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Chatelain: It took 13 years to tell this fascinating, complicated story about a lost neighborhood

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This started way back in 2006.

I was a second-year World-Herald reporter researching Omahan Marlin Briscoe, who’d recently appeared in a Nike commercial with NFL legends. Finally, “Marlin the Magician” was receiving a little national acclaim for being pro football’s first black starting quarterback.

Briscoe’s achievement fascinated me, not just because of its significance, but because of its time. 1968.

I didn’t have to be a historian to recognize the world’s volatility then. I also knew that Briscoe wasn’t alone.

Of the five greatest Nebraska athletes of all time, four were blacks in the 1950s and ‘60s. Bob Gibson. Gale Sayers. Bob Boozer. Johnny Rodgers.

So I started digging into their careers, too. What were they doing in ‘68? That’s when a lightning bolt hit me. A single date that connected them.

I was hooked.

I met Rodney Wead, the unofficial narrator, inspiration and chief source for this project. He saw the story before I did. Wead introduced me to a magical world I didn’t know existed. A lost neighborhood where black kids thrived in the shadow of the civil rights movement.

I was born in 1981. I grew up in a town of 392 people. All white. My view of North Omaha consisted of stigmas and stereotypes. Burned-out buildings and abandoned lots. Wead showed me what the place was before ’68.

In my mind, the story transformed from “what happened” to “how it happened” and “why it ended” — far more complicated than I expected. Those next few years, I juggled research with daily journalism. Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini often distracted me from the Omaha Star archives.

By early 2009, I’d interviewed most of the main characters. But I still didn’t know enough. And rather than pushing through, I found other great stories. I put my Gibson and Sayers files on the shelf.

Nine years passed.

But “North Omaha ’68” gnawed at me. When people asked about the project, I had no good answer. I felt regret and shame. Even more so when men I’d interviewed, especially Bob Boozer, Don Benning and Bob Rodgers, died.

I wrote their obituaries. But I knew a bigger story that connected them.

In August 2018, I decided it was now or never for “North Omaha ‘68.” The 50-year anniversary of that landmark year.

Of course, I blew that deadline. And the next one in February. And the next one in April. The project kept getting longer and longer. More interviews. More research. More themes.

But it also gained depth and credibility. I shared opening chapters with many of North Omaha’s oldest leaders, who encouraged its completion. Over and over, I heard them say, “This story needs to be told.”

I’m a decade behind schedule, but I hope the timing is right.

Reporter - Sports

Dirk writes stories and columns about Husker football in addition to covering general assignments and enterprise for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @dirkchatelain. Phone: 402-444-1062.

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