By Leslie Lyons
My hero is and always will be Muhammad Ali. For all the obvious reasons, yes, but also because I am from Louisville, KY, and my father was a Golden Gloves champion at age 17, training with Joe Martin, Jr. in the same gym as Ali. My family evolved with personal, social and political identifications with Ali, and his indomitable will, that extended into both my father’s college football career and during the time he played in the NFL.
As a star high-school football player in Louisville, my Dad was recruited by all the top programs in the area. I have seen the letters from Paul “Bear” Bryant on the Alabama letterhead, Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame and many others. But Dad chose to play for the University of Kentucky because it was home. At that time, UK was the first football program in the Southeastern Conference to integrate their players so Dad played side by side with the first Black athletes at his school and in the conference. I asked him to describe that experience.
“You have to understand what it was like back then,” Dad says. “In Mississippi, these guys weren’t just the only Black players on the field. Black people weren’t even allowed to attend certain games so there were times when Nat and Wilbur were the only Black people in the stadium.”
Dad is referring to Nathaniel Northington whose story is told in his 2014 autobiography, Still Running, and Wilbur Hackett, a man who was the first African-American team captain in any sport in SEC history and who became an SEC football official for 15 seasons.
These men played football for the University of Kentucky in the late 1960s under the protection of the National Guard.
“Back then, going to a game in Mississippi as a Black man,” says Hackett, “was like going into a lynch mob. But I couldn’t be scared and I wasn’t scared. You can’t be scared and play the game of football.”
Reminiscing now on these interviews I conducted for my own book, TRUE BLUE, the Dicky Lyons Football Legacy at the University of Kentucky, in 2008, I think about Wilbur’s words and look to the fearless efforts of today’s NFL players who are protesting the current injustices in our country.
American sports have a long-standing history of integration and of athletes changing the social order. Whether just by playing the game together or by actively pursuing social action like Ali, athletes have always pushed boundaries and exhibited an actualized state of mind-body consciousness. This is what they do. Now that other players across all sports disciplines are joining in solidarity with San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, it seems natural and fitting. Players on pro, college and high school teams, black and white, male and female are starting to rise up as one voice and demand justice.
As an artist, I like to think that the contributions I make matter and that art has the power to change peoples’ minds for the better. But no platforms that present my work will ever compare to the national stage from which athletes are observed and judged. And the dialogue that is happening, finally happening, concerning the obscene racial injustices in our country is pushing forward because of these brave athletes. I have a new hero today and his name is Colin Kaepernick. And, for me and all of us, that means that one of the greatest Americans ever born, Muhammad Ali, still lives.