One African American’s Perspective on Football, Fathers, Friends, and the American Dream

By RL McNeely, PhD, JD

Attorney McNeely is professor emeritus of social welfare at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a practicing attorney. He has published books as well as numerous articles appearing in professional academic journals. He is a Research Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America, he has testified before Congress, and he has served as a consultant for the U.S. Army. His work in the field of domestic violence inspired the NBC documentary, Of Macho and Men. He is listed in Who’s Who in Social Sciences Higher Education, Who’s Who in the Human Services, and Who’s Who in Aging.

Once upon a time, in the days of yore, high school football was a very big thing in Flint, Michigan. Indeed, the Saginaw Valley Conference, within which Flint Northern played, was pronounced by some football commentators, during the years I played (1961 & 1963), as the toughest high school conference in the country. Flint Central, Northern’s arch rival, had, in my senior year, even been proclaimed in some national magazines and other media covering high school football as the best high school football team, ever. The two rivals, each year, ended their respective seasons in a traditional Thanksgiving Day Game, played in Flint’s Atwood Stadium, which often was attended by more than 20,000 animated fans. Games occurring in lackluster seasons would attract fewer fans, but never fewer than 12,000 attendees, per my recollection.

One reason Flint had such fierce high school football was because, through the graces of Flint’s Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, serious organized football started in elementary school, and continued through all three years of junior high school, before high school football began in the tenth grade. As a consequence, high school players already knew the propensities of their teammates, knew offenses and defenses, and had worked on improving their own personal weaknesses, before ever matriculating to the tenth grade. This allowed for a degree of playing symmetry and precision rarely achieved at the high school level, resulting in, among other outcomes, Flint Northern having won more state football championships than any other high school team in Michigan.

One must add to this the laurels received by outstanding players, and the adulatory praise bestowed upon them, by virtually everyone in the town, and especially by the youngest kids coming up through Flint’s age-progression football system. Speaking personally, and starting in elementary school, there was nothing I could imagine that was more important than playing for Flint Northern in a winning Thanksgiving Day game. What else could explain why I would continue playing, as a senior, after having fractured my wrist so severely in the tenth grade that I was told by our family’s physician that I would lose most of the use of my right hand were I to continue playing and fracture or break my wrist a second time? And it wasn’t just that the laurels came from the youngsters of the town. Players like Ellis Duckett, James Hodo, John Sharp, Jim Mawdsley, Arnold Smiley, and Charles Broussard, as well as many, many, others, achieved legendary status, remembered throughout the course of their lives for their exploits on the field.

But I wasn’t motivated by prospects of adulatory praise from unknown others. My motivation was more personal. It was my attempt to get some reaction, any reaction, to my existence from my father, who was an ardent fan. That motivation was so strong that it kept me working out, religiously, outside, during winters, in below zero weather, at night, and alone, so I could be in good shape come late August when practice for the coming season began. I can still remember the edict from our coaches: “On Labor Day you labor.” We even had a full practice on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Indeed, the only time we ever came in from a practice was when we actually saw the tornado!

The Coach’s Drawer

So, as you can see, we players had many motivational reasons, personal and impersonal, for our tenacity. But some of us Black players were nagged by a persistent question. We couldn’t understand why so many second-string White players went on to college on football scholarships while so many outstanding first-string Black players went, not to college, but to the assembly lines of Flint’s General Motors, Fisher Body, and AC Sparkplug factories. That question was answered for me one day as I sat, during lunch, with other players, in the coach’s office, watching films of our next opponent. Being somewhat crunched up because I had to take the only seat left in the office, the coach’s chair, I tried to stretch out a bit by opening up the coach’s desk file drawer so I could perch my right foot on the drawer. I was startled when I saw what was in the drawer. Letter after letter from colleges, down through the decade of the fifties, and into the early sixties, addressed to Black players, like James Hodo, and others, were in the drawer, unopened. Darkness descended.

Observation of the contents of that drawer confronted me with a dilemma. What should I do about it? Should I publicize what I had found knowing that it would end our team’s ability to continue having a winning season? Somehow, it never occurred to me, until years later, that I should have taken the unopened letters and presented them to Flint’s local NAACP, after the season was over. I never told anyone about the letters. We went on to win the City Championship that 1963 football season, even beating the previously proclaimed best football team ever, Flint Central, in the Thanksgiving Day game, by a score of 14 to 13. But football was never the same for me from the moment I saw those letters. I decided that I didn’t want to play anymore, even though I had inquiries from several colleges, none of which came through my coaches. Fortunately, my father was both willing and in a financial position to fund my college education.

But I did play one year in college (1965). Fred, who graduated ahead of me by one year from Flint Northern and who later became a fraternity brother, had beseeched me to come out for Eastern Michigan’s team so, as the only Black player on the team, he could have some company. The year before, running back Fred had torn up the fields on which he played for Eastern but he was lonely as the only Black player. I can remember him saying “We’re friends, do it for me.” So I did go out for the team, but I didn’t have the motivation to get in shape, and never did get in shape, although I still earned a starting position at left defensive end. But, hey, Fred, who is now retired from a public school teaching career, got hurt during the first game of the season and, despite having been a key player during the previous season, and despite not being hurt that badly, wasn’t even taken on our road trip to Pennsylvania. That road trip was the second game of our college season. After that, I didn’t go to any practices unless we were going to scrimmage. Incidentally, my high school football team, had it played against my college team, would have beaten that college team. But most of the academically and athletically talented Black players, like generations before them, ended up in mentally grinding assembly-line work, or in prison.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster. Based on work by patricia obletz.  Page last modified on June 01, 2018

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