Darcy Stracke was one of those small town wonders in the world of sports. By the end of her freshman year in high school she was already a legend in her hometown of Stuart, Neb. for her prodigous talent in volleyball, basketball, and track and she only added to the legend her last three years in high school in Chambers. Neb. By the time she graduated she held a batch of state scoring records in basketball. A playmaking and scoring guard in one, she spurned offers from big schools to play hoops at Division II University of Nebraska-Kearney, where she dominated once again. Then, in a move that upset her fan base, she transfered to the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and promptly made her mark in her only year there. In a strange twist she set the UNK single game scoring record of 43 points against her future teammates at UNO and then when playing for UNO she broke that school’s single game scroring mark with a matching 43 points against, you guessed it, her former teammates at UNK. She was a multiple all-state performer in high school and a three-time All-American in college. She’s in the athletic hall of fame of every school she competed for. I wrote this piece during her final college season in 2000.
The Last Hurrah for Hoops Wizard Darcy Stracke
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly
Scene One: Penetration is her game.
Wherever she is with the ball, her first instinct is to take it to the house. Using a crossover dribble, she first measures her opponent. Then, feinting with the ball, her head or both, she jump-stops inside, double-pumps and either banks a shot in off the glass, draws a foul or else dishes off to an open teammate for an assist. What sticks with you is her fearlessness inside and her uncanny knack for weaving through a tangle of bodies to make something happen.
Before some recent struggles, it seemed UNO’s fabulous hoops star, Darcy Stracke, could do no wrong. Time after time, she took over games, racking up points at will and disrupting opposing teams’ offenses. A case in point came in the Mavs’ mid-season 68-50 home win over NCC rival South Dakota. She scored 29 points on 12-of-16 shooting from the field and flashed a variety of take-your-breath-away passes, now-you-see-it-now you-don’t dribbles, pickpocket steals and whirling-dervish drives to the bucket. And all this in only 26 minutes of play.
Afterwards, she stopped by the north bleachers to chat with her star struck fans. There is a definite star quality about Stracke, a 5-foot-7 senior guard whose game intensity belies a quiet off-court demeanor and whose grace-under-pressure endures despite sweaty palms. Among her regular admirers (some sporting her jersey No. 34) are a group from her hometown of Stuart, Neb., including her parents, Marilyn and Del, who have made it to every game but one since her freshman year in high school. She is their small-town-girl-makes-good hoops diva.
That night, Stracke, still dressed in her damp uniform, lingered a long while with the crowd. She seems to savor these moments. Not because she enjoys the attention or adulation (In truth, she’d rather not have all this fuss made about her.), but because she knows the wondrous run she’s been on is finally drawing to a close. For this north-central Nebraska native has enjoyed a legendary athletic career matched by few other Nebraska female athletes. But soon her glory days will be over. The scoring feats, the fancy moves, the late-game heroics relegated to hazy memories or grainy video highlights.
For Stracke, steeped in athletics from an early age (she learned to walk with a basketball) and hooked on competition the way others are on drugs, the thought of not playing (notwithstanding a possible pro stint overseas) is daunting. How could it not be for someone who sleeps with a ball to get “in tune with it”?
“When I step on that court it’s like I’m in another world,” she said. “I get a feeling I can’t get anywhere else. I love that feeling. I don’t feel any aches or pains. It’s just like I’m in a zone. Basketball is probably in my head most of every 24 hours. I watch game films all the time. If basketball’s on TV, I’m going to watch it. If I can get a pick-up game, I’m going to play it. Basketball has always been an outlet for me, so if I’m having a bad day, I always look to basketball to get me out of that funk, even if it means going up to the gym at 10 o’clock at night and shooting. Once I start shooting, everything else is erased.”
More than anything, she’ll miss the competition when she walks away from the game. “I just love to compete.” Then there are the fans who have been there for her all this time. “I have my own little fan section. They expect me to come over and talk. I love the interaction with people after games. It’s those little things I’m going to remember.” Wherever she went the past eight years, her legion of fans followed. They were there at the start, when she led Stuart Public High to the Class D-2 state title as a 14-year-old freshman. Then, after transferring to nearby Chambers Public School, where she played for brother-in-law, John Miller, they saw her spark a 77-game winning streak en route to three more state titles and, in the process, she set the state’s all-time scoring record (boys or girls) with 2,752 points. Along the way she displayed a court savvy beyond her years, anticipating picks, screens and passing lanes for steals and assists and driving the lane for layups.
When she chose nearby Division II powerhouse University of Nebraska-Kearney over several Division I schools, fans kept right on trucking to see how she matched-up at the next level. Just fine, thank you. She broke the school’s single season scoring record (679 points), topped its career steals mark (292), twice led the Lopers’ into the post-season (three times if you count her injury-shortened junior year) and capped off 1998-99 by earning 1st Team All-America honors.
Then the soft-spoken Stracke, 21, surprised everyone last off-season by transferring from UNK (she politely declines discussing why) to UNO for her final year. While rehabbing an injured knee in Kearney over the summer Stracke was deluged with calls, letters and visits from boosters pressuring her to reconsider. The “trauma” all got to be too much. “A lot of people were disappointed I left. I kind of avoided people there for a while, but I stayed because that’s where my friends and family are,” she said. “It was just a better fit here (UNO) for me. I think people who care about me understand it’s something I did for my own happiness.”
Once this season began and the buzz around “the Darcy situation,” as it’s known in Kearney, died down, all was forgiven, and the Stracke bandwagon kept rolling down I-80 as before, only a little farther east, to cheer her on in Omaha, where all she’s done is lead the nation in scoring for much of the year (she is second now with an averages just under 23 points per game) and rejuvenate a program (UNO is 15-10) that had scuffled recently (11-16 last year and 10-17 the year before). Stracke paced the Mavs to a fast start (7-2) and the team held its own in the middle part of the year before slumping down the stretch. Last Saturday’s 74-58 road loss to Northern Colorado dropped the Mavs to 1-4 in their last five games and squashed any remaining hopes of an NCAA regional post-season berth. Stracke, who struggled some herself lately, enjoyed a strong outing with 23 points, 5 boards and 4 steals, although she did have 6 turnovers.
It is a shame her career will end without one last hurrah in the playoffs, especially after her banner junior year ended prematurely when she suffered a complete ACL tear in her right knee during the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tourney. And, yes, it seems unfair Omaha hoops fans have had her such a short time. Seeing her go will be tough. Just ask UNO Head Coach Paula Buscher, who took a chance signing her to play for a single year. It was strictly a one-shot deal. No encore season. No promise things might not fizzle for the scoring phenom (they haven’t). No assurance she would recover from her injury (she has). No guarantee her addition might not upset team chemistry (it hasn’t).
“That was the risk that was out there for herself as well as the people recruiting her when she was transferring with one year left,” Buscher said. “We obviously felt and still feel it was a great decision on our part. There was a risk involved, but we felt like with a player of her caliber and her stature, and with the work ethic she brings, that that was a risk we needed to take. Would I love to have her for another two or three years? Oh, heavens, yes. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. We knew that going in. A great player’s career always ends too short. I just feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach her for one year. I mean, let’s face it, the kid can play. She brings it every night. I think she’s helped develop a different mind-set (winning) and raise expectations with our program, and that’s something we’re looking to carry on.”
Buscher, like UNK Head Coach Amy Stephens before her, knew what she was getting in Stracke all right. She closely followed Stracke’s brilliant prep career and then, while coaching against her in college, saw her her light-up UNO twice, including a 43-point explosion last year. Still, once Buscher got a chance to watch Stracke at work, up close, every day in practice, she realized UNO had gained even more in the bargain than what first met the eye.
“Everyone was aware of her athletic ability and what she could do in games, but the bonus with Darcy was seeing how she trains. From the first day of preseason, all the way throughout every single practice, she’s the first one out there for every sprint, every drill, pushing all the time. Bottom line, she’s a competitor who wants to win. That, more than anything, is what makes her a great player,” Buscher said.
Scene II: Whatever it takes.
A perpetual motion machine on the floor, she never stops competing — regardless of the score. On defense, she creates havoc by hounding ball handlers into errant passes or by swiping lazy dribbles. On offense, she sets the tone by hustling down court, chasing after loose balls and constantly working to get open.
Not a great perimeter shooter, Stracke gets most of her points in or near the paint. Because defenses focus on her, she must often create shots where there are none. Her she-got-game greatness was never more evident than in three early season tests. First, she shook off jitters in a much-anticipated Dec. 1 contest against UNK, when, in a bit of perfect symmetry, she led UNO to an 86-71 victory and, in the process, burned her old mates for a school-record 43 points, the exact total she posted against UNO last year (UNK is having the last laugh, however, as the Lopers are rolling along with a 21-4 mark and high national ranking.).
“Actually, that’s probably the one game I didn’t want to play this year just because I still have a lot of friends on the team there,” Stracke said. “I did want to have a good game, though, because it was against the school I’d been at for three years. And I was a bit more nervous for that game than for others.”
Then, on consecutive nights in mid January, she did something she’s made a habit of during her playing career: hitting buzzer-beaters to defeat Minnesota State-Mankato and St. Cloud State amid a five-game stretch in which she averaged more than 30 points. Ask her what it’s like to have the ball in her hands when the game’s on the line, and how she’s able to deliver the goods, and she answers:
“When it comes down to making free throws at the end or making that game-winning shot, I think, ‘Darcy, you’ve done this tons of times before in the backyard. You can do it again.’ It’s not like I haven’t taken those last-minute shots before. So, I just shoot it with a lot of confidence and play with a lot of confidence. Plus, when I get in those situations I want to do well because I care about my teammates and I know I’d let them down if didn’t make that shot. The feeling after you make it is indescribable. It’s so exciting.”
She fees her success as a clutch performer and multi-faceted player (she leads UNO in scoring and steals and is second in assists) is largely due to all the hard work she’s put in honing her skills, including keeping the neighbors up while shooting past midnight in her backyard. “I may not have as much athletic talent as some players, but what’s been to my advantage is I do put a lot of hours in at the gym, and I think that’s what makes me a better basketball player and what gives me more confidence. I expect the best out of myself.”
In The World According to Darcy Stracke, effort breeds confidence which, in turn, breeds success. “Everything I’ve competed in (she was also a top volleyball, track and softball competitor) I always believed I could win. And, if I didn’t win, I’d go back and make adjustments or try to work on something that was my weakness, and the next time I was going into that competition I wasn’t going to lose.”
She further developed her game by routinely playing against the opposite sex and by challenging older, more experienced, players to one-on-one contests.
“I think it really helps playing against men and boys. It makes you adjust your game because if you don’t you’re going to get your shot blocked or get your pass stolen. Now, when I go against girls in college, I remember to use that extra fake.”
Since entering college she has experienced more losing than she ever did before, and even though it irks her, she long ago came to terms with that and the fact she can’t dominate every game like she did in high school.
“I just hate to lose. Even if its a card game or playing whiffle ball in the backyard. Then, after my teams went 77-0 my last three years in high school, I lost my very first college game. It was really hard because I wasn’t used to losing. But if I’ve learned anything it’s that you’re going to struggle sometimes at the college level. There are lots of ups and downs. The competition is so much better.”
Like many top athletes, she is somewhat obsessive-compulsive preparing for competition. She has game-day rituals she dares not break for fear of throwing her whole rhythm off.
“I have a routine for everything and, if I get out of synch, it just bothers the heck out of me. It ranges all the way from what I eat to when I step on the court to how long I drill in pregame warmups. I mean, it’s to the point where my routine is the same every single second, every single time.”
It’s that kind of attention to detail that’s made her settle for nothing less than being an all-around player. “If I don’t show up in every statistical area, from steals to assists to rebounding to even shooting percentage, I don’t feel like I had a good game. A lot of people look for me as a scorer, but I want to be a complete player because the only way our team is going to get better is if I can be consistent in every category.”
Despite the fact her new team has fallen far short of what her UNK clubs achieved (Kearney went 80-11 her three years there), she has no regrets about leaving such success behind for the mediocrity she found at Omaha. “I knew what I was coming into. I knew they’d (UNO) struggled. But I wanted to come to a program where I could make a difference. I think it’s worked out really well. My teammates have accepted me with open arms. I’m glad I’m here.”
All too aware the clock is fast running out on her playing career, Stracke acknowledges she has been pressing a bit, going a combined 22-of-79 from the field in a five-game stretch before regaining her touch last week (7-of-14 from the field and 8-of-8 from the line) against UNC. Heading into her final collegiate competition, she is poised to earn All-America honors again and owns combined career totals of 2,211 points, 422 rebounds, nearly 400 steals and 373 assists in 114 games.
Sadly, her last hurrah will come far from home. Local hoops fans who missed her in action are the real losers since the next time she (a K-12 physical education major) takes the court again in front of a crowd, will likely be as a coach.
“I love new challenges, If I don’t go over overseas to play ball I’m going to try and be a grad assistant somewhere to get my foot in the door in college coaching. I’m actually pretty excited to see basketball from a coaching standpoint.”
Still, coaching can never replace the thrill playing has given her.
“Basketball’s always been my first love. I’ve always played with a lot of passion. I’ve been struggling a little bit with the fact that I have less than a handful of games left, and then I’m done. I’ve been counting down the games. I’m just going to go out and play like every game is my last because pretty soon it will be.”
Scene III: In synch.
If there is any lasting image of her, it is her streaking down court in transition — her raised arms extended high overhead, her expectant hands just aching to touch the ball once more. You want to yell, ‘Give her the damn ball.’ Give it to her, indeed. The two were made for each other.
- Omaha Hoops Legend John C. Johnson: Fierce Determination Tested by Repeated Run-Ins with the Law (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
John Beasley, the patriarch of Omaha’s First Family of Thespians, and his John Beasley Theater & Workshop, have been the subjects of many stories by me, all of which can be found on this blog. This particular story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) looks at how Beasley’s two sons, Tyrone and Michael, haven’t fallen far from their father’s solid acting tree. John is an acclaimed television, film, and theater actor. Tyrone is a respected actor and director. Michael is emerging as a character actor force in television and in studio and independent films.
John Beasley and Sons Make Acting a Family Thing at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop and Beyond
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As time goes by, it’s clear acting is a birthright with the Beasleys, that talented clan of thespians fast-evolving into the first family of Omaha theater.
John Beasley long ago made his mark on the Omaha theater scene, scoring dramatic triumphs in the 1970s and ‘80s at the Center Stage, the Chanticleer, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the Nebraska Repertory Theatre, the Firehouse Dinner Theatre and the Omaha Community Playhouse, among other venues. Now, having done the regional theater circuit and built a nice screen acting career, he’s returned to the local dramatic arts fraternity with his own John Beasley Theater & Workshop. Sharing space with the South Omaha YMCA in the La Fern Williams Center at 3010 Q Street, the theater’s become a showcase for African-American plays and emerging talent, including Beasley’s sons, Tyrone and Michael, who’ve shown serious acting chops themselves. Tyrone comes from a professional theater background and Michael is transitioning back to acting after a long layoff.
In a June production of August Wilson’s Jitney, the proud papa and his progeny led a rich ensemble cast on the theater’s small stage. John, as the hot-headed Turnbo, inhabited his part with his usual veracity and found all the music in Wilson’s jazz-tinged words. Tyrone, as the emotionally-scarred Booster, hit just the right notes as a man desperate to salvage his misspent life. Michael, as the decent Youngblood, brought an unaffected gravity to his character.
In a reunion of sorts, Beasley recruited Broadway actor Anthony Chisholm, with whom he’d done Jitney at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, for the JBT show. The Alliance is one of many regional black theaters Beasley honed his skills in and serves as a model for what he’s trying to create in Omaha.
Jitney broke all box-office records in the short history of Beasley’s theater and now he and his sons are poised to build on that success. They’re opening the 2004-2005 season with a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed A Raisin in the Sun, whose revival on Broadway last season earned kudos. Raisin, which Tyrone will produce and play a small part in, runs September 17 through October 10.
Tyrone and John Beasley
A Shared Craft and Passion
Although Jitney was the first time all three Beasleys acted together, John and Tyrone collaborated as producer and director on the JBT’s rendering of Wilson’s Two Trains Running in 2003. Tyrone co-starred with Michael in Two Trains. Years earlier, Michael portrayed Biff opposite his father’s Willie Loman in a Center Stage mounting of Death of a Salesman. The trio’s eager to work together more, but it’s not easy making their busy schedules jive, much less finding pieces with the right parts. While taking vastly different paths to the craft they now share, each articulates a similar passion for acting and its sense of discovery.
For John, who comes from a family of storytellers, it’s all about expressing and exploring himself through drama. His working process is direct. “The first thing I try to do is commit the words to my memory so that I can make them mine,” he said. “I like to do that early on, especially in the rehearsal process. I prefer to jump right into the character and to find the energy, the emotional nuances and the relationships. As an actor, you have to be willing to give and receive with your fellow actors. That way, if we’re playing opposite each other, we have something to react to and build off of.” Character development, he said, never really stops. “Even by the end of the run, you’ll never really fully realize the potential of your character. You just continue to look for things and to look for ways to grow.”
For an extrovert like John, to “come in blasting away and still have a lot” left over is one method. Another, is the more studied method used by the more reserved Tyrone. “I have a slower process,” Tyrone said, “where I first have to work on the words until they’re really embedded. Then, once I know what’s happening in the scene, I start to explore. So, it takes me awhile to get the little nuances.” Once he’s up to speed, however, Tyrone likes to “play,” by which he means improvise.
“That’s when Tyrone gets up there and looks for something new every night,” John said of his son’s ability to riff, which is something Beasley prides himself in as well.
Tyrone loved the experience of working with professional actors in Jitney. “You feel a lot freer when you have people up there who really know what they’re doing and are really seasoned at it. People that you can play with and play off of, and not distract them. It’s fun to bring something new and different and exciting every night. It was a real enjoyable experience in that way,” he said.
Spontaneity in acting, John said, is sometimes misinterpreted by the uninitiated as discarding the script and just winging it. But that’s not the case. He said in early rehearsals for the JBT’s production ofFor Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow’s Enuf, the mostly newcomer cast “came in with a lot of wild stuff. They were even making up lines and things, and I’m like, No, that’s not what I’m talking about. Within the words on the page you can find a new and exciting reason every night for your performance.”
Making It Your Own
For someone as accomplished as John, tweaking his craft is, as Tyrone puts it, “a lot more subtle, because he’s been doing it so long. When you get to a certain level, there’s only so much that you can do as far as the technique of acting. But with each character it’s different, and you have to approach each character differently and hopefully learn about yourself and see the world from someone else’s point of view. That’s what we, as actors, are basically trying to do — to show this character’s point of view, which may not be the same point of view you have. So, growth on a certain level comes from that, and he does that all the time.”
It’s dredging your inner self to find the right emotional pitch to fit the character and the dynamics of the scene. “We’re all trying to find the character within our own reality,” John said, “to make it an honest presentation as opposed to just acting.” “To make it our own,” Tyrone added.
“You have to think about it and feel it first before you can express the truth about it. You don’t just rattle lines off. Method actors call it being in the moment. And this is what we instill in our people,” John said, referring to the JBT workshops he and Tyrone lead that train its many first-time actors. “The first thing we tell them is, Get out of your head. Get away from — I did it this way last night and the audience really loved me, so I’m going to repeat the same thing tonight. Then, you never grow. If you want to do that head thing, you can go someplace else because we’re trying to set a certain standard here with believability.”
Tyrone said the goal is to achieve the kind of unadorned truth his father finds in everything from a classic soliloquy to a modern rant. “We’re trying to make it seem conversational, so that as the audience you’re like eavesdropping in on people just talking, not acting. That’s what we’re trying to get to.” John added, “It doesn’t matter what the script is. It can be Shakespeare or whatever, but you still bring that honesty to it. Another thing we teach is to try to find the music and the rhythm of a piece. It wasn’t until I learned the music of Shakespeare’s writing that it really flowed for me.” A key to August Wilson’s work, he said, is its jazz quality.
For Tyrone, the appeal of drama is “storytelling and trying to portray stories truthfully. Drama’s like holding a mirror up to life. I like paying attention to the details and colors of life. My job is to explore that and, using my imagination, to take it to the fullest.”
No two actors work the same. Even widely varying styles can mesh. John recalls working with the great Roscoe Lee Browne. “You know, he’s got this great voice and he uses the voice as opposed to finding an emotional base. The way I normally work is, I’ll come in and listen and then I’ll give my line as a reaction to what I hear that night. One night, Roscoe and I were working on Two Trains in Chicago. We had this thing where we’d almost compete. I had this great speech and then he had a great speech after it. And if I was OK, he’d step up his game, you know, and the voice would get deeper and the audience would be like, Wow. Well, one night we were both really great and Roscoe came off stage and said, ‘I know that was wonderful, but I know you’re going to fuck around and change it.’ And I said, ‘That’s what I do, man.’ So, we all do different things.”
An acting novice compared to his father and brother, Michael Beasley sounds as if he’s been paying attention to them, when he says of his own approach, “I’m still learning the process, but I try to get the words down as quick as possible, so that in the rehearsal process I can play with it and try to find the character. Each night, I’m still searching for my character and looking to grow my character.”
Tyrone saw Michael’s growth in Jitney. “Something I noticed with this performance is when he moved, he really seemed like he belonged in the space of the jitney stand. It felt like he wasn’t on stage as an actor, but there as that character.” John agreed, saying, “Oh, yeah, he’s come a long way since Two Trains. He’s learning. He does his homework. That’s the most important thing.”
Like Father, Like Sons
As the sons follow in the shadow of their father, they’re treading some of the very ground he once trod. Like his father before him, Tyrone’s performed at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. And Michael’s been signed to his first film by the same producer and casting agent, Ruben Cannon, who inked John Beasley to his first national acting jobs — the ABC movie Amerika and the ABC-TV series Brewster Place. Michael has a speaking part in the indie project, Trust, now shooting in Atlanta, where he resides. In another Atlanta project, The Diary of a Mad Black Woman, he’s doubling gospel playwright, actor and director phenom Tyler Perry, who co-stars as Madea in this film adaptation of Perry’s smash stage show.
John, a veteran of the boards and the bright lights, is the mentor and role model whose strong, centered, accessible presence is something each of his sons, or for that matter, any actor, aspires to. Despite some formal training, he’s largely a self-taught actor. He draws on rich life experiences — he’s been everything from a jock and jitney driver to a radio-TV host to a longshoreman and janitor — to inform his real-as-rain portrayals. He is, as the saying goes, a natural.
It’s been 20 years since this family patriarch made the leap from acting on community and regional theater stages to character parts on television and in feature films. His film roles include small but telling turns in the feel-good Rudy and the intense The Apostle. Even with such successes, the realities of screen acting dictate being an itinerant artist — going wherever the next gig takes you. That is, until he landed the recurring role of Irv Turner on the WB series, Everwood. Now that he has “a regular job,” he’s devoting much of his time away from the Everwood set to the south Omaha theater that not only bears his name, but stirs fond memories and renews old ties. The theater is the site of the old Center Stage where Beasley first flexed his acting muscles. Just as it celebrated diversity in plays by and about minorities, the JBT is all about alternative voices and faces.
In addition to occasionally acting there, John serves as JBT executive director and artistic director, and has directed shows, most notably its inaugural production of August Wilson’s Fences (in which Beasley starred as Troy Maxson). He and Tyrone also teach the workshops that are part of the JBT’s mission of developing a pool of trained actors the theater can draw on for future shows. That pool is growing.
For Jitney, Beasley brought in ringers in the figures of professional actors Anthony Chisholm and Willis Burks, but the rest of the cast was local. An indication of the talent here, Beasley said, is something Chisholm told him. “He thought this was a better cast than we had in Atlanta, and in many instances he’s right. I thought with the people we put together, we could have played that show anywhere.”
According to John and Tyrone, an ever expanding base of minority talent is being identified and groomed through the JBT workshop program. “I see young people coming in who are going to do very well. When they come out of my theater, I want them to have that confidence they can work anywhere.” “That’s exactly why we have the workshop — to give them the confidence,” Tyrone said. One JBT “graduate,” Robinlyn Sayers, is pursuing regional theater opportunities in Houston.
An Omaha Benson High School grad, Tyrone earned an art degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He did some modeling. Then, after getting hooked on acting at the Center Stage, he took private drama lessons in Chicago. Following in the footsteps of his father, Tyrone scored a coup when cast by the legendary theater director Peter Sellars in The Merchant of Venice at the Goodman Theatre. Blissfully ignorant of Sellars’ world-class reputation as an enfant terrible genius, Tyrone found himself acting with future heavyweight Philip Seymour Hoffman in a production that eventually toured Europe. “I don’t know how my audition would have went if I knew who he (Sellars) was. I might have been more nervous.” After Chicago, he attended California State University, Long Beach, where he acted with the California Repertory Company. “I also worked out of Los Angeles doing readings and worked behind the scenes as a film production assistant. That was a great experience.” After his father launched the JBT, he was enlisted in 2003 to help get the fledgling theater on “a solid foundation.”
Aside from that one time on stage with his dad in Death of a Salesman, Michael Beasley was hell-bent on a career in athletics, not dramatics. After making all-state his senior season at Omaha Central, he earned Juco hoops honors at McCook Community College before playing for the University of Texas-Arlington. He played more than 10 years of pro ball in the States and abroad, mostly in Latin America. Off-seasons, he lived in Atlanta, where he still makes his home with his wife and kids. Then, the acting bug bit again. His first post-hoops gig came as a last minute replacement — not unlike getting called off the bench in a crucial game situation.
“The way that went down is I was deciding to get back into acting when some people fell out of the Two Trains cast and Tyrone called and said, ‘Can you come up here and do this play tomorrow?’ So, I came up, and it was a great experience. It whet my appetite to pursue it further,” Michael said.
He admits to some trepidation acting with his father in Jitney, in which their antagonist characters wage a fist fight. “Everybody said, ‘You better bring your ‘A’ game.’ But it was great,” Michael said. “I try to absorb everything like a sponge and feed off the the stuff my father does to prepare. I’ve been able to draw on the experience I had in the play and bring it to the film projects I’m in now.”
John found it “real enjoyable” working with Mike. “He knew what I expected,” John said. “We had real good eye contact and we were able to play off each other really well, which became really important when we had to replace our Becker, Ben Gray, especially in the fight scene, which moves along pretty fast.”
So, was a life in acting inevitable for his sons? “I feel like I was definitely influenced because my father did it, but I feel like it’s chosen me more than anything. It’s a calling,” Tyrone said. “Of course, my father was an influence,” Michael said. “A lot of people think I’m in acting now because my father’s really successful at it, but our father never pushed us. It’s just something I chose. When I said I wanted to do it, he said, ‘Are you sure about that?’ It fills a void after basketball. I can’t play anymore at a high level, but with acting — the sky’s the limit. It’s something else to be passionate about. Besides, I’m not a nine-to-five guy. And I love the challenge.”
In John Beasley’s opinion, no one chooses acting. “It chooses you,” he said. And how much acting shop talk is there when the Beasleys get together? “We talk about it a lot. It’s part of our lives,” he said.
Looking to build on the momentum of Jitney, John Beasley’s commissioned noted UNO Theatre director Doug Paterson to direct Raisin. Paterson and company will workshop the play six weeks before it opens. Beasley’s also working with his agent to help round out the cast with name actors. “That’s a really good connection to have for putting some really nice ensembles together,” Beasley said. “We have a lot of talent in Omaha, but sometimes it helps to bring in some professionals. I think it’s good for the theater, good for the audiences and good for our actors here.”
- Anthony Chisholm is in the House at the John Beasley Theater in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Crowns: Black Women and Their Hats (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevyn Morrow’s Homecoming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Shakespeare on the Green, A Summertime Staple in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
This blog recently featured my story “Requiem for a Dynasty” about the UNO wrestling program being eliminated. The story allowed longtime head coach Mike Denney to reflect on the proud legacy of brilliant achievement he helped build. That legacy ended ignominously, not because of anything he or his athletes or coaches did, but because of decisions made by University of Nebraska at Omaha officials and University of Nebraska regents to unilaterally cut a program that did everything right in pursuit of higher revenue Division I athletics. The action sent a disturbing message to anyone in the university system: namely, that dollars trump integrity and standards. The following three-part series on UNO wrestling was originally published in 1999 by The Reader (www.thereader.com), when I followed the program for an entire season. This experience put me in close proximiity to Denney, his coaches, and his athletes, thus giving me an inside perspective on how he conducts himself and his program, and I walked away from the experience with great admiration for the man and his methods, as virtually everyone does when they get to know him. Now as he starts a new chapter in his athletic coaching life at Maryville University in St. Louis, where he is leading a start-up program with a band of brothers he’s brought with him from UNO, I know that he will have the same impact there he had here.
A Three-Part UNO Wrestling Retrospective-
Part I: Way of the Warrior
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Near dusk on a Saturday in southwest Minnesota, ten samurai-like warriors lick their wounds after valiantly waging battle an hour before. Officially, they comprise the starting lineup for NCAA Division II’s No. 2-ranked University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling team. But, in truth, they ply the ancient grappling arts in service of a master-teacher, Coach Mike Denney, whose honor they must uphold in extreme tests of skill, will, endurance.
Move over Magnificent Seven. Make room for The Terrific Ten.
Only they’re not feeling so terrific after losing a dual 23-16 to St. Cloud State, a North Central Conference rival UNO usually pummels. Having lost face in this Jan. 16 rumble up north, the Mavericks are bowed and beaten warriors whose dreams of a national championship lay temporarily dashed. Huddled in the close confines of the 28-foot Ford Chateau motor home the team travels in, the men sit in cold stony silence, awaiting their master’s arrival, and with it, hoped for redemption.
Losing hurts enough, but how they lost really grates. The St. Cloud debacle comes 18 hours after UNO defeats Augustana 25-11 in Sioux Falls, S.D. in what is a solid if unspectacular showing for a season-opening dual. Versus St. Cloud the Mavs build a 16-11 lead entering the next to last match, in which UNO’s stalwart 125-pounder Mack LaRock, a returning All-American, holds a 12-4 edge near the very end. But then, all at once, LaRock loses control, gets himself turned on his back, his shoulders driven into the mat and pinned with four seconds left, sending the crowd in cavernous old Halenbeck Hall into a frenzy and putting SCSU up 17-16 with one match to go.
Shellshocked, LaRock lingers on the mat, alone on an island of pain. Wrestling leaves no time for wallowing in defeat, however. Even when humiliated like this you must pick yourself up and shake hands with your victorious opponent, whose arm the referee raises overhead, not yours. As you skulk off in defeat, the next match begins.
Unfortunately, the Mavs’ entry in this Last Man Standing contest is 133-pounder T.J. Brummels, a weak link who quickly folds under the pressure and is pinned too, capping a stunning series of events that leaves Coach Denney staring out at the mat long after the final whistle.
A half-hour later the still brooding Denney tries absorbing what transpired and how to use it as a lesson for his team. He tells a visitor, “Wow. I don’t think I ever had one turn that quickly. I really don’t. We were in complete control. Mack’s just killing his guy…on his way to a major decision that would put it out of reach. Then it kind of just happened. It was like a knockout punch. I think I’ll tell my guys that back in 1991, the year we won the national championship, Augustana beat us with a team that wasn’t as good as this one. But from that point on our team said, ‘We’re not going to be denied.’ We’ll see what this team does.”
Later, in the motor home, LaRock, propped atop a cooler, head buried in his hands, sobs in front of his teammates, saying, “I’m sorry I let you guys down.” Albert Harrold (174) tenderly rubs his back, telling him, “Hey, when you lose, we all lose with you. We’ve all been there.” Others comfort him too.
As time drags on and the sting of losing burns deeper, the guys grow anxious over what Coach will say when he appears. Not because he’ll go off on some expletive-filled tirade. That’s not his nature. No, because they love him and feel they’ve let him down.
R.J. Nebe, former UNO wrestling great and assistant under Denney and now co-head wrestling coach at Skutt High School, says, “He’s a great motivational coach. The eternal optimist. He’s always upbeat, always supportive, no matter what happens. As much as you want to win for yourself, you want to go out and win for him. Anybody you talk to will say he’s kind of like a father figure. I know that’s a cliche but he truly is an amazing individual and you really do want to make him proud of you.”
Senior Mav Jerry Corner, the nation’s No. 1-rated heavyweight, says he appreciates the strong brotherhood Denney engenders. “Coach Denney impresses upon us to care about the guys we wrestle with. We’re not afraid to say, ‘I love you,’ and openly show some emotion when things don’t go right or when they do go right. That says a lot about the character and nature of the team. Coach Denney is the most positive coach I’ve ever been in contact with. He’s a coach, and then he’s a friend.”
For Denney, in his 20th season at the UNO helm, the role of friend and mentor is not one he feels obligated playing. It is genuinely how he sees himself in relation to these young men. He and his wife Bonnie are parents to three grown children — sons Rocky and Luke and daughter Michealene — and surrogate parents to 30 wrestlers. Serving youths is his fervent calling.
“I have a passion to work with young men and to help them along their journey. To guide them. To get them to get the best out of themselves. To gently nudge them and maybe not so gently sometimes. What I can bring to them is only experience and encouragement. They don’t have to listen to me. Some don’t. They learn the hard way. I don’t have great wisdom to share, but I do have great desire and I do care about them. It’s all teaching,” says Denney, who holds a master’s degree in education from UNO.
His desire to be a positive force in young people’s lives is partly a response to not having had a stable male role model while growing up on his family’s 160-acre farm in the shadows of the Sand Hills near Clearwater, Neb. His late father, Duke, was an alcoholic who abandoned Denney and his younger brother Dave and was abusive to their mother Grace. Filling the void were several key men in his life, among them his high school and college coaches. “They were all great role models. They had a big influence on me. They saw some good in me and kept encouraging me,” he notes.
He tries being this same nurturing figure to the athletes he coaches by creating “a family away from home” for them, especially those from single-parent backgrounds like his own. The “We Are Family” theme is one he and his wrestlers often reference. This sense of sharing a special bond is something he’s borrowed from his old high school coach, Roger Barry.
When Denney finally does climb aboard the motor home in St. Cloud, his big solid body filling the door frame, he speaks with the quiet authority and gentle compassion of a father consoling and fortifying his hurt sons.
“We didn’t give Coach Higdon a very good birthday present did we?” he says sardonically, referring to top assistant Ron Higdon, who stews behind the steering wheel, having turned 32 but feeling 72 . “What happened today I’ve seen happen to us before.” He goes on to tell about the ‘91 team rebounding from an unexpected loss. “And as we look back at that year, it was the best thing that could have happened. If it hadn’t happened, we probably wouldn’t have taken it up to another level.”
His dejected young charges listen carefully, fighting back tears.
Weeks earlier Denney confided he thrives on moments like these: “I honestly think I do the most good when they are at their lowest, most vulnerable. It’s when I can really make a difference with my guys. I actually like to see it happen because I think it’s then you can do so much building and can make a lasting impression. I try to be real sensitive to that.”
Back on the motor home Denney places a hand on LaRock’s shoulder, saying, “Nobody feels worse than this guy. Raise your hand if you’ve been there before.” The rest raise their hands in a show of solidarity. “It wasn’t like we performed terribly, but it’s going to take each one of us to get a level higher in conditioning. I see that. We have to do it. We’re going to do it. It can be just what is necessary for us to take the next step.”
Denney speaks in a deep voice whose easy cadence is soothing, almost mesmerizing. Then, like the taskmaster he must sometimes be, he promises he’ll push them in practice into the region he calls “Thin Air,” where they will train beyond exhaustion, beyond self-imposed limits, to reach the next highest rung. They will gladly endure it too.
“Be prepared men. We’re going to get after it. I’m going to take you until I see some of you over the trash can. I’m not doing it to be an a-hole. I’m just trying to take you to another level. I gotta do it. I just gotta do it. We have to push. We’ve got to get to Thin Air, when you don’t think you can make another step, but you can. And you will. So that when you get in the 3rd period or that overtime you’ve got something left.”
With his guys still smarting, he ends on a motivational note.
“You’re only one performance away from feeling good. We can’t really spend a lot of time feeling sorry for ourselves. Now let’s pull together and feel thankful. There were no injuries. This wasn’t the end. We’re not sitting here feeling like this after the national tournament. Be thankful for that. Be thankful there’s two months left. Be assured, all is well.”
Then, en masse, they kneel in prayer, holding hands. After being braced by their coach’s words and sated by a meal the sullen team loosens up on the drive back home, playing rounds of Spades, laughing, joking, being care-free kids again. They’re young, resilient. Yes, all will be well.
True to his word, Denney takes his team into Thin Air at practice the following week and, as predicted, a couple guys hurl from sheer burn-out. “It was one of the hardest practices I’ve ever had,” he says. “They were hurtin’, but they just wouldn’t let themselves break. Nobody hit the trash can until it was all done. They want to do well and know they can prevent what happened up there by being in better physical condition than anyone they go against. It gives each of them confidence that if it gets down to sudden victory, ‘I’ve been there. I’ve been in Thin Air.’ It can only help.”
The benefits of all that work show up in the Mavs next competition, Jan. 22-23, at the National Showdown Duals in Edmond, Okla., where UNO squares-off with four elite teams, finishing 3-1, advancing to and losing in the championship round to top-ranked Pitt-Johnstown 21-16. Bolstering the attack is junior Boyce Voorhees, a returning All-American, who goes 4-0 at 149 pounds in his first action since an early season injury. Voorhees is an intense wrestler capable of lifting an entire team with his dynamic style. The Mavs gain confidence coming so close to the No. 1 club without senior stud Braumon Creighton, the nation’s top-rated 141-pounder and a returning national champ, who injures a knee and forces UNO to forfeit his match.
Following another Thin Air day, the Mavs maintain their momentum Jan. 29 with a 21-18 win over No. 5 Central Oklahoma that is not as close as the score indicates since LaRock, nursing torn rib cartilage, forfeits. He also misses the next evening’s dual against the University of Nebraska-Kearney, which UNO runs away with 30-10. But Creighton returns triumphantly and he and his mates exude confidence that comes with Thin Air days being a weekly fixture. It’s all about keeping an edge.
The Mavs, with seven of their starting ten rated nationally, are back. Their aim on a national title still true. Denney feels good: “In some real close matches we’ve stayed confident, stayed strong, stayed focused. I like that. We now seem to have the reserve at the end to be able to do what we need to do. This team is on a mission.”
When the Mavs butt-kicking ways end abruptly in a Feb. 19 home dual loss to long-time nemesis North Dakota State, Denney isn’t so sure anymore. “As a team we have to hit on more cylinders. We have to perform better. It’s in us…but, I don’t know, maybe our expectations are just too high.”
After the less-than-inspired showing versus NDSU Denney issues an uncharacteristic in-your-face challenge to his slackers. “I wanted to shock them a little bit. They don’t see that side of me, but I needed to challenege them, and they responded — they really stepped up.” The Mavs respond with a 24-17 win over Div. I Northern Iowa to end the dual season 10-3.
The days leading up to the NCC tourney include intense practices that leave Denney feeling secure once again: “Honestly, that’s the hardest I’ve ever worked a team — but they took it. I’m really confident we’ll perform better. On paper North Dakota State’s the favorite, but we have no fear.”
Steeled by grueling workouts and bolstered by LaRock’s return the Mavs outlast the Bison 78-77 and win the NCC. In the process they regain face and inch closer to wrestling nirvana.With nationals a week away Denney likes how his team refuses to let injuries, forfeits or losses become distractions. “Those things are going to happen but I’m pleased with how our guys aren’t worrying about it. Each guy is staying focused,” he says.
Focused best describes Denney during a match. He never sits. Instead he prowls the sidelines, intently watching his men in action. He raises his voice to offer instructions (“Finish strong,” “Break him down,” “Let it flow”). His expressive face says it all, ranging from a pinched death mask to an open Irish mug. He’s the first one to congratulate his guys after victory
and to offer solace after defeat. After a rough outing he takes a wrestler aside to whisper encouragement– to put things in perspective.
“I tell our guys when they lose to not get that tied in with their self-worth. It’s got nothing to do with it. It’s completely separate.”
After home duals he works the crowd like a seasoned politico, pressing the flesh with boosters, fans, alums and other members of his extended wrestling family. His charismatic side shines through then. When greeting you he makes you feel you are the only one in his orbit. It’s the way he sidles right up to you with a sloppy grin splayed on his face, the way his big warm paw grasps your arm, the way his kind eyes meet yours, the way his “Aw Shucks” manner strikes instant rapport. But like any driven man his extreme focus sometimes catches up with him, putting him in a black mood.
His magnetic presence dominates team practices, which unfold in a sleek retro-style room brimming with banners, posters, plaques charting the program’s storied history. The room reflects different facets of the man, serving for him as training center, tabernacle and sanctuary all in one. With almost ministerial zeal he demands, prods, preaches adherence to the sport’s strict regimen. Indeed, Denney, active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and in ecumenical outreach activities, regards the room as “the Lord’s House” and himself as its “watchman” (his church’s pastor blessed it). He even lays hands on his wrestlers with a healer’s touch.
In a space dedicated to mastering the rigors of the mind and body, he is a high priest in this Temple of Fitness. A Master in the Way of the Mat training young ascetics to develop the gift of serenity and the art of physical combat. He is, in fact, a longtime martial arts practitioner, owning high black belt ranks in judo and jujitsu, and incorporates aspects of these Eastern disciplines in the wrestling program, such as greeting visitors by bowing and saying, “Welcome to the dojo,” or his disciples adopting as their mantra, “Ooosss.”
His men are models of cool, calm, collected poise. They accept cutting weight, the bane and burden of all amateur wrestlers, with stoicism.
Finally, Denney is a sentinel keenly attuned to all around him. A most honorable sensei seeking to embolden and enlighten each of his warriors.
“I make it my goal every day at practice to touch every one of my guys physically, with a pat on the shoulder, and to do the same with a positive statement. I like to circulate through the whole group so I can sense when somebody needs a little extra help. I try to catch them doing something right and reinforce that. As a coach you have to focus on doing that because you can get caught up in the other side of it — the negative side. Very seldom to people react well to negativity. I never did,” says Denney, an ex-college and semi-pro athlete and a still accomplished sportsman today. “My philosophy is that so much of the stuff outside of this room is negative that I try to have a positive atmosphere and environment, and it starts with me.”
When he spots one of his guys is down he has him home for dinner or takes him to church. To build togetherness he holds retreats and gets feedback from a team unity council. To help his wrestlers keep a mental edge and handle the pressures of being student-athletes he has two sports psychologists work extensively with the team. To make them better ciitzens he has wrestlers make goodwill visits to hospitals, nursing homes and prisons and assist with youth wrestling clinics.
“I believe in the whole person approach to coaching,” he says.
His wife Bonnie, who is quite close to the program, says he has the tools necessary for this empathic approach: “I think he’s a great communicator and is very wise about what a person is all about. He can listen and read a person and see where they need to be directed. He can motivate them. And he cares. It’s not fake either. He really cares.”
But don’t confuse caring for softness. His practices are pictures of hard work. He’s always pushing for more. More effort, more desire, more, focus, more tenacity, more commitment. He demands nothing more than he does of himself. At 51 he still works out religiously every day, stretching, hitting the treadmill, pumping iron. He refines his judo and jujitsu skills by training with the U.S. National Team at the Olympic Training Center in Boulder, Col., and still mixes it up in martial arts competitions. In 1982 he won the national masters judo championship at 209 pounds. He teaches judo at UNO and self-defense for area law enforcement agencies.
During the season he regularly works 12 to 15-hour days. Hard work and long hours are old hat for Denney, who from the time he was a boy did most of the farming on his family’s spread, where they grew corn, alfalfa, rye and vetch and raised livestock.
“I worked the fields. I helped cattle and sheep deliver their calves. My brother and I milked cows every morning before we went to school. We broke horses. When I began driving a truck and tractor I had to sit on a crate to see over the steering wheel.”
Minus a TV, he and Dave made their own entertainment. “Looking back, I suppose it was a meager existence, but we never thought so.” He variously rode a horse or drove a tractor to the one-room schoolhouse he attended. The school doubled as the community church. His mother taught Sunday School there. He and Dave didn’t dare miss.
Denney concedes his mother, who still lives on the farm at 84, has been the greatest influence in his life. “My real hero is my mother. She’s a rock. She had it real tough raising us on her own and just scratching out a living, but we never wanted for anything. She’s a woman of strong faith and positive attitude. She’s an inspiration to me. She’s amazing.”
Bonnie feels her husband owes much of his iron will and true grit to Grace. “His mother’s a marvelous, strong individual. He got from her a strong character and work ethic that you can’t believe. Nobody will outwork him. He just covers every base. He puts his entire self into it.”
He admits it’s easy losing one’s bearings amid coaching’s endless demands. “In this profession you can get your priorities mixed up pretty easily. It can really consume you. There’s always somebody else you can recruit. Always something else you can do. You really have to work at keeping a balance in your life. My wife has really helped me a lot on that.”
His Never-Say-Die credo served him well during UNO Athletics’ lean times. In the late ‘80s state funding was cut, resulting in severely trimmed budgets, some men’s programs relegated to club status and pickle card sales begun as a last ditch revenue-making source. And until last year’s long overdue fieldhouse renovation Denney got by with second-rate facilities. The old wrestling room, charitably remembered as “a hole in the wall,” was so bad he steered recruits away from it.
“When UNO athletics went through that down period it had a negative effect on all the men’s sports, except wrestling. One of Mike’s supreme accomplishments was to keep right on winning championships. He had no facilities but the man never came to me with anything even resembling a complaint. The truly amazing thing was him getting quality athletes under those conditions. He’s a terrific salesman and has the insight to find the right young men who fit our program. Plus, he’s a great motivator,” says former UNO Athletic Director Don Leahy, now Assistant A.D. at the school.
Assistant Ron Higdon says the new facilities bring higher expectations and added “pressure” for Denney. “He doesn’t look at it like, ‘We’ve got it made, but more like, ‘We don’t have any excuses any more. Let’s not leave any rock unturned. We don’t want any regrets.’” He’s tightened the screws.
Bonnie Denney says her husband thrives on adversity. “He likes it tough. His whole life philosophy is: ‘Get out of the comfort zone in whatever you’re doing. That’s when you will grow.’” He simply says: “I like challenges.”
It’s the same resolve he showed farming and as a football-wrestling standout at both Neligh High School and Dakota Wesleyan, the NAIA college (in Mitchell, S.D.) he attended and whose Athletic Hall of Fame he’s inducted in. As a college lineman he played both ways, often never leaving the field. When the gridiron season ended he went right into wrestling. “One day off was enough. It was a year-round deal,” Denney recalls.
After graduating with a teaching degree his goal was making it in the National Football League. It was 1969. The Vietnam War was hot. The military draft in effect. His kid brother, then an Army grunt in ‘Nam, wrote home warning to “stay out of this mess.” Luckily, Denney got a deferral upon landing a contract with the Omaha Public Schools. When the NFL did not beckon he signed with the Omaha Mustangs, a semi-pro football club popular with area fans in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even after moving to Omaha with Bonnie, whom he married that summer, he kept alive his NFL hopes.
“I spent a number of years on that mission.”
Life in the ‘70s revolved around teaching (math) and coaching (wrestling, football, track) — first at South High and later at Bryan — and playing ball. He paid a steep personal price for the grueling schedule.
“I’d go early in the morning to lift weights, then teach all day, then coach and then practice with the Mustangs all night. I’d travel on the weekends. There were times when I never saw our first son awake. I really neglected my family. I don’t know why my wife stayed.”
Despite the costs, he would not be deterred from his dream. “Playing with the Mustangs filled the need I had to still compete and play. It was my NFL. I loved it.” He played seven years and concedes only the club’s folding prevented him from continuing. Judo then became his competitive outlet.
What is the appeal of athletic competition? “Unlike the corporate world, you have instant feedback with it. It tells you right away how you did. You can look at wins or losses. Or, like I do, you can base it on performance. The real opponent is yourself — trying to get the best out of yourself.”
He could have coached football in college but chose wrestling. Why?
“You look for vehicles to teach and build and what a great vehicle wrestling is because it’s so demanding. It takes so much discipline, dedication and commitment. You’re going to get beat right out in front of everybody. You can be humbled at any time and very quickly. It brings out the best and the worst in you. And you get so much closer to your athletes in wrestling.”
He finally did get his shot at the big-time via a free-agent try-out with the Chicago Bears in the mid-70s. He was among the final players cut.
“I worked so hard at it and spent so many years pursuing that mission, but in the end I was a marginal player. I faced that fact. And I realized the NFL was not the ultimate answer to my needs. The Lord had other plans for me…much better plans than I could ever have imagined.”
Those plans brought him to UNO in 1979 when Leahy, who saw his work ethic up close as a Mustangs coach, hired Denney, despite no prior college coaching experience, to lead an already respected program.
“Mr. Leahy took a chance on me,” he says, “and I’m forever thankful for that. It was a tremendous opportunity.”
Denney’s made the most of the opportunity by taking UNO wrestling to new heights, annually contending for the title. The year UNO won it all, ‘91, posed a severe trial for him and his family. First, a former Mav wrestler he was close to, Ryan Kaufman, died in a car accident. Denney calls him “our guardian angel.” Then Bonnie, who has multiple sclerosis, fell gravely ill, enduring a lengthy hospital stay. She fully recovered and is healthy today. She says the experience deepened the family’s bond and faith.
Also deepened is her husband’s outlook on athletics. “He used to have a terrible time dealing with losing,” she says. “But now the process has become as important as the result. He’s discovered the joy is in the journey.” Indeed, he preaches to his troops, “Respect the journey, but don’t sell your soul for it.” It’s why he emphasizes the values and lessons to be gained from competition over records and wins. It’s about helping young men “feel somebody cares about them. That there’s an investment in them. That they have some worth. Basically that’s what we’re all looking for,” he says.
It’s a message he delivers in public motivational talks. It’s why he calls his job “a privilege” and twice turned down the head coaching post at Division I Wyoming. Why he is at home with his wrestling family. “I honestly think I’ve been put here as the watchman. I’ve been assigned this. It’s meant to be.”
Championship banners hanging in the UNO wrestling room
Part II: House of Pain
Destiny seems on the side of the No. 2-ranked University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling team entering the NCAA Divison II national championships Friday and Saturday in Omaha: UNO’s nine individual qualifiers match the most of any team; the school is hosting the finals in it own Sapp Fieldhouse on the UNO campus; and the tourney will coincide with Head Coach Mike Denney’s induction into the Div. II Wrestling Hall of Fame.
It is, as Denney’s fond of saying, a time “to shoot for the stars.” The source of UNO’s tempered-steel toughness is forged not in the stars, but in the inferno of practice and in the heat of battle. In a journey through pain.
A UNO practice resembles a “Guernica-like” scene with its entangled heaps of twisted, wreathing bodies and flushed, grimacing faces belonging to a sect of athletes who endure punishment as a badge of honor. Some lay sprawled on the mat, limbs clenched in a contortionist’s nightmare. Others crouch in a gruesome dance, pushing and pulling like territorial bulls.
More than any other sport, wrestling is a survival contest. Technique, fitness, power are all vital qualities but when these things are relatively equal, as they often are, it ultimately comes down to a test of wills. A confrontation to see who can withstand more, who can outlast the other.
Wrestling is a sport of resistance, using the body as a pinion and vice to gain leverage and control. It’s countering your opponent’s moves with ones of your own. It’s long stalemates followed by lightning quick reversals, take-downs, pins. One tiny slip in concentration can prove your undoing.
In the heat of action bodies become locked in vicious embrace. One torso tightly wound around another. A leg wrapped around a neck. Arms ratcheted back from the socket with enough torque to tear ligament and snap bone. Tongues hang out from sheer exhaustion. Sweat runs off in sheets. The thud of bodies on the mat mixes with anguished cries and grunts. As if this agony isn’t enough, there’s the bane of all wrestlers — cutting weight. Truly, it’s as much penance as sport.
Welcome to the House of Pain. Every wrestling club or program has one. It’s often only a ratty old mat in a cold dark gym. Until this season UNO made do with a pit too small to accommodate a full practice. For years its teams trained around the school’s other sports, carting and rolling out mats onto the fieldhouse floor and rolling them up and carting them back off when done. With the completion of a multi-million dollar fieldhouse renovation last year, the Mavs finally have a training facility all their own and one commensurate with the program’s powerhouse status.
Located in the northeast corner of the fieldhouse’s top floor, the UNO wrestling room, a.k.a. the dojo, is a 5,000-plus square-foot facility where all 30 wrestlers can work out in at once. It includes a kick-ass mat, a video station, a digital scale and a sound system. It’s clean, well-lit, ventilated. It’s also where guys shed sweat, blood and tears and gasp for air.
On “Thin Air Days” UNO coaches push their athletes past fatigue, past the breaking point — all in an effort to build mental-physical endurance. A trash can stands nearby for those who get sick. On those days practice begins at 3 and goes full bore past 5. One drill immediately follows another, pairing wrestlers off on the mat as coaches hover above goading them on.
“Your body can do it,” assistant Cory Royal shouts at a prone wrestler one recent practice. “It’s mind over matter.” With that, the spent lad drags himself to his feet and gets after it again. There’s always more to give.
To cap off practice the team runs stairs. The late afternoon session is in addition to a morning workout and individual running and lifting drills. On competition days the demands only increase. In tournaments, such as the nationals, entrants may wrestle multiple matches on day one and still run that same night to ensure making weight for day two’s action.
“In no other sport do athletes have to put themselves through what wrestlers put themselves through,” says top UNO assistant coach Ron Higdon. “As coaches it’s what we love about this sport.” Denney says, “You look for vehicles to teach and build and what a great vehicle wrestling is because it’s so demanding. It takes so much discipline, dedication and commitment. You’re going to get beat right out in front of everybody. You can be humbled at any time and very quickly. It brings out the best and the worst in you. I like these challenges.”
Why do athletes do it?
“I don’t know, maybe I’m a masochist, but I love it. Wrestling is a sport that’s so demanding. It takes the mind, body and soul. It takes everything that you can possibly muster and I guess that’s the challenge I really enjoy,” says senior Jeff Nielsen, (133 pounds), who went 0-3 in the NCC tourney.
There’s more to it than that. It’s being cast alone on an island of pain and using every ounce of courage and skill to try and best your opponent.
Senior Mav Braumon Creighton, a national champion at 134 pounds last year and top-seeded at 141-pounds this year, is a fluid methodical performer who appreciates wrestling’s intricacies.
“I like the science of the sport. The leverage, the speed, the techniques and the type of physical attributes you need to be a good wrestler. I like the mental preparation that goes into it. I like the battle. I like the nervousness. I like how it’s a chess match out there and you’ve got to make the right moves. I love everything about it except the cutting weight part,” Creighton says. “And when the lights go on it’s my opportunity to put on a show. To say, ‘Look at me. Look at how good I am. Look what I can do.”
For two-time All-American Boyce Voorhees, a junior contending for the 149-pound crown this weekend, it’s “the competition.” He adds, “The best part about it is it’s just one guy against another. It’s you against him. Nobody else has anything else to say about it. You have no excuses.”
“It’s a great challenge every time I wrestle,” says junior Chris Blair, a two-time All-American competing at 165 pounds in the NCAA finals, “It’s a test of all my training methods and everything I believe in. When I win, everything about me wins. When I lose, I lose all that stuff. In order to be a champion you’ve really got to work hard at it every single day.”
For motivation UNO ‘s athletes need only look at the wrestling room’s walls adorned with banners and plaques honoring the program’s many All-Americans, national titlists, Hall of Famers and championship teams.
The swank new room has made a deep impression on the team, serving as inspiration, validation and challenge. For senior Jose Medina, a returning All-American and a national qualifier this year at 197 pounds, the space is a source of good vibes. “The room has so much character and Coach Denney’s put all that character in there with the All-American plaques and the banners listing the national champs and the records. It’s awesome to be around all that.”
Sophomore Scott Antoniak, a national qualifier at 184 pounds, says, “We walk around with a bit of added confidence. We have our own room. We have something to be proud of. It gives us something to brag about.”
Blair feels the room sets a serious, no-nonsense tone: “Having something like this makes you feel like you’re in an elite program. It really helps mentally coming into a place everyday that’s this businesslike and professional. It gives us added confidence and strength.”
“I can’t even tell you all the things it does for us,” says sophomore Mack LaRock, a national qualifier at 125 pounds. “It gives us a home, for one. I think it also raises the expectation level of ourselves. We feel we’ve got to rise to the occasion and perform, almost as if we’ve got to earn what we’ve been given.”
Indeed, Higdon says the new facilities have added “pressure” on the coaching staff. “Coach Denney doesn’t look at it like, ‘Ah, we’ve got it made, but more like, ‘We don’t have any excuses anymore. Let’s not leave any rock unturned. We don’t want any regrets.’”
Reminders of UNO’s high expectations are everywhere. Banners displaying each wrestler’s personal symbol of commitment hang from the ceiling. Ringing the mat are nine plastic cones spelling out the team’s keys to achieving its mission. Far from arbitrary words, these mottoes grew out of a preseason November retreat with a decidedly martial theme at which the team set team objectives, ideals, rules, et cetera. Blair says the messages represent “what UNO wrestling is all about. We can see it every day. We can be a part of it every day. I look up and see all these different symbols and it’s who we are. It’s the heart and soul of every single guy on this team.”
That the retreat resembled boot camp is no accident. Military themes are commonly applied to competitive athletics. After all, a solid platoon and an effective team both require discipline, loyalty, unity, commitment, physical fitness, mental rigor, honor, duty. Both require a warrior’s mentality. Even the way teams practice is patterned after the army or marines, with coaches putting their warriors through training “drills” like any DI bastards.
Thus, UNO turned the Old Country Buffet on Dodge Street into a war room one fine November morning. Setting the tone was Denney, who fittingly wore camouflaged fatigues and a painted war face. Several troops followed suit. Together, they plotted strategy for the upcoming campaign. Later, they went to a camp grounds near Plattsmouth to play paint ball.
The idea, Denney told his warriors that day, “is establishing our destination — where we’re trying to get to — and our compass for getting there. It’s kind of what we’re all about and what is necessary for our team to accomplish its mission. We’ll organize and execute practices around that.”
The annual retreat is among many traditions he’s added to the program. He’s found such activities effective ways of building a solid group identity and bond. He uses these sessions as teaching opportunities. At one team meeting he did a “Home Improvement” routine — complete with tool belt, framing hammer, nails and two-by-fours — to make the point that in order to be “straight and strong every practice and every match” his team must “hammer” and “push” themselves through the whole season. After hammering home some penny nails he brought out some rusty ones and said, ‘If you guys are coming in rusty…you’re going to bend.’”
For Denney the demonstration was fun but its message dead serious. “I challenged our guys to be straight and strong because for us to effectively perform we’ve got to challenge ourselves. This is athletics. You can’t be in the comfort zone too long. I need to challenge myself, too, to be more of a hammer as a coach. Sometimes I’m almost a little bit too understanding.”
Mastering the mental game is something Denney constantly emphasizes. “I tell our guys we’ve got be strong in three areas. Physically, mentally, spiritually. As you get closer to competition the importance of the mental part increases. Those people that can stay confident, stay calm, stay relaxed, stay focused — all those things — have an advantage. We try to get our guys to look forward to competition and not dread it. Sometimes though you get anxious about failing. We try to instill the attitude, ‘I can’t wait to get out there. I practiced for it, prepared myself physically for it and now I want to do it.’ You’ve got to be confident you can perform well and perform well against good competition. It’s actually not directed at the opponent. It’s trying to get yourself to perform well. It’s a battle with yourself.”
To help instill such poise Denney has two prominent area sports psychologists, Dr. Jack Stark and Dr. Todd Hendrickson, work with the team. As Denney sees it, it’s all about helping athletes find avenues that best reduce anxiety and maximize effort.
“The whole thing is not on winning, it’s on performance,” he says.
Consider the scene in the visiting locker room at Augustana College shortly after UNO’s 25-11 dual victory over the Vikings on Jan. 15. Denney singled out Antoniak for praise despite his having lost in overtime: “It shows here,” Denney said, holding up the scoring sheet in his hand, “he lost 3-1, but I don’t even look at that. I look at performance. He performed. He
wrestled with heart.” Later, Antoniak said how much his coach’s words meant: “What means more to me than a win or a loss is knowing I didn’t disappoint Coach Denney. I know he’s still proud of the way I performed.”
Higdon, who wrestled for Denney and has coached under him for seven years, says, “One of the reasons he’s so good at getting guys to perform well is that they’re not only performing for themselves but they honestly want to do well for him too. When you disappoint him, oh, the guilt is unbelievable.”
R.J. Nebe, former UNO wrestling great and one-time assistant under Denney and now co-head wrestling coach at Skutt High School, says, “He’s a great motivational coach. The eternal optimist. He’s always upbeat, always supportive, no matter what happens. Anybody you talk to says he’s kind of like a father figure. I know that’s a cliche but he truly is an amazing individual and you really do want to make him proud of you.”
The late R.J. Nebe
Massaging hurt egos, boosting flagging spirits, instilling guilt. It’s what coaches do in their role as amateur psychologists. What often separates a mediocre wrestler from a superb one is the mental factor. Higdon says some wrestlers shine in practice but wilt in competition: “Some guys are great practice room wrestlers — they’re unscored on and can’t be taken down. But when they have the pressure of being in the starting lineup or in a tournament they don’t wrestle near as well. That gets down to mental toughness. The sports psychologists we work with are really good at making our guys believe in themselves. One guy may need this. Another guy may need something totally different. As a coaching staff we try to
provide all those different atmospheres. Sometimes it’s frustrating, but once you figure it out, it’s half the battle.”
As Denney says, “We try to get each athlete to develop a ritual at practice. It’s finding ways of preparing mentally and physically that help you perform well at every practice and then carrying that over into competition. It’s a trial and error thing finding what works for you. It takes lots of repetitions. Part of it may be your diet or isolating what things are producing anxiety. The way one guy prepares may not work for another.”
Virtually all UNO wrestlers use visualization, along with deep breathing and other relaxation techniques to get ready for matches. Sometimes, all the preparation in the world doesn’t prevent a poor showing.
“You’re going to have times when you just don’t perform well. I’ve been coaching 30 years and every individual, every team has hit one real low every season,” Denney notes. “I’ve found if you have work ethic and perseverance you’re going to endure through those ups and downs. You can’t replace it. Our work ethic is good. We have good leadership too.”
Denney’s a master at sensing the psyche of his team. How he handles his wrestlers, especially how he prepares and motivates them for competition, reveals much about him, his athletes and his program. He circulates through the wrestling room to drop a positive word here, a does of constructive criticism there. He lays hands on his men like a healer. His door is always open for consultation. His charismatic presence and caring demeanor create a powerful Brotherhood of the Mat.
“Coach impresses upon us to care about the guys we wrestle with. We’re not afraid to say, ‘I love you,’ and openly show some emotion when things don’t go right or when they do go right. That says a lot about the character and nature of the team,” says senior heavyweight Jerry Corner.
While wrestling is a series of one-on-one competitions, a single stunning win or loss can spark or deflate an entire team. The chemistry of a squad and the support of teammates are crucial performance factors. Denney’s teams are known for their togetherness. “It’s a family. It’s a real close-knit group. Coach Denney promotes that. He’s like a second father. And all those guys in the locker room are like my brothers,” Nielsen says.
Denney says camaraderie is vital given wrestling’s severe demands.
“It’s a long season made even longer because we beat on each other so much. It’s such a physically and mentally demanding sport. And at the end they’re going to raise just one hand. Even when our guys have been working hard and doing the right things there’s still going to be adversity. They get injured. They don’t perform the way they want. Something bad happens back home or their girlfriend leaves them. They need the support of their teammates when they’re down. They need positive reinforcement.”
He likes the way his current squad senses when a teammate is low and tries picking him up. He says his guys have done a great job of helping pull Medina, Voorhees and LaRock out of deep funks this season.
“I see our team helping each other out by sitting and talking with guys who’ve hit a low point. I like that. We’re totally a family here.”
He likes the way Voorhees and LaRock, two mainstays sidelined by injuries earlier this year, responded to their tough luck. “They stayed positive. They were up at the fieldhouse every day doing everything they could even though they couldn’t wrestle. They ran every day. They went to every meeting. They’ve been great examples of how to handle adversity.”
Denney, a Power of Positive Thinking disciple, says maintaining an upbeat attitude is not just mental window dressing but a prerequisite for reaching peak performance. “Losing doesn’t mean we’re failures. We don’t even talk about that. We talk about making adjustments to do better next time. In the scheme of things a disappointing performance is not that big a deal, except we’ve been blessed with some abilities and we want to make the most out of them. Performing well shouldn’t be an option. Not with this team and the way we work our butts off. It should be a responsibility.”
He has approached this season as a journey and each segment as a various leg on the trek. UNO’s journey began with five early open meets pitting Maverick wrestlers against top competitors from Div. I and II. Unlike many programs UNO waits to wrestle duals — when teams must settle on 10 starters — until the second semester, preferring instead to throw everyone into the mix in open competition.
“What it does is offer everybody an opportunity to compete and make the varsity,” Denney explains, “and that kind of determines who filters to the top and who redshirts. It takes wrestlers about 20 matches before they really start refining things, so I tell them to be patient.”
He sees the open part of the season as a time for experimenting too. “We actually tell our guys to open up and try some things. To make adjustments and find what works for you.”
In the Nov. 15 season opening Central Missouri State meet UNO recorded the most place finishers (18) and most finalists (six) it’s ever had in the annual competition. Three Mavs won their weight classes. Although UNO had no individual champions the Mavs held their own at home in the Nov. 21 Kaufman-Brand Open, the largest open meet in the nation, as Creighton and LaRock went a combined 9-2 against top-flight competition.
UNO followed with a disappointing showing in the Dec. 9 Northern Iowa Open but, as has been characteristic of this year’s team, rebounded strongly in the Nebraska-Kearney Open and in its own Brand Open. Once the Mavs started their “big push” the second semester, Denney returned again and again to such key themes as “No regrets” and “Start strong, stay strong, finish strong.” The dual season found UNO on the road most of the time. Following a devastating loss at St. Cloud State, Denney assured his team “all is well” but promised to take them “into Thin Air” as a way of deepening their conditioning and will. He did, too — working them until some hurled from sheer burn-out.
The benefits of all that work showed up in the Mavs next competition, Jan. 22-23, at the National Showdown Duals in Edmond, Okla., where UNO squared-off with four elite teams, finishing 3-1, advancing to and losing in the championship round to top-ranked Pittsburgh-Johnstown 21-16. Bolstering the attack was Voorhees, who went 4-0 at 149 pounds in his first action since an early season injury. The Mavs gained confidence coming so close to the No. 1 club without their stud, Creighton, who injured a knee and forced UNO to forfeit his match.
With Thin Air days a weekly fixture, the Mavs won a Jan. 29 home dual, 21-18, over No. 5 Central Oklahoma that was not as close as the score indicated since LaRock, nursing torn rib cartilage, forfeited. It marked the first of five straight dual wins the Mavs reeled off, prompting Denney to say: “In some real close matches we’ve stayed confident, stayed strong, stayed focused. I like that. We now seem to have the reserve at the end to be able to do what we need to do. This team is on a mission.”
Yet when the Mavs butt-kicking ways ended abruptly in a Feb. 19 home dual loss to long-time nemesis North Dakota State, he wasn’t so sure anymore. “As a team we have to hit on more cylinders. We have to perform better. It’s in us…but, I don’t know, maybe our expectations are just too high.”
After the less-than-inspired showing versus NDSU Denney issued an uncharacteristic in-your-face challenge to his slackers. “I wanted to shock them a little bit. They don’t see that side of me, but I needed to challenge them, and they responded — they really stepped up.” The Mavs responded with a 24-17 win over Div. I Northern Iowa to end the dual season 10-3 overall and 4-2 in the North Central Conference.
The days leading up to the NCC tourney included intense practices that left Denney feeling secure once again: “Honestly, that’s the hardest I’ve ever worked a team, but they took it. I’m really confident we’ll perform better. On paper North Dakota State’s the favorite, but we have no fear.”
In the postseason the starters become the sole focus. They get all the reps, all the performance enhancement goodies. Denney assigns each “a commission” that lets them know what’s expected at crunch time. He makes-up T-shirts with the wrestlers’ nicknames and slogans on them.
During the Feb. 28 NCC tourney in Brookings S.D. the Mavs, almost to a man, fulfilled their commissions. LaRock “fueled the fire” as team igniter at the top of the lineup, decisively winning his opening round match en route to earning a wild card entry at nationals. Creighton modeled “consistency” in going 3-0 to win his third individual NCC title. Voorhees lived up to his “cool, calm, confident” assignment in nailing down a runner-up finish.
Blair, UNO’s Iron Man award winner his first two years, took “the ultimate warrior” tag to heart by claiming third place. Albert Harrold, earned his “mentally strong” stripes with a runner-up finish at 174. Antoniak epitomized “showtime” by advancing to the finals, only losing the title on criteria. Medina showed “no fear” after a disqualification (for slamming)
forced him into the consolation bracket, where he came back to win a crucial third place match. Corner displayed “amazing power” in capturing his first NCC title in the final and deciding match, giving UNO a one-point winning margin (78-77) over NDSU in the team title race.
“I’m so proud of our guys,” a drained and emotion-choked Denney said afterwards. “They wrestled so hard. They gave everything they had. It was just a war. It went back and forth. One team would get ahead and the other would bounce right back. We were behind and had to win the last two matches. I’d never seen it come down to the end like that.”
With the NCC title secured, one last destination awaits the Mavs on their most excellent journey. In team meetings Denney’s comparing UNO’s quest for the pinnacle of collegiate wrestling to a Mount Everest ascent, saying, “When the oxygen gets really thin it then becomes a mental thing. Totally mental. Your body can endure anything you want it to. It’s mind over matter. You have to push through the pain. The key is working together and pushing each other to reach a common goal. You’re lost without that.”
Mack LaRock is reminding his mates to lay it on the line, as the summit may not be this close again. “We may never have a chance to be part of a team like this that has a chance to win nationals at home. Let’s not let this one get by. It’s all laid out for us. Let’s seize it. Let’s seize the day.”
Denney wants his charges to keep their edge during the climb and ensure they make the most of their opportunity: “Respect the journey. If you don’t respect the journey, you don’t prepare for it. When you step on the mat, be prepared. When you look back, you want to be sure there’s no regrets.This is something you will not be able to play over again.”
His team embarks on its “final assault” — the national championship — Friday and Saturday at UNO. Opening-round matches start at noon on Friday, followed by an evening session at 7 p.m. Semifinal and consolation matches being at noon on Saturday, followed by the Parade of All-Americans at 7 and the finals at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the UNO Athletic Office and through Ticketmaster outlets. For more tourney information, call 554-MAVS.
Part III: Day of Recknoning
The University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling team’s day of reckoning finally arrived last weekend when UNO hosted the NCAA Division II wrestling tournament. In the ultimate setting for this on-the-edge sport, the team title race fittingly came down to a pair of head-to-head matches between No. 1 Pittsburgh-Johnstown and No. 2 UNO, the two squads that led the pack all season long and dominated the March 12-13 tourney.
Holding a four-and a-half-point lead entering the championship round, UNO needed to at least split the two finals pitting Maverick wrestlers against their Mountain Cat counterparts. In the first meeting, UNO’s Mack LaRock, a sophomore from Lawton, Okla., was pinned by Johnstown’s No. 1-seeded Jody Strittmatter in the 125-pound title match. The fall, worth five points, dropped UNO into second place, half-a-point behind the Cats.
That put added pressure on UNO’s third championship qualifier Braumon Creighton, a senior from Millard North High School, who responded, becoming the lone Mav finalist to prevail, by decisioning Paul Konechne of South Dakota State 12-6 at 141 pounds. That victory earned Creighton his second consecutive national championship (He was the 134-pound champ last year.) and canceled out a Johnstown win at 133 pounds, keeping UNO within easy striking distance.
Creighton’s win made the 165-pound championship, the last head-to-head dual between the two title contending teams, the swing match. And it was here that UNO’s dogged, year-long quest to scale the wrestling heights fell just short when Mav junior Chris Blair dropped an 8-4 decision to Johnstown’s Troy Barbush. In the short seven-minute span it took to complete the match UNO went from the sweet anticipation of celebrating a title before family, friends and hometown fans to a feeling of bitter regret.
Blair, an Omaha Gross High grad who sat out last year to rehabilitate a surgically-repaired knee, fought hard, fell behind midway through the 2nd period and could not rally at the end. The loss secured the Cats’ team championship over UNO. In one of the tightest competitions in recent tourney history, Johnstown finished with 110 points to UNO’s 105.5.
Before the finals, Johnstown Coach Pat Pecora called the two-horse title chase “a classic,” adding, “In any other given year either one of us would have had the title clinched by now but this year we have a great team race. The way the fans have packed each session, they deserve a down-to-the-wire battle.”
The margin of victory at this level of competition is often decided by intangibles that coaches are fond of repeating like incantations. Following the tourney’s opening day sessions, UNO Coach Mike Denney described the intangibles that carried his wrestlers to a first place standing: “A lot of times it just comes down to heart. It’s not technique. It’s not coaching. It’s not anything. It’s just heart. It’s reaching deep inside for more They just fought so hard. They just stayed strong. They wouldn’t break.”
The next night, after seeing his team come agonizingly close to grasping the crown before fumbling it in front of the hometown fans, Denney retreated to a corridor of the fieldhouse and, feeling the weight of disappointment in letting it all slip by, slumped against a wall, where his oldest son, Rocky, consoled him. Later, a still reeling Denney said his team showed the heart of a champion despite losing the national championship:
“When we bid on hosting the nationals two years ago it was our dream to wrestle before this kind of crowd with an opportunity to win the national championship. We put so much work into it. Our guys came to wrestle. They fought. They wrestled with heart. We went for it and we didn’t get it, but I don’t look at it like we failed. It was a great battle, but we just came in second. You’ve got to give credit to Pitt-Johnstown.”
Destiny seemed on the side of tourney host UNO entering the finals. The home fans turned out in droves and lent their vocal support to the cause. Local dignitaries — led by Mayor Hal Daub and his wife and UNO Chancellor Nancy Belck — showed up to confer an official seal of approval on the event. Tying the past to the present was a parade of greats from UNO’s 30-year tradition of mat excellence, including the man who put the school’s wrestling program on the map, Don Benning.
Finally, the UNO team answered the challenge again and again, performing well enough to put themselves in position to win. They ended day one with a four-point edge on Johnstown (41.5 to 37.5), rebounding from a mid-round slump to advance all nine wrestlers to the second day semifinal and consolation rounds, ensuring each All-American status. UNO’s school-record nine All-Americans led the 36-team field.
Then, on day two, the Mavs maintained their advantage by going a combined 11-7 in semifinal and consolation matches. While Johnstown sent four men to that evening’s finals compared to UNO’s three, the Mavs still held a four and-a-half-point lead (101.5 to 97). In the end, the difference was Johnstown winning the pair of meetings with UNO in the finals.
The NCAA wrestling tournament, the fourth hosted by UNO over the years, proved a showcase for a sport little appreciated or understood outside the wrestling community and one often relegated to “Extreme Games” status. Consider wrestling for a moment and you soon see why its harsh aesthetic and strange dichotomy make it a sport apart. Consider the monastic discipline required to master its calm mind set, stiff work ethic and strict weight control, but the fierce warrior’s heart needed to compete in such physical one-on-one competition. Consider how a wrestler is a lone wolf on the mat yet a teammate on the sideline. How so brutal a sport is still couched in fine technique. How it rewards control yet penalizes passivity, encourages aggressiveness but frowns on violence.
Collegiate wrestling, with its sober blue-collar mystique, is an entirely different breed from the WWF sideshow. The amateur version is authentic regulated competition. The real thing. The pro game is a bastard, no-holds-barred knock-off. A fraud. The bleachers at any collegiate meet are filled with fans who know the sport inside and out — including past and present wrestlers, coaches and officials. They know the price these athletes pay in dedicating themselves to the grueling training process wrestling demands.
The crowd at the recent national tourney was educated enough to cheer a good move or deride a bad call when they saw it and to recognize which matches meant the most in the team race.
The tournament’s many upsets, comebacks, pins, thrills and spills were witnessed by an SRO crowd of wrestling buffs who found UNO’s Sapp Fieldhouse given an Olympic-style makeover for the event. NCAA regalia hung everywhere. Bunting-draped awards platforms stood tall at one end. A two-tiered scoring table at the other end accommodated event staff and media. A big Daktronics message board flashed the latest standings.
The first day of competition saw simultaneous action on six mats, making for a blur of interlocking bodies. A miked announcer hyped the goings-on with a running commentary that jumped from one match to the next. There was often a pin in progress on one mat, a stalemate on another, an injury time out on a third, and so on.
After his team’s solid opening day showing Coach Denney gathered his warriors in a circle in their fieldhouse sanctuary — the UNO wrestling room — to tell them: “I want you to relax like a bunch of puppy dogs tonight. Get a good night’s sleep. But then come out tomorrow like a pack of wolverines. You guys have got to love this. You have the opportunity with every match to make a difference. So savor it.”
Living up to UNO’s “There’s A Fire Burning” motto and his role as team igniter, Mack LaRock got the Mavs off to a fire-breathing start in the Mar. 13 afternoon semifinals by pinning his man. Moments later, after running into the stands to embrace family members who drove up from Oklahoma, a still delirious LaRock tried describing what happened: “I was in on a deep single. The opportunity was there and I just got it (the pin). Oh, man, it’s a rush. I never thought it would feel this way. The way my year’s been going, with so many ups and downs, I think it’s all going to work out.” Although LaRock lost in the finals that night, his mere presence there as a sixth seed was a victory of sorts itself.
Creighton, operating from his customary low crouch, looked sluggish until winning his semi’s scuffle 7-4 and securing a spot in the finals. Later, he said, “At the beginning I wasn’t focused at all. I just had to regain my focus. It’s a matter of being in those scramble positions and coming out on top.”
By warding off his foe off at the end — refusing to be taken down — Chris Blair earned a berth in the finals with a 7-4 decision. After a short celebration he described how watching his mates’ earlier matches motivated him to nail his opponent too: “I saw Mack and Braumon win and that got me going. I dug deep and put the guy on his back.”
Meanwhile, the Mavs fared well in the consolation bracket: junior Boyce Voorhees advanced to the third 3rd place match, where he lost a tough 2-1 decision to finish 4th at 149 pounds; sophomore Alan Cartwright captured 7th with a 12-5 decision at 157 pounds; senior Albert Harrold pounced on his opponent in the waning moments to clinch a 7-5 win that gave him 5th place at 174; and sophomore Scott Antoniak claimed 7th at 184 when his opponent forfeited.
After being on the wrong end of a pin in his 197 pound semifinals match, Jose Medina recovered from that devastating loss to perform well in the wrestlebacks, winning the crucial 3rd place match to help UNO stay in the title hunt. Medina, a senior from Chicago, said the winning difference was “knowing that I had to beat him to keep the team race close.”
Denney’s team finished second in 1999, but he led UNO to multiple national titles in the ensuing years
A costly defeat came at heavyweight when No. 1 seed senior Jerry Corner suffered a sudden-death overtime (2-1) loss in the semifinals to long-time arch nemesis Ryan Resel of South Dakota State. Corner, who twice beat the two-time defending national champion Resel during the regular season, explained afterwards how “hard” it is “to beat a quality competitor over and over again.” With his right eye red and puffy from the fray, Corner, from Wichita, Kan., spent little time sulking over losing his last title shot. Instead, he came back strong — practically crucifying his first consolation opponent to the mat, then advancing to and winning the 3rd place match with a 5-0 decision.
Corner wasn’t the only bruised and battered Maverick. Voorhees hurt a shoulder. Cartwright sported a bloody nose. Harrold threw up. Antoniak took stitches above an eye. Medina got scratched on the hand. “Yeah, but you should have seen the other guy,” goes the sport’s macho creed. Wrestlers like it tough. They thrive on their high pain threshold.
For the finals the fieldhouse became, for one night anyway, a coliseum reveling in the ancient grappling art and its warrior tradition. With the lights dimmed over the stands, the spotlight literally shone on the young men in singlets comprising this Samurai Brotherhood. Like gladiators of old they engaged in hand-to-hand combat that, while not mortal, tested their resolve and preparation through a primal meeting on the mat.
The Mavericks came away from this nearly 400-match wrestlerama with one individual champion, nine All-Americans and a team runner-up trophy, UNO’s 12th Top 3 finish under Denney. UNO’s undisputed star was its lone champ, Creighton, who stalked his finals’ opponent with predator-like cunning, shooting low single leg attacks he turned into points.
Soon after winning his title Creighton, whose mother is KMTV-Channel 3’s Trina Creighton, said, “It’s the best feeling in the world to do it here in front of all your family and friends. I’m proud to be part of UNO history and to be considered one of the greats among those who wrestled here.” Denney, who dubbed him “Mr. Consistency,” said, “He’s an ultimate competitor. He dominated the field. He’s a great ambassador for our wrestling program. I’m proud of him.”
Graceful and grateful even in defeat, Denney summed up the tourney and season-long journey with: “The thing I feel really good about is we were able to provide nine All-Americans and a national champion in our own gym, in front of an electric crowd, in an exciting atmosphere. It was great for our guys. I’m proud of the commitment they made. I’m proud of their work ethic. I’m proud of the kind of people they are. I can’t fault our effort. We performed. We we were just four-and-half-points short. And it’s not like the cupboard’s bare. We return five All-Americans. We’ll be all right.”
Now it’s on to recruiting for Denney. His talent search marks the start of the next journey for him and his band of warriors. Let the quest begin.
Magdalena Garcia is one of those one-woman bands whose all consuming devotion to her passion, art, is so complete that one finds it hard to imagine how the museum she founded and directs, El Museo Latino in Omaha, would ever survive without her. She is hands-on involved in virtually every aspect of the place, which for its relatively small size presents a tremendous number of exhibitions and programs. The museum is a real jewel in the city and was one of the redevelopment anchors that signaled to others the promise of the South Omaha community it resides in. When she opened the museum 18 years ago South Omaha was in decline but she stuck it out, found a great new site in the heart of the South O business district and she’s seen the area around it transition from nearly a ghost town look and feel to a vibrant, bustling hub of largely Latino owned and operated businesses. I did the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) a few years ago. Maggie, as she’s known, had already grown the museum into a first-rate arts venue of high quality exhibits and programs by that time, and she’s taken it to even greater heights since then.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As preparations for Cinco De Mayo festivities continued earlier this month at El Museo Latino, founder and executive director Magdalena Garcia seemed to be everywhere at once in the sprawling brick building housing the museum at 4701 1/2 South 25th Street. Now in its eighth year, the museum is very much a one-woman show.
With a small staff and a meager budget its survival depends on Garcia, whose formidable drive brought it from concept to reality in five short weeks in early 1993. She does everything from unpacking crates to framing works to leading tours to presenting lectures to schmoozing at fundraisers to writing grants to giving dance lessons. She even locks up at night. It’s her baby. And, despite protests to the contrary, she would not have it any other way. Her work is her life’s mission.
“It’s definitely a passion. I’m totally immersed in it. It’s never, never boring. There’s always something new to do and learn, and that’s exciting,” said Garcia, a Mexico City native who has kept close to her heritage since emigrating with her family to Omaha in the early 1960s. Such devotion is typical for Garcia.
She had an epiphany serving as a Joslyn Art Museum Docent during a 1984 exhibition of art and artifacts from the Maximilian-Bodmer collection on permanent loan to Joslyn from her then employer, Northern Natural Gas, where she was human resources manager. Her experience then inspired a desire to dig deeper into that world and eventually led her to reorder her life around art, something she’d only dabbled in before.
“I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to be that close to real art every day. That was an exciting prospect to me. After the exhibit ended I stayed on as a volunteer in the Joslyn’s art library. Then I found myself taking vacations to see exhibits in Boston, Los Angeles, Europe. As I saw more art I found traveling to exhibitions a few days a year wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted to make art my profession. To work in a museum. I just didn’t know how I was going to get there.”
Her first step on that journey was to switch her major from business to art history while a part-time University of Nebraska at Omaha student. The next step came when her company downsized in 1988 and she accepted a severance package. She used the money to enter graduate school at Syracuse University, where she embarked on a dual master’s program in art history and museum studies. After a fateful decision to change her focus from Renaissance to Latin American art, her research on Mexican muralists took her to New York, Los Angeles (where she completed an internship at the L.A. County Museum of Art) and Mexico City. “It really brought me full circle,” she said.
When New York’s illustrious Guggenheim Museum courted her to head-up its Latin American Art Department it confirmed her marketability as a bilingual woman with art and business expertise. “That was an eye-opener,” she said. “It showed me I could be a tremendous resource to an institution wanting to reach the growing Hispanic population.” She turned the Guggenheim down, however, because she could not justify stopping short of completing the academic path she had worked so long and hard to follow.
Then, in the fall of 1992, something happened to derail her conventional museum track. While in Omaha for a one-day Hispanic Heritage program and exhibit she was struck by the “overwhelming” requests she received to speak to school and community groups and by the “need for a space where we could show art year-round.” That’s when she got the idea of starting an Omaha Hispanic museum.
Bringing a Vision to Life
Her plan from the outset was for a museum to be based in its cultural center — South Omaha. When her search for a space turned-up a former print shop in the basement of the Livestock Exchange Building, she negotiated a one-year lease with eight months free rent in lieu of her cleaning up the ink, grease and smoke-stained site.
Armed with pledges of donated supplies from individuals and businesses, work proceeded at a fever pitch, especially once Garcia and her board decided to open in a mere 34 days to kick-off that year’s Cinco De Mayo celebration. Volunteers worked day and night to convert the space, putting-on the finishing touches minutes before the doors opened at 4 p.m. on May 5, 1993.
Only a few years later, with the museum having quickly outgrown its space and the future of the Livestock Exchange Building and surrounding stockyards in doubt, Garcia looked for a larger, more permanent site and found it in the former Polish Home at the corner of 25th & L, a fitting symbol for the changing makeup of South Omaha’s ethnic community. In Garcia’s mind it was providence that led her to the building, which, with its brick walls, red tile roof and U-shape design framing a courtyard, resembles a Spanish colonial structure. “It probably was meant to be,” she said.
She believes that when El Museo Latino opened in its new digs it became the first Latino art and history museum and cultural center in the Midwest.
The eclectic museum is a reflection of her wide interests in and deep feelings for Hispanic art. What it lacks in polish or panache it makes up for in serious presentations of textiles, pottery, carvings, paintings, drawings and photographs revealing the breadth and depth of a rich culture. “Hopefully, anyone who comes to the museum will get a little glimpse or flavor of how varied Latin American art is. It’s not one thing. It’s not just cactus and mariachi. It’s not just a Mexican thing. It’s a variety of periods, countries and styles,” she said. “The thing I’ve been most pleased with is sharing this diversity not just with our community, but with the rest of the community and sharing how WE see our culture rather than someone else translating it and telling us what our culture is.”
Finding a Niche
Garcia feels the museum is taking hold in the mostly Hispanic district. “I’ve noticed people taking more ownership. That this is ‘our museum’ versus, the first years, this is ‘Maggie’s museum,’ and that’s great. There’s more of a community embrace and it’s grown out of a collaborative effort. Our people look to see what’s happening here and the wider community looks to us to see what the Hispanic community is doing.”
With a broad mission of collecting and exhibiting Hispanic art from the Americas and developing education and outreach programs around all its displays, El Museo Latino has set ambitious goals. To date, it has acquired a small collection of textiles and objects and averaged eight exhibits per year. Garcia hopes to increase acquisitions and add more exhibits, but for now funds are earmarked for renovations to the turn-of-the-century building, including an overhaul of its outmoded electrical and plumbing systems, a major roof repair and the addition of an elevator and dock. Then attention will turn to fully conditioning the former social hall into museum quality classroom and gallery spaces.
To meet those needs and allow for the building’s purchase, the museum is three-quarters of the way to reaching a $1 million fund drive goal. Meanwhile, Garcia said museum-sponsored classes and workshops overflow with students learning paper cutting, weaving and mola-making. Traditional Mexican folk dancing classes are also popular. Garcia, a dancer herself, leads a youth performance dance troupe. Lectures and concerts draw well too. Combined attendance (for exhibits, classes, concerts, etc.) is also up — to 52,000 visitors last year from 17,000 three years ago.
While there is always a chance she will take one of those high-profile museum jobs she still gets offered, she’s not going anywhere soon. “I’ve made a commitment to see this museum take off and really get on solid ground. We’re still pretty new. There’s a lot of work yet to be done,” she said. Besides, she finds renewal in the endlessly rich veins of art she explores. “One of the things I find exciting is that there’s so much out there. It’s like, What do we want to exhibit this time? Every time we have something new it’s a learning process. That part keeps me fresh.”
El Museo Latino is currently presenting a traveling exhibition of Alebrijes, brightly colored wood carvings of fantastic animals from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The show continues through August. For more information, visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org or call 731-1137.
NOTE: El Museo’s exhibition schedule through the remainder of 2012 and into early 2013 is:
- OLLAS, the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, A Melting Pot of Latino/Latin American Concerns (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- National Latino Museum Plan Faces Fight for a Place on the Mall (nytimes.com)
- Should We Have a National Latino Museum? (nytimes.com)
- Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native American Survival Strategies Shared Through Theater and Testimony (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Eighty Years and Counting, History in the Making at the Durham Museum (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- When a Building isn’t Just a Building (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Finding the Essence of Omaha in All the Right Places Leads You to Obvious and Obscure Sites (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home is Where the Heart Is for Activist Attorney Rita Melgares (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- El Puente: Attempting to Bridge the Divide Between Grassroots Community and The System (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A South Omaha Renaissance (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha South High Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award Winner Maria Walinski-Peterson Follows Her Heart (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Here is a pair of stories I did for the spring 2011 issue of UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag), the official magazine of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which is my alma mater (class of 1982). The stories fall in line with this particular issue’s focus on UNO alums and faculty working in various aspects of crime, safety, and justice. In the first piece I look at how a UNO faculty member provided expertise and technology to assist a local crime lab technician with valuable measurements in testing evidence from a crime scene. In the second piece I profile a UNO alum working as a crime scene technician back East and her finding a real niche for herself in the field, one that’s become glamorized by television portrayals in recent years.
He may not have any super powers, but Dana Richter-Egger does have a super spectrometer. And with a call for help from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in 2006, he joined the league of Omaha crime fighters.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag)
By day, Richter-Egger is more about busting complex math and chemical equations than he is about busting bad guys. He’s an assistant professor of chemistry at UNO and director of its Math-Science Learning Center.
Four years ago, though, Christine Gabig, a forensic scientist in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, asked for help that only he could provide. Specifically, Gabig needed assistance determining whether glass fragments found at the scene of a crime matched shards found in a suspect’s car.
The crime occurred on Dec. 5, 2005. An Omaha Police Department undercover officer was in an unmarked vehicle on a north-side street when a car pulled up parallel to his. The driver then pointed a shotgun at the officer through an open window. The officer ducked for cover, firing several rounds through his own open driver-side window at the fleeing car.
A suspect in the case emerged when a man sought medical treatment at a hospital for gunshot and glass wounds. DNA linked him to the car with shattered windows but prosecutors needed evidence that definitively put him at the scene as the driver.
Gabig did initial tests on the glass fragments in her lab, but they were inconclusive.
“I knew I needed more detailed analysis,” she says, “and I immediately thought of Dana and ICP-MS.”
The Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer, that is.
A sophisticated trace element analyzer that enables sensitive measurements in many fields, the ICP-MS is housed in Durham’s Advanced Instrumentation Laboratories. It was purchased in 2004 in part with a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
UNO’s general chemistry students use it to measure area lead contamination levels and to perform drinking water analysis. Gabig, a UNL graduate, learned of the ICP-MS while taking a quantitative chemical analysis course at UNO taught by Egger.
The complex machine could help her answer a seemingly simple question — whether the glass fragments came from the same source.
Help in the Haystack
“ICP-MS really provides the best detection limits,” Richter-Egger says. “It’s going to find the smallest needle in the haystack relative to other techniques available. That provides the ability to look at and compare a great many more elements. It’s like being able to identify more points on a finger print to look for the match.”
The more data points tested, the stronger the case.
Gabig’s experience studying under Richter-Egger made her comfortable with the prospect of collaborating with the professor.
“I really respected his knowledge and I thought the (math-chemistry) program was fantastic,” she says. “I learned so much that was directly applicable to what I was doing here at the sheriff’s office. Also, I made contact with these great chemists who can help me.”
Further bolstering her confidence, she says, was the knowledge that ICP-MS results are “fully accepted in the courts.” The methods were based on standard procedures provided by the American Society for Testing Materials.
“That went a long ways to helping me feel good about what we were going to do,” Richter-Egger says. “After all, there’s somebody on the other end of this thing that is going to be in court and we’ve got to be sure we do our diligence and do a good job.
“Whatever the data is I want to make sure it is the highest quality possible so that when that evidence is presented it is accurate and that it helps to lead to the right decision in the courtroom. That weighed pretty heavily on my mind as we were considering this.”
In their research, Gabig and Richter-Egger discovered that manufactured glass in vehicles can be pinpointed to within 100 feet of a production line. That information, says Richter-Egger, meant that “if we could find there’s not any difference between these two glasses then that says a lot about the likelihood they actually came from the same window.”
The glass first was dissolved in acid and added to a controlled solution. The ICP-MS then required precise calibration. The instrument evaporated water in an ultra high vacuum and applied electric fields to separate atoms by mass. The device provided a spreadsheet readout of the elemental differentiation.
Richter-Egger says it’s a process whereby “electronics, engineering and chemistry meet.” After crunching the numbers and consulting UNO statisticians, he and Gabig went back and forth over the data, questioning each other and crosschecking information.
In her report, Gabig concluded that glass fragments from the suspect’s car and the scene “likely came from the same source” based on ICP-MS test results and statistical analysis that showed a high probability of a match.
In the end, the suspect took a deal, pleading to one felony assault count and one terroristic threat charge. Since the case did not go to trial, Gabig did not testify.
The forensic scientist and the professor collaborated on a slide presentation for a UNO chemistry department seminar. Gabig has also used the presentation to educate law enforcement agencies about trace evidence analysis.
Might UNO and CSI work together on another case?
“I could envision this happening again,” Gabig says. “Making use of data analysis at the university is a big benefit.”
Learn more about the Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer, including animations, at
Hot on the Trail of Cold Cases
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag)
Forensic Services Unit
It’s not every girl who grows up dreaming of becoming a “bloodstain pattern specialist.”
And while that might not have been Angela (Harbison) Moore’s girlhood fantasy, it became just that while attending classes at UNO, graduating in 2001 with a degree in chemistry.
Today Moore works as a forensic technician for the Newport News (Va.) Police Department conducting crime scene evidence analysis. It’s a career choice the former Goodrich Scholar says was inspired by work she did with UNO chemistry department faculty.
“We were doing a lot of neat stuff in Dr. Richard Lomneth’s bio chemistry lab that was applicable to forensic science,” Moore says. “It really piqued my interest. It was a turning point.”
Dr. Frederic Laquer also was influential. “He taught me how to be a true chemist, how to document things, and to this day I still think of him every time I do all the little things properly,” Moore says. “It’s a great batch of professors at UNO. They’re very rigorous.”
Moore later began forensic science graduate studies at George Washington University, but with her Air Force husband stationed at Offutt Air Force Base she transferred to Nebraska Wesleyan. While in grad school she worked as a chemist at UNO, preparing solutions for use by students in the Durham Science Center labs.
In 2007 Moore joined the CSI team in Newport News, where she’s a bloodstain pattern specialist. The unpredictability of when crime happens means her schedule is forever fluid.
“You can literally be at a scene and be called to another scene,” she says. It’s a job that demands “intense curiosity and attention to detail” and the ability to multitask.
Her work entails doing bloodstain analysis at crime scenes and in the lab, writing reports, assisting with autopsies, and testifying in court. She works the cold case unit. She also teaches college courses and makes presentations.
“I like to get into a lot of things,” she says. “I always try to challenge myself to be the best I can be in life.” Next year she will attend the National Forensic Science Academy in Tennessee. “I’m pretty excited about that.”
Nothing is more satisfying then when her work helps solve a case. She says her bloodstain pattern analysis led to a man being charged with murder years after the incident. In another instance she extracted DNA evidence that helped convict a serial rapist.
Some cases linger with her.
“Once they go to court there’s resolution and I feel better about them,” she says. “The child ones are really hard to deal with sometimes. But at the same time I feel like we’re helping people out.
“When I’m at a scene with a deceased person I feel it’s the shell of a person left over. Their spirit is someplace else. The body is to be utilized as another piece of evidence that can speak for that person.”
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.”
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