A week after I graduated from Santa Clara, I sat next to my friend Conor on the rooftop of a Tavern bar in downtown Denver, across the street from Coors Field. The Tavern is a chain of upscale bars: No hats are allowed, most guys wear button down shirts and on a particularly warm night there are little spigots hung from wires atop the bar that spray mist upon the perspiring patrons.
I knew I wouldn’t be seeing Conor for quite some time so I decide to buy him a drink, which were reasonably priced considering the upscale milieu, and sat down for a little chat.
Conor graduated a year ahead of me and had spent his gap year at home in Colorado before heading to Creighton for medical school, where he is currently a first-year student. As a nervous senior I had reached out to him for advice.
In our conversation that night he discussed what he felt the future held for him. Conor believed that he would end up in Omaha, or at least spend a significant amount of time there, because there are not many available jobs in the medical field and most of his contacts were going to be out there. It should be noted that he also had the option to stay home and go to CU-Boulder for med school and went to undergrad in the Bay Area.
“Are you really prepared to spend the rest of your life in Omaha?” I asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” he responded.
I’m no snob. I live in Minnesota, a location that a few of the people I met out in California considered a “flyby state”—you know, one of those many places they saw on their flight from SFO to JFK—and wondered why anybody would choose to live in a place that can get as cold as minus-20 in the winter. I’ve also been to cities like Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Columbus, Ohio where the appeal is difficult to sell to people that have not traveled there.
On the other hand, I have spent time in places that I either would never visit again so it is not as though I ubiquitously enjoy every city I have been to.
To be fair, I have really only driven through Nebraska. The only time I stopped there was to grab some food at an IHOPin Lincoln. I
know that IHOP does not usually draw the same crowd as Anytime Fitness, but let’s just say Jillian Michaels would have trouble slimming these people down. I was expecting Fat Bastard to walk in at any minute. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but it was true.
So that was my only memory of Nebraska. And it wasn’t a pleasant one.
I did have a friend—who we called The Doctor, but wasn’t a medical student—that went to the University of Nebraska, which is located in Lincoln and home of the famous Cornhusker football team. I immediately wanted to visit him after reconnecting the summer after my freshman year of college. But when asked about the “huge parties” a la University of Wisconsin or Ohio State, he went, “Yeah, there really isn’t much of that. In fact, if you get a minor if you are caught drinking in your dorm room.” To which I responded, “Yeah, Lincoln sucks.”
So as I sat at the bar with Conor, almost a year ago now, I questioned why somebody that spent most of their life in Colorado and California, two of the greatest states the in the world, would want to spend any time in Nebraska.
“Hey man,” he told me, “Omaha isn’t Lincoln.”
He had a point, yet I was still skeptical.
“Let me be straight with you,” I told him, rolling my eyes, “Nebraska is Nebraska.”
That was June of 2012. Flash forward to February of 2013.
I’m on the road headed to Omaha. It’s a six-hour drive from Minnesota, but Hockey’s Future is picking up the bill because they want me to cover Battles on Ice, which featured the first-ever outdoor junior hockey as well as a contest between the University of Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota. The junior game featured one club from Omaha and another from Lincoln. It is considered one of the most underrated rivalries in hockey.
Going to this event was a no-brainer for me: I got to visit Conor, who I haven’t seen for months, and I was still stinging from missing the Winter Classic due to the lockout.
After spending five hours on I-35 going about 80 MPH, traffic comes to a complete halt right outside of Des Moines, Iowa. I look at the clock inside my Ford Fusion: 5:00 pm. No way this place has rush hour. It’s Des Moines not Chicago. I had made the mistake of passing through the Windy City at 5:00 when I had driven up to Muskegon, Mich. to cover the NHL Top Prospects Game, but this was different. I thought people moved to Iowa to avoid civilization traffic.
Then I realize that things had slowed down because there was a horrific accident that sent some poor soul in a compact car flying off the road. Literally, this little beater had to be 30 feet away from the highway. There were ambulances and police cars everywhere.
At this point, my frustration has gone through the roof. I hate, absolutely hate, gawkers. They slow down traffic and make a person in a serious predicament feel even worse about what happened to them.
I’m still a little surly once I pull off of I-80, which connects Des Moines and Omaha, to get gas. First of all, I wanted to make it all the way to Omaha on one tank of gas. Secondly, I was getting hungry as it was around 7:00 pm. And thirdly, those damn gawkers still were on my nerves.
I called Conor.
“I’m in Council Bluffs (Iowa). How far out do you think I am?”
“That’s basically Omaha. You’re not too far.”
The Kum & Go is located on a hill overlooking Council Bluffs. I stared down at the city and thought to myself, Omaha damn well be better looking than this.
I get back on I-80, cruise past Council Bluffs, take the exit for Omaha, and wind around a giant off-ramp that takes you into the heart of the city. I looked over my shoulder and saw bona fide civilization: There are skyscrapers—not the Empire State building, but larger that I had imagined. There were apartment buildings and restaurants and traffic. Hell, they even had a professional sized arena, the CenturyLink Center, which houses Creighton basketball and UNO hockey, but easily could be home to a professional basketball or hockey team.
There was a legitimate skyline.
Omaha is modern and well kept. The bars are filled with young people and full of energy. There was a Cold Stone and a Chipotle and a Chick-fil-A. With a population of a little over 800,000 it is not a large city by any means, but it certainly doesn’t feel small.
On the first night, Conor and I went to a house party filled with med school students. While it was a little different than a college party—there were less belligerently drunk people and the pizza was home made—but it still was a fun time. There was a large age gap, people ranged from 23 to 30, but as a person on the younger end of the spectrum I fit in quite well.
And it was fun. Let it be known: Just because you’re studying to be a med student doesn’t mean you can’t party a little bit. Don’t get me wrong, these guys usually spend every waking minute either in lecture, practicing medicine or studying, but on those few days a month they get off they let loose.
At around 10:30 pm, one of Conor’s friends pulls me aside, “You want a J?” he asks.
I stop and stare at him for a second. At this point I’m a little tipsy and wondering why this guy is offering me weed. This is Omaha, not California.
I originally demur, but decide to follow him outside. He ushers me into a cab with Conor’s roommate Luke and a guy named Ed and says, “You’ll be there in like 15-20 minutes.” Just go with the flow. I think to myself.
We arrive at a watering hole just outside of Old Market, essentially downtown Omaha. The bar sits alone on an elevated plot of land that overlooks the Creighton medical buildings.
The interior is painted blue and decked out in Creighton paraphernalia. We sit down at the bar and Luke orders a pitcher of Hopulia, a local brew, from an attractive brunette waitress. I chuckle to myself while nursing the beer.
“What’s going on?” he asks me.
“Dude, your buddy there just offered me a J and I don’t see him or Conor anywhere.”
“Really?” he asks, looking surprised.
“Yeah man, he just asked me if I wanted one and then sent me in a cab with you too.”
“No,” he said laughing, “he asked if you want to go to ‘The Jay.’”
I’ve spent too much time in California.
Before we leave the bar, I had a rather enlightening conversation with Ed. He grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, a place I had visited earlier in the year for the USHL Fall Classic. He chose to go to the University of Oklahoma as an undergraduate before going to Creighton Med and raved about his time at Oklahoma. Given the way he spoke, you could tell he had a little south in him. While Ed said he enjoyed in Omaha, he was not looking forward to spending so much time in school.
I had talked to Conor about this on our ride from Big Sur to Denver: It just seems ridiculous that you spend four years in school and usually have to go back to have a legitimate career. In fact, some will argue that it may be more economical for most people to enter the trades out of high school rather than pay college tuition given the rising cost of college education. Otherwise, anybody that wants to be a doctor, lawyer or a psychologist or seeks a high-paying business job usually needs to go back to school.
What Ed advocated was apprenticeship.
It sounded pretty reasonable to me. I get the value in school: You need to learn fundamental theory and have time to figure out what you want to do. But for a person like me, an apprenticeship may be more helpful than more time in school. After all, I knew I wanted to be a sportswriter since I was a freshman in college and by my senior year I felt school was actually hampering my development. Had I been allowed to, I would have forgone my senior year and done an apprenticeship in a heartbeat. Even now, it would be really beneficial to shadow a couple established sportswriters and learn from them.
The ultimate downside to an apprenticeship is that it can constrict a person’s ability to adapt to new developments in a field. This is salient right now, as the Internet Age has completely changed the way writers approach journalism. Obviously it would be unwise to learn from a person that is stuck in the 1990s and still writes an 800-word column that will never, under any circumstance, use ‘I,’ ‘you,’ or ‘shit’ in the name of good journalism.
As the great Bob Dylan once sang, the times they are a changin’. Some people just don’t get it.
On the same note, the industry really has struggled to change. There are still many people that believe young writers should go to a small town and write for a newspaper that has word restrictions and rules that stifle creativity. While there are merits to having a team of editors, deadlines and working in an office with other journalists, many of these publications, like their larger counterparts, use antiquated methods and operate under a failing business model.
So, really, wouldn’t following a journalist that seeks to remain on sound financial ground by adapting to the Internet Age be extremely beneficial for me?
There are obvious downsides to this: The best journalists would charge incredible sums of money for their services, there would be a limit to how many apprentices each writer could take at a time and a bad journalist could hold their connections over the head of an aspiring writer and force them to pay for a poor experience. Still, if practiced by an ethical professional hoping to help a young writer out, it would foster stewardship in an industry filled with people that, at this given time, would rather bash blogs and sites like Bleacher Report and SB Nation that have legions of neophyte sportswriters rather than offer guidance or support to the next generation.
Jus as I am in the middle of contemplating the pros and cons of apprenticeship, Luke taps my shoulder. “We’re going to Old Market.”
At this point, I am pretty inebriated. We walk into O’Connor’s in downtown Omaha and enter a sea of green. This is not Irish green:
The bar is packed with people in Fighting Sioux sweaters.
I sit down at a back table order a Smithwick’s*. Immediately I begin talking to a couple of North Dakota fans and there is an instant connection. I’m a Minnesota Gopher fan through and through, but one of my favorite players, Wild forward Zach Parise, went to UND and it became a great conversation starter. And it’s always nice to have an icebreaker…except when you’re in a bar full of dudes.
*It is pronounced “Smittick’s.” I had just learned that a week earlier. I probably mispronounced that drink 100 times before I was informed of the correct pronunciation.
We’re there for about an hour and I’m kind of settled in when Luke goes, “We’re going across the street to Billy Frogg’s.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Do you see any girls in here?”
I look across the sea of green UND sweaters: “No.”
“I’ve got a girl coming that is meeting us there.”
We get to Frogg’s and order the house specialty: Pond Scum.
I’m pretty sure the yellow snow cone from Jackass: The Movie tastes better than this. Pond Scum is served in a giant pitcher with three colored curly straws, which may or may not have been straight and clear before they were dropped in this concoction of just about every rail drink available at the bar.
Luke’s girl shows up shortly after the drink arrives. Frogg’s is rather packed and the two decide to head to another place that is more open and has a dance floor.
“Let’s chug this shit,” he orders.
Almost full when we began slurping the liquid headache, our combined forces dried that pond like the Florida Everglades.
By the time we got to the next bar, I was bordering on unconsciousness. Walking up to the top room, where the dance floor was located, I felt like I was on the never-ending staircase in Super Mario 64. When I finally ascended it, the dark room was, you guessed it, packed with UND sweaters.
Things were getting real hazy when an attractive brunette waitress in an undersized shirt walked up to me and offered a yellow-green shot that looked like something out of the Mos Eisley Cantina.
“No thanks,” I said, wisely.
“Oh, c’mon, I’ll do one with you. It’s two-for-ones.”
Logical me: Don’t do it! You’re already feeling woozy and that Pond Scum hasn’t hit you in full force yet.
Drunk me: Do it! What’s one more drink going to do to you?
Logical me: What will it do? You’re going to wake up with less brain cells than Ozzy Osbourne!
Drunk me: But that waitress is so hot!
Drunk me wins. I hand the waitress five bucks. We take the shot. I look around the room and Luke is nowhere to be found. It’s dark, my surroundings are spinning and then it all of a sudden hits me: I have no idea where Luke is or how to get back.
That was my last cognizant thought of the night.
A few months earlier, at a Brothers Bar in St. Cloud, Minn., I met a bartender from Coon Rapids that introduced me to the concept of time travel. He was a 31-year-old guy with a scruffy beard that never had left the city after graduating from St. Cloud State still appeared to be living the college lifestyle.
He talked about how he would black out at midnight and subconsciously hail a cab, get home and wake up at 9:00 am with his keys and wallet in tact wondering where all the time went. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. After all, I had a reputation for “ghosting,” literally just up and leaving from a party without anybody noticing, and no matter how far I was from home, I always ended up in my own bed the next morning.
Thankfully, things slowed down a bit senior year and I have not “time traveled” for over a year now. Well, that was until Friday night.
I woke up on Saturday and looked around the room. I’m back, I thought to myself, Thank god. My brain is pulsing so hard I feel my skull is going to crack. One of Conor’s roommates is already finished with breakfast and has busted out the books. Not bothering to get off the couch, I reach for my iPhone, check the time, punch in the password and check Facebook.
There it is, first thing that pops up: Kate Upton is the cover model for this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
I’m probably the only guy that thinks this right now, but I’m tired of Kate Upton. I got all hot and bothered when she made the cover last year, Really, a teenager that looks like that? but then she was everywhere: the cover of GQ, dating Mark Sanchez and Justin Verlander, making cameos in Tower Heist and The Three Stooges.
McCarron’s girlfriend that Brent Musburger ogled during the National Championship? Aren’t they trending right now?
Hell, put the Green M&M on the cover for all I care. Better yet: If you really want to cause a stir, have Walter Iooss take a couple injections from Tony Bosch, train with Brian McNamee for a year and take Anthony Weiner pictures of himself with his iPhone and put that on the cover.
Anything is better than Kate Upton.
A little perturbed over the news, I scarfed down a breakfast of Honey Nut Cheerios, in honor of Carmelo Anthony, drank about six gallons of water to shake off the hangover and drive over to TD Ameritrade Park to cover Battles on Ice.
The event was great. The Lincoln Stars and Omaha Lancers faced off in a junior hockey game at noon and UNO and UNO took the ice for the nightcap. Both of the games were extremely entertaining and I got to interview 10 or so NHL prospects. Everyone I met there was friendly and energized by the event. I really, really believe that hockey has a great future in Omaha.
I got back late, around 11:00 pm, and went back to O’Connor’s. This time I went with Conor and Luke. We decided to scale back on the drinking a bit—they had to study and I had to drive home in the morning—but we still had a blast. The bars were vibrant and filled with a better balance of young men and women. The bartender even had an Irish Car Bomb with us and did not charge us for that round of drinks.
“This is Omaha,” Conor told me. And yes, indeed, it was.
There are two things that I take away from my time in Omaha:
First of all, I saw first-hand how hard medical students work. They are literally in school or studying at every waking hour during the week. And it saddens me what while legions of people like them are working hard to take care of us when we fall ill, there are also many doctors or medical professionals out there learning how to scam performance-enhancing drug tests or provide athletes with supplements that will build them up in the short term, but de-humanize them in the long term.
I really hope that we have not reached a point where an athlete goes through a Never Let Me Go kind of situation where they are told they are going to be great at a young age only to have people that are older and wiser than they are destroy their insides with PEDs, make them go out and work when they need to recover and then neglect them once they are done playing all in the name of the almighty dollar.
We really, really need to make an effort to stop turning athletes into superheroes when they are under the lights and then degrading them when they step away from the game.
Secondly, I need to stop making generalizations about places I have never spent any significant time in. I’m not going to go Pollyanna on you and say I see the beauty in every place I have been, but I’ll tell you this: There is more to America than just New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Sometimes the appeal of a place is difficult to describe. Pittsburgh fits that bill. Green Bay fits that bill. Columbus, Ohio fits that bill.
I really should not judge Lincoln based on an experience I had in IHOP—I realize after writing this I’m going to have to stick to Perkins—or the University of Nebraska’s policy on drinking in the dorms. In fact, I probably owe Lincoln a visit. I would love to see another Lancers-Stars game—this is truly one of the most underrated rivalries in hockey and maybe all of sports.
Finally, while Minnesota remains the greatest state in all of America, I want to make one thing very clear:
Omaha is one hell of a good time.
Tom Schreier writes for TheFanManifesto. He can followed on Twitter at @tschreier3. Email him at email@example.com.