I’ve been doing some deep cleaning the last several days, and among the many things I uncovered was an envelope from my mother’s stuff which contained my high school football memorabilia. She saved stuff that I haven’t touched in over 45 years! There were pictures, newspaper articles, and individual score sheets on each week’s individual and team performances. There was a special award for my receiving the team’s Mayhem Axmurder Award for 1966- given to the “meanest and most effective” defensive player. I played tackle and I made more of them than anyone else I guess.
So I was the 1966 Mayhem Axmurderer of my high school football team. Yes, I know:
Among the (many, many) other papers were several prep sheets. These were write-ups about the coming game. They covered particular players from the other team, the kind of offense they ran, and included special plays which the coaches had put together to be used against that team. The cover page of the prep handout was a hand drawn cartoon and an initial pep talk written by the coaches. (Note: this was the days of blue mimeograph and I don’t think the coaches typed, so the prep sheet was handwritten, before it was run off on the mimeograph machine. Those of you who are my age will understand that I held these particular papers to my nose just nowto see if they still had that special mimeograph smell. They did not.)
Anyway, this particular prep sheet was about a team from Youngstown which we were playing that week- Youngstown North. Let me quote some of the coaches motivational comments:
“North has been knocked out 64 straight times, and plans to get off the canvas against us..anyone who has been knocked out that many times is bound to have a weakness, which they do. On many occasions they have beat themselves through faulty execution and mistakes.”
Of course the same thing can be said of the Cowboys or any team, but this was 1965, so there is more.
(If you are easily offended, stop here. Really. I should tell you before we go on that Youngstown North was an all African-American team, although at that time, we knew them as an all Negro team. And all of our team members were white. The “glass jaw knock out” you see in the motivational picture reflects a very real stereotype of the time: even the toughest black guy had a glass jaw, some thought, and taught, and believed.)
“Gentlemen, there is no alternative in the game this week. We must WIN it. There is too much shame connected with losing it…Everyone knows why North is getting beat. They are predominately low intelligent colored people. They can’t learn many things, and what they do learn they have trouble executing it very well.
“There is no doubt about it, some of them have good muscular strength and speed..but we know that it takes another very important element- BRAINS. This is where we can get our advantage…
“We must beat them or be put to tremendous shame.”
The coach was right- even now, I still feel tremendous shame, though it’s not the kind of shame he thought it would be. I tell myself that it was 1965, and it is 45 years later. But I know how the institutional racism I grew up with knocked at the door of my consciousness over the years. What bothers me are the times when it manifested itself through me and I wasn’t aware of it. I’m certain that has happened any number of times.
I’m not really angry at the coaches or other adults who passed along this system of exclusion to the following generation, as much as I pity them. As Martin Luther King Jr. stated often, the civil rights movement was (and still must be) about freeing all people of their wrapped-chain attitudes and the crippling weight of judgmentalism. I pity those handicapped by such lies and I feel sorry for myself and so many others who have never been able to completely shed the imaginary but inflicted veil stretched over our fields of vision.
And what of the young men of Youngstown North? Across years and space, across a different country and an always brand new culture, I can say “I’m sorry.” But those are just words- useless, pale, impotent, nice-sounding words if I do nothing to back them up.
So I’ve tried. I don’t think there’s an iota of any of this shit (and that’s what it is) in my own children. They were raised in the South where the flavors of racism were and are different than they were in ’65 Ohio, but that I detect nothing mean about their attitudes, exclusionary about their relationships, or narrow about their love for others, tells me that their mom and I did some things right in this regard.
But I’ve experienced the outward and visible kinds of racism in the last several years, after decades of not experiencing it. The use of the ‘n’ word, the telling of really awful race-based jokes, and the overt attempts to re-establish institutionally racist principles among some persons and groups in state and federal government, are things I thought I would never ever see again. Wow, I was wrong. I have been dumbfounded so many times recently that I have been and know I will have to continue to be a pastoral advocate against and in the face of this ..awfulness. This little essay is a tiny part of that effort; and the the best part of the whole narration may be this:
The winner of the game between our small town high school and Youngstown North was..
North broke their 64 game losing streak against us! We discovered there were were no “glass jaws” to be broken. They executed very well and made fewer mistakes than we did. And it looked to most of us, that North had strength, speed, AND brains.
I’ve looked back on the game for many years as one of the best things that could have happened to me as an individual, and I bet there are dozens of my teammates who would feel the same way. There were stereotypes shattered that cool October night and the shattering of stereotypes is always a good thing. I’m guessing- if such things can be quantified- that the sounds of joy on the bus home to Youngstown North that night far outweighed whatever “shame” we may have felt in our hometown locker room.
So I laugh over a genuine soreness in my soul for a time and a place that never should have been. But I also laugh because we were such asses. We really were.