As a teenager recently graduated from high school, I signed on to coach a summer track club in St. Charles, Illinois. The pay was $500 total for the months of June, July and August. There were 80+ kids in the program, including several athletes that went on to win AAU national championships.
We traveled around the state to compete with teams from Moline, Belvidere, Peoria, Chicago and Aurora. Many of the kids on the teams from these Rust Belt towns were black. We sometimes traveled to inner-city track venues as well.
Yet the novelty for our often blonde, blue eyed kids wore off quickly. Because when it came time to compete on the track, there was one purpose in mind. Run your fastest and see if you can beat the kid in the next lane.
Our youngest athletes learned much about their competition over the course of those summers. Inevitably the smallest kids found reasons to play together between events. On many hot afternoons it was all one could do to stay hydrated and get out of the sun at those city tracks.
The coaches for the primarily black teams were always big personalities it seems. They would move around the track keeping kids in check all day, organizing relay teams and keeping an eye on the focus of their best athletes.
As a white kid from the suburbs it was enlightening to see this leadership in progress. What I knew of leadership in the black community was from big-world events in the mid-to-late 1960s. I was in grade school when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their hands in black gloves in protest on the Olympic podium. We learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., in school, and we knew that he’d advocated peaceful protest as a means to achieve equality for black people in America. We also knew that he was assassinated by someone that was afraid of what he had to say. That was my take anyway.
But those events were a very different thing from witnessing the figure of a black coach running a track program so that kids could compete and improve their lives. You realized there were decisions being made every day that changed the world. It showed that someone cared about every one of those children.
The really fascinating aspect of those summer track meets was the athletes themselves. Being in the company of black children when you’re not accustomed to the culture was enlightening, and the constant creativity, social celebration and engagement stood out for me. Conversations and laughter and sometimes even hard words of criticism or encouragement deepened the sense that something very important was going on. It encouraged me to be more focused in my own coaching.
And it also made me wish I knew these people better.
So that when it came time for college it was no big transition for me to room with a black teammate. The mid-1970s were a highly transitional time at Luther College, with perhaps no more than 100 black students on campus. At an Iowa school in the cornfields, you really could not expect much more. It was no doubt a culture shock just to drive the 6.5 hours from Chicago to Decorah, Iowa. So these were courageous people I knew.
At some level I understood the notion of being a stranger in a strange land. I’d been the minority at those city meets and had come to realize that it is the human connections that matter in all situations, not race. So during my track season at Luther I roomed on track trips with a great guy named Ron Bolden who hailed from the deep inner city of Chicago.
I don’t share this to aggrandize myself as some racially astute individual. All I know is that when the door to friendships have been opened, I have walked through. And many days I do my best to open those doors by looking people straight in the eye and greeting them as another human being. That’s what any of us can do, and should.
Walking through doors
To society’s persistent credit, in many places our formerly lily-white suburbs and schools are becoming more racially integrated. Many in these new generations of kids coming through the schools no longer see race among friends. It simply doesn’t matter. Indian. Asian. Black. White. Latino. Friends.
Frankly, it almost always comes down to one or two things that start a friendship. If someone listens to you that is one important aspect of friendship. And if they can make you laugh, they’re you’re friends forever.
Track and running are simply portals to those key elements of friendship. When you compete with someone on a team, you naturally share thoughts and laughter during training and competition. Race together and race disappears.
When you compete against someone, you also share an experience. Sooner or later you might approach that person and say, “Nice race.” It’s a show of respect. Or perhaps they show that respect to you.
We should all remember that respect is the foundation for all human connections, and sports should teach respect.
Plus everyone seems to love an underdog, and that one lone black athlete in the Tour de France is someone for whom you cannot help but root. And on the day that they make a breakaway, staring tradition right in the eye, you find yourself crying at the joy of someone stretching the boundaries and breaking free from expectations and limitations.
If only this process were not limited by the ugly anchors of politics or religion, the human race might actually have a chance at respect––and love even––for all.