On a June evening in 1955 my dad, Jim, had a conversation with Philadelphia Phillies owner Bob Carpenter that would change my life and the state of Delaware forever. It took place behind the backstop at a baseball diamond in our hometown of Wilmington during a sandlot game. I was catching, and my best friend, Ruly Carpenter, was pitching. We were both 15 years old.
In those days Delaware was divided. In the north lay Wilmington and the chemical industry, anchored by DuPont. Down south were farms that produced chickens, soybeans, corn and peaches. The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal separated north from south, and we never ventured B.C.—Below the Canal—except to go to Rehoboth Beach, which had a great boardwalk.
As tiny as Delaware is, it had no unifying sports event. My dad and Ruly's were about to change that. At the backstop they were discussing their kids—not Ruly and me, but two of our siblings. Both my younger sister Mary Ellen and Ruly's older brother, Kemble, were classified as mentally retarded. ( Mary Ellen has what is now known as Down syndrome.) In those years there was little understanding of such children, who were often institutionalized for life. Nor was there any support system for their parents, who sometimes struggled with feelings of failure and even shame.
Our fathers decided to create an event to raise awareness—and money—to help mentally handicapped kids. Thus was born the Delaware Blue-Gold All-Star Football Game, an annual matchup pitting high school players from the state's north against those from the south.
The first Blue-Gold game was set for the following summer. The teams had two weeks to train for it, with the North squad encamped at Sanford Prep, a boarding school near Wilmington. But a problem arose. Two players for the North, Joe Peters and Alvin Hall, were black. Sanford administrators worried that having black players live in the dorms might upset some students, especially those from Southern states. Joe and Alvin were told they could practice at Sanford but could not eat dinner or sleep there.
Immediately my dad, a North Carolinian by birth, said, "They will stay at our house." For the next two weeks Joe and Alvin lived with us. Every morning at seven I would make their breakfast and drive them to practice; I would also pick them up at the end of the day. I was proud of my dad, a former teacher and baseball coach who worked in the insurance business, for taking this stand and impressed by the equanimity and quiet courage Joe and Alvin demonstrated. The experience ultimately molded my view of race relations. This was my first contact with black athletes, and I've now spent most of my adult life working with them.
On a Saturday afternoon in August 1956, some 10,000 fans greeted 56 high school players as they entered the University of Delaware's stadium. The North won 27-6, and a tradition was launched. Since then, 3,100 players have taken part in the Blue-Gold, with more than a dozen going on to the NFL. The event has raised more than $5 million.
Perhaps just as significant, the game has forged new bonds, not only between northern and southern Delaware, but also between game participants and the mentally handicapped. Under a buddy system set up in 1974, everyone involved in the game is matched with a child or young adult with a cognitive disability. It's common for these buddies to keep in touch long after the final play. Some Blue-Gold alums have even chosen careers working with the disabled.
After each game a leadership award is presented in Bob Carpenter's name and a spirit and morale award in my father's. Those two dads were as proud as I've ever seen them on the day in 1958 when Ruly (who later became Phillies president) and I played in the Blue-Gold, Ruly at end and I at quarterback. We helped the North to a 27-0 victory.
At the start of the Blue-Gold training camp that year, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ran a photo in a weekly feel-good feature called "Pat on the Back." There were Ruly and I, resplendent in our All-Star uniforms, with our dads standing behind us. That picture is still one of my prized possessions.