A sport that was once widely played has disappeared in the last couple generations, but with his love for the game, the secretary for the Greater Omaha Horseshoe League is attempting to revive the game back to what it once was.
“For me it’s a lot of fun and it’s competitive,” Nick Blank said. “I’ve played a lot of sports and horseshoes is great exercise walking back and forth, but its not an extreme sport. You just get a lot out of it.”
Blank took over as secretary of the GOHL in 2016 after the league went through a handful of secretaries over the previous five years.
The GOHL has summer and winter leagues with end of season parties at the end of each. When the former secretary announced his decision to step down at the end of summer party in 2015, Blank came forward to provide consistency for the league and took over the position in 2016.
“The secretary before me saw how much I loved playing and thought I’d be a good fit to fill the position,” Blank said. “So during the end of the season party when no one came forward to fill the position, I just looked at my wife and told her I was going to do it.”
Blank joined the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association in 2015 to start pitching competitively.
In 2016, his first year as secretary, Blank received an award from NHPA for a 60 percent increase in membership.
“That was pretty cool to get and be recognized for,” Blank said. “Because when I took over this league, there were five guys in our league.”
Now in the 2019 summer league, there are 13 teams in the GOHL that play throughout the week. As secretary, Blank is in charge of paying for the indoor facility, paying utilities, maintenance, gathering league fees and planning end of season parties. He even built the GOHL website for people to educate themselves about the sport.
The position makes for a lot of work while playing two nights in the summer and three nights in the winter and holding a full-time job.
“I really enjoy it,” Blank said. “But there are those times where it’s tough because people don’t realize what you do for the league. It’s nonprofit, so I don’t make any of the money.”
Blank plays in the competitive “A” league with his home base being Olde Towne Tavern in Bellevue. The ages in the league range from 18 to 91.
Each team is sponsored by bars that have horseshoe pits. Blank and his team travel, for the most part, to a different bar each week depending on the league schedule.
Most of the throwers in the league are father-son combinations, which brings an unique aspect to the league.
“It just makes it funner. Just dads and their kids pitching horseshoes. I just think it’s cool and my kids think it’s cool,” Blank said. “My buddies have their kids and it just seems like a really good connection.”
Blank’s son, Christian, plays in the same league. He started horseshoes four years ago.
“He would just tell me, ‘Just come with me to pitch horseshoes. If you like it then play and if you don’t then don’t,’” Christian said.
Well after Christian learned to make the horseshoes to the pit, he quickly learned to like to play. What was once a father inviting his son for a sport he loves turned into an enjoyable competiton for both.
“Before I started throwing horseshoes with my dad, I didn’t even know horseshoes was a thing, especially with how competitive it is now,” Christian said. “I grew up around rivers and lakes so I played horseshoes like that. But that was with sand and I didn’t know it could be competitive with tournaments and stuff.”
After winning junior tournaments and meeting new people, Christian was all in on his passion for horseshoes. He’s now telling his friends to come out and see if they find the same enjoyment he does.
He compares the motions of throwing horseshoes to the motions of bowling.
It’s a unique way the league is played, but Nick Blank said over the past couple years the traveling bar league has had issues with bars no longer having horseshoes and people traveling to different bar pits each week.
Blank is in the process of trying to bring everyone together at one location each week in the summer, while also trying to move the league further west.
All the league teams are stationed on the east side of Omaha with bars out west, for the most part, not having horseshoe pits. He is in talks with the Papillion-La Vista recreation board about making a 20 horseshoe pit destination in the area.
“It would be so much fun to be with a bigger group of people,” Blank said.
Having a bigger group in one central location, Blank said, would make for a better atmosphere for teams all to be together on the same night, while also giving western Nebraska a place to hold tournaments, even a state tournament.
There are usually over 200 in the Nebraska state tournament, which lasts three days.
“You have to educate them and let them know it’s a big deal. We go to the state tournaments here around Nebraska, but I’d like the state tournament to come here,” Blank said. “We drive eight hours to Scottsbluff to pitch in the state tournament when there are more throwers in the eastern part of Nebraska compared to the western part.
“It’d be great revenue for the city too.”
The GOHL also has an indoor facility for winter leagues — located just south of 90th and Fort streets. After moving around from location to location, the facility has been the winter staple since 2014.
“From pictures I’ve seen from the past, our facility now is, by far, way better than what they’ve had,” Blank said. “It’s come a long ways.”
With leagues being played during the weekdays, members for the facility are given their own key to practice on their own Friday through Sunday afternoons.
Playing in the league while also having a practice facility has paid off for Nick and Christian, who have won multiple tournaments in Nebraska. Christian has won three NHPA Junior State Championships himself over the past three years. The state tournaments were in Norfolk, Scottsbluff and Ainsworth over the past three years.
Since becoming secretary, Nick Blank hasn’t played in as many tournaments as he’d like. He won two tournaments in 2016, three class tournaments in 2017 and a tournament in 2018.
The duo also won a tournament in Topeka, Kan.
Nick even found enough time to become the Class A NHPA State Champion in 2018, while adding a gold medal and two silver medals in the Cornhusker State Games.
Nick won’t be participating in the state games in the coming weeks because he’s traveling to Wichita Falls, Tex., to compete in his first NHPA World Tournament Championships the same week.
There are more than 900 participants from the U.S. participating, including more than 20 from Nebraska, while 68 are coming from overseas.
“I always come in with high expectations, mostly because that’s the way I approach life. I think that’s the problem with me. I always expect too much,” Blank said. “But I’m just going to try to play it as cool as I can and not expect so much. If I can get a payout for the top six to place then I’d be happy.”
Christian has plans to eventually compete at that level. As a junior thrower he threw from 30 feet, but now that he’s 18 years old he’s moved back to 40 feet, which he said has taken some getting used to.
“Since I’ve moved back, my (ringer) average has went down,” he said. “I just want to get up there in the A class and throw 50-60 percent a game. I just want to keep progressing and moving forward.”
Unlike most backyard horseshoes, which use sand, NHPA rules require clay pits. Nick Blank said both have their positives, but clay pits call for a little more accuracy when tossing.
“Sand is a lot more forgiving. It slides more when it lands as compared to clay, if it doesn’t land completely flat it’s likely it’s going to bounce and go out of there,” he said. “Also, with sand versus clay, when the shoe hits the sand you get sand everywhere and you have the sand where you throw so you have to sweep your platform all the time.”
Along with trying to create a central location for the GOHL, Nick has plans to renovate the GOHL indoor facility with new equipment when he gets back from Texas.
“I’m going to take my experiences from the world tournament and implement them into our facility,” he said.
As for the disconnect in the last few decades compared to now, Blank thinks people think the game is to be played in someone’s backyard.
“I just think games like cornhole and washers is just closer and it’s easier for people. Then in horseshoes, people don’t know the proper rules,” he said.
“Kids and women can pitch from 30 feet, where men pitch from 40 feet. I just don’t think people know the rules and think it’s just a backyard drinking sport.
“People just need to know about it.”