Small Town Ohio: High School Football, 1965

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 a bunch of them that year.. I guess.

So I was the 1966 Mayhem Axmurderer of my high school football team. I got to keep the jersey which affirmed that. Yes, I know:

Good. Lord.

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 Dallas Cowboys or any sports 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 almost-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 above reflects a very real stereotype of the time: even the toughest black guy had a glass jaw, some thought, and taught, and believed.)

Continuing:

“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 has 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 this whole story may be this:

The winner of the game between our small town high school and Youngstown North was..

Youngstown North!!

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.

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I’m almost 60..

I’ll be 60 this year. That’s a sentence that leaves me aghast and amuses me at the same time. Sometimes I will think for a moment that it would be fun to still have more years in front of me than behind me. But then I remind myself of the people I have- because of my age- been privileged to share this planet with. People like the following whose pictures I just happened onto at oliverwillis.com, a site worth perusing.

Wow! Just look. We know the names of some of these people and not others. But all of these men and women are reminders of what real heroism looks like. Real heroism is about taking action, when retreat would be both excusable and safer. Real heroism happens in silence and isolation, in the presence of real enemies. Real heroism is about focusing not on what you can see in front of you, but what you hope others will be able to see, someday.

These men and women are among my heroes; and I am thankful that I was in this place and in this country at the same time they were. Theirs was an extraordinary humanity and their willingness to share it has made the rest of us, better.

President Obama

It could happen. I don’t know whether it actually will, but the important thing right now- today- is that the real possibility to have an African-American president of the United States does exist.

We’ve come part of the way, baby.

The candidacy of Barack Obama has already affected some very important changes in our American collective consciousness (it seems to me). And changes in consciousness always grow. Once doors open in our individual and communal awareness, they never close- they only open wider over time. That is true in both our evolution as a human species and within our national consciousness.

To be sure, changes in consciousness are always accompanied by cultural, religious, and political reactions to those changes. Just as fundamentalism within Islam is growing in reaction to the larger international movements for democracy and equal rights, so are we seeing evidence of some fundamentalist reactions against the idea of a black person being president here in the United States. We’ve all overheard comments the like of which have not been heard openly in many years: “I don’t believe we’re ready for a black man to be president” and “If he gets in, the n—–s will be lined up in front of the White House with their hands out.” (I heard both of those at our local Democratic precinct caucus in March.)

But we’ve also seen those sentiments expressed in voting demographics and heard them through various disguised comments from the other Democratic candidate and that candidate’s family. And as ugly as those realities are, that they are being expressed- that Obama’s candidacy is causing them to be expressed- is a good thing. Here’s why:

When Light shines on darkness, Light always wins. A good way to get rid of mold, is to expose it to sunshine.

Overt racism has lain dormant in America for several decades. Actually, “dormant” is a misleading word- lethally hidden would be a better description of it’s state of being.  That Obama has been a catalyst for its being expressed more openly has been a good thing. Racism is being acknowledged and talked about honestly today in ways that will eventually spread to local morning gatherings for coffee  and to corporate boards of directors.

And, also eventually, that consciousness-raising kind of talk will move from heads to hearts. That’s how awareness works: it always makes things better than they were. To be sure, there will be reactive and ugly bumps along the way. But the twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings among us are driving road graders that are leveling out the ditchy and pot-holey messes us older folks have been benignly and denyingly walking around for far too long.

No matter what else is happening, in other words, hope is happening.

America’s Open Wound

For those with open ears, open eyes, and open hearts, the bleeding wounds of racism in America are evident everyday- every hour and every minute for many. It is a complex, jagged, and deep wound which, because of neglect or intentional denial, has spread throughout the entire body of our country, and has been bending us for so long that few of us recognize the extent of deformation it has caused not only in our corporate body and mind, but within our American soul.

I am racist. I say that in the same way that I am honest about the fact that I have arthritis, or that I want- at some point everyday- to salve my ravenous emotions with the balm of Jim Beam. Those are just facts, realities about myself with which I must live and compensate for with the best of my awareness and abilities. I don’t know specifically where and when arthritis first began to grip my spine; nor do I know when the diseased defaults to racist attitudes began that I still am so easily able to display from time to time. Both of those things (along with the continuing desire- after fifteen years of abstinence- for an alcoholic fog to soften the day) are infestations I had no control over at the time they entered my being.

I’ve managed all of them, to an extent. I intentionally do not not drink and do what I can, with others, to keep Jim Beam and his sidekick, Bud, at bay. I swallow pills daily to keep my over-active anti-inflammatory systems in check. Racism, however, is probably the most difficult infection to deal with because of the daily reinforcements and affirmations that pour onto it, like gasoline on a fire. It flares at times, it sizzles often, and is always a (usually benign) ember that burns within me.

I don’t want it to be there. It is much, much smaller than it once was. And if I try to justify its presence based on a comparison of it to the hot coal which burns in others then, indeed, it was never very large. But it is there, and I hate that it is there. I want it gone.

I know the hope for its complete eradication is still generations away, for myself (i.e., my children and their children) and my country. I am not able to say I will die one day with nothing but a cold ash of racism within me. But I do hope, and will act on the possibilities of seeing that hope manifested as soon as possible in all the ways I can, whenever I can, wherever and however I can. My children are already less burdened (not only because of me, by any means!) of my various afflictions than I will ever be, thank God.

And I do thank God for that, and a whole long and glorious line of my fellow Americans who have been courageous enough to reveal the wounds of racism to be no mere reality which are harmful to some, but that are crippling, festering, killing wounds that are endemic to all of us. The blessing of being 58 years old in America is to have been alive in the same place, breathing the same air, as some of these past and present healers.

Two of them, of course, as they have been, are, and will be for so many Americans (and wounded people everywhere) are Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. In fact, the first piece of American literature that I would recommend to anyone- even above The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Grapes of Wrath– is King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Soon after that, I would urge anyone to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Alex Haley. Many people my age or older will remember Malcolm X in the fiery contexts of the early 60s, a time of frightening cultural change. Read him again, in the light of the forty years of history we have lived through since his death, and you will find yourself mourning his murder.

As of yesterday- and, yes, it is the reason I’m writing all of this in the first place- we heard a a speech by Senator Obama that may one day find itself in the same heady categories as the two pieces of literature mentioned above. Because of his unique cultural stance, he was able to elaborate on racism in America in a way that no one before him has personally been able to do. In black and white, African and American terms, his genetic voice and his intellectual honesty and wisdom have provided content for years of discussion and action and- most importantly- real social and soulful change. Whether a person is a supporter of his candidacy for president or not, this speech deserves to be read, studied, and pondered. In fact, I would urge those who are most opposed to that candidacy to read it most contemplatively.

And I say that not because it might change your vote, but because it might change you. I’ve overheard too many conversations about why someone is a Clinton or McCain supporter to not also have heard heart-breakingly racist statements being made in the guise of political or ideological language. Not all of those supportive statements for other candidates are racist, by any means, but enough are for anyone to know, if their eyes, ears, and hearts are open, that the blood and pus of racist wounds are still running fresh.

Read Senator Obama’s speech here.