His words should have stung any 12-year-old, but strangely, I don’t remember the sting. “You big, sorry, yellow-bellied ham!” Coach Washington yelled in my direction.

I was a thoughtful, creative child, more interested in poetry and drawing than football, so I found his language more fascinating than insulting. But since I was wearing a helmet and Jayhawks jersey for the youth squad he led, it was reasonable for the coach to expect a better performance than I’d shown the practice drill.

Season Ending Victory

I hadn’t thought about Coach David Washington, a dignified, confident, middle-aged man with dark skin I admired, until I watched an interview with Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams, following the glorious, but season-ending, victory against Green Bay Jan. 8. Unlike many fans, I’m not caught up in the fervor of the winning strike that led our home team from a single win to barely missing the coveted playoffs. In reality, it’s just another letdown for those of us who’ve loved the team since the days of Billy Sims or Lem Barney and earlier local luminaries. Actually, I find it offensive that Lions Coach Dan Campbell will almost certainly have saved his job with the impressive – extremely impressive – turnaround he helped give the team with his resilient enthusiasm, while Jim Caldwell, the last Black Lions coach, was fired despite a playoffs appearance. No, Campbell can’t help his whiteness, but standards are standards. No playoffs, no job was this season’s expectation.

What stayed with me most was Williams’ emotional dedication of a historic performance that ranked him alongside Lions legend Barry Sanders. He cited his great-grandfather’s influence on his life when he could have stuck to the familiar script about making next season even more successful, not letting fans down, bla bla bla… On a national network, before countless viewers, he spoke about a Black man who inspired him in ways that appeared to have nothing to do with football. 

Sports Aren’t Just About Playing A Game

Williams reminds us that, especially for Black men, sports aren’t just about the game. From Jack Johnson to Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, the field or the arena have served as a backdrop to demonstrate our genuine excellence, not just physical talent. Even as a kid, I realized Coach Washington only yelled because I wasn’t giving my best.


Williams and his teammates, Black and white, gave their best this season – and that’s worth celebrating.

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