Tag Archives: baseball

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.

Storm Chasers’ Mighty Mascot

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Having a job that you love is the ideal. Luckily for Kevin Lake, he stumbled into his dream job five years ago at a job fair, and he’s never looked back.

The interview process wasn’t what one might refer to as typical. Lake had to audition by dressing up in costume and interacting with people along 13th Street from Rosenblatt Stadium all the way down to the zoo. Lake is a mascot for the Omaha Storm Chasers.20130506_bs_3725_web

Depending on the day and event, Lake has been known to play all three Omaha Storm Chasers’ mascots, including Stormy, Vortex, and Casey. No matter which mascot he plays, however, Lake has no trouble coming up with various antics to entertain the crowd, from initiating a mascot dance-off during a rain delay to leading fans in the latest dance craze from atop the bar in the Jim Beam Club. Another crowd favorite: “I try to do a flip in the Stormy costume on top of the dugout. He’s a little bigger guy, so the crowd enjoys watching that,” Lake shares. And while he doesn’t always visit a specific section, Lake makes a point of circulating the crowd and stepping into the suites during games.

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Lake says he especially enjoys Friday and Saturday nights at Werner Park (home to the Storm Chasers since 2011) because there are typically more fans in attendance to entertain. Additionally, Bark in the Park is an event where fans are invited to bring their furry friends to enjoy a game. “It’s fun watching a dog’s reaction [to me in costume]. You have to move in slowly and be cautious so you don’t get bit,” Lake says.

Lake doesn’t just dress up for games. He also wears the costumes to outside benefit appearances, at which he’s made some of his favorite memories. Being a mascot has given him opportunities to get up close and personal with some local celebrities including Warren Buffett, whose hand Lake got to shake at a game. “He may have all the money in the world, but he was nice enough to shake my hand and have a conversation with people,” Lake remembers.20130506_bs_3522_web

One of the greatest challenges of being a mascot is navigating in-costume, Lake says. The tunnel vision the costumes create has caused Lake to accidentally step on children or run into people because he’s unable to see side-to-side or up-and-down. Additionally, the heat can be nearly unbearable on summer days, especially with all of the physical activity that comes with the job. Still, the pros far outweigh the cons, and even physical activity in a heavy costume under the blazing-hot sun has its benefits, he says. “I gained 5-10 pounds in the off-season and got out of shape. It’s nice to get back into the routine of the season so I can shed the pounds,” Lake confesses.

Littleton Alston

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Littleton Alston’s 8-ft bronze statue of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson catches the moment the ball’s just been released. “It’s when the will and the training and the gift come together,” says the sculptor. “It’s the crescendo of intent.”

Alston’s sculpture embodies motion in its dynamic pose. Leaning into the pitch, the muscled body spirals upward from the left foot—the lower body forward, the shoulders and arms swung wide to the left. The right arm and leg are powerful horizontal flourishes; the left foot, like a dancer’s en pointe, anchors man to earth and channels a diagonal bolt of sheer energy. Only the head is still, as Gibson’s intense gaze follows the ball to its precise target.

Such flawless execution comes from years of training, exercising through fatigue, inclement weather, or personal discouragement. Equally important is the determination, the focus on one’s goal. And thirdly, an inherent gift. This trivium is the foundation of a career in sports and in the arts.

Alston played baseball for one semester in high school, but it was enough to give him a better understanding of himself. “It’s both an individual and a team sport,” he said. “Sometimes you have to forgo the ego for a greater good.” And although he liked baseball, he recognized that it was not his gift. Besides, Alston’s school experience was not one of free time and hobby sports.20130307_bs_8479_Web

Growing up poor in Washington, D.C.’s Northeast neighborhood, Alston and his two closest brothers quickly learned the value of self- and mutual reliance, street smarts, and independence. From home, they could look all the way down East Capitol Street to see the Capitol dome, topped by its statue, Freedom. After one astonishing Christmas when each child got a bike, Capitol Hill became the boys’ playground. Bicycling a couple of miles from home to Hill was hot work in Washington’s humid summers, and the inviting waters of the many reflecting pools were irresistible. They leap-frogged from one to another, sometimes with police in pursuit. Alston particularly liked the pool at the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) with its 40-ft Calder stabile. A cool dip was what first appealed to the children, but Alston was unconsciously absorbing the lessons of form embodied in the public art and distinguished buildings.

In junior and senior high school, police presence signaled a much more dangerous environment than summer shenanigans, and violence seemed an unavoidable whirlpool. It was Alston’s gift, an insistent urge to draw, and his mother’s recognition of that talent, that provided him a way out—acceptance at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. It was a gift that demanded constantly that he push past his definitions of endurance, of ability, of understanding. And when he won the senior art prize and a scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth University, the training continued. As his skills were honed, so was his will, so that one night, after his job as a janitor, he was determined to finish a painting assignment. When it was completed, he was so exhausted that he laid his cheek against the wet paint and slept.

After 35 years, he still feels the derision of the teacher and other students, and his own bitter anger. But, sometimes, the ego has to be put aside for a greater good.

Alston with his statue at the unveiling. Photo by Dave Jenkins.

Alston with his statue at the unveiling. Photo by Dave Jenkins.

Littleton Alston got his degree from VCU, and an MFA from Rinehart School of Sculpture. He is Associate Professor of Sculpture at Creighton University and maintains a private studio. Among his awards, the most recent is Midtown Business Association’s 2013 City of Omaha Community Excellence Award for “The Jazz Trio,” located in North 24th’s Dreamland Plaza. Alston has worked in abstract style, but prefers figurative. His website’s home page bears this statement:

“The human form holds endless fascination for me, and it is this vehicle through which I believe can best express the joys and sorrows of the human condition.”

When offered the Bob Gibson commission, Alston took time to think it over. He’d never sculpted a sports figure, but felt “immense respect” for Gibson as a “trailblazer” in terms of racial equality and changes to the game. He was fascinated by the form of a ball player in action, and by the “aging champion” who sat for him.

Alston’s sculpture of Bob Gibson was unveiled April 11 at Werner Park. The presentation was a time of honor for Gibson, but also for Alston. Each man has created a life using will, training, and his unique gift. Every release of the ball, every unveiling strikes a crescendo of intent, an expression that goes out into the world contributing its own perfect harmony.

To view more of Littleton Alston’s work, visit alstonsculpture.com. To view the Bob Gibson Project, visit bobgibsonproject.org.

Blatt Beer & Table

August 17, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

With a sprawling beer list and a food menu designed to complement the brews, it’s easy for pub grub fans and craft beer connoisseurs to hit a home run at Blatt Beer & Table.

Named after Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium, the restaurant and bar offers a wide variety of craft beers from microbreweries around the world. The selection includes 24 draft beers, as well as numerous bottled and canned beer.

The menu features flavors from across the globe: German bratwurst and spaetzle; American classics, such as chicken and waffles and mac ‘n’ cheese; an Indian-spiced char-grilled chicken sandwich with mango chutney; the popular Mexican street-food snack chicharones (fried pork skins dusted with chili powder); and Irish brownies made with a Guinness batter.

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Blatt is among the newest additions to North Downtown (NoDo)’s dining scene. Located directly south of TD Ameritrade Park, it opened in June, just in time for the College World Series.

When the CWS ended, a new crowd stepped up to plate. Blatt attracts a diverse group that includes residents of neighboring apartment buildings, downtown office workers, Creighton University students and staff, Film Streams moviegoers, and those attending concerts and other events at CenturyLink Center Omaha.

“It’s a great place to hang out,” says Kailin Sneller, Blatt Beer & Table’s general manager. “People have really started to catch on to us.”

The diverse crowd, laid-back atmosphere, and relaxed vibe fit in well with the eclectic and supportive businesses that comprise NoDo, says Sneller, adding that Blatt differs from other bars and restaurants in the area because it has an extensive and ever-changing beer selection, craft cocktail menu, and food that pairs with beer.

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Another part of its appeal is the rooftop patio, which Sneller said is a great spot to relax and take in the view, weather permitting. “You can see all of downtown,” she says. “It’s really cool.”

Blatt’s interior features a blend of styles, from rustic to industrial. The space gets a vintage feel from tin ceiling tiles repurposed to create part of the bar. Wood-topped tables and exposed brick walls provide a warm, classic flair. Modern elements include concrete floors, sleek metal stools, and garage-style doors that open in nicer weather.

Custom labels adorn bottles of ketchup, mustard, and malt vinegar. Food arrives on tin pie plates, and some items are tucked inside brown paper bags for a stylish and fun presentation.

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Blatt offers Zesto ice cream cones, shakes, and other frozen treats seasonally inside the restaurant and at a walk-up window on the south side of the Blatt. Both are operated by Flagship Restaurant Group, which also runs Blue Sushi and Roja locations in Omaha.

Tony Gentile, Flagship’s corporate executive chef, created Blatt’s menu with Mikey Hill, Blatt’s executive chef. Gentile said the menu showcases simple, unfussy, and delicious bar food that goes well with a wide range of beers. Blatt’s staff are happy to suggest food and beer pairings.

Blatt Beer & Table, 610 N. 12th St., is open daily at 11am. For more information, visit blattbeer.com or call 402-718-8822.