― Langston Hughes
American poet and playwright
Just like in the movie “Remember the Titans,” high school athletics in the early 1970s brought me face to face with what older folks of that generation called “... them people.”
By no means was I an athlete. Size and lack of talent ended all hopes of a career in sports by junior high. But I did offer one attribute to the athletics department. The football and basketball coaches at Collierville High School saw me as a quick study in sports medicine.
Thanks to their encouragement, I served as the student athletic trainer for both sports during my junior and senior years. In other words, I was the guy who taped ankles, knees and elbows, and applied bandages to injured athletes.
The job also entailed counseling bruised egos, serving as unpaid liaison between student athletes and coaches, and making friends — whether the stars were white or black.
It was how I met a classmate named Eddie Fields, a basketball superstar who came to Collierville High compliments of court-ordered desegregation. As I recall, Eddie’s predominately black school was closed and he was bused to our predominately white school.
It was all a part of the Civil Rights Era that focused on equality and opportunity in all arenas, especially employment and education.
It was painful back in the day — to the kids, to the parents, to the communities ... black and white — but in looking back on it more than 40 years later, it’s easy to believe Civil Rights was the thread that sewed together a torn America. Had it not come along ... I have no clue as to where we’d be today.
While writing a piece about Black History Month a couple of weeks ago, I thought about Eddie. He was a good guy. Actually, he was a great guy. He was soft-spoken and mild-mannered, even shy. He was a heckuva talent on the hardwood. And he was my friend.
In basketball lingo of the day, Eddie was the “gun” of our mighty, mighty Dragons. In truth, he was the key to our state championship in our senior year.
That’s how I knew him best ... as basketball extraordinaire. But thankfully, his athleticism and my trainer’s tape weren’t all we brought to the table.
We enjoyed some good conversation although in the beginning the biggest chore was getting Eddie to open up. Most likely, he was as uncomfortable in a new school with a bunch of white faces as those white faces were of having such an influx of new students ... especially given the fact that most were black.
Change can be tough. It was then. It is now. But in the late 1960s and early ’70s, change came quickly. And there was no looking back.
So the kids moved on ... most of them, anyway. The parents and the communities? Well, they were a little slower.
That’s the resilience of youth. Young people adapt. Like life itself, they find a way.
The guy didn’t smile a lot, but when he did it lit the room. For a basketball star — a forward — he wasn’t big, maybe about 6-foot-1. He could jump to the rafters and his outside shot was unmatched when he was on. Eddie could defend anybody and even when pitted against taller players, which was about every night, he was the king of rebound.
But that was basketball Eddie.
Not too many kids knew the other Eddie, except maybe for the other black students who came from the same school. Two years — our junior and senior sessions — weren’t enough time to get extra close. And the first year was spent just learning names so that left only our senior year to become buddies.
In truth, we probably never reached that “buddy” stage, but our friendship was as genuine as it was needed.
Eddie’s nickname for me was “Doctor” or “Professor” — the former came as the result of my job title for the sports teams, and the latter as an acknowledgement of my presidency of the National Honor Society.
I called him Eddie, and sometimes just “Fields.” He answered to both.
Eddie never needed much trainer support. He stayed pretty free of injuries and even when he was hurting he didn’t show it.
I’ll never forget one night in particular. It was a home game and we were playing a less talented bunch from Hilcrest High School of Memphis. Eddie came down with a rebound and landed on another player’s foot. It turned his ankle and he went down in a heap. Eddie was back up quickly, but he could barely put weight on the foot.
Coach Randolph took him out. From the bench I taped him up. It helped a little, but not a lot. At halftime I taped him again. He stood on it, grimaced in some pain and told me I had done everything I could to help.
Eddie played the second half, trying not to face the coach. But Coach Randolph saw his star pupil’s pain and returned him to the bench. Eddie didn’t return to the floor the rest of the night. We lost. Hilcrest High had upset the mighty Dragons.
In the locker room, I removed the tape from Eddie’s sore ankle and replaced it with a bag of ice.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t patch you up better, Eddie,” I told my friend. I was as dejected over the loss as the players.
“You done ever’thing you could, Professor,” he responded while trying to flex his injury. “It ain’t your fault. It just wasn’t our night. We’ll get ’em next time.”
We didn’t play Hilcrest again that season. But we did win the state championship in our Small School classification. Hilcrest didn’t make it out of its district.
We graduated a few months later in May 1973.
I wore a gold tassel. Eddie wore a heart of gold.
We lost touch after that. I headed north for the University of Tennessee at Martin. Eddie headed west on a basketball scholarship to a community college in Oklahoma.
Basketball brought us face to face.
Life gave us a friendship I will never forget.