Tag Archives: Huskers

Huskers’ Winning Tradition

December 18, 2017 by
Photography by Scott Bruhn

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln volleyball team entered 2017 with tempered expectations after losing three All-Americans and two assistant coaches from the previous season. But what began as a rebuilding year became a 32-4 national championship campaign for the overachieving Huskers, who capped an unexpected return to the pinnacle of their sport by defeating Florida in four sets in the NCAA title match on Dec. 16.

Thousands of Big Red fans made the trip to Kansas City for the Final Four, where a record crowd of 18,000-plus viewed the deciding contest.

Coach John Cook celebrates with his team and their trophy.

While tradition-rich Husker football has been in the doldrums for two decades, the equally tradition-rich volleyball program has carried the school’s elite athletic banner. NU volleyball and its gridiron brothers have now won five NCAA titles apiece. This was NU’s second volleyball crown in three years and the fourth under head coach John Cook since succeeding program architect Terry Pettit in 2000.

Cook was an assistant under Pettit, whose stellar work at Nebraska—including one NCAA title (along with his overall contributions to the sport)—landed him in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame back in 2009. The current Huskers volleyball coach joined his predecessor as an inductee in the fall of 2017. Cook’s formal induction came only hours before facing the No. 1 seed Penn State in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.

Cook has said the 2017 Huskers, led by Papillion native and setter extraordinaire Kelly Hunter, were a joy to coach because they actually lived out their season slogan: “with each other, for each other.” That mantra got tested early when the young, inexperienced squad opened the season without an injured Hunter on the court and promptly suffered two losses—one against future NCAA finals opponent Florida. But the Huskers stayed the course and with Hunter back at setter the rest of the way, they rallied to finish the non-conference schedule with a 7-3 mark. The team really found its groove in tough Big Ten play, going 19-1 to share the league championship with arch-rival Penn State, and finished the regular season 26-4. 

Kelly Hunter, from Papillion, helped to lead the Huskers to clinch a fifth NCAA volleyball title.

Hunter and fellow seniors Briana Holman (middle blocker) and Annika Albrecht (outside hitter) led the way with junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke and junior libero Kenzie Maloney. Two dynamic freshmen—middle blocker Lauren Stivrins and outside hitter Jazz Sweet—rounded out the balanced team volleyball approach that became NU’s trademark. No superstars. Just solid players executing their roles and having each other’s backs, whether at the net or in the back-row.

Hunter, Albrecht, and Foecke did earn All-America honors.

Months before seeing Penn State in the semifinals, on Sept. 22, NU dealt the No. 1-ranked and star-studded Nittany Lions their only regular-season loss by sweeping them at Happy Valley. The Huskers earned the right to host a first-round NCAA Tournament playoff in Lincoln, where fans jammed the Devaney Center. Fifth-seeded NU swept both its foes to advance to regionals in Lexington, Kentucky, where NU downed Colorado and host Kentucky, dropping only one set in the process.

For their national semifinal match in K.C., the Huskers drew Big Ten nemesis and No. 1 overall seed Penn State. In an epic classic, the Big Red prevailed in five sets. Then, in the ensuing final against Florida, NU avenged that early season loss to the Gators in capturing collegiate volleyball’s top prize. Hunter and Foecke were named co-outstanding players of the tournament.  

In 2018, NU loses Hunter, Holman, and Albrecht—look for at least one to be the latest Husker to make the U.S. national team—but the team otherwise returns with the core stable of their 2017 championship team. NU will add four top recruits to the mix, too. As defending champs, no one will underestimate the Huskers this time. A key to the season will be finding a setter to replace Hunter, the team’s on-court quarterback. Incoming freshman Nicklin Hames may just be the heir apparent in that key role. 

But you can bet that Cook & Co. will stress the benefits of playing team volleyball in search of another title.

The 2017 Huskers squad poses with their trophy.

To learn more about how volleyball has become the top sport in Nebraska (and how Omaha plays an important role in the talent pipeline) be sure to pick up the January/February edition of Omaha Magazine featuring Leo Adam Biga’s cover story.

Niles Paul

October 14, 2016 by
Photography by Robert Nelson

It was ugly, it was depressing, and it really, really hurt…I was told I might be done. But here we are.

-Niles Paul

Tight end Niles Paul cuts hard right off of his left foot and bursts across the middle of the Washington Redskins’ practice field during a Friday practice in preparation for a Monday night matchup with the Steelers. His clean catch of a coach’s soft toss is an afterthought. It’s that Tron-like right turn and Tesla acceleration that matter. Not only are these skills top-shelf for NFL tight ends, they were unthinkable for Paul just one year ago.

That’s because the Omaha North legend, Cornhusker star, and fan favorite (on the verge of starting for the Redskins at the end of training camp last year) after a breakout 2014 season, suffered a broken and sprained left ankle that his surgeon described as “bad as I have ever seen.”

Just Google the close-up photo of Paul falling to the ground during that 2015 pre-season game against the Browns. His lower left leg is contorted like that of a post-impact crash-test dummy. It was Theismann-esque in its skeletal aberrance.

“It was ugly, it was depressing, and it really, really hurt,” says the impressively-bearded Paul as he sits in front of his locker after practice, cutting the athletic tape from that ankle. “I was told I might be done. But here we are. It feels so good to be here. I appreciate it all even more after all that’s happened.”

He’s talking about his almost mystical recovery, driven by obsessive rehab and weight-room work. He arguably benefitted from a youthful tinge of hubris: “I was doing more than my doctors and trainers were telling me to do,” he says. “I know my body. Maybe it wasn’t that smart. But I wanted it so badly, and I feel like I know what my own body can take.”

nilespaul2Now he is stronger than he’s ever been (“I lived in the weight room,” he says) while 10 pounds lighter than he was last year. At a listed 242 pounds (he looks lighter than that), he’s still considerably more yoked than the wiry 210-pound kid that Husker fans knew as a fleet wide receiver. Omaha sports fans knew him as a three-sport superstar at Omaha North and one of the most highly touted athletes in recent Omaha preps history.

He talks briefly and in a muted tone about his fairly limited multi-purpose role beginning the season behind star tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis. “I will do anything needed of me,” he says. But quickly the conversation turns to the Thursday night NFL game he watched the night before: The Denver-Carolina game in which former Husker fullback and Gretna hero Andy Janovich ran his first NFL touch in for a touchdown.

Paul beams—he’s straight-up boyish giddy: “Oh, that was awesome!” he says. “Nebraska boy. A Husker fullback! That was so much fun to see.”

Paul has made it big-time, but, as he says, his heart is still in Nebraska, particularly with his alma mater, Omaha North. Paul’s mother passed away when he was 12. He was starting to get in trouble during his adolescent years living in Virginia. His father, who “pushed me hard, maybe too hard sometimes,” moved the family to Omaha. Once he reached high school, North coaches quickly realized they had a diamond in the rough.

“He was strong-minded and hard-headed when he was just starting here,” says North football coach Larry Martin. “But as he grew as a player, he emerged as this phenomenal young man. With all his gifts, he has a tremendously big heart and is so genuine.

“He gives back in a big way, too,” Martin continues. “Niles has given so much back to North and the kids here. You should see how much he’s loved when he comes back.”

Since going pro in 2011, Paul has purchased the jerseys for Omaha North’s football team, on top of holding camps for players and other youth in North Omaha. In 2014, he began giving players one of the most cost-prohibitive accessories for football families: cleats.

“I played my whole high school career in one pair of cleats,” Paul says as he unwraps the athletic tape from his ankle. “I kept those cleats together with this same kind of tape.”

“I grew up not having much,” he says. “I know what it’s like. If you’re able to give back, you have to give back. I just hope I’m doing some good.”

Visit redskins.com for more information.

nilespaul1

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

A Home for Husker Healing

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nebraska football fans’ nationally recognized devotion to their team—the “Sea of Red” spilling from Memorial Stadium throughout downtown Lincoln on game days, and the subsisting pride of the `90s glory days—is epitomized by Tait Rief of Seward, Nebraska.

FanCave7Rief was a kid in the `90s, a kid captivated by the era’s Huskers heroes. His bedroom and basement are a testament to Nebraska football pride. Huskers décor fills the rooms: National Championship mugs, vintage Cornhusker Beverage soda bottles, rugs, pillows, pins, and team pennants—which, as a kid, Rief ordered each week by conference standings, always placing Nebraska first. In his bedroom, a bookcase displays three encased autographed footballs—signed by Joel Makovicka (fullback, 1994-1998), Grant Wistrom  (rush end, 1994-1997), and Sam Koch (punter, 2001-2005)—and a copy of the book Hero of the Underground signed by author Jason Peter (defensive tackle, 1993-1997).

Rief’s most cherished pieces of his collection—and his first autographs—are signed 1997 offense and defense posters. During a tour of Memorial Stadium when he was nine, Rief had his picture taken in then-head-coach Tom Osborne’s office and by the championship trophies, and then stood outside the weight room with his posters as the players came out. They signed his posters, and Scott Frost—all sweaty—patted his shoulder. “I was just in awe for the next week or two and never wanted to wash my shoulder again.” Rief hung up the posters with tacky in his room, circling Tom Osborne’s autograph in excitement.

FanCave4

The `97 posters now hang framed in the basement, where Rief’s expansive collection continues. On the same wall is a Husker quilt, each block signed by members of the 2001 football team, a hutch displaying a miniature Nebraska helmet signed by Tommie Frazier (quarterback 1992-1995), a Memorial Stadium poster signed by head coach Mike Riley (his collection’s most recent addition), and a framed note signed by Ahman Green (I-back, 1995-1997) that reads, “Keep it going!!” On the opposite wall sits another hutch with more autographed footballs, including the signatures of Zach Wiegert (offensive tackle, 1992-1994), head coaches Osborne, Bo Pelini (2007-2014), and Frank Solich (1998-2003), and most of the 2001 team starters; a square of `90s Memorial Stadium turf; and ball caps signed by Osborne and Heisman winners Johnny Rodgers (wingback, 1970-1973), Mike Rozier (I-back, 1981-1983), and Eric Crouch (quarterback, 1998-2001).

FanCave1

.As a freshman in 2001, Rief was involved in a Seward High School bus accident that left him with partial paralysis and short-term memory loss. In his bedroom and the basement are two identical small black-framed collages. Each collage depicts black-and-white photographs of Husker players including Rodgers, Wayne Meylan (middle guard, 1965-1967), and “Thunder” Thornton (fullback and lineback, 1960-1962), foregrounded with a color photograph of Jeff Kinney (halfback, 1969-1971) in the 1971 Game of the Century. “DETERMINATION” is printed in bold red lettering across the bottom of the image, followed by the quote, “The Harder You Work, The Harder It Is To Surrender.” Rief says that he values these words, as they “always inspired me to keep focused . . . during recovery.”

FanCave3

His dad, Tom, recalls, “Tait’s always been a Husker fan. He always told me that he was going to be on the football field at Memorial Stadium one way or another—either as a player, because he was a pretty good football player himself before his accident, or (Tait) said, ‘If I have to, I’ll play in the band or be a male cheerleader.’”

FanCave6

Much of Tait’s memorabilia was acquired after the accident. His collection is both meaningful and joyful. As for expanding it, he says, “I’d like to add a picture of me shaking Mike Riley’s hand.”

FanCave3

So, Coach Riley, if you’re reading this, there is a fan in Seward who would like to
say hello. 

Visit huskerhounds.com for more information. OmahaHome

*Correction: The September/October 2016 print edition misspelled Tait Rief’s last name.

FanCave2

The Silo Crusher

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The story of athletics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has fluctuated from wild success to heartbreak (and back). All-Americans, post-season runs, and national title traditions collided with mismanagement and sparse spectator attendance.

Then a fresh Maverick joined the fray. Trev Alberts—one of the most decorated defensive players in the history of Huskers football and a former ESPN anchor—took the mantle of UNO’s athletic director in April of 2009.

Tensions bubbled behind the scenes. Chronic budget shortfalls clashed with fractious booster relations. Although new to his administrative role, Alberts knew enough about balance sheets and group dynamics to recognize systemic disarray and dysfunction. “We were in trouble and we needed to find some solutions,” he says.

The current academic year marks five years since Alberts dismantled UNO’s beloved wrestling and football programs. Alberts looks back on his crucial decisions without regrets. But the “solutions” didn’t come easily. In 2011, the former football star had to cut the sport that defined his own athletic career.

He saw that the financial equation for UNO’s splintered athletic programs no longer worked. A struggling Division I hockey program could not prop up the remaining Division II programs. Even with a hefty university subsidy, low athletic revenue painted a bleak picture amidst rising costs.

UNO’s bold response was to transition its entire athletic program to Division I by joining the Summit League in 2011. Because the conference does not accommodate wrestling or football, those two sports had to go.

News broke with awkward timing. Maverick wrestlers had just clinched the Division II national championship for the third straight year. A few hours after their victory, UNO Athletics began reaching out to notify celebratory wrestling coaches of the grim news.

Public rancor ensued. Coaches and student-athletes of the winning programs were left adrift. History, however, has proven the difficult decisions were healthy for the university and its athletics department.

Alberts found a key ally in chancellor John Christensen. The man who had initially recruited Alberts promoted him to vice chancellor in 2014, thus giving athletics a seat at UNO’s executive leadership table. “There needs to be absolute integration and now we have internal partnership, collaboration,” says Christensen.

Five years have passed. Athletics programs are stable. Sport teams no longer operate in silos. Alberts dismantled the barriers to build a strong overall athletic department: “When I got here, it appeared we had 16 different athletic departments,” he says. “There was no leadership. We hated campus. The mindset was the university leadership were out to get us, didn’t support us, didn’t understand us. The athletic department would blame the university; the university would blame the athletic department. 

“Strategically, my job was to get on the same page as part of the university team. I asked John Christensen to define his goals. He said community engagement, academic excellence, and (being) student-centered. I had to explain to staff everything we do is going to try to help the university advance its goals and every decision we make, if it isn’t student-centered and doesn’t support academic excellence and community engagement, we’re going to ask ourselves why are we doing that.”

Since then, the athletic department has made major strides. The hockey team made the 2015 Frozen Four, men’s basketball contended for the 2016 Summit title and saw a 65 percent attendance increase, and other sports have similarly fared well. With added academic support, the cumulative student-athlete grade point average of 3.4 is among the nation’s highest.

Alberts says that cutting the beloved football and wrestling programs meant “a really trying time, but galvanized the department and the university.” He continues,“We came together as a university. This was an institutional decision. It wasn’t John and I in a corner room deciding. We had a lot of people involved.”

Even with unanimous University Board of Regents approval for the athletic department shake-up, emotions ran high among constituents opposed to the cuts. Despite pleas to save wrestling and football, Alberts says, “The data was going to drive the decision-making. We weren’t going to manage the outcome of a good process. We moved to Division I because the market had an expectation about what the experience would be like, and we weren’t able to meet that expectation.” Maintaining the programs, especially football, would have required larger expenditures at the next level and exacerbated the fiscal mess.

Everything was on the table during deliberations: “We looked at trying to stay at Division II and regaining profitability in hockey, we looked at Division III, we looked at having no athletics, and then we looked at Division I. The conclusion was Division I would bring us an opportunity to get at more self-generated revenue through NCAA distributions.”

It was all about athletics better reflecting the “premiere urban metropolitan university” that Christensen says defines UNO. As the strategic repositioning set in, academics flourished, new facilities abounded, and enrollment climbed. Christensen says going to D-I was “a value-add” proposition.

“We looked at our peer doctorate-granting institutions and they were all Division I,” Alberts says. “The real value an athletics department has to a campus is essentially a brand investment. You have alumni come back, you have student engagement. That’s really the role you play. We are the front porch of the university.”

What followed was the rebranding of UNO to associate more with Omaha and embrace what Alberts and Christensen call “the Maverick family.” The rebrand is encapsulated in the construction of Baxter Arena, a D-I sporting facility adjacent to UNO’s midtown campus that also provides a venue for community events.

The past five years were not without tumult. Some longtime donors withdrew financial support in response to UNO cutting wrestling and football. Businessman David Sokol reportedly cut part of his pledged donation in reaction. But donors have since returned in droves.

Van Deeb, another longtime booster and a former UNO football player, was initially an outspoken critic of UNO cutting wrestling and football. “My big disappointment was not that it did happen but the way it happened. Even being on the Maverick athletic board, we had no clue it was coming,” says the Omaha-based entrepreneur.

“But that’s in the past,” says Deeb. “I couldn’t be prouder of where UNO is headed as an athletic department and as a university. I’m 100 percent behind the progressive leadership of Trev Alberts and John Christensen. They’re all about the student-athlete and the future.”

Alberts realizes that some hard feelings linger. “We have people who I don’t think will ever be a part of what we’re doing, and I understand that,” he says.

Regardless, there was enough community buy-in that private donations reached new heights ($45 million) and helped build the showplace Baxter Arena. Alberts cites the construction of Baxter Arena as a tangible result of the move to Division I.

Deeb says Baxter Arena has propelled UNO to another level. “When you’re around campus or at a UNO event there’s a level of excitement I can’t describe,” he says. “It’s a great time to be a Maverick supporter.”

The arena has proven a popular gathering spot for greater Omaha. This past spring, some 100,000 people attended high school graduations there, a realization of the chancellor and Alberts’ desire for greater community engagement.

Although few of UNO’s current students remember what campus was like before the rebrand, that doesn’t mean that Alberts or his team have forgotten. They still recognize the historic importance that the canceled sports provided to the university.

In fact, Alberts joined Van Deeb and several other community leaders on a steering committee seeking to honor one of UNO football’s greatest athletes, Marlin Briscoe. “An Evening with The Magician,” will celebrate the school’s most decorated football player, an Omaha native and civil rights trailblazer, at Baxter Arena on Thursday, Sept. 22.

As a quarterback at UNO (then called Omaha University), the Omaha South High School grad set 22 school records (including 5,114 passing yards and 53 touchdowns during his collegiate career). Briscoe became the first African-American starting quarterback in the NFL during his 1968 season with the Denver Broncos. He played for several franchises during a nine-year NFL career, spending the majority of time in the league as a wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills. He won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.   

On Friday, Sept. 23, UNO will unveil a life-size statue of Briscoe on campus. Alberts says he envisions that the sculpture might be added to “a champions plaza” whenever the south athletics complex gets built-out. “This is not necessarily a UNO thing; it’s an Omaha thing,” Alberts says. “Marlin is a great person with a great story, and it’s been an honor to get to know him.”

Under Alberts’ leadership, the university does not seek to diminish the importance of those former storied programs. But he has to keep an eye toward the future. “I’m absolutely bullish on where we are today and where we can go,” says the optimistic Alberts. “We’re only scratching the surface. We are an absolute diamond in the rough.”

Visit baxterarena.com for more information. Omaha Magazine

TrevAlberts1

Dave Webber

February 9, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dave Webber covered all five Big Red national championships during a broadcast career that spanned 46 years; but he will never shake free from the “Legend of the Lucky Corncob.”

The story started in 1995 toward the end of the Orange Bowl championship game against the Miami Hurricanes. A fan in the stands pleaded with Webber, “You have to will the team to victory.”

Obligingly, the then-WOWT sports director picked up a corncob that happened to be in the end zone and held it up for fans to see.

Dave-Webber-2“A few minutes later, they scored the touchdown that won the game late in the fourth quarter,” he remembers. “I got chills. I couldn’t watch.” 

The Huskers came from behind to win.It was the Big Red’s first national title since 1971 and the first for Coach Tom Osborne.

“I put that sucker in my pocket and took it next year to the 1996 Fiesta Bowl,” he says.

Nebraska was again trailing, this time against the Florida Gators, so Webber pulled out the lucky corncob. Whaddaya know—the Cornhuskers won the national championship.

Some WOWT viewers credit the lucky corn cob with Nebraska’s back-to-back championships. Tom Osborne says otherwise.

“One of Osborne’s favorite sayings is, ‘This guy actually thinks his corncob won the game,’” laughs Webber.

Superstitious fans have asked to buy the corny icon, now framed and displayed at Webber’s home. “Every single day during football season, somebody mentions the lucky corncob,” says its proud owner.

The story of the well-known sportscaster began when a two-year assignment at Offutt Air Force Base brought him to the Omaha area in 1964. His duty was to guard the SAC Underground as a member of the elite guard. After retiring from the military, Webber attended the University of Omaha (now University of Nebraska at Omaha).

For two years starting in 1967, he performed as a full-time folk singer at the Swinging Door Saloon, following a year working on-air at KBON radio. But then he married Terri and began seeking a “real job.” 

Webber joined KFAB as an announcer and also covered Big Red championship games in 1970, 1971, and 1972.

A move to Sioux City, Iowa, in 1973 to cover sports news for KMEG-TV brought with it a second quirky job. He was asked to portray “Pops,” a popular children’s show character.

Dave Webber 3

“Pops was a retired custodian for the Bijou Theater. The camera would show me sweeping, then the stage door would open, and we would show cartoons and movies like Little Rascals and Laurel and Hardy,” he says.

He was only 29 years old at the time. Forty years later, viewers haven’t forgotten the character.

“People come up to me still today and say ‘I was a kid in Sioux City. Were you Pops?’” says Webber.

He returned to Omaha in 1977 to cover sports news for KMTV. A year later, he moved down the street to WOWT as assistant to then-sports director John Knicely. When Knicely left for a St. Louis television station in 1981 (returning to Omaha three years later), Webber became sports director.

That’s only one story from the life of the multitalented Webber, whose mellifluous voice has won over crowds for more than 40 years as he hosted and emceed more than 1,000 banquets and fundraisers.

“You name a disease and I’ve done a fundraiser for it,” jokes the affable personality who is more likely to greet you with a hug than a handshake.

Webber has been a longtime presence at major Omaha events. For 22 years, he has braved wind, rain, and sun as master of ceremonies for the Fourth of July Memorial Park concert in front of as many as 80,000 people. His favorite group to perform there was the Beach Boys.

During the Christmas holiday, he takes his emceeing indoors. Webber has been singing, dancing, and making jokes for 20 years as host for the Omaha Symphony’s Christmas Spectacular.

“The year I took over, my biggest job was to keep the kids on stage from goofing around,” he remembers.

Meeting sports figures that he idolized as a youngster was payback for his volunteer work with a fundraising golf tournament hosted by baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson.

One volunteer stint he looks forward to is at the end of a pleasant hour-long drive to Harlan, Iowa, where Webber has judged an estimated 1,000 pies over 20 years at the Shelby County Fair pie-baking contest.

“Every year, it’s like seeing old friends. I play guitar and sing. I walk around and say ‘hi’ to every single person.”

He and Terri have three adult children and three grandchildren. Today he is spokesperson for Baxter Auto Group. Although “retired” (sort of), he still gets calls from WOWT to fill in on newscasts.

As a sideline, Webber delights in being asked to conduct holiday tours (15 so far) to destinations such as Hawaii, Ireland, and the Canadian Rockies.

Three years ago, heart surgery left him 50 pounds lighter and with a renewed zeal for life.

“I enjoy every minute of every day,” says the TV sports guy, singer, guitarist, emcee, symphony host, pie-contest judge—and lucky corncob owner.

Visit wowt.com to learn more.

Dave-Webber-1

Obviously Omaha

November 5, 2015 by
Photography by Ben Solomon, Rutgers University Athletics

So, you’re traveling to The Garden State for the Huskers’ Nov. 14 game against the Rutgers Scarlett Knights? Here’s the inside dope on how to plan your game day.

Birthplace

It all started right here at Rutgers, the Birthplace of College Football. The first intercollegiate football game was played on Nov. 6, 1869, on the banks of the Raritan River when the visiting Tigers of the College of New Jersey took on—and lost 6-4 to—the Queensmen of Rutgers College.

Tradition

No Tunnel Walk this weekend, but watch as the team enters the stadium 90 minutes before kickoff in a tradition that has each player touching the “The First Game” statue for good luck as the marching band cranks out the fight song. Before every home game Rutgers fans line the hedges along the brick path just outside the stadium on what is called the Scarlet Walk, which features the iconic statue of a Rutgers player in a classic, Heisman-esque stiff-arm pose to commemorate the Birthplace of College Football.

Boom!

Plug your ears when the Blackshirts allow the Scarlet Knights into the end zone. After every Rutgers score, a cannon in the corner of the north end zone rocks the stadium with a resounding volley. This tradition stems from the fabled Rutgers-Princeton rivalry where, starting in 1875, pranksters from each school would steal the cannon from the opposing campus.

Eats

If you’re looking for a place to grab some grub, cross the river over into New Brunswick. You’ll find a wide array of choices along Easton Avenue and George Street. Right off George at 101 Paterson Street is Destination Dogs, where the toppings lean toward the exotic. My personal favorite is the El Barracho, a Mexican corndog. Other top-notch food options nearby include Old Man Rafferty’s and Stage Left. You really can’t miss on any of these if you’re in “The Bruns.”

Drinks

A college town wouldn’t be complete without its bar scene. If you are brave enough to go into a Rutgers bar directly off campus sure to be filled with Scarlet Knight fans, take a shot (heck, have a few shots) at any of these taverns: Old Queens Tavern, Scarlet Pub, Knight Club, and Kelly’s Korner. There’s also a World of Beer franchise on nearby George Street.

History

When Rutgers was founded as Queens College in 1766, it occupied a single city block. Now the New Brunswick campus alone splits into five separate campuses spread across two neighboring towns. To take a look at what began one of the oldest universities in the nation, Big Red fans can stroll over to the historic part of campus, which is located right across the street from the New Brunswick train station on College Avenue between Hamilton and Somerset streets.

George

On his way up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to take control of the Continental Army, the nation’s first president-to-be came through New Brunswick on June 24, 1775. Look for the American Revolutionary War monument located at the corner of Albany and Neilson streets. Washington returned on Dec. 9, 1783, and was celebrated with a few drinks at Indian Queen Tavern, which still stands at 1050 River Road in Piscataway.

ObviouslyOmaha

Wood & Pipe Table

October 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sometimes you can find a solution to a problem just by taking a long walk. Dagmar and Jeff Benson, who live in a lakeside property at scenic Hawaiian Village, needed more table space for entertaining in their basement. Dagmar searched the usual places, but never found anything large enough for their needs.

Jeff spied a pile of long-abandoned boards near the dock while taking a stroll through his neighborhood. He suspected the boards would be the perfect material to construct the tables that Dagmar saw on Pinterest.

DIY2

“I think we can power wash this and clean it up and see how it looks,” he says.

The couple have four grown children and anticipate that their family will grow in size. “Living on a lake, we entertain a lot, so we wanted something that we could use for a buffet table for when we have parties,” Dagmar says.

They love hosting Huskers parties. “Jeff wanted to put a big red N right in the middle, but I nixed that idea right away,” she says.

The couple’s love of creating comes from spending a lot of time on computers for their professions.

“I work mostly with a computer and spreadsheets and numbers,” says Dagmar, a program control analyst. “What I like to do in my spare time is anything that has to do with design, art, and decorating.”

After power washing, they set the pieces of wood outside to dry in the sun. Next, Jeff cut them with a chainsaw so they measured four-and-a-half feet long. “We had a total of four pieces. Two for each table,” she says. Dagmar didn’t sand them much because she liked their natural color. She finished them with a coat of polyurethane.

Next, Jeff attached metal straps to the underside of the table to secure the wood pieces together. Their son, Chris, painted the ¾-inch, galvanized piping legs with two coats of flat black Rust-Oleum.

DIY3

“We just bought sections of those that fit together for the length we wanted,” Jeff says. The legs are made of an 18-inch section joined with a T-connector, and then a 10-inch section topped off with a ¾-inch floor flange that connects to the underneath of the table. The feet are covered with a ¾-inch cap that screws onto the piping. Dagmar estimates it took them 10 hours and $100 in materials for each table.

The tables are a perfect addition to an inviting basement that has been a work-in-progress for the couple since they moved in more than 10 years ago. “We did a stained concrete floor. We put in a spiral staircase. We had French doors put in,” Dagmar says. And so it continues.

 

 

Next DIY project on the agenda for the Bensons? They plan to use some of the leftover wood to build shelves for a hip, new bar area. Cheers to that!

DIY1

Aguek Arop

January 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Aguek Arop will blow out the candles on three more birthday cakes before he dons a Big Red basketball jersey for the first time. The 15-year-old Omaha South sophomore is the youngest player ever to commit to the University of Nebraska basketball program.

In the meantime, he will be recuperating from another kind of blowout—this one to his knee. Arop suffered a season-ending injury in a recent pre-season practice.

At least his downtime will give the native of South Sudan an opportunity to work on rehabilitating his nickname.

“You know the scene in the old Disney movie where Bambi slips and slides on the ice?” asks South High Coach Bruce Chubick Sr. in describing the vision of a spindly, wobbly, all-elbows-and-knees form of chaotic locomotion. “He seems to spend most of every practice on the floor,” Chubick adds with a chuckle. “Part of it is his all-out style of play and part of it is the fact that his other senses haven’t caught up with the fact that he has grown so rapidly to…almost 6-foot-5 now. We hope he has a couple more inches to go before he hits Lincoln.”

Arop, flashing a wry grin, explains that coach has it all wrong.

“My nickname—the one I like—is just Gwookie. That’s all…just Gwookie,” says the young man whose name is pronounced uh-GWOOK uh-ROPE. “Coach is always joking with me that I need to ‘watch out for the line,’” as if the white grid outline of the court’s floor were some insurmountable obstacle to vault. “I run hard. I play hard. Sometimes I end up on the floor,” he adds with a so-what’s-the-big-deal shrug.

Living down a nickname and learning to get around in a cast may seem like significant challenges for any teen, but that’s nothing compared to the danger Arop and his family faced in war-torn South Sudan before fleeing to find refuge in the United States before eventually settling in Omaha.

“I never could have seen myself here and in this position when I was a little kid,” Arop says. “I started playing basketball in the 4th grade after we got here and now it is really important to me to be successful. I went down to Lincoln when I was in 8th grade. I was already excited about the program and coach, and that was all it took to know I wanted to play for Coach Tim Miles” (see related story on page 172).

Arop is a polite, well-mannered sort of young man, but that doesn’t mean he is incapable of some playful theatrics. He revealed his decision to commit to Nebraska in a meeting with Miles in Lincoln. With his parents in tow, bear hugs all-around followed after Arop dramatically peeled off one T-shirt to reveal another.

“It said ‘All In’ on that shirt,” Arop beamed. “I’m all in for Coach Miles and Husker basketball.”

20141212_bs_4035

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.   

20140626_sl_8100