That one time I could have become a racist

by Jeff Sykes

One of my first experiences with black rage was with the guy who would line up across from me in football practice and hit me as hard as he could in my stomach as he tried to get passed me.

I lined up at left tackle in seventh grade and was by far the biggest player on the team. There was one other white boy close to my size, he may have been six foot, but I was 6’4″. There was one black boy who, while nowhere near six feet tall, was easily twice as wide as me. His name was Tito and his father, so I was told, had played in the NFL. I feared Tito. He was the only person in the whole school I feared, because he was bigger than me and obviously stronger and tougher than anyone I had ever known.

This other kid who lined up across from me at defensive end didn’t scare me. I laughed at him when he would come off the ball and try to rush passed me and wind up to hit me in the stomach with his right arm. After about the second time, I prepared for it, fended off his punch with my left hand and planted his ass in the ground with all my might. He did not like that one bit.

I excelled at left tackle. Coaches had me start and often ran plays behind me. Lining up beside me at guard was my friend Steve. We had a good friendship and so we were able to work well together and run the trap play where I stepped back, Steve came across to his left and I followed behind him to my right to open up gaping holes in opposing defenses. My good friend Tom, who comes from a coaching family, was our quarterback. My friend Kevin played fullback and a boy I had never met and probably never spoke two words to played halfback. His name was Anthony. Anthony was terribly athletic for a 12-year-old boy and could run very fast.

My guess is that all of these boys had played many years of Pop Warner football and knew what they were doing. My role was to knock people out of the way and I could do that with ease. In our first game against Hanes School we won 28-0 and Anthony scored two touchdowns running in my hole.

The next week we played Southwest and much the same occurred, with Anthony blasting through the holes our offensive line opened up, galloping long distances for touchdowns because no one could touch him once he was through our line. We won that game 63-6.

Back at Northwest Junior High my time on the football field was all that mattered to me until a couple weeks later when my mother got a frantic call from Salt Lake City. My Papa Roy, who had previously had a heart attack, was struck down with a massive one while visiting relatives. He was in the hospital. Things did not look well.

Roy was trim and active, but heart disease ran rampant in his family. I knew from early on that he had health concerns, primarily because he got up every morning and went for a long walk and when we were at the beach he would go for a run. Even as an 8 or 9-year-old kid I tried to run with him on the beach, but I could not keep up and would instead walk slowly behind him until he turned around and came back.

My grandmother slipped into self-imposed isolation for a few months and as October passed with the sorrow of Roy’s funeral my football team continued to decimate opponents.

By the time we traveled to Mineral Springs School for the last game of the year and beat them 48-0 we were gaining attention all across the city. Our coaches, Mr. Flood and some of his friends from Winston-Salem State University, were amazed at our progress. After the first victory over Hanes when we were walking off the field I got near one of my coaches to ask him how we did and before I could I heard Coach Flood say to him “28-0? I’ll take that every time.”

When some of the defensive players complained about being tired at half-time of our game in week two, Coach Flood decided to make us run more at each practice. This did not set well with me because as an offensive lineman I was not tired. All I did was line up and knock the kid in front of me down and look for another kid to knock down. It was fun. How could anybody be tired? Anthony ran for what seemed like miles down the sideline untouched play after play for who knows how many touchdowns that year and I never heard him complain about being tired.

But somebody did complain and so it was off on several turns around the practice fields and the small stadium at the school. And whoever comes in last has to run again. It’s Tito and me at the back. I am so tired. I do not want to run again. I am in last. Tito is a good 20 yards ahead of me as we round the backstop on the baseball field and head to where the coaches are waiting at the finish line. I am thinking I am going to pass out if he makes me run again for coming in last. I round the backstop and decide to push myself and if I show some effort maybe he will have sympathy on me. Tito pulls up short and bends over, hands on his knees gasping for air maybe 10 feet from where the coaches are standing. I’m in full stride as I see him stop and bend over and I am about to fall out as I run by him and he sees me and looks up and tries to grab me as I pass him and cross the line near Coach Flood and he yells “Tito, run again.”

I don’t stop running until I get to the locker room and change my clothes as fast as I can because everyone is saying “Tito gonna kick your ass for making him run again.”

Luckily my mother is waiting for me this time when I come out of the locker room and I get in the car and we go home.

But boys will be boys and I know Tito didn’t forget. In fact, I can see him eyeing me for weeks as I try to avoid him. Luckily he plays nose guard and I play left tackle so we never have to practice against each other. But during one of the last weeks of the season we get on a bus to go see Mt. Tabor play a game. We are on the bus with the eighth grade team, a group of tough looking kids whom I stay far away from because I’ve heard the stories of race fights in the stairwell and don’t want any part of that. I’m lucky to avoid getting struck in the head when one of the older boys throws his round hairbrush like a throwing star at a kid behind me. I saw him rise up and spin around and get ready to throw something and I ducked. Was he throwing it at me? I don’t know.

Several weeks earlier when my parents were in Utah with my grandmother as Roy lay dying, I had to stay with my aunt and ride the bus from their house to the school. I guess no one else knew, but it was an all-black bus for some reason and I got tormented mercilessly. I responded by calling one kid a nigger and that didn’t go over well at all. I had never used that word in anger and I never did again. I think if my most loved person had not lay dying in a hospital and if I had not found myself that very week on a bus full of angry black kids, or if I had room to move around and find a way to defend myself without being restricted to a small school bus seat surrounded by noise and taunts, I would have never used that word.

But I did. And so was this eighth grader throwing his thick plastic brush at me? Was I marked now? I had no way of knowing.

Luckily the coaches got on the bus and we went to the game. After the game we got back on the bus and I am sitting about two-thirds of the way back when Tito comes along. I had all but forgotten about beating him in the footrace and the angry look on his face when I passed him. He grabs my head with both hands and shoves my face into his crotch. He holds me there as the bus erupts in laughter. It stinks worse than the worst smell I’ve ever smelled in the stench of the locker room after practice. I can’t breathe. It seems like forever. Again I am saved as the coaches get on the bus and tell everyone to pipe down.

I was no worse for the wear, other than being disgusted by the smell. I didn’t know anything about sex. I had no way of knowing he was delivering an insult by simulating oral sex by shoving my face in his crotch. At least he didn’t hit me because that’s all I really feared was one of these guys punching me and having to defend myself. But it’s over now and I’m still here.

The football season ended on a high note. We were undefeated at 6-0 and only one team scored on us. By all accounts it was a masterful season and I fell deeper in love with football.

We have a season ending banquet at the Coronet Seafood on Country Club Road. We get trophies that read “Northwest Junior High Falcons” “Undefeated Champions 1982” “6-0”.

At the banquet there is a special guest who hands me my trophy. I’ve read about him in the paper for a few years. He is the basketball coach at Winston-Salem State. He is a huge man with a gentle smile and peaceful, kind eyes. As I approach him he says “You’re a big one. Congratulations son.” He hands me my trophy and as I take it from his gigantic hands I think, “there’s a reason they call him Bighouse Gaines.” !