I was talking to one of our kids about life after high school. William is very bright. He made good grades at an academically challenging school. He grew up in the heart of north Minneapolis. He had many opportunities for academic scholarships to college, but no matter how I encouraged him he wasn’t interested in any of them. He wanted to play football.
This had been William’s dream since I first met him back in sixth grade. He played basketball on my teams and participated in church and trips and we’ve had a lot of fun together. He’s grown into an exceptional young man. He played football on park and school teams, but was only an average player. He did not draw any D1 offers to play ball but did have an invitation to play at a junior college. I supported him in pursuing his dream, but it’s been a couple of years now and his plans to play football haven’t panned out.
While having lunch one day he was telling me how he didn’t want to have just a “regular” life, he wanted to do something special: to stand out from his peers coming out of the hood, to make his family proud. I realized, with chagrin, that the only exceptional path he saw for himself was a sports career. Our neighborhood celebrities are the kids who are able to leave the hood on athletic scholarships, and the most adored among these are the ones who make it to the professional level. These are the ones we celebrate and this is the recognition William was seeking.
Many of our young people are like William. They are handicapped in their ability to see themselves having success in life. You don’t hear about kids from the neighborhood who went on to do significant things outside of the realms of sports or entertainment. Those who get a D1 offer to play sports, regardless of whether they are able to make good on it, are regarded as success stories. Celebrity status is restricted to sports figures, music artists or someone who got rich. Young people in our neighborhood can be famous (sports or rapper), or infamous (drugs and gangs).
We don’t often hear about the kids who go on to have professional careers in medicine, science or business. We don’t celebrate those who have careers in the trades, or who become teachers. But, we should, because the odds they’ve had to overcome to get where they are, are just as improbable as the chances a high school athlete has of making it to the pros. Young black men from here have to overcome neighborhood violence, crime, gangs and drugs just to get through high school… much less make it to college!
“William,” I said. “Don’t you realize you are already exceptional? There aren’t that many young black men who come out of the background you have that are able to go to college and have the opportunities you have. You could be a doctor, skilled tradesman, businessman or a teacher and you would be a success story. And you should be celebrated just like the rare kid who becomes a professional athlete.”
I think I got through to him. He still wants to play football… wants to “take his shot “. But at the same time, he is taking courses which would start him on the path to a career in the medical sciences. Who knows, maybe he will get his chance to make it as a football player. Maybe he will become a doctor one day. Maybe he will make a living with a good job, and raise a family, and be a leader in his community with his life as an example to others. I tell my guys that as a Black man, that’s the most heroic thing you can do.
So, I want to give a shout out to all the young men we’ve come to know over the years, out there doing their thing… working jobs, taking care of their families, raising children… Y’all are heroes!