By now, every corner of the globe has seen images of Kerri Strug, the injured pixie who lifted the U.S. women's gymnastics team to its first-ever gold medal. Please excuse me for sounding like the curmudgeon, but my adrenaline is not pumped up over Strug's performance or that of anyone else in the Atlanta Games.
Call mine a case of sour grapes if you wish. But I, along with thousands of other small-town, black athletes of the "separate but equal" era, call it a case of dreams and potential never fulfilled.
How would our lives have turned out if we had had adequate facilities, proper training and the interest of the sports world? Lord knows we had a surplus of raw talent and ability.
In the 1950s, I spent most of my time at two schools, one in Crescent City, a tiny citrus- and fern-growing town in east central Florida near the St. John's River, the other in Mascotte, a citrus burg about 40 minutes west of Orlando.
The boys of Crescent City, I am certain, were some of the best, if not the bravest, untutored swimmers in the world. Lake Stella, about a half-mile wide, was our pool. Most of us thought nothing of swimming from one side to the other. I took great pride in going across it and back without stopping. William Milledge, the most powerful, graceful swimmer I have ever seen, would freestyle one way and breaststroke back.
Our biggest obstacle was the game warden who would chase us out of the lake because of the alligators. Seeing the big reptiles plunge into the water, we would wait. As long they were in the water, we stayed close to shore. But after they returned to land, in we went, daring ourselves and one another _ and the alligators.
A few days ago, as I watched weightlifting, I thought of Lamar "Fuzzy" Evans of Crescent City, our football team's fullback, and his massive biceps. His father was a farm labor contractor, and he went to the groves and loaded citrus alongside the men. Each wooden box of fruit must have weighed as much 250 pounds, and Fuzzy, like the men, lifted them with apparent ease.
But even Fuzzy was no match for Georgia Boy in wrestling. He stood 5-foot-9 and weighed about 145 pounds. I was sure that I, a 6-foot, 200-pounder, could beat Georgia Boy when I challenged him one afternoon. That was a bad decision. Seconds after grabbing him, I found myself on my behind, staring at the sky. Georgia Boy whipped one challenger after another until he grew too exhausted to continue.
Our coach knew that Georgia Boy was a phenomenon. But what to do with a black wrestler in a backwoods Florida town in 1958? None of the black schools in our conference had wrestling. No one outside of Crescent City ever saw Georgia Boy in action. What a pity.
Our one-room school in Mascotte also produced boys who might have competed in several Olympic sports. Take shooting. Because the men in our families were hunters, all of us became expert shots. With a .22-caliber rifle and a little Kentucky windage, my cousin B.
J., for example, could shoot a squirrel out of an oak more than 30 yards away. During bird season, I would use my 20-gauge shotgun to bring home enough dove to feed my mother, five siblings and myself. Another treat was watching my brother Larry bag fleeing rabbits with a .22-caliber rifle.
And how we could run. Each day, four or five of us would line up on the main red clay road, wait for the starting signal and dash to the finish line made of strands of Spanish moss. The old white man who sold vegetables in our community marveled at our speed.
"Man o' man, y'all the fastest boys in the world!" he would say.
Using the Seaboard railroad trestle over Mud Creek as our arena, we often tested the man's assessment of our fleetness of foot. When the train whistle blew in the distance, several of us would gather on the tracks at Taylor's Crossing, wait for the locomotive to round the bend and race for the trestle. As the whistle grew louder and we felt the crossties shake, we knew that the engine was bearing down on us. Some of us, after losing our nerve, would leave the tracks. The bravest would reach the trestle and jump safely into the water. Miraculously, none of us died in this dumb game.
But the biggest danger and the greatest test of our speed lay a quarter-mile east of the trestle, where four white boys lived. We often used the tracks to get to town, but the white boys _ strong and mean _ were always waiting for us, daring us to enter their territory.
We always took the dare, settling into a trot when they emerged from the orange grove. The boys never carried weapons, but we knew that if they caught us, which they did sometimes, we were in for a tough fistfight.
So, resorting to our best footwork and feints, we would dodge the slower white boys and run like mad all the way to Groveland. Usually, they gave up after a quarter-mile or so. One afternoon, though, we stopped to rest. By the time we realized what was happening, the white boys were upon us, kicking and punching. I was sore for a week.
After that day, we always ran full speed ahead.
While Kerri Strug and the other athletes in Atlanta perform their heroics and go for the gold for being the "best," the "fastest," the "strongest," I wish that I had some way to tell them about the Georgia Boys, the Fuzzies, the B. J.s, the William Milledges, the Larrys of my childhood.
These are the unknown athletes who never had a fair chance, the faceless heroes of a bygone time who watch today's games and wonder, what if?