Opinion: Two Oklahoma high school football teams came together to discuss race. What happened is reason for hope.
Desmond Green thinks about his mother whenever he leaves the house.
“Every time I go out,” he said, “she’s terrified I’m not going to make it back.”
“I have to make it back to her.”
Green is a soon-to-be-senior at Millwood High School. He’s a running back on the football team and a hurdler on the track team. He’s a BioMed student at MetroTech working toward an industry certification.
But earlier this week, he was a panelist for an impromptu meeting about race.
Football players from Christian Heritage Academy, a private school in Del City where more than 90% of the students are white, came to Millwood, a public school in northeast Oklahoma City where more than 90% of the students are Black. Stories were told. Questions were asked.
This wasn’t done for show. I received a call from Millwood last week asking if I’d be interested in attending — there was no other media — and they didn’t want a photographer to attend for fear of making it seem like a made-for-attention event.
They wanted this to be about learning.
“What I always say,” Millwood football coach Darwin Franklin told the group gathered in the commons area at the high school, “your generation is the most important one in stopping all this.”
Racial inequality has been front and center since George Floyd died after a police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Protests have roiled across the country and around the globe for nearly a month with demands for change in policing and improvements in the treatment of Black people.
All of that prompted Rodney Wolfard to drive to Millwood last week. He first ventured to the school seven or eight years ago when he was an assistant coach at Oklahoma Baptist. He needed linemen, and Millwood had a bunch of good ones.
He got to know many folks at Millwood, including Franklin, and Wolfard, now an assistant at Christian Heritage, got to thinking about his friend last week so he hopped in the car and drove over. He had no way of knowing whether Franklin would even be there, but Wolfard wanted to make sure he was doing OK.
As they talked, Wolfard wondered if there might be a way to bring his players together with Franklin’s.
There was no grand plan, no detailed agenda, but for nearly two hours, players and coaches from Christian Heritage listened to players and coaches from Millwood share their stories.
Franklin told of the first time he had a gun pulled on him.
“I got stopped because I fit the description of a tall, dark-skinned Black man who had just stolen a sports car,” he said.
He was 16.
Malcolm Mack, Millwood’s defensive coordinator, shared about his background. He was born in the 1960s to a mom who is Black and a dad who is white. He heard ugliness from both sides of the family when he was growing up.
He knows first hand that the prejudices evident in America during his youth aren’t gone. Even though Mack annually leads one of the most successful defenses in the state — Millwood allowed only one touchdown in all of the playoffs during its state title run in 2017 — he hasn’t been able to take that next step of becoming a head coach.
“I can’t get an interview,” he said.
As the folks from Millwood talked, the players from Christian Heritage mostly listened, but they did ask a few questions. One got to the heart of what many white people in America have asked in this moment — what can I do to help?
“What you can do is what you’re doing right now,” Franklin said. “You have those conversations.”
It seems those conversations might start to happen more frequently and less formally between the Millwood and Christian Heritage players. Asher Earl, a soon-to-be junior at Millwood, mentioned that the quarterbacks and receivers go against the defensive backs and linebackers a few times a week, then he invited Christian Heritage’s players to join the workout.
But the invitation came with a warning: only come if you want to work.
Before the gathering dispersed, the players and the coaches circled up for a prayer. Millwood players intermingled with Christian Heritage players, Falcons with Crusaders, Blacks with whites. There were arms around shoulders as heads bowed.
After the amens were said, a few players from each team clustered together, cell phones out.
Numbers were exchanged.
Who knows where all of this could lead. Millwood and Christian Heritage will be competing for the same championship in the fall — both are Class 2A programs — and could meet in the playoffs. But if that happens, maybe they play a great game, then come together in a show of unity. Maybe the team that lost shows up at the game in the next round to support the team that won.
Maybe that’s too pollyannaish, but we need hope right now.
Two high school football teams have given us a little more.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.