The coach peered
outside. White students were streaming out of school to the applause of the
crowd. The black kids were getting bumped and berated in the halls. Matthews
sent word through the building: All varsity football players were to leave
their classes and report to him--now.
Matthews, an ol'
country boy from Arkansas, was shrewd; he'd glimpsed the future. One day, he'd
warned his team, "there'll be black boys here so tall they can stand
flat-footed and piss in a wagon bed, and you white boys won't even be team
managers." But for now the school district wasn't even allowing the Little
Rock 9 to hum in the school's a cappella choir, let alone tackle a white boy in
front of 12,000 people, so nothing good could come of this.
down," the ex-Marine ordered as his players filed into a classroom.
"Don't look out the window and worry about what's going on outside. If I
hear of any of you getting involved in any of this, you're finished with
football. You'll answer to me."
No coach on earth
could make a player cry, crap and vomit all at once like Wilson Matthews could.
Outside, the howling for the heads of the Little Rock 9 grew louder. Inside
that classroom the Little Rock 42 sat in stone silence.
That silence is
what today's players need to hear about. They understand the outsiders' pain,
the loneliness that Minnijean Brown must've felt as she was about to enter her
first English class that day 50 years ago. It's what occurs in the minds and
hearts of the insiders that the kids need to grasp. It's Johnny Coggins whom
they need to gather around, because if they don't understand the ambivalence
that can take hold of even the good kids when the moment comes, they too one
day might find themselves in quicksand....
sequestered with the varsity that morning when Minnijean and the other eight
black kids entered Central. He was a junior defensive end on the B team--not
yet worthy of being summoned and supervised by Coach Matthews--sitting in Miss
West's English class in a corner room nearest to a mob outside begging police
to turn over just one of those Negroes, just one to be lynched as an example to
the rest. He didn't agree with what they were screaming, he'd tell the kids
today. On the contrary, he was discovering that day that he was a closet
liberal, that he felt sick for those black kids, embarrassed for the whole
human race. And still....
door opened. Minnijean entered and took a seat in the row next to Johnny,
leaving him between the segregationists outside and her. His heart felt as if
it would bang its way out of his chest. Three boys stood, flung their books to
the floor, screamed at Minnijean and walked out. Miss West, a liberal, stared
daggers at them.
The crowd outside
urged the rest of the class to leave. Minnijean's dead-ahead gaze and small
smile never flickered. The silence grew inside the bedlam. Johnny's mind raced.
What if one of those nutballs out there had a gun? What if they branded him as
what he was--a sympathizer--for not walking out? One of his best friends turned
to him. "Let's get out of here," the boy murmured.
It caught Johnny
by surprise. His pal was a straight-A student. The kids who were walking out to
protest integration weren't the high achievers or the jocks. Johnny got B's and
was one of Miss West's pets. And still....
What you need to
understand, Johnny could tell the 2006 team, is how confusing the moment is, if
you've never shone a light on your own shadows. Thunderclouds of anxiety,
fleeting glimmers of rationalization: Miss West can't teach with this mob
outside.... We can't learn anything today anyway.... Nobody can blame you, not
in this madness.... Gotta stick with your buddy....