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"I stayed in different cars every night till the beginning of last football season, when it started to get cold," says Buford. "I only had the clothes I was wearing. The only time I could take a shower was when my body started to odor and when I went into a friend's house they would smell me—that would be embarrassing—and they would tell their son to have me take a bath at their house. Now that I have $23 a week coming in, I live in a room.
"The people in my family are surprised that I have kept going to school. I been in trouble, yes, but not a whole lot. I have only been in jail once. When I was young I was arrested two or three times. The big time was when my brother went to Kansas and stole a car. I was driving it and got caught. They put me in jail for a day even when I told them I didn't know the car was stolen.
"I always wanted to be a hustler. Every time you would look up, the hustler would always have money. But that was before I started playing football. Now I want to be a pro football player.
"I used to starve a lot, but now when I'm gonna play in a game or run in a track meet I try to always get lunch. I have to bum money—ask people to give me a nickel or a dime—and most of the time I don't eat. I never eat breakfast, and sometime I miss the lunch meal and the evening meal, too.
"This year the coach got me a job, helping out around the school, and then when I set a meet record at an indoor track meet the school nurse baked me a birthday cake with my name on top of it. I didn't know what a birthday cake was, and it wasn't my birthday anyway, so she told me to pretend it was. School's not really such a bad place. I wake up at 6 o'clock and get to work at 7. I clean out the gym and then I talk to the fellows. My first class is metals, and it starts at 8:15. After that I go to English class and I don't like it. I got three right out of 100 on my English test. Most of the time I don't read. I don't write much, either. After English I go to woodwork, and after that I go to lunch. Then after lunch I have choir and then woodwork again and then gym. I don't go to gym much. I skip sixth and seventh periods and play pool."
Talking to Buford (he does not like to be called Robert or Bob, just "Buford"), one begins to get a chilled feeling. All through his recital of misery and despair he sounds neither miserable nor desperate. And suddenly one realizes that Buford is merely describing life as it is. He knows no other. Moving from a grandmother's place to a cousin's place to an aunt's place to parked cars is normal; never eating breakfast is normal; barely knowing how to read is normal. There is not a hint of self-pity about Buford, nor does he compare himself to other, luckier boys. He knows no luckier boys. In Buford's lexicon a bad boy is one who goes to the penitentiary for a long term. A hungry boy is one who has not eaten in two or three days. These are everyday definitions in the Negro ghetto of Kansas City.
Buford will not graduate from Lincoln High School—he will receive a certificate of completion that says merely that he was a good citizen and endured his allotted time in the halls of learning. He is a special student and goes to special classes. According to Coach Myles, Buford's mentality is average: "He just can't read." But he has heard about college, and he is desperate to go, not only for social reasons but as a stepping stone to pro football.
"The only people who put the college idea into his head were the college coaches," says a Lincoln teacher with the air of a man who sniffs disaster. Buford is exhilarated by the idea; he thinks he will go to junior college to catch up and then accept the best scholarship offer. Already he is planning to get a job this summer, "So when I go to college I'll have some clothes to wear." He does not say, "if I go to college." He says, "I don't want nobody to look at me and say, 'That boy used to be a good high school football player. Look at him now, out in the streets with all the drunks.' "
Someone has filled Buford's head with sugarplum visions of college life. "It's going to be fun in college," he says, "because most of the white boys and girls seem real nice and they're always talking to you and asking you how you're doing. College is the place you make a lot of friends."
Robert Buford, deprived black athlete, has a big surprise coming.