HISTORICAL RELATIVITY

There’s a curious truth about history. It is rarely perceived as such, in the moment. It looks to most of us, just like life, however colorful. Only in retrospect do circumstances achieve that kind of distinction.

I knew that Vietnam was a war and I knew that wars had importance. Yet, resonant and defining as that experience was for me, it took me years to appreciate Vietnam’s impact on global culture.

So clearly, I can be within the eye of such change and yet be unaware. In ’61, a freshman at Antioch, I participated in a “sit in”, to integrate Gegner’s Barber Shop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. This undistinguished emporium offered comic books rather than Look and Life, that much I remember…but refused to accept Black customers. I was one of perhaps ten Black students in Antioch’s student body of 350. There were no bull horns or police dogs that day, no fire hoses or screaming bigots in my memories. I imagine the shop eventually accepted people of color…but how quickly afterwards, I just don’t recall.

I feel a little judgmental now about the young man I was at that time, seemingly disconnected and unobservant. Yet I cut him a little slack, for his life had been a continual procession of adjustment and accommodation. As a child integrating my school and neighborhood in Washington DC in ‘54, I was the first child of color most neighborhood kids had ever interacted with. As a child growing up in Greece I was the first person of color many had ever seen. I was the first Black kid to study at The Odeon, the conservatory of music in Salonika in ‘55.

I happened upon a USA Today sports page during an airport layover this past Thanksgiving. There was an article about the very first Black student athlete in the Atlantic Coast Conference (the ACC) in 1963. His name was Darryl Hill, a transfer from the Naval Academy. Even 45 years later, that name somehow resonated. Last week I watched an HBO documentary on the history of integration in college football and they interviewed Darryl Hill, now a distinguished attorney.

I’d arrived at Maryland in the fall of ’64. During my first year I may have met him. I surely knew of him…but I’m certain I had zero sense of his role in history. I’d come from a student body of 200 in Munich (one of five people of color) to a campus with 20,000 or more students. I seem to recall a Black Student Union…but I didn’t join. I wasn’t a joiner. I wasn’t political. I had no interest in fraternities. We students from Munich stuck pretty close together in those years. We didn’t have a lot in common with many of these Americans. They hadn’t traveled, they spoke only English, their beer was weak and they couldn’t hold their liquor. And I was the strangest stranger in this strange land. In the middle of our civil rights movement, at the age of twenty, I was already tired of walking point. I just wanted to fly under the radar and figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

Within two years, we’d established our social standing. My basement apartment (THE ZOO) achieved such international renown that incoming students from Munich came in search, presuming it to be a local tavern. Four of us occupied the two bedrooms, with several roommate changeovers, all Munich students. Our gatherings generally rated three to five stars (meaning we’d filled three to five trash containers with our empty cans and bottles.) There were drains in the floors, which meant after-party cleanups involved hosing down the linoleum.

Football players generally stopped by, always ready for a wild time. I got along reasonably well with them. By then I was a folksinger, a pretty good dancer and popular in my circle. There was a problem one night. Players had come in and for a lark, made long distance calls on our phone. When they returned for the next party, I called them out on it. I was pissed. My spending change came from poker and pool (some of it from players)…but I seemed to find myself alone in confronting them for payment. A running back, Mike Patrin, declared he wasn’t going to pay up. I told him we’d have to fight.

Mike was a little taller than I but had about forty pounds on me. We retired to the street island outside my home (I have no idea why) and the fight didn’t last very long. I remember throwing several jabs and a right…and then the world went very dark. I awoke laying on my back, one shoe missing and Patrin sitting beside me, scared shitless. believing I was dead. Apparently he’d waded thru my punches, grabbed me around the neck and choked me until I passed out.
I arose warily, he immediately offered to pay his share of the long distance bills and I slowly walked home, reflecting upon my judgment and options.

It was now summer of 1966. I should have graduated in June…but they discovered I was one credit short. Some course from Antioch they’d earlier accepted but now had changed their mind. And I needed one credit of P.E. That’s right, phys-ed! Two years of varsity football and basketball in Munich would not suffice. I decided to take a single course in debate. I further resolved to go out for the football team. Yeah, that’s right, football. Tired of getting my ass kicked by varsity players, I decided, “I’ll show them.”

So in 1966, three years after Darryl Hill had integrated the ACC, I was gonna compete for a football scholarship at U of Md. Lou Saban, former coach of the AFL Buffalo Bills had come to College Park…and issued an invitation for walk-on’s to compete for a slot on the varsity. It was probably more about generating student interest but I continued to be blissfully unaware of the Big Picture. All I knew was that I wanted to prove to these Neanderthals that a man didn’t have to stand 6 feet tall and weigh 200 pounds to be a man. By this time there were several Black players on the varsity. I remember one, a running back named Ernie Torrain. His nickname was Ernie “Freight” Torrain. Nicknames were very big back then…and perhaps still so.

Guess what? I made the team – full scholarship, training table, the whole nine yards. Eating three squares a day, I bulked up to 175… and didn’t lose any speed (which was the only thing between me and a hospital ward). Like the cars I choose to drive, it’s important to be able to accelerate away from trouble. This worked wonderfully for several weeks. As the season opener approached, a ruling came down. I was ineligible. In the NCAA, a athlete has four years of eligibility in five years of college (hence the term, “red shirt freshman”) This was my fifth and a half year – one year at Antioch, two in Munich and two at U of Md. So it goes.

What the hell. I was enjoying myself. I was showing much bigger and stronger (and more talented) athletes that I could compete. As the season opened I was assigned to the scout team. That meant each week I would impersonate our next opponents star wide receiver or running back. The only one I can still remember was Floyd Little (who gained college fame at Syracuse and NFL fame at Denver.) We had on our defensive team an anomaly, for that time. Tom Czykoswski was 6’ 5”, 235 pounds and could run like a deer. And he was white. I was running back punts that afternoon…and had just broken one for a touchdown. Feeling a bit full of myself, I fielded the next one, cut laterally…and saw the hole. I burst thru it, began to turn up field towards daylight and glory – and cut back one step too soon. Tom had come across the field and ran me down from behind. With one huge paw, he lifted me off my feet and dashed me down to the turf. I tried to stand and immediately collapsed.

I spent the next three weeks in the training tub. My meniscus cartilage was torn (tho I didn’t know it for decades). All I knew then was that my knee clicked with every step. So football was over for me…and I was now 1-Y – a draft status that meant “physically unable to perform”. I won our debating tournament, aced the course, graduated with a BA in Speech/TV Production and moved to Baltimore to direct TV.

Then I got drafted. “Your knee clicks each time you flex it.” Yup. “But you can walk, can’t you?” Yup. “Well, you let us know if you have any trouble.” After parachute jumps, miles of training runs and shrapnel wounds, I finally got my arthroscopic surgery…thirty-two years later, in 1989.

So…excessively long story short, I managed to win a football scholarship at the University of Maryland in 1966, a mere three years after they’d accepted their first Black varsity athlete…and lacked the appreciation that such an opportunity was a recently gained opportunity. I simply accepted this opportunity as my due. I suspect many a young Black athlete or student today presumes that same level of entitlement. That’s both the good and the bad news.