So this is the story about how back in 2004, something happened on Martin Luther King Day that changed my life.
Actually, it wasn’t exactly MLK Day. It was the Friday before. Every year, my synagogue in D.C. holds a big interfaith service. Religious leaders from across the city come, and choirs sing, and there’s always an amazing speaker, someone from the community who reaches back and speaks about Dr. King.
In 2004, the speaker was Herman Boone. You remember him as the coach of T.C. Williams High School’s football team, the team immortalized in the movie “Remember The Titans.” Denzel Washington played Boone.
I was writing for my high school newspaper at the time, and my parents got it into their heads that I should go to the interfaith service and approach Boone and ask for an interview. People who know me now don’t believe me when I say this, but it’s true: Back then, I was almost cripplingly shy around strangers. Calling up a source for a phone interview was an ordeal. I remember having to give myself a pep talk before dialing even a single number.
So approaching a guy who just had a fairly epic Disney movie made about his life and asking for an interview wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do on a Friday night.
But my parents didn’t budge on this one, so I went. There was a dinner before the service, and my mother prodded me along — think momma deer nudging her child forward — and over to Boone. I introduced myself, told him what high school I went to, and asked if he might have 20 minutes to talk to me over the phone.
Boone waited for me to finish, and then he asked a question I didn’t expect: What was the name of your high school, again?
Walt Whitman, I said.
Yes, I said.
I think we played you guys back in 1971.
1971 — As in, the year the Titans won the title.
I got his number and we set up a time. A few other Titans were there that night — I got their numbers, too. And when I went home, I dug up the name of the Whitman coach from 1971. His name’s Bob Milloy, and he’s still coaching in Maryland, at Good Counsel. He’s the winningest active coach in the state. Whitman was his first head coaching job.
I sent him an email and asked him if he remembered anything about playing T.C. Williams.
He shot me back an email. I wish I’d saved it, but I didn’t. I remember the opening line, though. It said, simply: “Yeah, we played ’em.”
And so that’s how that story was born. I interviewed Milloy, and then talked with some of the Titans, and then Boone. The Boone interview I remember best of all. He told me stories about hurt and pain and hate that I can’t even imagine.
I wrote the story, and it turned out well. My journalism teacher suggested I send it in for an award. The Kansas City Star had this award for high school journalists, the Hemingway Award. I’d submitted two stories the year before and had been named a finalist for sports writing. I submitted again.
And so I went out to Kansas City to receive the award. There were a bunch of Mizzou grads on the Star’s sports staff. They all told me the same thing: Go to Missouri for journalism. They insisted and insisted — it could only be Missouri, they said.
So I went.
Things fall into place like that, sometimes. Looking back, it’s easy to see the path now. Mizzou opened up worlds for me, friendships for me. The fellowship I’m on now doesn’t happen if I had gone elsewhere for college, I don’t think. So much of my adult life has been shaped by this university.
And yet — I don’t get here without those conversations at the Star. And I don’t get those without winning the award. And I don’t get that if I don’t write the story.
And I don’t get the story if I don’t show up, that MLK weekend in 2004, and ask a coach if he’d like to talk, and if he doesn’t remember that 32 years earlier, his school and my school decided to play a football game.
I don’t know if it’s coincidence, or luck, or fate. But it is one hell of a story, and I’m honored to have told it.
Telling it changed my life.