Elsasser to ease off. The coach still smiles at nearly missing on this model student-athlete who outworks everyone. After all, Dana was a-best-kept secret in the sticks, where her exploits four-hours away fell on deaf ears here.
Scarpello first heard of her via a letter Dana wrote her while a senior in high school. Dana mentioned she was (then) 5-foot-4 and threw 65. Scarpello didn’t buy it. She’d never heard of someone so short throwing so hard. It took corroboration from two coaches before she decided to see this little dynamo for herself.
Scarpello and pitching coach Cory Petermann drove to Hastings expecting to see Elsasser pitch in a game only to have it forfeited when the opposing club didn’t show. The coaches had Dana warm up with her father for a private audition. Rick had caught his daughter countless times in the yard of their home sitting on a bucket as she threw from a make-do mound. This was different. The stakes were higher, though that didn’t register with Dana until reminded of it.
“I was really nervous but actually I don’t think I even realized how important it was when they were watching me – that if I do good I’m going to have college paid for,” Dana says. “When I started out I wasn’t throwing my hardest. My dad told me, ‘Get it together, this is your time right here to do it.” Then I knew it was a big deal.'”
With a radar gun trained on her she consistently clocked 65 and Scarpello had seen enough to be convinced.
Rising to the occasion is something Scarpello and Co. have come to rely on from Elsasser, who acknowledges she thrives in such situations.
“I like it when I’m in pressure spots and everyone is looking to me. I just like how my team puts their trust in me and it just motivates me to do better. I like being in charge in that moment.”
Five years since discovering her, Elsasser will leave UNO as one of the storied program’s best pitchers. She’s proven herself against elite competition despite being lightly recruited and not looking the part of a mound master with her lithe frame and diminutive stature. Her long limbs, strong core and compact delivery allow her to average 68 miles an hour on her “go-to” pitch, the drop-ball. She’s hit 70. Her effortless appearing motion, honed over thousands of hours, makes it appear she’s not throwing as hard as she is.
Armed with her heater, a change-up and a rise-ball, plus pin-point control, she has enough stuff to hold her own with the best.
“She is a go-right-at-you kind of kid. She’s not a strikeout pitcher, though she’s getting a lot more strike outs this year, but she really just lets batters put the ball in play and lets the defense work behind her,” Scarpello says. “And she’s a great defender as a pitcher.”
Last year Elsasser one-hit perennial Big 12 power Oklahoma State iand three weeks ago she beat Big 10 heavyweight and in-state rival Nebraska 3-2 in Lincoln. She calls the victory over NU “the greatest moment I’ve ever had.” The win followed UNO coming up short against the Huskers several times and redeemed a 10-0 drubbing at their hands earlier this year that Elsasser blamed on herself.
“I means everything to me. I got that win for my dad. That was our goal when I made my commitment to UNO – beat the Huskers. I told myself I’m not going to let them make a fool of me on the mound again.”
Per usual, her folks were there to cheer her on and as always she heard her dad’s voice above everyone else.
“I could him during that game yelling at me from the stands. I looked up there and I saw him jumping around. It was really emotional.”
Scarpello says Elsasser has shown she “can play with the big dogs,” adding, “She could be playing at any of those programs.”
Elsasser says she and her teammates are often underestimated and use their underdog status as fuel to prove they belong.
“We always hear, ‘Who’s this Omaha team that keeps winning? Who are these people?’ But we know we’re capable of getting it done.”
Overturning doubters seems hard-wired in Elsasser.
She would have been UNO’s ace as a true freshman if not for two returning All-America pitchers. She made the most of her limited opportunities, going 10-1. Her pitching mates got most of the starts based on experience, not talent. She also struggled with illegal pitches due to a habit of lifting her foot off the mound during her delivery. She corrected the problem over the summer and prior to the following season Scarpello handed her “the torch to carry the program.” Elsasser ran with it to become “our identity” but she first had to make a tough decision. UNO went D-I, initiating a transition period that made it ineligible for the postseason. Scarpello gave her players permission to transfer and she feared Elsasser might move on.
“She knew she would not to get to play for championships and that’s what she came here to do,” Scarpello says, “and I knew that bothered her because she wanted to make a mark. We’ve tried in various ways to give her some great opportunities, to challenge her, so she could make her mark and have no regrets she stayed here. Those games against top teams have become a measuring stick for her and for us.”
Elsasser’s sure of her legacy as a program builder but she can’t imagine life without softball.
“What I’m going to miss the most is the relationships and being in the circle. The field feels like home to me. If I come to practice in a bad mood I always leave in a good mood. These girls are my best friends, we do everything together. We’re just like a big family. It’s kind of unsettling to know I won’t have that type of bond and closeness I’ve been used to every day for four years.”
Everyone says she’d make a great coach. “She’s a real student of the game,” says Scarpello, adding, “I’d hire her in a heartbeat.”
“Coaching could be my career,” says Elsasser. She”ll be coaching a younger sister this summer who’s showing great promise as, you guessed it, a pitcher. Clearly, this legacy has legs.
Terence “Bud” Crawford in the fight of his life for lightweight title: top contender from Omaha’s mean streets looks to make history
UPDATE: The subject of this story, Terence “Bud” Crawford of Omaha, won the WBO world lightweight championship in convincing fashion on March 1 over Ricky Burns in Glasgow, Scotland. My Reader cover story about Crawford appeared right on the eve of his title bid and just as was his gameplan he left no doubt and nothing to chance in claiming a unanimous 12-round decision.
Boxing in Omaha was never necessarily big the way it’s been in certain cities and towns but for a long time it definitely exerted a presence and enjoyed a loyal following here on both the amateur and professional ends of the sport. Starting around the 1980s and certainly by the 1990s interest among participants and spectators fell off rather dramatically. Part of that is explained by the general decline in boxing that happened nationwide as the sport found itself increasingly criticized for the injuries and deaths and longterm disabilities suffered by fighters as well as scandalized by the lax rules and ethics attending the game that allowed professional opponents like Omaha’s own Bruce “The Mouse” Strauss to take fight after fight in close order under assumed names and with little or no training. The reprehensible and mondo bizzaro antics of various high profile fighters didn’t help its standing. With boxing under attack and more and more relegated to a frringe actviity mixed martial arts arrived on the scene to offer something new and different and ever since then boxing’s struggled to keep apace or even hold on in some cases. It’s not so much that society rejects violent or extreme sports, otherwise how to explain the popularity of MMA, but that boxing is seen as something archaic or passe in a world of many high adrenalin, high risk sports that push the envelope, whether it be MMA, snowboarding, skateboarding, hang gliding, windsurfing, base jumping, rock climbing, mountain biking, et cetera. The list goes on and on. Omaha boxing gyms used to number a dozen or more at any given time but now that number is a fraction of what it used to be. Many gyms offer heavy and speed bags and perhaps even a ring for shadowboxing but these are more fitness centers focused on the conditioning benefits of boxing rather than on specifically training boxers to do actual combat. A sure sign of boxing’s decline here was when Omaha hosted the National Golden Gloves a few years ago and the crowds numbered a few thousand at most, which was less than what local-regional boxing tournaments here used to draw.
Nebraska’s produced some good fighters over time but very, very few who could be considered world class. The top flight fighters out of here have become even fewer and farther between. With this as the background and context for where boxing resides in Omaha a local fighter named Terence “Bud” Crawford is contending for the WBO lightweight championship in Glasgow, Scotland on March 1. Considering what Crawford is going for there should be more buzz around here about his title bid but then again the lack of attention, awareness, and excitement is an accurate reflection of boxing’s tenuous position these days. As I say in the following cover story about Crawford I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) , which hits the stands Feb. 27, if this were happening decades ago Crawford would be the toast of this sports town. But these days Creighton men’s basketball is the preferred sports flavor and its superstar Doug McDermott is the man of the hour, not Crawford. There are a lot of reasons for that beyond those I described above and I allude to some of them in my Reader piece.
On this blog you can find an earlier New Horizons story I wrote about Crawford and his close relationship with trainer Midge Minor. You can also find stories about the CW Boxing Gym, also known as the CW Boxing Club and CW Youth Resource Center, which is where Crawford got his start. And for that matter you can find several more boxing pieces I’ve done over the years about Ron Stander, Morris Jackson, the Hernandez Brothers, Servando Perales, Tom Lovgren, Kenny Wingo and the Downtown Boxing Club, et cetera.
A photo montage of Terence “Bud’ Crawford:
Terence “Bud” Crawford in the fight of his life for lightweight title: top contender from Omaha’s mean streets looks to make history
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As Omaha glories in Creighton Bluejays hoops superstar Doug McDermott’s historic season, another local sports figure going for greatness flies under the radar.
Boxer Terence “Bud” Crawford challenges for the WBO lightweight title March 1 against champion Ricky Burns in the title holder’s native Scotland. The scheduled 12-rounder is being televised in the States by AWE, a hard to find cable-satellite network. The fight is scheduled for 2 p.m. (CST).
The CU campus McDermott’s put on the map is mere few blocks from The Hood Crawford grew up in and where his recently opened gym, B & B Boxing Academy, 3034 Sprague Street, is located. But these two stars might as well be worlds apart. McDermott’s a product of white privilege. His biggest challenge was deciding whether to return for his senior year or sign an NBA contract. The African-American Crawford is a product of the inner city. He grew up fighting in the streets and getting kicked out of schools. On the eve of his first pro bout he was shot in the head on the same mean streets of his youth.
McDermott, soon to be a three-time All-American, is the consensus favorite to win national player of the year honors. He competes before 18,000 adoring home fans. Crawford’s compiled a 22-0 record, 16 by knockout, yet he’s never once fought professionally in his hometown though he trains and resides here. Where McDermott excels at a team sport embedded in popular culture, Crawford toils at a lone wolf game that’s lost traction in this mixed martial arts age. While McDermott’s every move is celebrated and scrutinized, Crawford operates in relative obscurity. Unless you follow boxing on HBO, you’ve likely not seen him fight and until reading this were oblivious to his upcoming title shot.
Decades ago, when boxing still mattered in places like Omaha and when there weren’t alphabet soup titles with deluded value, Crawford’s world championship bid would have been big news. Still, just getting in this position should be cause for celebration today. If he prevails in Glasgow – oddsmakers and experts give him anywhere from a decent to an excellent chance – he’d be the first major boxing champ from Neb. since heavyweight Max Bear in 1934. The last time a local fought for an undisputed title was 1972, when Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander met heavyweight king Joe Frazier at the Civic Auditorium and got bloodied like a stuck pig for his trouble.
Co-manager-trainer Brian “BoMac” McIntyre feels Omaha’s not embracing this historic moment involving one of its own. He says given the way Crawford represents by proudly identifying his hometown on his trunks and giving it props in interviews, it’s a shame Omaha doesn’t “stand up” for him in return. If that lack of love bothers Crawford the hard-as-nails pragmatist with washboard abs isn’t admitting it. He’s aware boxing is dead here and he’s intent on reviving it. He did soak up support from friends, family and well-wishing fans at a send-off party at Brewsky’s before Team Crawford left Feb. 22.
Ask what winning a world title might mean to his community and Crawford answers, “Honestly, I really don’t know because Omaha is really big on MMA, Creighton and Nebraska and nobody really talks about boxing that much. I feel if I was to bring that title back here it could boost us or it could just stay the same, where like a handful of people acknowledge what just happened and the rest are still like, Oh, it’s just boxing.
“We’ve got a lot of talent in Omaha but a lot of people give up because of no resources and backing. As a professional you have to go to your opponent’s backyard because we don’t really have professional boxing in Omaha. I can’t remember the last time we had a full professional boxing card in Omaha. It’s real down here, so it’s real hard to get motivated on boxing.”
He hopes his academy does for youth what the CW Boxing Club where he started and still has ties did for him and many others.
“We want to help kids that need help with that father figure in their life by talking to them, teaching them to stay in school and listen to their parents and elders, things like that. A lot of kids in the neighborhood don’t have nowhere to be after school. They can just come in here, relieve some stress, relieve some anger. We don’t know what’s going on in their household. They might be going through a lot and boxing might be the outlet to relieve some of that rather than doing something they’ll regret the rest of their life.”
Crawford hasn’t let Omaha’s tepid interest hold him back.
“You know what, he don’t give a f___ about that, I swear to God he don’t,” McIntyre says. “He looks at it like, ‘If they do get behind me so be it, if they don’t, oh well.’ They really weren’t behind him when he was an amateur and now that he’s here they’re really still not behind him. That’s just more fuel to the fire to win the fight.”
McIntyre, a Team Crawford member since the fighter was a top amateur for the CW, whose namesake Carl Washington discovered the young scrapper, says Crawford’s always fought an uphill battle for respect. As a teen Crawford’s hot temper made him a handful. After some false starts, CW coach Midge Minor took him under his wing.
“I was a bad kid, when I came in I was just rough, I didn’t care about training, nothing, I just wanted to fight,” recalls Crawford. “Midge would throw me in there with anybody, he didn’t care. Sometimes I’d get beat up, sometimes I’d win. The thing that separated me from everybody else was if I got beat up by one of the older kids I’d come back the next day like, ‘I want to spar him, I don’t want nobody else but him.’ And Midge would be looking at me, ‘You’ve got heart, I like you.’ So I’d get in there and keep sparring until I started beating them. I think that’s what really elevated me to where I’m at.”
Minor, who’s old enough to be Crawford’s grandpa, has been the main wise counsel and steadying influence for the fighter.
“Anytime I needed anything or needed someone to talk to he was always there,” Crawford says. “He’s played a big factor in my life. He’s a great father figure in my life.”
Following stints at alternative schools, Crawford finally found a home at Bryan High School, where he graduated, Despite great success as an amateur, his hard case attitude alienated him from the boxing establishment. He also ran up against the stigma that fighters from here traditionally fare poorly at nationals. Crawford dispelled that image by advancing to the semis of the National Golden Gloves in Omaha. Outside the Gloves he beat virtually everyone in his weight and age class. But the politics of the sport pegged him a bad apple and so certain opportunities bypassed him.
McIntyre says, “He wasn’t the poster boy for USA boxing. Terence was a bodacious kid. He’s always been the underdog. When he went to the nationals and to the Olympic Trials people said you can’t do it because you’re from Neb. and they always get beat in the first round, so he’s always had something against him.”
Crawford never let those perceptions stop him, even after being kicked off the USA team, thus spoiling any chance of fighting in the Olympics, which was fine with the fighter, who had a bigger dream in mind.
Then, as now, nothing gets in the way of what Crawford wants.
“He was ranked number one and there was a national tournament in Calif. we couldn’t afford to go to,” says McIntyre. “USA Boxing gave him a stipend every other month and he saved his money and paid for his own ticket and hotel. At 17 he went out there by himself, he found a coach to get him to the weigh-ins. He found a way. That will and determination separates him from anybody I’ve ever run into.”
Crawford’s not only kept McIntyre and Minor in his camp. he’s assembled a team made up of his old sparring partners and coaches. Loyalty is big with him. His other co-manager is Cameron Dunkin, a Las Vegas-based boxing magnet who handles the business side.
Some predict the highly skilled Crawford, who combines quick hands and feet with deft moves and some power, will handle the more experienced Burns. The champ’s 36-2-1 record includes many high stakes fights but some recent disputed decisions. Others question how Crawford will deal with such a big stage before a hostile crowd.
Crawford says, “It’s going to be a different atmosphere, everybody’s going to be against me, but I like it like that because that’s just going to feed me energy to shut ‘em up and keep ‘em quiet.”
He’s well aware he can’t afford to leave anything to chance and give the judges any wiggle room to score the fight in favor of the home boy.
“That’s the plan – to dominate like I’e been doing with all my other opponents. In my 22 fights I can’t think of a fighter I’ve fought that won two rounds, so I’ve just got to be me and do what I do best.”
He’s keeping his emotions in check leading up to the bout
“Honestly, I ain’t got no feeling at all, like I’m not excited whatsoever. The other day BoMac said, ‘Man, ain’t you anxious?’ and I was like, ‘Naw, I’m just ready to fight’ I’ve been doing this all my life, this is my dream. I never wanted to be an Olympian, I never wanted to win a gold medal, I always wanted to be a world champion. I wanted to turn pro at 17 but they insisted I try out for the Olympic team.”
With him finally on the cusp of HIS dream he can’t afford giddiness.
“This is what I wanted to do, so now that it’s here I’m the one who’s got to go in there and handle my business and then when I win it I’m going to be happy. It’s strictly business right now. I’m not happy I’m fighting for a world title, no. I’m going to be happy when I win it though.
“I’m ready to do what I’ve been doing all my life and that’s showing people how good my talent is.”
Many Omaha boxing scene veterans believe Crawford may just be the best fighter, pound-for-pound, to ever come out of here.
Crawford, the father of two children, says his confidence is high because he’s left nothing to chance in training. Sticking with a routine that’s worked before, he began training for Burns in Omaha, then went to Colorado Springs for the added conditioning high altitude promotes and the better sparring available there, the site of USA Boxing. Being away from home also helped eliminate distractions. McIntyre says it’s all about getting focused and following a regimented workout process from 8 to 8 daily that ensures he didn’t peak too early.
After the four-week camp Crawford returned home mid-February to fine-tune, stay sharp and maintain just the right edge.
Even after weeks of intense training that encompassed running, swimming, sit-ups and sparring, Crawford says there’s still an element of doubt that naturally attends any fight.
“There’s always going to be a doubt and a what-if with any fighter, I don’t care who he is. They’re going to always have doubt in the back of their mind. Did they do enough? What if this happens? What if that happens? But that’s when you got to adapt and you got to adjust to the situation and that’s what I plan to do.”
The cover of my New Horizons story on Crawford and his bond with trainer Midge Minor
As for his strategy, he says, “basically it’s just me fighting my fight,” adding “I just always feel like if I fight like I want to fight can’t nobody beat me. I’ve got so many styles, so it’s going to be hard to capitalize on one style because I’ll switch up or change it up.”
All the coaching and strategizing in the world doesn’t mean anything, he says, if you can’t execute it.
“It’s up to me to establish it and carry it on into the ring. We can train all day, every day, we can do this and that. Like Ricky Burns, he can say he’s got something new, he’s going do this and that, but all that don’t matter if you get in the ring and you can’t establish what you want to do. When we get in the ring then it’s all going to tell.”
Crawford refuses to fight out of character. He’s too smart to be drawn into adopting a style or forcing the action that’s not in his best interest. Even when boos rained down on him in Orlando, Fla. as he dismantled Russian Andrey Klimov in an Oct. 4, 2013 fight, Crawford was content to stick with his plan of outboxing his foe even though going for a KO would have pleased onlookers and HBO executives. He says he’ll neither get into a brawling match with Burns nor take undue chances testing the champ’s repaired jaw, which was broken in his last title defense, for the sake of pleasing the crowd or boosting ratings.
“I’m not going to go out there and just go for haymakers and get caught with stupid stuff. I’m just going to go out there and do what I do and if the knockout comes it comes, if it don’t it don’t. I’m just going out there to win that title and that’s the only thing on my mind.”
He maintains a healthy respect for Burns or any opponent.
“I don’t underestimate nobody. Even if it’s a fight I know I’m going to knock the dude out I always go in there like, What if? It keeps me driving, it keeps me on my Ps and Qs, it keeps me more focused because you never know – one punch can beat you.”
He says you also won’t catch him doing any pre-fight grandstanding or gamesmanship at the weigh-in press conference. Not his style, though he’s says if Burns comes at him he’ll come right back. However, Crawford does use those occasions to size up his opponent and what he finds can be revealing.
“Sometimes I’ll see right through you. I can see in your eyes a little twitch. On the outside you look like you’re this big bad guy but on the inside you’re afraid for your life. You’re a nervous wreck.”
At the end of the day, there’s nothing about this fight or any fight that scares him. Compared to a bullet in the head it’s no big deal.
“I’ve been shot, I’m not going over there worried about what’s going to happen in the ring. I’m ready, period. I’ve got my mind made up, I’ve got my goals set, and I’m going up there and I’m going to get it. I’m not going to let nothing or nobody stop me from conquering my dreams.”
Do the right thing Omaha and stand up for your own as he goes for history.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Organizations serving at-risk kids come and go but few stay the course the way the CW Youth Resource Center, 1510 Cass Street, has since opening in 1978.
Founder-director Carl Washington hosts a Nov. 29 open house at CW from 4 to 8 p.m. to celebrate 35 years of structured youth activities.
His experience mentoring youth began a decade earlier, when he was like a big brother to his nephew Howard Stevenson. After Stevenson was shot and killed by an Omaha police officer in the wake of a 1968 civil disturbance in North Omaha, Washington was angry. A bully and street fighter at the time, he went to the old Swedish Auditorium boxing gym looking to release his rage.
“I went down there and picked on the first guy I thought maybe I should be able to beat up, a chubby kid by the name of Ron Stander.”
That’s Ron Stander, aka the Bluffs Butcher, who fought heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in a 1972 title bout. But when Washington first laid eyes on him Stander was still a pudgy, no-name amateur.
“Everyone was paying attention to him. My thought was, Knock him off and then you can be the top guy. It didn’t work that way.”
After weeks pestering coaches to let him spar Stander, the exhibition was set. Washington was so confident he brought an entourage. He knew he’d miscalculated when he landed his best blows and Stander didn’t even blink. The first punch Washington absorbed was the hardest he’d even been hit. After a few more punishing shots he feigned injury to end the onslaught.
Washington wanted to quit the sport right then but Stander encouraged him. The two men became friends. While Stander went on to make boxing his career, Washington only fought a year. Well-schooled by the late trainer Leonard “Hawk” Hawkins, Washington saw his true calling not as a fighter but as a coach. He believed boxing could give kids a safe activity in place of running the streets.
He first tried forming the gym in 1971 but it didn’t take. Seven years later he gave it another go, this time with help from two mentors. A lifelong inner city resident, Washington daily saw unsupervised kids getting into mischief and brawls, hungry for structure, and he felt he could give them the healthy alternative they needed.
“A group of kids I ran across were fighting and I broke it up and took them downstairs to my basement and started working with them. We took two of them to a boxing show at the National Guard Armory and they both won trophies. We put the trophies up on the mantel and the other kids wanted to win trophies, too. So, it grew from there.”
He’d have two dozen youths training in his basement at one time with another similar-sized group out on a long run before they took their turn hitting the bags.
CW took the local amateur boxing scene by storm, winning hundreds of individual and team trophies at smokers and the Midwest Golden Gloves.
“A couple years we won every weight division,” he says of the Gloves.
Washington ran a tight ship. “I instilled discipline. Our guys had to walk the line.”
He bemoans the lax standards commonplace today.
“I see a lack of respect for one another from a lot of kids, a lot of people, Respect is not on the table like it used to be. Respect is an art we should be going back to. I think a lot of that is lost. When all those factors are gone that’s why there’s so much chaos.”
He insists boxing’s a useful tool for instilling values.
“Out of a hundred kids probably one of them might box and go all the way to the Gloves and do all he’s supposed to do in boxing. But for the rest of them it might open the door for them to get into wrestling, football, basketball and other sports. We can give them that discipline.”
He says that discipline carries over to school, work and family life.
The kids he started with are now parents and send their kids to him.
Reaching kids takes patience and instinct. “I have a feel for when I meet a kid exactly what the kid really wants – if he wants to box or to get in shape or if he’s down here because his mother needs a baby sitter. Sometimes they may have aspirations of becoming a champion.”
Terence “Bud” Crawford is a once in a lifetime phenom who came up through the CW ranks and now is on the verge of fighting for the world lightweight title. He remains loyal to the CW, where he still trains under the man who got him started there, Midge Minor, and is managed by another CW alum, Brian McIntyre.
In its early years CW was a predominantly African American gym. Its fighters weren’t always well received.
“We ran into a lot of negativity in the beginning. Some cities we boxed in weren’t too friendly. It seemed like the ones closest to Omaha were the unfriendliest,” says Washington. He recalls that before a Wahoo, Neb. boxing show his fighters got debris and racial slurs hurled at them. They silenced the crowd with excellence.
“A lot of parents with me wanted us to leave and I said, ‘No, we’re not going to leave.’ We parked the cars going toward the street just in case we had to get out of there in a hurry. I said, ‘We’re going to go back in there, box, and act like gentlemen and we’re not going to respond to the crowd. We had 16 bouts that day and we won all 16.”
Boxing hasn’t been the only avenue for youth to explore at CW, which moved from his basement to the Fontenelle Park pavilion to south downtown to its current spot in the early 1990s. CW once featured recording studios and a dance floor to feed the rap and breakdance demand. Washington organized talent showcases and concerts highlighting the club’s many homegrown performing artists
“We were involved in a little bit of everything. We were doing anything we thought could reach kids.”
He says he put on the first gang reconciliation concert back in the mid-1980s when he was doing gang prevention-intervention work before it had a name.
He cobbled together support from grants, donations, fundraisers and raffle sales.
“We had to jump over a lot of hurdles in the beginning. What really built the club was raffle tickets. We were out on the corners and kids sold raffle tickets. I was able to do the (initial) restoration here through the raffle sales.”
At the boxing gym’s peak, he says, “We were going all over the country with kids in the car to boxing shows and coming back with a lot of trophies.” But he feels CW was never fully embraced by its hometown, where fans booed the club’s fighters when the national Golden Gloves were fought here. Boxing’s also lost kids to martial arts and other activities.
Looking back, he says he’s proudest of just “being able to survive,” adding, “We’ve been pretty blessed.”
Though CW doesn’t have as many competitive boxers as it once did, he’s seeing more kids come as a result of Bud Crawford’s success. He scaled down the club’s entertainment facets after frictions surfaced between performers. He stopped holding concerts after a drive-by shooting outside the club. He recently formed a hoops program as a new outlet .
One thing that hasn’t changed, he says, is “I open my doors to everybody and I never charge a membership fee.”
For more information about the CW’s programs, call 402-671-8477.
- The kid with the Golden Gloves (wafb.com)
From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood
Omaha has never been much of a boxing hotbed. Oh, there’s been the occasional fighter worth following from here who’s shown well in the amateur ranks at, say, the national golden gloves (though I’m not sure any native Nebraskan has made it to the Olympic Games in boxing) and in the pro ranks. Precious few have ever fought for a championship or even in the prelims of a title card. Unless you’re from Nebraska or live here or you have a strong rooting interest in or connection to Omaha boxers chances are you can’t name more than two or three ring worthies to ever come out of the state and do something memorialized in the boxing annals or the sport’s bible, Ring Magazine. The following story from my Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness series about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends does highlight a few of the better fighters Omaha’s produced though it’s by no means a comprehensive list. You’ll find the rest of my Out to Win installments by going to the Categories drop down menu or typing the title in the Search box.
From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
If any Omaha inner city boxing legend had most of the prized fighting attributes, it was Harley Cooper, a two-time national Golden Gloves champion and 1964 Olympic qualifier. A tough Savannah, Ga. native, Cooper grew up fighting in ‘the hood,‘ but learned to box in the military. After he won the second of his Gloves titles while based at Offutt Air Force Base, he then became the U.S. Olympic light heavyweight entry. In peak form and riding an unbeaten streak, he was primed to bust heads in Tokyo. But on the eve of leaving for Japan, he was medically disqualified.
After transferring to Omaha, his new training ground became Hawk’s Gym, where his sparring partners included future pro heavyweight Lou Bailey. He shot up the amateur ranks by sweeping his first Golden Gloves. But he was no rookie, having compiled hundreds of hours in the ring and dozens of military bouts, winning service titles wherever he was assigned, including Japan and Europe.
“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” said Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren, a former prize fight matchmaker and longtime local observer. “The first time anybody saw him in the gym they knew this guy was going to be a national champion. He could punch. He could box. He could do it all. He was the most complete fighter I ever saw from around here. I never saw Harley Cooper lose a round in amateur fights in Omaha. He was that dominant.”
Cooper twice won the Gloves Trinity when he took the Omaha, Midwest and National tournaments in both ’63 and ’64. His first title run came, unexpectedly, as aheavyweight and culminated at the ’64 Chicago finals.
Cooper was a natural light-heavyweight, but after an overseas transfer to Nebraska he didn’t meet the weight requirements before the local Gloves tourney. Over the light-heavyweight limit, his handlers convinced him, against his better judgment, to compete as a heavyweight. He was an undersized 183 pounds. Even after he won the local-regional heavyweight titles, he wanted to move back to light-heavy, where he was more comfortable. “They wouldn’t let me move down,” he said of his trainers. “They kept saying, ‘Well, let’s see how far you can go.'” He went all the way. The underdog used superior quickness to offset his opponents’ size and power advantages to win just the second national Gloves title by a Nebraskan since the 1930s. In ’64, Cooper fought at his accustomed light-heavy spot and plowed through to the Nationals in Nashville. Cooper’s win in Nashville put him into the Olympic Trials box-off in New York, which he won.
Despite attractive offers, he never turned pro. First, there was his Air Force career. Second, he had a big family to feed, and a sure thing was better than a dream. Since retiring in ’73, his life has centered on kids at the North Omaha Boys Club, Glenwood State School and the Cornhusker Striders track program. But the pull of boxing never left, and so for 30 years he’s volunteered with the Great Plains Amateur Boxing Association. That body organizes and sanctions local-regional boxing cards like the Golden Gloves. He recently announced Omaha will host the 2006 national Gloves tournament.
“I love boxing. I’m lucky I have a wife that understands it’s such a big part of me.”
Occasional what-might-have-beens creep into his conversation. “There’s still some times when I kind of wish I had of (turned pro),” he said. “I was better than I realized I was at the time. I see these guys now and they just don’t look that good to me, man.”
An earlier Golden Gloves star who did go pro is Joey Parks, a lightweight contender in the late ’50s-early ’60s. A Kansas native, Parks moved to Omaha in 1950. Back home, he competed in football, basketball and baseball and always listened to the Friday night fights on the radio. His late brother, Jerry Parks, was a fine baseball player and longtime Omaha Parks and Recreation director.
Joey trained at the old City Mission Boxing Club at 22nd and Cass under legendary trainer Leonard Hawkins, who later became his father-in-law. Parks’ amateur career began slowly – he lost his first Gloves bout. He developed his skills during an Army hitch in South Korea and, when he returned, dominated. He won City and Midwest Gloves titles in ’55 and ’56, and advanced to the national finals the first year and to the semi-finals the next.
Parks went pro in ’57 and once held a No. 9 world ranking. His career highlights include three close, 10-round, non-title bouts with all-time lightweight champion Joe “Old Bones” Brown. Their first tussle, fought at the State Fair Coliseum in Albuquerque, NM, ended in a disputed draw that cost Parks a title shot. Parks opened a cut over Brown’s eye and dropped him for a one-count in the final round.
Parks lost the rematches by decisions. As great as Brown was, Parks said his toughest foe was future welterweight champ Curtis Cokes, who stopped him.
“He hit like a mule,” he said.
Parks took pride in being a busy, crowd-pleasing favorite. “I had the type of style where I pressed the fight. I kept going forward all the way. I always carried the fight to my opponent. I wouldn’t short change nobody. They got their money’s worth.” The Omahan relied on superb conditioning. “I stayed in tip-top shape. I did my road work every morning. I chopped wood. I sparred.”
He quit the ring in ’63 after a rope gave way in a fight down in Santa Fe, NM and he was sent sprawling, head first, into the ring apron. He was out cold for three minutes. Weeks of double vision later, he hung up his gloves. “A cat has nine lives, but I only have one.” Now 71, he stays fit walking and dancing. Long gone is the popularity that meant people stopped him on the street and treated him to meals, but he remembers his boxing career with pleasure. “It was sweet.”
One of the most devastating Omaha punchers is Lamont Kirkland. From 1975 to 1980 he won a record-tying six Midwest Golden Gloves titles by simply pummeling people into submission. After coming close, including a loss to future light-heavy champ Michael Spinks, Kirkland finally won a national championship – at 165-pounds – in 1980. He’s the last local fighter to win a national Gloves title. He enjoyed a good pro career that climaxed in a 1987 USBA super middleweight title fight against Lindell Holmes that Kirkland lost by TKO. “I never saw anybody give him a tough fight here,” local boxing expert Tom Lovgren said.
More Fighters and Some Coaches/Trainers
Midge Minor won multiple Omaha and Midwest Golden Gloves titles in the 1950s. Reggie Hughes and Willie “Boots” Washington were among other good boxers from that era’s inner city. Illinois-native Lou Bailey moved to Omaha and had a pro heavyweight career that saw him fight a future champ in George Foreman and many contenders. His son, Lou Bailey, Jr. won three light-heavy Midwest amateur titles.
Heavyweight Morris Jackson was the main rival of Ron “Bluffs Butcher” Stander, whom he met five times as an amateur and pro. “Yeah, we had some knockdown-dragouts,” said Jackson, who once beat the British Commonwealth champ.
After a run-in with the law (for armed robbery) that saw him do 29 months in jail, Jackson turned his life around and, in ’88, was ordained a minister in the Independent Assemblies of God Church. Now the chaplain at the Douglas County Correctional Center, he finds satisfaction in “being able to see men take responsibility for their lives and become better citizens, husbands, fathers. You can’t go through life without believing.” He received a full pardon from then-Gov. Ben Nelson in 1995.
Among Midwest champs, a trio of three-time titlists stands out: Sammy Cribbs was a ferocious puncherin the early ’80s; Kenny Friday was a sharp boxer in the early ’90s; and Bernard Davis was the class of 1998-2001. These and other champion boxers came out of Omaha’s CW Boxing Club. Carl Washington, the CW’s founder, director and namesake, coached with great success before assembling staffers like Midge Minor to continue training champions.
The late Leonard Hawkins was a trainer and coach for scores of amateur champions. His teams won numerous city titles. Based out of a series of gyms over the years, Hawkins also trained a talented stable of pros, most notably at the Fox Hole Gym, where he worked with Art Hernandez, Ron Stander and Lamont Kirkland, among others.
- Wes Bascomb dies; boxing champ hung up his gloves and went to college to teach in the St. Louis schools (stltoday.com)
- Beaufort legend Joe Frazier honored with Order of the Palmetto (islandpacket.com)
- America’s heavyweight hope (salon.com)
From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Grapplers – Masters in the Way of the Mat
This post about wrestling and another post today about boxing may be the final two installments from my Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness series about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends to make it to my blog. The series originally ran in 2004-2005 in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and I’ve been looking for ways to reporpose the work ever since. Presenting the stories on this blog is the first attempt to find a new audience. The next goal is to package the stories, along with new ones, in a book I plan to publish by 2015. The Olympic wrestling gold medal won over the weekend by American Jordan Burroughs, a former University of Nebraska mat great, is what motivated me to post this wrestling installment. I encourage you to check out the other stories from the series. You can find the Out to Win series stories in the Categories drop down menu or by typing the title in the Search box.
From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Grapplers – Masters in the Way of the Mat
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In Nebraska, one family stands apart in wrestling: the Olivers of Omaha. Masters of the grappling art, they form a two-generation mat dynasty whose story is still being written.
First there are the accomplishments of brothers Roye, Marshall and Ray, each a prep stud and college All-American in his day. Then the ongoing achievements of Ray’s son, Chris. Victorious in 568 straight matches in Nebraska dating back to the fourth grade, Chris capped his amazing run at Omaha Creighton Prep, where he was coached by his father, by winning a fourth state title this past season. In the process, he became only the third Nebraska schoolboy to go unbeaten in a four-year career. The prized Nebraska recruit is wrestling at 157 pounds for No. 3 rated NU and appears poised to surpass his father’s and uncles’ own impressive records.
But the story doesn’t end there. Five brothers in all wrestled. Roye, Marshall and Ray all competed overseas. Roye was an alternate on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and now, at age 47, he’s made a dramatic comeback from double knee surgery to win the U.S. Veterans Nationals title at 187.4 pounds in Las Vegas this past April. He qualified for the September world championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia but was unable to attend.
Roye also coaches. He assisted Mike Denney with the perennial Division II power University of Nebraska at Omaha program. He coached with USA Wrestling. He’s worked with select junior national teams in Nebraska and California, where he recently moved. Ray, co-head coach at Prep, started working with Chris when he was 4 and he now schools a nephew, Malcomb McGruder, who’s a highly-regarded junior-to-be at Prep. And the word is a promising new generation of Olivers is developing their moves on the mat at the bantam-cadet levels.
This past summer, the Oliver clan was inducted in the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame for their many wrestling feats.
Wrestling for the Olivers is more than tradition. It’s a way of life and an act of faith that got its start, aptly enough, with their own prophet, Ecclesiastes, the oldest brother and, like his siblings, the son of a preacher man. Originally from Brewton, Ala., the family migrated to Omaha in 1962 when their minister-father felt called to come here.
Ecclesiastes took up wrestling at the north Omaha boys club, where Ron McGruder was the coach.
“He came home and demonstrated some of the techniques to my older brothers Roye and Marshall,” said Ray, “and later on when I got old enough, at about five years of age, they demonstrated the techniques to me and my younger brother Bobby. And that started off a milestone and legacy of us becoming great wrestlers in the state of Nebraska and around the nation.”
Just because their daddy preached didn’t make the Oliver boys immune to the less savory elements around the Pleasantview housing projects, where they lived, which is why their parents approved of wrestling’s structure and discipline.
“Instead of hanging out, my brothers and I would go to the boys club and wrestle,” said Ray. “It offered an outlet.”
Ecclesiastes didn’t so much sell the sport for its character-building attributes, as he later did, but rather as a means “to get tough and to win trophies,” Ray said. “He’d come home with trophies and we’d go, ‘Whoa, we want to do that.’ Winning trophies was the most important thing.” At home and at the club the Olivers often tangled, brother on brother, in a ritual of honing skills and testing limits. Wrestling each other helped to forge the Brothers Oliver into the hard-edged competitors they became. “It pushed us,” Ray said. “It helped us strive for higher heights and to learn how to refuse to accept losing as motivation to improve.” Naturally, the brothers developed a signature style.
“We had a lot of similarities with respect to position and stance and maneuvers and techniques,” Ray said. “I’d say we scored more on our feet than we did anywhere else, but we knew how to pin on top using the different pinning combinations, as we were all excited about using the cradle and the three-quarters. And we knew how to escape on the bottom using switches and stunts and stand-ups.”
The brothers came of age in the 1970s at Omaha Technical High School. Roye and Marshall made the Olivers’ first big splash by winning individual state titles in 1973 under head coach Milt Hearn and top assistant Curlee Alexander, a former Tech wrestler and UNO national champion. Ray won an individual title and served as captain for Tech’s 1978 state championship team coached by Alexander.
In the 1970s, the brothers made several memorable trips behind the Iron Curtain — Roye and Marshall in Bulgaria and Roye and Ray in Poland. Only in their mid-teens at the time, the Olivers squared-off with grown men in their 20s and 30s.
“Back in our day, if you were even 15-, 16-, 17-years-old, you wrestled everybody, regardless of how old they were,” Ray said. “That’s not like the way they have it structured today, where they have junior world and cadet divisions. Still, I was 8-0 over in Europe. We went to these great, unique places. It was a great cultural and wrestling experience.”
Roye and Marshall went on to Arizona State University, with Roye earning All-America honors three times and Marshall once. Ray followed his big brothers to ASU, but after only a few months the homesick wrestler transferred to Nebraska, where he wrestled four years. After a slow start that saw him qualify for nationals once out of his first two years, Ray hit his stride as a junior, when he was 32-7 and ranked third nationally. But an ankle injury suffered in the Big 8 championships prevented him from competing in the NCAA tourney.
Determined “to prove to all my competitors I was just as successful as they were,” Ray said, “I came back with a strong attitude and a good regimen, and bounced back my senior year to excel.” He went 34-5 in qualifying for nationals, where he finally joined his brothers in making All-American.
After college, Roye became a world-class freestyle wrestler with the U.S. national team at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Yet he couldn’t dislodge the men ahead of him at 163 pounds, the legendary Lee Kemp and Dave Schultz. He hoped the veterans world championships would finally net him his first world title, but he couldn’t get enough time off to go compete.
This fall and winter, the Olivers have their collective eyes trained on Chris as he tries to add to his niche inthe family’s elite wrestling heritage. The Oliver he’ll most likely be compared to is his dad, who notched a name for himself in Husker wrestling lore. For his part, Ray hopes his son surpasses him.
“My picture hangs on the conference champions wall down at the Bob Devaney Sports Center,” Ray said, “and I’m pretty excited about that. Hopefully, my son will make his mark and get his picture up there, too, only on the national champions wall.”
Ray said his son is humble about his emerging place in the Oliver wrestling tradition.
“He knows the things we’ve done, and the things he’s done so far are a great achievement, but he’s learned to put it in the right perspective.” For his part, Chris has no interest in competing with his family’s legends. “I mean, I would love to be an All-American,” he said, “but as I enter into wrestling in college, my own personal set of goals are to not really worry about what my relatives did, but just try to go out there and make my own home there.” Beyond admiring their wrestling props, Chris learned from his father and uncles by going one-on-one with them on the mat to soak up some hard-earned wisdom. “It’s been really great to have a chance to pick and choose and learn from all of them,” he said, “because they know a lot.”
Ray feels Chris is well beyond where he or any of his brothers were at a comparable age. “On a scale of one to 10, we were probably a seven and he’s probably a 10. He’s got the ability to be a great one,” he said. The father said he knew Chris was gifted early because even at age four or five he showed a knack for the sport’s intricacies and its heart-of-a-warrior mentality. “I saw his learning ability as far as picking up moves and techniques and as far as being combative. He didn’t mind getting in there and just mixing things up and being physical.”
Chris first stamped himself a top prospect when, at age 6, he finished second in the Tulsa Nationals, a prestigious youth tournament that he won the next year. As he’s evolved into the consummate, dominating wrestler he is today, when he routinely breaks his opponent’s will in the first period, his passion for the sport remains strong.
“I just love the sport of wrestling and all the competition and camaraderie that comes with it,” he said. “I love going out there and having fun. It’s a really tough sport and you gotta be disciplined. You gotta work hard at it. But I think probably the main thing for me is having fun.”
Having fun. That’s what his uncle Roye also referred to ashe continues competing as a middle-aged man in the demanding sport. “It’s still fun,” Roye said.
And so the Oliver wrestling saga marches on. “Our family has paved the way for the sport of wrestling in Neraska,” said Roye, who expects great things from Chris and his younger nephews. “You ain’t heard the last of us yet.”
More Notable Wrestlers
The Olivers are among many inner city wrestling legends.There was Tech High’s Fred Brown, one of only a few four-time state champions in Nebraska prep history. South High’s Richard Brown (no relation) was a four-time Nebraska state finalist and three-time champion in the late 1950s. A promising collegiate career was cut shortwhen Richard Brown dropped out of school to start a family. He’s been active as a youth wrestling coach the past 35 years.
North High has produced several multiple champions, including Dick Davis in the ‘60s, Antoine Parker, Duaine Martin and Darrious Hill in the ‘80s, and Chauncey Parker, Willie Hill, Eric Hill and Curlee Alexander, Jr. in the ‘90s. A former Northern Iowa University All-American, Martin still competes internationally at age 36. He recently vied for a berth on the U.S. Olympic Greco Roman Wrestling team.
Creighton Prep’s Ben Perkins won three state titles and made All-America at Iowa State. Dante Lewis won a title at Omaha Benson and two at Bryan. Two-time state champs include Tech’s Joe Crawford and David Washington and Central’s Pernell Gatson. Prep’s Brauman Creighton never won a state title but won a pair of Division II national titles as a UNO Maverick.
Many of the area’s finest coaches have hailed from the inner city.
Charles Bryant was a tenacious, tough-as-nails football-wrestling standout at South High. Bryant’s life has been one long fight against exclusion. He found an unwelcome climate at NU but he persevered and helped change attitudes, earning All-Big Seven honors in the process. When denied a teaching-coaching job with the Omaha Public Schools, he made his own success in the Bluffs public school system, where he was the architect of a 1960s mat dynasty at Thomas Jefferson High School. He took satisfaction in his T.J. teams regularly thumping Metro Conference squads from OPS. He ended up with OPS, on his own terms, as an administrator and athletic director. A fine sculptor, the retired Bryant pursues his art while battling cancer.
Similarly, Don Benning has never said no to a challenge. Growing up in a white east Omaha neighborhood, he was the target of racial slurs that prompted him to fight. Proving himself almost daily with his brains and brawn, he became a top student and gridiron-mat star at North High and UNO. A bright young teaching candidate who was unable to break through the OPS color barrier, Benning was ready to leave for Chicago when he was convinced to take a graduate fellowship and assistant coaching job at UNO in the early 1960s. When asked to take over the school’s struggling wrestling program, he became the first black head coach at a mostly white university. By decade’s end, he led his team to an NAIA national title before he embarked on an OPS administrative career distinguished by his integrity.
When he began wrestling in the early ‘60s, Curlee Alexander, Sr. showed such little promise that his assignment in high school duals was to avoid getting pinned, thus saving his team points. A hard worker, Alexander got better and by his senior year at Tech he finished second at state. It was in college that he really blossomed. Competing for Don Benning at UNO, he was a four-time All-American, and as a senior he helped UNO claim the 1969 NAIA team title by winning the 115-pound championship at nationals.
Alexander then followed his mentor, Benning, to become a top educator and coach. He led his alma mater, Tech, to a state championship and added six more team titles as North High’s head coach. The retired teacher now serves as North’s associate head coach. He remains the only black head coach to guide a school to a Nebraska team state wrestling title.
And then there was Joe Edmonson. They called him Little Joe, but his presence loomed large. Confined to a wheelchair his entire adult life after a trampoline accident at age 17 that left him paralyzed from the neck down, Little Joe stood figuratively tall. Whether pitching his gruff voice to instruct or squirming in his chair to demonstrate a hold, he held the rapt attention of the many youths who came to learn life and wrestling lessons from him. They always looked up to him.
By the time he died at age 54 in 2002, Edmonson’s Exploradories wrestling club, which got its start in the laundry room at old Immanuel Hospital, had been transformed into the Edmonson Youth Outreach Center in the Fontenelle Park Pavilion. Recognized in 1991 with a Daily Point of Light award from then-President George Bush, one of many honors Joe and his work received, the YMCA-affiliated center offers children athletics, reading enrichment and computer training.
A former wrestler at Tech, where he was a city and state champion at 95 pounds, Joe used wrestling and his own perseverance to deliver a message about enduranceand achieving against all odds.
In the preface of one of his clinic brochures, he spelled out his philosophy: “Everyone, no matter who he is, has potential. While teaching the techniques of wrestling to him, we are also instilling in him the plain simple truth that he is somebody.”
Edmonson produced winners. Scores of his wrestlers earned medals in local, regional, national and international competitions. Perhaps the highlight of his coaching life came as head coach of the USA School Boys Wrestling Team that competed in Mexico City in 1978 and 1980, when he led his charges to third and first place finishes, respectively. Making this showing even more impressive was the fact his teams were community-based squads comprised solely of his own club wrestlers, who more than held their own with opponents drawn from select state and national teams. In 1983, he guided the World USA Greco School Boy Wrestling Team to the World Greco Team championship.
Dozens of state high school champions and collegiate All-Americans came out of his program, including Duane Martin and Ben Perkins. Former North head coach Curlee Alexander said Little Joe’s prodigies were “tough. Whenever I got one, I didn’t have to worry about him folding on me.”
- Burroughs of US wins wrestling gold (nbcolympics.com)
All kinds of human services are delivered in buildings, including some nondescript, institutional edifices that can appear cold on the outside. But of course it is what goes on on the inside that matters. Take the South Omaha YMCA, for instance. I cannot even find an image of it on the Web, which is just as well since it’s a dull, quasi-governmental-looking structure that hardly hints at the warm embrace that staff extend to visitors or at the fun activities and programs offered to members. When a building truly engages a neighborhood and community the way this one does, it isn’t just a building anymore, it’s something much more personal.
When a Building isn’t Just a Building
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
South Omaha’s renaissance unfolds on many fronts. From scores of new businesses to construction of a new community center, library and athletic stadium to the expansion of Metropolitan Community College’s south campus, the area’s booming again after a three-decade lull.
Facelifts also contribute to this turnaround. The most obvious makeover is to the 24th Street business district, whose once thriving streetscapes-storefronts dimmed but now overbrim with color and activity in a plaza-like marketplace.
More recently, a $1.25 million renovation to the LaFern Williams South YMCA at 30th and Q has infused new life into a community anchor that had seen better days.
The Y’s flip is not easily observed until you go inside, but it’s accounting for a surge of activity not seen there since the building’s heyday.
YMCA of Greater Omaha COO Linda Butkus said compared to a year ago the South branch has seen a 30 percent increase in member scans, a 25 percent increase in member revenue and 209 more individuals join as Y members.
“We’re seeing more use, we’re getting more memberships, were expanding beyond just kids to serving more families and adults as well,” she said, “and I think the renovations are the reasons for the increases.”
Three phases of capital improvements are complete. Interior upgrades encompass a redesigned lobby, a new gymnasium floor, enhanced lighting, fresh carpeting and paint, a refurbished fitness room, a large computer room, a new security system and a new chiller. Outside, a new parking overlay is done and a new roof in-progress. In line with the physical changes new programs have been implemented.
Butkus said, “We have more for individuals to do in the way of programming, we have more fitness equipment and the overall feel of the facility is much better. It was a dark and old interior. Now it’s very nice, it’s very bright. The amenities have been upgraded. It feels good to be there. It’s been a complete facelift. When you walk in you go, ‘Wow.’ That’s the feedback we’re getting.”
Photos by Joe Shearer/The Gateway (UNO)
Miles Busby distributing sacked lunches to children
Volunteer and member working on a mural
Volunteer Farren Ronning at clothing exchange
South branch executive director Brian Owens said the Y’s commitment has resulted in “a buy-in” from area residents. “It’s given people a sense of pride to say, ‘You’re investing in our community.’” He said members lost to other branches are returning now. To accommodate higher volume he’s expanded the hours of operation.
He said to stay in touch with the expectations of a diverse clientele “we’re being very intentional and diligent about launching our programs. We’re going out and asking our member base, ’What do you want in this building?’, instead of us telling them what they’re getting. That’s been pretty successful so far.”
Responding to the ever growing Latino population fitness classes infused with merengue and salsa are offered. ESL and Spanish language classes are possibilities.
“Our Latino base has grown tremendously,” he said. “That’s our demographic and we’re ecstatic that we do have that buzz in the Latino community.”
Smaller than some Ys and lacking a pool, the branch accentuates what it has that others Y don’t. Owens said, “We have a smorgasbord of cultures who frequent this branch” — Latinos, Sudanese, Native Americans, whites. “We have that unique opportunity to be able to cross cultures and to share with one another, and that’s a great scene.”
Brenda Kremlacek’s three boys attend the South Y, where, “they’ve met a variety of ages and nationalities, and that’s good,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of progress with the boys’ attitudes. They look forward going. They have a lot of good friends.”
The absence of a swimming hurts but Owen said the branch compensates with “the largest gym in the (Omaha) association.” That gym sees heavy use for hoops, via basketball programs/leagues, and fitness/martial arts classes. He’s hoping when the nearby Kroc Center opens in 2009 his members will be able to access its pool.
He feels his Y’s proximity to the neighboring South Side Terrace Homes and “its 800-plus young people” is an advantage for attracting and retaining youth and family members. He’s keenly aware the facility’s long drawn many users from the Omaha Housing Authority’s South Terrace complex. The low-income housing project includes many at-risk youths who access the Y’s after-school and summer club programs and Kids Cafe, which provides free nutritious meals and snacks. An OHA liasion offices at the Y.
One of South Side’s own played a key role in pushing for the building, which was owned and operated by OHA from 1977 until 2007. The facility’s provided recreational, educational, community and social agency services and programs its entire life. It fulfilled the vision of LaFern Williams, a South Side tenant and community activist who “was very instrumental in convincing the powers-that-be” to construct a recreational/childcare facility for residents, said OHA executive director Stan Timm. Her dream of a safe haven for children was realized and the building became the LaFern Williams Center after her death.
The center also housed the award-winning Center Stage Theatre, whose alums include actor-director John Beasley. Owens said, “This facility was one of the most happening scenes in the ‘80s.” By the start of this decade the Center Stage was no more and the building showing its age and a decline in usage. A half-dozen years ago Beasley resurrected live theater there by forming the John Beasley Theater & Workshop. Even with the JBT’s success the center was not the beehive activity it was before. In 1999 the Y leased the ground floor to present an array of programs and activities. The name changed to South Omaha Community YMCA. Other tenants have included Educare, Head Start and South Omaha Weed & Seed.
When OHA could no longer afford the cost of maintaining the building, plans called for the center to be sold. An outcry led by South Side residents made the structure’s fate a public issue. That’s when the Y stepped in to buy and renovate it with the help of a $1 million challenge grant from the Peter Kiewit Foundation.
As an enticement for Beasley’s company to remain, the Y showed some love by installing new seats and carpeting in the auditorium housing his theater. Owens said having the theater there “is a unique opportunity and presence. Mr. Beasley’s a renowned artist and his productions are tremendous. We wanted to make the upgrades to let him know we respect him and appreciate what he provides.”
Additional plans for the auditorium call for the addition of a drop-down projector to accommodate Power Point II presentations, which Owens hopes will attract organizations to use the facility during the day for meetings and trainings.
As a nod to the legacy of the woman who made the center a reality, Y officials renamed it the LaFern Williams South YMCA. While Owens never met Williams he said, “we’re honored to carry Miss LaFern’s name and her mission to be a beacon or a cornerstone for this community. I’m proud to be that steward that fights for those whose arms get tired. I don’t take that lightly.”
He said the deep meaning the place has in the community is reflected by the fact it’s only been tagged once in the seven years he’s been there. “I think that has a lot to do with respect. That this is kind of off-limits. This is the hub. This facility has such a lineage and a history. A lot of young people’s parents, brothers, aunts, uncles participated here. It’s like we take care of our own.”
- A South Omaha Renaissance (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home is Where the Heart Is for Activist Attorney Rita Melgares (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- El Puente: Attempting to Bridge the Divide Between Grassroots Community and The System (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha South High Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award Winner Maria Walinski-Peterson Follows Her Heart (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Omaha’s had a problem with gangs for a quarter century now. Most American cities share the same scourge, more or less. It’s good to be reminded that law enforcement efforts to deal with the problem don’t begin and end with patrolling hot zones or investing crimes or making arrests, they also include grassroots community engagement to try and steer young kids away from the pull of gangs into positive activities. The following story I wrote for El Perico a few years ago describes the community prevention-intervention work of one cop in Omaha, Det. Tony Espejo with the gang unit.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
For Omaha Police Department Gang Unit detective Tony Espejo, being honored as National Latino Peace Officers Association Officer of the Year in Austin, Texas earlier this month brought full circle the community service his parents modeled for him.
As long as he can remember, he said his folks, Juana and Ezequiel Espejo, “have been advocates in the community…Growing up, we always opened our house up to people. My mom is a big advocate in the YWCA. A lot of people know her. She’s had a huge hand in helping a lot of immigrant families.”
Today, Espejo, who’s married with two children, serves that same community working out of the Southeast Precinct. It’s a different environment than the small, tight-knit environment he knew as a boy. Families then were more cohesive, youth activities more numerous.The Gross High grad dropped out of college, then entered the military.
“I wasn’t doing bad things but I wasn’t doing great things. Boy, the Marine Corps got me on the straight and narrow, it got me organized. I grew up is what I did.
When he returned home, he found a new immigrant population reenergizing the area. But there was a new problem: unsupervised youths running the streets, trafficking in drugs, engaging in driveby shootings.
“The graffiti and gang problem was probably the biggest shocker for me,” he said. “When I left in 1992 it was just starting. I think there was one Hispanic gang in south Omaha and I knew all the kids in it. We used to play sandlot baseball and football together. I came back and these guys were full blown gangsters and there were three or four different gangs by then. Before, there was not the violence I all of a sudden walked into here. This wasn’t the south Omaha I knew.”
Back home his desire “to make things better” prompted him to become a cop.
“There weren’t a lot of Mexican police officers at the time, you rarely saw any on the street,” he said. Eventually assigned his old stomping grounds, he joined the gang unit in 2004. He said, “I kind of looked at it from a problem-solving aspect. Why are these kids doing this? What is the root of the problem?”
In 2005 the example of two men he met planted a seed. In Chicago, Bob Muzikowski channeled kids from the notorious Cabrini-Green projects into baseball. Locally, Stoney Hays funneled kids into Boys and Girls Club activities. Espejo liked the idea of recruiting at-risk kids away from gangs into something structured and positive. His first inclination was baseball, but the youth he ran into had other ideas.
“I would drive around on patrol and see all these different groups of kids playing soccer.
I didn’t know anything about soccer, but it’s huge for these kids.”
He formed a soccer league with help from the Nebraska Latino Peace Officers Association. It’s grown from six to 18 teams. He enlists kids he happens upon.
“There’s always a leader,” he said.”I find that kid and make him responsible. I let the group pick their own team name, colors, uniform. It means something to them. I want the kids to be proud of being from south Omaha.”
He said young people crave “a sense of belonging. They’re ripe for the picking.” His intervention program tries reaching kids before gangs do.
He and fellow officers volunteer as coaches. The consistency of positive adult role models, he said, “is probably the biggest thing missing in a lot of families nowadays.”
Participation’s free. Uniforms provided. But, he said, “we aren’t just giving it out, they have to put out and practice.” They have to act right.
“We emphasize we’re not just coaches, we’re police officers, so if you do get in trouble we’re going to find out about it, and we’d hate for you to embarrass us because we’re here to help you guys out. I’ve had my disappointments. Two leaders turned out to be little gangsters. I recently arrested one of my guys. I take it personally, because I took my chance to change them. I can’t be there every day for them. You can only carry them so far. At some point you gotta let ‘em go, and hopefully that little bit of time we spend with them, they’re going to make the right decision.”
The relationships built, he said, allow kids “to see officers in a different light. It humanizes us. And it gives officers an idea of what it’s like to live down here for these kids. A lot of them come from dysfunctional homes. They tell us their problems.”
The kids he started with are graduating high school and moving on with their lives.
He’s since added a baseball league. He wants to expand his efforts into north Omaha.
Along with mentoring kids, he educates parents about the dangers of gang involvement. He said his bilingual skills and respected family name “open up doors for me.”
He described his award as “huge.” Meeting distinguished Latinos in Austin, he said, “was a big inspiration. Now I know I can achieve higher, I should achieve higher. It means a lot for me to be even considered that caliber of person. But I wouldn’t be where I’m at if I didn’t have other officers and volunteers helping me out on their own time.”
With 300 kids participating, he needs more fields, volunteers, sponsors. “This thing’s only limited by funding,” he said. “It’s a huge commitment, but it’s the right thing to do.”
To donate or volunteer, call 402-510-1495.
- Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Chicago gang database intends to predict violence (foxnews.com)
- NOPD targets group violence, gangs across city (wwltv.com)
- Gray Matters: Ben and Freddie Gray Fight the Good Fight Helping Young Men and Women Find Pathways to Success (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)