Monday, November 23, 2015
Most days, Coach Gannie spends as much time in a van as he does on a field.
Here he is on a crisp fall Wednesday, sliding into the front seat of a white 15-passenger van outside an Omaha Housing Authority office at 21st and Ames. His day job as a housing inspector has just ended, and now it’s time to start his route.
He steers up Ames Avenue, beginning an hourlong trip that will take him all over north Omaha to the homes of players in the youth football program he started 27 years ago. Then will come a two-hour practice on an old baseball field the city has loaned the team, called Heavy Hitters. Then comes an hour getting the players home.
Whether he’s behind the wheel or on the field, the big man with a big voice and bigger heart will keep pounding his big message: You are important. You belong. And while you’re squeezed into this van or running on this big grassy lot, you may learn a few things. Like passing. And catching. And what it takes to become successful off the field.
These are lessons Coach Gannie Clark has taught to hundreds of youths over the years, in actions and in a booming voice that hasn’t lost the Alabama twang of his native state after decades in Omaha.
In Gannie Clark’s van after a chilly game, players, from left, D’marius Mumphrey, Demarea Station, Magal Chol, Jerkari Ivory and Ka’Maro Station warm up with hot chocolate. BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Gallery: More photos of Clark and the Heavy Hitters
The Thankful Edition
All around you, in towns big and small, people are quietly performing selfless deeds to make our communities stronger. The good life? You bet. Today we’d like you to meet just a few of these everyday heroes.
The Mentor: Rachael Johnson
The Teacher: JJ Ventura
The Builder: Steve Skidmore
The Volunteer: Win Finegan
“What’s that word we don’t use, Havier?” Coach Gannie, whose name is pronounced GAIN-ee, hollers at the first kid who has climbed into the van.
Havier White, age 12, answers: “The ‘N’ word.”
“We don’t tolerate THAT,” Coach Gannie says.
Coach Gannie doesn’t tolerate other things. Like being late. Or talking back. Or mumbling. Or disrespect.
Respect is such a key virtue that players, young and old, echo that lesson.
Rayquan, 8: “He taught us how to be respectful.”
Kyan, 11: “He teaches when we sit up on the bleachers how to be respectful.”
Rolando, 8: “He don’t disrespect us.”
Even 29-year-old Clarence Green, who once played for Coach Gannie and now has three sons on his teams, can still quote his former coach.
“When one person is talking,” Green said, “you listen.”
And that includes listening to the lessons of the past. Coach Gannie makes a point of weaving in stories of the civil rights movement.
“Know your history,” Coach Gannie tells Havier, as the van winds through streets near Fontenelle Park. “Know your history!”
Earlier this year, Coach Gannie and another OHA staffer took four housing authority youths to Selma, Alabama, where they saw a documentary about the civil rights movement. They walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where demonstrators were attacked 50 years ago.
That history made the youths angry. Coach Gannie told them they couldn’t fight their way through the world — but they could stand up for what is right and win hearts.
“You’ve got to get involved in the system,” Coach Gannie recalled telling them, “or the system will hold you back.”
Coach Gannie hails from a little Alabama town called Evergreen. He came of age during the 1960s and remembers vividly the segregated schools of the Jim Crow era. He played football in high school and then followed his family, who had come north to packinghouse jobs in Omaha. Coach Gannie worked in construction and joined the Navy. When he returned to Omaha, he played semi-pro ball for the Mustangs and River City Raiders. At 6-feet-5 and 325 pounds, Coach Gannie was a formidable lineman.
The Omaha Housing Authority Heavy Hitters play the North Omaha Bengals during a youth football game at the YMCA field in Papillion last month. BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Back then, in the mid-1980s, he was a married father, working in housekeeping for OHA and volunteering for existing youth leagues as a coach. His wife, Brenda, suggested he start a team of his own. So in 1987, he took the proposition to then-OHA Director Bob Armstrong.
“I said, ‘I know something about football,’?” Coach Gannie recalled. “He said, ‘Do it.’?”
And the Heavy Hitters have been making a difference ever since.
Top: Clark shouts to the team from the sidelines of a recent Heavy Hitters game. Above: Clark spends two hours every practice day driving all over north Omaha to the homes of players in the youth football program he started 27 years ago. BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Gallery: More photos of Clark and the Heavy Hitters
Take Spencer Danner.
Danner wasn’t an OHA kid, but he lived in north Omaha, his parents had divorced and he needed guidance. His parents knew Coach Gannie. His mother used to call the coach and ask him to talk sense into her rebellious son.
“Spencer was trouble, trouble, trouble,” recalls the coach. “He ended up all right.”
A few years after Danner had left the team, Coach Gannie happened to be driving by when he saw the 14-year-old hanging out with some kids the coach knew were up to no good.
“He told me to get in the car and I said, ‘No, I’m going to walk,’?” Danner recalled recently. “He said, ‘Get your ass in the car.’ I said, ‘OK.’ He never told my parents. He dropped me off a block away from the house on purpose and said it stays between us. He said, ‘I don’t want you hanging out with those kids anymore.’?”
Danner listened. Now 37, he heads Omaha’s human rights and relations department.
Other players’ lives took bad turns. Coach Gannie has had to be pallbearer for youths who couldn’t escape the traps of poverty and violence.
Maybe that’s why he keeps coaching, even though he has dealt with prostate and kidney cancer. Brenda, his wife of 36 years, keeps fruitlessly suggesting he step down.
Clark gives a pep talk to players before their game against the North Omaha Bengals at the YMCA field in Papillion last month. BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
But he worries about the kids he coaches and the ones he can’t reach.
“You get attached! You see the need. You can see the need,” Coach Gannie says. “It’s not that easy to throw your hands up.”
So he keeps driving the van through north Omaha, telling kids to squeeze in and then empty out, once they hit their practice field at 30th and Manderson.
“He’d cut off his right arm for those kids,” said assistant coach Willie Breckenridge. “The kids love him. I love him.”
Coach Gannie believes it’s important to practice in north Omaha, where his kids can be visible. It shows people that life here is normal. That inner-city kids want to be active like kids anywhere else.
The sun is beginning to sink as Coach Gannie towers over his youngest players, watching little defenders try to stop a running play. “Fill the hole. Fill, fill, fill,” he hollers. “There you go! There you go!”
They have so much to learn about the sport. And about life.
He still has so much to teach them.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH
Clark watches from the sidelines with Orlando White. BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD