My first task the following morning was t0 find the football stadium. Ralph Goldston, the black coach on Harvard’s staff, had come to my house in Middletown, Ohio, recruiting. I liked him and appreciated their interest in me. This also served as a source of comfort. Football had been my life, my anchor, up until now, and I was happy and excited about joining Harvard’s team. I felt comfortable with him and he was my contact at Harvard. This triumphant walk to the stadium was filled with expectation.
I walked through campus, through “The Yard”, out onto “The Square” down Boylston Street, across the Charles River to the stadium almost floating. It was effortless. For all the uncertainty that lie before me, football was one constant I was comfortable with. These guys would surely be kindred spirits.
Soldier’s Field was everything I had hoped for. It was a monstrous structure of gray cement that looked as if it had been there forever. It was like the Roman Colliseum. I stared through the fence just imagining the heroics I would have in there while seventy thousand people cheered. I was in the right place and this felt good.
In the building adjacent to the stadium, a sign on the door directed me to enter. It was a low one story brick building that was dark and damp; I found the locker room immediately. There were four or five trainers, talking and a few guys standing around in shorts, but none of the behemoths I expected to see. It was college, and I expected 300 pound tackles.
I was directed to where I needed to go for a physical exam. I stripped down to my underwear and began to follow the signs. I desperately needed to see Goldston, to see a familiar face, but no such luck.
Listening to my heart, the doctor immediately noted the irregular heartbeat. I explained that I had just had a physical. I had been nominated to the Naval Academy and they had discovered that I had a Wenckebach heart block. His facial expression changed drastically. He was uncomfortable with that information. My chart was kicked “upstairs”.
He completed the exam though and after I was dressed he pulled me aside, “Look”, he said, “I’m not saying you won’t be able to play, but I am going to have you see a specialist before I’ll clear you.”
But I didn’t get the chance to see a specialist. Upon my return to the locker room the next day, the decision had already been made. I would not play football. In a flash my world
collapsed. I had never even remotely imagined it, not playing football. It was
too absurd to even entertain. I was caught completely off guard. I was
devastated. The rug had literally been pulled from under my feet. I was lost
and I was alone. I wandered up and down Massachusetts Avenue for the remainder of the day. I didn’t even mention it to RaySwagg.
I spent the next few days just wandering around Harvard Square. I didn’t call my mom either. I didn’t know what I would say. With each day, though, I became more determined
to play. I returned to the doctor and requested a specialist. He gave me a list
of cardiologists at Harvard Medical School and I called them all trying to get
the earliest appointment.
It took a number of weeks and more than a few examinations before the doctor consented to let me play. I was so out of it I couldn’t even remember his name. I didn’t hear him. I only wanted to hear him say I could play and so that’s all I listened for. And so
approximately six weeks late, I joined the freshman football team.
Unfortunately for me, by that time, people had already secured positions. Depth
charts were completed and the players had settled into their routines. I
started at the back of the quarterbacks and moved up quickly, but it became
apparent that I was not going to move up to the starting job. It had nothing to
do with ability, nor did it have anything to do with the players in front of me.
I just think the coach believed he was protecting me. I was allowed to
participate enough to keep me quiet, but not enough to get to where I wanted to
be, and worst yet, I had no advocate.
Goldstone was working with the varsity players and took no time to mentor me. It was as if we had never met and although it did not consciously register at the time, subconsciously it registered as another time when a black man had deserted me when I needed him most.
The joy that I had known since I was six years old, the joy I had as a football player was gone. I continued to participate but I could feel I was never going to get the shot I knew I wanted, and perhaps deserved. The head trainer, a man in his seventies, pulled me aside
one afternoon and began a dialogue. “Just call me Joe” he said.
Joe had seen a lot of Harvard football and had been there through four or five coaching changes. “I want you to spend some time with me” he said. “I’ve had a lot of players become orthopedic surgeons, and with your medical problems, maybe that’s the way for you. I know it hurts now but anytime life closes a door, it opens up a window. Maybe, just
maybe, your destiny lies somewhere else.”
It wasn’t a matter of maybe; whether I chose it or not, that was where it was going to be, somewhere else. Many times in life choices really aren’t choices; sometimes your preference isn’t really an option.
But, it wasn’t all bad. Life never is. A lesson my mother tried to instill was the notion that “you can’t always control what is going on, but you can control your reaction to it”. My
immediate reaction was to close down, to retreat inside-clearly a remnant from
my childhood. Yet my epiphany was this: about 90% of what goes on in anybody’s
life is good and about 10% is bad. If you want to make yourself miserable, just
focus on the 10% that is bad and ignore the 90% that is good.
I chose to focus on the good-which soon became a habit- and immersed myself in campus life.