From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Guess Who We’re Playing

Especially do I believe in the Negro race, in the beauty of its genius, the sweetness of its soul.

W. E. B. DuBois

Growing up in white-bread America during the 1960s and early 1970s, I didn’t meet a black person until I was a sophomore in high school. Other than a few Asian kids and a handful of Hispanics, I attended school and hung out with white kids. Diversity was not part of anyone’s vocabulary who grew up in the then predominantly white suburbs of Los Angeles.

Playing for the sophomore football team, I suddenly came face to face with black America one Thursday afternoon, when we played the team from Manual Arts High School. Most of us had never heard of Manual Arts High School, and even fewer of us had traveled to that part of Los Angeles where Manual Arts was located.

When we were told that Manual Arts was an all-black school we thought our coaches must be crazy. We figured we stood no chance against them. They would be bigger, faster, stronger and better than us. Not to mention, most of us were scared of blacks.

During practice the week of the big game, our coaches kept emphasizing that the players from Manual Arts were no different than we were. We were told that they put their pants on the same way we did, and if we tackled them hard enough, they would feel pain the same as we would. None of us were buying into the daily pep talks by the coaches. Most of us were convinced that what we really needed was to take out a life insurance policy prior to Thursday’s showdown.

When game day arrived, we were getting dressed in the locker room when the football team from Manual Arts arrived. Strolling through the boys’ locker-room door around forty players poured in, all black, all talking, laughing and carrying on as if they were attending a birthday party. Most of us just stopped and stared at them, marveling at how much bigger than us they were. Even before we hit the gridiron, we were convinced of our opponent’s superior speed, strength and ability. In all honesty, we were also staring because for many of us, myself included, this was the closest we had ever gotten to a black person. Besides their size and apparent superior physical strength, I was immediately impressed by how “loose” these guys were. Prior to a game, most of our guys were tense and barely said a word, while the kids from Manual Arts actually looked and acted as if they were having fun.

During the pre-game meeting, our coaches continued to emphasize that we had nothing to fear. Other than skin color, our coaches proclaimed that we were no different from the kids from Manual Arts. We hadn’t believed him in the first place but now that we had actually seen our opponents, the coach’s pep talk fell on totally deaf ears.

When we took the field for pre-game warmup, we knew we were in trouble. While our coaches kept yelling at us to keep our eyes on our side of the field and focus on the mission at hand, most of us kept diverting our eyes to the other side of the field. Even during pre-game warmup, the kids from Manual Arts were impressive and fast, very fast. I would like to say that our team pulled off the upset of the year, and that the end result was reminiscent of the championship game depicted in the movie Remember the Titans. Unfortunately, the outcome was a 55-0 shellacking at the hands of Manual Arts. The only reason the score wasn’t 155-0 is that the coaches for Manual Arts pulled their players back in the second half. If anything, I surmised that black people were sympathetic. As it turned out, Manual Arts was a far better team than us, in more ways than one.

At the conclusion of the game, the players from Manual Arts poured onto the field to offer their congratulations and let us know how well we played. I couldn’t believe it. Normally, at the end of the game, win or lose, it’s a few quick handshakes with the players from the other team and then it’s head for the locker room or the bus—but not these guys. Here they were patting us on the back and complimenting us on our effort, and asking us questions about our school and the remainder of the football season. This was a far cry from the violent, stealing, cheating, lying, lazy people that I had been told made up black America. Then something really strange happened. A number of the players from Manual Arts invited us to walk with them to the bus. Not knowing exactly what to say, most of us said, “Okay.”

As we walked off the field, white next to black, black next to white, I started to understand what our coaches had been trying to tell us all along, which is that “They’re no different than you are.” But in fact, these guys were different. The players from Manual Arts were friendlier, funnier, more mature and a lot looser than most of us white kids, not to mention far superior at the game of football. They asked us more questions than we asked of them, and they showed a genuine interest in us.

As their players were boarding the bus, the middle linebacker, who had been in my face all day long since I was our team’s quarterback, approached me and said, “Hey, next year you guys come to our school and we’ll play ball again, okay?”

Somewhat surprised, I quickly replied, “Alright, let’s do that.”

Somewhere deep inside I knew that would never happen, even though I felt at that moment, and still do to this day, that a bunch of white kids from the suburbs traveling to Manual Arts for a football game would be the best thing that could happen to any white kid who had grown up with little or no contact with people of color.

As the bus started to roll away, the players from Manual Arts leaned out of the windows of the bus and waved enthusiastically and bid us good-bye. At the same time, they were singing a Motown favorite, changing the chorus just slightly and chanting, “Na, na, na, na, Na, na, na, na, Hey, hey, hey, we’re number one.” As the bus drove out of the parking lot and onto the street, they kept waving to us and singing their re-created Motown fight song. In fact, as the bus got to the end of the street and turned right to head for the freeway, we could still hear them singing as the bus drove out of sight. There we stood, a group of gangly white kids, wondering what the heck just happened.

Back in the locker room, the conversation centered on how nice the kids from Manual Arts were, how well they played football, and how they could have easily beaten us 100-0, if not for an empathetic head coach. Whereas two hours ago we were scared and bewildered by these black kids from Manual Arts, now all we had was respect and admiration for them.

The next night, many of the players from the sophomore team attended the varsity football game. As we normally did, we all sat together in the stands. One day removed from our game with Manual Arts, you could tell that something about us was different. Even though we had gotten our brains beat out just twenty-four hours prior, we were laughing, joking and having a great time. In the second quarter, we burst into song, singing the “Na, na, na, na” song that we had learned from the players from Manual Arts.

One of the adults sitting near us said out loud, “What the heck has gotten into the sophomore football team?”

Another person said, “I don’t know what they’re so happy about. They lost yesterday, 55-0.”

Somehow, it just didn’t matter that we had gotten blown out the day before. While people looking in from the outside might think our team lost that day, we all knew that we had gained far more.

Tony Ramos

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