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Along the way, he drew courage and hope in conversations with his grandfather Mitchell Lewis, who grew up on the Louisiana plantation where his parents had been slaves, and from listening to his mother's stories about his great-grandmother Rachel Youngblood Hewitt, who had had to fight for the right to pray on the plantation where she was kept.
The evils of racism weighed heavily on young Albert's mind, dating back to an incident that occurred when he was five. He and his father were walking on railroad tracks at a lumberyard, and a pickup truck suddenly sped up the road, spewing rocks and dust. "Get off my tracks, you black sons of bitches!" screamed Frank Matthews, a white man who owned the lumberyard. "I'm tired of you niggers being on my tracks."
Brad had figured he could ignore the NO TRESPASSING signs because he was one of the most diligent workers Matthews had. The black men who were stacking lumber in the warehouses nearby stopped and stared at Brad. The pained looks on their faces reflected all of the demeaning racism they had had with Matthews. Brad placed his hand in Albert's and quietly said, "Come on, son."
"I couldn't understand why my father didn't stand up to him," Albert says. "I was ready to fight. It was very traumatic, the first time I'd come face-to-face with racism in a very hard-core way. I remember walking away, turning and looking back at all those black men, seeing the humiliation in their eyes. I'm sure my father was only trying to protect me. He was such a product of the South. For the longest time, it caused an emotional separation between us. I think, for a time, I didn't respect him."
The misunderstanding between father and son went both ways. When, at 13, Albert expressed a desire to play football, his parents were vehemently opposed. Brad insisted that a good education was more valuable than sports. Vera was petrified that Albert would get hurt, knowing they couldn't afford to pay medical bills. Also, there was no way for Albert to travel the four miles home after football practice; a mule and cart was the family's only mode of transportation.
Before beginning eighth grade, Albert went against his parents' wishes when he packed his belongings and moved to the east side of town to live with one of his older sisters, Katherine Jamerson. Her house was within walking distance of DeSoto High, an all-black school encompassing grades seven through 12. But when he tried out for the DeSoto football team in both the eighth and ninth grades, he was told by the head coach, Clyde Washington, that at 5'11" and only 146 pounds, he was too slight to play.
Albert was devastated, and for three years he spent his fall afternoons watching football practice through a chain link fence, trying to learn the game and praying that he could muster the nerve to try out again. Sensing his frustration, Nettie Pennywell, his homeroom teacher throughout high school, went out of her way to bolster his confidence. "I saw some potential in Albert that he didn't even know he had," Pennywell says. "He was talented in sports and his books. He didn't realize the heights he could go to."
Lewis got a boost when he went out for the DeSoto track team and made the squad as a sprinter. Then, in the spring of Lewis's sophomore year, a young, slightly built assistant coach, Garland Spivey, who was new to DeSoto, noticed Lewis at a track meet and coaxed him into trying out for football again. "Never use your size as an excuse—whether you're too big or too small," Spivey said. "I promise I'll only look at the size of your heart."
This time Albert made the team. During the summer of 1977, he mowed lawns to earn money for the $35 medical-insurance fee, and he trained like a maniac. To put on weight, Albert gulped down concoctions of whole milk and raw eggs. He lifted 25-pound bags of flour to build up the muscles in his upper body, and he chopped firewood under the hot sun. Albert increased his speed by running up and down Russell Road, a plow line tied around his waist dragging two car tires behind him. He ran the half mile to Patterson's Grocery, and then it was another half mile to Troger's General Store.
"He never wanted to quit," says Glen Hall, a DeSoto teammate who joined Lewis in this exercise. "I'd say, 'We've been out here for two hours with these tires.' Albert would yell, 'Keep going!' "