Tag Archives: Gale Sayers

Omaha is a Pro When it Comes to Amateur Sports

January 21, 2019 by

Anybody who knows anything about Omaha’s sports history knows the name Bob Gibson. One of Omaha’s most notable athletes, Gibson started as a member of the Harlem Globetrotters in 1957; everyone expected him to have a future in the National Basketball Association. After all, he was a standout basketball player at Technical High School and later Creighton University.  But Gibson’s career changed to baseball when the St. Louis Cardinals offered him a contract. In 1959, he made his Major League Baseball debut.

One of the highlights of Gibson’s pitching career was a recorded 17 strikeouts during Game 1 of the 1968 World Series. Gibson’s success that season sparked fundamental changes in the rules of baseball—sometimes known as the “Gibson Rules.” The MLB lowered the pitcher’s mound by five inches and reduced the strike zone height from the batter’s armpits to his jersey letters. Who would have thought a kid from Omaha would one day have such an impact on the game?

Throughout Omaha’s history, local fans have cheered homegrown athletes like Gibson, NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, NBA player Kyle Korver, and welterweight world champion Terence Crawford as they climbed the sports ladder to become professional athletes. Today, Omaha continues to embrace amateur athletes and their fans as the city hosts events such as the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, NCAA basketball, volleyball tournaments, wrestling tournaments, and the NCAA Men’s College World Series.

The city even embraces the youngest of athletes during events like Slumpbusters, a little league tournament that attracts more than 500 youth baseball teams from across the country. In February each year, Omaha hosts more than 400 high school teams from across the country for the annual President’s Day Volleyball tournament. Youth sporting events use baseball fields, volleyball courts, and sporting facilities throughout the metro area.   

These sporting events are fun for young athletes and their families, but are also good for business. When an out-of-state team competes in Omaha, the team, their fans, out-of-town media, and officials stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, and shop in stores. In fact, recent research revealed a party of three visiting Omaha for a sporting event, on average, stays four days and spends $1,298—that’s more than the average business traveler, or average family of three visiting for a fun weekend, typically spends.

The next time you are sitting in the stands watching a basketball game, cheering at a baseball tournament, or witnessing an amazing swimming performance, keep this in mind—you may be sitting next to a visitor who is helping to boost Omaha’s economy as you both cheer on the next generation of hall-of-famers.


Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau

Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau

This column was printed in the February/March 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Roger W. Sayers

December 27, 2018 by

Editor’s note: These autobiographical pieces and corresponding photos are part of a special edition of 60PLUS featuring local residents who prove that fashion has no age limits. Click here for the full list of featured models. 


Roger W. Sayers, 76

I consider myself a true product of the Omaha community. I attended Howard Kennedy and Lothrop elementary schools, and Central High School. I received my bachelor’s degree from Omaha University and an MBA from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. I spent many years as a volunteer or board member at numerous Omaha community and civic organizations. My entire working life has been in Omaha. I retired from Union Pacific Railroad after 26 years.

It goes without saying that I am very proud of my accomplishments in the field of athletics, especially being proclaimed the 33rd-greatest athlete in Nebraska history by the Omaha World-Herald, and as the most decorated amateur athlete of my generation. These accomplishments have culminated in being the recipient of eight hall of fame awards for track, football, and overall athletics.

My current focus and pride is my family. My two daughters, three sons, and 12 grandchildren are making a difference and contributing to society. My wife and I thoroughly enjoy their presence.

I frequently get asked about aging and living life. I believe it is very important that you stay active mentally and physically. If possible, volunteer your time and talents. One thing is for certain, you must be able to handle the stress that life will bring. The root of my comfort is the strength and joy that comes from my spirituality and faith.

I have been married to Annette Scott for 33 years. We are compatible on so many levels. We just enjoy being with each other. We love to travel, especially taking cruises and family vacations. Annette is truly my best friend.

Because of my athletic career, and as the older brother of Chicago Bears Hall of Fame great Gale Sayers, sports have always been a source of interest. I am an avid golfer and I am in my element when spending time on the golf course with my companions.


This article first appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Roger W. Sayers

Marlin Briscoe

December 29, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed

Omaha native Marlin Briscoe made history in 1968 as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback. His success as a signal-caller carried huge symbolic and practical weight by disproving the then-popular misconception that blacks lacked the intelligence and leadership to play the position.

The same racist thinking not only applied to quarterbacks but to other so-called thinking-man positions on the field (center, safety, middle linebacker) and on the sidelines (head coach, general manager).

briscoe4Even in those racially fraught times, Briscoe’s myth-busting feat went largely unnoticed. So did the rest of the story. After overcoming resistance from coaches and management to even get the chance to play QB, he performed well at the spot during his rookie professional season, never to be given the opportunity to play it again. That hurt. But just as he overcame obstacles his whole life, he set about winning on his own terms by learning an entirely new position—wide receiver—in the space of a month and going on to a long, accomplished pro career. He made history a second time by being part of a suit that found the NFL guilty of anti-trust violations. The resulting ruling, in favor of players, ushered in the free agency era.

After retiring, Briscoe faced his biggest personal hurdle when a serious crack-cocaine addiction took him to the bottom of a downward spiral before he beat that demon, too.

Now, nearly a half-century since making history and a quarter-century since regaining sobriety, Briscoe’s story is finally getting its due. His 2002 autobiography spurred interest in his tale. Major media outlets have featured his story. Modern-day black quarterbacks have credited his pioneering path, and several lauded him in video tributes played at an event titled “An Evening with the Magician,” held in his honor in September at Omaha’s Baxter Arena. A life-size statue of his likeness was dedicated at the tribute event. Also in the fall of 2016, he received the Tom Osborne Leadership Award. In December he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Now, he’s preparing to watch actor Lyriq Bent portray him in a major motion picture about his life, The Magician, set to film this spring.

If the movie, produced by his old Omaha University teammate-turned-actor John Beasley, is a hit, it will bring Briscoe’s role as a civil rights soldier to a much wider audience than ever before. Now in his early 70s, Briscoe fully appreciates all that has led up to this moment. He has no doubt he’s ready for whatever may come. Growing up in South Omaha’s melting pot, no-nonsense mentors and peers steeled him for life’s vagaries. Fierce competition toughened him.

“The training I grew up with was the best training any young man or woman could have,” Briscoe says.

On playing fields and courts, in streets and classrooms, he found an inner resolve that served him well through life’s ups and downs.

“That’s where I learned resilience—from my mom, my sister, and all my mentors, and neighbors. They all had this type of mentality and grit. It rubbed off on me and some of the kids I grew up with. It prepared me for anything. If I had not learned core values from growing up where I did, the things I did, the obstacles I overcame would never have happened.”

His cousin Bob Rose and Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s oldest brother Josh Gibson were among a cadre of local coaches who inspired youngsters of Briscoe’s generation. 

briscoe1

“You had to go through them if you wanted to do something wrong, and you didn’t want to go through them,” Briscoe says. “Our mentors were down at the Northside Y, at Kellom School, Kountze Park, St. Benedict’s. They cared about where we were going in life.”

When Briscoe was bullied as boy, Rose gave him a “magic box” filled with the tools of various sports—a baseball, football, basketball, and boxing gloves—with the admonition that if he mastered these, he wouldn’t be bothered. He did and wasn’t. The magic box became the gateway for the Magician to do his thing.

Briscoe grew up respecting adults, all adults, even winos, hustlers, and prostitutes.

“They told you to do something, you did it, and went on about your business,” he says.

He conducted himself in a way that in turn earned him respect as a young leader. Virtually all the athletic teams he played on growing up consisted primarily of white players, which meant his entire athletic life he was advancing diversity. Long before he found immortality with the Broncos, he was the first black quarterback on youth teams, at South High, and then at Omaha University (now known as UNO).

Though he lived in South Omaha, Briscoe made a point of going to the proving grounds of North Omaha, where there were even more great athletes and a particular endurance test and rite of passage.

“Off Bedford [Avenue] by Adams Park, there used to be The Hills. It was like the barrier and motivational place where top ballplayers like Gale Sayers and myself would go and work out. Sometimes, I would be up there early in the morning by myself running those hills. I always tell young people today, ‘It is what you do when nobody sees you that defines and determines your work ethic and how you will turn out.’

briscoe3

“There were plenty of guys with more ability than myself—who were bigger, stronger, faster—and while they worked hard when eyes were on them, they slacked off when they were alone. A lot of guys who never made it regretted not putting out the effort to match their ability.”

Briscoe might never have made history if not for some good fortune. He started at quarterback for Omaha University his sophomore and junior years, putting up good numbers and earning the nickname “Magician” for an uncanny ability to escape trouble and extend plays with highlight reel throws and runs. Just before what was supposed to be his senior year, 1966, he got undercut in an all-star basketball game at Bryant Center and took a hard spill. He went numb and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors decreed he was injury-free. He started the ’66 season football opener versus Idaho State with no ill effects. He had a monster game. Then, late in the contest, he took a hit that caused his neck to swell. When rushed to the ER this time, X-rays revealed a fractured vertebra. He’d competed with a broken neck.

Doctors told him his days playing contact sports were over. He accepted the harsh news and dived into his studies, ready to move on with life sans football. Then during a medical checkup, tests confirmed his bones recalcified, and he was cleared to play again. He got a medical hardship waiver from the NAIA and went on to have a huge senior season in 1967, earning small college All-American honors and getting picked in the 14th round of the NFL draft.

He’s convinced he wouldn’t have taken snaps in Denver, which drafted him as a defensive back, if he hadn’t negotiated his own contract to include a clause he be given a three-day tryout at quarterback. He so dazzled the media and the public during the open practices that once the season began and Denver QBs went down due to injury or were benched for poor play, he got his shot and ran with it.

Briscoe’s larger-than-himself magic enabled him to make history in a crucible year for America—a year of riots, anti-war protests, assassinations, and civil rights struggles.

“For some reason, divine intervention maybe, it just seemed the stars were aligned in 1968 for a black man to break the barrier at that position,” he says. “It just seems 1968 was the pivotal year for all African-Americans, for all Americans period. For me to do it in ’68 is just eerie, the way that happened.”

So much of his NFL experience, he says, involved fighting “injustices.” Released by Denver and denied playing quarterback again, he excelled at a new position. Blackballed by the league for challenging its power, he won a hard-fought battle for himself and fellow players.

He insists he was not resentful for being shortchanged at quarterback.

“I wasn’t bitter, I was disappointed,” he says. “When you’re bitter, you give up, you take all this stuff personally, and you quit. I tell young people, ‘You’re going to have disappointments, and you’re going to be treated unfairly, but you can’t be bitter about it.’ Instead, you roll up your sleeves and fight whatever negative things come your way. Plan A doesn’t work? You go to Plan B. Life is just that way.”

Only after walking away from the game to be a broker in Los Angeles did he meet a foe—crack cocaine—that got the better of him. Before his recovery, he lost everything: his home, his fortune, his family. 

briscoe5“Here I was on a park bench trying to get some sleep in the heart of L.A. after owning homes and property,” he says.

What was so maddening about it is that he had done everything right. “It was not like I left the game with nothing,” he says. “I left the game correctly, sitting on easy street. I had wise investments. I prepared to leave the game by going to school and getting additional degrees. I was not hurt. I was in perfect physical condition.”

But in the vacuum of his post-athletic life, without the daily disciplines of workouts and team dynamics, he slipped into an unhealthy lifestyle.

“I let my guard down. I wasn’t really prepared for the L.A. scene because my whole life was always about precision, being responsible,” he says. “Then, when I didn’t have to meet all these different obligations and being single, I wasn’t rooted in one direction—I was just partying. You know, bring it on.”

No one who knew Briscoe before could believe he was in the grip of something that controlled him so completely, least of all himself.

“I had been a player rep. I was the one they always came to just as I was when I was a kid. I was the one people always came to for sage advice. And I never did drugs in the NFL,” Briscoe says.

But there he was, enslaved to a habit he couldn’t kick. Through it all, even losing his Super Bowl rings as collateral for a bank loan, he never forgot who he was inside and what he had done. Though homeless, penniless, and stuck in a jail cell when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead a team to an NFL title, Briscoe felt he shared in that victory, too.

“I felt proud on one hand, and disappointed in myself on the other hand,” he says.

He sank lower than he ever thought possible, but he came back to whip that challenge, too: “The thing is, I always knew I would let go of that descent. I always knew and prayed I’d get back to that person all Omaha knew as this accomplished individual who conquered the NFL and enjoyed all these triumphs. The people that knew me are so elated now I’ve overcome my post-career meltdown because I had been a champion for them, fighting the NFL. I was always fighting for them and fighting for myself. I put myself in positions as a player where my voice could be heard.”

Even though it was decades ago, he believes defying and defeating the NFL’s monied interests left a blemish on his career that got further stained when he was traded several times as persona non grata.

“I’m not bragging or anything, but if I had been any other player, I guarantee you, I’d have been in the NFL Hall of Fame a long time ago. Nobody had ever done it—making history as the first black starting quarterback. People don’t realize I was also the first black holder on extra points. Counting cornerback and wide receiver, I played four different positions in the NFL, and I’m not sure anybody did that before. Then you add in the fact I made All-Pro as a receiver within two years of switching positions and went on to win two Super Bowls.”

Efforts are underway to rectify his absence as a Canton inductee via a write-in campaign to the Hall’s Veterans Committee.

Just as Briscoe wasn’t bitter about being shut out from playing quarterback after his rookie year, he wasn’t bitter that other blacks followed him into the league at that position.

“If I had not succeeded in 1968, James Harris would not have gotten drafted by the Bills as a quarterback out of Grambling in 1969. If I would have failed, they would have brought James in as a tight end. But the fact I was a litmus test and succeeded, they could take a chance on a black quarterback, and James was drafted.

“Ironically, he and I ended up being roommates in Buffalo. We knew each other’s plight. We would have conversations after practice. I would tell him different things that were going to happen to him and to be prepared for them.”

While Briscoe is known as the first black starting QB, another black man, Willie Thrower, briefly got into two games as a QB with the Bears 15 years before Briscoe’s experience with the Broncos. High off his rookie year success, Briscoe had a chance meeting with Thrower in Chicago. The two men hit it off.

briscoe6Briscoe, Harris, Doug Williams, and Warren Moon have formed an organization called The Field General that uses the still-exclusive legacy of the black quarterback to educate and inspire young people. Blacks still comprise but a fraction of the professional QB ranks. The same is true of head coaches, coordinators, and general managers. That fact, combined with the journey each man had to make to get to those rarified places, reveals just how far the nation and league still have to go.

Never in his wildest dreams did Briscoe imagine his story would get so much attention this many years after he played.

“It just goes to show that, if you never give up, a lot of these things will come your way. Sometimes things come late, like this movie project about my life,” he says.

Briscoe says he only agreed to let his story be told in a movie if it stayed true to who he is and to what happened.

“It’s not for self-gratification,” he says. “It’s hopefully as an inspiration for others that you can overcome any obstacle if you really want it. I look back on my life and see what it can do for others. It’s not just a football movie. If it were, I probably wouldn’t be a part of that interpretation of my life. My life is a lot more than just football.”

He’s sure the movie’s message of “if you never give up, you’ve got a chance” will resonate with diverse audiences. He’s proud to be living proof that anything can happen when you keep fighting.


Visit marlinbriscoemovie.com for more information.

This article was printed in the January/February 2017 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Newsmaker Becomes Newsgatherer

August 23, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Our committee at the Omaha Press Club meets several times a year to discuss who will next be honored as the club’s “Face on the Barroom Floor.” When the committee’s chairman, Tom O’Connor, was nominated this year, only one committee member voted “no.” It was O’Connor.

O’Connor argued that the honor is meant for people who have made a difference in the community. It’s how people who cover the news give recognition to those who make the news.

For 14 years, he has chaired the committee that selects the Faces, the people whose illustrated caricatures end up on the walls of the Press Club. Everyone agrees he’s done a stellar job.

“Tom, over the years, helped make the Face an icon for Omaha,” says OPC Executive Director Steve Villamonte, who nominated the longtime member.

Tom-OConnor1Over his protests, O’Connor was roasted and toasted in February in front of a sold-out crowd. His was the 148th Face since the ritual began 45 years ago with Mayor Gene Leahy as the first honoree.

“One of the ways he has helped with awareness is with his contacts in the media world,” notes Villamonte.

O’Connor, who is senior associate director of public relations at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, says knowing the community’s newsmakers is right up his alley.

“The Faces are the who’s who of Omaha,” he says. “It’s like winning the Heisman Trophy.”

Another recognizable Face is movie producer and Omaha native Alexander Payne, whose roasters included actor Will Forte. “It was one of the funniest roasts we‘ve had,” says Villamonte. “And to get someone of Forte’s stature as a roaster, well…”

The largest crowd during the Faces’ 45-year history came to salute Creighton basketball coach Greg McDermott and three-time All-American Doug McDermott who at the time played on his father’s team. The crowd was so large that O’Connor moved the dinner and roast to another venue. And the second largest was for…Tom O’Connor.

The third largest “Face” event was held in 2007 for Husker fan Dan Whitney, also known as comedian Larry the Cable Guy. I remember “Larry” dressed up for the occasion by adding sparkle to his trademark sleeveless plaid shirt.

Another Tom—Osborne—was a Face on the Barroom Floor in 1979. Since then he has returned to roast other newsmakers such as NFL greats Gale Sayers and Ahman Green. The former UNL football coach and athletic director was a roaster in May for UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts.

An Omaha Press Club member for 38 years, O’Connor is a past president (2001), past board member, a member of the marketing and newsletter committees, and he heads the Shatel Sports Lunch series.

“Tom has made the Face on the Barroom Floor a premier event,” says Jim Horan, the artist who has drawn the illustrated caricatures since the first one in 1971 (the artist is also my husband). “He took the roast concept to a new level, which has turned the night into 100 percent fun.”

O’Connor explains: “I tell people we’re the club with a sense of humor, the Face event is all about having fun and entertaining people. You’re always going to leave laughing.”

His quest for fun continues, as does his enthusiasm for honoring Omaha’s best. He has invited Bill and Ruth Scott to be Face No. 150 on Sept. 22. “They are unsung heroes who have transformed the city and the state with their incredible generosity. Being able to recognize great people like the Scotts, that’s what the Face on the Barroom Floor is
all about.”

He jokes that his wish list for future Face on the Barroom Floor honorees includes Pope Francis and Michael Jordan. Knowing O’Connor, I think it just might happen.

Visit omahapressclub.com/faces for more information.