Prodigal Son, Marlin Briscoe Takes the Long Road Home (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
I never saw Marlin Briscoe play college football, but as I came of age people who had see The Magician perform regaled me with stories of his improvisational playmaking skills on the gridiron, and so whenever I heard or read the name, I tried imagining what his elusive, dramatic, highlight reel runs or passes looked like. Mention Briscoe’s name to knowledgable sports fans and they immediately think of a couple things: that he was the first black starting quarterback in the National Football League; and that he won two Super Bowl rings as a wide receiver with the Miami Dolphins. But as obvious as it seems, I believe that both during his career and after most folks don’t appreciate (1) how historic the first accomplishment was and (2) don’t recognize how amazing it was for him to go from being a very good quarterback in the league, in the one year he was allowed to play the position, to being an All-Pro wideout for Buffalo. Miami thought enough of him to trade for him and thereby provide a complement to and take some heat off of legend Paul Warfield.
The following story I did on Briscoe appeared not long after his autobiography came out. I made arrangements to inteview him in our shared hometown of Omaha, and he was every bit as honest in person as he was in the pages of his book, which chronicles his rise to stardom, the terrible fall he took, and coming back from oblivion to redeem himself. The story appeared in a series I did on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, for The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 2004-2005. Since then, there’s been a campaign to have the NFL’s veterans committee vote Briscoe into the Hall of Fame and there are plans for a feature film telling his life story.
Prodigal Son, Marlin Briscoe Takes the Long Road Home (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness
Imagine this is your life: Your name is Marlin Briscoe. A stellar football-basketball player at Omaha South High School in the early 1960s, you are snubbed by the University of Nebraska but prove the Huskers wrong when you become a sensation as quarterback for then Omaha University, where from 1963 to 1967, you set more than 20 school records for single game, season and career offensive production.
Because you are black the NFL does not deem you capable of playing quarterback and, instead, you’re a late round draft choice, of the old AFL, at defensive back. Injured to start your 1968 rookie season, the offense sputters until, out of desperation, the coach gives you a chance at quarterback. After sparking the offense as a reserve, you hold down the game’s glamour job the rest of the season, thus making history as the league’s first black starting quarterback. When racism prevents you from getting another shot as a signal caller, you’re traded and excel at wide receiver. After another trade, you reach the height of success as a member of a two-time Super Bowl-winning team. You earn the respect of teammates as a selfless clutch performer, players’ rights advocate and solid citizen.
Then, after retiring from the game, you drift into a fast life fueled by drugs. In 12 years of oblivion you lose everything, even your Super Bowl rings. Just as all seems lost, you climb out of the abyss and resurrect your old self. As part of your recovery you write a brutally honest book about a life of achievement nearly undone by the addiction you finally beat.
You are Marlin Oliver Briscoe, hometown Omaha hero, prodigal son and the man now widely recognized as the trailblazer who laid the path for the eventual black quarterback stampede in the NFL. Now, 14 years removed from hitting rock bottom, you return home to bask in the glow of family and friends who knew you as a fleet athlete on the south side and, later, as “Marlin the Magician” at UNO, where some of the records you set still stand.
Now residing in the Belmont Heights section of Long Beach, Calif. with your partner, Karen, and working as an executive with the Roy W. Roberts Watts/Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club in Los Angeles, your Omaha visits these days for UNO alumni functions, state athletic events and book signings contrast sharply with the times you turned-up here a strung-out junkie. Today, you are once again the strong, smart, proud warrior of your youth.
Looking back on what he calls his “lost years,” Briscoe, age 59, can hardly believe “the severe downward spiral” his life took. “Anybody that knows me, especially myself, would never think I would succumb to drug addiction,” he said during one of his swings through town. “
All my life I had been making adjustments and overcoming obstacles and drugs took away all my strength and resolve. When I think about it and all the time I lost with my family and friends, it’s a nightmare. I wake up in a cold sweat sometimes thinking about those dark years…not only what I put myself through but a lot of people who loved me. It’s horrifying.
“Now that my life is full of joy and happiness, it just seems like an aberration. Like it never happened. And it could never ever happen again. I mean, somebody would have to kill me to get me to do drugs. I’m a dead man walking anyway if I ever did. But it’s not even a consideration. And that’s why it makes me so furious with myself to think why I did it in the first place. Why couldn’t I have been like I am now?”
Or, like he was back in the day, when this straight arrow learned bedrock values from his single mother, Geneva Moore, a packing house laborer, and from his older cousin Bob Rose, a youth coach who schooled him and other future greats in the parks and playing fields of schools and recreation centers in north and south Omaha.
For Briscoe, the pain of those years when, as he says, “I lost myself,” is magnified by how he feels he let down the rich, proud athletic legacy he is part of in Omaha. It is a special brotherhood. One in which he and his fellow members share not only the same hometown, but a common cultural heritage in their African-American roots, a comparable experience in facing racial inequality and a similar track record of achieving enduring athletic greatness.
Briscoe came up at a time when the local black community produced, in a golden 25-year period from roughly 1950 to 1975, an amazing gallery of athletes that distinguished themselves in a variety of sports. He idolized the legends that came before him like Bob Boozer, a rare member of both Olympic Gold Medal (at the 1960 Rome Games) and NBA championship (with the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks) teams, and MLB Hall of Famer and Cy Young Award winner Bob Gibson. He honed his skills alongside greats Roger Sayers, one of the world’s fastest humans in the early 1960s, NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers and pro basketball “Iron Man” Ron Boone. He inspired legends that came after him like Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers.
Each legend’s individual story is compelling. There are the taciturn heroics and outspoken diatribes of Gibson. There are the knee injuries that denied Gale Sayers his full potential by cutting short his brilliant playing career and the movies that dramatically portrayed his bond with doomed roommate Brian Piccolo. There are the ups and downs of Rodgers’ checkered life and career. But Briscoe’s own personal odyssey may be the most dramatic of all.
Born in Oakland, Calif. in 1945, Briscoe and his sister Beverly were raised by their mother after their parents split up. When he was 3, his mother moved the family to Omaha, where relatives worked in the packing houses that soon employed her as well. After a year living on the north side, the family moved to the south Omaha projects. Between Kountze Park in North O and the Woodson Center in South O, Briscoe came of age as a young man and athlete. In an era when options for blacks were few, young men like Briscoe knew that athletic prowess was both a proving ground and a way out of the ghetto, all the motivation he needed to work hard.
“Back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s we had nothing else to really look forward to except to excel as black athletes,” Briscoe said. “Sports was a rite-of-passage to respect and manhood and, hopefully, a way to bypass the packing houses and better ourselves and go to college. When Boozer (Bob) went to Kansas State and Gibson (Bob) went to Creighton, that next generation — my generation — started thinking, If I can get good enough in sports, I can get a scholarship to college so I can take care of my mom. That’s how all of us thought.”
Like many of his friends, Briscoe grew up without a father, which combined with his mother working full-time meant ample opportunity to find mischief. Except that in an era when a community really did raise a child, Briscoe fell under the stern but caring guidance of the men and women, including Alice Wilson and Bob Rose, that ran the rec centers and school programs catering to largely poor kids. By the time Briscoe entered South High, he was a promising football-basketball player.
On the gridiron, he’d established himself as a quarterback in youth leagues, but once at South shared time at QB his first couple years and was switched to halfback as a senior, making all-city. More than just a jock, Briscoe was elected student council president.
Scholarship offers were few in coming for the relatively small — 5’10, 170-pound — Briscoe upon graduating in 1962. The reality is that in the early ‘60s major colleges still used quotas in recruiting black student-athletes and Briscoe upset the balance when he had the temerity to want to play quarterback, a position that up until the 1980s was widely considered too advanced for blacks.
But UNO Head Football Coach Al Caniglia, one of the winningest coaches in school history, had no reservations taking him as a QB. Seeing limited duty as a freshman backup to incumbent Carl Meyers, Briscoe improved his numbers each year as a starter. After a feeling-out process as a sophomore, when he went 73 of 143 for 939 yards in the air and rushed for another 370 yards on the ground, his junior year he completed 116 of 206 passes for 1,668 yards and ran 120 times for 513 yards to set a school total offense record of 2,181 yards in leading UNO to a 6-5 mark.
What was to originally have been his senior year, 1966, got waylaid, as did nearly his entire future athletic career, when in an indoor summer pickup hoops game he got undercut and took a hard, headfirst spill to the floor. Numb for a few minutes, he regained feeling and was checked out at a local hospital, which gave him a clean bill of health.
Even with a lingering stiff neck, he started the ‘66 season where he left off, posting a huge game in the opener, before feeling a pop in his throbbing neck that sent him “wobbling” to the sidelines. A post-game x-ray revealed a fractured vertebra, perhaps the result of his preseason injury, meaning he’d risked permanent paralysis with every hit he absorbed. Given no hope of playing again, he sat out the rest of the year and threw himself into academics and school politics. After receiving his military draft notice, he anxiously awaited word of a medical deferment, which he got. Without him at the helm, UNO crashed to a 1-9 mark.
Then, a curious thing happened. On a follow-up medical visit, he was told his broken vertebra was recalcifying enough to allow him to play again. He resumed practicing in the spring of ‘67 and by that fall was playing without any ill effects. Indeed, he went on to have a spectacular final season, attracting national attention with his dominating play in a 7-3 campaign, compiling season marks with his 25 TD throws and 2,639 yards of total offense, including a dazzling 401-yard performance versus tough North Dakota State at Rosenblatt Stadium.
Projected by pro scouts at cornerback, a position he played sparingly in college, Briscoe still wanted a go at QB, so, on the advice of Al Caniglia he negotiated with the Denver Broncos, who selected him in the 14th round, to give him a look there, knowing the club held a three-day trial open to the public and media.
“I had a lot of confidence in my ability,” Briscoe said, “and I felt given that three-days at least I would have a showcase to show what I could do. I wanted that forum. When I got it, that set the tone for history to be made.”
At the trial Briscoe turned heads with the strength and accuracy of his throws but once fall camp began found himself banished to the defensive backfield, his QB dreams seemingly dashed. He earned a starting cornerback spot but injured a hamstring before the ‘68 season opener.
After an 0-2 start in which the Denver offense struggled mightily out of the gate, as one QB after another either got hurt or fell flat on his face, Head Coach Lou Saban finally called on Briscoe in the wake of fans and reporters lobbying for the summer trial standout to get a chance. Briscoe ran with the chance, too, despite the fact Saban, whose later actions confirmed he didn’t trust a black QB, only gave him a limited playbook to run. In 11 games, the last 7 as starter, Briscoe completed 93 of 224 passes for 1,589 yards with 14 TDs and 13 INTs and he ran 41 times for 308 yards and 3 TDs in helping Denver to a 5-6 record in his 11 appearances, 5-2 as a starter.
Briscoe proved an effective improviser, using his athleticism to avoid the rush, buy time and either find the open receiver or move the chains via scrambling. “Sure, my percentage was low, because initially they didn’t give me many plays, and so I was out there played street ball…like I was down at Kountze Park again…until I learned the cerebral part of the game and then I was able to improve my so-called efficiency,” is how Briscoe describes his progression as an NFL signal caller.
By being branded “a running” — read: undisciplined — quarterback in an era of strictly drop back pocket passers, with the exception of Fran Tarkenton, who was white, Briscoe said blacks aspiring to play the position faced “a stigma” it took decades to overcome.
Ironically, he said, “I never, ever considered myself a black quarterback. I was just a quarterback. It’s like I never thought about size either. When I went out there on the football field, hey, I was a player.”
All these years later, he still bristles at the once widely-held notions blacks didn’t possess the mechanics to throw at the pro level or the smarts to grasp the subtleties of the game or the leadership skills to command whites. “How do you run in 14 touchdown passes? I could run, sure. I could buy more time, yeah. But if you look at most of my touchdown passes, they were drop back passes. I led the team to five wins in seven starts. We played an exciting brand of football. Attendance boomed. If I left any legacy, it’s that I proved the naysayers wrong about a black man manning that position…even if I never played (QB) again.”
Despite his solid performance — he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting — he was not invited to QB meetings Saban held in Denver the next summer and was traded only weeks before the ‘69 regular season to the Buffalo Bills, who wanted him as a wide receiver.
His reaction to having the quarterback door slammed in his face? “I realized that’s the way it was. It was reality. So, it wasn’t surprising. Disappointing? Yes. All I wanted and deserved was to compete for the job. Was I bitter? No. If I was bitter I would have quit and that would have been the end of it. As a matter of fact, it spurred me to prove them wrong. I knew I belonged in the NFL. I just had to make the adjustment, just like I’ve been doing all my life.”
The adversity Briscoe has faced in and out of football is something he uses as life lessons with the at-risk youth he counsels in his Boys and Girls Club role. “I try to tell them that sometimes life’s not fair and you have to deal with it. That if you carry a bitter pill it’s going to work against you. That you just have to roll up your sleeves and figure out a way to get it done.”
While Briscoe never lined up behind center again, soon after he left Denver other black QBs followed — Joe Gilliam, Vince Evans, Doug Williams and, as a teammate in Buffalo, James Harris, whom he tutored. All the new faces confronted the same pressures and frustrations Briscoe did earlier. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when Williams won a Super Bowl with the Redskins and Warren Moon put up prolific numbers with the Houston Oilers, that the black QB stigma died.
Briscoe was not entirely aware of the deep imprint he made until attending a 2001 ceremony in Nashville remembering the late Gilliam. “All the black quarterbacks, both past and present, were there,” said Briscoe, naming everyone from Aaron Brooks (New Orleans Saints) to Dante Culpepper (Minnesota Vikings) to Michael Vick (Atlanta Falcons).
“The young kids came up to me and embraced me and told me, ‘Thank you for setting the tone.’ Now, there’s like 20 black quarterbacks on NFL rosters, and for them to give me kudos for paving the way and going through what I went through hit me. That was probably the first time I realized it was a history-making event. The young kids today know about the problems we faced and absorbed in order for them to get a fair shot and be in the position they are.”
Making the Buffalo roster at a spot he’d never played before proved one of Briscoe’s greatest athletic challenges and accomplishments. He not only became a starter but soon mastered the new position, earning 1970 All-Pro honors in only his second year, catching 57 passes for 1,036 yards and 8 TDs. Then, in an example of bittersweet irony, Saban was named head coach of the moribund Bills in 1972 and promptly traded Briscoe to the powerful Miami Dolphins. The move, unpopular with Bills’ fans, once again allowed Briscoe to intersect with history as he became an integral member of the Dolphins’ perfect 17-0 1972 Super Bowl championship team and the 1973 team that repeated as champs.
His post-football life began promisingly enough. A single broker, he lived the L.A. high life. Slipping into a kind of malaise, he hung with “an unsavory crowd” — partying and doing drugs. His gradual descent into addiction made him a transient, frequenting crack houses in L.A.’s notorious Ho-Stroll district and holding down jobs only long enough to feed his habit. The once strapping man withered away to 135 pounds. His first marriage ended, leaving him estranged from his kids. Ex-teammates like James Harris and Paul Warfield, tried helping, but he was unreachable.
“I strayed away from the person I was and the people that were truly my friends. When I came back here I was trying to run away from my problems,” he said, referring to the mid-’80s, when he lived in Omaha, “and it got worse…and in front of my friends and family. At least back in L.A. I could hide. I saw the pity they had in their eyes but I had no pride left.”
Perhaps his lowest point came when a local bank foreclosed on his Super Bowl rings after he defaulted on a loan, leading the bank to sell them over e-bay. He’s been unable to recover them.
He feels his supreme confidence bordering on arrogance contributed to his addiction. “I never thought drugs could get me,” he said. “I didn’t realize how diabolical and treacherous drug use is. In the end, I overcame it just like I overcame everything else. It took 12 years…but there’s some people that never do.” In the end, he said, he licked drugs after serving a jail term for illegal drug possession and drawing on that iron will of his to overcome and to start anew. He’s made amends with his ex-wife and with his now adult children.
Clean and sober since 1991, Briscoe now shares his odyssey with others as both a cautionary and inspirational tale. Chronicling his story in his book, The First Black Quarterback, was “therapeutic.” An ESPN documentary retraced the dead end streets his addict’s existence led him to, ending with a blow-up of his fingers, bare any rings. Briscoe, who dislikes his life being characterized by an addiction he’s long put behind him, has, after years of trying, gotten clearance from the Dolphins to get duplicate Super Bowl rings made to replace the ones he squandered.
For him, the greatest satisfaction in reclaiming his life comes from seeing how glad friends and family are that the old Marlin is back. “Now, they don’t even have to ask me, ‘Are you OK?’ They know that part of my life is history. They trust me again. That’s the best word I can use to define where I am with my life now. Trust. People trust me and I trust myself.”
- Black like me (cbc.ca)
- Black like me: CFL QB legacy (cbc.ca)
- UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Today’s Exploration: Omaha’s History of Racial Tension (theprideofnebraska.blogspot.com)
- Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in His New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Eric Crouch To Play For UFL’s Omaha Nighthawks, Fulfill Destiny (sbnation.com)
NOTE: The New Horizons is a monthly published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. The paper doesn’t have a website of its own, but if you go to http://www.enoa.org/ you can click on the New Horizons tab and be linked to a web page where you can download a PDF of each issue. The paper has a wide distribution and following among the senior set, but I’m afraid it’s not as well known as it should be among the general population. We profile some dynamic individuals in its pages. My blog here contains many of my Horizons profiles — they include some of my favorite and best work. By the way, you can get a free subscription to the Horizons by calling or writing the paper.
Golf Shots: Pat Drickey Lives His Dream Photographing the World’s Great Golf Courses
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in the current edition (August 2010) of the New Horizons
After working as an art, architectural, food and agricultural photographer, Drickey hit upon an idea for photographing the world’s great golf courses. He saw a market for indelibly commemorating the signature golf holes that make these green meccas and Elysian Fields iconic symbols for everyone from professionals to weekend duffers.
He appreciates the irony of being one of the world’s most in-demand golf photographers yet not having grown up playing the game. Though he plays now, he’s hardly accomplished as a 25-handicapper. But this “history buff” is well-versed in the game’s heritage. He knows its hallowed grounds, having trod many of those very links himself. He is schooled in its legends, many of whom he’s met and photographed, including Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
He also enjoys reviving his own family’s golf legacy. His late maternal grandmother Helen Burmester was a local amateur champion in the 1930s. His mother didn’t play the game, therefore he didn’t. The images he makes today would have surely pleased grandma. He displays her antique clubs at Stonehouse.
His is the ultimate niche business specializing in panoramic images of picturesque places like Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. Drickey and his staff employ a rigorous production process to create archival quality prints imbued with painterly attributes. Customers collect framed Stonehouse prints the way some folks collect fine art works.
None of that was on his mind 44 years ago. In 1966 he was a bored Omaha Burke High School junior, just marking time before going off on some undefined adventure. He got what he wanted when he joined the Navy — both to see the world and escape the military draft for the escalating Vietnam War.
He counted on being assigned a cushy, scenic port of call out of harm’s way. He got his wish in Guam. Then in January ’68 he was sent to a naval supply facility in Saigon, where as “a storekeeper” he was in charge of procuring most everything for delta patrol boat crews and construction battalions.
“It was like being given the keys to the kingdom as an enlisted man,” he said. The job gave him latitude as the point person who could lay his hands on whatever people wanted. “Pretty much anytime anything needed to be greased, they’d come to me.”
He would apply that keep-everybody-happy skill set to his professional photography career, where pitching and pleasing clients is paramount.
He knew Saigon was far from the front line action and so he had little cause for worry.
“I had no idea what to expect, except Saigon was considered a safe zone, so I wasn’t that concerned about anything. We were at a place called the Annapolis, like a temporary Navy billet right outside Tan Son Nhut Air Base (the near Saigon base accommodated military personnel from each branch). From there guys would get assignments and be sent everywhere in the country. Because we were on temporary assignment they had us staying there. We would drive to the main warehouse compound early in the morning.”
On his third morning there he and fellow supply personnel left for the drive into Saigon, unaware the area they left behind would come under attack by Viet Cong forces in the Tet Offensive, which took its name from the traditional Vietnamese holiday it coincided with.
The VC flooded into the south by the tens of thousands. Fire fights and full scale battles erupted over a wide battlefront. Except Drickey and his mates didn’t know it was happening until almost too late.
“The morning Tet started we all piled on a two-and-a-half ton flatbed stake truck. The streets were dead quiet and we didn’t really think anything of it. There was no machine gun fire going off or anything like that. The three days prior the streets were filled and fire works were going off in celebration of Tet. That’s a big event for those people. Kind of like the Fourth of July in America.”
He and his mates figured the quiet was the post-holiday lull, but they were then jolted into reality.
“We went past the U.S. embassy and we noticed damage to the facade, like big mortar or artillery rounds hit it. We got down to the compound and the gates were closed, which was unusual. Then guards popped up from over the top, outfitted in flak jackets, brandishing M-16s. They asked, ‘What are you guys doing — haven’t you heard?’ We hadn’t heard anything.”
Strategic parts of Saigon were, Drickey said, “under siege,” a situation in which “anything could happen.” He recalled,,” We got in the compound and spent the next seven days isolated there. We did come under sniper fire. We had guard duty on all the perimeters. No (regular) food, we had to break out sea rations.”
Though the offensive was repelled, it put everyone on edge.
“You didn’t go anyplace after that without firearms,” he said. “I had my own vehicle, and they issued anybody who was driving a truck a sawed-off shotgun because the blast pattern was so big that all you had to do was point and shoot and it would take out anything.”
Drickey was stationed in Saigon during the Tet Offensive
Even his “sweet sawed-off” was no gauranteed protection against tactics targeting U.S. military. In those tropical climes he said it was standard practice to drive with vehicle windows rolled down, making drivers and passengers susceptible to a grenade or other explosive being thrown inside or someone taking pot shots at them. Drickey luckily escaped injury.
Indeed, he settled into a familiar, comfortable routine. Along the way, he was exposed to an intrepid band of men who inspired a new vision for what he might do with his life. The backdrop for this revelation were great big R & R bashes the local commander of Naval supply operations threw.
“The old man was interested in camaraderie among the troops,” Drickey explained. “There were seven warehouses in Saigon and once a month you’d get together at one of them for an afternoon of barbecue, volleyball, poker, and shoot-the-shit. It was also a time to get grievances ironed out. The food during those events was always top rate, and that was attractive to the AP (Associated Press) and UPI (United Press International) photographers, who would spend time in our compound.”
These photojournalists covering the war were a breed apart. Their independence and their enthusiasm for their work made a distinct impression on Drickey.
“I was just a kid and they were the first people I met who never complained about their jobs. They couldn’t wait to get their next assignment, wherever it was going take them around the world, and that intrigued me,” he said. “It was their attitude. I said, Wow, that’s the kind of adventure I want my life to be.”
Before encountering the lensmen, he’d never considered photography a career choice. He’d only fiddled with a Brownie back home. Until ‘Nam, no photographer served as a model he might follow.
“My only experience with a photographer was posing for one at a wedding or for high school portraits. I had absolutely no interest in that. But the adventure of photojournalism hooked me.”
Back home in the States in ’69, he pursued his new found aspiration. He used the GI Bill of Rights to enroll at the University of Nebraska at Omaha but between meager funds and a requirement he take writing-reporting classes, he dropped out. At the time, he said there was no focused photojournalism program or track at any area school, and so he pieced together his own by taking a course here and a course there.
“I wound up auditing courses for photography at Bellevue College and Creighton University. I took a course over at Iowa State specializing in architectural photography. My dad was a carpenter and contractor, so for me getting involved with buildings seemed like a natural choice.”
Drickey never became a news hound like those romantic figures who sparked his imagination. But he learned the craft bit by bit, carving out a place for himself that, while hardly heroic, made him a nice living and ultimately provided the freedom to find his passion and travel the world.
Early on, he identified himself as an art photographer.
“I was doing black and white still-lifes then. I had a show with Judith Welk (Omaha acrylic and oil painter) called “Fresh Produce,” all based on still llfes and a visit to Seattle. I was somewhat successful with that but I soon realized it wasn’t a career move for me unless I decided to get a degree and become a teacher.”
In the early ’70s Drickey immersed himself in the emerging Old Market counterculture scene. “I was always drawn to it. Everybody down there was very independent thinking. I was one of the founding members of the Artists Cooperative Gallery, when it was above M’s Pub. It was a true coop . You were required to work one period a month, typically a Friday night opening. It taught me the discipline of pulling together a show and what that takes.”
Other pioneering Old Market artists whose paths he crossed then included the late Lee Lubbers, installation artist Catherine Ferguson and the former Ree Schonlau, now Ree Kaneko. Ree’s husband is celebrated ceramic artist Jun Kaneko. Ree founded the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, whose artist-in-residency program has brought hundreds of artists from around the world to live, work, and exhibit in Omaha.
“Ree’s my all time hero in the city. Her vision for what could be, can be, is still amazing to me. She is just one-of-a-kind and an absolute Omaha treasure. She was one of four women who had an operation called the Craftsmen’s Guild. Ree was the potter. I was a young photographer looking for space and they had an upper floor open I considered doing a studio in. For whatever reason the deal fell apart but I maintained a relationship with Ree. She always had me photograph the artists’ work for the invitations.”
That led to contacts with other local artists. He’s collected their work ever since. His artist friends include Larry Sasso and the Kanekos. He was close to the late Kent Bellows, whose hyper realistic drawings are the basis for a fall Joslyn Art Museum retrospective Drickey’s helped organize.
The Old Market remains his artistic home. He’s maintained property in the historic district for years, always making his studio and office there, though never residing there.
“I started in a basement at 12th and Harney. Back then I paid $175 a month rent. It was affordable, it was doable, I don’t know that anybody can do that (starting out) today. I bought my first building at 14th and Howard.”
The two-story red brick building his Stonehouse Publishing occupies at 1508 Leavenworth was originally St. Philomena school. As he tells the story, a fire led to the third floor being removed. At some point, he said, a tractor supply company bought the entire block and combined that building with two adjacent ones. A porch addition was made to the original structure.
In the ‘70s Omaha businessman and politico Leo Kraft bought the complex, converting it into a home and studio (his wife Frances Kraft was an artist) . Drickey and his wife Karen, a Bryan High School art teacher, led efforts to preserve Tomlinson Woods as a public arboretum and they found an ally in Kraft, the then-Omaha City Council president.
“We came there for a brunch one Sunday with kind of an eclectic mix of people and I never forgot the space. That was the first time I’d witnessed anything like this,” Drickey said, referring to the urban loft space with exposed original brick and wood work.
Drickey’s appreciation for well designed historic buildings was instilled in him by his father and honed by the photography he did for HDR and for Leo A. Daly. His work for Daly sent him all over the country, photographing their projects.
When the Krafts passed away Drickey approached their son Marc about the property but, he recalled, “it was so close to the family’s hearts I couldn’t ever see a chance when they’d part with it.” In 2000 he saw a for sale sign out front. He acted quickly to purchase the site. He’s put much sweat equity into renovating the studio-office space. He and his three brothers learned the construction trades from their father.
“Construction is in our blood,” he said. “We all know how to do stuff. I know how to dig a footing and put up a building. There’s nothing I can’t do.”
His blue collar sensibility is why his closest relationships in golf are with the course superintendents.
“Let’s just say in the world of golf I probably get along better with the golf course superintendents than anyone else,” he said. “I’m more drawn to those guys. They’re the unsung heroes to me because they are the ones out there providing what it takes to make that course a beautiful challenge. I’ve made so many friends on the superintendents side.”
When he finishes a golf project he generally gives a limited edition print to the course super as a thank you for the courtesy and access they provide on a shoot.
Drickey’s pathway to golf photography came via ag photography. His apprenticeship included a five-year stint with Walter and Nancy Griffith and their Photographers Associated. He said it was under Walter Griffith’s tutelage “where I learned how to be a studio photographer. He had an extraordinary studio.”
One of Griffith’s big accounts was Omaha Steaks, and Drickey went on to build his own food clientele, including Godfather’s Pizza.
Griffith also introduced Drickey to the panoramic format for shooting outdoor landscapes by way of a panoramic camera he built himself for the ag business. When Fuji came out with a panoramic camera Drickey was one of the first in this area to get one.
“Whenever you looked at those panoramic images on the light table and studied them with a loop it was like you were standing in the field,” said Drickey. “I knew the power of that image. That had great impact on me.”
Subsequently, Drickey said, “I chased the ag business.” He felt at ease with the farmers and ranchers he met on projects, saying, “They just have a different quality about them.” He came to appreciate the unexpected similarities of how light and shadow fall on the contours of a food and ag landscape.
“It’s funny because I aways heard that shooting food is like shooting landscapes, just on a different scale, and it’s true. A successful food shoot is a landscape, in how it’s lit, all of the elements are there.”
Reinventing himself as a golf photographer came about in a mother-of-invention way. A client, Cushman, a leading manufacturer of golf carts and lawn maintenance equipment, put out an annual calendar using “the tool girl” concept of a Playboy centerfold posing with products. “It worked for years,” he said. When a new, female marketing director asked him to take the calendar in a whole new direction, he hit upon the idea of picturing Cushman products against the backdrop of the world’s best golf courses.
The marketer loved the idea but then Cushman was sold and the new owners ditched the campaign. Fortunately for Drickey his idea was shared with Cushman’s advertising agency. They liked it so much they pitched the idea to another client, Rainbird Irrigation, which serviced many top courses, and they bought it.
“The next thing I knew I was on a worldwide, whirlwind tour of all the world’s best courses, starting with Pebble Beach,” Drickey said.
That very first assignment at Pebble Beach in 1995 proved pivotal. He was there to get a shot of its famed No. 7 hole, only the weather didn’t cooperate.
“I waited there in the rain for six days for it to stop raining, and on the seventh day the sun shone and I got a beautiful panoramic shot.”
The shot remains the best-selling print in the Stonehouse archive. When 600 prints of that image sold at the 1996 AT & T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, he said, “that’s when I knew this could be a business. it’s been a fun ride, a bit of a roller coaster, but a fun ride ever since.” He sold his ag-food photography business to form Stonehouse, whose name comes from the field stone lake house he kept in Iowa.
The USGA (United States Golf Association) saw the image, and, he said, “they embraced it and put in their catalogue and it was like the top selling item for six consecutive issues.” That exposure, he said, “got the attention of some folks at The Open (the British Open), and I wound up doing all of the British open rotation courses, including some of the historic ones, like Royal Port Rush in Northern Ireland.”
This year Stonehouse was selected as one of the official images by St. Andrews Links, which runs the course on which the 2010 Open at St. Andrews was played. Contestants autographed the picture for permanent display in the St. Andrews clubhouse, a rare honor accorded a Yank photographer.
“It validates my career in the manner Kent Bellows was validated when the New York Metropolitan Museum acquired his work for their permanent collection,” said Drickey.
He’s also been privileged to do special projects for living legends Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. The Nicklaus project involved Drickey documenting Jack’s last round as a player at St. Andrews.
“That turned out to be great, but totally unnerving for me because it’s not something I specialize in. I was like, OK, what are you going to do to capture this icon within an icon in a panoramic format? You preview these things in your head, what you expect, where you’re going to be, where he’s going to be, and it’s not a matter of, Hey Jack, look over here. You don’t get that opportunity.
“I took my son on that and that was a great experience for him.”
It turned out one of Nicklaus’s sons caddied for Jack that day.
Drickey failed to get a hoped-for element in the shot but made up for it by nailing another: “Jack was playing with Tom Watson and Luke Donald. I wanted the leader standard in the shot to show where the players stood in the tournament, but when Jack lined up for his putt on No. 1, I was limited to where I could be, and I couldn’t control where those guys were.”
Thus, the leader standard ended up out of frame. But Drickey did get Jack in the sweater he wore when he won his last British Open. Picturing the golf god in it took on added importance when Jack then removed it, giving Drickey one of the only shots of the Golden Bear in that sentimental garb on the Old Course.
“It’s the shot I’m the most proud of,” said Drickey. “We did a big print of it and sent it down to Jack, and his people called me and said that Jack added the prints to his personal collection.”
At the storied Latrobe Country Club in Latrobe, Penn. the course that Palmer’s father designed and where Arnie learned to play, Drickey got to contribute to the Palmer lore by shooting an assignment there. He said the only instruction given by club officials was “to pay special attention to the back nine, where the covered bridges are — those are real special to Mr. Palmer.”
“I knew it was significant to the Palmers. I walked out on this course…I had misty early morning light. Then I got to No. 11, and the sun came out in such a way that it kind of highlighted the bridge, with the mist rolling back. That’s how Pennsylvania people see their countryside all the time in their mind’s eye. and I got the shot. I said, I don’t need to do anything else on this course, this is it.”
The framed print was sent to Palmer, who invited Drickey to a licensee event at Latrobe. It was there Drickey learned his print made quite an impact.
“I ate dinner with his brother Jerry, and I had brought these mini-prints I give out as examples of who we are, and he said, ‘Oh you’re this guy, I gotta tell you this story: When you sent that framed print Arnie’s assistant put it on an easel for him to see it and all of us were standing around just to see his reaction. Arnie looked at it, he had a tear in his eye, and he said, Boy did you ever think this place could look this good?'”
Drickey said he was told Palmer got so “emotional” that he purportedly declared, “When I’m dead and in a coffin one of those prints is going to be buried with me.” The photographer also learned some of his images hang in Palmer’s office. Having Palmer as a fan, he said, has “opened some doors for us like you can’t believe.” For example, the Golf Channel did a piece on Drickey and now carry Stonehouse prints online.
In addition to being endorsed by some of golf’s top names, Stonehouse is licensed by major courses, by the USGA and by the PGA, giving him access to virtually any fairway and green. From Pinehurst to Medinah to many other championship courses with rich histories, Stonehouse and Drickey are recognized names with carte blanche access.
“Which is a significant deal,” he said, ”because we are becoming that embedded in the lore of golf.”
Additionally, he said more than 600,000 Stonehouse prints are now in circulation.”We’ve branded the panoramic format for golf,” he said “That belongs to Stonehouse. One of the things I like about what I’ve been able to do is carve out a niche that goes beyond the confines of Omaha.”
Employing all-digital equipment in the field and in the studio, Drickey applies exacting standards to his imagemaking not possible with film. Digital enhancements bring clarity from shadows and achieve truer, more balanced colors, he said. Even a sand trap can be digitally raked.
“It’s just incredible what you can do — the control you have,” he said.
The refinements or touch-ups accomplished in the post-production process are why he calls what he does “more photo illustration than straight photography.”
He said Stonehouse has adopted the fine art Giclee process to its own printmaking methods, which entails using expensive pigmented archival inks on acid free watercolor paper to ensure prints of lustrous, enduring quality.
“I want to produce a product that’s going to be around for a long time. The color hits that paper and stays with it — it will not fade,” he said.
He feels another reason for Stonehouse’s success is its images portray the timeless characteristics that distinguish a scenic hole or course. He strives to fix each scene into a frieze that expresses the design, the physical beauty, the tradition. His eye for detail helps him bring out “the architecture” of it all.
The clubhouse is often featured in shots because club members expect to see it.
Getting the composition just how he wants it means “waiting for the right light,” he said, adding, “Even a tree shadow coming across the green will change the dynamics of that composition.” Waiting for magic time can mean hours or days.
Much care and research go into finding the one idyllic, golden-hued shot that will speak to avid golfers. That’s who Stonehouse prints are marketed to. He said a typical customer wants a print of the famous hole or course they challenged, much like a hunter wants the head of the game he bagged.
Building-updating Stonehouse’s image collection keeps Drickey on the road several days a month. He’s half-way to his goal of photographing the world’s top 100 courses. One he’s still waiting to shoot is Augusta, home to the Masters.
“That’s one of America’s crown jewels. We are present at the other majors and we’d like to have a presence there. It’s just a matter of time. Those introductions have been made,” he said.
Stonehouse prints grace books-periodicals-calendars and other publications. Some of its images are included in the coffee table book, Planet Golf.
Not all his assignments are outside Nebraska. He often shoots in-state courses, at least one of which — the Sand Hills Golf Club near Mullen — is regarded as world-class. Its managing partner, Dick Youngscap, said Drickey “does all of our work. He’s a premier photographer. He’s the best I’ve been around. Pat seems to have an empathy for not only the golf course but the physical environment — the scale and the scope of it. He’s just special, both as a human being and as a talented artist.”
Whether trudging across the Sand Hills or the Scottish Moors, Drickey always brings his clubs along in case the mood strikes to shoot a round or two. He said club officials “always offer” an invitation to play. “They assume I’m a golfer first and a photographer second, and that’s not true. I am a photographer first. I love the game, not that I have what I would call a game. I just like being out there. I don’t keep score. I stopped a long time ago. It makes it a much more enjoyable game. What’s the point? I guess to see if you’ve improved, but I know when I’ve hit a good shot, and that’s all I care about.”
Just like he knows when he’s composed a winning photograph.
He realizes how lucky he is to visit such oases for his job. “They’re beautiful places, absolutely stunning,” he said. It’s his dream job come true.
“I’m doing exactly what I want to do.”
Visit the Stonehouse website at http://www.stonehousegolf.com or call 1-800-949-7274.
- How to Photograph a Golf Course (brighthub.com)
- Masters 2011: Woods, Mickelson and McIlroy Remind Us of the Human Side of Golf (bleacherreport.com)
- Fairways Where Golf Becomes the City Game (travel.nytimes.com)
Even if you consider yourself a real student of boxing and its history in America, chances are the name Harley Cooper isn’t familiar to you. Yet, pound-for-pound, he was as tough as they come in the ring and he just may have been the best boxer you’ve never heard of. The highlight of his amateur career — he never went pro — was winning two National Golden Gloves light heavyweight titles. He was in middle of a long U.S. Air Force Career at the time. My New Horizons story about Cooper sort of makes the case for him as this unsung warrior whose achievements have been largely forgotten today, but who came oh-so-close to joining the sport’s ranks of immortals before a bad break prevented him from fighting on the world stage in the Olympic Games. Then, when he opted not to turn pro, but rather continue his military career, his amateur feats soon faded into obscurity. No one can ever take those Golden Gloves titles away from him though. Cooper didn’t fight anymore but he remained in boxing as a coach and amateur boxing organizer, and continues to be active in the sport today. He’s also a devoted family man with 13 grown children and many grandchildren.
Harley Cooper, The Best Boxer You’ve Never Heard Of
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Then Air Force tech sergeant Harley Cooper never saw the punch Joe Frazier knocked him down with during a Washington, D.C. sparring session in preparation for the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. A tough Savannah, Georgia native, Cooper grew up fighting in The Hood, but got schooled in the Sweet Science in the military. Upon winning the second of two national Golden Gloves titles while boxing out of Offutt Air Force Base, he then won the right to be the U.S. Olympic light heavyweight entry by capturing the Olympic Trials. In peak fighting trim and riding an unbeaten streak, he was primed to bust some heads in Tokyo.
For his Olympic training, Cooper often worked out with team heavyweights Frazier and alternate Buster Mathis, the actual Trials champ who lost his Tokyo shot after suffering a broken hand. Fate then took a sad turn in Cooper’s own bid for Olympic glory when, on the eve of leaving for Japan, he was medically disqualified. During an earlier assignment in Germany, Cooper, born with a deformed kidney, developed problems with his other kidney after drinking water from a mountain stream, causing doctors to remove the damaged organ. Left with a single kidney, he boxed with no ill effects right up until officials nixed his Olympic trip. “They had an Air Force officer there who told me I could go, but I couldn’t fight. They felt it was a danger to me, even though I’d been fighting for about three-four years with one kidney. I told them if they wouldn’t let me fight to let me go home. Now, I wish I would have went,” says Cooper, his soft eyes filled with regret even now at the thought of missing all the Olympic pomp and pageantry.
This seemingly arbitrary decision denying him a chance for Olympic gold, especially when so close to pursuing it, hurt him to his core.
“That was really, really tough,” says the soft-spoken Cooper, an inscrutable man with the pensive demeanor of a scholar. “Honestly, I believe if I would have gone, I would have won. Well, I gotta believe this, because in boxing, if you don’t think you can win, you’re lost.”
Only a couple years before, he’d transfered to Omaha. His new training ground became Hawk’s Gym, where his sparring partners included pro heavyweight Lou Bailey. He shot up the amateur ranks by sweeping thw Golden Gloves. It was his first Gloves action, but he was no rookie, having already compiled hundreds of hours in the ring and dozens of bouts in the military, winning service titles wherever duty called, including Japan and Europe. Once here, he out-classed the field. “In all honesty, I had the advantage because of my experience,” he says. “I had the strength. I had the discipline. I had the knowledge. I had the ability.”
He’d dabbled in the sport earlier, when he trained for one bout and lost, but only got serious following a scene straight out of the movies. He was based in Japan when, one night, he and a buddy went to a service boxing exhibition. There was a call, just like in carnivals of old, for a volunteer to have a go at one of the fighters. He took the bait. “Being young and dumb,” he says,. “I put my hand up and I went in, and me and this guy started boxing. At this time, I didn’t know how to box, but I could fight, OK? I knocked this guy down and the coach came and asked me to join the team. I joined…and that’s how I got into boxing.”
Boxing gave him something other sports he tried, didn’t. “I was always involved in some kind of sport, but once I started boxing than I stopped doing all the rest. For some reason, it just fit me. In boxing, you’re the only one…you either rise to the occasion, alone, or you don’t. With my background, it was more the challenge…of the give-and-take. And when you survive and win…there’s no other feeling like it.”
The youngest of eight children in a poor, working class family, he quickly learned how to use his fists. “As the baby of the family, I know I got tough from the older kids picking on me. When you’re the small one, you get all the lashings. And I was born and raised in a family where you didn’t back down, especially if you got in a fight,” he says. “If I got beat up and I went home crying, than my brothers would smack me a couple times and take me back. You dried your tears before you got home. So, I was pretty tough. But I wasn’t a bully.”
Playing the usual team sports as a youth, he says “I could hold my own” but was no superstar. He left home at 17 to join the Army and after a year’s hitch he signed up with the Air Force, where he found a home.
By the time he got to Omaha, Cooper was a mature 27-year-old veteran of both the ring and the military and the father of eight. The arrival of such a man and fighter on the local pugilistic scene soon turned heads and started tongues wagging.
“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” says Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren, a former prize fight matchmaker and a longtime observer of the local fight scene. “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.”
Boxing is replete with back room dealings and personal jealousies. So, once local coaches got a gander at Cooper, they vied like mad to get him to train with them and fight for their teams. That’s when, Lovgren says, the late Omaha World-Herald sports columnist, Wally Provost, stepped in and told Cooper, “You’re fighting for me,” to squelch any in-fighting and bad feelings. A few local figures worked with Cooper during his amateur career here, including the late Jack Fickler, but Cooper says, “I was seasoned enough that I trained myself. I knew what I had to do.”
He was able to do this, he says, thanks to his strict military training, which complemented boxing. “It’s not only the mental toughness I learned, but the confidence and the discipline. I would get up around 6 to go run. I’d run until I was exhausted. Then I’d come home and shower and go to work by 8. I’d get off work around 4:30 or 5, and by 6:30 I’d be in the gym, working out for a couple hours. I had a large family, so to supplement my income I refereed sports on weekends, but I still worked out every day. That’s commitment, man.” In the ring, this single-minded dedication paid off, too. “In boxing, you have to be very, very disciplined. You go into the fight with a plan, but once it’s on, things change and, so, you have to adapt to it, and if you don’t have the discipline to control what you’re doing, well, you’re not going to survive. I guarantee you, what separates the guys who are successful from the other guys is focus. I was so focused I didn’t feel the pain of the punches that hit me. Not until the next day.”
A hard-hitting, smooth-moving boxing machine, Cooper twice won the Golden Gloves Trinity by taking the Omaha, Midwest and National tournaments in both ‘63 and ‘64. His first title run came, unexpectedly, at heavyweight, culminating in the ‘64 finals in Chicago. Cooper was a natural light heavyweight but after an overseas transfer to Nebraska he didn’t have time to cut weight in advance of the local Gloves. Over the light-heavy limit, his handlers convinced him, against his better judgment, to compete in the heavyweight division, where he felt woefully undersized at 183 pounds. Even after winning the local-regional heavyweight titles, he still campaigned to go back to light-heavy, where he was more comfortable, but “they wouldn’t let me move down,” he says, referring to his trainers. “They kept saying, ‘Well, let’s see how far you can go.’” He went all the way.
The underdog used his superior quickness to offset his opponents’ greater size and power in winning only the second national gloves title by a Nebraska boxer since the 1930s. For Cooper, boxing is all about being smart enough to discern a winning strategy, often on the fly, and then having the requisite skill and heart to carry out the plan. Brains over brawn. “It’s like, when I fought at heavyweight. I didn’t win because I was the strongest guy and the biggest guy,” he says. “I knew if we got to pushing arms on arms, man, I wouldn’t stand a chance. It was the traps I set for those guys, and I took advantage of them.” Ah, traps — among the key tenets of Cooper’s cerebral boxing philosophy.
“See, I don’t see boxing as two guys swinging at each other,” he says. “I see boxing as people setting traps for other people, OK? Like, I would come out and do some things and, honest to goodness, I could predict what that person was going to do by his reaction to what I did. Like, I could make a guy jab at me by feinting at him, and he would expose himself and then the next time I could slip under his jab and get into him. You don’t think about it. That’s just something you see, and it goes somewhere back in your head, and the next time you do it, you know it’s going to be there. You’ve already set the trap, and then you take advantage of it.”
Traps are a two-way street, however. “Now, remember, the other guy is setting traps for you also,” he says. “So, you have to maintain, like a poker face, that coolness and not get excited, and just continue what you’re doing. It’s knowing traps are being set for you and out-thinking the other guy.”
In ‘64, Cooper fought at his accustomed light-heavy spot, plowing through to the nationals in Nashville, where he won. In the proceeding 40 years, only one other Nebraska fighter has won a national Gloves title. That same weekend in Nashville, then-Cassius Clay met Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. Cooper and his fellow Gloves boxers were guests at the fight. While the introspective Cooper would never use the braggadocio style of the man later known as Muhammad Ali, he says he did learn from him that “you have to think you are good, before you are good.”
Cooper’s win in Nashville put him in line for the Olympic Trials box-off in New York, which he won. Whatever bitterness he felt over his Olympic bid later being snatched away has long faded into the realm of rich anecdotes. And he has plenty of stories from his two-months long Olympic training experience that put him in the same ring with some then and future legends whose respect he earned.
Like the time he sparred then-light heavyweight champ Bob Foster, a fellow Air Force vet. The way Cooper tells it, after sparring a couple rounds, Foster said, “Man, where’ve you been? I’m sure glad we never fought,” which he took to mean he would have given Foster fits. “This guy’s a big-time pro and world’s champion and he’s saying it would have been a helluva fight. That made me feel good.”
Or the times he and Smokin’ Joe Frazier traded leather, Frazier boring in, looking to corner Cooper on the ropes or sucker him into slugging it out, and the dancing, probing Cooper staying clear of trouble, looking for openings to counterpunch. Cooper says he held his own, except for that one time he got caught by an uppercut that dropped him, although he’s quick to point out, “I got right back up.” Today, he can talk about getting tagged by Olympic and world heavyweight champ Joe Frazier like the badge of honor it is. Years later, during an Omaha appearance with Ron Stander, Frazier told then-Husker linebacker Ira Cooper, one of Harley’s 13 children by two marriages, that his old man “was the best amateur fighter I ever saw who never turned professional.” High praise, indeed.
Why Cooper never turned pro despite attractive offers, including an overture from boxing legend Henry Armstrong, reveals much about the man. “Well, you gotta remember, I had a big investment in the service at that point,” he says, adding that with a large family to support he chose the sure thing rather than chancing it. “I’m satisfied with my life. If I had to do it over again, I don’t know I would change anything. One part of my life I would not change is having kids.”
After his first marriage ended in divorce, Cooper retired from the Air Force in ‘73 and came back to Omaha, where he raised a new family with his present wife, Edie. Their kids are grown now and he’s a grandpa many times over. He post-military work life has centered, not surprisingly, around 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, the organizing-sanctioning body for local-regional boxing cards such as the Golden Gloves. He’s even helped train some kids.
“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 in. “There’s still some times when I kind of wish I had of…” Turned pro, he means. “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.” Lace ‘em up, Harley‘s in the House of Pain and he’s lookin’ to whup somebody.
- Golden Gloves…& golden heart (nydailynews.com)
- Gildardo Garcia finds redemption in ring and in life (denverpost.com)
In the course of developing boxing stories over the years I met the subject of this story, Tom Lovgren, who at one time or another was involved in about every aspect of the fight game. He’s still a passionate fan of the sport today and is the unofficial historian and expert on boxing in Nebraska. Tom is one of those plain talking, call-it-like-is sorts, and I love him for it. He’s also a good storyteller, and his rich experiences in the prizefighting community provide him with plenty of material. Prior to profiling Tom, he was a source for me on several boxing pieces I did, including profiles on Ron Stander, a once Great White Hope who was billed as the “Bluffs Butcher.” Lovgren was in the Stander camp when Stander fought Joe Frazier for the world heavyweight title in Omaha in 1972, still the biggest boxing event in the city’s history. You’ll find my Stander pieces on this site. Tom also contributed to stories I did on Morris Jackson, Harley Cooper, the Hernandez Brothers, Kenny Wingo, the Downtown Boxing Club, and Dr. Jack Lewis. all of which can also be found on this blog. My story about Tom originally appeared in the New Horizons.
Tom Lovgren, A Good Man to Have in Your Corner
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
During one spring night in 1972, Omaha, Neb. became the center of the professional boxing world. A record Omaha fight night crowd of 9.863 jammed the Civic Auditorium to witness the May 25 heavyweight title bout between the challenger, local favorite Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander, and the popular champion, “Smokin’” Joe Frazier. A gallery of veteran boxing reporters covered the event. Film cameras fed the action to a national syndicated TV audience. Canadian heavyweight champ George Chuvalo did the color commentary. Area dignitaries and sports celebrities mingled in the electric crowd. Top heavyweight contender George Foreman looked fearsome at ringside. Legendary referee Zack Clayton appeared spiffy in his bow tie. Nervous Dick Noland ran the Stander corner while his counterpart, the sage-like Yank Durham, led the Frazier contingent.
In terms of sheer impact, the fight remains arguably the biggest sporting event ever held in Omaha. The allure of the heavyweight championship was enough that, with the title on the line, the results made headlines around the globe. And while Stander-Frazier does not rank highly in the annals of title bouts, it proved a smashing success, pulling in live gate receipts of nearly $250,000 in an era when tickets went for a fraction of today’s prices. For former Omaha boxing promoter and matchmaker Tom Lovgren, one of the men responsible for making the fight happen, it was the apex of a 20-year career that saw him put on fight cards featuring everyone from world-class boxers to journeymen pugs. A blunt man with a biting wit, Lovgren recalls a well-wisher that night praising him for pulling off such a coup, whereupon he quipped, “It’ll all be down hill from here.”
The sardonic Lovgren sat for a recent interview in his ranch-style Omaha home near Rosenblatt Stadium and explained his seeming pessimism the night of his crowning feat. “What I meant by down hill was I’d been to the peak. What was the chance of developing another heavyweight in Omaha, Neb. who drew like Stander did and who could be ready to fight for a championship? It’s all got to work together. And that time it did. All the dreams came true. A lot of people talk about doing something like this, but a lot of stuff can go wrong. A guy can get cut in training camp. Tempers can flare up and the whole deal get called off. With this situation, everything worked. It came off.” Proving himself a prophet, Stander-Frazier was indeed the one and only title fight he promoted.
What made the event possible in the first place was the fact that in Stander, Lovgren delivered the right man at the right time to face Frazier, who was but a year removed from having scored his greatest victory — a 15-round decision over Muhammad Ali. Frazier had fought just once since that memorable and epic bout, having KO’d Terry Daniels in New Orleans. When word reached Omaha the Frazier camp sought another tune-up for the champ against a game if not too dangerous foe, plus a nice pay day to boot, Lovgren and company swung into action and offered to make the fight in the River City, where the then 23-1-1 Stander was a blue collar, hard-hitting hero.
At the time, Lovgren was a one-quarter partner in the recently formed Cornhusker Boxing Club, which staged most of Omaha’s top fight cards in the 1970s. Club president Dick Noland was Stander’s longtime manager. Noland and Lovgren were friends from the days when Lovgren was a correspondent for Ring Magazine. A Sheldon, Iowa native, Lovgren fell in love with boxing watching televised bouts as a kid. His short-lived amateur boxing career came to a halt at 16 when he got “dropped” three times in round one of a Golden Gloves bout. “It was at that point I decided, If you’re going to do anything in this game it’s going to have to be as something other than a boxer, because you obviously don’t have the talent it takes.”
Outside the ring, the University of Denver-educated Lovgren was a food services manager at many different stops, including Omaha’s Union Stockyards Company. Wherever he, his former school teacher wife, Jeaninne, and their four sons settled, Lovgren made it a point to acquaint himself with the area boxing scene — its gyms, fighters, managers, trainers — and to attend bouts. He often traveled 100 miles or more just to see a good fight.
He promoted his first fight card in Ohio, later detailing the highs and lows of that experience in an article he authored for Boxing Illustrated entitled, “So You Want to Be a Promoter?” His wife was skeptical about the promotion racket until he emptied his pockets after that first fight card and hundreds of dollars in gate receipts came tumbling out. Catching fights and filing stories around the Midwest helped him develop contacts among the boxing brotherhood. After contracting multiple sclerosis in 1970 Lovgren retired from the food services field, which gave him more time to feed his passion. Always the fighter, he’s not allowed MS to break his spirit, noting that managing the disease is a matter of “knowing what you can do and what you can’t do.”
When asked by Noland to join the Cornhusker Boxing Club, Lovgren jumped at the chance. Before teaming with Noland he had bailed-out the manager more than once by finding last-minute replacement opponents for Stander, whose reputation as a heavy hitter preceded him. “I was very good at coming up with fighters, and right now,” Lovgren said. “Good fighters, poor fighters, whatever it was, I would get those opponents. My strong suit was my ability to deliver a body. I knew a lot of people. I’d been a lot of places. I knew what talent was available.”
With Noland in charge of getting Stander fight-ready and Lovgren taking care of the business side of things, “The Bluffs Butcher” became their meal ticket. But getting Stander in shape was a daunting task given the fighter’s notoriously lax approach to training. “It was hard to get Ron enthusiastic about training,” Lovgren said. “There was no inner drive, no fire in the furnace, except for certain fights. I tried talking to him about it. I tried playing mind games with him. I did everything I could.” With his matchmaking acumen, Lovgren helped build Stander into a contender by putting him in “against the right guys at the right time to develop his skills.”
“He made some good fights for me,” recalls Stander, “Like the Ernie Shavers fight (a Stander KO victim). He got me in shape. We had a good time”
By the end of ‘71 Stander owned credentials for an inside track to a title shot. First, he was a Great White Hope. Second, as a short-armed slugger he played into Frazier’s smothering style. Third, he cut easily, reducing the chances the fight would go the distance and hazard a decision. Finally, he was a crowd-pleasing brawler with a knockout punch. A guy who, as Lovgren likes to phrase it, “put asses in seats,” guaranteeing a good gate. “Ron drew better than any fighter who ever fought in Omaha. There were guys with more talent, but Ron had the charisma that drew people like no one else. Some people came to see him win and some came to see him get beat. I didn’t care why they came, as long as they came.”
To ensure the chronically overweight Stander got fit, Lovgren moved him into his home for the fight. Training under Leonard Hawkins at the Fox Hole Gym in Omaha and under Johnny Dunn in Boston, Stander steeled himself. “Ron was a real fighter who asked no quarter and gave none. He backed away from no one and had no fear. He’d walk right into you. He was not going to be embarrassed,” Lovgren said.
In a confrontation that could have served as an inspiration for Rocky, Stander, the 10-1 underdog, showed admirable courage by standing toe-to-toe with the champ and exchanging haymakers. Despite taking a beating, he kept wading in until, bloodied and blinded by cuts, the fight was stopped after the 4th round. Still, there was a moment early on when the underdog appeared to rock the champ, even buckling his knees. “A lot of people say that Frazier slipped. He did, but he was hit with a shot by Stander and that’s why he staggered. Another time, Ronnie missed with an uppercut that was about that far away,” said Lovgren, holding his fingers about two inches apart. “If he landed that punch he may very well have been heavyweight champ of the world. That’s how close he was.”
Frazier retained his belt, only to lose it the very next fight to Foreman. Meanwhile, Stander got a one-way ticket back to Palookaville, where for another decade he toiled in obscurity as a club fighter whose main claim to fame was having got that one-in-a-million crack at immortality. Yet the fight that will forever link these two men almost didn’t come off when negotiations bogged down over money. “Frazier’s Philadelphia lawyers sent us a couple proposals and we turned them down because there wasn’t any money for us. Until the contracts were squared away to where we were going to make some money, that fight was not going to happen,” Lovgren said. “Then, television got involved and all of a sudden there was money enough for everybody.” With the bout confirmed, Omaha took center stage in the big time boxing arena. “Once the word was out that this title fight was on, everybody from the world of boxing was there. Everything you wanted was possible. Everybody wanted something. That’s how it is.”
Besides promoting Stander fights, he showcased the fighting Hernandez brothers (Art, Ferd, Dale) of Omaha. He considers long retired welterweight contender Art Hernandez the best fighter, pound-for-pound, the city has produced. He also organized cards featuring such top-ranked imported talent as Sean O’Grady, Lennox Blackmore and Jimmy Lester.
In his career, he saw it all — from guys taking dives to being handed bad decisions to getting “beat within a whisker of their life.” When it’s suggested boxing suffers a black eye due to mercenary, deceitful practices, he sharply replies, “Do I think there are crooks in boxing? Yes. Did I ever deal with any? Yeah, I probably did. I’ve heard a lot of bad stories, but every time I dealt with Mr. Boxing types, and I did a lot, they delivered the product and were straight down the line with me.” He feels a few unsavory elements sully the image of an otherwise above-board sport. “Anybody who ever fought for me got paid. If I said you were going to get $100, you got $100. I paid what I thought was the going rate for a 4-rounder or whatever it was, and that meant you got paid whether there was one person in the auditorium or whether the auditorium was full. If you’re going to play the game, you better be able to afford it.”
Stander said Lovgren has always owned his trust and respect. “Tom always took good care of me. You could count on him right to the end, every bit of the way. He’s just a stand-up guy. Straight as an arrow. His word is as solid as a rock, as good as gold. I love the guy.”
Because all manner of things can cause a fighter to drop out of a scheduled match, a savvy promoter like Lovgren must be able to improvise at a moment’s notice. “Once, I had a couple fighters pull out the night of the fight. These two guys that trained at a local gym had come to watch, and I went up to them and said, ‘Hey, you’re here, you can fight. You guys don’t have to kill each other — just go out and put on a good show, and I’ll pay ya.’ So, they fought an exhibition. Does that kind of thing happen? Yes. Often? Yes. Too often? Yes.”
Lovgren, who’s aimed his cutting remarks at referees, judges and athletic officials, makes no bones about the fact his frank style rubs some people the wrong way. “If you took a poll of all the boxing people in Omaha I wouldn’t make the Top 10 friendliest guys, but you’ve got to have people’s respect” and that means speaking your mind and stepping on some toes. Venerable Omaha amateur boxing coach Kenny Wingo, who’s worked alongside Lovgren organizing the Golden Gloves, admires his friend’s penchant for “telling it like it is,” adding: “He’s very opinionated and he’s a little rough around the edges. He takes no prisoners. He runs everything with an iron fist. But if he tells you something, you can take it to the bank. He’s honest. He’s got quite a history in the boxing world and he’s done a lot of good things for the sport along the way.”
If Lovgren leaves any legacy, it will be his role in bringing off Stander-Frazier, an event whose like may not be seen here again. Since retiring as a promoter in the early 1980s, this self-described “serious student” of The Sweet Science has continued his love affair with the sport by organizing his vast collection of boxing memorabilia (books, magazines clippings, tapes, wire service photos) and by writing a pair of boxing histories. The first, which he self-published, chronicles the life and times of Ron Stander, with whom he’s remained close friends. The second, which he just started, details the career of Art Hernandez, a man who fought five world champions and, in retirement, lost part of a leg following a fall at his home. The materials and histories are his attempt at preserving a record of local ring greats.
Like most passions, once boxing gets in your blood, it never leaves you. Even if many of the gyms, watering holes and ringside characters he knew are now gone, Lovgren still closely follows the sport. “You never get out of the game,” he said.
- For Better or Worse…..Old versus New (yougabsports.com)
- The killer instinct in boxing (trueslant.com)
- 40 Years Later, Ali-Frazier Still An MSG Classic (newyork.cbslocal.com)
- Happy Birthday To The Greatest: 10 Best Moments In Muhammad Ali’s Career (bleacherreport.com)
- Trainer Gil Clancy, 88, guided Emile Griffith to world title (thestar.com)
Another of my boxing stories is featured here, this time about a family of fighters, the Hernandez brothers. It’s a story of overcoming odds, winning great victories, enduring brutal losses, experiencing tragic events, and, where possible, keeping on despite all the blows. Rarely has a single family produced as many good boxers as this one did, but as the story goes into, there was a price to be paid. The article originally appeared in a paper that no loner exists, the Omaha Weekly. Boxing seems to give journalists license to take a more literary approach and I pulled out all the stops in this one.
NOTE: The Hernandez brother who was perhaps the most accomplished in the ring, Art Hernandez, passed away recently. He was a world-ranked contender for a time, holding his own with some tough hombres. He once fought an aging but still dangerous Sugar Ray Robinson to a disputed draw in Omaha. Most observers felt Art should have been given the decision.
The Fighting Hernandez Brothers
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Omaha Weekly
Armed with fists of fury and cajoles of brass, the Fighting Hernandez brothers strode into town from the sun-baked Panhandle to whip nearly all comers in Omaha ring events from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s. Ferd, Art and Dale Hernandez each left their mark on the amateur and professional boxing scene, not only here, but regionally and nationally as well. The brothers’ lives inside the ropes were filled with more than the usual pugilistic triumph and failure. Three of them achieved Top 10 rankings — Dale as a lightweight and both Ferd and Art as middleweights. They fought all over the globe. They crossed gloves with several world champions, including some legends. They held titles. They got robbed of some decisions. An injury ended the career of one. A bad beating spelled the beginning of the end for another. A fourth brother, Chuck, never really had the heart for boxing and quit after a brief and uneventful career.
Life outside the ring has also held more than its share of highs and lows. There have been wives, girlfriends, kids, breakups. Separated by a year in age and quite a bit older than their male siblings, Ferd and Art were fast buddies and, by all accounts, bad influences on each other — indulging in vices that fighters-in-training are supposed to avoid. “We had too much fun together,” Art said from the south Omaha home he shares with his wife, Mary, and their children. “We were bad — that’s for sure. I guess we had no will power.” He said things got so bad even his big brother realized it was best if he moved on. “He knew that if we were together we wouldn’t be right, so he went west. The greatest thing he ever did for himself and for me was to get the hell out of town.” Ferd went to Las Vegas of all places.
After compiling a 35-10-3 record as a pro, Ferd incurred a detached retina that forced him to retire early at age 33. He stayed on in Vegas, becoming a main event referee, a straight man in the “Minsky’s Burlesque” show at the Aladdin and a casino bartender, before contracting liver disease that killed him at 57. Art finished with a 44-20-2 pro mark. In his post-boxing life he worked the security detail at Douglas County Hospital, often responding to calls in the psyche ward, before becoming chief of security. A freak accident in 1997 led to his left leg’s amputation. Dale, the hardest puncher of the bunch, slugged his way to a 37-6 pro record, but his disdain for training led him to quit before ever maxing-out his ability. A trucker by trade, Dale has spent the last several years in and out of prison for assault. Today, he is persona non grata with his surviving brothers.
Born in Minatare, Neb., Art and Ferd moved with their family to Sidney, where the Hernandez boys were weaned on The Sweet Science by their father, Perfecto “Pete,” a former glove man himself. The old man worked his sons hard. For Perfecto, now caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife and the mother of his six children, Rebecca, in Cheyenne, Wyo., boxing was an art form whose object was skillfully avoiding being hit while laying leather on your opponent. “His thing about boxing was defense,” said Art, the only brother still living in-state and, according to some local ring observers, the best boxer, pound-for-pound, produced by Nebraska the past 40 years. “His philosophy was, ‘Hit, and don’t get hit.’ We just moved and moved and moved and threw a lot of jabs. He never yelled. He just told you exactly what you were doing wrong. ‘Throw more jabs, boy. Throw more upper cuts, boy.’ It was always, ‘boy.’”
From the time they were 5 and 6 years old, respectively, Art and Ferd were urged to scrap by the old man, who fashioned a makeshift ring at home and ran a gym Sidney boxing boosters built for him in town. “That’s where we learned everything that we knew. There were always fights,” is how Art describes those early years. “He had us sparring all the time. He was a great inspiration.” The two tykes became a kind of novelty opening act on local fight cards when their dad had them fight exhibition matches before regularly scheduled bouts. Art said that while definitely pushed into boxing, he genuinely liked the sport and only threatened quitting once under his father’s heavy hand, “but it never happened.”
As the brothers began dominating the junior boxing circuit, they quickly made names for themselves as tough little hombres. The Midwest Golden Gloves tournament, once a huge draw at the Civic Auditorium, became their personal showcase. They represented the southwest Nebraska district out of Scottsbluff. Art so outclassed the field he became the first fighter to win five Midwest Gloves titles and, after capturing his fifth, tourney officials told the then-19 year-old he was not welcome back. Ferd won two Midwest crowns and used the second as a springboard to do something his younger brother could not — win a national Golden Gloves championship (taking the 1960 welterweight division title in Chicago). Despite the brothers being virtually the same size, their father kept them in separate weight divisions for good reasons: one, to double the family’s chances at winning trophies and titles; and, two, to placate Mama Hernandez, who forbade her sons from ever fighting each other “for real.”
Fresh off his championship, Ferd, along with Art, competed for spots on the 1960 United States Olympic boxing team during tryouts in Pocatello, Idaho. At the tryouts Ferd lost in the finals and Art bowed out in the first round. While their bid for Olympic glory ended before it could begin, they scored a coup when Idaho State University boxing coach Dubby Holt, scouting prospects for his program, offered them scholarships. “He wanted a brother team and, so, we said, ‘Sure, why not?’ and we went there,” Art said. Things did not pan out for the pair in Pocatello, where they spent more time carousing than working, a pattern that played out over and over again whenever they teamed-up. Back home for Christmas break, Perfecto sized up his sons and determined while they were not cut out for school, they just might have the right stuff for prizefighting.
Art turned pro first, signing with Omaha promoter Lee Sloan, who acted as his manager and matchmaker. “When I turned pro, Sloan asked me, ‘Do you think you can be a world champion?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, then, you’re mine.’ That was a motivating thing my whole life.” He trained under the tutelage of veteran handler Sammy Musco, a former prizefighter. Musco refined his punching style. “When he first started training me, my left hook used to come all the way around, where his style of fighting was to stay in tight and just throw it with leverage. Just a real short punch. It worked all the time. He was a good trainer — no doubt about it. He’d make you work and make you work.”
As Hernandez tells it, his first pro fight was nearly his last. Matched in a 4-rounder against Ray Terry of Chicago, he easily out pointed his foe the first three rounds but in the fourth he got careless and was dropped by a hard left to the jaw. He won the decision, but the pain was so brutal for so long he considered hanging up the gloves for good. “I thought, ‘Oh, shit, if this is the way it’s gonna be, I don’t want to do it anymore.’ I went back home for a whole year. I was weighing not to come back at all because that punch hurt me so bad. But there was nothing there for me in Sidney, and so I just decided to go back and do it to it.”
Ferd entered the prizefighting arena a few months after Art’s debut. Once Art overcame those nagging doubts to resume his career, he and Ferd notched a few more wins under their belts. Then, according to local boxing historian and former matchmaker Tom Lovgren, their shared manager, Sloan, decided one or the other had to go. It seems the two were raising such hell together that, in Sloan’s view, they were holding each other back and, so, he decided to separate these modern Corsican Brothers. He reportedly asked a promoter friend to overmatch the boys, vowing to keep the one showing the most poise in defeat. The fights were made and, as expected, each lost. The verdict: Art stayed on, while Ferd left for Las Vegas, just then evolving into a hot fight market.
By the mid-60s the brothers’ careers began taking off — each emerging as middleweight contenders. Before long, they were fielding offers to fight each other. “Yeah, we had offers,” Art said. “Well, he was rated No. 2 and I was No. 3. I asked my dad what he thought about it and he said, ‘Hey, you’re in the game for money. If the money’s right, take it.’ But, you know, our mom said, ‘No,’ and that was it.” In 1964, a young, inexperienced but promising Art got his first brush with immortality when matched with six-time world champ Sugar Ray Robinson, by then in his 40s but, as the saying goes, possessing every trick in the book. When the fight was initially made, Hernandez admits he felt intimidated by the Robinson legend. “When my handlers first mentioned the fight I thought, ‘I’m going to be killed,’ but then as I was training I got in terrific shape and I thought, ‘Well, shit, I’ve got nothin’ to lose — I’ll give it all I got.’ Which I did.” A steamy Civic Auditorium was the site of the 10-rounder, which went the distance and ended in controversy when a cagey Robinson, sensing he was behind, twice hit Hernandez below the belt. No fouls were called, much to the fans’ dismay. “I’m sure he hit me below the belt intentionally, but…that’s the fight game, you know?” Hernandez said.
Most ringside observers gave the decision to Hernandez, but the judges scored the fight a draw. “I won that fight. There’s no doubt about it,” Hernandez said. “I boxed him superbly, and then he tried making a butt of me. He slipped a punch one time and spun a little bit and slapped me on the ass. It made the crowd laugh.” He said while Robinson was ring savvy, his arsenal had little else left. “He didn’t have real hard, sharp punches. It was mostly slapping stuff. He never hurt me.”
Mere months after that tussle, Hernandez’s manager, Sloan, died of a massive heart attack. “That broke my heart,” he said. For the next few years he fought for Dick Noland, also the manager of heavyweight Ron Stander, who often sparred with Hernandez at the old Fox Hole Gym and once said of his much smaller and more agile partner, “He’s harder to hit than a handful of rice.”
Ferd was at the Robinson fight and after seeing how well his kid brother performed he grew confident he too could trade leather with the best. He proved his point a year later by winning a split-decision over Sugar Ray at the Hacienda Hotel, among the venues Ferd headlined at during the “Strip Fight of the Week” cards his promoter, Bill Miller, founded. Although both brothers became top contenders in the middleweight division, neither ever got a title shot. Art always felt Ferd hampered his chances by letting his Las Vegas camp change his style from the pure boxing stratagem their father instilled to more of a close-in style ill-suited to him. “That was his downfall. Instead of moving and boxing and slipping punches, he became a come-in fighter. He got hit too much. Then, he got that detached retina (in 1968). It’s too bad…he was a terrific boxer.” As for himself, Art chalks up his lost opportunities to ring politics, bad breaks and stupid choices. In a career of what-might-have-beens, he was often only one win away from landing a championship bout, but could never quite close the deal.
Perhaps his biggest frustration came in a 1969 duel with former champ Emile Griffith, then still in his prime. Fought in Sioux Falls, S.D., the well-boxed bout went the full 10 rounds and, in a reversal of popular opinion, Griffith was given a split decision. “The fight was a good fight,” Hernandez recalled. “I loved it. He was well-versed in boxing. I can remember bulling him into the ropes and throwing a lot of body punches, which is something I never did. I just saw where he was susceptible to it.” As against Robinson, Hernandez felt he clearly won, but again fell victim to scoring vagaries. “I don’t think it was close at all. Those yokels that judged the fight for Griffith were completely out of line.” What hurt most, he said, was the fact a victory might have set-up a title challenge. “I knew I was at my peak when I fought Griffith. If I had won that fight I probably could have fought for a world championship.” In the end, he said, “I guess I wasn’t impressive enough. There’s a lot of politics in boxing with the judging and the ratings and all that kind of crap.”
Hernandez had other chances to catapult himself into a title slot, but he always came up short, whether it was bad breaks or just plain bad habits. For example, a cut he suffered to his eye forced the stoppage of his first fight with world champ Nino Benvenuti in Rome and a leg injury he suffered in preparation for his second fight with Benvenuti in Toronto hampered his movement during the 10-round fight, which he lost by unanimous decision. The night before his match with former champ Denny Moyer in Oakland, Art reverted to his old ways by partying with Ferd. He paid for it in the ring the next night, losing a unanimous 12-round decision. He had more than his share of success, too, twice winning the North American Boxing Federation middleweight title and evening the score with Moyer in a 12-round decision in Des Moines. Ferd also faced the best, losing to Benvenuti and Luis Rodriguez, beating Robinson and boxing to a draw with Jose Gonzalez for the World Boxing Association American middleweight title in Puerto Rico in 1966.
Art’s toughest opponent? “That would have to be Jimmy Lester. He never stopped coming. I was in very good shape for that fight, but God, he would just pump and pump and pump. He was a tough guy. He beat me in a split decision.” Hernandez said while he never made much money fighting, and didn’t care much about the size of his purses anyway, boxing did let him see the world. His favorite stop? Marseilles, France. “The Mediterranean. Beautiful, man.” The worst stop? Vietnam, where he went as part of a USO tour during the war. “It was really disheartening to see all those kids in hospitals with their arms and legs shot off. It was terrible.”
While an injury forced Ferd to stop fighting, it took Art getting KO’d three consecutive fights to finally call it quits in 1973. “Bennie Brisco stopped me in three. Jean-Claude Bouttier stopped me in nine. And, in the last fight I had, Tony Licata stopped me in eight. After that, I thought, ‘Well, there’s no place else to go.’ So, I just gave it up.” He made an aborted comeback attempt when he started sparring with his up-and-coming brother Dale. “Once, he hit me somewhere on my head and I just tingled all over. I took the gloves off and said ‘That’s it. I’m done forever.’” He turned his attention to helping train Dale, the last great fighter in the Hernandez line. Where Ferd and Art were consummate boxers, Dale was a classic slugger. “He was a terrific puncher,” said Art, who often worked his corner. “Dale’s whole idea was he could knock anybody out and so he didn’t think he had to train too much. That was his problem.” The approach worked well enough for a time, with Dale securing a No. 9 world lightweight ranking, but the gambit caught up to him in a junior welterweight bout against Lennox Blackmoore. The sight of his brother beaten to a pulp at the hands of the counter punching Blackmoore was too much for Art to take. “I about had a heart attack in that corner because he got the shit beat out of him. I told Dale at the end of the fight, ‘I’m done working in your corner. I will not take it anymore.’ I never worked his corner again.”
After that thumping, Dale was never the same again, falling farther and farther off the training wagon. Away from boxing, Dale’s behavior spiraled violently out of control. He has done hard time for a series of aggravated assaults, the latest of which finds him serving a stretch in a Cheyenne, Wyo. jail. He is estranged from his once close-knit family. “I don’t know what his problem is. I have nothing to do with him anymore,” Art said. “I don’t even talk to him.” Just thinking of what his brother once was and could have been makes Art sick. “He could have been world champion. At 135 pounds he could whip anybody in the world. At 142 pounds he was too small. But he wouldn’t train to get down to 135. He wanted to play.”
With Dale out of the picture and Chuck living quietly in Des Moines, Art pined for the old days with Ferd, but they were separated by miles and lifestyles. Then, when Ferd became terminally ill in the mid-90s, Art and his wife Mary, a nurse, flew him out to Omaha. The change in the former world-class athlete was drastic. “I did not recognize him,” Art said. The couple cared for him the last three weeks of his life. He died in their home on July 17, 1996. Most of all, Art misses his brother’s “sense of humor. He was a funny guy.”
Two years later Art experienced the next biggest test of his life when, while clearing storm-strewn branches from the roof of his father-in-law’s house, he slipped and fell to the pavement below, his lower left leg shattering upon impact. He underwent eight surgeries to repair the damage. Then his recovery suffered a severe setback when infection set-in. Faced with months more of painful rehab and the possibility of infection redeveloping, he opted to have the leg amputated below the knee. “I knew that in order to get well, it had to be done,” he said, massaging the stub under the prosthetic he wears. He fought depression. “A lot of times I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’” He credits his wife for seeing him through it all. “If it weren’t for this woman, I’d be dead.” Friends helped, too. His old sparring chum, Ron Stander, hooked Hernandez up with another ex-athlete amputee — legendary pro wrestler “Mad Dog” Vachon, who lives in Omaha. “Ron called me and said, ‘I’m going to take you to Mad Dog’s because he’s got a leg like yours,’ and from there we become friends.” Hernandez made a quick recovery, resuming work four months later. He retired a couple years ago and, today, draws a county pension, enjoys watching televised fights and, like many old jocks, doubts this era’s competitors could have stacked-up with his generation of warriors.
In an era when boxing is largely dead in the state, Hernandez is the last link to one of Nebraska’s great sports dynasties. Leave it to Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren to put the family boxing legacy in perspective. About Art and Ferd, he said, “They could step up to fight anybody in the world. They showed no fear. They were animals.” About Dale, he reminds us, “At 135 pounds, he could beat anybody in the world.” Today, many pounds over his fighting trim, Art Hernandez battles diabetes and high blood pressure, but this still proud man is not one to wallow in Why me? pity. “Things happen,” he said, “and you just gotta go with the flow.”
- Golden Gloves…& golden heart (nydailynews.com)
- Gildardo Garcia finds redemption in ring and in life (denverpost.com)
- “The Latin Snake” Sergio Mora Could Bite Shane Mosley In Three Weeks (bleacherreport.com)
When I met Tyrice Ellebb about a decade ago he was a young man who had turned his life around in a dramatic way through the aid of many caring individuals and institutions, including Boys Town, but he was also reeling from leaving the powerhouse University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program, where he achieved much. He had personal matters to attend to that in his mind at least took precedence over collegiate athletics, even though he was a key cog for a team poised to win a national title. He was also a very good football player. He felt bad about the way things worked out but as my story makes clear the people you may have thought he most disappointed were still in his corner. I lost contact with Tryice after the story but I understand he did get things together in his life and I know he’s excelled at indoor professional football. This story originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, a paper that is no more, and I offer it here as another example of the kind of sports writing I like to do.
Redemption, A Boys Town Grad Finds His Way
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly
As the No.1-ranked UNO wrestling team enters the stretch-run in its national championship hunt, the man who should be holding down the heavyweight spot for the Mavericks is no where to be seen. Senior Tyrice Ellebb, projected as a strong title contender, left the team this winter after the latest in a series of personal crises sent him reeling. A sweet, soft-spoken goliath who loves to dance, Ellebb was at his best when he bounced around the mat to the beat of whatever song was in his head. Sadly, he has had his last dance in a UNO uniform.
At only 23, the massive Ellebb (he stands 6’3 and his weight hovers around 300 pounds) has weathered a topsy-turvy life that’s found him both on the side of the angels and the devils. Growing up on Chicago’s south side, he ran with the notorious Gangster Disciples. Looking to escape his hometown’s mean streets, he followed four uncles to the former Boys Town, where he won election as mayor. While he flourished in the nurturing Boys Town setting and, later, in the family-like UNO wrestling program, he also made some bad choices along the way, including fathering three children — all out of wedlock. Still, he applied himself in high school and developed into a standout football player and wrestler — winning two state heavyweight championships (pinning all his opponents as a senior).
Possessing great size, agility and quickness, he was courted by Nebraska and Kansas State as a walk-on gridiron prospect. When he did not qualify academically he signed with Iowa Central Community College, where he twice garnered junior college All-America honors and earned an associate’s degree. At UNO he fought homesickness, endured the death of a dear aunt and worked with teammates and coaches in managing his complicated life. Although an acknowledged leader on and off the mat, Ellebb’s frequent missed practices and late arrivals were distractions. Allowances were made, but it never seemed enough. “We demand a lot here in our program and it was hard for him to get all that together. We tried to be flexible and to give him some leeway, but you can only do so much,” UNO Head Coach Mike Denney said.
Despite the distractions, Ellebb proved a force to be reckoned with by winning the North Central Conference heavyweight crown and finishing a solid fourth at last year’s NCAA Division II tournament. Heading into this season he was seen as the linchpin of a dominant UNO squad tabbed as odds-on favorites for the team title. After working so hard and overcoming so much, this was going to be his year. Then, last December, it all came crashing down around him and his dreams of glory vanished. His story can be seen as both an object lesson in overcoming the odds and a cautionary tale of taking on too much-too soon.
To understand just how far he came, one must understand that for the longest time this product of a broken home appeared headed for prison or a violent death — the fate of several friends he hung out with as a youth. Even though his mother, Sharon, was a security officer, she almost found out too late his gangbanging was threatening to destroy him the way it already had one of her brothers. There were street fights, drug dealings, gunshots, threats and reprisals. Through it all, Ellebb avoided incarceration, completed school and remained close to his family.
“I was letting the streets get to me. You always had to worry about looking behind your back. Somebody always wanted to take you out because they wanted your name. It’s just crazy. It got to the point where in my head I felt I needed to kill somebody if people bothered me,” he said.
It took the senseless death of a family friend who was like a favorite uncle for him to rethink the gangster life. “Two rival gangs were involved in something stupid and a gun went off and it instantly killed him. That kind of tore me up real bad. That made me understand I didn’t need to be involved in gangs anymore. I needed to get away before they beat me or before I wouldn’t see my next birthday.”
When his mother found out she was losing him to the streets she promptly saw him off on the next train to Boys Town, where other wayward men in the family had found refuge. “I listened to her and I’m glad I made that choice to come here. I accomplished a lot at Boys Town,” he said. There, he came under the influence of teacher-coach Don Bader, who said, “Tyrice had a lot of issues. He needed a lot of work. But he got on the right track. He’s a great kid.” These days, when Ellebb visits his old stomping grounds in Chicago, he finds little changed. “My friends are still doing the same thing. The only thing different is everyone is older. When I go back there I’m like, ‘God, I’m glad I left there.’ I couldn’t picture myself being that way now. When I tell people, ‘I used to be a thug,’ they say, ‘I couldn’t see you that way.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, I know, I changed. I made myself change.’” UNO’s Denney said despite the baggage Ellebb carries, “he has a lot of good in him.”
Prior to his latest troubles Ellebb’s commitment to wrestling waned at various times, but he always rededicated himself. With the birth of his third child last year, however, his passion lagged. Soon, he fell behind in his classes and was declared academically ineligible the first semester. The only action he saw offered a vivid display of his inner turmoil when, for the only time in his wrestling career, he was disqualified after throwing a punch at an opponent who earlier elbowed him.
According to Ellebb, “When that happened, I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this right now. I need to get my head together.’ Coach Denney told me to work through it. He chose for me not to wrestle the following weekend, but sitting out didn’t help. A lot of stuff was going wrong then. It just started piling up so fast.” The final straw was when his beloved grandmother, Anne, who helped raise him, was stricken with cancer. “She’s the backbone of our family. She keeps us together. She’s the only person I can talk to. She’s the one who makes me keep striving to do right. When I found out about my grandmother being sick, it was more than I could handle.”
Overwhelmed, he retreated into a cocoon. “I was struggling with myself. I just stayed away from everyone. I wasn’t talking to anyone. I felt I was going to have a nervous breakdown.” Finally, on December 15, he left Omaha for Chicago to be with his family. His departure caused him to miss some final exams, resulting in two incompletes. By re-enrolling this semester as a full-time student, he unwittingly used up any remaining eligibility. No matter, Ellebb had already decided he could not continue wrestling. “I felt (quitting) this was probably the best thing for me and for the team because I couldn’t wrestle to my potential if my head and heart wasn’t in it,” he said. His decision has caused him anguish. “I hate that I’m not part of the team now and not out there trying to help them win the national championship. If things didn’t fall out like they did and if I didn’t make my load as heavy it was, I’d probably still be part of it.” Perhaps his biggest regret is abandoning the team without formally giving his coaches or teammates an explanation. “They deserve to hear something,” he acknowledges.
During Ellebb’s tailspin Coach Denney said he tried contacting him but could not reach him. “I made attempts to find out what was happening. I even tried to contact some of the people he hangs with, but I could tell he was drifting away from us. I could sense as early as last summer he was struggling again and I tried to be really positive with him. But we just didn’t seem to be able to create enough positive power to hold him. The negative forces just kind of overwhelmed him.”
In gauging how much Ellebb’s absence hurts, Denney said, “Certainly, we miss him. We miss what he could have contributed. We were counting on him. The Lord blessed him with a lot of talent. We went from a senior who, in my mind, was the frontrunner to win a national championship to a redshirt freshman, (Lance Tolstedt). Losing all the experience Tyrice had and all the work and time we put into him is a huge impact on our team.”
To a man, Ellebb’s former teammates say they feel no bitterness. Instead, there is frustration and empathy. For 125-pounder Mack LaRock, Ellebb’s departure “was a big disappointment because we know how much stronger he made our team, but we also realize all the different problems and situations he has in life. He did let us down, but I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing if I was in his shoes. There’s no really hard feelings. Tyrice made his bed and he has to lie in it now.”
Perhaps the most disappointing thing to those who care about Ellebb is that so much effort went into his athletic success that stopping short now seems a waste. Then there is the fact wrestling provided a sometimes uncertain young man a structure and stability he often could not find elsewhere. “Being part of our team gave him a positive force that could really help him, but when he’s away from that he gets into these other forces that aren’t so positive,” Denney said.
As for himself, Ellebb looks forward to making amends with his former UNO comrades and taking care of business with his family. “I have all my priorities in order now and the main ones are being a part of my children’s lives and finishing school. People tell me I’m a good person. I’m just trying to find that person in me and to do what I’m supposed to be doing in life.”
- Revoked scholarships surprise college athletes (thegrio.com)
- Sherwood Ross: Big-Time College Football Depriving Athletes of an Education (grantlawrence.blogspot.com)
- UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Though not a sports writer per se, I love writing about sports and I think I have a certain flair for it. So while I write about anything and everything in the course of a typical year, and certainly do not specialize in sportswriting, I like to keep my hand in it. The following article is an example from about nine or 10 years ago. The subject is an impressive young man named Adam Wright who made his mark on the football field at Omaha Nigh High and at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, my alma mater, as a running back. He wasn’t recruited by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but the way he developed and dominated at the Division II level at UNO he certainly indicated he could have excelled in Division I and helped the Huskers. He even made it all the way to the National Football League as a free agent, but successive knee injuries stopped him in his tracks before he ever got to play a down. This story originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, a paper that no longer exists.
Wright On, Adam Wright Has it All Figured Out Both On and Off the Football Field
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Omaha Weekly
Adam Wright has been so indestructible for the streaking UNO Maverick football team this year that no one foresaw this walking Adonis being sidelined by injury. After all, the senior has been the one constant and main workhorse for the often sputtering UNO offense in 2000, lugging the ball 30 times per contest the first seven outings. Time and again, the big bruising tailback with the ripped body crashed into a human wall at the line of scrimmage and came out the other side still intact, if not unscathed. He has taken many hard knocks, but delivered some too, usually leaving a litter of bodies in his wake. “I take pride in knowing I’m not going to be stopped by any one guy, no matter who he is, no matter how big he is,” Wright said. “I’m always looking to turn into somebody to dish out some punishment.”
But Wright, a bright and amiable student-athlete with a career in engineering (he is a civil engineering major) awaiting him if a hoped-for stint in pro football fizzles, was not always so assertive. The Omaha North High School graduate played quarterback as a prepster and arrived at UNO lacking the requisite toughness to be a hard-nosed tailback. As a freshman, he was even moved to wide receiver for a week. His passivity on the field was an off-shoot of his desire to blend in off it, where he grew up in an interracial home struck by tragedy. After losing his father at age 8, he watched his two older siblings make some bad life choices and set about being a model child for the sake of his mother.
He did anything to avoid being branded a troublemaker, even to the point of not using his God-given size to run over smaller players on the gridiron. Even after bulking up in college from 195 to his present 230 pounds, the 6’1 back steered clear of putting all of himself into runs. It took an attitude change, plus watching tapes of great backs, before he became the physical runner he is today. UNO Offensive Coordinator Lance Leipold recalls a heart-to-heart talk he had with his ballcarrier: “I said, ‘You’ve built yourself into this big back, now you’ve got to play like one.’” He said Wright, a devoted weightlifter, now not only “finishes off runs” but possesses a keen sense for the game: “He’s learned the blocking schemes better. He knows what’s really happening up front — where the hole is going to hit.”
His brute-force style, smarts and occasional breakaway speed (He cut his 40-yard dash time by two-tenths of a second over the summer — to a 4.7 electronic.), put Wright atop the NCAA Division II individual rushing chart for a time and allowed him to shatter UNO’s career rushing mark. He has 1,216 yards this season (just 100 yards short of the UNO single season record) and 3,761 overall. Earlier this year he recorded a stretch of three straight 200-yard-plus rushing performances. It’s been that kind of productivity that’s made him a regional finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy (Division II’s Heisman).
By mid-season, he was a bruised but unbowed target for opposing defenses, absorbing hit upon hit but always picking himself up off the turf to get back into the fray. More often than not, tacklers were worn down by game’s end, not him.
Late, when defenses are tiring, he said, “you go for the kill. You put your head down a little lower, squeeze the ball tighter, fire out and go stronger.” Indeed, his late game heroics sealed wins against Northern Colorado and South Dakota. But with one twist of the knee early in the first quarter of UNO’s October 28 game versus South Dakota State, Wright went down in a heap, the medial collateral ligament in his left knee sprained. The injury happened on his first carry, a draw designed to go up the middle that he bounced wide. A defensive back came up on the play, making helmet contact just below Wright’s bent knee. As Wright tried to pull out of the tackle, his leg extended back and he felt his knee “wobble.” Playing in pain all season from tendinitis, he stayed in for a second carry, then with the knee only “getting worse,” he limped off, unable to return to a game UNO won 24-7 thanks in part to the steady play of his backup, redshirt freshman Justin Kammrad.
After week-long treatments, Wright was available for emergency duty last Saturday but with UNO dominating and Kammrad running wild (for a school record 239 yards) in a 45-7 win over Augustana. Wright did not see action. Instead, he nervously paced the sidelines — loudly encouraging his teammates. He should be close to full strength for this Saturday’s regular season finale at home against Top 20 foe and North Central Conference rival North Dakota (8-2). A healthy Wright will be a timely addition, as the 1 p.m. contest at Al Caniglia Field has major regional and national implications. Featuring a swarming defense that allows less than 10 points a game and a battering-ram offense that runs the ball down opponents’ throats, No. 5 UNO, now 9-1 and on a nine-game winning streak, is poised to capture just its second outright NCC title ever and to secure home field for the opening rounds of the NCAA playoffs. With their go-to guy back, look for the Mavs to feed the ball to No. 6 and, if his knee holds up, to ride his strong back as many times as needed.
Wright will gladly bear the load, too. “If it takes 40 carries for our offense to be successful, then give it to me 40 times,” he said. Following a 37-carry, 151-yard performance versus UNC on October 7, including gaining 38 yards on a crucial 4th quarter drive, Wright gouged South Dakota for 130 yards on 34 attempts the very next week. The more carries he gets, the more he starts “getting into a rhythm.” When he and his linemen get into that flow, running turns effortless. “It seems like once the ball is snapped, I’m beyond the hole. I’m in the secondary already. It’s kind of weird. It’s like, all of a sudden I’m there. I don’t even remember the run.”
The last few minutes of the SDU game offered another gut-check for UNO and Wright when, tied 7-7 in the 4th, the Mavs ground out two drives — with Wright the main weapon — to secure a 21-7 victory. With only minutes left, he was feeling the effects of all the pounding, but refused to sit out for even a play. “To tell you the truth, there was a point in time when I got up really slow and I was pretty sore. It was ridiculous. It was like being hit by a car — twice. My teammates were telling me in the huddle to get out of the game, but I knew J.J. (reserve tailback James Johnson) had sprained his knee and that Justin Kammrad was only a redshirt freshman. I felt I had to stay in. It was a close ballgame. And with only four minutes to go, I was like, ‘Ah, I’ve already been hit 30 times, what’s four more?’” Wright made his last four carries count, too, tearing through a tiring Coyotes defense on a short drive he capped with a nifty 23-yard touchdown run.
Adam Wright today as Northern Natural Gas Vice President of Marketing
Doing whatever it takes has been ingrained in Wright since he lost his father, Jesse, to cancer in 1985. He has fond memories of the man, who was a packing house laborer. “The weird thing is, I can hardly remember his face, but I can remember a lot of lessons he taught me about life — about honesty, about integrity, about loyalty.” Prior to his father’s death, Wright’s mother, Liz, had been a stay-at-home mom. She returned to school (to study nursing) and entered the work force to provide for her three children. The demands took her away from her family more than she wanted. By the time her two oldest kids reached their teens, they were running wild. Adam, the youngest, sat back and saw how much grief his siblings’ behavior caused her and determined he would do nothing to add to her worries.
“My brother and sister pushed the limits to see how far they could go,” he said. “I saw how hard our mom was working just so we could have a chance for a better life and I didn’t want to disappoint her and make all the things she was doing be in vain. I tried not to disappoint anybody. Today, all of us are on the straight and narrow, but we each took different paths to get there.”
Liz Wright, an RN, recalls how as a child Adam displayed a maturity beyond his years. “Adam sort of comes from an underdog situation — being of mixed race, growing up in a poor area of the city and losing his father so young. I could have easily lost him to the crime environment in north Omaha.” She said his coming of age amid the near northside’s gang culture offered real temptations he resisted. “He didn’t take that path. A lot of his friends did. And what I admire most about him now is he doesn’t judge people who live that life. He’s a fair person. He’s kind of a keeper of justice.” Such congeniality, combined with male model good looks and a penchant for doing the right thing (he mentors disadvantaged youths), endear Wright to just about anyone he meets. For example, he was elected co-captain of the football squad and was recently voted vice president of the UNO student government.
His coaches — past and present — uniformly sing his praises. Herman Colvin, the head football coach at North High during Wright’s two years on the varsity there, became a father figure to the player. “He’s somebody I have a tremendous amount of respect and love for,” said Colvin, now assistant principal at Monroe Middle School in Omaha. “I really love the guy. He has made some good choices and I’m really happy with his choices. Has he done a lot to make me proud? He certainly has.” UNO Head Football Coach Pat Behrns said, “Adam’s a great guy. He does any type of public service work we ask him to. He’s great with young people. He’s a very classy young man. We’re going to hate to see him go.” Wright’s position coach, Lance Leipold, added, “He’s been a pleasure to work with because of his outstanding work ethic. He’s done a lot of little things to make himself a very quality back for us. But he’s not going to be one of those guys who’s going to be real frustrated if pro football doesn’t work out. Adam, from day one, has had such a plan in life. Someday, I might be working for him.”
The man instrumental in getting Wright to refuse Division I scholarship offers for UNO, Mid-American Energy CEO and fellow North High alum David Sokol, also commends Wright, whom he speaks of as a kind of protege (Wright has been an intern at Mid-American since 1996). “He has two characteristics I think are particularly important. One is, he has a very high character level. He is very cautious about keeping himself out of situations where, you know, bad things are liable to happen. The second thing is, he is extremely hard working and he has his priorities pretty well laid out. I think he can probably do anything he wants to, whether it’s the NFL or corporate America. We certainly would be more than happy to hire him after graduation.”
Clearly, the NFL is not an all-or-nothing proposition for Wright. It remains what his mom calls “a little boy’s dream.” As Wright himself said, “I’m a realist. I know it’s extremely hard to get there. If the opportunity presents itself, fine. But I’m going to leave my options open and do what’s in the best interests for my future.”
Carrying extra weight as “a cushion” against all the wear and tear he can expect to incur, Wright has his sights set on helping the Mavs make a run for the national title. “The way our defense is playing, if our offense can just control the clock, grind out the yards, get first downs and keep getting in the end zone, we have the potential to win every game.” Being on the sidelines has almost been more than he can take. “It’s killing me. I want to be on the field when we win.” he said. He will do whatever it takes to return. “I’ll argue, scratch and claw to get out there.”
- Georgia Tech 2010 Offensive Preview: Running Backs (bleacherreport.com)
- Arby’s Pick Five should be ready soon (chicagonow.com)
The College World Series underway in Omaha is a major NCAA athletic championship that attracts legions of fans from all over America and grabs gobs of national media attention. With this being the last series played at the event’s home these past 60 years, Rosenblatt Stadium, there’s been more fan and media interest than ever before, although a spate of rain storms actually hurt attendance at the start of this year’s series. Inclement weather or not, the series is a great big love-in with its own Fan Fest. But it didn’t used to be this way. Indeed, for the first three decades of the event, it was a rather small, obscure championship that garnered little notice outside the schools participating. Omaha cultivated the event when few others wanted or cared about it, and all that nurturing has resulted in practically a permanent hold on the event, which has strong support from the corporate community, from the City of Omaha, from service clubs, and from the local hospitality industry. Two key players in securing and growing the series have been a father and son, the late Jack Diesing Sr. and Jack Diesing Jr., and they are the focus of this short story that recently appeared in a special CWS edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com) called The Daily Dugout. I have another story on this site from the Dugout — it features Greg Pivovar, one of the colorful characters who can be found at the series.
The Two Jacks of the College World Series
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In 1967 the late Jack Diesing Sr. founded College World Series Inc. as the local nonprofit organizing committee for the NCAA Division I men’s national collegiate baseball championship. He led efforts that turned a small, struggling event into a major national brand for Omaha.
When son Jack Diesing Jr. succeeded him as president, the young namesake continued building the brand as Jack Sr. stayed on as chairman.
While the CSW is not a business, it’s a growing enterprise annually generating an estimated $40-plus million for the local economy. More than 300,000 fans attend and millions more watch courtesy ESPN.
Papa Diesing was around to see all that growth, only passing away this past March at age 92. Jack Jr. said his father, who saw the event’s potential when few others did, never ceased being amazed “by how it kept getting bigger and better. The phrase he always said is, ‘This just flabbergasts me.'”
His father inherited a dog back in 1963. Jack Sr. was a J. L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store executive. His boss, Ed Pettis, chaired the CWS. The event lost money nine of its first 14 years here. When Pettis died, Jack Sr. was asked to take over. He refused at first. No wonder. The CWS was rinky-dink. Nothing about it promised great things ahead. The crowds were miniscule. The interest weak. But under his aegis an economically sustainable framework was put in place.
What’s become a gold standard event had an unlikely person guiding it.
“When my father got involved with the College World Series he had never attended a baseball game in his life. He didn’t really want to do it but basically he agreed to do it because it was the right thing to do for the city of Omaha,” said Jack Jr. “Over a period of time he developed a love affair with not only what it meant for the fans but what it meant for the city and what it meant for the kids playing in it. He always was looking to do whatever we could do here to make the event better for the kids playing the games and the fans attending the games and for the community. And the rest is history.”
Omaha Press Club caricatures of the Diesings by artist Jim Horan, Faces copyright @2011 Omaha Press Club
The son’s affinity for the series started early and by the time the patriarch was ready to pass the torch, Jack Jr. was ready.
“I certainly grew up behind the scenes. I can’t say he was purposely grooming me into anything. It’s just that I was exposed to the College World Series ever since I moved back into town in 1975. I’d go to the games, I was involved in sports in school and still was an avid sports follower after I got back.”
Diesing said the same sense of civic duty and love of community that motivated his father motivates him.
He still marvels at his father’s foresight.
“One of the things people credited him for was having tremendous vision about how to set up the infrastructure and make sure we had an organization moving forward that would stand the test of time. And he thought it would make sense to carry on a tradition with his son following him, and that was another thing he was right about.”
His father not only stabilized the CWS but set the stage for its prominence by partnering with the city and the local business community to placate the NCAA by investing millions in Rosenblatt Stadium improvements to create a showcase event for TV.
College baseball coaching legend Bobo Brayton admired how Jack Sr. nurtured the CWS. “I think he was the single person that really kept the world series there in Omaha. I went to a lot of meetings with Jack, I know how he worked. First, he’d feed everybody good, give them a few belts, and then start working on ‘em. He was fantastic, just outstanding. It’s too bad we lost him…but, of course, Jack Jr. is doing a good job too.”
As intrinsic as Rosenbatt’s been to the CWS, Jack Jr. said his father knew it was time for a change: “He could see and did see the needs and the benefits to move into the future. Certainly, I’m the first person to understand the nostalgia, the history, the ambience surrounding Rosenblatt. It’s going to be different down at the new stadium, and it’s just a matter of everybody figuring out a way to embrace the different.”
Diesing has no doubt the public-private partnership his father fostered will continue over the next 25 years that Omaha’s secured the series for and well beyond. He’s glad to carry the legacy of a man, a city and an event made for each other.
- Rosenblatt Stadium memories will live on (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- College World Series: The 10 Greatest CWS Legends Omaha Has Ever Seen (bleacherreport.com)
- College World Series is Omaha’s party central (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- 1st game at new Omaha ballpark sells out in hours (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- The One That Got Away Is Still a Yankees Fan (nytimes.com)
UPDATE: Greg Pivovar’s Stadium View Sports Cards store was left high and dry when Rosenblatt Stadium was closed and the College World Series moved downtown to TD Ameritrade Park, but he does have a presence near the new site courtesy a tent set-up. My story below appeared on the eve of the 201o CWS, as Pivovar, whose shop stood directly across the street from Rosenblatt, prepped for his last dance with the old stadium.
As the College World Series enters the stretch run of the 2010 championship, I offer this story as a slice-of-life capsule of the local color that can be found in and around the event and its festival-like atmosphere. The subject is Greg Pivovar, who runs a sports memorabilia shop called Stadium View Sports Cards, across from Omaha‘s Rosenblatt Stadium, the venue where the CWS has been played for 60 years. This is the stadium’s last at-bat, so to speak, as it’s scheduled to be torn down next year, when the event moves to the new downtown TD Ameritrade Park. The ‘Blatt’s last hurrah is inspiring all manner of nostalgic farewells. Pivovar will be sad to see it go too, but he’s not the sentimental sort. In fact, he’s the cynical antidote to the otherwise perpetually cheery facade the city, the NCAA, and College World Series Inc. like to spin about the series, an event that Omaha has catered to to such an extent that there’s a fair amount of skepticism and animosity out there. Pivovar loves the series and the business it brings him, and he loves serving in the unofficial role of CWS ambassador for visitors from out of state, but he’s not Pollyannish about the event or the powers-that-be who run it. He just kind of says it like it is. His blog, stadiumview.wordpress.com, is a hoot for the way he skewers sacred cows.
I have posted another CWS story about a father and son legacy tied to the event.
The Little People‘s Ambassador at the College World Series
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Stadium View Sports Cards proprietor Greg Pivovar makes a colorful ambassador for the College World Series with his Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and blue-streak S’oud Omaha patter. This bona fide character champions “the little people who built” the CWS.
Enter his sports memorabilia shop across from Rosenblatt and his course, cranky, world-weary sarcasm greets you, his barbs delivered with a stiff drink in one hand and a cell phone in the other. He talks like he writes on his stadiumview.wordpress.com blog.
“A lot of it is funny and cynical, but a lot of it is from my heart,” he said..
His shop’s a popular way stop for CWS fans craving authentic Omaha. He’s dispensed free beer since opening the joint 19 years ago. “It’s meant as a gesture of friendship and welcome, not as, Hey, you want to stand around and get drunk here? Part of the ritual,” he said. In 2006 he “took a cheap ass plea” on a ticket scalping charge he claims was bogus. He said the company he keeps is what got him in trouble.
“I have a bunch of scalpers who hang around here,” he said. “They’re friends of mine. I like them, they’re an interesting breed of human being.”
The arrest made headlines. A recent AP story that went viral called him a one-man CWS welcoming committee. Ryan McGee profiled him in the book The Road to Omaha.
“Famous…infamous, I’ve been both,” said Pivovar.
His uncensored ways hardly conform to the Norman Rockwell image the NCAA prefers.
Pivovar, who also serves homemade barbecue and enchiladas during the CWS, and cooks up a mean jambalaya whenever LSU makes it, feels he contributes to a “festival atmosphere.” Vendor and hospitality tents dot the blue collar neighborhood, where enterprising residents make a sweet profit charging for parking spots and refreshments.
The NCAA’s tried distancing the CWS from the commercial, party vibe. A clean zone will be easier to enforce with the move to TD Ameritrade Park next year.
“Piv” likes a good time but acknowledges all “the temporary bars” can be “a negative,” adding, “There’s a few too many people coming down here just to get drunk, and that’s not the idea. That sounds hypocritical coming from a guy who’s given 40,000 beers away, but it really isn’t. Most of my beers are given away one, maybe two at a time.”
The Creighton University Law School grad and former Sarpy County public defender has a private practice he puts on hold for the series. This being Rosenblatt’s last year, he’s stocked extra beer for the record hordes expected to say adieu to the stadium.
His own ties to Rosenblatt go back to childhood. His collecting began with baseball cards, sports magazines, game programs, signed balls. He got serious after college, traveling to buy and sell wares. Eventually, he said, “my collection was pretty much overrunning my home. I’m a hoarder. I needed a place to store my hobby.” Thus, the store was born, although he insists: “It’s not a business, it’s never been a business. I don’t make any money at this, I never have. It’s kind of like a museum.”
Most of his million or so cards, he said, “are just firewood.”
What business he does do largely happens during the CWS. Even then he said I “barely pay the bills.” He doesn’t know what he’ll do after the ‘Blatt’s gone and the series moves downtown. “I’d love to carry my hobby down there but…If somebody comes and shits a couple hundred thousand dollars on my face it might happen, but other than that…”
If he closes shop, he’s unsure what will become of his stuff.
“I don’t even want to think about it. I suppose I could throw it all on e-bay and get a mere pittance for it. That’s the way that works. So much of it has zero to such a narrow market, and I knew that going in. It’s not like I was having any allusions of getting rich from this.”
He’s pissed about the “Blatt’s demise and suspects the new site will usher in a sterile, elitist era.
“I’m a conspiracy theorist. What this is all about is developing that north area (NoDo) and wanting to give the zoo what they need. The bastards are taking my ballpark. Like I end a lot of my blogs, I’ve got so many days until my world’s over. It’s kind of like writing your own obituary.”
At least he has his health. He’s cancer-free after a bout with cancer.
The “Save Rosenblatt” t-shirts he carried have been replaced with ones reading: “To Hell with Rosenblatt, Save Stadium View.”
Stadium View is at 3702 So. 13th St.
- College World Series Is Moving On (nytimes.com)
- College World Series is Omaha’s party central (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Rosenblatt Stadium memories will live on (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Vermont couple ties knot during CWS rain delay (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- 1st game at new Omaha ballpark sells out in hours (seattletimes.nwsource.com)