Hope at the Corner of 52nd and Maple

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It’s a gray, misty afternoon at 52nd and Maple Streets. Tony Kobza strides down a flight of concrete steps into a bowl-shaped depression and across a track lined with evergreens. He steps out onto the plush artificial turf of the football field. A white rabbit head adorns the midfield circle. The scoreboard in the south end zone says, “Home of the Bunnies.”

tony kobza bunnies practice

Kobza surveys the practice field, tugging at the straps of his backpack. There aren’t many players here. In truth, there are about three players for every coach present. The bulk of Kobza’s team has traveled to Bellevue East High School to play in the reserve game. It leaves the cupboard bare for Thursday’s walkthrough.

“If you look at where we started, our roster was about 65 kids,” Kobza said. “We’re at 40 right now.”

Getting players to show up consistently for practice has been a problem. Those who don’t show up have been removed from the team, hence the loss of about 25 players since the start of the season. Not all have been due to a lack of commitment. The community has its own issues.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a kid say, ‘I’ve got to go pick up my sister or go to babysit my nephew,’” Kobza said. “Those are things I understand.”

But understanding doesn’t mean winning. Kobza still needs players at practice.

“I’m trying to figure out ways to encourage them to be at practice,” Kobza said. “We’ve talked about doing decals.”

That a football team would get helmet stickers for showing up on time to practice seems like rewarding the bare minimum. It’s different at Benson.

bunny field

Benson’s enrollment number is around 1,000, ranking 24th out of the 28 schools in Class A. It’s easily the smallest high school in the Omaha Public Schools district, with about 300 fewer students than Omaha Northwest, the next smallest. A low enrollment coupled with low extracurricular participation — Kobza says it’s around 21% — makes for some interesting practices.

“My first day, we walked down to the field, we had 22 kids here,” Kobza said. “I think eight of them were checked out and ready to practice.”

Now in his sixth year at the school he called a “diamond in the rough,” Kobza has seen more rough than diamond. His Bunnies have won only six games, his best season a 2-7 campaign in 2013.

Kobza has taken his lumps, of which there have been many. But those many lumps have been lessons for the first-time head coach.

tony kobza

He remembers coaching in his first game, trying to create an “Oregon-like atmosphere,” complete with play cards, an up-tempo offense, and fog machines.

None of it worked, fog machines included. Benson was throttled by Omaha North 67-0.

“I had that kind of kick-in-the-teeth moment,” Kobza said. “It’s not PlayStation.”

His first season as a head football coach finished without a mark in the win column. His teams have won only one game in each of the last three seasons. Yet, there’s no question that he’s staying. His voice cracks when he speaks about his feelings for Benson.

“I’ve given a lot of my time to this school. I think I’ve been paid back well because of the kids who’ve succeeded.”

The struggles have been numerous, but Kobza is upbeat. His passion for the school and the football team are evident. Even if the wins haven’t come flooding in, there have been improvements. Benson’s weight room, which hadn’t seen an update in 40 years, is now stocked with modern equipment.

home of the bunnies

But it’s not enough. There’s more yet to give. Kobza knows he needs the community to be engaged for his vision to come to fruition. That means giving more of his time. Specifically, he wants to create a junior football program that will get players invested in Benson High School earlier.

Giving them a place to play and a purpose, beginning in third grade, is the first step. It’s a way to make kids identify with being a Bunny.  “They know exactly where they’re going to be. I think that will get the parents more involved,” he said.

It’s a challenge replete with obstacles ranging from finding willing volunteer coaches to simply having enough money to equip a full team. But Kobza is undeterred. His dogged pursuit of turning Benson around comes from his own rural beginnings.

Kobza, the youngest of eight children, grew up on a farm near the tiny town of Bellwood in northeast Nebraska. His father was an auctioneer and farmer.

“It was drilled into us as kids, from our parents and older siblings,” Kobza said. “It was important that we did the best job we could because our family business depended on it. There was no quitting.”

Six years in with only six wins to his credit, Kobza is still here. Still grinding. Still caring. Still coaching. Still pushing to make a winner at 52nd and Maple.

“That’s the hope,” he said.

“As long as you have hope, you have a reason.”

Kobza continues his walk through the misty afternoon, circling behind his players, now lining up to practice defending a swinging gate extra point. He gets after a defensive lineman for a lack of effort on one rep.

“You practice how you play,” he shouts. “Run it again.”

The Bunnies run it again, this time with better effort. Kobza nods to himself. It’s an improvement, however small.