Rays' Archer on mission for self-discovery

Chris Archer, one of baseball’s top pitching prospects, is on the lookout for ways that he can use his own experiences to improve the lives of others.
Chris Archer, one of baseball’s top pitching prospects, is on the lookout for ways that he can use his own experiences to improve the lives of others.
Published March 3, 2013


Chris Archer was early, like he usually is, and got a table at the Outback near his home in Garner, N.C., with a view of the door. He had never felt this way, this nervousness, this anxiousness, not even when he unexpectedly made his big-league debut pitching for the Rays last summer. Twenty-four years of not knowing can do that to you. • It was the Wednesday before he was to leave for spring training, and after two weeks of debating whether he really wanted to do this, and after 24 hours of wrestling with the phone number in hand, he had decided that afternoon to make the call and set up the meeting. • As soon as Archer saw Darryl Magnum walk in, he knew. Magnum was tall, athletic, black. And he was Archer's biological father. • They talked over dinner, Archer asking most of the questions.

Some informational, some pointed, such as how Magnum could have lived a half-hour away and claimed to have followed Archer's career but never reached out.

Archer listened. He noted their similarities and differences. He had someone at the restaurant take their picture on his phone.

And then he said goodbye, with no plans to meet again.

"I left there with everything I wanted," Archer said. "It was more about just that feeling, that feeling of liberation. I felt like I can finally be me. I know every piece of the puzzle that made me."

• • •

"Puzzle" is a good word to start to explain the biracial, multi­family upbringing that produced Archer, who is one of the Rays' best pitching prospects and brightest minds.

His parents — lovingly and legally — are Donna and Ron Archer. Technically, though, they are his 63-year-old maternal grandmother and her 55-year-old husband, who raised him essentially from birth, adopting him at age 2. And they are white.

His biological mother is Sonya Clark, Donna's daughter from her first marriage, who is white. She lived with them on and off, seeming more like a big sister to Archer, who called her by her first name. She still comes to family dinners every couple of weeks, but Archer said they don't have much of a relationship now. He does adore her two young children, who are also biracial from a different father, and considers them his half sister and half brother.

His biological father, as he found out a few weeks ago, is Magnum, a Raleigh, N.C., area firefighter. Archer had no idea nor much interest in finding out about his father until a friend challenged him this winter to fill in the glaring blank given his ongoing commitment to self-improvement.

"I was like, 'I'm trying to find myself, and I don't know my history. How can I even do that?' " Archer, 24, said.

And then there is his unofficial "brother," Ron Walker, his former high school junior varsity coach who filled an essential role as his mentor and provided a black influence. Walker, his girlfriend and daughter have become part of the extended Archer family, their 4-year-old is named Kristen after Chris, and she has Ron and Donna as godparents.

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

"It's a weird dynamic, a crazy dynamic," Archer said. "That's why I'm so open-minded, because I don't have a structure, because I can understand life doesn't have to go in a straight line like everybody else's. You can still be successful and not have a quote/unquote perfect upbringing."

• • •

Sonya wasn't ready to settle down when she had Chris at 19, and Donna and Ron, who had been married only a few years, faced what turned out to be not much of a decision to raise him. "We gave it about 30 minutes thought," Donna said. "It was the right thing to do, and what we wanted to do."

It wasn't always easy, especially in small-town Clayton, N.C., white southern parents in their 30s/40s and of modest means with a biracial baby.

"There may have been some odd looks," Ron said. "But we didn't see 'em."

Archer didn't know anything wasn't normal until middle school, when a classmate's curiosity and cruelty collided, asking if he knew his "real" parents.

"I'm like, 'These are my real parents,' " he said. "I was literally colorblind the first 11 years of my life because I didn't know any different."

He learned, and said there were tough lessons in discrimination, even being cut from the seventh-grade baseball team. But overall, Archer said, he couldn't imagine a better, more loving environment to be brought up in. And he "thanks" both Darryl and Sonya for not being a part.

"Her selfishness turned out to be the greatest gift she could have given me," he said. "I don't know where I would be, but I'm in the best possible place I can be right now. … If she would have raised me, that wouldn't have happened, I know that. I know that Ron and Donna wouldn't have given me that great foundation, and I know that Ron Walker wouldn't have been there to mentor me."

• • •

The combination of influences is quite impressive.

Beyond being an elite athlete, the Rays' top-rated pitching prospect and a projected frontline starter in the near future, Archer is sharp, smart, confident, well-spoken, driven — and determined to make a difference.

Nurtured by Ron and Donna, then pushed by Walker, Archer committed, after passing on college for pro ball, to educate himself. He became a voracious reader (autobiographies, with Malcolm X among the most inspiring; self-improvement books such as Outwitting the Devil; serious novels such as The Alchemist) and developed an extensive vocabulary.

"He just has this insatiable appetite to continue to learn more about himself, and the more he discovers about himself, the more he wants to do," Walker said.

"He's this curious person that continues to say, 'It's never enough. I want to read more, I want to know more about me, I want to know more about how the world works, I want to know why people think the way they do and do what they do.'

"And in the next breath, 'How can I help out this family or this organization, and how can I use my platform I have from baseball to help?' And there's an innocence about it, too."

Archer borrows from the rapper Tupac in saying he wants to spark the mind that changes the world, referring often to the platform sports provides him. He aims high, hoping one day to reach "hundreds of thousands," figuring his background allows him to connect broadly — to kids who are black, white or both; from one-parent homes; adopted, etc.

"I just feel like I can help so many people," he said.

Archer speaks to youth groups stressing that it's cool to be smart, posts inspirational messages on his @ChrisArcher42 (not coincidentally, Jackie Robinson's number) Twitter account, buys holiday gifts for needy families, helps out at the Boys & Girls clubs. And he's eager to do more, with plans to start a foundation and no ending point in sight.

"Life is not about having a 2.70 ERA and winning 20 games a year," Archer said. "That's awesome, but what life is about is using that to impact others positively."

• • •

Archer told Ron and Donna he was going to seek out his biological father, but they didn't ask, and he didn't tell them, how it went. Magnum left a message the next day, and Archer called him back to make it clear — at least for now — there would be no "Ray Lewis story" where they reunited, and he had "no room, no role" in his life for him.

Not when he has his parents, his mentor and his small core group of friends, all he needs for a support system that he said won't left him fail.

"I'm surrounded by so much love I have to reciprocate it, and not just to my family," Archer said. "I'm going to surround everyone else I come in contact with that love and positiveness and encouragement."

Marc Topkin can be reached