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Calvin Strong rises above the crowd

JAMES R. BURNETT/THE WORLD-HERALD

Omaha North’s Calvin Strong leads Class A rushers with 2,465 yards. Holding him from left are teammates Adam Steinspring (blue), Quentin King (yellow), Tyler Hamilton (grey), Collin Weingaertner (yellow) and Elijah Hawkins (red). Mark Nelson, Michael Decker, DeValon Whitcomb and Tristan Frezell are behind him.

Omaha North running back Calvin Strong is breaking state records, but his biggest obstacles are off the field.

By Dirk Chatelain / World-Herald staff writer

The bus pulled out of Omaha North High School and rolled down the hill toward Paxton Boulevard. Left turn toward Skinner Elementary.

Calvin Strong, sophomore tailback, was getting ready for the 2012 regular-season finale against undefeated Millard North. Big game.

He looked out the window on his left and saw flashing lights and yellow police tape. He had a sinking feeling. That's where his friends were hanging out.

"Please, please, please no," he thought.

The bus didn't stop. It rolled to the interstate, leaving north Omaha behind. Calvin couldn't. He grabbed his phone, trying to get through to someone who might know.

Finally, he got a call back. It's Tyler. He's been shot. He's at the hospital.

Tyler!?

Strong thought about their friendship dating back to fourth grade. About all the times Tyler had come to his games. About hanging out on weekends.

The ride to Millard North took forever. Calvin tried to hype himself up. I'm playing for you, Tyler. I'm playing for you.

Two minutes into the game, he took a handoff 61 yards for a touchdown. At halftime, a teammate broke the news:

"I know I shouldn't tell you this right now, but your bro is gone."

“I know I shouldn't tell you this right now, but your bro is gone.”

Strong broke down. He didn't want to be there. He wanted to go home. He thought about Tyler's mom never seeing his 16th birthday. About the "little talks" Tyler had given him about Calvin's future.

"He'd say, 'I wanna see you get rich, bro. I want you to do this. We gotta get out of this. I don't wanna be in the hood all the time. I want to actually go out and explore places.

"'You gonna make it, bro. You've got something going for yourself. Keep going. Don't fall into the stuff that we're doing. You're actually gonna make it in life to do something you want to do.'"

"He's like, 'You like football, right?'

"I'm like, 'Yeah.' "

"Well, do this, man. Actually do this. We want to see you shine, bro."

* * *

Monday practice ends with sprints. The sun drops behind the goal posts and coach Larry Martin gives his North Vikings their playoff week itinerary.

Then Calvin Strong, smile on his face, files into the locker room, sheds his purple jersey and puts on his black Husker sweatshirt. He walks into the coaches office and plants himself behind a desk, where an assistant dumps another stack of recruiting letters.

Georgia. Florida State. Minnesota. Cal. Arkansas.

They're not personalized, just mini-advertisements to stay on Calvin's radar. He'll take 'em home and stuff them in a book bag with the others — "for memories." What about Nebraska?

"They've got my address now, so they just send them to my house."

'EVERYTHING I DO IS FOR MY TEAM'

Strong lives in a world where everyone seems to know his name, especially on Friday nights. Last week, in just his 10th game of the season, he set Class A rushing records for yards (2,465) and touchdowns (36). He's on pace to shatter Calvin Jones' record of 219.6 yards per game, which has stood 24 years.

Friday the Vikings host a Class A quarterfinal against Millard North, which beat them in last year's regular-season finale — and again in the state championship game.

Even if Omaha North loses, his junior season will go down as arguably the all-time greatest in a city that produced Ahman Green, Gale Sayers, Johnny Rodgers and dozens of other elite tailbacks.

MARK DAVIS/THE WORLD-HERALD

After 10 games, Strong has a record-breaking 2,465 yards and 36 touchdowns. The records had been 2,355 yards (in 13 games) by John McCardle of Millard North in 2002 and 34 touchdowns (in 12 games) by Danny Woodhead of North Platte in 2003.

Strong has a firm grasp on history — it's one of his favorite school subjects. He's fully aware of his potential. But he also recognizes obstacles off the field that threaten to do what no opponent has — stop him.

In the last two years, Strong has lost four friends to gunshots, two in the same day in May 2012. Some of his closest friends are active in gangs. Strong has turned away from that lifestyle, he says.

But in the neighborhood where he lives, the line between avoidance and participation is like a crack in the sidewalk. From afar, sometimes it's hard to tell where a kid stands.

Strong lives with his younger brother and dad, who works two jobs — at McDonald's and at a Bucky's convenience store. Calvin's family has taught him right and wrong, coach Martin says, but he has a lot of unsupervised time.

"About every other night I go to bed hoping he's OK," said Damon Benning, North assistant coach. "You just hope the environment doesn't get him, but I can't tell you that it doesn't try."

* * *

The state's best tailback once was scared to be tackled.

Calvin liked playing in the park or backyard, but wearing pads? Getting hit? Yikes. He watched NFL games on TV and thought, "Oooooh, huh uh, that's not me."

He speaks so quickly, it's hard to keep up. It's one of his endearing traits, along with his affection for the Harlem Shake.

"When that first came out, he must have done eight or 10 of them," Martin said.

Coaches enjoy his quick smile and "kind heart." He doesn't complain about carries. He deflects praise to his blockers — North boasts one of the state's best offensive lines. He celebrates a teammate's touchdown like it's his own.

Athleticism runs in the Strong family. Calvin's dad, who shares his name, was a basketball star at Omaha South and Omaha Flanagan in the '90s. Young Calvin grew up wrestling. He's only 5-foot-9, 170 pounds now, but back then he was one of the big kids. Friends like Tyler used to call him when they were in trouble: "Hey bro, these dudes are messing with us. Come down here and take care of it."

JAMES R. BURNETT/THE WORLD-HERALD

The 5-foot-9, 170-pound junior works hard, but Strong doesn't complain about carries and deflects any praise to his teammates.

In fourth grade, Calvin's uncle persuaded his dad to put him on the Little Vikes football team. Coaches put Calvin on the line. Finally, the last game of the season, he got to carry the ball. He was hooked.

At King Science Center, he became a middle-school phenom, thriving in football and going undefeated in wrestling. The mat is where Martin got to know him. Coach got close to the family, admiring how Calvin's dad told the kid what he needed to hear, not what he wanted to hear.

As a freshman, he returned kicks for North. As a sophomore, he became the workhorse, rushing for 1,892 yards. His style is reminiscent of Ameer Abdullah. He's quick, decisive and — most of all — competitive.

"He takes pride in making you tap out," Benning said. "That's his whole thing. He wants to play harder, longer than you will. He genuinely gets satisfaction out of punishing you. It's probably my favorite quality."

Omaha used to produce elite tailbacks every few years. From 1984 to '95, Nebraska alone signed eight, all of whom contributed:

» Keith Jones (Central, '84)

» Ken Clark (Bryan, '85)

» Leodis Flowers (Central, '87)

» George Achola (Prep, '87)

» Calvin Jones (Central, '90)

» Damon Benning (Northwest, '92)

» Clinton Childs (North, '92)

» Ahman Green (Central, '95)

The past decade, tailback talent has dried up in Omaha, making Strong's performances even more notable. The Friday night crowds include former teachers and coaches, friends and relatives, strangers who want to see Omaha's next great running back before he plays on Saturdays, maybe even Sundays.

The goals, at this point, are limitless.

"They want to see me go down as a legend in this game," Calvin said. "That's what I want to do. I want to be known as the best running back coming out of the state of Nebraska. ...

"I want to be the one that wins the Heisman. I want to be the one that breaks every record."

* * *

Coach Martin's philosophy is honesty, especially when it comes to academics.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

"I want to be the one that wins the Heisman," Strong said. "I want to be the one that breaks every record."

So after mid-quarter progress reports in September, Martin sat down with his star tailback and laid out the path to a Division I scholarship.

Martin has invested hundreds of hours into Calvin, and most of that is off the field. Helping him stay organized. Facilitating time with tutors and mentors, including Martin's wife.

Strong needs to work hard to get good grades. He can't afford slip-ups, like he experienced a year ago after Tyler's death.

In the coaches office, Martin showed Strong the NCAA's sliding scale for qualification. The worse your core GPA, the better you have to score on the ACT. Suddenly reality set in. Strong felt like that fourth-grade kid fearful of being tackled.

He excused himself to the bathroom and cried.

"Everybody has those days," Calvin said. "You just gotta get everything out."

Said Martin: "If Calvin doesn't make the ACT requirement, everybody's going to know about it because they know who he is. It's a tremendous amount of pressure."

Not as much pressure as he faces when he leaves North High, walks down the hill and enters a neighborhood in which some teenagers wield handguns. Strong knows the lifestyle. A few years ago, he drifted into it.

Football changed his mind. He didn't want his picture on a T-shirt beneath the words "Rest in Peace."

"I was like, dang, these people are dying. I've got something really going for myself. I can't be the one who's gang-banging, running the streets all different hours of the night.

"That's not the type of dude I want to be. That's not the type of dude I am."

But how does a 16-year-old separate himself from that world, especially when it means turning his back on the same kids who wore the Little Vikes uniform back in fourth grade?

"One gift Calvin has," Martin said, "is that he wants to help some of his friends that are struggling in those areas. I admire him for that, but he's gotta be careful that he's not getting taken advantage of."

ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE WORLD-HERALD

As a sophomore last year, Strong helped the Vikings to a 10-3 record and their first appearance in the Class A state finals. They lost 17-14 to Millard North.

Coaches and administrators know he's a bright light in his community. But bright lights can attract all kinds.

Calvin tries to walk the line. He thanks people for coming to his games. And vows to maximize the one thing that makes him different.

"Football is my life right now," he said. "Without football, I really don't know what I'd be doing."

Strong wants to be known across the country. He wants to make it big. For his dad who works two jobs. For Tyler and the friends who have been shot — before every game, Calvin prays that they'll protect him on the field.

For North High and for his neighborhood.

"People don't think kids from Omaha can really amount to anything. They think all kids down in north Omaha are gang-bangers. Shooters, killers. I'm trying to make a stand for black kids in the community."

* * *

He loves the spotlight, the opportunity to get the crowd hyped up, the chance to overpower a defense. He loves getting the ball on fourth-and-short and finding a way to move the chains.

He isn't as big as Calvin Jones. He isn't as fast as Ahman Green.

What Calvin Strong has is endurance, toughness and phenomenal balance. He runs low to the ground and doesn't give defenders much of a target.

"In two years, I haven't seen a team get a clean shot at him," Benning said.

"If you hit him," Burke coach Paul Limongi said, "he just kind of bounces off, plants his foot and goes a totally different direction than when he started."

He's a hard kid to bring down. He needs to be.

Over the next year, Strong will seek North High's first football state championship. He'll chase another round of rushing records. He'll try to secure a scholarship to one of those schools with the fancy recruiting letters.

He can do it. But performing inside the white lines will be the easy part.

Contact the writer:

402-649-1461, dirk.chatelain@owh.com; twitter.com/dirkchatelain


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