Decorated college and high school football and wrestling star. High school teacher, coach and administrator. But Charles Bryant was foremost a pioneer.
He had to deal with the social conventions of his time. Not to mention he had to start his Nebraska football career as a lineman while weighing under 200 pounds.
Bryant, an all-state athlete at Omaha South before graduating in 1950, became the first black football player of the modern era at Nebraska in 1952. NU had banned blacks from athletic competition altogether from 1917 until the late 1940s.
Just because Bryant earned his way onto the playing fields at NU doesn’t mean he was welcomed as an equal member of the team.
Bryant, who died in 2004 at age 71, recalled in a 1999 World-Herald story how he was treated "like a spaceman" at the school. His teammates shunned him, especially when he first joined the squad. And he was made to feel even more like an outsider — forced to sleep at the "black YMCA" during a trip to Oklahoma, asked to avoid the lobby and swimming pool at a hotel in Miami — when Nebraska traveled for road games.
His never-say-die attitude took him a long way, when many young black Nebraskans never came close to fulfilling their academic and athletic potential.
When Don Benning was hired at Omaha University (now the University of Nebraska at Omaha) in 1963, he became the first black head coach — of any sport — at a predominantly white university in the United States. Benning, who led Omaha U. to the 1970 NAIA national wrestling championship, took inspiration in Bryant’s pioneering ways.
"People were always telling Charlie he couldn’t do this or couldn’t do that, but I don’t think he ever took no for an answer," said Benning, an Omaha North graduate. "He had a tremendous will about him."
Bryant taught for 23 years in the Omaha Public Schools system and in 1973 was hired as assistant principal at Omaha Benson. He moved to Omaha Bryan in 1977 and served as athletic director. Prior to that, Bryant was an assistant football coach at Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs and became the first black to earn a head coaching job in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area when he took over the school’s wrestling program in 1962.
Played for: Omaha South High, Nebraska Cornhuskers and Green Bay Packers
Bryant was No. 89 in the inaugural Nebraska 100 list in 2005. See more about the 2005 list »