University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Solving Omaha’s racial divide may not be obvious, but youth athletics could be a step in the right direction for the decades-long conundrum
By Luke Mullin
At first glance, the intersection of 72nd and Dodge streets in Omaha, Nebraska is like any typical intersection. Surrounding the nine lines of traffic sits a Target on one corner, a public library across the street and a Raising Cane’s to top it all off. It’s a centrally connecting intersection, and it’s among the five busiest in the whole city.
However, 72nd and Dodge reveals a deeper secret about Omaha.
The intersection hosted most of the city’s Black Lives Matter protests in late May, and the location was no accident. Beyond the fried chicken and the bus stops, 72nd and Dodge drives a racial wedge right down the middle of the city.
According to the US Census, Omaha is 77.8% white, 13.9% Hispanic and 12.3% African-American, but those numbers are not evenly distributed throughout the city. The vast majority of African-Americans live north of Dodge Street, stretching from roughly 108th to 16th streets and the Missouri River.
The Hispanic population is located south of Dodge Street, and it continues into the southern-most areas of Omaha, with few living west of 72nd Street. The white population, which may have lived further east just a generation or two ago, now resides in the western areas of the city.
The newer suburbs of Gretna, Papillion-La Vista and Elkhorn have expanded at considerable rates over the last 50 years to accommodate this shift, and the result is a city divided along the lines of race.
And now, as children grow up in this environment, the question arises whether activities such as youth sports bridge this social gap, or if youth sports only serve to reinforce the trends already happening within the city. The answer is hardly clear.
The sun slowly dips below the horizon, and a low hum from a generator becomes audible as portable light towers kick into action.
There are no permanent lights at Power Park in far North Omaha, but there’s plenty of electricity to go around. The Omaha Junior Vikes practice in an industrial setting with a power grid just beyond the north edge of the park, and a factory looms between the practice space and the Missouri River to the Northeast.
The Jr. Vikes have been practicing for almost an hour, but there’s still work to do. Months of drills and the fall weather have turned the field’s grass yellow, and patches of dirt fill in the barren pieces that are missing. Green and brown streaks fill the players’ once white pants, and the coaches applaud a well-executed option play.
It’s the final week of practice for the Jr. Vikes, and it’s been another good season in the eyes of Nick Push. He has a leadership position on the Jr. Vikes’ two-man board and oversees some of the organization’s logistics such as payments, enrollment and sponsorships. However, he’s more comfortable on the practice field with his play sheet in hand, ready to line up his fifth-graders for another down.
Push first started coaching youth football over 10 years ago for his son’s team, but he’s stuck with it as the youth football landscape in Omaha has changed. While multiple leagues were once scattered around the city, declining participation led to the creation of the Metro Youth Football League (MYFL) in 2012.
Now, each MYFL team is a feeder program for a local high school. The Jr. Vikes are understandably connected with the Omaha North High School, while the Jr. Warriors are associated with Omaha Westside High School and so on.
Jim Sichmeller, who runs the Jr. Warriors program, said he believes the MYFL has made a positive impact on Omaha’s football community through continuity and development within individual programs. Now, most kids play with the same people throughout elementary and middle school and perhaps even into high school if they continue playing. The program has produced multiple Division I recruits such as current Huskers Chris Hickman and Nick Henrich and additional teams have joined since 2012.
However, the school-based program may have unintended consequences. As the teams draw from specific geographic pools, differences in economic stability can cause issues.
At Omaha North, 69% of students are eligible for the free or reduced lunch program, and the median income for households in the high school’s zip code is $27,000. That’s compared to Omaha Westside where 34% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunches, and the median income is $56,000.
About 85% of Push’s team come from single-parent households, and that makes attendance difficult, he said.
“Maybe their vehicle broke down, and they can’t get them there that night, or maybe they have to work and can’t bring their child,” he said. “I’ve got constant struggles to get kids there, and there are factors like good nutrition and getting to bed at night, and all those things contribute to a disadvantage for our program.”
To offset the financial difficulties that some Jr. Vikes families endure, the cost for a season is $120, which is on the lower end compared to other MYFL teams. Still, many players require scholarships and assistance. The economic reality of running an organization with thin margins creates the need for fundraising and for community help to support the team.
Moreover, the Jr. Vikes’ home of Power Park is leased for $1 per year from Omaha Public Power District, the factory that sits adjacent to the park, for a term of 100 years, stretching back to 1969. The team receives sponsorships from local businesses and runs yearly fundraisers like firework stands to help lower costs. They have been able to cut expenses on equipment, thanks to help from other teams, too.
While other teams might be able to afford brand-new equipment, the Jr. Vikes rely on used and discounted equipment. The Millard football program recently sold them two- to three-year-old equipment at a steep discount, and others have donated nearly new equipment, helping the Jr. Vikes stay on the field.
Their jerseys, however, have seen better days, and Push said it’s a stark contrast to teams like Papillion, which customizes jerseys each season for individual players and even has special pink-numbered uniforms for breast cancer awareness month in October.
“Compared to them, we might look like the Bad News Bears at times because our equipment doesn’t look perfect,” Push said. “We talk about those things. We try to address those things and encourage the kids that they’ll have to overcome a lot to compete with these programs the way we do. We try to build up instead of tear down on those issues, and I think it works and makes a difference over time.”
The Jr. Warriors’ financial situation could not be more different than the Jr. Vikes. Prices hover around $200, while fundraising and assistance from local businesses haven’t been necessary in the past. Fundraising may be likely in the future to help the program elevate its already existent scholarship program, which helps lower-income families afford to play football, Sichmeller said.
The Jr. Warriors have paid special attention to concussions in youth football, and the program’s chief expense is preventative equipment. To Sichmeller, spending money on the best shoulder pads and helmets possible is worth it to protect the well-being of his players.
“Our mission is to take care of the kids,” he said. “We want to make sure that they’re experiencing something that they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives.”
On the contrary, the Jr. Vikes don’t have as deep pockets to ensure the newest and safest equipment — a disadvantage in protecting 10-year-olds from injury.
Differences in economic situations also align with racial differences between the two programs. Omaha North’s district is 46% African-American and 29.9% white as a whole, and Push estimates 75% of his fifth-grade team is African-American. Meanwhile, Westside High School is 10% African-American and 72% white, with Sichmeller estimating 20 to 25% of Jr. Warrior players as non-white. He believes that figure is up from 5 to 10% 15 years ago.
Beyond the social, geographic and economic differences between youth football programs, there’s one principle which unites them all: a belief that youth football has a positive impact on the players’ lives.
“Football and sports in general are a great unifying factor,” Push said. “My kids are white and many of their friends are not because of the athletic teams they’ve been on as they grew up. They’ve been able to have a diverse friend-base because they’re interacting with those kids and building relationships as teammates.”
As a head coach, Push has seen how work on the football field can motivate his players off the field.
When kids misbehave at home, he can address that by having them run extra laps and apologize to their parent. And when the issues extend to school, Push has set up a table next to the field so players can get their homework done before they can practice with the team. He believes the lessons of personal accountability and hard work learned in these moments will stick with the players far longer than the X’s and O’s will.
“We’ll get it done this way and let them keep some motivation instead of taking it away so they have no tools to get their work done,” he said. “Those are positives that I see, and that’s why I believe in youth sports so much because I really believe it helps kids.”
Wins and losses aren’t what matter most, Sichmeller echoed. Instead, it’s about the lessons youth coaches can provide for players to apply in stressful situations down the road.
“I personally firmly believe that kids today go through more difficult times than I did when I was a kid,” he said. “…As a football coach, you’re not just teaching them the fundamentals of an athletic game, you also have to teach them what to do when they’re back home in the neighborhood. We try to pride ourselves on teaching the fundamentals of the game, but we also believe the life lessons are going to reap big benefits when they get older.”
Sept. 28, 1919 is one of the darkest days in Omaha history. The events that occurred roughly 100 years ago not only transformed the city at the time, but its effects can still be seen in the layout of the city today.
Will Brown, a 41-year-old Black man who had been accused of raping a white woman, awaited trial in the city courthouse, while Omaha’s sizable white population whipped into a frenzy when they heard the news. The city’s crime boss, Tom Dennison, stoked the fumes via local media, and soon enough a crowd of thousands gathered around the courthouse.
Omaha Mayor Edward P. Smith, an advocate for racial reform at the time, tried to stand up to the mob and was nearly hung for it. The city’s rioters, instead, stormed the courthouse and seized Brown.
“The mob snatched him from the courthouse and hung him from a telephone pole on 18th and Harney streets,” according to an account assembled by University of Iowa Assistant Professor Ashley Howard, Ph.D.. “They riddled him with bullets, and using a car, dragged him to 17th and Dodge streets. Then, in classic early 20th century style, the group burned his body and posed for a picture as smoke rose from Brown’s corpse.”
The mob tried to move their violence into the African-American Near North Side neighborhood, but armed Black civilians stood in their way. Within a day, the United States Army entered the city with heavy artillery and formed a perimeter around North Omaha per the orders of Major General Leonard Wood, according to North Omaha historian Adam Fletcher Sasse, founder of North Omaha History.
“He (Wood) took out a map and drew a line around it, and he said, ‘You tell Black people to stay inside of this area, and we can protect them. If they leave this area, we can’t guarantee their safety.’ And that was the establishment of the red line in Omaha,” Fletcher Sasse said. “You want to talk about disenfranchising people and disheartening people? What else would it take besides having the heavy artillery and military around, and they say you have to stay home or you might get killed.”
This was one of the first events that contributed to Omaha’s racially divided composition today. In the aftermath of Brown’s lynching, Fletcher Sasse said white families overwhelmingly moved away from North Omaha, transforming those areas into African-American enclaves.
A second demographic shift occurred in the 1930s after the founding of the Home Owners Lending Corporation (HOLC), a New Deal-era program that gave loans to homeowners. This group, according to Fletcher Sasse, consisted of real estate agents, house insurance agents, bank lenders and landlords who conspired to only give out favorable loans to non-Black neighborhoods where profit was certain.
“They made a map, and they literally drew a red line around the Near North Side neighborhood from Lake to 30th, from 30th to Cuming, from Cuming to 16th, from 16th up to Lake, and they said this is the worst area in Omaha, don’t lend money here,” he said. “In the middle of the Great Depression, they were segregating Omaha further.”
At the same time, the Hispanic population in south Omaha was steadily growing as mainly Mexican immigrants began working jobs in the rail yards packing plants and stockyards. Meanwhile, the white population moved westward, piling into neighborhoods like Benson, Dundee, Underwood and Fairacres along the way.
Growing up in Omaha, Terrence Mackey, head football coach at Omaha Benson, a high school of 33.6% African-American, 16.5% white, 20% Hispanic and 22% Asian, said he knows how much the area has changed over time.
“We never really hung out in Benson too much because a lot of Black kids didn’t hang out in that area. A lot of those areas weren’t open for us then,” he said. “It’s a tight-knit community now, you go through Benson on a Saturday night and it’s poppin’ … it’s changed for the better.”
Thanks to the divided nature of Omaha’s population in the past century, youth sports in North Omaha have faced challenges. The Near North Side YMCA opened in 1951 and the Gene Eppley Boys Club followed in the early 1960s to provide low-cost athletic opportunities in North Omaha. The Boys Club and the YMCA quickly became hotbeds for generational athletic talent as they produced Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers and Johnny Rodgers.
At the same time, Black players sought opportunities previously kept from them. A thriving youth basketball system had been taking place in church basements for years, but without the talented Near North Side YMCA teams until the 1950s.
Individual neighborhood churches, such as Pearl Memorial United Methodist Church, formed teams to face other churches. However, these games were largely divided by race. The majority Black Technical High School would form its varsity team with players from these church leagues, and so, too, would Omaha North and Omaha Central — except those schools formed majority white teams.
“Black players started joining and developing their own teams, so the infrastructure that white people had developed to play basketball fell apart when Black young men were coming into that infrastructure,” Fletcher Sasse said. “It was a whole segregated system that they were imposing and enforcing, and the real problem became white flight because the white people left the neighborhood so fast and destroyed the entire infrastructure for youth basketball in the neighborhood.”
Thousands of miles away in southeast Asia, Tony Espejo pictured the familiar sights of his home neighborhood at 19th and Q streets. He thought of his neighborhood’s wide-open streets, local church and his favorite restaurants, and he longed for the comfort of home. Fresh off four years with the US Marine Corps, he couldn’t wait to get back to his hometown of Omaha.
But when his homecoming became reality, he hardly recognized his neighborhood from four years ago.
“When I came back, I was staying at my parent’s house at 19th and Q, and there was graffiti in the alley where I used to play baseball, there was graffiti down 24th Street and there were shootings and killings and all kinds of crazy crap going on,” he said.
Never the type to stand idly by, Espejo wanted to make an impact on his community. He became a police officer in 2000 and joined south Omaha’s gang unit, which focused in 2004 on limiting gang activity and removing firearms from the community. For about a year, he served as a gang officer “breaking down doors and taking bad guys to jail,” but Espejo realized this approach wasn’t addressing the problem at the source.
He went to Florida for a gang symposium and met with Bob Muzikowski, a Chicago-area youth baseball coach who created a thriving baseball league within the city, and Espejo knew what he needed to do in Omaha.
“It just blew my mind, and I could see what these kids need, and I could see what kept me out of trouble, and it was athletics,” he said.
The second his plane landed in Omaha, Espejo got to work. He sought out the athletic organizations that helped him as a youth, and to his surprise, most of them no longer existed. Because Espejo played baseball at a young age, he intended to start a baseball league. But as he drove around south Omaha, he realized a different sport was the key to these kids: soccer. He got to work teaching himself the rules of the game and formed Police Athletics for Community Engagement (PACE).
Espejo went to parks in south Omaha and approached the kids with a simple proposition: He would take care of the coaches and the fields, while the kids formulated the teams with their friends. The kids could choose the team name and their jersey numbers. The games would also be easily accessible in south Omaha, so kids could walk or bike.
“It was neat when I was walking away, they huddled up and were organizing themselves,” he said. “It was even neater when I came back next Wednesday. At the exact time I was going to be there, they ran to me. They knew who I was and what I was doing, and they needed 20 jerseys.”
PACE began with just six teams in its first year, but word quickly spread about the free-to-play, community-oriented league. Soon, 20 teams registered for the league, then 30, then 50 and so on. Last year, PACE had nearly 100 soccer teams in addition to flag football and baseball programs. All of the programs are co-ed and free to play, thanks to donations from local businesses and foundations. Espejo has seen the positive effects of the program first-hand.
“Right after the game, the kids go back to the south-side terrace, the projects up here and the coaches who coached them that night go back to the projects to protect them, and you just watch the barriers fall over,” he said.
For some of PACE’s soccer players, maybe they seek out the league as a fun-oriented, less competitive arena to practice athletics. But for other soccer players, PACE may be the only option they have because the costs of Omaha’s soccer clubs are too high for their family.
Robert Amdor, president and executive director of Nebraska Futbol Club (NFC) for over 20 years, has witnessed a shift toward geographic soccer clubs in Omaha. While the city’s soccer landscape was more open 10 years ago, Amdor identified specific regions that clubs serve now: Sporting Omaha, the dominant club in west and Northwest Omaha, the Papillion soccer club in the south-central region and the Gretna Elite Academy in the southwest part of the city to Gretna.
That leaves NFC to cover the eastern part of town, a role that Amdor takes seriously.
“We still have probably half of our membership that lives west of 72nd, but there are very few clubs that go east of 72nd to find players,” he said. “…We have a large Hispanic portion, probably a third to 40% of our team is Hispanic, and our focus now is on trying to help produce the best, most competitive teams we can and also help the community in south Omaha.”
The cost to play at NFC ranges from $650 for U10 players up to a maximum of $1,400 for the program’s high schoolers. The club is able to keep prices low and provide considerable financial assistance, Amdor said, because NFC’s coaches are willing to accept lower pay to coach the program’s high-level teams.
That isn’t the case at the city’s flagship soccer club, Sporting Omaha, which has a minor league affiliation with MLS team Sporting Kansas City. With players ranging from 3 to 19 years old, Sporting Omaha is the largest, most widely known club in the state and its costs reflect that.
The U9-U10 academy costs $910, and most of the club’s programs hover above $1,000, with the most expensive being the U14-U18/19 Premier Girls program at $1,800. Those costs are an economic reality for an organization trying to provide the best coaching possible, and Sporting Omaha has distributed over $25,000 in assistance to 34 players for the 2020-21 season in partial or full scholarships.
“As with all nonprofit and youth organizations that offer services, it’s not enough. We always hope that we can do more,” said interim executive director Sven Jasinski. “…We try to be mindful that this is not an endless spiral where every year we push the price higher.”
And despite Sporting Omaha’s geographic orientation, the club still conducts community outreach programs that aim to engage the entire city. The club also established the “STOPIT” campaign in 2019 that seeks to eliminate any forms of racism, prejudice or discrimination from the world of youth soccer.
“Even though we may be seen as a west Omaha club, we still try to offer our services to everybody,” Jasinski said. “We’re also planted within society and society sometimes throws you challenges, and we as a club also had instances that were not respectful, so when those things occur, we as a club stand up and fight against that.”
While there may be differences between NFC and Sporting Omaha, they are united by some of the same principles. Both clubs acknowledge the on-field success is great, but what matters most is what players get out of the program, and how prepared they are to take on future world challenges that are more demanding than scoring a goal or blocking a pass.
“It’s not just (about) developing a soccer player,” Jasinski said. ‘I think within Sporting Omaha, it’s also about creating young women and men that play soccer but also during the stay with our club and beyond, they are also navigating life quite well.
It’s important, Amdor said, to help the youth understand they have to set goals.
“Then we help them try to achieve them,” he said. “Otherwise you just fall into a routine of having a lineup and playing soccer and they don’t even understand what the end goal is. Is it all about winning or it supposed to be about trying to make yourself a better person? I hope it’s the latter.”
Before he became a state senator, Tony Vargas was a typical high school athlete. He played football, basketball and track in high school, and he credits sports for teaching him lessons like teamwork and perseverance that help him today working in politics.
Originally from New York, Sen. Vargas lived in Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta before moving to Omaha. He’d seen divided and segregated cities before, but he was still struck by how pronounced the divisions are in Omaha.
“We need to make sure that no matter where you are in the city, that a kid can go to school, graduate and have an amazing set of opportunities with a degree that lets them go to college, or work or serve in the military and have a lot of different options, but we’re just not there yet,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s still (divided) along the lines of race and ethnicity, and that part is something I’ve been trying to work on for the last four years in the senate.”
While working as a teacher in New York, Sen. Vargas coached youth basketball and his principles of community activism led him to coach with PACE since moving to Omaha. The program is popular among Omaha’s community leaders — Mackey coaches PACE teams, too — but there’s only so much a free program can do to provide a positive youth sports experience.
“My hope is that programs will continue to level the playing field,” Vargas said. “I know the entities like PACE are doing it, but it’s not to the club level, and we do need to do something about that, because I don’t want to create further inequities down the line for the most talented youth.”
Now 101 years after the lynching of Will Brown, people like Sen. Vargas and organizations like PACE are working to transform Omaha’s complicated racial legacy. Regardless of economic growth or sprawling suburbs, the city remains largely divided by the racial lines of the past, a fact some Omahans may not know about or may choose to ignore.
“There are lots of folks who maintain that Omaha is special or different, because we don’t practice racism, but in reality, racism is as alive today as it’s ever been,” Fletcher Sasse said.
Without an obvious solution to how the Midwest city can overcome decades of racial division and inequality, those who believe in a better future for Omaha are doing what they can: investing in the next generation, with the hopes to educate and inspire. Those believers take the form of neighbors, friends, mentors and of course youth coaches, passing down life lessons that young Omahans will never forget.
“It’s a mission for us to work in the North Omaha area and try to raise up the area,” Push said. “We want to be a part of the solution in North Omaha and not a part of the problem where everyone who has the means to move out, moves out.”
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