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Burlington, N.C. is a city of 40,000 set in the gentle hills and thick pines of the Piedmont, where the clay is the color of a Temple orange. There, a year ago, Cicero A. Frye, the white head football coach at Walter M. Williams High School, was forced out of his job, one he had held for 10 years, and replaced by a black man. Frye's teams had a state-wide reputation; quite a few of his players had gone on to Chapel Hill and Duke. His successor was Jerome Evans, the coach at Jordan Sellers, an all-black school across town that was being closed. Evans would be the first black head football coach at a major predominantly white high school in the South. The author has written a book entitled "Black Coach" (to be published next month by Dodd, Mead & Company) on Evans' first season. The following is an adaptation.
Jerome Evans is 40, with skin the color of milk chocolate. His weight has not varied a pound in 20 years. His body is so lean and tight that his muscles, veins and bones are visible as distinct elements through the thin cloth of his skin. His body is so taut that it seems to have no potential to give but only to rip.
Evans is constantly aware of the condition of his body, his clothes, the way he walks, talks and eats, all his natural mannerisms because, as he says, "Everyone's looking at me." As a black man operating in a white world, Evans realizes eyes are turned on him, and so he has turned his own eyes inward to insure that nothing of Jerome Evans is visible to others that is not first visible to himself. To Evans the most reprehensible weakness would be for some trait or mannerism to slip out without his consent. Though he is constantly and consciously sifting possibilities and deciding what to reveal or conceal, Evans' selections are not based on any desire to deceive. Rather, he wants to create the self he thinks he should be. All his life he has been confronted by two cultures: black and white. And when they are in contradiction, he has not always been sure which to choose. If Evans were a romantic he would simply choose that which is most natural to him rather than that which is foreign. But what is natural and what is best in a given society are not necessarily the same. Because of his wish to pick and choose the best from each culture, Evans' life is a precarious balancing act. He never seems to relax. Every decision, no matter how insignificant, must be debated thoroughly before being acted upon. For instance, when a white football player on the Williams team scores a touchdown and Evans is about to congratulate the boy, one can almost hear the whirrings in the coach's mind. He raises his arm to put it on the boy's shoulder, the arm suspended in midair, and then lets it fall to his side as he rejects that possibility and instead shakes the player's hand.
"I've built up in my mind what a man should be," he says. "This ability not to let down in front of people, whether they're black or white, is part of it. Some things I may want to do, but I won't. If I get drunk once in a while, lots of blacks will take comfort from that because it will prove I'm no better than them, and whites will take comfort too, because it'll prove I'm just 'like every other nigger.' But I won't be just any other nigger. I'm a man like anybody else."
If the black community in Burlington has any complaint about Evans, it is that he is too much his own man. He is too aloof and so, in a way, inaccessible to their pressures. He does not view problems externally. His solutions are arrived at in relation to himself, his wife and his two young children, and not in relation to "his people." He has said many times, "I don't trust leaders of 'people.' You have to beware of saints—they're dangerous. I want only to lead myself and my family."
Upon his graduation from North Carolina Central University in 1955 Evans decided to coach at primarily black schools throughout North Carolina. He had no desire to penetrate the white world. However, after moving from one black high school to another, year after year as the tide of integration rolled through the state, Evans began to see himself as a prehistoric mammal fleeing evolution and faced with extinction. Soon he would have to quit coaching, for there would be no black schools left to hire him. However, quite another choice—and a surprising one—presented itself in 1970 when he was asked to take the job at Williams High. He decided to accept the position and with it the pressures of integration.
Before the Burlington school board offered that position, however, it had had to oust C. A. Frye. A decade before, Frye's teams had been among the most powerful in North Carolina, but as other schools accepted integration, and with it large numbers of swift, elusive black football players, Williams remained a bastion of white supremacy. Its teams began to win less frequently, and the fortunes of their fiery coach declined accordingly. During these years Jerome Evans was molding well-disciplined black teams at Jordan Sellers that posted records such as 7-2 and 8-1, while Frye's players were struggling through seasons of 3-6-1 and 2-8.
Even so, Frye remained feared and respected as the Williams coach. His violent outbursts toward players were legendary among the townspeople, half of whom thought them a disgrace while the other half reveled in their ferociousness. He was known to tear the shirts off the backs of players and swear with such vehemence that the school's cheerleaders would run for shelter.
"There were times, if I had a knife I would have killed Coach Frye," said Mike Pierce, a white player. "He had no patience with anyone. When I was on the junior varsity I could hear him yelling from the other field and I was scared at the thought of ever playing for such a man. But one day in school he called me Mike and said how the team would need me the following year, and after that I was crazy about him. He screamed and cussed all right, and when you stunk he made a little raspberry sound and did a war dance around you like you were burning at the stake. He made you want to quit football and just grow your hair. And a lot of boys did quit, but maybe Frye gave them an excuse to do what they wanted. He brought out a lot of things in you that you never knew existed—both the best and the worst." Frye might have retained his coaching job indefinitely had it not been for a number of incidents, a few of which he was involved in, but some of which he took no part in whatsoever. Like Jerome Evans, he too was a victim of the times.
One night as he was about to go to bed he heard a commotion on his front lawn. Since he lived in a section of Burlington that was being encroached upon by the Negro population, Frye immediately assumed it was a "nigger prowler." He grabbed his gun, flung open the door and fired at the first thing that moved. He discovered that he had "winged" a white boy who had come to the house to see his pretty daughter, Cathy. The incident did not sit well with members of the school board, who noted that he could have handled the situation in "a less volatile way." A short while later. Frye was taken to court by a youth who claimed the coach had punched him on discovering him in the school gym at an hour it was supposed to be closed. Frye was eventually exonerated, but a few months afterward he was rumored to have pushed another boy down a flight of stairs at Williams in a fit of anger. It was said that the boy was paralyzed for life and that the police were hunting Frye. The rumors were simply untrue, but it no longer really mattered. Many of the city's residents felt they had had enough of C. A. Frye.