The congested intersection of sports, race and patriotism has been front-page news in recent weeks.
Everyone seems to have an opinion on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand during the playing of our National Anthem. He says he is protesting racial injustices in our country, which is his constitutional right and a valid concern. Unfortunately, his genuine message seems to be obscured by his controversial method, fueling more hatred and derision.
To the extent that his defiant protest has ignited a national debate, Kaepernick has succeeded.
Truth is, America remains a work-in-progress. Yet I have stood up and faced the flag thousands of times in my lifetime, as a high school, college and semi-pro athlete…also as a fan, and as a sportswriter with the Chicago Tribune for over 41 years. And I will continue to honor our country for what it purports to be and what it can become in the future with continued sacrifices from all of us.
During a recent reunion of our 1966 Wittenberg University football team that won a conference title, I was reminded of an unfortunate incident that tested my allegiance to America. I was an 18-year-old sophomore kicker on that team and the final game of the season was against Davidson in North Carolina.
Davidson was considered a step up in competition from our smaller school from Springfield, Ohio, but we were determined to show them we were every bit their match.
The ’60s represented an especially turbulent time in our country– the unpopular Vietnam War, racial unrest throughout the United States, and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
When our team arrived at the hotel in Charlotte, N.C., the day before the game, our coach was told rather matter-of-factly, “You know your colored boys can’t stay here.”
Thus, the three black players on our team, including me, were placed in another hotel.
The next day, we hung tough with Davidson and I was sent in to kick a field goal that would put us ahead with about a minute to go in the game. Davidson’s coach asked for a timeout to try to freeze me right before the kick. As I lined up my kick during the timeout, I could overhear our quarterback, Gene Laughman, tell the guys in our huddle a few feet away: ‘Don’t worry guys, Mitch has got this.”
Buoyed by the confidence of my holder and my teammates, I made the kick to give us a 16-14 advantage. The home crowd was silenced for a few minutes as I rather deliberately placed the football on the tee for the ensuing kickoff. Moments later a hate-filled slur came from the Davidson sideline.
“Hurry up and kick the ball, N……er!”
I was stunned, disappointed, angered.
I kicked off a few yards into the end zone and we held on to complete the upset win thanks to a last-second fumble recovery by defensive back Ken Benne. But afterwards I felt conflicted.
Davidson coach Homer Smith came over to congratulate us on the victory. And he stopped by my locker to shake my hand. Nothing was said about the racial slur from his team’s sideline, but I couldn’t help but believe that had something to do with his benevolent postgame gesture.
The lesson I learned that day was that an entire race should not be judged by the actions of one or of a few. And that certainly goes both ways today and forever.
I was just 18 when all of this happened, and I believe I became a man that day.