Remembering Pro Football In Omaha

The Hartford Colonials and the Omaha Nighthawks play at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

The most interesting sporting event I’ve ever witnessed took place between a pair of football teams from a flash-in-the-pan league, full of never-was and has-been players competing in an iconic baseball stadium on the verge of demolition.

When I saw the Omaha Nighthawks defeat the Hartford Colonials in a United Football League game at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium on September 24, 2010, I certainly enjoyed the experience, but at the time I didn’t grasp the impact that the game would have on me years later. I have been to sporting events that I enjoyed more than this UFL game, but over the long run, no other game has occupied so much of my long term memory. And here’s why.

Because the UFL was new and not likely to last given the history of non-NFL football leagues, I was not emotionally invested in the franchise or the outcome of the game. Sure, as a Nebraskan I wanted Omaha to win. But if they didn’t, I’d be over it by the time I found my car in the parking lot.

Judging by the abysmal attendance figures, most cities with UFL franchises didn’t really give a shit about their teams. But in Nebraska football is religion, so at the Nighthawks’ very first game, they shattered the league’s attendance record by 10,000. “If we had 10 Omaha markets, we would have a very successful league,” UFL Commissioner Michael Huyghue told reporters.

Aside from Nebraska’s obsession with football, people were also drawn to the Omaha franchise because its roster had an absurd amount of recognizable names. In 2010, 47 percent of UFL players had NFL experience, but 73 percent of Omaha players had NFL experience. And some of those players were stars.

Omaha’s quarterback was former Pro Bowler Jeff Garcia who was making a desperate push in his forties to try to get back to the NFL. The team’s running back was local legend Ahman Green, the Green Bay Packers’ all-time leading rusher. Another Pro Bowler, Cato June, played linebacker and Omaha’s top receiver was Robert Ferguson, a second-round pick who had some NFL success. Other recognizable college football stars—Devard Darling, Jay Moore, Dusty Dvoracek, Charles Grant, DJ Shockley—littered the roster. But the most intriguing storyline belonged to a college star who never appeared in an NFL game—Maurice Clarett.

Clarett was appearing in his first football game since leading Ohio State to the 2002-03 National Championship as a freshman. After that sensational season, he was suspended from Ohio State for receiving improper benefits, then left the school and challenged the NFL in court in order to declare for the draft. Ultimately, the courts ruled in the league’s favor, which delayed Clarett’s journey to professional football even longer.

In 2005, Clarett was drafted the Denver Broncos but was cut before the season. Then in 2006, he was arrested and charged with aggravated robbery and carrying a concealed weapon, and spent the next three and a half years in prison. He was only able to sign with the Nighthawks after receiving permission from a judge to leave Ohio. Clarett didn’t have any impact on the actual game, but the idea of seeing Clarett play in a short-term pro football league is something I still think about every once in a while.

Since 1947, Johnny Rosenblatt had been a fixture in Nebraska sports. For about 60 years, it was home to minor league baseball (most predominantly the Kansas City Royals’ AAA club) and the College World Series (CWS). But after Omaha struck a deal to build a new stadium (TD Ameritrade Park) for the CWS, Rosenblatt’s days were numbered. And with the CWS and minor league baseball seasons finished, the UFL games provided people one last chance to visit the historic stadium.

For their debut, the Nighthawks also attracted casual football fans by booking Nelly to perform during halftime. It was perhaps the most uninspired performance I’ve ever witnessed from a national recording artist. Reminiscent of Super Bowl halftime shows pre-Nipplegate, he cycled through a medley of hits so quickly that he didn’t have time to reach the songs’ most popular verses and hooks. Nelly also barely sang himself, and his hype men did more rapping than he did. Much of the time, he kept his microphone far away from his face while he danced around the stage and a recording of his voice played.

Although these anecdotes made the game more memorable, I would have forgotten about the contest long ago if the game itself wasn’t incredible. The Nighthawks were down 23-10 in the fourth quarter, and their offense looked pretty terrible for most of the game while their opponent, the Hartford Colonials, hummed along with their quarterback (and NFL journeyman) Josh McCown completing 22 of 25 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns.

But Omaha put together three scoring drives at the end of the game, including two TD passes from Garcia. The last one, a 12-yard strike to Robert Ferguson, came with 6 seconds left and put the Nighthawks up for good. I have never heard 20,000 people sound be so loud, and in that moment it felt like I was in a 70,000 seat football arena. After the game Commissioner Huyghue said, “If this is foreshadowing of what this league can be about, then we’re really onto something special.”

It turned out that the game wasn’t the foreshadowing Huyghue hoped for. In subsequent seasons, the number of franchises and games played would shrink, as would player salaries. The league held its last game in 2012, and after it ceased operations players and coaches sued the UFL, claiming that the league failed to pay them.

Most people forgot about the UFL even before the league officially dissolved. But every few months I still think about this game even though nearly all the men who played that night were out of football not long after, the league is gone, the stadium is gone, and after the UFL disbanded Omaha got another semi-pro football team that also tanked pretty quickly, which further eroded the Nighthawks’ uniqueness. But for one night I got to see one of my favorite childhood musicians, one of favorite college players (Green), and one of my favorite NFL players (Garcia) perform in a thrilling and quirky atmosphere while trying to cling to their profession past their expiration date. And what I remember most is that it only cost me twenty bucks.

 

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Ross Benes has written for The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Deadspin, Sports on Earth, Slate, and SB Nation. His first book, which is about indirect relationships between sex and society, comes out next April. You can follow him on Twitter @RossBenes.