‘You’ve got to roll with the punches to get to what’s real’ Go ahead, Jump!

By Jason Schock    
    While Diamond David Lee Roth may not climb up onto, let alone take flight from, a drum riser these days, there’s a record-breaking Falls City High School track and field athlete of similar vintage who is still standing there with his back against the record machine.
    And Raph Thompson can still “Get up!”
    It was sadly poetic that DLR and the Brothers Van Halen this summer performed the 1984 B-side “Drop Dead Legs” for audiences throughout the United States more than three decades after the pinnacle of the band’s popularity. It was likely a vinyl version of a much more vigorous VH that filled the air when Thompson was jumping into the record books 30 years ago, so it’s truly inspirational that when the FCHS Class of 1985 met for its 30-year reunion in June, Thompson not only remained agile enough to perform the classics, he even had forthcoming chart move on the horizon.
    More than three decades after triple-jumping 46-7 1/2 to put his name — presumably, at this point, for the rest of time — in FCHS’ record book, and a couple months removed from a 30-year class reunion and 47th birthday, Thompson stepped back into the track spikes, counted his steps, practiced his takeoffs and landings and stretched those hip flexors the rest of us misplaced about same the time our 32-inch waists went missing. It’s not just flexing hips, either. According to experts, the triple jump utilizes “buttocks” and “torsos” and legs actually “swing” and knees “collapse.”  
     Actually, triple jump by most accounts, puts more stress on an athlete’s body than any other field event. It’s comprised of the same four phases that get a short guy on a bar stool: Approach, hop, step and jump, but different.
     According to Biology of Sport, a journal published by the National Library of Medicine, the triple jump is a precise and demanding athletic move that exposes an ill-conditioned or otherwise untrained athlete to significant risk of injury to muscles, tendons and joints “due to the high impact forces from the ground and powerful muscle/tendon efforts. The triple jump is therefore one of the most technically and physically demanding athletic events.”
    No Tiger athlete has jumped like Thompson, an employee at Falls City Mercantile for many years, and few guys in the U.S. approaching 50 can (or would dare try).
    On Aug. 2 at the State Games of America, Thompson at Lincoln High School jumped 33-feet, 8 1/2 inches to grab the Silver in the 45-49 Age Division. Only Eric Hunter Johnson, of Raleigh, N.C., one of the highest ranked jumpers in the country, beat Thompson and it was by fewer than two inches. Two other guys ages 45-49 competed, but neither eclipsed 30 feet, however an Arkansas jumper, Mike Henson, went 34-4 in the 50-54 age group.
    More than 1,000 athletes in 800 events competed in the 2015 State Games.
    Today, it seems, its popular for pundits to compare athletes from different generations. Suppose because it’s popular to argue. There’s also a commonly held belief that today’s athletes are superior to those who came before them.
    In that light, it delights us here at The Journal to report that had Raph Thompson jumped 46-7 1/2 at Omaha Burke High School last May, as he did as a teenage Tiger in 1985, he would’ve been the 2015 Class B State Champion. In Class A, he would’ve placed third.
    Furthermore, the 47-year-old Raph Thompson who jumped 33-8 1/2 a month ago would’ve been a state qualifier in Class D at the State Track Meet.
    SNL’s Sally O’Malley was 50, liked to kick and stretch and it was funny.
    Raph Thompson is simply just kicking butt. No joke.

The ultimate Sunday Funday

The Tanner Shelby Merz Foundation - and the Falls City community - was well represented and easy to find among the 36,000 or so fans in Royal blue Sunday afternoon. All decked out in orange, Gordo Nation became Merz Country and witnessed the Royals’ 5-4 series-sweeping win over Chicago.
    Speaking of the Royal All-Star and Gold Glove left fielder, Alex Gordon may be riding the pine and resting an angry groin injury another month while KC cruises to its first Division title since 1985 (12-game lead and AL’s best record last I checked), but he’s still Fan Favorite No. 1, particularly to young Huskers.
    Take Silas Amanullah (right), 10-year-old son of Sara Amanullah Ruiz and soon-to-be South School fifth grader, who just experienced a time in his life he will never forget - and the TSMF made it happen. His mom won the “Alex Gordon Meet & Greet” at this summer’s TSMF “Memorial Cruise”  auction and Silas, as well as Marc and Sally Merz, met Gordon and the other players and coaches under Kauffman Stadium after Sunday’s victory.
    “He was smiling all day and was quite bashful when he walked up,” Sara said. “He’s speechless right now. He is such a great kid he deserved to meet him.”
    And Gordon’s a great guy, as well as a great player; one KC will not let leave via free agency this winter, right? He’s helped mold this team on the field as much as GMDM has on the waiver wire. On the field - and in the clubhouse. Shortstop Alcides Escobar came around to shake hands, they met Manager Ned Yost and Silas took a good-natured bump on the noggin from pitcher Danny Duffy, even though Danny had kind of a rough afternoon.
    “We’re so glad TSMF had this up for auction and we would do it again!,” Sara said.
    The TSMF is “a non-profit organization working toward safety in athletics for our youth today and in years to come by bring awareness to TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).”
    The Foundation was established in honor of Tanner Merz, 21-year-old son of Marc and Sally, who passed away tragically in a car accident on March 30, 2013.

Home Improvements

By Jason Schock    
    The Fiedler Family Ball Complex is just a couple years old, but it’s already undergone some nice upgrades, thanks in large part to a $10,000 Union Pacific grant, additional funding from Falls City Recreation and manual labor provided by City workers.
    Sturdy new iron benches, trash cans and picnic tables are new additions to both concession areas and a concrete walkway connects the two parking lots adjacent to Hartman, Southeast Nebraska Communications, Vandeberg and F&M Bank Fields. Brian Poppe (photographed, center), chairman of the Ballpark Improvement Committee that first envisioned the $2 million “Field of Dreams,” applied for the UP grant on behalf of FC Rec; Kevin Malone (left) has long served as Rec Secretary and Mayor Jerry Oliver (right) is shown here representing the City of Falls City, which provided the man hours needed to install the materials.
    Fiedler Field has been a busy place since it’s grand opening in April of 2013. It spawned FC High School Tiger Baseball in the spring, and hosted ASA State Softball Tournaments in 2014 and ‘15 (hosting 17 teams for 37 games over a single weekend in July) to go along with the annual Rec League action throughout the Fourth of July. As the calendar turns to August, the bustling Fiedler Complex quiets down, for a moment. But don’t blink: FC High School Tiger Softball hosts its ‘15 home opener Aug. 28.
    It’s the crown jewel Poppe and the Ballpark Improvement Committee envisioned — and the one Rodney Vandeberg bought, sold and celebrated.
    “Ladies and gentlemen, the ceremonial ribbon has been cut and I am pleased to announce that this beautifully remodeled complex is now an official part of this community!,” he said that sunny spring afternoon.
    Sadly, the first pitch of the 2015 summer season was still in the glove when Rod passed away the morning of Saturday, May 23, at the age of 78. But before he clipped the ribbon two years prior, he specifically thanked both Poppe and Malone for helping make the ballpark dream a reality. He knew the facility was in great hands — and the new upgrades provide further visual affirmation.    
    “I will think about you guys every time I drive by this great complex,” he said.
    Likewise, we should all tip our cap to Rod when we drive by, find a seat in the bleachers or take the field at that great complex. Same goes for the Falls City Library & Arts Center, FC Aquatic Center and Community Medical Center. The man could play ball - hardball, oftentimes.
    Luckily, Rod went to bat for Falls City, and had some real good guys on deck.

Cinderella Lives


The Falls City Travelers 14-and-Under Softball Team saved its best for last in 2015, capturing the ASA Class D State Tournament Championship this Sunday in Hastings. FC entered the event with a pedestrian 14-12 record and didn’t finish higher than third in any regular season tourney, but Coach Rich Witt’s girls got on a roll at the right time, posting a perfect 5-0 record over the course of two days. After a pair of blowout victories over Friend (13-0) and Pierce (14-2) Saturday morning, the Travelers earned a come-from-behind 16-9 win over O’Neill that night, overcoming an early 4-1 deficit and breaking a 6-6 tie with a 10-run fifth inning explosion. Sunday, FC advanced to the title game with a dramatic comeback over Albion. Trailing 4-3 after five complete innings, FC used a one-out, four-run sixth to get the upper hand in a 10-6 win. Albion defeated O’Neill to set up a rematch with FC, but they hardly had enough left in the tank to touch FC pitcher Maggie McNeely, who tossed a two-hitter over seven innings in a 5-0 championship game victory.
    The state championship was the fifth in three years and ninth overall for the Travelers program, which next summer will celebrate it’s 20th season.
    “This was kind of a rebuilding season for us,” Travelers founder and coach Carl Messner said, “with a lot of new players and a lot of young players at all age groups. We didn’t field a 18-under team this year, not having any older players. But even with just four age groups we still won 82 games, finishing the season 82-49-1, and also went over the 1,200-win mark.”
    “I’m looking forward to next year; we will be more experienced at all ages and will have 18-and-Under again. I’m setting a goal to next year’s players to win at least 90 games, so we can top the 1,300-win mark.”
    The Travelers 14s photographed above, front row, from left: Mackensie Nelson, Mackenzie Witt, Chloe Schock, Randee Witt, Maggie McNeely; back row, coach Rich Witt, Teresa Morehead, Abbey Balfour, Nadia Klein, Hannah Kirkendall and coach Travis Witt.

Johnny ‘The Jet’ lands at the FC Library

By Jason Schock    
    Mr. Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers, the 1972 Heisman Trophy winner and considered the best football player to ever play at Nebraska or all of the Big 8 Conference, spoke to a group of local youth about pursuing dreams when faced with adversities, setting goals, investing in oneself and investing in others during “An Afternoon with the Heisman” Wednesday, June 24 at the Falls City Library & Arts Center.
    Rodgers spoke of growing up poor in the “The Flatts” of Logan Fontenelle projects, without running water or electricity. And how the sickly kid - he suffered from asthma and tuberculosis - once ran away from a nasty rooster to the outhouse on cold winter mornings before he eluded lead-footed Sooners in Norman to the delight of announcer Lyell Bremser.
    “I’ve learned probably more from my mistakes than from my successes,” he said. “You don’t always make the right move. You can fake yourself right into harm’s way or you can shake yourself right through it. But you have to be willing to take a chance.”
    To be sure, the legend of Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers came from perhaps the most explosive, agile set of crazy legs ever to set foot on a college football field. The records that have stood for 40 years and the smart money, considering they held firm during the glorious 90s, says most will stand another 400.
    He turned in the single greatest play, prompting the single most dramatic radio call, in the single greatest Nebraska football victory, in the greatest game ever played. It took him all of four minutes to tear ‘em loose from their shoes - Bremser somehow kept up as the “Jet,” at least compared to those clumsy-looking Sooners, seemed to threaten the sound barrier. Rodgers soared where the air was thin long before his senior season at Nebraska, but he kept climbing, stopping only briefly in New York to grab a Heisman before capping it all with, naturally, the greatest single-game performance in Nebraska and perhaps even all of college football history: Rushing for three scores, catching a 50-yard TD bomb and even throwing a 52-yard TD pass in a 40-6 Orange Bowl win over Notre Dame.
    Yes, when it comes to Nebraska football, Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers hovers by himself - with all due respect to Mike Rozier, Eric Crouch, Tommie Frazier and Ndamukong Suh and the other 89 All-Americans - up in the stratosphere where no other man, woman or child can climb. Others can, however, own a bronze trophy depicting Rodgers’ escape from OU’s Greg Pruitt in that aforementioned Game of the Century if they win the recently founded “Jet Award,” given annually to the best return specialist in the country. The “Jet Award” is named after the greatest return man ever, but it wouldn’t exist if not for Falls City’s William Reed, the man behind the scenes who got the event off the ground.    
    Rodgers wasn’t the first of his kind off the Omaha production line so unlike all other college football players of the time that announcers spoke in terms of air and space travel. Omaha Central’s Gale Sayers, “The Kansas Comet,” was a brilliant fleeting flash across the sky that illuminated briefly Memorial Stadium, not Allen Fieldhouse, at the University of Kansas.
    “The Jet,” too, caused a sonic boom over a Memorial Stadium. While Rodgers was certainly less an anomaly at Nebraska than Sayers was at KU, both were revolutionary players who to this day are the very best players to wear their respective school colors. No, the oft-used “arguably the best” doesn’t apply here. Sayers, because of what he accomplished in six tragically short injury-plagued years for the Chicago Bears, is considered by many to be the greatest running back to play the game, let alone, with all due respect to our southerly hoops heavyweights, the best at KU. Rodgers played in Canada, where the top “sport” appears to be driving semis on ice. Canadian football might be televised somewhere in those 1,000 channels, but who would know for certain? And in 1972 in this country, “The Jet” would’ve had to make a cameo on “Hee Haw” to get screen time and bib overalls and straw hats really aren’t his style.
    Even comparing Rodgers and Sayers would undoubtedly be considered ludicrous to many and downright blasphemous in Kansas and/or Chicago. The reality, however, is that Sayers’ college career hardly compares. Rodgers gained 6,059 all-purpose yards (Sayers, 3,917) and led Nebraska to a 32-2-2 record and its first two national titles (KU, 12-8-1 and no bowl berths during Sayers’ career). Rodgers, who still holds NCAA records for punt return touchdowns in a career (seven) and most career kick return touchdowns (nine), ranks as Nebraska’s all-time leading pass receiver with 143 catches for 2,479 yards, and ranks fifth in points with 264 on 44 touchdowns in his career. In all, he currently holds or shares 41 school records.
    Two main points to all this: 1. Sayers, obviously, should’ve played at Nebraska (let that be a lesson to all great young players); and 2. Rodgers is the best player from the winningest college football program in the country the last 50 years and a valid argument, at least, can be made that he was a better college player than the legendary Gale Sayers. Hence, “The Jet” Award.
    Call it a sixth sense or a second set of eyes, but Rodgers possessed an uncanny ability to elude defenders he couldn’t possibly see. On offense, when the Huskers needed a play, he and quarterback Jerry Tagge would collaborate in the huddle.
    “When push came to shove we called plays ourselves. Tagge would ask, ‘What can you do? What can we get?’ because I was setting up the guy covering me for something. I’d be running down-and-outs all day long just so I could run the post-and-go or whatever we needed. ‘Is he ready yet? Tagge would ask. ‘He’s ready,’ I’d say. I always had the attitude if we were in trouble I want the ball because I could get it done.
    “I was fortunate enough to come along when I did. I don’t know if I could make it now,” he said. “Coaches don’t let you be who you are. They try to coach you to who they are. They’re not letting the great ones be great. You can’t teach this stuff. If you have to think, you’re already too slow. It’s reaction. You have to react. You have to be free and open to sense it and feel it.”
    Rodgers first made headlines at age 8 by diving over a human pyramid his Lothrop Grade School tumbling teammates. Despite being younger and smaller than the youths playing at Kountze Park, his athleticism gained him entry into sandlot football and baseball contests there that included such future greats as Sayers, Marlin Briscoe and Ron Boone.
    At Nebraska, after earning All-Big Eight honors as a sophomore slotback and wide receiver in 1970, Rodgers blossomed as a national star in 1971 to help lead Nebraska to its second consecutive national championship. It was Rodgers’ sensational 72-yard punt return for the first touchdown that ignited the Huskers’ thrilling 35-31 victory over Oklahoma in the “Game of the Century” in 1971. His 77-yard punt return touchdown against Alabama helped trigger the 38-6 Orange Bowl victory that sewed up Nebraska’s second national title.
    Capping a tremendous career with a fantastic final performance, Rodgers devastated Notre Dame in the 1973 Orange Bowl. In the most sensational finale ever for a Heisman winner, Rodgers moved into the I-back spot and blitzed the Irish with four touchdowns, runs of eight, four and five yards, and a 50-yard pass from quarterback Dave Humm. Rodgers passed for another, a 52-yard strike to Frosty Anderson. Rodgers’ point total set an Orange Bowl record.
    The top pass receiver and kick return man in Big Eight history, Rodgers owns 41 school records, seven conference records and four NCAA records. He was named ABC-Chevrolet Offensive Player of the Year in 1972 and received a $5,000 scholarship. Few players in NCAA history have shown Rodgers’ versatility. During his three-year career, in which Nebraska posted a 32-2-2 record, Rodgers gained a then-NCAA-record 5,487 all-purpose yards with a total of 6,059 including bowl games. His 13.8 career average was a national record for yards per touch. Rodgers was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on Dec. 14, 2000, in New York.
    More recently, Rodgers was one of six Huskers named to Sports Illustrated’s 85-player All-Century Team, joining Mike Rozier, Rich Glover, Dean Steinkuhler, Tommie Frazier and Aaron Taylor.
    Rodgers, who still holds NCAA records for punt return touchdowns in a career (seven) and most career kick return touchdowns (nine), ranks as Nebraska’s all-time leading pass receiver with 143 catches for 2,479 yards, and ranks fifth in points with 264 on 44 touchdowns in his career. In all, he currently holds or shares 41 school records, including most career all-purpose yards (5,586), most touchdown receptions in a season (11) and career (25) and most receiving yards in a career (2,479).