Sometime in the early 1990′s my dad took me to an Omaha Royals AAA baseball game at Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium. After the game, dad saw a ballplayer walking out to his car, went up to him, shook his hand and said, “Good to see you still playing, Steve.”
Turns out “Steve” was Steve Balboni, a long time Major League grinder who had a long, lukewarm career in baseball from 1978 to 1993. Yes he was in the twilight of his career, but he still had the passion to play.
Fast forward about 20 years to 2010 when 40-year-old Jeff Garcia signed to play with the UFL expansion, and fan-named, Omaha Nighthawks and was joined by former Husker legend Ahman Green, and the city was in a frenzy over professional football.
Again the stage was Rosenblatt Stadium and Omaha showed up en masse. In the first ever sell out for the fledgling UFL, over 24,000 fans showed up to a baseball park to watch two athletes who just wanted to play football again, and a team looking to anchor a league.
I still remember Garcia coming out of the “tunnel” like a man possessed. He might have been more pumped to be there than any of the fans, and the fans appreciated that. Couple that with a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback win and Omaha was hooked.
Attendance continued to be steady in Omaha and the UFL even elected to hold their championship game here in 2011, even though Omaha didn’t play in the game.
Then it all fell apart. A season was cut short and nobody knew what the future held as we waited to see if the league could afford to continue.
But Friday night, Omaha got football back. The UFL is back up and running again and the Nighthawks took the field in week one at Sacramento.
Omaha looked rough early, allowing Sacramento quarterback Josh Johnson to complete a touchdown pass while hopping on one leg. Johnson battled through that injury and added a 52-yard touchdown, which gave Sacramento a 17-3 lead.
Nighthawk QB Jason Boltus, from Hartwick College, threw three interceptions early and it looked very grim for the welcome back to the league. But trailing 20-10 going into the final 15, Boltus and company rallied back, in true Nighthawk fashion, for two touchdowns and a 24-20 win.
It was at least their third fourth-quarter comeback I can recall and the team’s fourth win in program history.
The Nighthawks will try to bring more fans into the fold this year with five former Huskers on the team and they will play in TD Ameritrade Park, now that Rosenblatt is a pile of rubble.
I personally hope to see both the UFL and the Nighthawks succeed, and not turn into rubble. Its very apparent that Nebraskans love their football, and the more the better.
Omaha will continue its west coast swing Wednesday, Oct. 3 at Las Vegas before opening at home Oct. 12 vs. Virginia.