Dechant, John. Scoreless: Omaha Central, Creighton Prep, and Nebraska’s Greatest High School Football Game. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. x+239. Illustrations, acknowledgments, bibliographic essay. $18.95 paperback.
Reviewed by Paul Putz
In the fall of 1960, nearly fifteen thousand people in Omaha, Nebraska, took in a high school football game between two undefeated powerhouse teams, Omaha Central and Creighton Prep. The game ended in a scoreless tie, but the excitement and quality of the game left a lasting imprint on its participants and observers. No doubt it helped that future football Hall-of-Famer Gale Sayers was one of the players. It helped, too, that both Omaha Central and Creighton Prep would finish their seasons undefeated, splitting the mythical state title. For these reasons, the game took on legendary status among many of Omaha’s old-timers.
Author John Dechant – who works for an Omaha company that specializes in writing commissioned histories for families and businesses – was not alive when the legendary game was played. But after hearing about the game from others, he became intrigued and decided to investigate. Quickly, he realized this was a story he wanted to tell. With Scoreless: Omaha Central, Creighton Prep, and Nebraska’s Greatest High School Football Game, Dechant does just that.
Dechant divides his narrative into eleven chapters spread out over four sections. Writing with an evident enthusiasm for his subject, he builds slowly to the game itself, not getting to the on-field action of the scoreless matchup until chapter nine. This allows Dechant to cover the styles and strategies of the two football teams while also illuminating the local context in which the game took place.
Relying on newspaper and yearbook sources, secondary literature on Omaha’s history, and a bevy of interviews with participants and observers, Dechant’s contextual details add life and color to his narrative. He describes the backgrounds of numerous players and coaches, and offers details on life in Omaha circa 1960. Ethnic neighborhoods, popular stores and restaurants, the prevalence of sports betting, the city’s transition away from the commission system of government, and the packing house industry all receive attention. So, too, Dechant explores the culture of the two schools: Omaha Central, with a stellar academic reputation and diverse student population, and Creighton Prep, the city’s leading Catholic high school. For Omahans (I count myself as one, having lived there for nearly ten years), Dechant’s narrative will undoubtedly evoke strong feelings of nostalgia.
But for sports historians – or for any other academic historians – the appeal of Dechant’s book is much more limited. Simply put, Dechant is not writing for a scholarly audience, and only on rare instances does he draw from historical scholarship (when he does, it is usually from historians of Omaha).
Certainly, there is material within Dechant’s book that could spark the imagination of a curious historian. Take, for example, Omaha’s place in the context of the post-World War II black athlete experience. In the 1950s and 1960s, Omaha was a hotbed of black athletic success: Bob Gibson (1953), Bob Boozer (1955), Gale Sayers (1961), Marlin Briscoe (1963), and Johnny Rodgers (1969) all graduated from Omaha high schools before achieving national fame. There is a book waiting to be written about that exceptional cohort. But while Sayers is a major character in Dechant’s book, aside from briefly noting the “tenuous race relations in the city” that were “indicative of the need for nationwide civil rights reform that would peak in the 1960s” (p. 72), feel-good nostalgia trumps the gritty details of the racism that Sayers had to navigate as he rose to stardom. There is no mention of housing discrimination, police brutality, or the racist attitudes of Omaha Central’s administrators, all of which are covered in journalist Steve Marantz’s 2011 book, The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central: High School Basketball at the ’68 Racial Divide.
Of course, Sayers was not the only player on the field (although he did write the foreword for Scoreless and his name does grace the cover), and not every piece of history must make race the central analytical theme. Another promising area of further research to which Scoreless points is the cultural importance of high school football. Dechant provides numerous descriptive details about the prominence of the sport in the lives of Nebraskans. He also covers some of the institutional structures of high school football and, in one of my favorite aspects of the book, discusses the role that the Nebraska sports media played in promoting and popularizing high school sports. For scholars seeking to build on and expand the chronology of Robert Pruter’s The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control, 1880–1930 (Syracuse University Press, 2013), Scoreless might be a useful source of descriptive material.
Those suggestions aside, the potential audience for this book is somewhat limited. Other than fans of Gale Sayers who want to read more about his high school career, this is a book most likely to be enjoyed by Omaha residents who are sports buffs or interested in the history of their city. If that is you, I highly recommend picking up a copy – just pair it with Steve Marantz’s The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central if you want a more complete picture of the racial divide that shaped the lives and high school experiences of Omaha’s residents when the legendary scoreless game took place.
Paul Putz is a PhD Candidate in history at Baylor University. His research is focused on religion, sports, and region, and he is writing a dissertation on the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. You can follow him on Twitter @p_emory.