In 1977, I attended a NFL football Game at Soldier Field in Chicago, ill. I later discovered this was one of the most important days in my life. I was a sophmore at Dunbar High School. I went to see my favorite team the Oakland Raiders; they were the Super Bowl champions in 1976. They were in town to play the Bears in a preseason game. My idol was Jack Tatum, the Oakland Raiders’ free safety, he went by the nickname, “The Assassin”. He was nasty and the best free safety on the best team in the NFL. Tatum’s play was the pinnacle for youngsters thinking about playing in the NFL. I was not one of those kids.
I was enamored with the Raiders’ aura; the Silver & Black galvanized fans and opponents alike. Intimidating as a cluster of rattlesnakes and rough as agitated grizzlies. I loved their persona to death. Their jerseys colors were Silver & Black and the helmets covered with a skull and crossbones. This was fucking football. The Raiders had no reason to take prisoners neither, they were menacing, vicious, and downright hyper aggressive. One other team brought such fury and sickness to my football mind, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers illuminated fierceness equal to the Silver & Black, I loved both teams for their championship play and their singular team color: Black. Unbeknownst to their owners their jerseys color were social statements to me. Both teams provided food to my starving cultural and racial maturation. I was a Black child in need of constant quantified Blackness. Muhammad Ali personally did more than both teams, but the teams’ supplements helped secure my thoughts: I was a Black boy in a White world.
I had never wanted to attend a professional football game after that day. I loved playing football but not watching it live. You see, I wanted to be on the field and not some drunken beer-gulping buffoon. Back to that majestic day, the Raiders’ Skull and Crossbones sucked the air out of my lungs and their aura blinded my senses. Needless to say, I was in heaven, sadly I never noticed the Bears the entire game. Fortunately, for me, I was not a Bear fan although I was a native Chicagoan. I mean Walter Payton was a good running back but he was no Jim Brown. (another athlete/social activist idols like Ali). Nonetheless, that day, I saw only the Silver & Black. Oh by the way, I hated the Miami Dolphins and the Dallas Cowboys because of their winning and mostly because of their white jerseys. It was a Black thing.
My Blackness seemed important at that time as well as now; I wanted to appreciate my racial affiliation. Primarily, I did not hate whites, I just loved Blackness and my sport heroes helped me believe in its relevance. Sport teams with Black colors received unlimited praise from me. You have to understand, I grew up arguably in the most severe racist city Chicago, Illinois. As such, the racial divide was not lost on this young teenager. I learned quickly White neighborhoods to avoid in Chicago. However, Bridgeport was the worst, with Marquette Park a close second. These White communities hated Black skin like the plague. I am sure Walter Payton did not catch the shit we got and I’m happy for him. Nevertheless, vicious injuries or death was a high probability if every surrounded by those angry Whites.
On that summer day beside the lake, the famous Chicago humidity had no effect on my temperament. “I’m a Raiders willing to die”, I shout under my breath making sure not to offend Bear fans. The Soldier Field crowd does not drown out the loud colors of the world champion Oakland Raiders. The game is only a preseason game and its customary for starters to sit and thus did Tatum. He stood on the sideline joking with comrades while flying their championship colors. I lost the attention on the game and focused entirely on Tatum’s physique and posture. He was magnificent, swaying in the Lake Michigan hot air, all so cool, my idol. Did he know I was watching? Could he know I wanted to play the game with his unapologetic brutality? However, I needed to see him up close, to see his eyes. I wanted him to know I was a Raider for life.
Now the moment neared, like a drunken turtle the last seconds ticked off the game clock. Suddenly and violently, I rushed to the tunnel where the Raiders would enter their locker room. I shoved my way up to the wall. Finally, I’m staring into the faces of the world champs. Damn, I’m high as shit on hero worshipping. Ken Stabler (The Snake), Art Shell, and other famous Raiders slide their façade past me. I again without voice. You see the NFL was not a dream or goal of mine, I loved football but it was until that day I considered playing in the NFL. Not until he walked past me. Jack Tatum made his way from the sideline in slow motion, his afro firm, the biceps calm and each step in cadence. I stared intensely. Then it occurred before my eyes I was looking at my idol, he was in front of me. My face as fresh cement, my shoulders firm as a young lion, I froze him in a hypnotic state and surprisingly we were the same height. I confidently whispered a promise between Jack and I, at that exact moment: “I can play in the NFL if I so wished.”
My high school team cut me as a freshmen and my college team refused to offer me a scholarship. Quite a few of my teammates were faster and stronger than this poverty-stricken baller. However, they did not have what I had, “The Promise”. I made an oath to Jack Tatum that I could play in the NFL is I so wished. I had a stellar amateur athletic career under “the Promise.” For a poor boy, I played with unbridled fire, even though I had few shoes or clothing most of my school career. Despite my personal and social woes, I ripped the football field into pieces, teammates and opponents alike felt the same horror. The spirit in me channeled through Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Tatum provided my fuel. Quite surprising, a few teammates and opponents underestimated my talents and some believed they were better. I understood, although most refrained from public discourse. Those reasons understandable also.
Fast forward, on December 2, 1984, I stood aside the gateway to “The Promise”. I was a first-year strong safety on the Pittsburgh Steelers team ready to do battle against The Oakland Raiders. The Los Angles Memorial Coliseum that day held about 90,000 rabid Raider fans. The most menacing fans known to mankind but I lacked no fear from the moment. Why? Because I belonged there at that moment. In less than seven years, I kept my promise to Jack Tatum. Although he no longer was a Raider, he saw me fly my colors: Black & Gold. Although, I wanted nothing more than to be a Raider, Tatum understood my Steelers’ membership and mentality. Anyway, what the hell, if you can’t join the Raiders than beat the shit out of them, Jack would have it no other way. That warm day in sunny California right before the world, my biceps were calm, the steps in cadence. I was horrible and nasty, that day has not and cannot be duplicated. I Promised” my idol I’d play professional football if I so wished…My wish was granted.
As I have learned since, “The Promise” was more than proving others wrong by playing in the NFL. Tatum provided me as well as my others heroes, a life force. (Never quit and never give up.) I had a journey many had succumb to the pressure but I choose otherwise. You see, my life was never about football as I suspected but more about “My Journey.” Tears roll over the distant pain as these words find their target. Please take note from a former poverty-stricken Black boy, one who defied all odds to make the NFL. Never quit and never give up. Seek the journey and accept paths paved with happiness and pain. Never reject reality, accept it. Most important, believe in your perseverance, give your best shot and believe in your willingness to fail. Why? Because, it is failure and the ability to bounce back that generates the journey. You get it? The journey is the achievement.
Make A Promise.