Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
In the constellation of University of Nebraska football legends, Johnny Rodgers is probably still the brightest star, even though it’s been going on 40 years since he last played for the Huskers. So dazzling were his moves and so dominant was his play that this 1972 Heisman Trophy winner , who was the one big play threat on the 1970 and 1971 national championship teams, remains the gold standard for NU playmakers. The fact that he was such a prominent player when NU first reached modern day college football prominence, combined with his being an Omaha product who overcame a tough start in life, puts him in a different category from all the other Husker greats. The style and panache that he brought to the field and off it helps, too. He’s also remained one of the most visible and accessible Husker legends.
Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (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)
“Man, woman and child…the Jet has put ‘em in the aisles again.”
Viewing again on tape one of Johnny Rodgers’ brilliant juking, jiving broken field runs, one has the impression of a jazz artist going off on an improvisational riff and responding note by note, move by move, instant by instant to whatever he’s feeling on the field.
Indeed, that is how Rodgers, the quicksilver University of Nebraska All-American and Heisman Trophy winner known as The Jet, describes the way his instinctive playmaking skills expressed themselves in action. Original, spontaneous, unplanned, his dance-like punt returns and darting runs after catches unfolded, like riveting dramatic performances, in the moment. Poetry in motion. All of which makes his revelation that he did this in a kind of spellbound state fascinating.
“I remember times when I’d go into a crowd of players and I’d come out the other side and the first time I’d know anything about what really happened was when I watched it on film,” he said. “It was like I was in a trance or guided or something. It was not ever really at a conscious level. I could see it as it’s happening, but I didn’t remember any of it. In any of the runs, I could not sit back and say all the things I’d just done until I saw them on film. Never. Not even once.”
This sense of something larger and more mysterious at work is fitting given Rodgers unlikely life story. In going from ghetto despair and criminal mischief to football stardom and flamboyant high life to wheeler-dealer and ignominious failure to sober businessman and community leader, his life has played out in surreal fashion. For a long time Rodgers seemed to be making his legend up, for better or worse, as he went along.
Once viewed as an incorrigible delinquent, Rodgers grew up poor and fatherless in the Logan Fontenelle projects and, unable to get along with his mother, ran away from home at age 14 to Detroit. He was gone a year.
“You talk about a rude awakening. It was a trip,” he said.
He bears scars from bashings and bullets he took in violent clashes. He received probation in his late teens for his part in a Lincoln filling station robbery that nearly derailed his college football career. He served 30 days in jail for driving on a suspended license. Unimaginable — The Jet confined to a cell. His early run-ins with the law and assundry other troubles made him a romantic outlaw figure to some and a ne’er-do-well receiving special treatment to others.
“People were trying to make me out to be college football’s bad boy,” is how he sums up that tumultuous time.
Embracing his rebel image, the young Rodgers wore shades and black leather and drove fast. Affecting a playboy image, J.R. lived a Player’s lifestyle. By the time he signed a big contract with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, he was indulging in a rich young man’s life to the hilt — fur capes, silk dashikis, fancy cars, recreational drugs, expensive wines and fine babes. Hedonism, baby.
Controversy continued dogging him and generating embarrassing headlines, like the time in 1985 he allegedly pulled a gun on a cable television technician or the two times, once in 1987 and again in 1998, when his Heisman was confiscated in disputes over non-payment of bills. Then there were the crass schemes to cash in on his fame.
Rodgers, whose early life could have gone seriously astray if not for strong male figures around him, said, “I really wish I would have had mentors in mid-life like I had coming up so I could have been prepared for a lot of things I found myself getting into and out of, whether good or bad. I really don’t have any regrets as far as whatever has happened, one way or the other, because I’ve grown on both sides. I’ve learned probably more from my mistakes than from my successes.”
It is only in recent years he has settled down into the kind of calm, considered, conservative life of a reborn man who, in conversation, often refers to his Creator and to giving back.
As he was quoted in a 2001 Omaha World-Herald story, “I’m a little boring now. I make people nervous these days because they have to put their drugs away now.”
Not that this inveterate risk-taker and spotlight lover still isn’t capable of surprises, just that his escapades are less brazen. In the late 1990s he went back to school to finish his degree and added a second degree for good measure. In 1996 he started a sports apparel, bedding and accesories business, JetWear, located in the Business and Technology Center at 24th and Lake, that got him named entrepreneur of the year. He and his wife Jawana own and operate it today. Then, cementing his lofty status as a sports hero, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and named Husker Player of the Century.
These days, Rodgers, looking fit with his shirt-popping muscular physique and jaunty with the gold bling-bling draping his every appendage, seems comfortable in his role as venerable legend. The media seeks his opinions on the state of the Husker Nation in the aftermath of last season’s debacle.
However much he plays the role of wizened old football warrior, he is forever seen as the dangerous artful dodger whose unique combo of strength, quickness and intuitiveness let him do the unexpected on the gridiron — leaving people grasping thin air with magical now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t moves. In an interview from his office, adorned with images and clippings from his glory days, he spoke like a man still in touch with the electrifying, enigmatic athletic genius that left fans breathless and opponents befuddled. Still every inch the star, he’s finally come to terms with himself.
When viewed in the context of a rather rash fellow who follows his instincts, then his punt returns — the plays where he improvised the most, displayed the most creativity and took the greatest chances — make more sense just as some of his reckless off-the-field antics can be better understood if not excused. For better or worse, his let’s-wing-it, go-for-broke attitude explains his life inside and outside of athletics.
“When you’re a risk taker you do make mistakes because you’re going for it all the time,” he said. “You don’t always make the right move. You can fake yourself right into harm’s way or you can shake yourself right through it. But you have to be willing to take a chance. In a lot of ways I should have been more conservative about things but it’s just not my nature.”
Just like calling a fair catch or lining up behind a wall of blockers was not about to happen when fielding a punt.
“You don’t think, you just react. You don’t know, you just feel,” is how Rodgers describes what it’s like for an impulsive person like himself to feed off whatever is happening around him at any given time, including the chaos swirling about when running back a punt in a preternatural daze. “It’s not like being in what athletes call a zone. You get yourself ready in a zone so you can think about what you need to do and you can get it done. Being in a trance is a whole other level. It’s not a planned thing. You don’t know what’s going to happen. If you make a plan, you’re already wrong because it hasn’t happened yet. The plan is, there is no plan.”
Because of Rodgers’ unusual, innate gifts, then NU head coach Bob Devaney gave him great latitude.
“I had a green light returning punts. I just did whatever came natural,” Rodgers said. “I’d call a punt return right and I’d go left in a heartbeat. When I saw everybody going left, I’d change direction. I never would know. I was never ever told to fair catch the football, even in dangerous situations. There were never any rules for me. I was given that freedom. It got to the point where the only thing I could tell my guys is, ‘Get that first man and meet me down field’ because I didn’t know myself what I was going to do.”
Some of his most famous returns illustrate Rodgers at his extemporaneous best. Take the famous 72-yard touchdown versus Oklahoma in the 1971 Game of the Century.
“It was a right return and I started off right but the whole darn thing happened on the left. On that return my guys didn’t get the first man. I had to shake the first man, who was Greg Pruitt. Joe Blahak broke one way and I went the other way, but still he circled all the way back around the field to pick the last guy off my back and that was because we always agreed to meet down field.
“Where most players would be satisfied getting one block and be jogging the rest of the way my guys, like Blahak and (Rich) Glover, were still fighting until the whistle blew. They knew to meet me down field and that attitude really panned out.”
Call it a sixth sense or a second set of eyes, but Rodgers possessed an uncanny ability to elude defenders he couldn’t possibly see. “I watch myself returning punts on film and I see guys reaching at my head and I’m ducking and you can see clearly that I can’t see them, but I can feel them. At the exact right time I make the move. It’s an instinct. A spiritual thing. Unconscious.”
In a remarkable series of sideline returns against Colorado in 1972, Rodgers executed some fancy arabesques and tightrope maneuvers that defied logic and balance as he repeatedly made sharp cuts, spins and leaps to escape trouble.
On offense, he also enjoyed a degree of freedom. When the Huskers needed a play, he and quarterback Jerry Tagge would collaborate in the huddle. “When push came to shove we called plays ourselves. Tagge would ask, ‘What can you do? What can we get?’ because I was setting up the guy covering me for something. I’d be running down-and-outs all day long just so I could run the post-and-go or whatever we needed. ‘Is he ready yet? Tagge would ask. ‘He’s ready,’ I’d say. I always had the attitude if we were in trouble I want the ball because I could get it done.”
He got things done to the tune of setting numerous single season and career school marks for catches, yards receiving, punt returns and total offense. Amazingly, Rodgers isn’t sure he could be successful today in NU’s highly regimented schemes.
“I was fortunate enough to come along when I did. I don’t know if I could make it now,” he said. “Coaches don’t let you be who you are. They try to coach you to who they are. They’re not letting the great ones be great. You can’t teach this stuff. If you have to think, you’re already too slow. It’s reaction. You have to react. You have to be free and open to sense it and feel it.”
Precociously talented from an early age, Rodgers first made headlines at age 8 by diving over a human pyramid his Lothrop Grade School tumbling teammates formed with their interlaced bodies in tumbling shows. Despite being much younger and smaller than the youths playing at Kountze Park his athleticism gained him entry into sandlot football and baseball contests there that included such future greats as Gale Sayers, Marlin Briscoe and Ron Boone.
“I was ‘too small’ to play but they let me play ball with them because I was good enough.” He honed his repertoire of fakes playing flag football and, later, tackle with teams sponsored by the Boys Club and Roberts Dairy. By the time he starred at Tech High in football, baseball and basketball, Rodgers had a sense of his own destiny. “I noticed I seemed to be special. I saw these older guys go on and do something nationally and I felt if they could, I could, too. It was almost supposed to happen.”
Rodgers wasn’t always comfortable with his own prodigious talents. He said early on his gift, as he calls it, was “definitely a burden because I didn’t know why I was so good and whether I was chosen or something. I didn’t know if I even wanted to have that type of a burden. I was almost upset because I had it. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I really wasn’t spiritually grown enough to really appreciate this gift, which it really was.” Then there was the fact his prowess caused grief off the field. “My gift was getting me in fights every single weekend…and for no other reason than I was popular, I had notoriety and people were jealous. Girls were telling their guys we were together or whatever. I had people coming down where I lived trying to beat me up. I remember having to crawl out the gall darn window.”
Things got so bad during junior high school he took extra precautions walking to and from the home of his grandmother, who’d taken him in after his brash runaway stunt. “I’d walk in the middle of 25th Street so that if anybody came after me I could get away,” he said. “And it would never be one on one. It would always be several guys and they could never catch me.” If nothing else, being chased helped him develop his broken field moves. One day, Rodgers wasn’t so sure he’d make it past the gauntlet facing him. He and his pal Leroy had just left a friend’s house when they were surrounded by a gang of boys.
As Rodgers describes it, “I had a dog chain and he had a knife and I said, ‘Leroy, you ready?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ So, I’m looking around to check out the situation and when I turn back around Leroy is turning the corner up the street. He ran off and left me. So, I started swinging my chain until I got me a little opening and I broke. In those days, when I broke I was going to be alright because I had it covered. Well, those guys started chasing me, except they sent one guy out while the rest of them stayed back jogging.” That’s when he got a sinking feeling. Not long before the incident he’d watched a Western on television about a lone settler chased by Indians, who sent a series of runners out after the man until they wore him down and caught him.
“I remember thinking, They saw the same movie. I couldn’t believe it. They had me scared to death because I saw what happened to that cowboy. Luckily, I escaped down the street and ducked into an alley and dove in a car. I laid down on the floor in back and they went on by,” he said, laughing and flashing his best Johnny “The Jet” smile.
Growing up in The Hood then didn’t pose quite the same dangers as it does now, but there is no doubt Rodgers narrowly skirted the worst of its ills thanks to the influence of some black men who nurtured and guided him.
“I see how easily I could have went totally in the other direction and what it really took came from my athletic background.”
There was George Barber, his gym coach at Lothrop, who got him started in athletics. There was Josh Gibson, his baseball coach at the Boys Club. The older brother of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, Josh was a legendary baseball coach and “a hard disciplinarian.”
Rodgers, a good enough baseball prospect to be drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers, credits Gibson with teaching him to switch hit. His basketball coach at Horace Mann Junior High, Bob Rose, taught him to shoot layups with both hands. Perhaps the greatest lesson learned from Gibson and Rose, Rodgers said, was that “we weren’t there just to play the game, we were there to win. Of course, we lost some games but we learned you never quit. You went back and worked harder and got better.”
And at the YMCA there was Don Benning, still years away from coaching UNO to an NAIA wrestling title, a man whom Rodgers said “has been like a father to me.”
By the time Rodgers emerged as the star of NU’s 1970 and 1971 championship teams and as the 1972 Heisman front runner he was befriended by two more key men in his life — the late community activist Charles Washington and high living attorney Robert Fromkin. A friend to many athletes, Washington helped Rodgers out with expenses and other favors.
But, Rodgers said, what he really gleaned from Washington was “a responsibility to help others. I learned a lot from him about helping out the community.” According to Rodgers what he got from Fromkin, who represented him after one of his arrests, were free lessons in style.
“Bobby was responsible for me having maybe just a touch of class. He always had an elaborate place and a brand new El Dorado. He would invite me to the fights and to shows. We’d have the whole front row. Then we’d go out to the French Cafe and he’d pick up the whole tab. That was stuff I looked forward to at an early age. That showed me how to do it. How to live right. It added to my flamboyance. The thing he taught me is the only shame you have is to aim low. You’ve got to aim high. You’ve got to go for the gusto. It only takes a little bit more to go first class.”
When, on the advice of Fromkin, Rodgers surprised the football world by spurning the NFL for the CFL, he found a perfect fit for his garishness in cosmo Montreal and its abundant night life. “I loved Montreal. It was the city of love. There were some great times in Montreal. The French people and I got along great. We were flamboyant together.” The dash he exhibited off the field complemented his flash on the field, where Rodgers again dominated. After four banner years, it was time to meet his next challenge. “The only thing left to do was to go to the NFL and prove myself there.” He signed with the club that originally drafted him — the San Diego Chargers — and worked like he never had before.
“Because I had so much natural ability I never pushed myself as hard as I really could have. When I got to San Diego I was really determined to go to the next level. I wanted to see just how good I could be. I made sure I was in the best condition I could be in.”
He was coming off a monster preseason showing against Kansas City when his dream fell apart. A series of torn muscles and hamstrings severely curtailed his rookie NFL season. He came back ready the next year only to suffer an ugly, career-ending knee injury. “That was it,” said Rodgers, who after surgery spent much of the next year in a wheelchair and crutches. For him, the biggest disappointment was “never really getting a chance to showcase what I could do. It hurt me, but I’m not bitter about it. I mean, I could have gone crazy but instead I grew from it.”
A perpetual optimist and opportunist, Rodgers has bounced around some since his retirement. For several years he made San Diego his home, starting up a cable TV magazine there that had some success. He returned to Nebraska in the late ‘80s to help support his son Terry during an injury-shortened NU career. Over the years he’s announced several business-community projects that have not come to fruition and some that have. In addition to JetWear, which he hopes to expand, he owns a sports memorabilia business and a promotion arm organizing events like his Husker/Heisman Weekend and public speaking engagements.
Rather than slow down in his mid-50s, he’s poised to make a big move.
“I feel like I had a rejuvenation on life at 50 and so I feel I’m just getting started. I think the best is truly still ahead of me. I have only touched on a small part of the potential I have. Because of my history and my visibility I can create a better future for myself, for my family and for my community.”
Eying Omaha’s riverfront redevelopment, he looks forward to being part of a north Omaha rebirth to match his own. “I think north Omaha’s future is so bright you have to wear shades.” Burn, Jet, burn.
- You: Oklahoma-Nebraska: The End of a Historic Rivalry (bleacherreport.com)
- Stewart Mandel: Nebraska ready to make right move at right time (sportsillustrated.cnn.com)
- Stories That Don’t Suck: College Football’s Greatest Game And Its Greatest Story [Stories That Don't Suck] (deadspin.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)
Omaha Black Sports Legends Featured in My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness
I am now posting installments from a series I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Omaha Black Sports Legends entitled, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness.
The 13-part, 45,000 word series profiles the remarkable gallery of athletes who came out of essentially the same inner city neighborhoods during a brief period in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s:
In addition to these well-known names, there are many more figures, including Marion Hudson, whose stories and feats deserve more recognition, and my series, originally published in 2004-2005, is an attempt to put all these athletes’ accomplishments in proper perspective. Athletes of more recent vintage are also profiled. I will be adding a few stories that didn’t officially appear as part of the series but that fit thematically within it and help to provide more context.
Some series posts are currently featured on my home page. You can find the series in the categories Omaha Black Sports Legends or Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. There’s half-a-dozen stories posted right now, but many more soon to come.
- Great Plains Black History Museum Asks for Public Input on its Latest Evolution (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
The Brothers Sayers: Big Legend Gale Sayers and Little Legend Roger Sayers (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
Whether you’re visiting this blog for the first time or you’re returning for a repeat visit, then you should know that among the vast array of articles featured on this site is a series I penned for The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 20045-2005 that explored Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. We called the 13-part, 45,000 word series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. The following story is one installment from that series. It features a pair of brothers, Gale Sayers and Roger Sayers, whose athletic brilliance made each of them famous in their own right, although the fame of Gale far outstripped that of Roger. Gale, of course, became a big-time football star at Kansas before achieving superstardom with the NFL‘s Chicago Bears. An unlikely set of circumstances saw his playing career end prematurely yet make him an even larger-than-life figure. A made-for-TV movie titled Brian’s Song (since remade) that detailed his friendship with cancer stricken teammate Brian Piccolo, cemented his immortal status, as did being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame at age 29. Roger’s feats in both football and track were impressive but little seen owing to the fact he competed for a small college (the then-University of Omaha) and never made it to the NFL or Olympics, where many thought he would have excelled, the one knock against him being his diminutive size.
The Sayers brothers are among a distinguished gallery of black sports legends that have come out of Omaha. Others include Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, and Johnny Rodgers. You will find all their stories on this site, along with the stories of other athletic greats whose names may not be familiar to you, but whose accomplishments speak for themselves.
The Brothers Sayers: Big Legend Gale Sayers and Little Legend Roger Sayers (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.theeader.com) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out the Win: The Roots of Greatness
This is the story of two athletically-gifted brothers named Sayers. The younger of the pair, Gale, became a sports figure for the ages with his zig-zagging runs to daylight on a football field. His name is synonymous with the Chicago Bears. His oft-played highlight-reel runs through enemy lines form the picture of quicksilver grace. His well-documented friendship with the late Brian Piccolo endear him to new generations of fans.
The elder brother, Roger, forged a distinguished athletic career of his own, one of blazing speed on cinder and grass, but one overshadowed by Gale’s success.
From their early impoverished youth on Omaha’s near north side in the 1950s the Brothers Sayers dominated whatever field of athletic competition they entered, shining most brightly on the track and gridiron. As teammates they ran wild for Roberts Dairy’s midget football squad and anchored Central High School’s powerful football-track teams. Back then, Roger, the oldest by a year, led the way and Gale followed. For a long time, little separated the pair, as the brothers took turns grabbing headlines. Each was small and could run like the wind, just like their ex-track man father. But, make no mistake about it, Roger was always the fastest.
Each played halfback, sharing time in the same Central backfield one season. Heading into Gale’s sophomore year nature took over and gave Gale an edge Roger could never match, as the younger brother grew a few inches and packed-on 50 pounds of muscle. He kept growing, too. Soon, Gale was a strapping 6’0, 200-pound prototype halfback with major-college-material written all over him. Roger remained a diminutive 5’9, 150-pound speedster whose own once hotly sought-after status dimmed when, bowing to his parents’ wishes, he skipped his senior year of football rather than risk injury. Ironically, he tore a tendon running track the next spring. His major college prospects gone, he settled for then Omaha University.
Roger went on to a storied career at UNO, where he developed into one of America’s top sprinters and one of the school’s all-time football greats. He won the 100-meters at the 1964 Drake Relays. He captured both the 100-yard and 100-meter dashes at the 1963 Texas Relays. He took the 100 and 200 at the 1963 national NAIA meet. He ran well against Polish and Soviet national teams in AAU meets. The Olympic hopeful even beat the legendary American sprinter Bob Hayes in a race, but it was Hayes, known as “The Human Bullet,” who ended up with Olympic and NFL glory, not Sayers.
As an undersized but explosive cog in UNO’s full backfield, Sayers, dubbed “The Rocket,” averaged nearly eight yards per carry and 19 yards per reception over his four-year career. But it was as a return specialist he really stood out. Using his straight-away burst, he took back to the house three punts and five kickoffs for touchdowns. He holds several school records, including highest rushing average for a season (10.2) and career (7.8) and highest punt return average for a season (29.5) and career (20.6). His 99-yard TD catch in a 1963 game versus Drake is the longest scoring play from scrimmage in UNO history.
Roger Sayers running track for then-Omaha University
In football, size matters. For most of his playing career, however, Roger said his acute lack of size “never was a factor. I didn’t pay much attention to it. I didn’t lack any confidence when I got on the field. I always thought I could do well.”
Even with his impressive track credentials, Sayers, coming off an injury, was unable to find a sponsor for a 1964 Olympic bid. Even though his small stature never held him back in high school or college, it posed a huge obstacle in pro football, which after graduation he did not pursue right away because the studious and ambitious Sayers already had opportunities lined-up outside athletics. Still, in 1966, he gave the NFL a try when, after prodding from “the guys” at the Spencer Street Barbershop and a little help from Gale, he signed a free agent contract with his brother’s team, the Chicago Bears. Roger lasted the entire training camp and exhibition season with the club before bowing to reality and taking an office job.
“That’s when I realized I was too small,” Roger said of his NFL try.
Gale, the family superstar, is inducted in the college and pro football Halls of Fame but his glory came outside Nebraska, where he felt unappreciated. Racism likely prevented him being named Nebraska High School Athlete of the Year after a senior year of jaw-dropping performances. In leading Central to a share of the state football title, he set the Class A single season scoring record and made prep All-American. In pacing Central to the track and field title, he won three gold medals at the state meet, shattering the Nebraska long jump record with a leap of 24 feet, 10 inches, a mark that still stands today. He got revenge in the annual Shrine all-star game, scoring four touchdowns en route to being named outstanding player.
Recruited by Nebraska, then coached by Bill Jennings, Sayers considered the Huskers but felt uncomfortable at the school, which had ridiculously few black students then — in or out of athletics. Spurning the then-moribound NU football program for the University of Kansas, he heard people say he’d never be able to cut it in school. Sayers admits academics were not his strong suit in high school, not for lack of intelligence, but for lack of applying himself.
It took his father, a-$55-a-week car polisher, who’d walked away from his own chance at college, to set him straight. “People said I would fail. They called me dumb. But my dad said to me one time, ‘Gale, you are good enough,’ and just those words gave me the incentive that somebody believed in me. That’s all I needed. And I proved that I could do it.”
Sayers was also motivated by his brother, Roger, the bookish one who preceded him to college. Each went on to get two degrees at their respective schools.
On the field, Gale showed the Huskers what they missed by earning All-Big 8 and All-America honors as a Jayhawk and, in a 1963 game at Memorial Stadium the “Kansas Comet” lived up to his nickname by breaking-off a 99 yard TD run that still stands as the longest scoring play by an NU opponent. He was also a hurdler and long-jumper for the elite KU track program.
Upon entering the NFL with the Bears in 1965, Sayers made the most dramatic debut in league history, setting season records for total offense, 2,272, and touchdowns, 22, and a single game scoring record with 6 TDs. Named Rookie of the Year and All-Pro, he continued his brilliant play the next four seasons before the second of two serious knee injuries cut short his career in 1970. A mark of the impact he made is that despite playing only five full seasons, he’s routinely listed among the best running backs to ever play in the NFL.
Gale Sayers with the Bears
His immortality was ensured by two things: in 1970, the story of his friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo, who died tragically of cancer, was dramatically told in a TV movie-of-the-week, Brian’s Song, (recently remade); and, in 1977, he was inducted into the pro football Hall of Fame at age 29, making him the youngest enshrine of that elite fraternity.
A quadruple threat as a rusher, receiver out of the backfield, kickoff return man and punt returner, Sayers’ unprecedented cuts saw him change directions — with the high-striding, gliding moves of a hurdler — in the blink of an eye while somehow retaining full-speed. In a blurring instant, he’d be in mid-air as he head-faked one way and swiveled his hips the other way before landing again to pivot his feet to race off against the grain. In the introduction to Gale’s autobiography, I Am Third, comic Bill Cosby may have come closest to describing the effect one of Sayers’ dramatic cuts left on him while observing from the sidelines and on the hapless defenders trying to corral him.
“I was standing there and Gale was coming around this left end. And there are about five or six defensive men ready, waiting for him…And I saw Gale Sayers split. I mean, like a paramecium. He just split in two. He threw the right side of his body on one side and the left side of his body kept going down the left side. And the defensive men didn’t know who to catch.”
The way Gale tells it, his talent for cutting resulted from his “peripheral vision,” a gift he had from the get-go. “When I was running I could see the whole field. I knew how fast the other person was running and the angle he was taking, and I knew all I had to do was make a certain move and I’m past him. I knew it — I didn’t have to think about it. I could see where people were and that gave me the ability to make up my mind what I would do before I got to a person,” he said. He reacted, on the fly, in tenths or hundreds of a second, to what he saw. “
All the so-called great moves in football are instinct,” he said. “It’s not planned. I don’t go down the football field saying, ‘Oh, this fella’s to my right, I better cut left,’ or whatever. You don’t plan it. You’re running with the football and you just do what comes natural…There were so many times in high school, college and pro ball when I was going around left end or right end and there was nothing there, and then I went the other way. You can’t teach that. That’s instinctive.”
He said his greatest asset was not speed, but quickness — combined with that innate ability to improvise on the run. “Every running back has speed, but a lot of running backs don’t have the quickness to hit a hole or to change directions, and I always could do that. A lot of times a hole is clogged and then you’ve got to do something else — either change directions or hit another hole or bounce it to the outside and go someplace else.”
Lightning fast moves may have sprung from an unlikely source — flag football, something Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers also credits with helping develop his dipsy-doodle elusiveness.
“The flags were pretty easy to grab and pull out,” Sayers said, “and so, yes, you had to develop some moves to keep people away from the flags.” The Sayers boys got their first exposure to organized competition playing in the Howard Kennedy Grade School flag football program coached by Bob Rose. An old-school disciplinarian who mentored many of north Omaha’s greatest athletes when they were youths, Rose embodied respect.
“He was a tough coach. I think he had a little attitude that said, in being black, you’ve got to be twice as good, and I think he tried to instill that in us at an early age. He’d say things like, ‘You have to be faster, you have to be tougher, you’ve got to hit harder.’ We all developed that attitude that, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do better because we’re black.’ And I think that stuck with me,” Gale said.
According to Roger, coaches like Rose and the late Josh Gibson (Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s oldest brother), whom the brothers came in contact with playing summer softball, “made it possible for people to succeed. They were good coaches because they taught you the fundamentals, they taught you to be respectful of people and they taught you the ethics of the game. These were folks that…made sure you played in an organized, structured event, so you could get the most out of it. They also had an uncanny ability to identify athletes and to motivate athletes to want to play and to achieve. They were part of an environment we had growing up where we had strong support systems around us.”
From the mid-1950s through the late 1960s Omaha’s inner city produced a remarkable group of athletes who achieved greatness in a variety of sports. Many observers have speculated on the whys and hows of that phenomenal run of athletic brilliance. The consensus seems to be that athletes from the past didn’t have to contend with a lot of the pressures and distractions kids face today, thus allowing a greater concentration on and passion for sports.
“Growing up, we didn’t have access to cars or play stations or arcade games,” Roger said. “We didn’t have to deal with the intense peer pressure kids are influenced by today. Because we didn’t have these things, we were able to focus in on our sports.”
For black youths like the Sayers and their buddies, options were even more confining in the ‘50s, when racial minorities were denied access to recreational venues such as the Peony Park pool and were discouraged from so-called country-club activities such as golf, which left more time and energy to devote to traditional inner city sports. “
Every day after school we were in Kountze park or some place playing a sport — football, basketball, baseball, whatever it may be. There wasn’t a whole lot else we could do,” Gale said. “So, we were in the park playing sports. Our mamas and daddies had to call us to come eat dinner because we were out there playing.”
Gale said that as youths he and his friends had such a hunger for football that after completing flag football practice, they would then go to the park to knock heads “with the big kids” from local high schools in pick-up games. “It’s a wonder no one ever got seriously injured because we had no pads, no nothing, and we played tackle. It really made us tougher.”
Dennis Fountain, a friend and fellow athlete from The Hood, said the Sayers would often compete for opposing sides in those informal games. “You wouldn’t think those two guys were brothers,” he said. “They would mix it up good.”
Speaking of tough, the brothers tussled in a pair of now mythic neighborhood football games held around the holidays. There was the Turkey Bowl played on Thanksgiving and the Cold Bowl played on Christmas. “We had some knock-down, drag-out athletic contests out there,” said Gale, referring to the annual games that drew athletes of all ages from Omaha’s north and south inner city projects. “We were a little young, but the fellas’ saw the talent we had and let us play.”
Then, there was the rich proving ground he and Roger found themselves competing in — playing with or against such fine athletes as the Nared brothers (Rich and John), Vernon Breakfield, Charlie Gunn, Bruce Hunter, Ron Boone. “No doubt about it, we fed off one another. We saw other people doing well and we wanted to do just as well,” Gale said. As the Sayers began asserting themselves, they pushed each other to excel.
“When he achieved something, I wanted to achieve something, and vice versa,” Roger said. “I mean, you never wanted to be upstaged or outdone, but by the same token we were always proud and overjoyed by each other’s success. We were as competitive as brothers are.”
Roger and Gale had so much ability that the exploits of their baby brother, Ron, are obscured despite the fact he, too, possessed talent, enough in fact for the UNO grad to be a number two draft pick by the San Diego Chargers in 1968.
Each also knew his limitations in comparison with the other. Roger played some mean halfback himself, but he knew on a football field he was only a shadow of Gale, whom nature blessed with size, speed, vision and instinct. Where Gale was a fine hurdler, relay man and long-jumper, he knew he could not beat Roger in a sprint. “I wasn’t going to get into the 100 or 220-yard dash and run against him because he was much, much faster than I was,” Gale said. “He was great in track.”
As much as he downplays his own track ability, Gale held his own in one of the strongest collegiate track programs at Kansas. It was under KU track and field coach Bill Easton he discovered a work ethic and a mantra that have guided his life ever since.
“I thought I worked hard getting ready for football,” he said, “but when I joined his track team I couldn’t believe the amount of work he put me through and I couldn’t believe I could do it. But within months I could do everything he asked me to, and I was in excellent shape. He told me, ‘Gale, you cannot work hard enough in any sport, especially in track.’ The things I did for him on the track team carried on through my pro career in football.
“Every training camp I came in shape, and I mean I came in shape. I was ready to play and put the pads on the first day of camp, where many guys would go to camp to get in shape.”
On the eve of his pro career, Sayers was entertaining some doubts about how he would do when Easton reminded him what made him special. “You go for broke every time you go.” Sayers said it’s a lesson he’s always tried to follow.
A saying printed on a card atop the desk in Easton’s office intrigued Sayers. The enigmatic words said, I Am Third. When he asked his coach their meaning, he was told they came from a kind of proverb that goes, The Lord is First, My Friends are Second, I Am Third. The athlete was so taken with its meaning he went out and had it inscribed on a medallion he wore for years afterwards. His wife Linda now has it.
The saying became the title of his 1970 autobiography. The philosophy bound up in it helped him cope with the abrupt end of his playing days. “All the talent I had, the Lord gave me. And it was the Lord that decided to take it away from me,” Gale said. “That probably helped me accept the fact that, hey, I couldn’t do it anymore. I had a very short career, but a very good career. I was satisfied with that.”
Life after athletic competition has been relatively smooth for Gale and his brother. Roger embarked on a long executive corporate career, interrupted only by a stint as the City of Omaha’s Human Relations Director under Mayor Gene Leahy. He retired from Union Pacific a few years ago. Today, he’s a trustee with Salem Baptist Church. Gale served as athletic director at Southern Illinois University before starting his own sports marketing and public relations firm, Sayers and Sayers Enterprises. Next, he launched Sayers Computer Source, a provider of computer products and technology solutions to commercial customers. Today, SCS has brnaches nationwide and revenues in excess of $150 million. Besides running his companies, Sayers is in high demand as a motivational speaker.
Both men have tried distancing themselves from being defined by their athletic prowess alone.
“I want people to view me as an individual that brings something to the table other than the fact I could run track and play football. That stuff is behind me. There are other things I can do,” said Roger. For Gale, it was a matter of being ready to move on. “I’ve always said, As you prepare to play, you must prepare to quit, and I prepared to quit. I didn’t have to look back and say, What am I going to do now? I did other things.”
Getting on with their lives has been a constant with the brothers since growing up with feuding, alcoholic parents, sparse belongings and little money in “The Toe,” as Gale said residents referred to the north Omaha ghetto. His family moved to Omaha from bigoted small towns in Kansas, where the Sayers lived until Gale was 8, but instead of the fat times they envisioned here they only found despair.
Finding a way out of that cycle became an overriding goal for Gale and his brothers.
“Yes, we had tough times, but everybody in the black neighborhood had a tough time. Our dad always said, ‘Gale, Roger, Ronnie…sorry it didn’t work out for your mother and I, but you need to get your education and make something better for yourselves.’” The fact he and Roger went on to great heights taught Gale that “if you want to make it bad enough, no matter how bad it is, you can make it.”
- Gale Sayers’s Knee, and the Dark Ages of Medicine (fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com)
- The 32 Greatest NFL Running Backs (sports-central.org)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Sayers: Current players should help pioneers (sports.espn.go.com)
- John Mackey’s death has Gale Sayers ticked off at today’s NFL (profootballtalk.nbcsports.com)
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)