More and more, Willie Mays finds himself becoming what Mike Garrett of the Kansas City Chiefs calls "a marginal man," exciting the deep respect of neither race, and, indeed, the outright dislike of some. For a long time, Garrett, the Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Southern California, was falling into the same limbo. "I didn't fit into the slum that I came from, and I didn't fit into the white-oriented social world of USC with its emphasis on fraternity row," Garrett recalls. "I was a marginal man. And when I became a professional football player I felt the same way, only more so."
But like many other black athletes, Garrett is stepping out of his limbo and beginning to take firm stands on black and white matters. He has made a personal commitment to his race. "As a Negro celebrity," he says, "I know that I must go back and help less fortunate Negroes, even though in my heart I may not want to." Mike Garrett's "marginal" days are ending. He is responding to pressures on the Negro athlete. He is becoming the proud new black who is reworking the future of his race, rendering the "house nigger" all but obsolete, and turning the world of sports upside down in the process.
What is happening today amounts to a revolt by the black athlete against the framework and attitudes of American sport, and that such a thing could occur in his own pet province has astonished the white sports follower. The reason for the astonishment is that the man in the grandstand knows nothing about the Negro athlete whom he professes to understand, appreciate and ennoble as a symbol of the enlightened attitude of the world of sport toward segregation and intolerance. A wall of ignorance and unfounded suppositions is shielding the fan from the realities of the black athlete's background and his hopes.
The cases of two of last season's most celebrated basketball players serve as examples. One is Don Smith, Iowa State All-America, ghetto-born and to trouble bred, the pride of a Midwestern campus that would have been stunned if it had ever heard him quietly, deliberately, in the soft accent that four years at Iowa State have developed in him, tell the story of his youth. The other is Elvin Hayes of Houston, the famed "Big E," a rural Negro, yet the product of an astonishing family and a man intently searching out his own route through the black-white maze.
What does the white man cheering in the grandstand know of Don Smith or Elvin Hayes? Not a thing—and that is part of the shame. Now meet them.
Don Smith fidgeted nervously on the bench one night late last winter. Iowa State had just lost to Kansas State in the crucial game of the season, and ever since the final horn had blown in the big armory in Ames, Iowa, the students and fans had been sitting patiently in their seats. This had been the last home game for Smith, a 21-year-old light-skinned Negro from the slums of Brooklyn, and statisticians were busy working out the final summation of his brilliant college athletic career. It developed that he was the second best Big Eight re-bounder of all time, behind Bill Bridges, and the third best Big Eight scorer behind Clyde Lovellette and Bob Boozer. He had been All-Conference each year, Sophomore of the Year in 1966 and Big Eight Player of the Year in 1968. He had made the Helms Foundation first-string All-American and half a dozen other All-Americas as well. Earlier in the season he had matched up against Lew Alcindor of UCLA, scoring 33 points and picking up 12 rebounds. Somebody asked Alcindor what he thought of Elvin Hayes of Houston. "He's one of the best," said the taciturn Lew, "along with Don Smith of Iowa State."
Now Smith waited shyly in the armory while his jersey was officially retired, the student body presented him with a plaque, the mayor of Ames presented him with a handsome piece of luggage and Dr. W. Robert Parks, the university president, presented him with a color photograph of himself in action. Smith said only a few words in response. He said he was grateful for the gifts and for his years at Iowa State. Mostly, he said, he was sorry he had missed three free throws in the last six minutes.
"Just like him," said an instructor in the audience. "Everybody's telling him how great he is and he's apologizing for missing free throws."
"Yeah," said a man sitting alongside. "For a shine, that is one good boy."
Yeah, one good boy....