No matter who we are, no subject leaves us as tongue-tied as race. So I hesitated writing about Issac Johnson, the athletic superstar from Dade City who has gotten a couple of terrific breaks, but keeps getting into trouble with the law.
If I wrote about him, I feared many black readers would think I was doing so only because Johnson is black. They might decide I had revealed myself as a bigot, otherwise hidden under 800 words in a narrow space.
On the other hand, such a column might amount to opening the door, and eventually the mailbox, to the predictable reactions of some white readers who find in Issac Johnson's situation a justification for their own relentless prejudice.
Under this damned-if-you-do circumstance, it might be smarter to avoid the subject, I thought. But then I would, in my own book, land in the damned-if-you-don't category. Not to write about Issac Johnson is to avoid the subject that gets so many people of both colors, not tongue-tied, but talking about their beliefs, their fears, their angers.
The subject is values, not just the values of Issac Johnson but the values of those from whom, directly or not, he learned some of his own values: Those people who kept cheering him on until he made fools of them all.
Johnson is 19, still a senior at Pasco High. Last December, as quarterback of the school's football team, he led Pasco to a state championship. He played even though he was arrested the night before on a probation violation.
This wasn't just some small potatoes case. Johnson was wanted for robbing a pizza delivery man. And it wasn't his first offense: He had burglarized the home of his girlfriend, then pregnant with his child, and beat her up. While in jail, he roughed up a guard and was charged with that as well.
Now, every day we get all hopped up about how lawless society has become, how crooked and fearless the criminal element is. So guess what got people in Dade City fired up last December? It wasn't law and order and Issac Johnson's habit of thumbing his nose at both.
What got them fired up was the timing of his arrest, on the eve of the championship game _ when a Tampa Tribune reporter noticed an old warrant outstanding against him. Some people in Dade City smelled a rat _ because The Tribune is the hometown paper of Pasco High's championship rival, Jesuit.
Later, when Issac Johnson was sentenced, people stepped up in court to defend him. I remember wondering then if they would have defended Johnson if he hadn't saved the day at the football game, if he had been born with two left feet and no throwing arm. I remember wondering what was really important to the people who defended Issac Johnson.
Johnson could have gotten years in jail. Instead, he was sentenced to 60 days, to be served on weekends, so he could finish school and take advantage of a full scholarship to Florida A&M.
But he skipped several days in May and flunked a drug test for marijuana, which landed him back in jail. From there, last week, after other people said he let them down, Issac Johnson blamed everybody but God for his troubles, never himself.
He whined that he was misunderstood, that probation was too difficult, and that he'd "done more for Dade City than anyone" except its homegrown tennis star Jim Courier.
His words were at first unbelievable, then simmered down, in my mind anyway, to merely outrageous. But upon further reflection, it seems that Johnson is, for once in his life as a star, right.
When he blamed everybody else, he was talking partly from the values they'd taught him _ that it was more important to win a football game than it was to follow the law; that it was okay to beat up a girlfriend, since girlfriends get beat up all the time; that it was all right to rob a stranger, since strangers are robbed all the time. In short, that a young man could do all these things and still be a bigshot, still be a role model. If his luck held out, he could maybe even one day sign a multimillion dollar Nike advertising contract like the other sports stars.
Nobody who cares about what happens to Issac Johnson when he again faces a judge Thursday will enjoy hearing this. But Issac Johnson's arrogance is no accident. In a curious way, it is the mark of an obedient young man, only doing and saying what he was told.