Omaha Central High School
Sometimes men have dreams as a child. Some dreams are realized, others never become reality and fade into oblivion, evaporating for all time Some of these things small boys fantasize about are so far fetched they rarely have a snowball's chance in hell of becoming a real life experience. On October 8, 2010 one of the things I had dreamed about my entire life about became a real life experience. One a Mid-September day 50 years ago my father took me to an Omaha Central football game. He told me I had to see this kid they called Sayers. Ran like the wind and was impossible bring down in the open field. My life was never the same after that night under the stadium lights of some unknown football field in Omaha. In all the years following that magical evening I never gave up the dream of being an Omaha Central Eagle, even if it just was for one day.........
*Last summer, I was informed that Omaha Central and Creighton Prep were going to play a high school football game at Rosenblatt Stadium to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a contest that was dubbed "the greatest Nebraska high school football game ever played". I knew I had to find a way to witness that game. No, I was not in attendance at Omaha Municipal Stadium for that game 50 years ago, but a few weeks before that in 1960, I had seen Gale Sayers and his Omaha Central teammates play a football game. I was 11 years old at the time.
I had been in contact with Omaha Central coach Jay Ball in August of this year and was invited to be part of this historic event, being a first hand witness to how his current Eagle football team prepared, played and returned to the landmark they call Omaha Central High school following that October 8, 2010 football game. This is the sequel of events that took place that day as my life long dream became a living, breathing experience. I shall never forget it.
This story would not have near the meaning had my wife not persuaded me to take her to Rosenblatt Stadium on July 3rd this summer for an Omaha Royal's game and the World-Herald fireworks display. I had played a gig there years back, but had only a vague memory of what the majestic venue looked like. "Bakes" convinced we had better see the old girl before they demolished it after the Omaha Nighthawk's fall football season. The place was splendid and I fell in love with it immediately and the July 3rd visit set the stage for my historic day.
Another piece of the "dream" puzzle had fallen into place in the year 2000. My daughter Erin was having serious L4/S5 spinal surgery at Immanuel hospital in Omaha and it was going to be a 6 day ordeal. My wife and I were there for the duration. Being a pretty high strung drummer, I knew my chances of having the patience to hang out at the hospital all week were slim. My wife suggested I follow my dream of longing to visit every high school in Omaha. Mission was accomplished. Made it to every Class A & B public school in town. Everybody was cordial and seemed to know the 1000 Yard Guy, it was like nothing like nothing I had ever done.....humbling.
I saved the best for last and went to Omaha Central for my last stop. Then coach, Joe McMenamin took me on a tour of the school. I was stunned by the size of the building. It looked like a state capital or huge federal building in Washington DC. It seemed to dwarf the Joselyn Art Museum next door. In fact, for years I thought that Central high school was some sort of an important Nebraska state or fedaral landmark.....too big for even a college facility I thought. Small town guy, you see. Across from the main office there were photos of football players that molded Central into "I-Back High". There was Roger 'The Rocket" Sayers, Gale Sayers, Keith "End Zone" Jones, Leodis Flowers, Calvin Jones, and Ahman Green.
I was star struck. The ˝ hour tour ended too quickly. Coach McMenamin presented me with an Omaha Central football shirt and I left. I never forgot that day. The Central visit dwarfed the others by miles.
The only school I visited in 2000 that was not a great stop was Omaha South. Prior to going there a former 1000 yarder of mine, Matt Brandl, who was AD at Omaha Bryan at the time, told me not to stop there unless I could talk to a bright young coach named Jay Ball. Brandl told me the surroundings might get to me. I proceeded anyway. I parked across from South High. There were a few intoxicated adults across the street leaning on parking meters mumbling to themselves. One man was vomiting. I felt out of place. When I went into the school, the people I spoke with seemed a bit depressed and no one was smiling. So sullen. It was 3:30 by then and the office secretary informed me Coach Ball has taken his small South football squad to a field some distance away to practice. South High was landlocked and had no football field...not even a practice facility. I was deeply saddened by what I had seen. I felt bad for this young coach to have taken on this responsibility, but they said he was tough and had his father Jerry to help. Jerry Ball was a defensive genius from the Omaha Tech/Omaha South days, I knew that.
The first time I saw Jay Ball in person was in the middle Seacrest field in Lincoln in 2006. Jay had just taken over at Omaha Central that season and had his young team in the playoffs during his first season there. I walked to the center of the field to ask coach Ball if I could have the honor of standing on "I-Back High's" sidelines. He sternly informed me that Omaha Central was no longer going by "I-Back High"...this was a team sport and he told me he did not want to hear that phrase from me again. Holy Cow, I knew this guy was tough! Ball, however gave me permission to be on his side. I was in heaven. His Eagles lost a 14-13 heartbreaker to Lincoln Northeast that night, but the very next year he was standing on a podium at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln handing out State Championship medals to his Central forces. Unreal. After that I saw Jay Ball only briefly at the state basketball tournament 3 years ago and until last Friday that had been only meeting. After things were set up for this Central/Prep match-up, I couldn't wait to get to Omaha.
*The Day -- Friday, October 8, 2010*
4:00 PM -- I arrive at Central High. Still cannot believe how magnificent this building looks. Right in the heart of downtown Omaha just off the Creighton University campus. I park below the athletic facility and the new football field. Takes me a while, but I maneuver the steps up to the field level. I'm thinking to myself "all those years, all those legendary players, and not ONE of them had a field they could call home. A 50×50 piece of rock hard dirt practice field they called the "Dust Bowl" is the humble surroundings where Central players were molded into champions. I walk from one end of the artificial turf to the other and marveled at it's beauty. I feel tingles up and down my spine.
4:30 -- As I approach the end of the field I think I can see Jay Ball standing in the entrance to the athletic facility. I hardly recognize him. He's lost weight. His face looks youthful and shows no signs of the rigors a Class A coach would endour. He looks like his weight is at a playing weight. This guy looks marvelous. He welcomes me and informs me that the departing time has been pushed back a half hour to 5:30. We proceed up the ramp to the locker room and coaches office. I am about to see this place where Omaha Central champions are built.
4:45 -- We are in the locker room. Most players are already taped and are almost dressed. Coach Ball takes me into a crowed coaches office. He introduces me to the staff one by one. Doesn't tell them why I'm here. I'm not sure if they know, but am relatively certain they do and have other things on their mind...one in particular. The mood is serious. I am offered a chair. There are duffle bags everywhere and the chair is an old office chair, one arm is missing. This is no attorney's office, guaranteed. It is a sharp contrast to what I expected, but knew in my heart how it would look. This is a public high school, not a university facility. No plush offices, no fancy locker rooms with red doors. No expensive wood fixtures....but this is Omaha Central....do they not know....do they not realize who walked through these doors? There were legends here, this should have the finest furnishings money can buy......but I know better, this is high school and that's not what this is all about.
5:10 -- Players are wondering in and out of the office. Everyone, coaches included, are painting their fingers purple with a permanent marker. Ball looks toward me and pierces the silence "It's a football thing, Mr. Mills, a football thing." I nod in agreement and approve. A good looking lad with rippling biceps is seated across from me. He is speaking very low and I cannot make out everything he is saying. He raises his eyes slowly and looks me straight in the eye and states "You ready for this?" It is Avery Heath, guard/nose guard. Smart kid, team leader. I ask him if he is ready. He nods his head in a positive motion. He paints a faint smile on his game face and departs.
5:15 -- Two younger men walk into the office. Coach Ball introduces me to James Kight and Eric Anderson. Jay informs me they will be guest speakers to the players right before we depart for Rosenblatt. He tells me they are a rare breed of Omaha Central football bird. Both not only played with my Eagle idol, Bernard Jackson on the 1984 State Championship team, but they were on the Ball's coaching staff when Central won the Title in 2007. One of the former coaches/players is very reserved, the other is fidgety and ready to explode with a fiery pre-game pep talk. I mention to him that Prep has been getting a lot of press this week building up to the game....he is more fired up than ever. He keeps repeating what I have been saying to myself for a week...."It doesn't get any better than this, man."
5:20 -- Ball has since disappeared, and one of the assistants motions toward me, "Time to go, man." The butterflies are starting to stir in the deepest part of my stomach. We proceed to the wrestling room, the final stop before the team boards the bus. When we get to the room I call the "pump up" room, the starters are moving around, getting loose. The younger players are sitting with their heads down, trying to comprehend the magnitude of what is about to transpire. Huge TE/DE Eddie Vinton is walking around. He glares at himself in the full length mirror that spans one entire wall, then at me. The kid is a physical specimen...looks like he spends day and night in the weight room. He repeats the sequence several times....I don't ask why, I'm not stupid. Coach Ball summons all the players to our side of the room and informs them we will have 2 guest speakers.
5:35 -- Assistant coach, James Kight speaks first. The words are a collection of every top notch pre-game speech I have ever heard, all rolled into one 5 minute talk. Kight speaks of "The Rope" and how a team has to believe in each other. Most of us who are athletes have heard this one...gets me every time. The players are on one knee, solemn expressions on their faces. They listen intently and understand. Coach Ball then summons former player/coach, Eric Anderson and the fireworks begin. Kight's pep talk could have motivated an NFL team to win the Super Bowl, but the battle tested and experienced Jay Ball has saved the best for last. Anderson's starts slowly, somewhat echoing the thoughts of Kight, then explodes into a rhetoric that would make the finest southern preacher that ever took the pulpit green with envy. The players raise their heads to immediate attention and the room is filled with energy, the only interruption being a muffled chuckle from starting quarterback, Will Burgess. His laugh is quickly turned to a serious mode and the Central team erupts into a "Beat Prep" blast that shakes the rafters.
5:45 -- The time has come....the busses are waiting.