Saturday, July 23, 2016

My Life as the Great White Hope

He's a good player. And he's the right color, too.

The person speaking about me is a booster. I'd played football for him in Pop Warner league. While still children, our helmets and shoulder pads appear bigger than we are. We all look like Michael Dukakis’ ill-advised campaign ad, showing the candidate piloting a tank. We look cute rather than intimidating. I'm scared to death of this coach, to be blunt, but he's always let me know that I'm one of his favorites.

Kids from third grade onward are allowed to suit up. They take their first few tentative strides with helmets, padding, and other protective measures belted and strapped on. School years are broken down into weight classes. Each grade, each birthday passed by, players are allowed to gain an additional ten pounds. I started in fourth grade, when the maximum a boy can weigh is 90 pounds. By the time I’m in sixth grade, I can get up to 110 pounds, but no more.

A big kid, I always stepped on the scale prior to games close to the absolute threshold. Sometimes I had to run laps around the field to lose water weight before the action started. Even at a young age, my broad shoulders and large build meant that I would be an offensive lineman. Legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson always called players like me the big uglies or the fat bodies. The description is a truthful one, though I'm a cute kid with a baby face. I’m not exactly menacing, at least not yet.

The comment about my race is even more telling. Forty years earlier, most elite college athletes in the South were exclusively white. It wasn’t until the early Seventies that Southeastern Conference teams began to desegregate. By the time it's my turn, 70% of the players on a college team are black. To be sure, there are a few positions where whites still predominate. Quarterback is one. Place kicker is a second, followed closely by punter. And then comes O-linemen like me.

Every snap from center to quarterback is a collision and a fight for position. After every game my arms are covered with deep bruises and small cuts. Nothing productive happens unless we shove and push and block for running backs, who take advantage of the huge holes and running lanes we create in opposing defenses. No one notices us much as long as we're doing our job. But should we fail, suddenly we're completely to blame.

It's a position that requires much humility. Offensive linemen can be superstars, but they have to be legendary talents. If we are merely competent, few fans will learn our names. Sometimes there's an anonymity present in the position, a way to hide behind my helmet so no one can see my face. If I miss a block, I know it immediately and pray that the source of the error is not traced back to me.

I’m not perfect. Sometimes I miss my assignment and the quarterback gets sacked. Sometimes I arrive on the scene at the perfect moment. Most of the time, I give the player with the ball a second or two to make a cut and run for positive yardage. Linemen don’t have to be flashy. Instead, they have to be productive.

The booster took a shine to me from an early age. This started when I was still in elementary school. The grooming of jocks for greater success starts at that soon an age. When I moved up to the high school level, my advocate dangled promises of college scholarships in front of me. Like so many Alabama-bred kids, I grew up a Crimson Tide fan. Millions of young boys have that same dream, but I learn quickly that I'm simply not good enough to punch my ticket to Tuscaloosa. It’s a letdown, but I choke back my disappointment.

If I get a slot on a team, it will be for a lower-tier SEC school like Kentucky or Vanderbilt. My college tuition will be covered in full, but I'm not sure I can stomach a career of mediocre 5-7 seasons. I know I won’t be pleased to miss out on the fun of a bowl game, year after year. I'm smart enough to let my academic skills take me elsewhere. The odds of making a pro team after college are against me, because I'm proficient, but not stellar. If ratings like these existed at the time, I’d be a three star recruit with tons of potential, but I know my limitations better than anyone else.

My booster nevertheless is persistent. His connections have been built by a political patronage system. If he pleads my case and I do well, he does well, too. He's a crusty old Yellow Dog Democrat with a curious admiration for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. About the time I'm ready to start middle school, a new political face arrives on the scene. His name is Clinton and he's a rising star in the party.

It's 1992. Arkansas has joined the Southeastern Conference after years of competing in the Southwest Conference. Instead of playing teams based mainly in Texas, most of its schedule will be devoted to taking on universities in the Deep South. Simultaneously, the governor of Arkansas manages to win the Democratic Nomination for President. Candidate Clinton is in attendance when his team plays Alabama in Little Rock. He arrives late and doesn't stay for the whole game. The Razorbacks lose, but not its favorite son.

The booster has some salacious stories to tell about this newcomer. He's apparently got a fondness for the ladies and he and his wife have got some kind of arrangement worked out. He shows up at retreats with whomever he happens to be bedding at the moment. Oh, no one can prove anything, but the circumstantial evidence is pretty damning. This is mighty powerful hearsay. It will eventually lead to impeachment proceedings, six years later. But as we know now, that's in the future. What was then little more than gossip is likely not going to be disputed two and a half decades later.

In the meantime, no one hates practicing more than I do. No one feels more isolated, alone, and alienated. My friends are geeks and budding scholars, but most of my teammates are dumb jocks. The games are fun, but practices drag on for hours and involve wind sprints. I could be one of the popular kids and benefit from the reverence and personality cults granted to jocks. I could have a cheerleader for a girlfriend, but I resist. I'd feel like a terrible phony. I already feel like I'm leading an inauthentic life as an impostor.

Anyone who has ever played a competitive team sport like football knows how quickly time progresses in a game settings. It feels as though one is existing in a dream state. Adrenalin flows. A game that lasts three hours in duration feels like ten minutes to its participants. I've received numerous nicks and cuts in the middle of a game and not felt them until the final whistle is blown. I love the the blood sport involved and thrive on it.

But practice is very different. I absolutely hate the massive physical exertion required. My body temperature rises to potentially dangerous levels during fall camp in August. Summer is the South is trying for everyone. In 100 degree Fahrenheit heat, I’m asked to sacrifice my body every day but Sunday. I'm in the best shape of my life, but overexertion and heat stroke is always a possibility in soaring heat indexes and high humidity. The body cools itself by sweating, but in 100% humidity, the moisture has nowhere to go, so it runs down my face in trails. My hair is sopping wet, as though I’d just taken a shower.

I decide to quit. No one can understand why. They're sure I'll change my mind later. Why would I turn down the admiration and adulation given to all popular kids? They're certain I'll come back to the fold eventually to confess my guilt. The booster intercedes, seeking to force my hand. My father is wined and dined at an impromptu visit to Lexington, Kentucky. The former governor, Martha Layne Collins, is notably present. The symbolism and intent is obvious. I can be a Wildcat football player, or at least given a favorable shot at winning a position.

My decision does not change. I do not regret it.

Later in life, well into my adulthood, I saw an early 1960's British film entitled This Sporting Life. One of its main characters is also a booster, who discovers a budding young rugby player in the North of England. Unlike Frank Machin, the athlete, I am not a violent, amoral hell-raiser. The quiet, shy, and reserved booster in the film is the exact opposite of the man who made my case and cheered me onward. But that bit of celluloid does remind me of my aggressive play and my take-no-prisoners attitude while on the playing field. Truth be told, I held a special hate for everyone I faced. I channeled the way I felt into being a tireless player who never got rattled and played hard on every down.

I could have been a successful soldier who kills efficiently and ruthlessly. And it would have won me awards and promotions. I did my job without complaint. I never taunted other players or made a great show of celebration. That wasn't exactly my M.O. Instead, I was coldly efficient like a surgeon. I would have brought that same attitude with me wherever I went. Football is a game of momentum swings, but I seemed to be largely immune to them. Win or lose, I gave it my all.

It would have been an adjustment for me to play on a team where racial dynamics were flipped. My high school was 90% white. Only a handful of players were black. These days, winning Southeastern Conference teams sport rosters where most of the combatants are black. They usually come from small towns and, quite often, the ghetto. Black players who come from poverty have an incentive to do well and to make good. They are given a chance for social mobility, a social mobility not easily granted otherwise, and they would be fools not to grab hold of the opportunity.

My booster said I was the right color for a reason. In his mind and in the mind of many others, I was the Great White Hope. I was the white knight on a powerful steed, seeking to equalize the racial balance of a football team. It's one of the uncomfortable realities that led me to choose a different path for myself.

Black Lives Matter on the football field. However, they may not matter as much when their talent is used up and thoroughly exhausted. And there will always be calls for the next white superstar to make a name for himself in sports that are now black-dominated. This will be the case no matter how post-racial a society we become. If my mindset were different, if I was acquiescent and cowed and pressured, I might have been pushed into that role. But it would have only kept me miserable. Today I live for myself, not as anyone’s bargaining chip or quid pro quo.

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