Author of SAVING MISS OLIVER'S & NO IVORY TOWER

Speaking of athletes kneeling, or not kneeling, to express their concern about racism while the band plays “The Star Spangled Banner—

One day sometime in the 1990’s when my wife and I were working on a Habitat for Humanity project sponsored by the Episcopal Church, the then Bishop of California, Bill Swing, stopped by to say hello and thank us. He noticed I was wearing an Oberlin College baseball hat and immediately launched into the story of a football game he’d watched when he was a student at Kenyon College in 1949 between the Oberlin and Kenyon Freshman teams. Clearly the memory of watching that game meant a lot to him.

In 1949, NCAA rules forbad freshmen from playing on varsity teams.  Nobody bothered to watch freshman games which were always played on weekdays, but the game which Bishop Swing was so excitedly telling me about occurred on Kenyon’s Homecoming Day, a Saturday of course, and was the featured event of the weekend.

Just a few days before Kenyon’s Homecoming Day, the southern college which was to play Kenyon had informed the Kenyon Athletic Director that it would not show up unless Kenyon agreed to remove its African-American players from the team for that game. The athletic director refused. The game was cancelled. That the southern college had not made its demand earlier suggests that it had just found out that Kenyon had at least one African-American kid on the team and was surprised that such a strange thing could actually happen.

In those days, a Homecoming Weekend without a football game at its center was unheard of, like pancakes without syrup. But it was much too late to identify a college whose varsity team was an appropriate opponent for Kenyon and just happened to have an open date that Saturday. So in the middle of that week, Kenyon’s athletic director called the Oberlin athletic director: Would the Oberlin freshman team come down to Kenyon and play the Kenyon freshmen? The answer was yes, of course. The game was played. The stands were more crowded than on any other Homecoming Day. It wasn’t lost on me why the instant Bill Swing saw “Oberlin” on my cap, he needed to tell me about that particular game. He was a baseball player. If the southern college had shown up to play, would he have told me about a Kenyon vs, Oberlin baseball game? I doubt it.

I let him tell me the whole story before I informed him that I played in that game.  I was too intrigued by his excitement, by how much he wanted to re-live this little, otherwise insignificant moment so many years ago when his alma matter and mine behaved in a way that, though not at all heroic, requiring no real sacrifice, nevertheless felt so right.  When I did start to talk, I felt the same excitement. I told him how on a Wednesday afternoon, the athletic director ran, not walked, across the practice field to tell us we were going down to Kenyon to play the Homecoming game on Saturday, and why. How the bus company had no busses available on so short a notice, all of them already signed up to carry college teams to their games on that Saturday, so we went down in the athletic director’s, the coaches, and some professors’ cars. I didn’t say anything about standing for the “Star Spangled Banner.” I like to think I paid attention, instead of fidgeting, twitching, like I usually did, counting the seconds until it was over so we could go play, but the truth is I don’t remember.  I did tell him I remembered the crowd roaring a welcome when we ran out on the field.

I can remember many plays in that game, and what the weather was like. And like every game I played in, in three more years of football, I remember who won. But neither Bill Swing nor I included any of that in our stories. I remember also, and I told him that, after the game, when usually we just took our showers, got in the bus and went home, we stayed for dinner. At the big long table in a dining room I can still see in my head, each Oberlin player sat next to a Kenyon player.

And, just as Bill Swing came to the Habitat for Humanity project to say the right things, so did the President of Kenyon College, a very busy man on Homecoming Weekend, come to dinner with us, to mark the significance of that moment.

And tell us all, “Nice Game.”

 

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