I vividly remember falling in love with you at the age of six. It was a hot August day, my daddy and I went to watch my God-Brother’s pop warner jamboree. I had asked my dad if I could play but he told me I was too small. I saw the Mighty Mites team, and noticed I was taller than a few of the boys. I pointed at the smallest player on the field and told my dad “I am bigger than him!” The president of the organization came to me that day and told me “you have to be seven-years-old and 60lbs”. I had just turned six-years-old a few weeks prior but I had just weighed at 63lbs at my six-year-old check up. I told him repeatedly, “I’m 63 pounds!” He replied “next year we will be ready for you”. That was all I needed. That began my love affair with you football.
My daddy and I always watched 49ers games, but after that day I began to pay more attention to the games. My dad had each of the 49ers Super Bowl games on VHS and I watched, rewound, and rewatched all five of the 49ers Super Bowl victories that entire year religiously. I began to walk through the plays before they happened. I knew exactly when Ronnie Lott was going to hit Icky Woods. I knew exactly when Jerry Rice would win big on the post and split the Chargers Cover Two safeties. I had spent a year studying and falling in love with you. I was obsessed in 1996 and remain just as obsessed now.
During this time in my life, I wasn’t just a young kid who loved you. I was also a six-year- old Black boy who intimately knew racism. I was exposed to it even before I was born. As my mother was giving birth, my maternal grandfather joked at the hospital “what will they feed him, chicken & watermelon?”
I grew up living in two worlds depending on where I was. One world I lived in was in San Francisco. My family is from San Francisco. There I saw my humanity in the beautiful Black bodies of The Moe, aka San Francisco’s Fillmore district, in the Western Addition. My auntie was Head Chef at a successful Black owned restaurant (shoutout to Powell’s Place for all the free meals), but no less than five blocks away my uncle was somewhere strung out . The second world I lived in was Santa Rosa, nestled in Wine Country. In Sonoma County I was a pariah, my humanity was attacked everyday. Name-calling, the “hanging trees”, but what I remember most are the stares. I can still feel those eyes on me, judging me, hating me, stalking me, threatening me.
Those same eyes that typically harbored animosity quickly turned to excitement and admiration when my jersey and helmet was on. When I was between the white lines on the field those threatening eyes changed, and I noticed the difference in treatment and judgement on my very first day of football. Sports was the first time I saw racism work in my favor. I arrived at football practice as “a natural athlete”, which made me a valuable new commodity. Although I knew their eyes changed while I was on the field, I didn’t care as long as they let me play the game.
Those eyes that typically stalked me as prey now found purpose in my humanity which gave me the freedom between those white lines to just be 100% authentically me. You were my outlet, my sanctuary, my freedom. But should that be my only experience of freedom? My only safe place? My freedom shouldn’t be limited between the white lines on the field, it shouldn’t be my only place of peace. But it can’t be in my house because we know that’s where Breonna Taylor and Aiyana Jones were sleeping when their lives were ended by police raids. It can’t be in my own neighborhood while I’m jogging like Ahmaud Arbery. Maybe I can go to the store for some snacks, but then again I remember Trayvon. Not in my car, no Philandro and Sandra taught me that my vehicle isn’t an acceptable place to have my freedom. Couldn’t be the day before my wedding (Sean Bell), or my daughter’s birthday (Rayshard Brooks). It can’t be selling CDs in front of the gas station (Alton Sterling), it can’t even be me at school (Kendrick Johnson) in the gym! No, the only place that I felt the freedom to live in my humanity was on game day between those lines. That’s where I could experience the most mental liberation and freedom.
I knew once I stepped on the field I would be free, my passion and energy were fueled by the liberation I experienced. Over the years my freedom on the field became suppressed. I remember being called a “nigger” on the field, in Mighty Mites, by a player on the other team. I remember my teammate calling me a “boy” over and over before practice, and how I was forced to apologize to the team after practice for punching him in the mouth for defending my Blackness. I remember in high school I had to transfer after my Athletic Director told me I would “never be a starter in his program” if I didn’t cut off my cornrows.
On game days I was often guided to calm down and stay composed, but when you are finally free to have emotions it’s hard to know how to “keep them in check”. When I was a player I would just get so happy I couldn’t help but smile and dance; this was not many coaches favorite quality of mine. I played the game recklessly because of the restrictions I knew as a Black boy were gone, even if just temporarily. I could say whatever I want, I could hit whoever I want, I could prove I was better than whoever I wanted. Sometimes, that other guy was better but it was never because of anything other than talent, skills and hard work. I wasn’t naive though, I knew the way each guy got to this point in his life was based on how effectively they were able to navigate a society and educational system soaked in white supremacy. I was homeless in college sleeping in the locker room while teammates had parents paying their rent. I didn’t care what I had to do as long as I could play ball and go to school. I often got the “dumb, Black jock who wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for ball” initial prejudice in class from peers & more professors than I can recall. I quickly turned into the “pissed off Black kid”, which I preferred because it forced people to at least engage in conversation.
My dad had taught me this game and taught me to “use it to take me where I wanted to go in life. A degree, a career, a life”. I never imagined it would bring me this freedom, but it does and it shows up every game day. As football was my way to overcome and cope with the trauma thrust upon me by colonized classrooms, from Kindergarten through college, inflicted, I was ready to battle with the system inside the classroom. I had planned to attend law school to battle the legal system after my Bachelors but football kept calling. I chased it and chased it and ended up coaching and teaching history.
Coaching gives me the same feeling of freedom as it did as a player, but now I experience it every play with my guys.If football has taught me anything it has taught me that when it seems as if everything is over, anyone can change the entire game with one big play. I live for those moments where the game goes just right, even if for only 3 seconds, and that kid feels that joy, the deepest joy I have ever known. That joy is something so special. And I will fight with everything I have to win that battle for all kids to feel that joy without it only coming between those white lines. See football, you taught me that, that you don’t let your team down, that you show up day in and day out and fight with everything you got to be the best, to get better so that when it’s your chance to help the team win you make that play. Whether that play be on the field or off the field, real playmakers make plays!
I truly believe that right now making a play is what God is calling us to do. To be playmakers; to push the love of God to the people to create a world where everyone can experience that freedom I can feel between those 120 x 53 and a third. The way I can almost feel the wind streaking off my face causing me to smile as I imagine running on the field as I type this is a physical reminder of the joy my body has stored to sustain me for the lack of freedom I suffer.
I have so many memories of football I wish I could relive again because they were the most joyful moments of my life outside of my children being born and my wedding. As I write these words I am blinking through too many tears, I can FEEL my soul longing to be between those white lines where the only thing that matters is the ball and the guys wearing the same color jersey & helmet as you love you in this special way. That was where I felt my liberation, beginning at seven-7 years- old and until now, it is the ONLY place in the whole world where I felt free, and it is still the same safe haven over 20 years later. Football has taught me so much, taken me places I never imagined, and allowed me to meet people I never would have access to, and some who I can’t imagine life without. Football, can’t you see why I must continue to actively work to dismantle this oppression? Can’t you see why I have justified anger at white supremacy? This is not out of hate but out of love; love for the people in the stands, love for the kids on the field, love for the kids that will come and love to the next little boy who will fall in love with football just like me.
Editing Credit: Felisa Concepcion