One year, when he was the head football coach at Omaha Northwest High School, Damon Benning took one of his players to Colorado on vacation.
“I was taking my two (sons) and I wanted him to see what it was like to be a parent,” Benning said. “He had two kids, and he was 17.”
Seventeen, he said again. With emphasis.
Another year, Benning played Santa Claus for some of his players.
Minus the red suit.
“Our church adopted six or seven of the kids, called it ‘Operation Christmas,'” Benning said. “We cleaned their houses, painted, dropped off gifts, put up Christmas trees, paid bills, replaced piping, set up washers and dryers and delivered TVs.”
And then there are the players sitting at his dinner table every night.
Five or six players at one time or another have stayed at his house.
In some cases, moms wanted sons to have structure and stability.
“Another kid just needed a place to stay,” Benning said.
Twenty years ago, the coach's name wasn't Benning. It was Colvin.
“I used to have half of the team over and spend the night,” said Herman Colvin, the former football coach at Omaha North. “At the time, I was a single guy. I had kids who I found out were doing something bad, I went and got them and had them stay at my house.
“You'd feed the kids, put them where they could sleep, give them rules.”
Structure. Colvin laughed as he told the story about his 10 p.m. curfew. One time, some of his players called and said they would be late, because they were going to Burger King. When they got home, they marched right to Colvin's refrigerator for something to eat.
“I knew they had lied,” Colvin said. “I punished the whole team for that the next day.”
Today, Colvin is the principal at Omaha Northwest. He smiles as he recalls the things he used to do for kids. He's a man with not one regret about what he did, unless it was that he wishes he could have done more.
“When you're coaching in the inner city, there isn't a coach anywhere who hasn't had to do those things,” Colvin said. “A lot of kids are hungry, you buy them food. A lot of them have issues that are not their fault.
“Every coach in the inner city experiences those things. It's a tough, tough job. First day of school, not everyone shows up with their physicals taken. First day of practice, you might have half your team.
“But that's the life of an inner-city coach.”
Angel or guardian might be more appropriate titles for these men. To them, it's what they do. When you are a coach, you help kids. It's your job. Your life.
In that sense, Benning and Colvin were kindred spirits, cut from the same coaching cloth.
So how is it that they are no longer working together?
* * *
Benning resigned as Northwest football coach on April 2. That was the same day he received an email from Colvin, asking him if he was going to coach in 2012.
This is a complicated tale, and one that has attracted much speculation in some circles. What we know is that Benning and Colvin did not have a great relationship. How they got to that point is a matter for debate.
By April 2, the two men had not spoken in three weeks. Colvin says he was uncertain if Benning had decided to come back. Benning did not think Colvin wanted him back and took the email question as a hint to leave.
Believing he was not wanted, Benning decided to leave.
In his three seasons, Northwest did not win a football game. When he arrived to coach his alma mater, he had been an assistant at Burke, but never a head coach. But Benning brought with him a marquee name in the community. He also was a former Husker running back and a sports analyst on radio and TV.
For Northwest, which was watching an exodus of students to schools like Burke, Central, North and Millard North, such a person could certainly help turn the program around.
There were 16 boys out for football when Benning arrived. Sixteen.
Soon he would discover that finding kids to play football — and keeping them — would be every bit as challenging as coaching games. More so, at times.
Benning did that. He spent many hours helping his players off the field, giving them rides to and from practice and school, feeding them, guiding them, looking out for them. The roster grew to 54 players by last August.
That's a point of pride for Benning. He felt he was winning off the field, even as the blowouts piled up on it.
Last year was really hard. The Huskies lost their quarterback for the season in the second game. The number of players dwindled to 34 by season's end, for various reasons.
Northwest was outscored by an average of 43-10.
And yet Benning saw progress. He said coaches like Jay Ball at Central and Andy Means at Millard South told him his undermanned team played hard to the end. But the losing will get you. Benning is a prideful alum. He had hoped to jump-start the program, get the glory years back.
What he found out was that Northwest is an amazingly hard job.
It's a fight. When you're driving kids all over town and trying to patch a team together, and still losing, it becomes a drain.
Benning said the job was even harder without the respect and trust of his principal. Colvin will tell you Benning had it.
Toward the end of last season, Benning received his evaluation from Colvin and Northwest Athletic Director Steve Eubanks. It was a good evaluation, but there was a list attached with several things Colvin wanted Benning to do.
Benning said he thought Colvin was nitpicking and not acknowledging the things Benning was doing for the kids off the field. He also wondered how Colvin could critique him after never attending a practice.
Colvin said the list included things he asks of all of his coaches.
And as a former coach, he said, he never attends a practice of any sport or gives the impression he's looking over a coach's shoulder.
About this time, Benning said he heard from an assistant superintendent at Omaha Public Schools, who told him that the district wanted him to pursue a master's degree. The official shared a vision in which Benning could have an impact at the main office, where Benning currently works full time.
While his heart remained in coaching, Benning said, he was beginning to hear rumors about Colvin wanting him out. He is sure that his win-loss record had something to do with it.
In early March, Benning and Colvin had a meeting in which Benning's future was discussed. Colvin said he thought Benning should spend more time at Northwest. Benning said that the time he spent there was such that most of the kids at the school knew him.
At the end of the meeting, Benning said, Colvin told him he would get back to him.
Colvin said he told Benning to get back to him in a few days with a decision on whether he was going to coach or work toward the vision the OPS assistant superintendent had laid out.
Said Benning: “The thing that hurts the most is I feel like I had to validate our consistency and our impact, because we haven't won a game. It was about wins and losses and not about grooming young men.”
Said Colvin: “We never talked about his record. We didn't ask for another coach. If he wanted to be the coach, he would be here today. I did want him to spend more time here. I sent him the email because we had to know if he was coaching. Kids were starting to ask.”
The sad bottom line is, a coach who was helping kids isn't helping kids anymore. It makes the hill at Northwest even steeper.
Benning said two good freshmen have transferred. They're going to North and Burke.
Northwest has already chosen a coach. Tim Clemenger, who'd served as defensive coordinator under Benning, will be the Huskies' fourth head coach since 2006.
* * *
Last week, I went to Northwest for the first time. My first impression: hard to get to, but worth it once you arrive.
The surrounding neighborhoods are lined with trees. The campus is picturesque with a large sloping lawn. The adjacent sports facilities looked good.
This is a school fighting to attract students?
“People have the wrong impression,” Colvin said. “They think before they come here it's in the middle of the ghetto. It's a beautiful area.”
Enrollment at Northwest is at 1,200, which was projected to be the lowest of any OPS high school. Benning said when people told him you need to at least beat Bryan and South — two other OPS schools that find football wins hard to come by — he argued that those schools at least drew kids from their neighborhoods. Northwest, he said, struggles to do that.
Why? Depends on whom you ask. Different people may point to different things.
The Northwest boundaries go down West Maple Road, and a lot of families there point to Burke. Some may try to opt into the Millard school district and attend Millard North. Meanwhile, Colvin said, families in the neighborhood around Northwest often send their kids elsewhere.
In some cases, kids want to go where certain sports are thriving. It's an uphill treadmill for Northwest as it chases the schools currently on top, like Central in basketball and Burke in football.
“Football is such a numbers game,” said Bob Danenhauer, OPS athletic director. “It's about facilities and coaching. It's just as competitive as it is in college, and it's trickling down to the high schools. There's recruiting when kids get to middle schools. And kids want to go where there's success.
“It's the truth. You just have to keep plugging away.”
You gotta love Colvin's spirit, though. He bragged up his school as he gave me a tour. Northwest is a magnet school focusing on law, government and international diplomacy, and Colvin couldn't stop talking about the courtroom the school had just built. The principal beamed as he took me through a greenhouse adjacent to the front of the school.
“We have a great school here,” Colvin said. “If we could just get more people to see it.”
With that, he walked back in the front door, ready to continue the good fight. With one less warrior.
Contact the writer: