Jake Walsh only rooted for winning teams. During the 1977 season, he loved the Denver Broncos because they were winning every week. He kept telling everybody that he had been a Broncos fan all his short life, but it was an obvious lie. His love of football was always more expansive than mine, except when it came to his sense of racial diversity in the NFL.
While playing football at recess, Jake and I would pretend to be our favorite players. He was Denver’s quarterback Craig Morton, and therefore he objected to my wanting to be Wesley Walker. He insisted that I couldn’t be. I asked him why. He said I had to be a Denver receiver. Obviously, the question of his being Richard Todd was not even entertained. The Jets were simply not good enough for him. I knew how fussy Jake could be about wanting his way. So I said OK, I would be Haven Moses, the Broncos’ wide receiver. But Jake still said no. I didn’t understand what his problem was. He insisted I had to choose somebody else.
“How about Riley Odoms?” I asked - Denver’s huge tight end. That would appease him.
But Jake shook his head vigorously. No. The bangs of his red, Adam Rich/bowl haircut whipped back and forth. I still didn’t get it.
“Rob Lytle,” he said. “You’re Rob Lytle.”
I paused for a moment. Then I said, “Rob Lytle’s a running back, not a wide receiver.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jake said impatiently. “You’re Rob Lytle.”
It still didn’t make sense, except in Jake’s universe. I would have done well to remember a conversation Mom and I had earlier in the 1977 football season. One afternoon, while the Jets were away at Foxboro and we were watching them lose on TV, Mom asked me who my favorite players on the Jets were. I named Richard Todd, Randy Rasmussen, Mickey Schuler, Lou Piccone, and David Knight.
“Now that’s interesting,” she said, suspiciously.
“Well, they’re all white,” she said. “Do you have any favorite players who are black?”
Of course. But they were black players.
I never immediately thought of black players as being my favorites, even as I thought highly of Pittsburgh’s Franco Harris, the Colts’ Lydell Mitchell, and the Jets’ Richard Caster. But my favorites? Among my extensive magic marker drawings of all my favorite players around the NFL, those same players were never actually drawn as black. They were faces without color. White. Was that supposed to be something racist, or was that being color-blind? Mom’s question didn’t so much change as perplex me. Why didn’t I name any black players? There were no exceptionally good African-American players on the Jets that season because they had few exceptional players of any race to speak of. So I wondered about this.
Mom’s observation started to make sense when I realized what Rob Lytle was that Riley Odoms and Haven Moses were not: white. Later that week, I insisted to Jake once again that I be Haven Moses to his Craig Morton. Haven Moses was a really good receiver.
Profanity was Jake’s casual address. “I told you. You can’t be, you asshole,” said Jake.
“Yes I can,” I said, unclear.
“No, you can’t,” he repeated. “You’re Fred Bilentnikoff.” He suddenly decided it.
“Wait,” I said, confused even further. “No. Bilentnikoff plays for Oakland.”
“Don’t be a smart-ass,” Jake said, as boys gathered around us, “You can’t be Haven Moses.”
“I can’t be Haven Moses, and I can’t be Wesley Walker.”
“Yes he can,” said Eddie O’Fallon aloud to the group around us. “What’s the problem?” Eddie was Simon to Jake’s Jack in Lord of the Flies. In this, he vindicated me somewhat.
It was his absolute simplicity of mind that made Eddie O'Fallon the first true saint I ever knew. Without any of the casual malice that possesses children at times, Eddie somehow brought the issue back to its essentials. The logic of prejudice simply didn’t operate in his mind.
Then, Pauly Fiorentino spoke up. He got what Jake’s problem was. He recognized that I was supposed to pick a white player, so he added a helpful observation. “He can too be Haven Moses,” he said. Pauly pointed at me. “Look at his hair.”
My vagabond brown curls had exploded out of my head, and not being very conscientious of my own looks, and with my mother thinking her first-born to be handsome just as he was, no one in my house thought to have it cut. While the Afro look in the 70’s was acceptable for an Irish boy if you were in Thin Lizzy, most boys with whom I played at recess were still strictly flat haired. In other words, Pauly had helped the all-white recess field discover the Other - me. I was Black.
It might have appeared that a racial understanding had been achieved on the recess ground, but it was offset by my new nicknames. I wish I could say I experienced some pride on the bottom of a pile-on of smelly, screaming boys. Instead I felt only the requisite shame that most children wear in place of real wisdom.