Above: Sen. Terrell McKinney with his daughter, Sana’a, in the Capitol rotunda on opening day of the 2021 session.
So, which is more of a full-contact sport: wrestling or politics?
“Probably politics,” new Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney said with a chuckle.
He would know.
McKinney was a two-time Nebraska state wrestling champion at Omaha North High School, where he is now an assistant coach. He compiled a 92-13 career record, though the last few wins came with a lot of pain.
A serious knee injury late in his senior year sidelined McKinney for two and a half weeks. He managed to wince his way through to the state final, learning along the way that riding a stationary bike was a poor substitute for competition.
“My knee was still messed up, and I was out of shape,” McKinney said.
He faced an opponent he’d pinned earlier in the season, but this time the match went down to the final seconds, with McKinney pulling out a 9-8 win.
“It was closer than I wanted,” McKinney said. “In a match, you have to adapt.”
He learned to adapt off the mat, too. The University of Northern Iowa had recruited McKinney, but it backed off after his late-season injury. He attended the University of Nebraska Omaha for three years but was only on the mat for one. He took a year off to recuperate and train, and then finished seventh at the 2010 national tournament, earning All-American honors.
“It was vindication,” McKinney said. “I proved I was supposed to be there.”
He sat out the following season because of an elbow injury before suffering the biggest blow of all; in response to budget cuts, the school dropped its wrestling program. McKinney finished his career and earned a degree at Maryville University.
Now a student at Creighton University School of Law, McKinney believes it is time for young Black leaders in Omaha to emerge.
“My generation, we lived through the crack era, the war on drugs,” McKinney said. “Young individuals in our community can’t just rely on our elders; although they’ve done a lot of great work throughout their lifetimes, they can’t do it forever.”
McKinney succeeds one of those leaders — former Sen. Ernie Chambers, who represented North Omaha for 46 years before stepping down due to term limits. Chambers endorsed McKinney in last year’s legislative race.
“It meant I was doing something right,” McKinney said. “If he has confidence in me, the sky’s the limit.”
But McKinney has his own vision and plans to spend his first year advocating for criminal justice reform and creating economic opportunity in his district.
“I want to build on the foundation Ernie set, but focus more on making sure that, economically, North Omaha isn’t left behind,” he said.