Dear 17-Year-Old James,
You’ve ruined your life.
So many people poured themselves into you and football. They were counting on you to take care of them; they need you, and you’ve ruined all of it.
Your brothers and sisters worked hard to convince Mom to send you to Holy Cross, across Mill Creek and down route 130 in Delran. You were the only one that went to private school out of your hood. But you got that football scholarship, and you did it, every day. You walked past all those men outside the bodega on 42nd street every morning to catch the bus to Holy Cross. Your friends didn’t have to leave so early for school, so they got to crawl through the hole in the fence to play basketball with milk crates in the abandoned building on your block.
But not you, you went to private school and played football.
And it pays off. It’s Winter, 2002. You just became a Junior All American Football and Track athlete.
You’re walking tall.
People are talking.
“You hear about Jim Jim? He just got voted All American. He’s gonna get a full ride to play football, then headin’ off to the pros.”
You are not alone. You are not a failure. You are not a disappointment. Pick your head up. Look straight ahead. Stop looking down.
Suddenly there’s hope. You don’t feel so poor any longer. You’re heading to the big time.
Every major college in the country wants you and you are destined for great things. You’re getting recruitment letters from Miami, Iowa, Ohio State, South Carolina, and Pittsburgh just to name a few. But James, even though you’re living the dream of every kid in South Jersey right now, we don’t go off to college. We don’t get that experience.
Things are about to change. You’re going to become a father.
Mom won’t even yell, so you know you’ve disappointed her. “Jim Jim,” she’ll say, “What are we gonna do?” But you’ll tell her the same thing you told your girlfriend, your coaches, yourself. It will be okay. I’ll just figure it out.
You are not alone. You are not a failure. You are not a disappointment.
Pick your head up. Look straight ahead. Stop looking down. You did not do one thing wrong.
And James, don’t panic. The school administration can’t actually kick you out. And all those football recruiters still pursue you. The only difference now is that you’ll ask about housing for your girlfriend and daughter. They come with you or no deal.
Block out all the naysayers, bigots, and racists. You did not defile that young white girl’s life. You are not a disgrace to your family. You will not have a zebra baby, or an oreo baby, or a N***** baby. If the lunch ladies don’t want to serve you because you got a white girl pregnant, that’s okay. Count on Coach Madera; he has your back, every day every time.
But then, another change of plans. One day your girlfriend goes home to her parents. She takes the baby, your baby, your daughter. And that’s that. That’s the last time you see her. You don’t get to come home from school to her sweet little face anymore. You don’t get to hold her while you do your math homework, you don’t get to wake up and make her a bottle while you get ready for another day as a high school senior. You don’t get to negotiate housing for your daughter with the college recruiters anymore.
You’re going to be okay, I promise.
One day your girlfriend goes home to her parents. She takes the baby, your baby, your daughter. And that’s that. That’s the last time you see her.
Mrs. McConnell, the school nurse, gets it. She lets you come and rest in her office. And she listens to you with all 5 feet of her little Italian self. Popping gum and pushing her glasses back up her nose, she sees you as a person, as a man, not just as a black kid on a ball scholarship that got a white girl pregnant. When she sees you in the hall, she will reach on her tip-toes to bop you on the back of the head, “Head up James! Walk with that head up!”
Keep talking to her. She hears you. Believe her when she says you are a good person, with a good heart, that you are worthy of and able to give good, clean love. Love yourself, James. Be proud because you will show your little girl just how much you love her. You will show her that you are the father that never left her side.
But love everyone else too, James. Do not allow yourself to see hate in others because of discrimination, bigotry, and racism. Love them, too. When you show love and give love, they see Jesus.
Please know that everything doesn’t go according to our plans but, instead, according to God’s plan. Every kid from the projects has dreams of making it in the NFL, and you do, you make it all the way to Chicago, a wide receiver for the Bears, but it takes a man to want to better another life for the future. You did not make a mistake. She is not a mistake. You made a life, a beautiful life, created in the eyes of God. Nobody can measure the amount of love that is in a person’s heart, that is in your heart for her and has been since day one. That love is still there today, every second of the day. The love that you have for her and the struggle of the years that are in front of you will shape you to be bold, fearless, confident, strong, ambitious, selfless and most of all a Man of God.
We have a dream now, James. We have it all the time. Sometimes when it’s quiet in the gym, and I’m sitting between clients, I imagine I look up to see my wife is about to surprise me. That I will be at my gym coaching and my daughter will walk in. I will leave my doors open for her, every day.
Stay Strong, James. For her and you. Because you’ll both need it.