At another table, a veteran white coach talked about never once seeing a glaring racial issue in all his years of coaching at bigger schools in the area. A younger white coach, though, had a different take.
He told of working at a small rural school north of Dayton “where the student body was 95 to 98 percent white. There aren’t many minorities and sometimes they get away with things they wouldn’t elsewhere.”
He told of one of his students espousing White Power in class, so much so that he finally took him to the principal:
“Someone has to say something. Someone has to call them out.”
Before these very real, very rare conversations took place Tuesday afternoon in the President’s Lounge at UD Arena, Albert Powell – the longtime area football coach and community leader who, along with Jim Place, another local coaching icon, served as the co-chair of the day’s Social Justice 7 on 7 competition and roundtable discussions – used a football analogy to get to the real point of the affair.
“When it’s fourth-and-long, most people do what?” he asked. “They punt.
“But once in a while, when there’s only 30seconds left in the game, you’ve gotta go for it.
“When you’re talking about social justice now, you gotta go for it. We’ve seen example after example of what happens when silence occurs. You sit back. You punt. In this case, silence is the enemy of freedom and justice.
“You have to use your voice. That’s what we hope you do today.”
It’s directives like that that make this football gathering – founded by Powell and Place and sponsored by the Miami Valley Football Coaches Association – unlike any other in the area and maybe even the country said NaTasha Shabazz, a former Hiram College basketball player out of East Cleveland, who is now an advisor to the Lima City schools and a national speaker. She gave a keynote address Tuesday.
From a pure football standpoint, Place said the Social Justice 7 on 7 competition is “one of the best in the state:
“Ohio State had 46 teams for their 7 on 7. We had 40 and next year we’ll have 60. But beyond that, I think we’ve got the best because our mission is beyond just football. For 40 minutes we’ll also talk about race, pure and simple.”
Tuesday’s session – which drew large schools like Centerville, Cincinnati St, Xavier, Fairfield and Hamilton, all who have over 1,000 boys in the student body, and small schools like Sidney Lehman (63 boys), Tri-Village (106) and Arcanum (133), plus two schools from Detroit, Lima Senior, Bishop Hartley in Columbus, other Cincinnati schools and dozens of area schools – began with two-hour pods of football between four racially-different schools playing at either the UD practice field or at Chaminade Julienne’s Roger Glass Stadium.
That was followed by 40-minute sessions of talk that included brief addresses by people like Shabazz and Ed “Dart” Ramsey, now a successful businessman who was a Hall of Fame, three-sport athlete at Alter, a standout defensive back at Indiana and played with the San Diego Chargers.
Shabazz brought up a well-publicized incident from her college days two decades ago.
Her dorm room at Hiram was broken into and someone wrote a racist slur in big letters on her side of the quarters.
Shabazz felt violated and unsure because no one was caught. Although she said a diversity mural was later painted, she was struck by the silence of so many other students and later transferred. Now she talks about not sitting in silence.
Ramsey minced no words in his talk.
He questioned how players would feel if their sister or mom dated someone from different race.
He brought up the 25-year-old unarmed black man from Akron who died 10 days ago after being shot 60 times by police officers as he ran from them.
Meanwhile, just a week earlier, he noted how a 21-year-old white mass murderer who killed seven people and injured 46 as he fired 83 rounds from an AR-15 style weapon into a crowd at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, was arrested “with no incident” after a pursuit: “He had just killed all these people, but wasn’t deemed a threat. The Akron guy, who had shot no one, was considered the threat.”
Ramsey acknowledged these are not things people like talking about, but he wanted the players and coaches to try to do just that.
At first many of them squirmed.
And yet, when left alone – with a list of questions about race to stimulate discussion – they did talk. Soon the room was full of chatter, debate and personal experience.
“Look at this,” Place said as he stood off to the side. “They’re all talking. This truly makes my heart beat.”
Athletics as ‘a driving force in life’
Place told those gathered – there were 10 sessions, each with four teams, that lasted all the way into Tuesday evening – how the Social Justice 7 of 7 competition began.
It came after the George Floyd kneel-on-the-neck killing by police in Minneapolis. As protests began to ramp up, he got a call Powell, his friend of 40 years, who was distraught.
“Al said, ‘The nation is going to be torn up by hatred,’” Place recalled. “He said, ‘Why don’t you and I do something together to try to make things better? Let’s use football.’
“We both believe athletics can be a driving force in life.”
With that in mind, the pair began to find ways to use their sport to bring disparate people together to discover their similarities, while appreciating their differences.,
During COVID, they hosted a Zoom conference and got 156 area coaches to participate.
Last summer they held their first 7 on 7 competition and drew 24 teams.
Next year Place said schools from Kentucky, Indiana and across Ohio want to take part.
He believes their concept works.
An Ohio Hall of Fame coach who spent 48 years leading eight different schools – from rural to urban schools, public to parochial – he noticed one thing about his players, whether they were black or white:
“They all want the same things out of life… They all want it better. They want to get along with each other, but they just don’t know how to go about it. Nobody knows. There’s no magic formula.
“But Al and I believe something like this – just talking to each other, with respect, and being willing to listen – can help.”
The 75-year-old Place told the players: “I have 10 young grandchildren and my hope is that they grow up in a world that’s going to be better than the one I grew up in. And I hope you make that happen for them.”
Powell believed the players would go on to do a lot:
“There are judges-to-be-in this room. There’ll be attorneys, peace officers, doctors, educators and parents, too. You’ll all make a better life.”
Shabazz agreed, but stressed” You can’t just sit on the sidelines. You have to speak up.”
And that’s what the players did Tuesday.
“We’re from New Madison (population 892), a small rural area (in Darke County),” noted Tri-Village head coach Matt Hopkins. “It’s good for our guys to get out of their bubble, out of their comfort zone, and see the world. It’s good for them to come and meet people of all different types, colors and religions.
“This helps heal a community.”
Meadowdale coach Derrick Shepard – an All-Ohio lineman for the Lions, who played at Georgia Tech and then in the NFL and Arena League before getting into coaching – liked what he saw Tuesday:
“Look at this. You’ve got kids from Arcanum – who’d never be close to kids from Meadowdale or Ponitz, and vice versa – and now they’re picking each other’s brain and getting to know each other. It’s always good to broaden your mindset.”
After his session Arcanum senior linebacker Jake Rayburn explained the process:
“We were definitely nervous, but we trusted each other and walked out of our comfort zones and enjoyed it.”
That’s called going for it instead of punting.
And when that happens, you get a final scene like this.
When they’d finished, Ponitz middle linebacker and running back Cheyne Benson, who is black, and Sidney Lehman’s running back and strong safety Nathan Sollmann, who is white, reached out and shook each other’s hand.
And they wished each other luck for the coming year.