By CLIFF BRUNT
I remember being part of an inner-city football team with something to prove.
The 1990 and 1991 Omaha North Vikings went out with a collective chip on our shoulders. We worked hard, won games and did it the right way. Many of us were black kids from middle-to-low-income households near the school. We knew outsiders looked at us in a negative light, so we went out of our way to be positive reflections of our community.
It is because of those experiences that I was so disappointed when I heard that Indianapolis Arsenal Tech fought with Fort Wayne South Side last Friday.
North was located in one of the roughest areas in Nebraska. Omaha is much larger than most people think — at the time, the city had about 350,000 people and now it has more than 400,000. Back then, more than 10 percent of the population was black and lived on the city’s northeast side, within a few miles of North High. The hangover from changes in the meat packing industry had set in. Plants had closed. Gangs had moved into the area looking for new recruits and places to sell drugs. A once vibrant area was suffering decay.
There was hope in one building. North was a magnet school that had emerged as one of the state’s best in academics, but it was still dealing with an image problem because of its history and its location. Many white kids came in by bus to take advantage of the technology, and our school won countless academic awards. Despite the success, our reputation was hard to change.
As for the North football program, the coaches and players, waterboys, trainers and fans wanted to play a role in changing the way our neighborhood was perceived, even if it was just in a small way. We couldn’t fix all the problems our forefathers and invading gangs created, but we could change Friday nights. It was great that our Academic Decathlon team was unstoppable, but we knew we were the ones being watched. It’s strange that 15-to-18-year-old kids carried so much weight on their shoulders, but we lived it. We understood it. We owned it.
Whenever we played a suburban school or a Jesuit or Catholic school, we played with an increased focus. We cared about the neighborhood rivalries, but what we really wanted was to prove to the Millard Souths, Westsides and Creighton Preps of the world — in Tech’s case, the Carmels, Cathedrals and Chatards of the world — that we belonged. My last two years, we went 14-5. We opened 1991 ranked in the USA Today Top 25. We went to the state playoffs in 1990 after a very long drought. The stands were full at our home games every Friday night, and the community was so proud of us. Three North players would go on to play Division I ball and several played on other levels. Two Vikings — Clinton Childs and David Alderman — went on to win National Championships as part of the powerhouse University of Nebraska program.
Everything we did, we did with the utmost class because we knew what would happen if we didn’t. All the negative publicity would follow. All the stuff everybody already thought about us would come to the surface. We didn’t want to bring the wrong kinds of headlines to our community.
Because of my background, I have a heart for places like Tech — good schools in inner-city neighborhoods. In many ways, Tech is North.
I was curious after Carmel beat the Titans just 6-2 in the opener. I was even more interested when Tech beat Brebeuf Jesuit and Guerin Catholic back to back. Those are just the kinds of schools Omaha North went out of its way to try to beat because it was about so much more than the score.
I even mentioned in last week’s notes package that Tech was a team to watch.
Just as it started to look like the Titans might be special, this happened (story continued below video).
Here is video of the incident, from YouTube user Hot Sports Today.
Hearing about this situation hurt because I feel like there’s no way the kids or the coaches understood what they could have done for themselves and their community. They didn’t grasp their responsibilities. Folks want to know if inner-city kids — especially black ones — can handle success. Fair or not, football gets people’s attention. When you are in the spotlight, you accept more scrutiny than other students. These kids could have made a real difference in perception by being successful and doing things the right way.
Titans assistant coach Angelo Muhammad has been suspended for the entire season (he got off easy). Nine players have been suspended (here are the rest of the consequences). They might have to forfeit a game they had firmly in control.
And they have left a gigantic black eye on their community and their school. If you think I’m joking, go to Google after you read the rest of this story and see what pops up when you type in Arsenal Tech.
As for the spectators who ran onto the field, I’m hesitant to waste keystrokes on them. I can’t believe this happened in the same city that had its professional basketball franchise nearly destroyed because of a fight between players and fans. Anybody ever heard of ‘Malice at the Palace?’ We in Indianapolis, more than anyone else, ought to know better. People are just now getting to the point where they talk about the Pacers without mentioning the brawl. It still gets mentioned sometimes — Roy Hibbert talked about it on Media Day, in the context of winning back the fans and the importance of the Pacers being good people off the court.
I am an impartial journalist, yet, I was pulling for this team. I wanted the Titans to give me something positive to write. Now, no matter what Tech accomplishes the rest of the season, this will be discussed. There will be an asterisk next to every great accomplishment. And an already negative perception of a community has deepened further.
Hopefully, this will be a life lesson for those involved – for the players and the adults. It’s always about more than what the guy in the other color jersey says or does. It’s about how you handle it. And the more successful you are and the more people you represent, the more you and the people around you have to lose when you fall short.
My young brothers, please understand these things from now on.