Amid racism, Omaha Tech, Westside matchup exploded on the field - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, October 21, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:53 pm
Broken night in 1966
Amid racism, Omaha Tech, Westside matchup exploded on the field

On Wednesday night, Oct. 26, 1966, there was a high school football game in Omaha.

For some who played for Omaha Tech, the game is still with them. The players still feel it when they talk about it. It's been 46 years.

Some players won't talk about it. They pretend it never happened.

It was an upset, Omaha Westside won by 40 points. Tech was favored as Class A's No. 1 team and possessed outrageous talent.

Remember? It was 1966. The game was a flashpoint in a summer and fall filled with them. There were fights, during that game and after it.

“It was a heartbreaker for us,” said Johnny Rodgers, then a sophomore, later the 1972 Heisman Trophy winner. “Gosh, man, we hurt.”

This is a story about those guys — they thought the world was against them, going to Tech. It was a tough time in history, a hard time in cities across America. Omaha was part of it. It was a crazy time to be those guys.

***

And there it was, that night, on a football field, a microcosm of it all: undefeated Omaha Tech, a school on the near north side, predominantly black, going up against a predominantly white west Omaha school. And all of it exploded on them. It got away from them and overwhelmed them.

And a guy named Guy Ingles left them in his wake, grasping for air.

It was “a stunning decimation,” The World-Herald reported. Tech had entered the night unbeaten. It left the night broken, knocked out of the metro championship, its season ruined.

Omaha Westside 46, Omaha Tech 6.

“It was a snowball effect,” said Ingles, who will tell you that Westside was pretty decent itself — it lost only one game all season, won the metro championship and was No. 1 in the final World-Herald Top 10. But he'll also tell you everything went right for Westside. Everything. He still marvels at it all these years later.

Robert Faulkner, who played in that game for Tech, went on to become a father, an educator and a well-known high school coach. He earned a master's degree and runs a business. He's done a lot in life.

But he can still break down plays from that night in 1966 like he's an ESPN analyst watching the instant replay.

Black and white

The nation's civil rights movement was in full swing by the mid-1960s. Cities across the country were embroiled in the growing demand to end legal discrimination against black people in housing, education and employment.

The World-Herald reported in early July 1966 on three nights of fury on the predominantly black near north side, touched off on July 2 by a bottle being thrown at a motorcycle policeman at 24th and Lake Streets.

On the third night of rioting, violence was quelled when a convoy of 44 National Guardsmen, carrying rifles with bayonets fixed, cleared North 24th Street, then the retail center of north Omaha. There were many arrests and an uneasy peace.

People hit the streets again as the calendar flipped from July to August. This time they brought guns. Reported The World-Herald: “Lawbreakers, some armed with fire bombs, shattered the four-week peace on the north side during the weekend. Violence by roving bands spread to south Omaha and downtown.”

It was against this late-summer backdrop that Tech players began thinking of the upcoming football season.

Sherwin Williams was a Tech player. His daddy had told him to stay away from the unrest in Omaha's streets. He went anyway. He and his teammates were all of 16 and 17 years old.

Rudy Smith, a retired World-Herald photographer (and first black World-Herald employee) who covered the riots and the Tech-Westside game, said he always wondered how those guys made it through being young at that time.

Yes, said Ingles, who is white, “There was a little bit of a black-white divide,” going into the Tech-Westside matchup.

“It wasn't a little bit,” Williams said. “It was a whole lot.”

The game had its own mini riots — feuding on the field and fights in the parking lots, violent incidents in the streets. Police wielded nightsticks to break up brawling fans. Wrote The World-Herald's Paul LeBar: “Their tempers frazzled by the beating, Tech's exhausted players later fought their way to buses outside (Bergquist Stadium's) northwest gate.”

Fighting to get to the bus?

“We started the fight,” Williams said.

He was accosted by a kid outside the stadium who asked him who won the game. Well, he knew who won the game — he was trying to start something. And Williams — now a pastor — obliged him, knocking him upside the head.

Williams remembers himself and a teammate swinging helmets against two white kids swinging knives.

Was the world against them? Several Tech players spent time on the sidelines, thrown out of the game. “We had 300 yards in penalties,” Williams said.

Actually it was 135 yards, but it might as well have been 300, it felt like 300. If only they could have just played football that night. Said Williams: “We were fighting instead of trying to play.”

Omaha Tech

The athletes speak glowingly of their time at Tech and its curriculum of both traditional college preparatory classes and technical training. Their memories are of a fine place where students looked forward to class and had many good teachers.

They'll also tell you that through the tension-filled '60s, many white students had been transferring out. Tech also was the school that accepted the kids who were kicked out of the other public schools, ostensibly so they could learn a trade. Yes, by 1966, Tech could be a rough place.

They remember many kids from their same neighborhoods headed down a career path at Tech, dutifully absorbed in vocational training: auto body, woodworking, culinary arts. Name a vocation, and there was a good chance Tech was turning out potential employees. Thank the heavens for that, they say, but did it imply that black students weren't good enough to go to college?

They remember a lot of messages like that growing up. It burns Faulkner when he thinks back — that society at the time seemed to put a lid on so many ambitions.

Here is a story about what it was like to be a black athlete for Omaha Tech. The school colors were maroon and white, but they put orange in the track uniforms. Why? Because in those days it was all hand-timing and hand-picking of winners. To the Tech runners, it seemed, whenever it was close at the tape, Tech never got the nod — even when it seemed obvious to the Tech runner that he had won. So one of the coaches opted for orange, surmising the orange glint at the tape would make it more clear who flashed across first.

The football team in 1966 was loaded with guys beyond good. It was so good that Rodgers, the future Heisman Trophy winner, only played defense. Rodgers was just a sophomore then, but still Johnny Rodgers not good enough to carry the ball?

“It was the only time in my life I ever played behind anybody,” Rodgers said. “And I should have played behind him. I couldn't complain.”

He was John Butler. He was that good.

Phil Wise. Ernie Britt. My goodness, Virgil Mitchell.

“Russell Harrison. You should have seen what he looked like,” Ingles remembered.

“Jim Brown,” Williams offered.

“Jim Brown,” Ingles agreed.

“There were some of the best athletes on that team I've ever seen,” said Smith, the World-Herald photographer.

Really? Well ...

» Wise went to UNO and was drafted in the sixth round by the New York Jets. He had a nine-year NFL career with the Jets and Vikings as a defensive back.

» Harrison earned a scholarship to Kansas State and was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams. He played two seasons in the NFL and one in the Canadian Football League before he injured both knees and retired.

» Britt was a high school All-American in football as a tight end and won the Metro Conference's 100-yard dash. He starred at Fairbury Junior College in basketball, leading his team in scoring and rebounding as a 6-footer. He was recruited to Nebraska as a football player after junior college. He tried several positions on offense but never gained a foothold as a full-time player. “Things just didn't work out for me there,” Britt says now.

» Williams was recruited by Big Eight schools but went to Peru State where he could play immediately. He went to junior college after his sophomore year and was then recruited to San Diego State, where he stayed briefly until a family member fell ill and he returned home.

They had God's gift of talent, but as teenagers from the north side they were realizing that talent may not count for much in the world they were coming to know.

The real world was right outside the school's front door, and frankly, the real world looked like a mess.

Over at Westside, kids were mostly unfamiliar with the hurdles many Tech students faced. Ingles can't remember for sure if there was a black student at Westside at the time. “Maybe one,” he says after giving it some thought.

The teams lived in separate worlds.

Guy the Fly

Devaney's Irish optimism can be attributed to the talent of his receivers, Split End Guy Ingles and Flanker Johnny Rodgers. Ingles, a senior, was overlooked by most college scouts during his high school career at Omaha Westside because he weighed only 140 pounds. He was discovered, quite by chance, during a game against Omaha Tech. Playing halfback, he scored four touchdowns and rushed for 170 yards. “Two Nebraska coaches happened to be at the game to look at guys on the other team,” Ingles says. “If I hadn't had a good day it is likely I never would have played college ball.”

— Sports Illustrated college football preview, 1970

About a year and a half ago, most of the men quoted in this story gathered at Big Mama's Kitchen off 45th and Wirt Streets for a mini-reunion, to remember the stories, to relive the game. The room changed when Ingles, now semi-retired after 27 years in the securities business, walked in. Rodgers greeted his old NU teammate in a bear hug. But you should have seen the other Tech alums, too. It meant something that Ingles had come to share this with them. It was right that he was there with them, after all those years.

They would always be together on that night in 1966.

They knew Ingles did something special that night, even as they also know they'll go to their graves thinking they should have shut him down.

Ingles had also never forgotten that night. It changed everything, that he'd had that game against that team. He got a scholarship to Nebraska out of that night. He went on to play on a national championship team. He went on to become “Guy the Fly.”

Faulkner had tried to warn his teammates about Ingles, but few took heed. Ingles? He couldn't have been that good. Omaha North had knocked the hell out of him during Westside's only loss. Jerry Murtaugh, a future Husker great himself, had just about killed him.

But Faulkner's buddy Eddie had known Ingles from way back, and said how fast Ingles was, what a great athlete he was. And if Eddie said …

The rest of the guys had little use for what Eddie said.

But then Westside started running that toss trap, and it worked. Again and again, instead of blocking the man in front of him, a guard would pull to the other side of the center and make a block. Ingles would make his cut, and then he could just run. He ran as if he were in a dream. He even juked Johnny, once.

“Ingles bounced past John Rodgers … for his final score,” The World-Herald reported.

“You shook me,” Rodgers said.

No, no, Ingles countered, it had just been luck. He'd just stopped, and Johnny had run right by him.

In other words, he shook him.

“That's what we call it,” Rodgers said.

Ingles struggled to explain it. It was just one of those nights. It was a “short week” for both teams. They had played the previous Friday and had to get ready by Wednesday — and the coaches at Tech installed a new defensive scheme to help cover for an injury to a key lineman. That's one full practice and a walk-through to get ready. Tech's defensive switch turned out to be a back-breaker. And then there was Ingles. He had a 30-yard punt return — “a broken-field masterpiece,” The World-Herald's LeBar wrote — called back by a penalty. So the very next play? He took that punt back 40.

In his four-touchdown night, Ingles gained 157 yards on 16 carries. He also caught four passes for 73 yards. That punt return set up the game's last touchdown. Tech couldn't stop him. They could feel everything slipping away.

“We were head tackling,” Faulkner said. “We weren't seeing Guy coming.”

Instead they were fighting, everything pouring out of them, and overwhelming them, everything they had seen and felt and heard and lived. Westside was beating them, Ingles was beating them. But so was being 16 or 17 in 1966.

That loss sticks with some of them to this day.

Ingles had never heard the other side of the story.

Ingles had never forgotten that night. But now? Now he knows he never will.

“When he took off on that first touchdown,” Faulkner said, and then he stopped. He didn't need to say more.

At that point, 44 years later, he could still see it. He held his head in his hands.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1021, thad.livingston@owh.com

Contact the writer: Thad Livingston

thad.livingston@owh.com    |   402-444-1021

Thad's in charge of The World-Herald sports department, a prolific operation that churns nearly 24/7.

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