The final word on Ricky Byrdsong won't be written by a newspaper columnist or spoken by a TV or radio commentator. It will come from Byrdsong himself.
Shortly before the former Northwestern University basketball coach was gunned down and killed on July 3 while walking with his kids just a few doors from their suburban Skokie, Ill., home, Byrdsong received word that the book he was working on had been accepted for publication. The project he started will be completed, according to his widow, Sherialyn Byrdsong, and become available next year--probably around Father's Day.
"Everything that's happened has been terrible, but we can't drown in pity," she said. "We have to figure how we can get some good out of it and this book is one way to try--especially with the youth."
The title of the volume, which is to be published by Bethany House of Minneapolis, is "Coaching Your Kids in the Game of Life."
It was a longtime dream of Byrdsong's to help build stronger families by drawing parallels between the coaching principles he had learned and the fundamentals of raising children. His hope, according to collaborators David and Neta Jackson, was that sports metaphors would make the advice more appealing to a broader audience.
"Everyone was excited because, frankly, a lot of parenting books are read just by moms," said Neta Jackson. "There's always a concern to get dads involved, not that only men are interested in sports, but this would be an approach they'd be more likely to read."
There are 12 chapters with titles such as "Home Court Advantage," "The Dream Team--Your Kids," "Halftime Adjustments" and "Rules of the Game--Team Discipline."
In what now seems especially poignant, Byrdsong wrote in one chapter: "Just as a positive mental attitude gives kids the courage to try and not be afraid of failure, courage to face adversity is fundamental to success in the game of life. We parents won't always be there to protect our children from the difficult challenges they will face in life. We really hurt our kids if we always run to the rescue and don't give them a chance to solve problems."
Byrdsong, 43, left three children, Ricky Jr., Sabrina and Kelley. His devotion to them and their well-being is illustrated best in a "mission statement" he drew up with Sherialyn in the spring of 1998.
In it, he pledged to be a strong father figure to his kids at all times and explicitly outlined goals--most of them related to his Christian beliefs--as a parent. He had it framed so he wouldn't lose sight of his intentions.
In the book's introduction, Byrdsong provides a clue that his desire to help youth in their formative years stemmed from a high school experience in Atlanta in which a coach, who was a strong father figure to students, directed him to try out for basketball. Byrdsong was a sophomore at the time and being raised by a single mother working two jobs.
His participation on the team led to his first great success in life--and to an eventual scholarship to Iowa State University, which in turn became the springboard to the family he loved and opportunities in coaching.
Though he had never been in trouble as a youngster, Byrdsong remained forever grateful that someone had gotten him involved in an activity that become so important. He wrote this about that long-ago high school encounter: "When I drive around and see kids hanging out on the street corner, I pick one out of the crowd and think, 'Man! If someone could just do for that kid what Coach Lester did for me.' Because that kid doesn't have to end up on the street corner or in prison or in the morgue. What if at a critical point in his life, someone would say--'Hey, son! Come here! You can do whatever!' "
Patrick Ryan, CEO at Aon Corp., recalls that Byrdsong was "really struggling" to get the book project off the ground when, after leaving Northwestern, he became vice president of community affairs at the giant insurance firm.
"This was one of the reasons, frankly, why he left coaching altogether," Ryan said. "He could've had a job as an assistant at a big school or head man at a smaller college, but he had two things he really wanted to do: Help youth see better things in life and write this book using sports metaphors. I told him to come here [to Aon] and we'd help him."
In one form or another, Byrdsong worked on "Coaching Your Kids in the Game of Life" for three years. Last October, everything started coming together in a hurry when, with Ryan's guidance, Byrdsong teamed with the Jacksons, who write and edit books under the name Castle Rock Creative Inc. The Jacksons, Byrdsong's fellow congregation members at the Worship Center in Evanston, circulated his book proposal to publishers after agreeing to help with the writing.
Sherialyn Byrdsong recalls that her husband had been worried until then that the book would never reach the public because of his lack of knowledge of how the publishing industry works. "The thing with Ricky," she said, "was that he was so full of ideas that he wanted to communicate. He'd walk around the house all the time with his yellow legal pad, jotting ideas down."
Just two weeks before Byrdsong, who was African American, was murdered in what police said was part of a killing rampage by white supremacist Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, the Jacksons called the ex-coach to tell him that Bethany House had agreed to publish the book. A few days later, Byrdsong still was so excited over the news that he sent Neta and David a fax saying, "I still can't believe it."
A week to the day before the shooting, Byrdsong, his wife and the Jacksons went to dinner to celebrate. Pictures were snapped and Byrdsong presented his collaborators with a gift--a book by Clarence Shuler, a basketball player turned pastor.
The title of Shuler's book was "Winning the Race to Unity."
The subtitle was "Is Racial Reconciliation Really Working?"
At the time of Byrdsong's death, half of his book was finished. The Jacksons have enough written material from Byrdsong, plus taped interviews with him, to complete the project. "We were just hitting our stride," says Neta Jackson.
Not long ago, the Jacksons got a boost from what they call "a gift from God"--an unsolicited fax from an old coaching associate of Byrdsong's. It contained notes from a conversation the sender had had with Byrdsong that provided additional material for the final chapter.
"We talked about this book all the time," says Sherialyn Byrdsong, herself a former basketball coach. "We want to keep this alive and I'm just glad everyone--Pat Ryan and the Jacksons--have stayed committed."
Byrdsong plans to assist with the final drafts as soon as her life settles down from the tragedy.
The deadline is late September, but there should be no difficulty getting an extension. All concerned wrestled with how to handle the writing after the shooting and have decided to keep the same point of view used before Byrdsong's death.
The irony of completing a book about child-rearing in a complex world after the author has been killed, according to investigators, by a hate-filled 21-year-old, is not lost on those directly involved. They feel as if it is their "mission" to help others the way Ricky Byrdsong wanted.
"This," says David Jackson, "is his legacy."
CAPTION: Then-coach Ricky Byrdsong in 1994. His posthumous book is about coaching kids in the game of life.