If you want to capture boys’ attention, talk football (at least in Europe).  Paul Canoville, who helped break the color barrier in British soccer spoke at the International School of Geneva about racism in sport to tie in with United Nations Day of Tolerance Nov. 17, 2010 and March 21st International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

« Mama said, ‘get an education ! »   Canoville said in a high pitched voice with a Caribbean accident, wiggling his hips imitating his mama.

Chelsea's player Paul Canoville

Chelsea's player Paul Canoville

« Don’t worry Mama, football gonna take care of me. » said the first black man to play for Chelsea in 1981, who still remembers that pain of racial abuse when even his own fans called him animal names.

« My Mama, from a poor Caribbean family, came to England alone and dreamed of becoming a nurse, but never had the chance to become educated.  She worked hard all her life.  She didn’t care about football ; she wanted me to go to school.»

When Canoville’s career ended to a knee injury at age 25, no one took care of him, especially not football.  After a downward spiral of drug addiction, street life and jail time, he turned his life around.  His autobiography, Black and Blue received  the best British sport book award in 2009.

After Canoville’s visit to our campus, three of my freshman students, a a tall dark-haired Italian basketball player, a blond blue-eyed Austrian footballer, and a young Swiss tennis man wrote him this letter.

Dear Mr. Canoville

Thank you for coming to tell us a story that has the power to make people change their way of thinking  about racism. In school we always learn about the history of racism, what it is about, what it provokes, but we have never had a witness talk to us about his experiences. It is a privilege that students will cherish. Most kids are sports fans, and many would love to play professional football later in life.  The opportunity to hear a famous footballer sharing important views so freely is fantastic. It has even more of an impact when you are funny.  When you tell your life altering stories and describe the appalling behavior you confronted, you showcased your great sense of humor and positive way of seeing things. A person will always face challenging times, but if you fight for what you believe in, no matter how unfair things seem to be, you can do just about anything. You taught us this. We would love for you to come back and pass your experiences and knowledge on to other generations of students.

Canoville’s final words to our students were “Always have a back up plan.  Get an education. And listen to mama.  Mama knows best!”

Here’s to all the mamas around the world, making sacrifices everyday, giving children a better chance through the opportunity of education.