Education and equality were tenets of my heritage. Henry Fields, the first African-American pro basketball player in Europe, mentored me in international ball, but our friendship would never have developed without my family’s upbringing teaching tolerance.
Life may not fair, but great coaches are. My grandfather, Ralph “Coach Mac” McKinzie, taught fairness by his actions, not words, in a college coaching tenure at Eureka College and Northern Illinois University (NIU) that lasted 70 years. Just ask my dad, an All- American at NIU, who argued during a game while playing for grandpa and was benched.
During the decades before the Civil Rights Movement, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional sports in 1947, an under current of racial tension escalated. Even in the liberal North, an underlying assumption of separate but equal prevailed. In the law of the land, when it came to gender and race, nothing was equal. But in my grandpa’s eyes no man was better than another. Under Coach Mac’s creed, equality was non negotiable.
In the l940’s, an opposing school in southern Illinois refused to let Earl Dryden, NIU’S black center sleep in the dormitory.
“What do you mean, my big man has to sleep in the basement!” Grandpa said to the host.
“N***** aren’t allowed in the dorms.”
“Then damn it! Give me a cot!” Coach Mac fumed. “I’ll sleep in the basement, too.”
Former President Reagan remembered those character-building lessons instilled on the football field when he played football for Coach Mac at Eureka College 1928-1932.
“I played football with Franklin Burkhardt and we remained lifelong friends,” President Reagan recounted when he introduced his Coach Mac at the Washington D.C. Touchdown Club where my grandpa was to receive the prestigious Timmie Award for his contribution to college football.
“It wasn’t so easy for a young black man to come to college and make his way back in that day,” Reagan continued, “But Dr. Burkhardt went onto become the athletic director at Morgan State. Before Burgie died, he said something most fitting for the man I am about to introduce, ‘the man who had the most influence in my entire life was Coach Ralph McKinzie.’”
Great coaches walk the talk and invest emotionally in shaping their players’ lives. My grandpa’s heart was always in the right place. Because of his influence in my life, I think my heart is right with the world too.