In my freshman year of high school, I was the only black kid on my football team in Pittsburgh. I was just a freshman, but I was a starter, and we won the state Quad A title.
I can remember my coach always saying: “Look at each other, look long and hard, gentlemen. What do you see? I will tell you what I see: A group of guys who love to play the game of football! I see a group of guys wearing red and white, that have laughed together, that have cried together, that have bled together!
“Tell me what else matters? What else matters?”
Pittsburgh wasn’t the most racially integrated place in the ‘80s and ’90s, but despite being a minority of one, and suffering my share racially-motivated incidents, the only colors I saw on that team were red and white. My team was united. I never felt like I didn’t fit in. We were a team and we treated each other that way.
I bring this up now because of the furor over the killing of Trayvon Martin and the racial issues it has raised. We’ve all felt them. The critical thing is how we respond.
I was called names in grade school. Later, as an athlete, it was common to hear racial slurs used as a technique to fluster me and get me out of my rhythm during games. As I got older, I became immune to those tactics.
What I wasn’t prepared for was hearing it from one of my teammates.
During my junior year, one of my teammates came walking into home room with a T- shirt that read “Malcolm X is dead.” It showed pictures of him after he was shot and an image of a gun scope. We had racial sensitivity rules in our school, but the teacher did nothing.
Since he was my teammate on the football team and I knew him well enough to try and talk to him, that’s what I did. He was a defensive lineman, big and strong, so I was hoping we could just talk about it.
So I built up enough courage in the stairwell to say “Do you hate me?” He told me to shut up and started up the stairs towards me. It was the first time in my life I had fought over a racial situation.
I learned a very valuable lesson that day: Nobody wins in these battles. I felt so empty after that fight and I’m sure he felt bad too. It did nothing to solve the problem. In fact, it most likely complicated things.
We eventually sat and talked. We both realized that fear of the unknown can lead to so many problems. It took a fight for us to talk about why he wore the shirt, how it made him feel and how it made me feel. An hour of discussion and we were okay with one another, because we had cleared the air.
The Trayvon Martin case shows us how little has changed.
Every person, especially a kid like Trayvon, deserves the right to be judged as the person he is, and not by the color of his skin. Understanding that different isn’t wrong or bad, it’s just different, is a theme we should all strive to embrace.
Expose yourself and your kids to other people and other cultures. It’s what we did on that football team, and it’s how we came together, how we transcended race.
Thanks coach and teammates. Because of you I walk through life every day with respect for myself and others. For me it makes life worthwhile.