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Terence “Bud” Crawford in the fight of his life for lightweight title: top contender from Omaha’s mean streets looks to make history

February 25, 2014 Leave a comment

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:

 

 

©Omaha World-Herald

 

 

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.”

 

 

Team Crawford

 

 

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.

Giving Kids a Fighting Chance: Carl Washington and his CW Boxing Club and Youth Resource Center

December 3, 2013 Leave a comment

The initials in the CW Boxing Club and the CW Youth Resource Center belong to Carl Washington, the founder and director of longstanding programs making a difference in the lives of at-risk young people.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Carl and the work he does to keep kids on the straight and narrow touches on what happened in his life to prompt his  commitment to mentoring and coaching.
Giving Kids a Fighting Chance: Carl Washington and his CW Boxing Club and Youth Resource Center
©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.

From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood

August 11, 2012 1 comment

 

 

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)

 

Harley Cooper

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.”

 

 

 

Harley Cooper

 

 

 

Joey Parks

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.”

 

Joey Parks

 

 

Lamont Kirkland

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.

 

 

 

Lamont Kirkland, right

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Midge Minor

    

From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Grapplers – Masters in the Way of the Mat

August 11, 2012 Leave a comment

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.”

 

 

Roye Oliver, ©azcentral.com

Chris Oliver, ©huskers.com

Ray Oliver, ©photo nswca.com

 

 

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.

The Coaches

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.”

 

 

Charles Bryant

Don Benning

Joe Edmondson

Curlee Alexander

Hoops Legend Abdul-Jabbar Talks History

August 9, 2012 Leave a comment

 

A few years ago I got the opportunity to interview college and pro basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in advance of his giving a talk in Omaha.  He was every bit the thoughtful man he projects to be.  Before doing this short piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) I vaguely knew he had turned author and amateur historian with an eye towards highlighting African American achievements but I learned that he’s done much more in this area than I ever imagined and I got the sense he’s at least as proud of his work in this arena as he is of what he did on the hardwood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hoops Legend Abdul-Jabbar Talks History

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the man who made the sky hook and goggles signature parts of hoopsiconography, headlines the May 12 B’nai B’rith Charity Sports Banquet at the Qwest Center Omaha. Now an author, he is the rare ex-sports superstar who’s applied a social conscience after balling.

The Naismith and NBA Hall of Famer was a legend before playing his first collegiate basketball game in 1967. His schoolboy dominance at Powers Memorial in New York City made him the most prized recruit since Wilt Chamberlain. He was so unstoppable at UCLA, when still known as Lew Alcindor, that dunking was outlawed after his sophomore season. He led the Bruins to three national championships.

In only his second NBA season his expansion Milwaukee Bucks won the 1971 title. Omaha native Bob Boozer was the team’s 6th man. Abdul-Jabbar competed several times against the Kansas City-Omaha Kings at the Civic Auditorium.

The inscrutable big man added five more titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. Six times he earned the league’s MVP award. Upon retirement he was the NBA’s all-time points scorer and arguably the greatest player ever. He continues as a Lakers special assistant today.

Like the late tennis star Arthur Ashe, he’s transcended athletics to write and talk about black history. The two were student-athletes together for a year at UCLA. In a phone interview Abdul-Jabbar said Ashe asked for his help researching the book, A Hard Road to Glory. Each came out of the civil rights struggle and endured criticism for being aloof. Abdul-Jabbar’s conversion to Islam alienated some. He said his passion for chronicling the stories of African-American achievers can be traced to a high school program he took that cultivated an interest in writing and history and introduced him to unknown facets of his childhood neighborhood, Harlem.

“Very loud echoes of the Harlem Renaissance were still there to be heard. I was just instilled with a lot of pride when I read about what Harlem had meant to Black America. It was just totally inspiring,” he said. “It made me want to share that as a very natural extension for how I felt about what was going on in America and what I wanted to do about it.”

His 2007 book On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance describes Harlem’s legacy as “the capital of Black America and a place where a lot of things happened that made black Americans proud,” he said.

A story from those halcyon days is the subject of a documentary he’s producing, On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Basketball Team You Never Heard Of. Featuring on-camera comments by such hoop and pop culture stars as Charles Barkley and Spike Lee, it profiles the New York Renaissance or Harlem Rens, America’s first all-black pro basketball team. Owner Bob Douglas, often called the Father of Black Basketball, created the team in the early 1920s when segregation still ruled sports and society-at-large. The Rens delivered a powerful message by routinely trouncing all comers, including white squads before white audiences, over the next three decades.

 

 

 

 

Abdul-Jabbar is delighted to have several connections to the Rens. A well-known New York high school hoops official who called some of his games, Dolly King, played for the Rens. Abdul-Jabbar’s legendary UCLA coach John Wooden played a 1930s exhibition against the Rens as a Purdue All-American.

For the 7’2 basketball great, the Rens represent the struggle “for equality that consumed black Americans in all phases of life.” He hopes the film, scheduled for a 2011 release, educates young people that today’s opportunities have been hard-earned and nothing good comes easily.

Meanwhile, he’s coping with a rare form of leukemia that an oral medication treats. He’s not had to curtail his activities.

In Omaha he’ll speak about the World War II all-black 761st tank battalion, the subject of his 2004 book, Brothers in Arms. Some dispute battalion veterans’ claims they helped liberate Dachau concentration camp. There’s no disputing their heroic, unheralded role in the Battle of the Bulge and in the Allies’ final push across France and Germany.

When a Building isn’t Just a Building

August 3, 2012 2 comments

 

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)

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Miles Busby distributing sacked lunches to children

 

 

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Volunteer and member working on a mural

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

John Beasley (seated) and Co., ©thereader.com

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

photo
Community garden on the South Omaha YMCA grounds, ©The Big Garden

 

Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha

July 17, 2012 7 comments

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha

©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.”

 

©photo by Jose Francisco Garcia

 

 

 

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.

Kenton Keith’s Long and Winding Journey to Football Redemption

July 4, 2012 1 comment

This is a story of one who got away.  If you grow up playing football in Nebraska and show real potential to play in college it’s sort of assumed or ordained that you will wind up playing for the University of Nebraska, whether as a recruited scholarship or walk-on student-athlete.  The Cornhuskers nearly always get the cream of the state’s football crop to come to Lincoln.  But once in a while and with greater frequency these days NU loses out on a real gem who decides for various reasons, sometimes because the brain trust in Lincoln doesn’t recognize or appreciate the local talent, to play their college ball elsewhere.  The Huskers have lost out on some stellar players that way in the last decade, including several who went on to excel in college and to make it all the way to the NFL.  This is a profile of one of these who got away – Kenton Keith of Omaha.  The running back thought he had showed enough in high school to get the Huskers to bite but it didn’t happen.  Well, actually, NU did show initial interest but then a shakeup there found him in the lurch, without the scholarship offer he’d expected.  The rest is history.  He went on to star at New Mexico State and after toiling in the Canadian Football League he made it in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts, where he helped the club win a division title as a solid number two back.  Things unraveled a bit for him after that but he had already found his football redemption by proving he could play at the highest level.  Xavier Omon and Danny Woodhead followed him as in-state backs ignored by Nebraska and finding college stardom and making NFL rosters.  Woodhead, of course, has become a popular and valuable contributor with the Patriots.

 

 

Kenton Keith’s Long and Winding Journey to Football Redemption

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Omaha native Kenton Keith’s circuitous path to football nirvana took him to the gridiron wilderness of New Mexico and Canada before he made it to the NFL. When he landed a roster spot last off-season with the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts it marked the end of a nine-year odyssey for the fleet tailback.

“You can look at my football life and almost understand how my whole life has been. Nothing was given me. Everything was hard-earned. I always had to play against the odds and God has blessed me for every hurdle that I got over,” he said.

It all began in 1998. As a senior at Omaha Benson High School Keith was a prime target of elite Division I schools. He’d narrowed his choices to Nebraska and Penn State. He leaned toward the Huskers, where his father, Percy Keith, played. Tom Osborne was a close family friend.

“Everything was so perfect at one time,” Keith, 27, said.

Once Oz resigned, Keith said Frank Solich and Co. backed away from him late in the recruiting game. Other schools that once coveted Keith suddenly gave him “the cold shoulder” too. Why would a kid branded a phenom for his exploits with the North Omaha Bears and Benson and for his rare combo of speed, size and instinct find himself a pariah? Keith said his stock fell as a result of a Benson administrator labeling him a gang member and a poor student.

The truth, Keith said. is “I was busting my butt to make my grades right and they were actually already good.” He said he was never in a gang, only a rap music group. Music is still a huge part of his life.

He ended up with but two scholarship offers — from NAIA Morningside and D-I New Mexico State. A last gasp effort by NU, including a call from Oz, did not sway his decision to play for the Aggies down in Las Cruces, N.M., far from family, friends, media centers and NFL scouts.

The way NU did him left Keith “discouraged and upset.” “A lot of stuff happened between me and Nebraska that nobody knows about,” he said.

Instead of being embittered, he said, “I made the best of it I could.” After a stellar if injury-plagued four-year career at NMSU, Keith went undrafted by the NFL in 2001. He was devastated. He quit football before the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL called in 2002. He spent a year-and-a-half on the team’s practice squad. Then, in 2003, his chance finally came and he blew up the league. Three-and-a-half productive seasons and one failed NFL tryout (with the New York Jets) later, he’s now a contributor for the most watched team in all pro sports.

Despite the many “backstreets” he took to get there, he never doubted he could play with the big boys. “I always knew what I could do,” he said.

Kenton Keith signing autographs before a Colts game

 

 

He’s not only “beaten the odds” but proven a valuable addition. Signed as a free agent in January, he enjoyed a strong training camp and by the Sept. 6 opener the 5’11, 209-pound rookie established himself as the No. 2 back behind Joseph Addai. Keith saw spot relief duty the first three games. Then, when Addai got dinged in the Sept. 30 game versus Denver, Keith came in to gain 80 yards on 10 carries as the Colts won 38-20. With Addai out nursing an injury, Keith started the Oct. 7 Tampa Bay game and showed his dependability and durability by rushing for 121 yards on 28 carries and one touchdown and catching five passes for 37 more yards in a 33-14 Indy win.

In the next two games Keith also saw significant action. In a 29-7 win over Jacksonville he split time with Addai — gaining 56 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. In a 31-7 win over Carolina he tallied 36 yards rushing. His playing time decreased in Indy’s Nov. 4 marquee showdown with New England. But in a near comeback over San Diego last Sunday night he got the call on a critical second-half drive and responded. His running set up the Colts in the red zone and he converted a dump pass into an 7-yard TD reception to draw Indy within seven. For the season he’s totaled 369 yards rushing and three TDs, averaging a solid 4.6 yards per attempt, and he’s added 62 yards receiving and one more score.

He’s shown glimpses in the NFL of the breakaway ability he’s always possessed.

“I’ve always been told I’m a big play type of guy. I don’t know if I really look to do it, it just always happens,” he said. “I think my vision is what separates me from a lot of runners. I read people’s body language to see where I can go…turn. If a guy is committed to one side, then there’s no way he can get back to the cutback if you can get there first.

“I think it’s just something that you feel. It’s almost like you can feel it before you can see it. It’s weird, man.”

 

 

He’s put his moves on hold for now, content playing it safe getting “positive yards and first downs. It’s almost like when you’re playing the backup role and you’re just put in for one game you don’t want to do anything wrong,” he said. “I’ve been getting to the secondary a lot…and I think maybe there’s been times where I could have put a move on somebody and taken it outside and gone the distance. I mean, that’s going to come soon when I get a little bit more comfortable.”

He’s “95 percent comfortable” with the playbook now. The “learning process,” he said, is more challenging than any physical adjustment he’s had to make. To his surprise the 7-2 Colts are smaller than his former Roughriders’ teammates. But the Colts speed and the game’s tempo, he said, are faster than up north.

For Keith, who’s mostly played on mediocre teams, the Colts’ winning attitude is a breath of fresh air. He doesn’t know when his next major playing time will come, but he’s sure he’ll be ready when it does.

“I really believe the way you practice is how you’re going to play…so I try to make sure I practice real hard and stay mentally focused out there.”

Whatever happens, he’s glad he stuck this long and winding journey out. “It seems like it’s a big reward for the way things have been going throughout my football career,” he said. “God blessed me to come here with the Colts and to be like a perfect fit for what this team needed.”

From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, A Brief History of Omaha’s Black, Urban, Inner-City Hoops Scene

June 25, 2012 1 comment

The pursuit of my Holy Grail of interviews began with this story, an installment in a lengthy series I write in the mid-2000s for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. We called the series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, and in it I tried to lay out just what it was that made possible the Golden Age of athletic excellence that saw so many outstanding athletes come out of Omaha’s small African-American community.  You’ll find virtually every installment from the series on this blog.  Eventually I’ll have it all up here.  Well, back to my frustrated pursuit of an interview for this story.  His name is Mike McGee and the legend around him began when he played for Omaha North High in the mid-1970s.  He put up really big numbers as a junior.  But no one could have predicted the crazy numbers he achieved his senior season as a do-everything wing man, when he averaged about 38 points and 15 rebounds a game in the state’s largest class competition. He was simply unstoppable.  Heavily recruited, he went to Michigan and not only that stories basketball program’s all-time leading scorer but the elite Big Ten’s career scoring leader as well.  He played with the Magic and Kareem’s Lakers, won a title, and had a decent NBA career.  By the time I wanted to talk with him for this story he had cut most ties with friends and family in Omaha and was coaching overseas.  I managed to get his number and even exchanged messages with him but we never did hook up for an interview.  He’s been in China of late.  Oh, well, maybe someday.  He’s just one of many top players from Omaha’s inner city I profile here.  The talent ran rather dry in recent years but there’s a hoops revival underway led by top recruit Akoy Agau (I profile him on the blog).  You’ll also find on this site full-blown profiles I did of two old-school hoops legends from Omaha – the late Bob Boozer and Ron Boone.  Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was a helluva basketball player in his day as well and I have a few profiles of Gibby on the site.

 

 

Mike McGee

 

 

From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness,, A Brief History of Omaha’s Black, Urban, Inner-City Hoops Scene

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

In what is a rite of passage in the inner city, driveways, playgrounds and gyms serve as avenues and repositories for hoop dreams that get realized just often enough to energize each new generation’s hard court aspirations.

The hold basketball’s taken over urban America in recent decades is a function both of the sport’s simplicity and expressiveness. Only a ball and a bucket are needed, after all, for players to create signature moves on the floor and in the air that separate them, their game and their persona from the pack.

Not surprisingly, the hip-hop scene grew out of streetball culture, where trash talking equals rap, where a sweet crossover dribble or slam resembles dance and where stylin’ gets you props from the crowd or your crew. Every level of organized basketball today is influenced by the urban roots of its most gifted and creative participants — African-Americans. Blacks have given the game its flavor and flash.

Omaha is no different. Whether getting schooled on cement, asphalt, gravel, dirt or wood, black players emerging from the urban core have defined Omaha’s hoops legacy. Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer set the standard. John Nared, Bill King, Fred Hare, Joe Williams and Ron Boone followed in their footsteps. From the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s, a new crop of players made noise, including Dennis Forrest, John C. Johnson, Mike McGee, Lee Johnson, Daryl Stovall, Ron Kellogg, Kerry Trotter, Cedric Hunter, Michael Johnson, Maurtice Ivy and Jessica Haynes. Then, in the early to mid-90s, Andre Woolridge, Erick Strickland, Terrance Badgett, Curtis Marshall, Alvin Mitchell, Will Perkins and company made their mark. Now, it’s Creighton recruit Josh Dotzler’s turn. The floor leader for Bellevue West’s back-to-back Nebraska Class A state championship teams, Dotzler will, barring injury, do something most of his predecesors did — play Division I ball. Coming up, he heard comparisons to them. It’s always been that way. Older players carry reps. Young bloods pattern their game after them and a lucky few are labeled heir apparents.

A handful of local inner city players have made it all the way to the NBA. The most successful was Boozer, one of two natives, along with McGee, to win a ring. Only one hometowner– nine-year veteran Erick Strickland — is still active in the league (as a reserve with the Bucks). Although he didn’t grow up in the inner city, the former Bellevue West and University of Nebraska standout ventured there for pick-up games. Other Omaha inner city products have played overseas. Andre Woolridge, the ex-Benson great who left NU to star at Iowa, still does, in Israel. It’s one of many stops he’s made in a far-flung, star-crossed career.

Kellogg and Trotter did the overseas thing before him. Lee Johnson followed a big time career abroad by assuming the general manager’s job for a team in France.

 

 

 

 

Being a superstar in The Hood doesn’t always translate to organized ball. Stories abound of playground phenoms who, for one reason another, didn’t make it at the high school or college level. Some still got pro tryouts, like Taugi Glass, but their potential and dreams never quite meshed with reality.

In this sampling of the Omaha inner city hoops landscape over the last 50 years, you’ll meet some of the players who’ve helped elevate the game here and discover the roots of what made each a legend in his own time.

Until Dotzler, Andre Woolridge was among the last Omaha prepsters coveted by elite roundball programs. Closely tied to Omaha’s inner city athletic heritage and pedigree, Woolridge hooped it up at favorite North O haunts. Two of his youth coaches, Lonnie McIntosh and Ernie Boone, were good players in their day.

Perhaps the greatest shaper of Woolridge the athlete was his father, Frank Sanders, a former athlete himself who designed a busy regimen for his son. “He always had me into something,” Woolridge said. “In the summer, there was no sleeping till noon. It was get up and go take tennis lessons or go play ball.”

Woolridge dabbled in many sports, but basketball soon became his game. “I started young. In the second or third grade I wasn’t that good, and then all of a sudden it just started coming. I picked things up fast. Playing at the boys club you always had to play against older guys, bigger guys, stronger guys, and I just took off from there.” It was in the 7th or 8th grade, he said, the talk around the neighborhood began — ‘This kid is going to be good.’” He listened and dreamed.

Faced with more mature competition, he had to push himself if he wanted to hang. Some of those pushing him became his models.

“I looked up to a lot of streetball players. Guys like Taugi Glass, Melvin Chinn, Willie Brand and James ‘Snook’ Hadden. I took different things from street guys’ games and put them into mine. I wanted to jump like Taugi Glass. I wanted to handle the ball like Melvin Chinn. I wanted to have the offensive ability of Willie Brand…Streetball, you know, that’s where I come from.”

Kerry Trottter

 

 

Then there were top-notch players from a generation before him whose games he tried emulating. Dennis Forrest, a former Central High and UNO great drafted by the Denver Nuggets, worked at the boys club and would go one-on-one with Woolridge. “He would torture me every day, for years, until I got bigger and more athletic. He could shoot the ball,” Woolridge said. After John C. Johnson led Central to consecutive state titles in ‘74 and ‘75, he stamped himself an all-time Creighton great. After failing to make the NBA he became a legend in area recreational leagues, where Woolridge watched and learned.

“There were great games at the boys club on Sundays. I wasn’t old enough or good enough to play yet, but I would watch Kerry Trotter, John C. Johnson, Lee Johnson, Mike McGee…all in the same gym…and knowing these guys were making money off the game was an inspiration for me to get out of the ghetto and out of the hood and do something.”

As he got older, he played against some of his idols. He even beat one, John C. Johnson, while only a 7th grader. Johnson knew “he had the gift.” He was special.

Of all the players to come out of the inner city, McGee, is the most magical for a certain era of fans. As a North High senior, he shattered the single season Class A scoring record with an average of 38.1 points a game in 1976. No one’s come close since. He went on to break scoring records at Michigan, where he totalled 2,439 points in 114 games, and played five years as a reserve on the prodigious Laker teams of the ‘80s starring Magic and Kareem, winning one championship. Before MJ, everybody in Omaha “wanted to be like Mike,” Woolridge said. “He was such a superstar. I wanted a piece of his game  – that sweet jump shot.” Ron Kellogg, who enjoyed fame at Northwest High and Kansas, said. “Growing up, he’s who I used to go watch play all the time. He was a set shooter and I couldn’t believe how he could get his shot off, but he had such a quick release and he moved so well without the ball. He was just a thrill to watch. Incredible.” Kerry Trotter, who made a name for himself at Creighton Prep and Marquette, said, “Mike McGee was the guy. So, I know, for me he was kind of the standard. That’s who I wanted to be like in regards to being the next guy.” These days, McGee coaches internationally, most recently in South Korea.

Like McGee before him, Woolridge worked and worked on his skills. “I would go to the basketball court and be there all day long. I mean, literally, all day. Ten hours. Some of us would hop in a car and travel from court to court,” he said. “I was a student of the game.” By the time he got to Benson High, he was a player.

“I could just score. I could put it in the basket any way. I could shoot the 3. I was quick enough to get to the hole. I had great anticipation.” He started as a freshman, scoring 17 his first game, and the rest is history. He went on to break the career Class A scoring record in Nebraska (1911 points) and led his Bunnies to the state title, capping his brilliant prep run with a dominating 50-point performance in the 1992 finals. “It’s storybook. It’s sweet. We got the win. I got the record. The first championship for Benson in I don’t know how many years.”

Andre Woolridge

 

 

The wooing of Woolridge by colleges began his freshman year and intensified after his sophmore year. The McDonalds and Converse All-American considered Iowa but settled on Nebraska. Things didn’t go as planned in Lincoln. Some say he was under-used. Others that he was mis-used. On a team of scorers, nobody wanted to distribute the ball. Whether it was the coach or the system, he wasn’t happy. He began looking at other options during the season, waiting until the end to leave NU for Iowa. “I don’t blame anybody,” he said. “I think it was something I had to go through to become the person I am now.”

He got hate mail. He used the criticism as motivation. “I knew I had a whole redshirt year to work on whatever they said I couldn’t do or whatever type of player they said I wouldn’t be, and I took that with me every day.” Going to Iowa, he said, was for the best. “It was good to get away on my own and to find myself. It was like another storybook.” As a Hawkeye, the consumate court general dished 575 assists and scored 1,525 points in 97 games.

Despite fine numbers and decent showings at pro camps, he went undrafted by the NBA. “It was a shocking blow. Devastating. It’s still a mystery to me and to a lot of people,” he said. He did get tryouts, initially with Golden State, and with 10 to 15 clubs since, but it’s always “you’re too short” or “we have too many players at your position.” So, he took the foreign route and has enjoyed a vagabound career playing for teams in France, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Israel. There was a stint in the National Basketball Development League. When he’s actually paid, the money’s good, but he’s been burned enough to now demand a big chunk of his salary upfront. He still harbors NBA hopes, but at 31 he’s resigned to his fate.

“I’ve had the best of the game and I’ve had the worst of the game,” he said.

Ron Kellogg got his start playing ball in an area of North O called “Vietnam” for all the gang violence and desolation there. He competed at the boys club and in the tough Kellom league. But he didn’t really begin honing his game until his family moved from the ghetto to northwest Omaha, where the white next door neighbors erected a hoop in the dirt backyard. Only the basket was set 12-feet high. Taking aim at that higher-than-regulation cup is how the left-handed Kellogg developed his trademark rainbow shot launched to deadly accurate effect from the corner and top of the key. If he wasn’t going one-on-one with friend Mike Cimino, Kellogg was hooping it alone. “That’s where I spent most of my time,” he said. “I mean, every day I was outside for hours back there shooting.”

He credits three mentors with his early development: his father Ron Kellogg, Sr.; longtime youth coach Tom Ivy — the father of Maurtice Ivy; and his late grandfather Leonard Hawkins. Early on, he was identified with a talented group of players emerging in the state that included Kerry Trotter, Dave Hoppen, James Moore and Vic Lazzaretti. “We were competing from the 6th grade on, so it started early for us,” Kellogg said. They were joined by outstaters Bill Jackman and Mike Martz to make up what arguably became the best senior class (1982) in Nebraska prep history. They anchored the first Valentinos select team to crash Las Vegas. All played Division I ball.

But if one stood out from the rest, Trotter said, it was Kellogg. “He was definitely the best athlete of the bunch.” Kellogg was a fine sprinter and had what his coach at Northwest, Dick Koch, described as “great leg strength and balance.”

Even though forbidden, high schools hotly recruited the players. “That’s when I knew I probably had a chance to do something,” Kellogg said.

 

 

Kellogg got the reins his first year with the varsity at Northwest, where he said coach Dick Koch told him, “‘The ball is yours. This is your team.’ I was surprised. I was like, Wow! Really?’ His prep debut — a 28-point effort versus Ryan — was a sign of things to come. The thing he’s best remembered for — his marksmanship — set him apart. “He’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen. He could pull up on a dime and take that 16 to 20-foot shot. That’s where he did a lot of his damage,” said Koch. He got his initial national exposure at national invitational camps and with the Valentinos team. After the recruiting pitches began, the Parade All-American visited cadillac programs, strutting his stuff in pick up games versus top returning players.

“This is where they see what type of player you are,” he said. “When I performed well, that gave me the confidence I could play with anybody.”

Kansas proved a good fit. He ended up playing for a Hall of Fame coach in Larry Brown. He helped lead KU back to glory. He hooped two seasons with Danny Manning. More importantly, he met his wife, Latrice, a Kansas native, and the mother of their three kids. Under Brown, Kellogg learned “not only the game, but the game of life.” After two years on the bench, his turning point as a Jayhawk came in the 1984 Big Eight tournament finals against Oklahoma. The little-used soph was inserted in the lineup with about a minute left and KU trailing. “I came in and I took a shot right away and missed. Coach Brown called a time out and I got the hardest slap on my leg. It stung. I can still feel it. That woke me up. He told me what was at stake: ‘You can take this chance or you can blow it, but you can win this game.’ And in that time out I got my focus on and I ended up hitting the winning shot. That jump-started my career and put us back on the map.”

In Lawrence, Kellogg was joined by South High product Cedric Hunter, who ran the KU offense to perfection. Danny Manning is remembered as the big wheel for KU, but Kellogg was a key spoke. He twice made first team All-Big 8 and the league all-defensive team. He drained a remarkable 56 percent of his field goal tries his junior and senior years and an impressve 82.8 percent of his free throws for his career. He finished with 1,508 points, 416 rebounds and 272 assists in 130 games, averaging 17.6 and 15.9 points per game as a junior and senior, respectively.

The highlight of his collegiate days came in the 1986 Final Four at Dallas’ Reunion Arena. He scored 22 points in KU’s semifinal loss to Duke. “Playing in the Final Four was a special moment that I’ll cherish the rest of my life. It’s a big event. It’s seen around the world. You better be prepared, too, because it can be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Besides Cedric and myself, I don’t know of any other Nebraskans who’ve played in the Final Four.”

Kellogg was taken by the Atlanta Hawks in the 2nd round of the NBA draft, only to be traded to the L.A. Lakers in a package deal for his childhood idol, Mike McGee. An injury in pre-season camp prevented him from performing near his best. He was the last man cut from the roster. “From there,” he said, “I went on a rollercoaster. I played in the CBA (with the Topeka Sizzlers and Omaha Racers) and then I went overseas and played in Belgium,” where he hooked up and kicked it with his old mate, Kerry Trotter. “After a stint in Finland, I decided to settle down.”

Kerry Trotter managed what few Americans do — he played 11 years with the same European club — Briane — located just outside Brussels, Belgium. “Absolutely, it’s very unique. I had opportunities to play other places, but I liked Brussels very much. I learned to speak French and to appreciate French wines. I have dual citizenship,” he said. Cultivating a cosmopolitan life on the continent is quite a feat given Trotter and his siblings were raised in the projects by their single mother. Her insistence that they get good grades as a prerequisite for playing ball paid off when Kerry and his twin brother Kirk got scholarships to Creighton Prep. The school’s Jesuit connections led to Trotter attending Marquette.

Like Kellogg, Trotter came up on the northside’s proving grounds. “Back in the day, the Bryant Center had a league. It was legendary. Ron and I played on a summer league team there and we went like 20-0 for two summers. Man, we were just crushing people. It was great,” he said. He said he and Kellogg were well aware of the greats who came before them and were honored to be mentioned in the same breath. “We were fortunate to keep the bar raised high.”

Coming out parties for rising stars usually begin in high school, but Trotter said a grade school select team enabled he and Kellogg to showcase their talents against other hot shots in Phoenix. “We saw we could compete with them,” Trotter said. By the time they played on the Valentinos team, they were turning coaches’ and players’ heads. “They were looking at us like, ‘Nebraska? Who are these kids?’

In high school, the pair were friends and rivals. “We took it personal,” Kellogg said. “Those two really went at it,” Koch recalled. “Boy, they competed against each other. Neither one liked to lose.” Their contests were events. “Our games had to be played at the Civic so damn many people wanted to see us hoop,” Trotter said.

A combination of power and finesse, Trotter worked for what he got. “I was either in the gym all the time or at the park. I just really wanted to be that good. I had a great basketball work ethic and IQ. Growing up in the projects playing streetball and then going to a program like Creighton Prep, where it was a system, I was able to blend that together and, man, I was just knocking ‘em out. I was a player who could fill up the stat sheet — rebound, score, assist, steal.” A rare four-year starter, he was above all else a gamer. “I wanted to win a state title at Creighton Prep, because that’s what they do. I wanted to be part of that history.” He got his wish in ‘81 when his clutch free throws sealed the deal versus Benson in the finals.

The McDonalds and Parade All-American followed his heart, to Marquette, where he was a solid all-around player, posting 1,221 points, 569 boards, 369 assists and 158 steals in 116 career games. Undrafted by the NBA, Trotter found a comfortable fit for his game and his life in Belgium. He brought family members overseas to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Having his mom there, he said, was “my pay back.”

The Man Behind the Voice of Husker Football at Memorial Stadium

June 20, 2012 1 comment

There are many voices of University of Nebraska football.  Head Coach bo Pelini. Husker Sports Network play-by-play man Greg Sharpe.  Not to be forgotten though is Husker football’s Memorial Stadium public address announcer Patrick Combs, who lends his own signature personality to the goings-on inside that cathedral of college football without ever detracting from it.  I did the piece a few years ago about Combs and his dream role as “The Voice of Husker Football.”

Patrick Combs working the PA system, ©(JACOB HANNAH/Lincoln Journal Star)

 

 

The Man Behind the Voice of Husker Football at Memorial Stadium

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Patrick Combs, 41, lives a dream each Husker game day as the in-stadium announcer for Nebraska football. He grew up cheering Big Red at Memorial Stadium, where he and his late father, Lincoln, Neb. car dealer Woody Combs, bonded on Saturdays.

From age 13 on, he said, “it’s safe to say my dream was to be the Voice of the Huskers. I always thought how cool it would be someday to be that booming voice…”

When not living his dream he’s director of business development for NRG Media, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based company with 83 radio stations in seven states. Combs works out of the Omaha office, home to Waitt Radio Network. He loves radio, but despite a resonant voice he didn’t seek a career in broadcasting, it sought him.

Growing up he and his family were into horses. His father, whom Combs said “had a great voice,” announced area equestrian events, including those a young Pat rode in. Whenever his dad couldn’t do an event, Combs filled in. People would invariably tell him, “You should be an announcer.” Instead, he attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln intent on going into law or politics. He interned for then-Governor Bob Kerrey.

He ended up going to work for his dad. Recruited away by another dealer, he made general manager at 24. In 1993, he led a group of young American professionals to Taiwan for an international business summit and found a new calling.

“It was a life-changing month for me,” Combs said. “I realized very quickly how fortunate we are in this country with the freedoms we have and the abilties we have to be entrepeneurial. I came back idealistic and energized…and I decided to channel that by running for political office to try to make a difference.”

He entered the ‘94 U.S. Congressional race against Neb. Republican incumbant Doug Bereuter. Combs, a Democrat, was a 27-year-old unknown. But in a GOP-heavy state he managed 40 percent of the vote by campaigning every day and raising an unheard of $250,000 for his upstart bid. He failed to gain the same seat again in ‘96.

By then soured on selling cars and being denied a political career, he answered opportunity when KLIN in Lincoln asked him to co-host a talk show. The gig got in his blood and he learned the biz, laying the foundation for his 13-year radio career.

Life was good. He married, became a father of two, saw his career flourish at Waitt, which merged with NRG, and indulged his “passion” for riding Harleys. But two things were missing. The man he calls “my biggest idol and mentor” — his dad — died in 2001. And his dream job as Voice of Husker Nation seemed unattainable.

“I’d pretty much written off that job,” he said. Enter fate. In 2003 the job came open and Combs won it after auditioning, including calling that year’s Spring Game.

Going on his fifth year as the P.A. man, he said, “I’m still like a little kid in a candy store. I love it.” Though few know the name behind the voice, he said, “that’s OK. I’m just thrilled to be there. I’m humbled every day I walk into the stadium and to be part of such a storied program. There’s pressure to do a good job and I try very hard to do a good job. I do not want to let the fans down.” That’s why he preps hours before each contest. Calling a good game, he said, comes down “to being a facilitator of information and adding to the environment of the game.”

From the booth Combs imagines his dad, who got him started announcing, hearing him in the stands.

“I know he would be so proud his son is the Voice of the Huskers.”

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