Billy grew up in the days of segregation, and he lived on the south side of Main Street. The big, white Baptist Church was on the north side. First Baptist, the black church, was much smaller and just down Broad Street about two blocks on the south side. He lived on south Market Street just a couple of blocks from the newly integrated high school and the intermediate school, which just a couple of years before had been the black high school in our town.
Some days, he was not in school or at practice because his mother kept him home scrubbing floors and cleaning the rest of the house.
It was a confusing time for him and for everybody else. There was so much promise. He went to the same high school as everyone else. He wanted to grab all that was offered, but attitudes did not change as fast as the law. Some people thought he was trying to live above himself. Some felt that he was betraying his heritage. Billy joined the debate team and was a part of the Drama Department’s productions. Some people questioned who he thought he was. He made friends with white boys and white girls.
Billy was intelligent and reflective. He was also an athlete. He was a receiver on our football team and played a key role in stunning comeback wins that put us in the state championship game against T.C. Williams of Alexandria. It was a game that was made famous in the movie Remember the Titans. Yes, our school was “the other team.” The game was nothing like the one in the movie. We scored the first touchdown, which was called back on a penalty. All of the rest of the game was T.C. Williams. They crushed us. They were at least twice as big, both in numbers and size. I was a second year teacher back then.
Billy made one of my favorite quotes of all time about that game. He told me that he knew he was in trouble on the first play when he was hit and “got separated from his snot.” If you ever played football, you couldn’t help but enjoy the impact of those words.
If this were the end of his story, I still think it would be remarkable, but I haven’t even begun to tell you about Billy. He was known as an athlete around the school in addition to his other interests in the academic realm. Besides football, he played basketball, but his real passion was baseball. He attracted the attention of major league scouts while he was still in high school, but he was not considered the best athlete in school. The quarterback went on to start as a freshman at Virginia Tech in a day that freshmen just didn’t start. There were a couple of other players who were considered better than Billy.
Billy went on to college and baseball gave him a chance to get an education. He earned All-American honors, but almost no one in our town was aware. He was in the segment of society that was easily forgotten.
Then he became a minor league baseball player. He set records in the Pacific Coast League and in South American winter leagues. Most of the people in our town lost track of him. I watched for his name in the papers and saw it occasionally. After a couple of years, he made the majors with the Texas Rangers. One season he was fifth in the major leagues in stolen bases. No mention was made of him in the local papers. It was as if he had been forgotten.
One day I saw that he had been traded to the New York Yankees. The next year he was dealt to the Atlanta Braves. As some of you may know, the Braves were THE team of the south. My wife, who had been a friend of Billy’s in high school, and I decided to take the kids to see Billy play. We arrived at the stadium early; and although we had cheap seats, we walked down into the box seats while the team was taking batting practice. We saw Billy and called out his name many times. You could tell that he heard us but did not turn around. Finally, he looked over his shoulder and saw us.
I cannot imagine how wonderful the next half hour was for our three children. aged 3, 5, and 7. They were Braves fans before the good days. In that half hour, Billy came over and spoke to us. He gave the children balls out of the dugout. Scores of other fans began to crowd around us, and police officers told us we would have to leave the area. Billy told them to let us stay, so they formed a line around us to keep the other fans away. Billy reached into the dugout and gave my children his bat. YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME!! A MAJOR LEAGUE BAT… RIGHT OUT OF THE DUGOUT. All of us could have died right there and gone to heaven! Then Billy asked us how long we were staying and where our seats were. We told him that we were there for the three-game home stand, and he told us to check at “Will-Call” for the next two games. He had five tickets for us right behind home plate, sitting with the players’ families.
I have probably strayed from the point of this story, but I wanted to make the point that Billy is a man of grace as well as studies and athletics.
Billy played for a few more years with the Braves and retired. Since then, he has been a color commentator for the Braves and has written for Sporting News and Sports Illustrated among other things. Of course, those are jobs of a literate man, which he was.
He had a lifetime batting average of .285 and was THE ONLY athlete to come through our school in the four decades in which I have taught who has actually enjoyed a major league career in any sport. Of all the thousands of kids who dreamed the dream, Billy was the only one who ever made the team AND STAYED.
I asked him after his career was over as a major leaguer: “Why do you think - of all the kids who dreamed the dream - that you were the only one who made it?” He thought a little and said, “I think it was because I never compared myself to anyone else. I always just tried to be a little better than I was the day before.”
I have used that quote for years with my students. How many are intimidated by older students who they think are so much better? How many do not go out for the team or the choir because they think that everyone else is so much better. Listen kids! Freedom, power, and hope are in your grasp! You do not have to compare yourself to the kid that you think is so much better. Billy just tried to be a little better each day than he was the day before. YOU can do that too! And I will tell you a little secret: Most of those folks who you think are so great are not trying to be a little better each day. If you will do that, you can FAR SURPASS those who seem so intimidating today. DO NOT compare yourself with others. Do what Billy did! Have grace, give academics your best, get involved no matter what the pressures, and just try to be better each day than you were the day before. If you do, then you too can live a life of greatness!