Tag Archives: football

Seamus Campbell Takes the Stage

June 14, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Like so many kids, 9-year-old Seamus Campbell loves The Jungle Book. He’s one of countless children to be enchanted by the thought of boppin’ around the jungle with cool, scat-singing Baloo, relishing the “Bare Necessities” that can make life so grand.

But he’s not just another kid imagining himself to be Mowgli, the freewheeling man-cub searching for his place in the jungle. This year, Campbell became Mowgli.

Omaha Performing Arts’ Disney Musicals in Schools program, produced in collaboration with Disney Theatrical Group, let Campbell and some of his Harrison Elementary classmates take on the role of storyteller and perform in their own production of The Jungle Book.

Campbell, who played the role of Mowgli, uses words like “proud” and “fun” a lot when describing his experience.

“It’s been so fun,” Campbell says. “Mowgli gets a lot of lines and gets to move around a lot. I like the dancing, running around, talking, getting to put on costumes…It’s fun that we all get to know each other better.”

Campbell’s love of The Jungle Book—particularly Disney’s 1967 animated movie version—was his original inspiration to participate. He describes Mowgli as “very stubborn,” but says his character learns “a whole lot, like trusting your friends and listening to others.”

Kathleen Lawler Hustead, Omaha Performing Arts’ education manager, says her team kicked off the program for the 2016/2017 school year, letting third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students from five OPS elementary schools explore musical theater from a new angle. Omaha Performing Arts is the 13th arts organization in the nation to implement the Disney Musicals in Schools program, which began in 2009.

“Disney only selects performing arts organizations with strong education departments, so we were thrilled to be among the select few brought into the program,” Lawler Hustead says.

The program is designed for sustainability, so Disney-trained, local teaching artists work with each school in its first year to develop school team members into music directors, choreographers, and stage managers, with the skills and confidence to continue the program when the teaching artists transition to the next batch of first-year schools.

“The great part about this program is it will continue for many years to come,” Lawler Hustead says, noting that after schools complete year one, they move to alumni status and continue to receive support and free or discounted materials in subsequent years. “We’ll add five new schools each year, with the eventual goal of nearly every elementary school in the Omaha area, and potentially beyond, having these sustainable musical theater programs.”

“It’s been so fun,” Campbell says. “Mowgli gets a lot of lines and gets to move around a lot. I like the dancing, running around, talking, getting to put on costumes…It’s fun that we all get to know each other better.”

Participating elementary schools are chosen based on need and commitment to sustaining the program in coming years. In addition to Harrison performing The Jungle Book, Omaha’s other Disney Musicals in Schools pioneers were Crestridge, Kennedy, and Wilson Focus—each performing The Lion King—and Liberty performing Aladdin.

After 17 weeks of preparation and rehearsal, Campbell and the other participating students performed the 30-minute shows at their schools. They also performed select songs at an all-school Student Share Celebration, produced by Omaha Performing Arts and held at the Holland Center.

“I am so proud of our kids and staff,” Harrison Principal Andrea Haynes says. “It just shows you that kids have this capacity and latent talent, and it’s our job to give them opportunities to cultivate that.”

Teaching artists Kelsey Schwenker and Sarah Gibson coached the Harrison team, which consisted of (director) fourth grade teacher Callen Goodrich, (music director) first grade teacher Anna Rivedal, (choreographer) librarian Rachel Prieksat, (stage manager) parent Danielle Herzog, (costume and set designer) paraprofessional Elizabeth Newman, and (production assistant) school secretary Linda Davey.

While the team successfully conjured Disney magic, there was much more to it than a simple flick of Tinker Bell’s wand. The school team and students devoted many extra hours of hard work and practice. Campbell is quick to agree that being in a musical is part work and part play—so what made him want to devote extra time between busy school days and evening Boy Scouts meetings?

“To make everyone like the play,” he says. “Since my parents and everyone are going to see it, I want to do a good job and make my family proud.”

Campbell’s eyes light up when he describes seeing the set and costumes for the first time.

“When the door opened, we saw there were vines, plants, and a rock—and it was raining glitter!” Campbell says.

The Harrison team created a vibrant jungle atmosphere and costumed the cast into a believable band of panthers, monkeys, snakes, tigers, wolves, bears, and, of course, one “man-cub.” At the Student Share, the creative, colorful costumes on display from all the schools were second only to the students’ enthusiasm.

“It’s been so inspiring to see what this program does for students and teachers, and to watch the students light up and grow over the process,” Lawler Hustead says. “Not only are they learning to sing, dance, and act, they’re learning critical thinking skills, problem-solving, communication, self-confidence, and how to be a team player.”

Campbell, who also loves Star Wars, football, and Percy Jackson, says his experience taught him to be brave and, of course, that the show must always go on.

“[If you mess up], you just redo the line or skip by that line,” he says confidently.

Haynes says exposing young kids to the arts fosters an important self-reliance.

“It can plant the seed in them that they can do anything,” she says. “That sense of self-confidence is so important in this world, and will carry you through all kinds of obstacles.”

Visit omahaperformingarts.org for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Seamus Campbell

Johnny Rodgers

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Johnny Rodgers turned 65 this year. He looks great. The 1972 Heisman Trophy winner and Husker football legend is also busy. He likes it that way.

“Well, I think that retiring, to me, is being in the position to do the things you want to do. I don’t think that retiring is getting somewhere and doing nothing,” Rodgers says. He then adds with a chuckle: “The law of use says, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it.’ And I’ve found that a lot of people, as soon as they retire and start doing nothing, they die.”

Rodgers is far from retired…and he’s aiming to live to age 100. He works as vice president of new business development for the U.S. and Canada at Rural Media Group Inc., which operates both RFD-TV (the huge rural-focused television network) and Rural Radio on SiriusXM. He also recently published a book and audio book, titled, Ten Minutes of Insanity. The self-help book and audiobook provide insights into moments when a person can “mess themselves up” or “set themselves up.” Rodgers speaks from youthful personal experience coupled with an older man’s perspective.

Referring back to his college years, a “mess yourself up” situation is “like the gas station fiasco that I was involved with,” he says. The opposite, positive kind of moment is “like the punt return against Oklahoma. You’ve got to be pretty insane to stand back there and wait for them to come.” He adds that each scenario “presents dramatic results, just in a different way.”

Johnny-Rodgers1Rodgers has a website in the works (which should be live this fall) aimed at providing help and perspective to business leaders, entrepreneurs, and athletes. “What I really want to do is to help athletes—professional athletes of football, basketball, baseball, all of them—transition from sports to public speaking,” he says. “And to be able to set up mechanisms for them to be able to tell their stories.”

Denny Drake, who has worked with Rodgers for more than 20 years on a variety of charitable and business projects, says Rodgers has always been open to trying new ideas, and to receiving critiques and wisdom from others. Drake is the president and CEO of the marketing company Performance Solutions Worldwide. He is also connected to the Jet Award (named after Rodgers), which honors the top return specialist in college football, and the Johnny Rodgers Youth Foundation. Rodgers serves as the youth foundation’s president; Drake is its CEO.   

“Johnny is a really good idea guy. He’s a good visionary of things,” Drake says. The two men are also working together on Authentic Collegiate Jeans, a venture to provide jeans with school and university logos that should launch this fall.   

With all that is going on in his life, Rodgers says he remains thoughtful about maintaining himself, too. When he was young man, it was about being a high-caliber athlete. Now, it is about being a quality person. He’s a fan of fish and organic chicken, but might only eat one traditional meal a day. For additional nutrition, he consumes kale and greens, frozen cherries and blueberries, and other healthy foods in liquid form in the morning, and fruit or protein bars in the afternoon, prior to dinner. He also tries to drink at least a half a gallon of lemon water every day. 

Rodgers plays tennis, golf, and racquetball weekly, and plays at a higher level now after having knee replacement surgery this past year. Rodgers says (with a smile) that 60 is the new 40.

“At 60, you’re smarter than you’ve ever been,” he says.  “And at 20, you’re about as dumb as you’ve ever been.”


Johnny Rodgers has long been known for his unique take on many subjects. Below are some of his quips to reporter Tim Kaldahl.

On Mike Riley, the University of Nebraska’s head football coach:
“Mike is probably a mix between Osborne and Devaney, as I see it.”

On the future of Nebraska football:
“I think our future is so bright that we’ve got to wear shades.”

On current concerns about the safety of football:
“I can’t think, overall, that it’s any more dangerous than it always has been, and I think that that risk factor is what people liked all the time. The possibility that, you know, you could get jacked.” (Rodgers chuckles.)

On good habits for life:
“And you don’t want a habit that’s taking you down. You want to create the type of habits that build you up, so you have to make a change.”

On staying mentally focused and goal setting:
“Thoughts are not just things. Thoughts are the cause of things. So if you can hold a thought long enough, you can have it.” 


Visit thejetaward.com for more information. Sixty-Plus

From Omaha to Notre Dame

October 27, 2015 by
Photography by Bill SItzmann

On a seasonably pleasant Friday evening last July, members of the Jenkins and Wessling families gathered at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church for a wedding. The bride’s uncle had traveled back to his hometown to officiate. Dr. Erin Jenkins and her dozens of cousins know the priest simply as Uncle John. You know him more formally as the Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. (Congregation of Holy Cross), president of the University of Notre Dame.

As leader of the most renowned Catholic school in the country—perhaps in the world—Jenkins’ responsibilities and schedule leave little room to breathe. Yet he found time to honor a twin daughter of his older brother, Tom, and to squeeze in another opportunity to visit with his beloved 86-year old mother, Helen.

“My father, Harry Jenkins, was a gastroenterologist who taught at Creighton Medical School and mother went to nursing school,” says the Rev. Jenkins.  “Dad died in 2004,” shortly after his son’s election as Notre Dame’s president. “Our parish was St. Pius X and then St. Leo’s. My mother still lives in the family home.”

“Omaha is still very important to him,” says Tom Jenkins. “Even though he has another family [the priests], he’s very interested in coming back here and spending time with Mom and our family. He’s humble that way. Genuine.”

Returning to the city that formed his Catholic faith and to the family that molded him as a man seems to agree with Jenkins. Laughter and a relaxed mood punctuated the wedding weekend.

“John has always been kind of quiet and calm,” Tom says. “People don’t realize he’s also a lot of fun and quick to laugh. He’ll be the first one to share a joke or a story.”

The Holy Cross priest’s sense of humor has served him well since assuming the helm of the 12,000-student campus near South Bend, Indiana, a decade ago. Under his leadership, Notre Dame’s reputation as an academically elite undergraduate program and a top research school has ballooned, its endowment has tripled to $10 billion, and the Fighting Irish football team has fought its way back into the conversation.

As president, how does he balance the decidedly secular issues of academics and research with the school’s Catholic identity?

“Notre Dame is a place of faith,” Jenkins says. “That gives it a distinctive role in being a place of conversation, of inquiry that can take up issues of faith and morality in ways that are powerful. We have a set of Catholic principles that guide our educational efforts as well as our work in the world.”

Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, some would argue, has hit turbulent times.

Like many Catholic institutions, including Creighton University, Notre Dame has recently drawn fire for its response to hot-button social issues—granting employee marriage benefits to same sex couples, for example. Jenkins has absorbed the blows with grace, for beneath his quiet, thoughtful demeanor lies the steeliness of a man with a keen sense of identity and mission. As Creighton theology professor Dr. Eileen Burke-Sullivan points out, “Anyone who actually operates on behalf of the kingdom of God knows that you draw criticism on yourself. I don’t think any religious leader can have thin skin.”

Jenkins2Jenkins’ quick wit, his seeming ease with everyone he meets, and his ability to listen and compromise no doubt spring from a childhood surrounded by what can politely be described as controlled chaos.

“We had 12 kids in our family, six boys and six girls,” says Jenkins, who checks in at number three in the lineup. “I’m very close to my brothers and sisters.”

In 1966, when Jenkins was 12, the family moved from 75th and Blondo to a new, seven-bedroom home in a lively Catholic neighborhood on 100th Street, then the western edge of the city.

“I would say on our block alone, there were about 50 kids,” says Tom, an attorney. “We never had any trouble getting baseball teams together. We usually had 11 to a side.”

The Kizers lived next door and contributed nine children to the mayhem.

“There was something different about John, something special, even when we were young,” muses John Kizer, the Rev. Jenkins’ best friend growing up. “He was a big thinker and was always looking for a place to get quiet time, which was tough in a household of 12 kids.”

The friendship between the two Johns extended all through St. Pius X grade school and Creighton Prep, where Jenkins ranked high on the popularity meter. His classmates voted him Prom King senior year.

“I got a lot from Creighton Prep,” says Jenkins, whose middle name, Ignatius, honors the founder of the Jesuit order. “I’m very grateful to my Jesuit friends.”

Jenkins’ popularity at Prep benefited from his athletic abilities. He was one of the top swimmers in the state and played on the school’s inaugural soccer team, following his parents’ example of mental discipline and physical activity.

“Our dad entered the Hawaii Ironman contest when he was 58,” Tom marvels. “And his triathlon buddies dedicated a steel-sculpted bench with depictions of bike riders along [Omaha’s] Keystone Trail to him.”

Harry and Helen Jenkins also encouraged each child to follow their heart, opening the door for the third oldest to explore his desire to contribute to society. That desire became evident during a backpacking trip through Europe with Kizer the summer between their freshman and sophomore years in college.

“We had two different sets of interests,” laughs Kizer, president and chairman of Central States Indemnity Co. of Omaha. “I had the beaches of Saint-Tropez and [golf’s] Old Course at Saint Andrews on my list. John was more interested in Dachau [Concentration Camp] outside Munich, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We spent lots of time in Rome.”

Following his continental adventure, Jenkins decided to join Tom at Notre Dame. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1976, followed by a master’s degree in the same subject.

“Notre Dame gave me a superb education, a very vibrant and robust intellectual life, and an ability to combine that with a serious faith,” Jenkins says. “I had questions about my life and what I should do with it. That eventually led me to prayer and to the seminary about a year after I graduated.”

“It didn’t surprise me he became a priest and rose through the ranks,” says Kizer. “There are certain people that, when you meet them, you know they’re a cut above.”

Jenkins’ decision to join Notre Dame’s founding community of priests necessitated a separation from his Omaha family and, according to a 2005 Chicago Tribune article, “a difficult breakup with his [Omaha] girlfriend.” After receiving his doctorate from Oxford, Jenkins returned to his alma mater in 1990 as a professor of philosophy.

Since he first stepped onto what is called the campus “God Quad” in 1973 as a sophomore transfer student from Creighton University, Jenkins’ goal has been to serve the school he loves in whatever capacity it needs. That he would reach the highest level of service makes for an impressive Omaha success story, but not an isolated one.

Jenkins joins several current, high-profile priests with doctorate degrees who call the Omaha area home. William Leahy, S.J., 67, the president of Boston College, was born in Omaha and raised across the Missouri in Imogene, Iowa. Leahy still has family here. Daniel Hendrickson, S.J., 45, is Creighton University’s new president. He calls Fremont home and attended Mount Michael Benedictine High School in Elkhorn. His identical twin, the Rev. Scott Hendrickson, also a Jesuit, teaches at Loyola Chicago. Archbishop Blase Cupich (pronounced SOO-pitch), 66, was recently appointed by Pope Francis to head Chicago’s archdiocese. He grew up in ethnically rich South Omaha. He and Jenkins first met in Rome during the aforementioned backpacking trip and remain friends.

Omaha produces not only heavy hitters in the Catholic Church, but heady intellects as well.

“Omaha has always had an excellent system of Catholic schools,” Jenkins says. “It had a big impact on me, and I’m sure it had a big impact on Bishop Cupich. It’s a vibrant Catholic community.”

“Historically, we have had an unusually high Catholic population,” explains Dr. Burke-Sullivan. Much of that can be traced to the European and Eastern European immigrants who came to work in South Omaha’s meat packing plants. “They brought with them a rich, progressive Catholicism, plus the belief that hard work and cooperation with others is the norm.” She says Omaha’s Jesuit and Benedictine communities influence intellectual pursuit. “And I would not discount the importance of the excellently educated orders of religious women who set up the lower school system.”

The belief in civil, open discourse characterizes much of President Jenkins’ response to a seismic shift in this country’s social thinking. Unlike many of their brethren, neither Archbishop Cupich nor Jenkins condemned the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Cupich, in a letter, pointed out the high court had redefined civil marriage, with no bearing on the Catholic sacrament. He cautioned against discrimination—a sentiment echoed by Jenkins.

“It’s incumbent on us to articulate our views clearly and in a persuasive way, but at the same time to respect those who disagree,” he says. “That’s one of the great challenges: to nurture a more healthy exchange of ideas.”

That “exchange of ideas” turned testy in 2009 when Notre Dame invited President Barack Obama to speak at graduation. Because of Obama’s stance on abortion and embryonic stem cell research, his presence at the school caused a furor. Some Catholic bloggers and newsletter editors hurled verbal vitriol at Jenkins. More than 70 bishops condemned the Obama appearance, calling it a “scandalous decision,” as did many faculty members, students, alums, and activists. The emails, letters, and phone calls piled up and piled on.

“The backlash was greater than I expected,” admits Jenkins, who went on to explain the tradition behind the invitation. “From the very beginning, Notre Dame has always invited newly elected presidents to come and receive an honorary degree; just about every one, except for Johnson and Nixon in the ‘60s,” which corresponds to campus unrest during the Vietnam War. “I thought it was particularly important to invite the first African American president, but for a number of reasons it created a tense controversy in the Catholic community and the wider world,” he says in a calm, measured manner.

Through tough times and good, Jenkins “relies on his faith to get him through and uses it for guidance,” says his brother, Tom.

Jenkins’ quiet time, once found in the corner of a basement on 100th Street in Omaha, has moved to a chapel on the Notre Dame campus. His apartment in the Graduate Student Residence also provides solitude.

Known on campus as “Father John” or simply “JJ,” Jenkins, who’ll turn 62 in December, looks fit, lean, and youthful. He works out in the gym and takes daily walks. Exercise, he says, continues to be “an effective stress reliever.”

The recent success of the school’s storied football team also helps relieve stress. When asked if he has gotten over last season’s offensive pass interference call that cost the Fighting Irish the game against Florida State, the priest chuckles and—ever the tactful diplomat— refuses to criticize “the higher power” that is a referee.

“We were kind of thin and had some injuries, but that’s football, as anyone from Nebraska knows.” Jenkins takes pride in a great football team and in the fact the players are also serious students. “The most important thing I tell them is, ‘national championships are great, but get a degree.’”

Amen to that.

Jenkins3

Kevin Kugler

October 22, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As die-hard Husker, Hawkeye, and NFL fans begin the sprint that is football season, the man with the voice girds for an 11-month-long marathon of his own. Omaha-based sportscaster Kevin Kugler logs tens of thousands of air miles every year hopscotching across the country to the next city on his itinerary, providing radio play-by-play  for college games on the Big Ten Network and Sunday night pro football games on Westwood One. Kugler begins revving up his vocal cords in August, broadcasting the Houston Texans pre-season games. Come September, the pace picks up.

“I will leave on a Thursday or Friday, fly to my college site wherever that is in the Big Ten, meet with coaches, do my game, leave my game, go to the airport, hop on a plane Saturday night, fly to wherever my NFL game is Sunday night, do the game, and fly back home Monday morning,” the 42-year-old Lincoln native says, without taking a breath. “I’ll prep for the upcoming college game Tuesday and Wednesday [at home], transition to the NFL prep Thursday morning, then head out. Rinse and repeat.”

While most mortals would cry “uncle,” Kugler is just getting started. College basketball intersects with football in November, adding a middle-of-the-week Big Ten game to an already tight schedule. And, oh yes, Kugler tapes the popular Big Red Wrap-Up on Tuesdays in the fall for NET, the Lincoln TV station that gave a newly-minted UNL journalism graduate his first real job 20 years ago. “I was the sideline reporter for the Shrine Bowl, the high school football all-stars, and I was terrible,” Kugler admits, shaking his head. “I wore sunglasses and chewed gum. I was pathetic.”

Mentors along the way polished the rough edges, creating a versatile sportscaster who’s upbeat, enthusiastic, exciting to listen to—and dedicated. Kugler’s former Omaha radio partner can attest to that. “His plate is as full as any Thanksgiving meal you will see,” says Mike’l Severe, who teamed with Kugler for almost a decade on the popular Unsportsmanlike Conduct. “He is an extremely hard worker. When he got the Big Ten job, he followed all of college football—not just the Big Ten.”

In addition to football and basketball, Kugler calls baseball on the Big Ten Network, meshing his schedule with Westwood One duties, which include the NCAA Final Four followed immediately by The Masters golf tournament and, of course, the College World Series in his own backyard. Kugler has also traveled to four Olympics.

Kugler credits his wife, Michelle, an attorney, with enabling him to follow his dream while she raises their two daughters in west Omaha. But when college sports hibernate in July, Kugler’s favorite arena is home.

Husker (Mom) Fever

September 4, 2014 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

If you’re anything like Stephanie Heibel, you haven’t stopped thinking “Huskers” since the end of last season. It’s my passion,” Heibel says. “Being a Husker fan is what everyone knows me for.”

How big a fan is she? Perhaps the biggest in the history of Husker football? Some supporting evidence:

Heibel took athletic training classes during her time at UNL. Once, back in the fall of 2000, she was helping a trainer tape the ankles of linebacker Carlos Polk. When Polk asked her who her favorite player was, she responded Matt Davison.

Polk said she only liked Davison because he was cute. “Which made me mad,” Heibel says. Heibel says she simply respected Davison as a player. “I told (Polk) I could prove him wrong.” Heibel asked Polk what sort of information he would expect a male fan to know. Probably some statistics, right? Heibel knew Davison’s first touchdown, where he was from, his total yards for his career. She even knew his stats from high school in Tecumseh, Neb. Polk couldn’t stump her with any question he asked.

After Polk consulted with a fellow player, Erwin Sweeney, Sweeney concluded it wasn’t too difficult to memorize one player’s stats. “So I respond with, ‘I know you are Erwin Sweeney No. 16, cornerback from Lincoln, Nebraska.’ I looked at Carlos and said, “You are Carlos Polk, No. 13, middle linebacker from Rockford, Illinois.” I went on to name the rest of the players along with their number, position, and where they were from, and ended with ‘I can start at No. 1. That’s Thunder Collins, running back from Los Angeles. I told them ‘I could go down the list numerically if you want.’”

Word of the Husker savant spread quickly. At Heibel’s next training session, she had several players approach her asking if she was the fan. “They said that they had heard about this girl who schooled Carlos and they wanted to meet her.”

Being a fanatic actually started when Heibel was young.  Her dad, she says, always told her that she was born a Husker, what with her scarlet hair and cream-colored skin.

Heibel has passed along the fever to her 3-year-old son, Lucas.  He loves when he gets to put his Husker stuff on, Heibel says.  Lucas was born in August, right at the beginning of the Husker football season. As a baby, when Husker games came on, “If he didn’t have his head pointed toward the screen, he would try to move it so he could.” Even his nursery is covered in Husker gear.

And while Heibel usually chooses a favorite player each season, her favorite player of all time is easily Matt Davison.

If you’re a diehard fan, you’ll understand her first reason for liking Davison: The first Husker game she ever attended was Nebraska versus Missouri in 1997. That was the game in which Davison made perhaps the most famous catch in Cornhusker history.

Her favorite number is 3 (Davison’s jersey number). She buys a No. 3 jersey every season for Lucas to wear for game days. She has her ticket from that game with Davison’s signature on it. She has a signed 16 x 20 picture of him from when she met him at fan day as a freshman.

Her collection of Husker memorabilia goes on and on.

“I still even have my pompom that I had at the game,” she says.   

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Omaha! Omaha!

June 10, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Picture a drop of water balancing on a leaf, or a Zen master poised on one foot—mid-air—for what seems an eternity. NFL referee and Omaha attorney Clete Blakeman maintains his own special equilibrium by excelling in two distinctly different careers.

“It really is a nice balance,” especially now in the off-season, he says. “I’m able to focus back on law for a little bit. And I do enjoy it.”

Blakeman, an attorney and NFL referee, was there the day Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning’s pre-snap count of “Omaha! Omaha!” became a viral media sensation.

“It got so much attention because the microphones on the field picked up so much,” he says. “Omaha!” had been part of Manning’s and other quarterback’s cadence over recent seasons, so Blakeman didn’t give the familiar audible too much thought. But at halftime, Blakeman learned that, thanks to microphone placements, the name of his hometown was being heard repeatedly by tens of millions of viewers.

“In the second half,” he says, “I did mention to Peyton that I was from Omaha, and he chuckled about it.”

From childhood Blakeman was immersed in the world of sports and officiating. He would tag along with his referee father for both football and basketball seasons in his hometown of Norfolk.

“It’s in my blood,” he adds.

Blakeman has served six seasons in zebra stripes. He manages a whirlwind travel schedule with an eye to minimizing time away from his wife, Katie, and their two children, daughter Maeve, 3, and son Hudson, 1. Blakeman makes his turf time essentially a 36-hour gig. He flies out the day before and, with the exception of Sunday night games, returns home the next night.

Blakeman has a front-row seat to the violence of the NFL and closely follows the league’s safety initiatives. “I have a sense that the sport is going to continue to change probably in the next 10, 15, 20 years.” The idea that his son may follow in his father’s football footsteps makes Blakeman doubly concerned.

“I’m very aware of health and player safety.”

Managing his jet-setting, multiple-career balancing act is more important now that his family is growing. “It’s great to be able to travel and experience other places,” he says.

And then, it’s even greater to get back home to “Omaha! Omaha!”

“To call this home, especially now with two little ones, it’s pretty special,” Blakeman says.

The Persistence of Memory

February 27, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A brilliant band of wildflowers will soon bloom in Kelsie Hollingshead’s garden. Forget about the fact that she’s an apartment-dweller with no plot of land to call her own. And never mind that the fresh tendrils of her vibrant harbingers of spring will push through the soil of a garden that is a full 20 miles from where she lays her head at night.“My grandfather planted those wildflowers,” she says, wiping a tear from her cheek. “He planted them the year before as we planned our wedding so that they would be beautiful for the reception,” she says, reflecting on her August 2013 nuptials to Sean Hollingshead. “Those flowers remind me—reminded all of us that night of the reception—that a little part of him was still with us.”

Her grandfather, Patrick Clarke, founder of NorthStar Financial Group, had perished in a plane crash along with one of his sons, Dr. Scott Clarke of Springfield, Mo., nine months before the wedding.

Clarke’s wildflowers still thrive on a majestic hilltop near Schramm Park State Recreation Area. The site offers a panoramic view of the Platte River far below, and the 50-acre country retreat is known to the Clarke clan simply as The Farm. Its main structure, The Barn, is home to family gatherings most every Sunday. The rustic, 4,600-square-foot lodge was built in 2009 by Curt Hofer & Associates. Downhill from The Barn is the sleeping quarters known as The Bunkhouse.

The subtext of any story on these pages is a testament to how our homes reveal who we are, how we live, and what we value. Such stories are usually accompanied by words-words-words on architecture, landscaping, appointments, and interior design. There will be none of that here. The accompanying photos will have to suffice as a substitute for the customary narrative dedicated to descriptors of the floor-to-ceiling variety.

Instead this home story will keep the focus where it should be—on one family and how the persistence of memory creates a legacy.

“My dad didn’t built this for himself,” says Todd Clarke, Kelsie’s father. “He didn’t even build it for his kids. He built it for the grandkids, and one day, for their kids and generations to come. Each and every member of the family has a different way of remembering him. His presence is always particularly powerful when we are here at The Farm.”

Memories can sometimes be triggered in unexpected ways. What kind of 14-year-old boy would list a common household chore, for example, as one of his favorite weekend activities?

That would be Todd’s son, Brooks.

“I don’t get to see my cousins much during the week,” Brooks says. “Out here we get to play foosball, ride ATVs, and play indoor football. Those are all fun things to do, but cleaning out the shed is my favorite.”

A raised eyebrow is the only signal Brooks needs to realize that he has just introduced something of a disconnect.

“Oh, you don’t understand,” he continues. “Those are grandpa’s things out there. That’s where he kept all his tools. Playing with all the stuff in the shed reminds me of him and how we used to…” his voice trails off as a pensive expression creeps across his face, eyes averted.

“Patrick and I were blessed with a terrific family—beautiful kids and beautiful grandchildren,” says family matriarch Lana Clarke. “This was his dream. It’s our place where memories are made. I count my blessings every day we gather here. I know he’s looking down on us, smiling.”

Each of the coming days will grow longer as the eagerly anticipated progression to spring breaks into a trot and then a gallop. Gardens slowly thaw and bide their time awaiting attention. The flowerbeds on a certain wind-swept hill overlooking a ribbon of water are no exception.

That’s where you’ll find Kelsie Hollingshead tending to her wildflowers.

The 
Theatrical Design of Jennifer Pool

January 24, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jennifer Pool is a tad hoarse. “I’m recovering from the football game.” She was in the stands for Ron Kellogg III’s Hail Mary pass on Nov. 2, a Husker win that will go down in history. “I must have screamed for three minutes straight.”

The mind boggles, but football just might be more important than fashion to this freelance clothing designer from Papillion. Case in point: The second time Pool showed at Omaha Fashion Week, her collection was chosen for the finale. “But they announced it the day after my sister got tickets to the Washington/Nebraska game in Seattle. So I was like, hey, cool, I’m not gonna be at the fashion show cuz I’m gonna be in Seattle at a football game.”

Nevertheless, her collection still walked that fall 2010 runway. Theater friends stood in as her wardrobe crew.

The combo of theater and fashion has been in Pool’s blood for years now. She started sewing when she was 8. “And when we played pretend,” she adds, “it was very important to me that we all knew what we looked like. We are princesses, and you are wearing this colored dress, and your hair looks like this…very important that we got that clarified right up front.”

While she was finishing her master’s in costume design at University of Georgia in 2003, some friends began an alternative theater group at Blue Barn Theatre called Witching Hour. But Pool took her expertise first to the Indiana Repertory Theater before coming back to Omaha to fall in with the group. “I started out there as a helper, worker-bee type person.” Ten years later, she’s now Witching Hour’s artistic director.

“We’re kind of nonlinear,” Pool explains. “We’re experimental. We can set up some rules and then break them as soon as we set them. It’s not like watching a sitcom. We jump in and out of narrative theater.”

Witching Hour will only have two shows this season, due to a smaller ensemble (Sineater played in December, and How to Be Better runs Fridays and Saturdays from Feb. 28 to Mar. 15 at 11 p.m.). That’s it for fully mounted productions by Witching Hour on stage at Blue Barn, but there’s still their second annual Christmas Rumpus in July.

An out-of-season holiday observation is, frankly, right up Witching Hour’s alley. “Naysayers will say we reinvent the wheel a lot,” Pool says. “But we simply start with no rules.” Consider that a note to be open-minded if you’re planning to attend a performance.

“I think the best shows are the ones you need the thickest skin for,” Pool says. It’s a frame of mind she kept while constructing her fall 2013 collection for OFW.

“This was a very Witching Hour collection,” she says. “I approached it in much the same way I approach a show. What can I push myself to explore in an unexpected way? I felt stuck, trapped. I love to do crazy, avant garde things, I design costumes for drag queens. And the last two shows I did were contemporary.” Which, the history lover admits, isn’t her favorite style to design.

Bloodied models clothed in different stages of confinement—body cages, hoop skirts, neck braces—evoked a battle for release. “It’s about the struggle,” Pool says, “the getting out. Not whether or not you end up a beautiful butterfly.”

She’s interested in continuing the story for her next OFW collection. “If the first one was about breaking free and getting loose,” Pool says, “then you’re left with a chaotic mess. And the next collection might be about how you make sense of that.”

It might also be a response to the one negative comment about her fall 2013 show that stung. “Someone said I didn’t know how to sew,” she recalls. “And looking at my collection, yeah, there was a lot of design but not a lot of technique. So I feel like the next thing I’m going to do is going to be really structural. That’s the only thing I’m interested in responding to. Because that is wrong. Yes, I can.”

Fall in Nebraska

September 24, 2013 by

Since I’m from Texas, we are thankful to have several friends and family visit us here in Nebraska. Even though you and I know it really is “The Good Life” (wink, wink), it turns out Omaha is not everyone’s number one vacation destination.

My favorite time to have visitors in Nebraska is October. Guests get the crisp fall at the zoo, the fun pumpkin patches, and if they look around anywhere, they’ll witness Nebraska football.

No one does harvest celebration better than Omaha-area pumpkin patches. From corn mazes to hayrides to campfires, eventually you’ll get to the pumpkins. We all have our own favorite pumpkin patch cuisines. My daughter, Lucy, likes caramel apples. My son, Max, goes straight for the fresh cookies. My husband, Chris, however, usually picks barbecue. And I get succotash.

I train my visitors to do it right. Getting extra kettle corn on Monday to take with you to the zoo on Tuesday is practically a rite of passage.

Whether they have kids or not, they have to experience Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. I explain that there’s no need for a workout; we’ll be burning plenty of calories (consumed at the pumpkin patch) while walking through the zoo. I like to guide friends through the shark tunnel in the aquarium and mention that scene in one of the Jaws movies when the aquarium breaks. When we’re right in the middle, I point at the glass and ask, “Hey, is that a crack?”

The beauty of our zoo is the accessibility to the beautiful animals. The gorillas, the Desert Dome, or dining in the Lied Jungle—it’s all a unique experience. The kids like to take our family friends to the Kingdoms of the Night. They think it’s cool and spooky. And they like to show their friends how Mom freaks out in the bats section. Real funny, kids!

Still, the best part about Nebraska in the fall is football. I’ve been telling friends back in Texas (who think they are crazy for football) about Husker football, but they think it’s bigger there. So we make them come up here and see it for themselves. My friends are always surprised at the positive spirit of football, the tailgates, and warm welcome given to opposing teams’ fans. I make them watch the news the whole time they are here so that we can see how many facets of football is worked into the news: weather, traffic, recruiting, news reports, segues, etc.

Just remember, Omaha—fall is, in this writer’s opinion, the best time of the year to introduce out-of-towners to our home.

Read more of Murrell’s stories at momontherocks.com.

Gridiron Hero Becomes Mentor and Coach

August 27, 2013 by
Photography by Eric Francis Photography and Ted Kirk

What former Nebraska Cornhusker Steven Warren remembers most from his days playing football is not a particular game or plays, but rather the camaraderie among his teammates—along with key tenants such as persistence, integrity, and trustworthiness. These were experiences and traits that would serve Warren well later in life.

Recruited out of Springfield, Mo., he recalls Nebraska Head Coach Tom Osborne paying Warren and his family a visit in their living room the same week Big Red won the 1995 national championship. Warren accepted a UNL football scholarship and packed his bags for Lincoln.

Warren (96) delivers a bone-crushing hit back in his playing days for Big Red.

Warren (96) delivers a bone-crushing hit back in his playing days for Big Red.

“Nebraska football was No. 1; it was everywhere,” Warren recalls. “And being a part of it was like being a part of The Beatles.”

Freshman year was both a culture shock and an athletic shock for Warren: rigorous practices alongside the fame of being a Cornhusker. “There was so much temptation because of what you were part of. But you also had to learn time management,” he adds.

While playing for Nebraska, Warren found himself developing close friendships with other players and families in and around Lincoln. Oftentimes, parents would seek Warren out to speak with their children about setting goals, planning for the future, and living one’s dream.

Warren left Nebraska as a 3rd round pick of the Green Bay Packers in the 2000 NFL Draft. Thirteen weeks into his rookie year, Warren was sidelined with an injury and told he would miss the remainder of the season. He stayed in Green Bay, undergoing rigorous rehabilitation and training. He returned to the Packers for one more season before moving to the AFL, first playing for the San Jose Sabercats and, later, the Arizona Rattlers. At each of his AFL stints, Warren suffered separate injuries. “That’s when I realized my body was trying to tell me something,” he recalls.

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Warren returned to University of Nebraska-Lincoln and finished his sociology degree in 2004. After graduation, he had a decision to make. His wife, Heidi, is from Columbus, so staying in Nebraska certainly seemed like an option. And being a Nebraska alumni opened many doors for Warren. Former Huskers often pursued successful careers after leaving the field.

But a sales job or related opportunities just didn’t feel right.

“I always liked helping others, and I worked with mentors while at Nebraska,” Warren shares. At his Lincoln home near 30th and Y streets, some of Warren’s fondest memories were sitting on his porch and talking with children and teens who lived in the neighborhood.

That feeling never left him, which is why today he is president and founder of D.R.E.A.M. (Developing Relationships through Education, Athletics, Mentoring). It’s an Omaha-based nonprofit mentoring organization that reaches out to young men enrolled in middle school.

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“Seven years ago, everything for D.R.E.A.M. just fell into place: the pieces, the people. It was meant to be,” Warren says.

D.R.E.A.M. began in 2006 as an after-school program at Walnut Hill Elementary School at 43rd and Charles streets. Five volunteers met regularly with 20 at-risk students. Today, the program has expanded to several Omaha schools and added a chapter in Springfield, Mo., Warren’s hometown. In all, the program serves about 300 boys.

D.R.E.A.M. finds its success from 40 volunteers who spend three to five hours each week at an assigned school throughout the academic year. The theme is simple: becoming a man.

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“Our volunteers work with seventh- and eighth-grade students each school year teaching them the positive attributes of being a man: respect, responsibility, relationship building, establishing rapport,” Warren says. “All of these lessons I learned from football at Nebraska and our peer counseling.”

D.R.E.A.M. teaches young men that it’s okay (even encouraged) to be successful in school. College-age mentors serve as living, breathing examples of the success that comes with hard work, dedication, and diligence.

Teena Foster, an Omaha Public Schools site director at McMillan Magnet Center Middle School, has worked alongside Warren and his college-age volunteers since last fall. Foster says she continues to see growth in the seventh- and eighth-grade students who participate in D.R.E.A.M. each week. And she knows Warren is the driving force.

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“Steve is dedicated to mentoring these young students,” Foster explains. “He’s always smiling, is always pleasant. So are his volunteers. They build great relationships with our students. Mentors are extremely important in these young lives.”

Warren’s belief in mentorship yielded a second program that also occupies much of his time. From his experiences as a student athlete, Warren launched Warren Academy in 2010. It’s designed to provide students (from elementary and middle school to high school and college) with leadership skills and character-building through athletics.

Warren Academy, however, isn’t just for students. Coaches and other leaders also participate to improve and refine a variety of leadership skills, both on and off of the field. Warren Academy programs include training sessions, camps, coaching clinics, nutritional counseling, education assistance, and mentoring. The athletic training component features speed, strength, and agility training programs. Warren says that once the organization has its own facility, Warren Academy’s offerings will expand to include fitness for adults and children of all ages.

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“Our goal is to become the primary training resource for field sports,” Warren adds. “That includes baseball, football, track, soccer, and lacrosse.”

Seems Warren’s best playing position is that of teacher. And he’s loving every minute of it.