In the barren winter landscape here, the strapping man-child in sunshine yellow sweatjacket and bright red hat looks like a forlorn peacock out of high grass. Julius (Big Red) Holt, hell-raiser turned super athlete, nurtured in Washington's mean inner city streets, has come to this town of 7,000 in pursuit of his dream of becoming a champion.
When I'd seen him last, Reds was stripping off the shiny purple graduation gown of Washington's Cardozo High School, his face a gingerbread glow. He had once been a street dude, loud and wrong, fighting and stealing, but he'd turned himself around after 10th grade, with a lot of help from his friends.
Reds got football scholarship offers, but his grades were too low, even though he had once made honor roll. So he has come here to study and play football at Ellsworth Community College, in hopes of being ready to enter a major college within a year and a half.
"It's a lot harder out here, ain't nothing easy," he says. "We got so much talent on the team. But ain't no social life, ain't no black girls."
Cultural adjustment challenges most blacks moving from a black to a white world. It is exacerbated when one is a young man from Washingtopn who's had only passing contact with whites, attended only all-black schools and has rarely been east of the Anacostia River or west of Rock Creek Park.
When he first rode over the back-counry gravel roads leading to this town, past fields of rich, black earth with eight-foot-high stalks of corn waving in the wind, Reds felt like he was entering a land he's seen only on "Apple's Way," the evening news or the giant screens of drive-in movies.
Ellsworth Community College is a friendly, sympathetic place. But whenever he left the little campus, he encountered ages-old attitudes such as those that might have awaited his grandfather just after World War Ii, when the Germans rubbed black soldiers to see if the color would come off.
"The people looked at you funny when you walked down the street or said they haven't seen a black before. I said 'Man, if that's the way they act out here, I don't want to be here,'" he recalled.
"Some white girls were telling us their parents said don't touch black people 'cause they might have some kind of disease,'" he said. Cheerleader Jane Fejfar later told me the town would be aghast if black athletes dated white girls. It's a worry the parents need not have -- Reds says he has no such inclinations.
So how does a city kid adjust culturally to rural Iowa?
With great difficulty, for everything is so alien . The black music that soothed him has been replaced by omnipresent country-western; the joyful/anguished noises he had always known in home and school halls have been lost, and in their place, there is only the sound of the whistling wing. He scrimmages beside a cornfield, and he's miles away from a store that sells hair grease.
But if you have a dream and only the streets, or a menial dead-end job awaits you back home on the depressing 14th Street strip where your family lives, you muster all the self-confidence you have. You try to survive.
Week One: "I wanted to go back home," he says. Four of the six youths from Washington did return home. The people seemed a mystery to him.What went on inside those tidy little houses that porduced such scornful looks when a man simply enered a pizza palor?He made frequent collect calls to his high school coaches, but his Washington ties were breaking. He had no money and no position on the team.
Week Two: Reds packed his bags.Head coach Vern Thomsen sent the team "shrink," coach Bob Reece, to talk him out of leaving. Reece urged him to remember he'd be playing major college ball within a year and a half. He reminded him of the academic advantages -- a tutor for every student who needs one, a 19-to-1 student-teacher ratio (compared to 35 to 1 at Cardozo).
Week Three: They gave him the outside linebacker position. Reds tore up his bus ticket.
Now, he had to adopt the frame of mind to make staying possible. He made friends with his teammates, some from inner cities, others from tiny Iowa farmtowns. He roomed with his best friend from Cardozo, James Locke.
In a world where the prices of soybeans and beef and interviews with The Porkettes (wives of swine farmers) dominate the airwaves, Reds and his friends set out to create their own world, to discipline themselves into conformity.
Their habitat became the spanking clean three-story brick dormitory. There the black athletes study, sing and dance, clown and crack on each other, talk and party. They sing the "doo-wap" songs on a campus corner, and fight mental depression with forbidden beer. In these moments, they create their black world in order to better deal with the new white world in which they find themselves changing from childhood to manhood. There's longing, but they don't want to go back home, for only the streets awaits them.
Then, too, they're models for the young people they left behind. "My brother Dave wants to be just like me," says Reds. "But I don't want him to start like me, taking stuff from people. I started to playing ball because my brother played. But I'm worried about my little brother, Chilly. I'm really worried 'cause he hangs out with some bad little dudes."
Ellsworth Panthers with Reds as first team outside linebacker finished undefeated, ranked second in the National Junior College Athletic Association standings this year and Reds, with a B academic average, seems to be succeeding. "He's a super athlete and a super person," says head coach Thomsen. "He's grown up since he's been out here," says a teammate. "He's conscientious and does his work," says his reading improvement instructor, Ruth Hinton.
As he nears the end of his first semester, Reds has mastered the cultural adjustment with as much sunniness as he can muster and he's changing physically -- "eating all the kow-awn" (corn) has pushed his weight from 220 to 240.
But there's unease and he has worries that most college freshmen never have. Will things in Iowa Falls worsen now that the football season is over? "We'll be just niggers," he frets.
Football brings him both ecstasy and anguish: he knows black athletes most often get tossed upon the scrap heap when their playing days are through, but vows things will be different because he'll also train as a professional social worker. "Everybody says they're going to buy their parents a home, man, but I mean it."
He's trapped between rejecting the past and trying to grasp an elusive and uncertain future. "I don't want to live on 14th Street anymore. People be standing around, junkies be talking. I don't like that too much. I don't want to live in a dump like that."
He's been twice fortunate. He beat the odds even to get a high school diploma, and his high motivation has lifted him yet another step. But the dream is menaced, fragile. "Out here helps you to grow up." he said. "You're on your own. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere."