My paternal grandmother, Alberta, moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and that’s where she met my grandfather, Edward Adams, who had come north from Alabama. I never met Edward Adams and no one ever really talked about him. By the time I was born, Edward had died and my grandmother had remarried Pearlman Hicks, the only Grandpa I knew. Yet here she was, one of the most wonderful people I had ever known, telling me how racism in America had affected her choices, and ultimately, her decision to leave home. That has
always stuck with me. It’s amazing that people could be so mean to someone who
truly was such a wonderful spirit.
My parents, as I noted earlier, had divorced by this time. Sports became my father and my teacher. After the death of Alice, my childhood disappeared and so, as a child, I guess you could say I was parentified-at least that what psychiatrists and psychologists call it today. My mother was a single parent raising two children on her own. As the oldest, my responsibility was for my younger sister. My mother would leave for work each morning at
approximately 6:30 a.m. and from that time forward, that is until about six in
the evening, I was responsible for Delia (to this day my best friend and the
love of my life-so much for sibling rivalry).
The hours after school were spent first making sure my sister got home safely? It was then off to whatever sport the season dictated.
By this time we had moved to a large house on Eleventh Avenue, my mother, sister and I. It was a perfect place to live because of its location. The house sat one structure (a small church) from the corner and across the street to the left was Wm Howard Taft Elementary
School where my sister went. And directly out our front door, across a large
field, was Wm. McKinley Junior High School (where I went); and behind McKinley
sat Barnitz Stadium, where the Middletown High School Middies played football,
a place I would come to love because it gave me my identity. There was no
greater honor in Middletown, Ohio, than being the Middie quarterback.
I was also very fortunate because the kid who lived a few doors down was none other than John Holland. John was older than I was and, to put it mildly, a tremendous athlete. He was muscular before we knew what muscles were and was great at all sports. He eventually
played football for the Minnesota Vikings.
John and I would go to McKinley Junior High School, across the street from our houses, with a tennis ball, a baseball bat, a glove, and a piece of chalk. We’d draw a chalk square on the wall to designate the strike zone and played strikeout almost every day during
the summer. It was John Holland who taught me to hit a baseball, and it was
John Holland who made me a pitcher in knothole baseball.
During the fall I played Pee Wee Football, and with that came a ritual. Everyday after school, I would run home, get my bicycle and pedal the five miles south to Smith Park. On the days I didn’t have to go to practice I was lucky to have Jesse, Jesse Jemison, in my
life too. We called Jesse “Flubber” and while the fact is that Jesse eventually
played professional basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters, his real claim to
fame is he taught an eight year-old kid to throw a football.
We really did hang an old tire from the tree in the back yard and throw that ball threw the tire for hours at a time. Jesse would critique my mechanics and we would make adjustments and continue throwing for another hour or so. What a great thing for Jesse to do. That kid that Jesse taught to throw a football became the quarterback for the Middletown Middies and went on to Harvard College.
I never really thought about it at the time: that the other boys were always there at Smith Park with their fathers and I wasn’t; I really didn’t think about it. I was the quarterback and got more than enough attention. All I really wanted to do
was play. It was my time to have fun. I was good at it, and my coaches took an interest
in me. It was also the only time that I interacted with white kids in Middletown.
I didn’t see my coaches as the white men from the other side of the town though; I saw them as uncles and brothers and father figures who had taken an interest in me. They fought to keep me a kid when I needed it most.
As a seventh grader I had considered playing football at the junior high school level. The coaches who had taught me football since I was eight years-old urged me to continue Pee Wee Football. “Play ten games as the starting quarterback” they urged, “rather than sitting the bench for four games at McKinley while the ninth graders get to play. Your time will come; just make sure you are prepared when it does.” They were right and football turned out to be very, very kind to me. It afforded me the attention that all kids need, and soon
football would be my ticket out of Middletown.