Kelly: Omahans have long known that the city is worth shouting about - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 1:00 am / Updated at 6:52 am
Kelly: Omahans have long known that the city is worth shouting about

Peyton Manning reflected on our city's name this week without shouting, and with no exclamation point.

“Omaha,” the Denver Broncos quarterback acknowledged to USA Today, “has kind of taken on a life of its own.”

Honest, it's not just Omahans having fun with Manning's line-of-scrimmage audibles of “Omaha! Omaha!” People around the country have taken notice.

“Around the land,” the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle reported, “city tourism officials are green — and we do mean green — with envy.”

The Rochester metro of 1.1 million people, 51st largest in the country, is a bit bigger than Omaha's 60th-ranked metro, which has nearly 900,000 residents.

“If I could get Peyton Manning to go, 'Rochester, Rochester' 31 times in a game that every sports fan is watching, wow, how much would that mean to our community?” said Don Jeffries, president and CEO for VisitRochester. “I'm thinking the guy who does my job, the tourist guy in Omaha, he didn't do a thing for this, it just happened. It's crazy, but extremely cool.”

The “tourist guy in Omaha,” Dana Markel, executive director of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau, chuckled when I read her that quotation.

She has heard lately from many civic tourism officials and she gets the good-natured point — Omaha didn't ask or pay Peyton to shout our city's name. (If you're not a football fan: It's a code word for his teammates, and he is not the first quarterback to use it.)

But Markel said Omaha hasn't been sitting on its hands since “Omaha!” became a phenomenon in the media — social, news and cultural.

In fact, it's believed that a tweet from the Omaha bureau's social media manager, Jasmyn LeFlore, got things rolling. On the evening of Jan. 12, when Manning's “Omaha!” shouts were picked up especially clearly by microphones, she tweeted to 8,000 followers: “We certainly appreciate all the love from #PeytonManning. :) #OmahaOmaha.”

“Within one minute, it was retweeted 500 times,” Markel said. “By Thursday night, Diane Sawyer was talking about it on 'ABC World News.' Visits to our website are now up 35 percent. It's amazing. What's so magnificent is that it all stemmed from a sincere gesture of saying thank you — and that is so Omaha.”

The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, the Nebraska Tourism Commission and others have promoted the “Omaha!” phenomenon. Comics have had fun with it on “Saturday Night Live,” “The Colbert Report” and elsewhere.

David Letterman quipped on his late-night show that after neck surgery caused Manning to miss a season, no one knew if he could ever play again. “Could he run, could he pass, could he do anything? Could he shout 'Omaha'? Nobody knew.”

The Denver Post wrote that “a strong case could be made” that the only city more thrilled with the Broncos playing in the Super Bowl than Denver is Omaha. The Denver International Airport has added the exclamation point on listings of flights to and from “Omaha!”

The city of Omaha is named after the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, based in the town of Macy, 80 miles north of the city. This week the tribe invited Manning and his family to visit the reservation, home of the “First Peoples of Nebraska.”

A letter signed by Tribal Chairman Clifford Wolfe Jr. and six others noted that the quarterback had mentioned that many people have asked him what Omaha means. The letter explained that the true meaning of Omaha — Umo'ho' in the native tongue — translates to “against the current.”

Others have similarly said it means “upriver people.” Ancestors migrated west from the Ohio River valley, some going south to today's Arkansas and some going upriver and against the current of the Missouri.

Midsize cities like Omaha sometimes fight against the current to get noticed nationally, especially without major-league sports franchises. But it's not as though the “Omaha!” craze simply makes Omahans gleeful that someone is saying our name.

There's a lot more going on in Omaha than that.

An article in The World-Herald on Friday confirmed what has become clearer the past 15 years or so — Omahans, seeing vast local improvements and high rankings in national economic and “livability” rankings — have become fiercely proud of their metro area.

A survey of 400 people in eight counties conducted by a Reston, Va., firm, found that while crime and taxes remain concerns, 60 percent thought Omaha was on the right track — compared with an average of a 32 percent favorable rating in other cities.

Long before Peyton Manning's “Omaha!” calls were picked up by improved microphones, many Omahans had a good self-image about the city.

Among them is Deborah Washington, a nurse technician in the intensive care unit at Creighton University Medical Center. She calls herself a Peyton superfan — ever since he played at the University of Tennessee.

Last fall, the mother of three adult children traveled by bus to Indianapolis when the Broncos played there. As an unofficial Omaha ambassador, she held up a sign at the game saying, “Omaha loves you, Peyton!”

She doesn't know if he saw it. Washington is a faith-filled person who attends Grace Apostolic Church and is an avid sports fan, even taking part in a fantasy football league. She appreciates Manning for far more than his football skills.

“He's a family man,” she said, “and you never hear him talking bad about anybody.”

Washington and lots of other Omahans will be rooting for Peyton in the Super Bowl, and counting how many times he shouts “Omaha!”

In the playoff game two weeks ago, eight Omaha companies each agreed to donate $100 to Manning's foundation for at-risk kids for every time he said “Omaha!” The chamber of commerce said 16 companies will do so for the Super Bowl.

Markel of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau said about 2,500 people have entered a “Win a Trip to Omaha” contest, partly as a result of the bureau's radio and online advertising in Kansas City, Des Moines, Sioux City and Denver. The winner will receive a two-night stay at Hilton Omaha and a $1,000 “getaway package” for merchandise and family passes to Omaha attractions.

Omahans, she said, can tell friends and relatives from out of town to enter at VisitOmaha.com.

The unanticipated attention the past three weeks, Markel said, enables Omaha to let people know about all that's happening here. For example, the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials are returning for the third time in 2016, the hot-shooting Creighton Bluejays are gaining national notice and the College World Series is an Omaha fixture.

The baseball coach at Manning's alma mater, Tennessee, had some fun with it recently in setting a goal for his team. He played a tape for players and fans of Peyton shouting, “Omaha! Omaha!”

One reason that Omaha is said to be called out by quarterbacks is that the sound of the word itself is distinctive and unmistakable. That is one reason it was used for Omaha Beach during the World War II invasion of Normandy.

The future of the free world is hardly at stake in the Super Bowl, and Omaha was doing fine before Peyton Manning made the city's name a national catchword.

But if the result is letting more people know that Omaha, like its name, is distinctive and worthy of an exclamation point, then we all could emulate Jasmyn LeFlore's sincere tweet and say:

Thanks, Peyton!

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly

mike.kelly@owh.com    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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