In grade school and junior high I played on the basketball team as well, but that ended after my sophomore year in high school. It was the age of specialization and prudence dictated that I concentrate on football. If I was to play regularly, I needed to do the work
that it took to get better. It was a full time endeavor.
It wasn’t all sports though. When I entered high school, my mother became increasingly concerned and a lot more overbearing concerning my development. She saw it as a time when young boys grow wild. She saw it as a turning point: you choose a path that is honorable, or one that leads to destruction. She was taking no chances.
An uncle was the pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Middletown, the church we attended on Sundays. My mother “suggested” that it might be very good for me to become a junior deacon and spend more time around him at this point in my life. And so I did.
The church though was a strange place for me at thirteen. I understood faith but I guess I just couldn’t understand the logic behind it. By this time, books were everything for me, and I was learning to have a lot more questions than people, or books for that
matter, could supply answers. I just remember thinking that my uncle, the Rev.
Hampton, wasn’t so much interested in saving my soul, as he was in making me a
good Baptist. Nonetheless, I have grown considerably over the years, at least in terms of my spirituality, and I owe both my mother and the Reverend Hampton for that.
That chapter, my committment to being a Junior Deacon in the Church lasted two years and no one was happier for the arrival of high school than me. New challenges afforded me the opportunity to let go of some of the old things in order to focus on the new. I gladly would spend time in the library as compared to sitting around with my fellow deacons, all over the age of eighty.
In Middletown, Ohio, that meant getting on a bus and going from the “hood”, to where the white kids lived. (Middletown had a segregated black area but in all honesty it was a far cry from “the hood”. Jobs at the steel mill made sure everyone could earn a living. Our “hood”
wasn’t a ghetto plagued with crime and drugs; it was just a middle class black Midwestern
town. There weren’t a lot of things to do, not much culture, but, again, it was
Middletown High School had been originally located downtown, not far from
the black inhabited west side, but with construction of a new building it had
been moved to a more convenient location (for the white families that lived out
toward the eastern part of town). We were to be the first group of sophomores to
attend the new school and despite the ride it was wonderful to “break in” a
brand new building.
Football season began with the “dog days” of August and so those of us who played football actually arrived a month before school started. We’d carpool out to the school in the morning, head for the locker room, and change into our gear.
Morning practice lasted two and a half hours and was more about fundamentals and conditioning. We’d then have a break for lunch and rest an hour or so.
At noon we’d practice in shorts and helmets. Helmets were the hardest thing to get use to wearing and so when we convened to learn plays with the “skilled” players-that is the backs and ends-we were required to wear them at all times.
The afternoon workout was torture in full gear and this was the time when starters were declared. It was man against man and the payoff was a chance to play every Friday evening, and more importantly, in Barnitz Stadium, a place that seated about 10,000 people in a town with only 20,000.
I moved up the depth chart quickly, and as a junior was considered for the starting quarterback position. That meant replacing Bob Coleman, who was a senior, but more
importantly, my friend. Bobby was like a big brother to me. As things
progressed, that is as the first game of the season grew closer, he moved to head off a confrontation for the starting quarterback position. It was interesting because he
wasn’t avoiding the competition, Bobby was a tremendous athlete. He was the
captain and he was making the move for the betterment of the team. It was he
who approached Coach Gordon and suggested I start at quarterback while he continued
to play safety and concentrated on defense. That, in no uncertain terms, was a
man. He taught us all about the notion of team.
It was short-lived because soon after that I broke my ankle and missed six weeks of practice. After I healed, it took three to four weeks for me to get back in shape and by the seventh game of the season, Bobby and I were alternating at quarterback during games with him leading the running plays and me coming in on obvious passing downs. I was a passer, not a runner.
I started the last game of the season, a game against Hamilton Garfield, our rivals, which we won.
Playing football, and being a part of high school life before the rest of the student body had even arrived, also had other benefits. It made me the most popular kid in the sophomore class, which got me elected president (of the sophomore class) and placed on the
student council. As a result, I was President of the Junior Class, and as a senior, President of the student body.
I had developed my closest friendships by the time I was in high school. Rick Martin and Guy Mack had been friends of mine since grade school and, because we had all our classes together, our relationship continued on into our college preparatory courses and graduation.
I played football, and Rick and Guy were starting guards on the basketball team.
They would come to football games to support me, and in turn, when basketball
season arrived I cheered them on. The three of us did everything together. Most
of all, we participated in high school life, and growing-up in a small midwestern town.