Kevin and I couldn’t be more different. Kevin was a black kid from rural Georgia. I was a white kid from a beach town. Kevin grew up in a mostly black community. I grew up in a mostly white community. He wore his hair in dreadlocks. I wore a shaved head.
We were alien to each other, something painfully obvious from the first time we met. I had to ask him to repeat his name three times before I understood him through his thick country accent.
Kevin wasn’t someone I would have interacted with regularly. Mostly because we were from different worlds. Ordinarily, our paths never would have crossed. Fortunately, we were forced to spend time with each other because we had a mutual love – football.
For all the differences we had, we were able to find just as many similarities. We both loved football. We both played in the secondary. We both liked some of the same college teams. Over time we found plenty of things to bond over – girl problems are universal.
When we played alongside each other we had to get to know each other. When he came to the team, I thought he was a bit smug. He thought I was a brown-noser and a know-it-all. But over time we grew to respect each other. He came to respect me because I understood the schemes. I could help him get a better grasp of what to do and how to earn playing time. I returned that respect because he pushed me to get better in order to keep my starting spot. We riffed off of each other’s energy and we stood up for one another when the offensive guys threw cheap shots.
Our mutual respect budded into a casual friendship as we spent more time with each other. We roomed together on road trips, giving us time to talk about anything and everything young men talk about. If he didn’t have a ride after practice, I’d offer to pick him up. The seed of respect grew into a lasting friendship. Because of football.
The great thing about football is that your skin color doesn’t matter. What matters is how you play the game. If you’re lazy, you don’t get to play. If you work hard, you’ll earn opportunities to get in the game. I’ve seen lazy guys of all colors get benched and I’ve seen hard-working guys of all colors earn playing time. Everyone is given the same opportunities to shine.
Through sports we can teach our youth they should judge people based on their character or their work ethic instead of the color of their skin. We can teach them not only to respect people from different backgrounds, but how to earn respect in return. Sports, more than anything else, bring people from all walks of life together for a common purpose. That purpose gives people a common goal. When we have a common goal to work towards, we can put aside our differences and figure out a way to reach that goal.
Ten years later, at a reunion, Kevin and I greeted each other with bear-hugs and smiles as wide as uprights. I asked about his son, who I’d seen on Facebook, and he asked me about work. We chatted and we caught up like no time had passed. Kevin and I have remained friends because of the bond we created through football. We never would have met each other if we didn’t have football in common.
“Unprejudiced” is defined as not having or showing a dislike or distrust based on fixed or preconceived ideas. The meritocracy of sport allows us to be judged on our work ethic rather than our skin tone. And it is through that process we have a chance to see the lives of people who may be nothing like us.
I am not claiming that putting kids in sports will eliminate the racial issues that plague this country. But I am saying it is a step in the right direction.