He was 13 when police dragged him away in handcuffs and took him to jail. His crime - he and other black children wanted to swim in a “whites only” community swimming pool.
That incident took place in the late 1950s in Portsmouth, Ohio, a community that reflected the racial strife that was becoming widespread across America.
Chuck Ealey – better known as the legendary quarterback who led the University of Toledo football team to a 35-0 record during the late 1960s – was that 13-year-old.
“At 13 I was sitting in front of a gate blocking the path to the pool,” the now 68-year-old Mr. Ealey told dozens of high schools students gathered in downtown Toledo on Monday to listen to him. “When we climbed over the fence and jumped into the pool (white) people started jumping out of the water – that’s when the paddy-wagons showed up and took us to the police station.”
Mr. Ealey was speaking with 53 students who participate in Youth Leadership Toledo, a program that provides leadership opportunities for high school sophomores. The group, which meets at different locations each month, met with Mr. Ealey at downtown Toledo’s Trinity Episcopal Church.
Prior to Mr. Ealey’s speech, some students visited nearby soup kitchens and helped feed the homeless. Other students gathered early at the church and continued making blankets that will eventually be given to local shelters.
Mr. Ealey’s visit coincided with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and was an opportunity to help students better understand the slain civil rights leader’s legacy, said Kristina White, director of community impact for the leadership program.
“Most students don’t really understand it,” Ms. White said. “To many of them it’s just a paragraph (in a textbook).”
Allex Brown, a 15-year-old sophomore at Perrysburg High School and Kurt Elfering, a 16-year-old sophomore at St. Francis de Sales High School, what they like best about the leadership group is that it exposes them to more.
“It’s shaped the way I see things now,” Ms. Brown said. “It’s taken me out of my comfort zone.”
Mr. Ealey was pulled out of his comfort zone when he arrived in Toledo to lead the Rockets in 1968, the same year Mr. King was assassinated.
“It was a very traumatic time and I was thrown into the middle of it,” said Mr. Ealey, whose role as team leader required him to try and keep the peace between his black and white team-mates.
Mr. Ealey led Toledo to 35 consecutive wins from 1969-71 - a National Collegiate Athletic Association record. Despite his gridiron accomplishments, he wasn’t drafted by the NFL – which at the time, didn’t believe African Americans were “smart enough” to play quarterback, he said.
The snub didn’t make him bitter, he said.
Instead, Mr. Ealey signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, of the Canadian Football League, where he led the team to the 60th Grey Cup – Canada’s equivalent to the Super Bowl. He played for seven years in Canada, and still resides there.
It was Mr. King who inspired him to never give up on his dreams of being a collegiate and professional quarterback, he said.
“He gave all of us the confidence to believe that we can do anything that we want to, and you don’t have to accept anything less,” Mr. Ealey told students.
Mr. Ealey’s message resonated with many of the students who listened.
“He never gave up on his goals, despite all the negativity,” said Chantelle Collins-Davila, a 16-year-old sophomore at Toledo Technology Academy High School. “My mother is a single mom and sometimes we have to go without some things.
“But you have to stay focused.”
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