The death of champion boxer and humanitarian Muhammad Ali seems to bring the 20th century to its final and definitive close. He called himself “The Greatest.” “Champion” wouldn’t do. It’s rare, when someone calls him/herself “The Greatest” and the title sticks even in times of defeat. Because it’s not about accomplishments and winning, but who you are and what you do with the rest of your life for the benefit of others.
I always said, you can never make a bad documentary about Muhammad Ali. And I’m happy to say they were made in his lifetime. I’ve selected a few of The Greatest’s moments in and outside the boxing ring to post with this appreciation and with love.
If heaven is where he aimed to be, I seriously doubt they’ll even ask his name. “The Greatest” has arrived.
“When We Were Kings” (2010)
The famous 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle”. The show of all shows in Zaire when Ali fought champion George Foreman. Boxing, music concerts featuring the Fania All Stars. Can’t beat this.
CBS “60 Minutes” interview with Ed Bradley – this interview covers Ali’s life with Parkinsons and a humanitarian trip to Cuba. (1996)
“The Trials of Muhammad Ali” (2013) – Ali battles public opinion, the U.s. government, and sacrifices everything (career, title, fortune) when he refuses to answer the draft and enlist during the Vietnam War.
CBS News – Muhammad Ali prevents a suicide by talking a man off the ledge (1981)
Once again the fact-checking debate is on. This time it’s Concussion featuring Will Smith as the Nigerian-born pathologist Bennett Omalu who diagnosed the repetitive head-trauma disease suffered by NFL players known as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). During the opening credits of Concussion I noticed the titles were animated to simulate double vision, an intentional and nuanced graphic representation of the film’s central theme.
Journalists have honed in on the timeline for Dr. Omalu’s research, settlement cases between the affected players, their families and the NFL. Finger pointing aside, the ex-wife and son of David Duerson (1960-2011) have publicly expressed their disagreement with the portrayal of the Chicago Bears, New York Giants football champion (played by British actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) as a “a villain, someone to take the fall” in the Concussion feature.
In the film Duerson belligerently blocks Dr. Bennett from a NFL medical conference. Coming from a NFL Players Association Board meeting for retired player’s disability, Duerson tells a former player suffering from CTE “Got a headache? See a doctor” and pushes the player aside.
“That portrayal of my brother [in the movie] was absolutely the way he was,” says Michael Timothy Duerson, Dave Duerson’s older brother.
This post may be one of the few interviews with Michael Duerson since the film’s release over the Christmas holiday. The hunger for conflict ignores a significant development in the tragedy of David “Dave” Duerson’s CTE story – the foundation Michael founded and named for his brother, The Dave Duerson Athletic Safety Fund, Inc..
Initially founded to service K-12 schools in Muncie, Indiana the foundation is seeking to expand through Indiana state and nationwide to install protocols for the education, prevention, and detection of head injuries in school sports. The protocols include special CDC training for coaches, imPACT tests for students in grades 5-12 to provide a baseline neurocognitive assessment of their brain that can help healthcare professionals track recovery of cognitive processes following a concussion, and special Concussion Goggles distributed to K-8 students in schools to simulate the sensation of a head trauma.
There’s more to the Duerson brothers story. Like Dave, Michael suffers from Accumulative Concussion Syndrome (CTE is often diagnosed after death). Michael’s ACS is not from football, but college basketball. In 1977 when he was 18 and playing for Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis Michael says he was making a defensive play to block a slam dunk by planting himself in the middle of the lane. The other player rammed into his body shattering the hard contact lens in Michael’s right eye. Teammates told him his feet went straight up from the floor and he landed on his head.
“My roommate told me there was blood coming out both of my ears. They got me to the hospital – don’t know how long I was in the hospital. I know I had paralysis on the left side for 6 months. I was restricted during that time. It was a horrific injury.”
Michael returned to the game but suffered a career ending injury in his second year. He says he devoted the remainder of his college time to his academics. He was allowed to keep his sports scholarship and received a degree in Industrial Management in 3 years and 1 semester.
Dave was on call to address his brother’s injuries. Having come from a family of athletes on their mother’s side (Houston Rockets Allen Leavellis a cousin), and their father, who was 40 when Dave was born, could outrun his son until he started his NFL career – the idea that Michael was suffering physically and mentally from a sports injury was unthinkable.
“David always told me I was soft. He has the football players mentality. I didn’t have a football players mentality.”
The football players mentality and “Gladiator” culture of the game sustains the belief that the damage of multiple head traumas is more associated with a player’s physical and emotional limitations and not the actual risks of the game. It is also the fear that something you love, that you put your heart, soul and body into may permanently debilitate or potentially kill you.
This is not a call to ban football. I get that adrenaline rush around sports. The rush was described to me as a cushion and pain killer. But once the adrenaline pump’s turned off and a player goes into retirement, the injuries and the pain begin to settle in for the remainder of a lifetime. But no one wants to talk about that. Talking critically about the risks in football is akin to talking treason in the U.S. And for players, it signals weakness and vulnerability on and off the field. “This is what you signed up for.”
Will we remember when the New Orleans Saints were exposed for their “bounty hunter” plays in 2012? Defensive players were given cash bonuses for taking a player from the opposing team out of the game for the season with a crushing “knockout”.
Michael, now 57, says he turned his medical power of attorney over to his brother Dave for 23 years. Michael was able to achieve success as an engineer despite his suffering and multiple medications (up to 20 pills a day) and their side affects. He says he’s now able to sleep thanks to the successful treatment of a psychiatrist.
In 2006 Michael was inducted into the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago as one of the top-ten African American engineers in the country. But as his symptoms worsened Dave became his medical “boss.”
“Most professional athletes (Gladiators) don’t approve of treatment because it implies weakness. As my boss he [Dave] said I was weak mentally. He was my Medical Power of Attorney. I chose him because I knew that he was one family member that would ‘pull the plug’ without hesitation thereby not wasting lots of money on medical bills.
Dave knew more about mental health than the average person. During the 23 years he was my Medical Power of Attorney I voluntarily went into the locked psychic department 18 times.
Dave learned a lot watching me during those 23 years.”
2011 would be a crushing blow for Michael and the Duerson family. Michael forced to give up his duties as a turnaround professional for non-performing plants was ruled by the U.S. government as “gravely mentally disabled” and unable to perform the duties due to his symptoms.
That same year Dave Duerson left a note for his family to donate his brain to Boston University’s brain bank for further study before shooting himself in the chest.
Several years ago while channel surfing in search of entertainment I happened upon the PBS series Frontline and their [Peabody award winning documentary] “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” based on the book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. A documentary isn’t usually my first choice on a sleepy evening of television watching. But the story was so compelling I put the remote down. I even jumped on social media to alert friends on Facebook.
Eventually one of my Facebook friends would introduce me to his cousin Michael Timothy Duerson.
I have few arguments with the film Concussion related to the events of the CTE story. In fact, I felt a great sadness as a Steelers fan during those glory days knowing the defensive wall of steel and some of the greatest human drama on the field, resulted in one of its greatest tragedies. According to some reports of last week’s playoff game between the Steelers and the Bengals, history may repeat itself based on the helmet-to-helmet bashing play that made Bengals fans livid.
The protagonist in Concussion is not the football players aka victims of denial, but the doctor willing to risk everything to solve a mystery, expose the truth and save lives. In real life, these risks often follow the pattern of the adage “No good deed goes unpunished.” Or in football talk, “No one wants to piss off the NFL.”
Neither is anyone saying sports-related brain trauma is limited to football as Michael’s story illustrates. Michael says he’s also requested for his brain be donated upon his death to the Boston University brain bank since he and his brother Dave “look like twins” (that’s for sure) and “probably share similar DNA”.
It’s understandable the children and other family members who loved and admired Dave Duerson would want to see him as a hero on the big screen. Not being close to the individual, and having seen the Frontline documentary before the feature, I saw no Duerson villain. I saw the pain of fighting against the culture and protecting the game that gave you the ultimate feeling of being alive. In the final scene the Gladiator falls on his own sword in what this story paints as the noble sacrifice.
Will parents pull their kids out of school football as a result of the CTE debate, or seeing the movie, maybe the documentary?
“Football will survive,” Michael says. “[Tom Brady] didn’t play tackle football until he was in high school. Flag football will become a more acceptable choice for the way kids will learn the game.”
The Dave Duerson Athletic Safety Fund, Inc. is advocating for students to play flag football until they’re 14 years old before making tackles in the game.
The Dave Duerson Athletic Safety Fund, Inc. is not affiliated with the appeals process or seeking settlements from the NFL. The Fund is independent of those activities, as well as family foundation activities by Dave Duerson’s ex-wife and his children.
Dave Duerson’s greatest legacy can be preventing the outcomes that forced him to take his own life, and his brother Michael continues to suffer. For me facts will mean nothing if we continue to intentionally or blindly repeat the mistakes of the past. We should mean it when we say, “Let’s do it for the children”.
Richard Williams is one of those men I would never call by his first name. He is “Mr. Williams”. He’s earned my respect that way.
But I may be one of the few. To my surprise, I discovered the father of the top women tennis players in the world – Serena and Venus Williams – is the author of a memoir: BLACK AND WHITE: THE WAY I SEE IT written with Bart Davis.
In the early years of Venus and Serena Williams‘s tennis careers, Richard Williams was an ever-present figure. He was profiled and hammered by the press as a loose canon control freak father. No humility. No shame. No style. No front teeth. “Crazy like a fox” some people would say with admiration. “Just plain crazy,” others would say dismissively watching him nervously pace back and forth, or exiting the stands for a smoke while his daughters competed on clay or grass.
Mr. Williams’s battle hasn’t only been with the traditions and rituals of the near exclusively white tennis establishment, but with the familiar narrative that Black fathers are incapable of raising worldwide tennis champions. It goes like this: Black men are absent from their homes, strangers to their children, and if they are present and their daughters succeed, it was through an abusive regiment. Think Joseph Jackson, father of Michael Joseph Jackson.
We’ve also been programmed into falling in love with the romantic Black “ghetto” narrative pumped up by the rise of hip hop culture. FADE UP: public courts/drug markets of Compton. See Venus and Serena avoid broken glass, dodge bullets while hitting balls across the net. (You mean there was a net?)
In BLACK AND WHITE, Mr. Williams slams all that:
“…when my daughters burst on the scene, people thought of us as the poor black family from the ghetto rising up against the white tide of tennis and America. The truth was I had created a company before they were born called Richard Williams Tennis Associates, which I still own, and had saved $810,000 which was all in the bank. I paid my own kids’ way through tennis. I didn’t want anyone to help me. I could have gotten sponsors, but Venus and Serena were my children, so it was my responsibility to pay for them. I never had to take one penny from anyone.”
Nothing or no one White or Black was going to stop Mr. Williams. That included the gangs who kicked out Mr. Williams’s teeth (the first time was in the deep South) when he fought for control of their open air drug market located on the Compton tennis courts.
Fighting it out in Compton was part of the plan. Mr. Williams moved his family from Long Beach to Compton where Venus and Serena would have to be courageous, tough under pressure, all under the protection and guidance of their parents and Mr. Williams directly. If Venus and Serena want to be champions also had to demonstrate commitment to tennis, to school, personal improvement, to family. A lack of commitment was a deal breaker.
Nothing can be realized without a plan. That’s Rule #1 in Richard Williams’s “Top Ten Rules for Success”: Failing to plan is planning to fail.
Initially Mr. Williams had no real interest in tennis, but after watching a tennis player on television receive a $40,000 cash prize for winning a match, his interest in tennis ballooned. Mr. Williams’ plan would start with himself. He found a teacher by chance named Mr. Oliver (who answered to “Old Whiskey” because he started the morning with a drink and didn’t stop until the end of the day). Mr. Oliver was sober enough to teach tennis to Compton youth and Mr. Williams. This was also a man who had worked with Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors. Ever defiant, even as a beginner, Mr. Williams challenged the age old tennis rule that you serve with the closed stance. He aimed to prove that theory wrong. That became Rule #7: Create theories and test them out.
Mr. Williams was committed to giving his dream team daughters something few young tennis pros had: a childhood. He observes other young tennis players full of potential and talent pushed beyond their commitment to succeed by anxious affluent parents. He notices these young athletes burning out early in their careers because they were told to compete with players beyond their levels. He pointed out to Venus and Serena examples of superstars who were broke because parents or handlers mismanaged their finances. (Venus Williams would eventually fight for and win equal prize money for women in competitive tennis.) And then there were the ones who adopted self-destructive behaviors to rebel, resist, or escape. Mr. Williams observes and shares the lessons with his daughters. Rule #5: When you fail, you fail alone. Rule #6: You learn by looking, seeing, and listening.
Mr. Williams anticipates the cruel world his daughters would inhabit as Black women committed to excellence. “Cruel” may be too gentle a word to describe the life of poverty, racial terror and violence Mr. Williams experienced growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana in the 1950s. These chapters make up the first half of the memoir and making the most traumatic part of his story.
Mr. Williams’s father better fits the narrative he’s fought against his entire life. R. D. Williams was a smooth talker when it came to the women. “R.D. was Mama’s greatest weakness, the invisible man who impregnated her by night and disappeared from our lives by day.” R.D. Williams didn’t have it in him to be a husband or a father. Mr. Williams abandons the notion of having any relationship or connection with his father when he sees R.D. run from the scene as his son is being beaten by a gang of white men.
Mr. Williams lifts up the women in his life like the answer to a prayer. He dedicates the book to his mother Julia Metcalf Williams who is still his “greatest hero”. Though she would never share the grand dreams of her son, she made him a believer in the power of faith and demonstrated it by practically praying the near dead back to life. He calls her a “prayer warrior.” Rule #4: Faith is essential to confidence. It pairs well with Rule #3: Confidence is essential to success.
Flip the order either way.
Confidence is something few people can fake successfully. When it’s real, it’s powerful. I’m sure Mr. Williams’s confidence is interpreted as arrogance by a lot of people he comes into contact with. But without confidence, he would have perished long ago.
Mr. Williams believes education is a game changer. But that couldn’t be achieved in Shreveport, not for a Black man or woman. Raced-based rules limited rights for Shreveport’s Black residents to own land, work for living wages, vote, and learn. The wood-framed tin-roofed school Mr. Williams attended as a boy was called “Little Hope” – “The name was absolutely correct. Negroes had little hope”. There was no flagpole according to Williams. The stars and stripes was nailed to a long stick “bolted on the tin roof.” The single outhouse had maggots. The teacher was dedicated to the forty children in the one room structure, but too fragile and elderly to turn things around. The principal was a “stumbling drunk.” Mr. Williams had spirit or grit, courage, and anger.
In the memoir Mr. Williams describes how one of his best friends was killed by the Klan for stealing a pig. Lil’ Man was found hanging from a tree; his hands cut off and stuck on a fence. But it’s not just the Klan. Another childhood friend is struck by a car driven by a white woman who doesn’t stop. The boy is left to die like fresh road kill. A third is found hands tied, naked floating facedown in the water.
If anyone thinks these horrors happened a long time ago, talk to a living witness.
After the death of his friends Richard Williams turns up the heat on his childhood fascination with stealing.
“I grew from a heated boy into an angry young man, filled with rage. When I couldn’t get the white man’s respect, I dishonored him by stealing from him. I had no sense of guilt or remorse. I was the injured party. I “confiscated” because it made me feel powerful and in control.”
He even substitutes the word “stealing” with “confiscating.” There is no passive resistance in his being. Mr. Williams justifies the badassedness of his youth in the deep South as a way of evening up the score in a brutally racist world.
His escapades go so far as to disguise himself in a KKK hood and robe stolen via the daughter of its original owner. Mr. Williams puts white flesh colored makeup on his arms and hands, jumps on his bike and launches a private war on Shreveport’s white citizens and fellow KKK members. There’s one incident during this hooded rampage that the young Mr. Williams finds himself holding the gun at a lynching. Quentin Tarantino or Dave Chappelle couldn’t make this up.
And yet, Mr. Williams still believed he could achieve the American dream. Fate was in his hands, and a plan to leave Shreveport.
Follow the north star. That’s the place to go for a young Black man who rode the rails in search of a place to breath, to feel free. Destination Chicago turned out not to be that place.
“Black-on-black crime in the inner city was on a rampage. Murders, stabbings, rapes, robberies, muggings, and beatings were an everyday occurrence. Like new enemies in an old war, blacks turned on each other with a vengeance…We were a hopeless people divided not only by racism, but by the contempt we had for each other.”
In BLACK AND WHITE everyone is on notice as Mr. Williams sees it from his experience. In his thirst for knowledge and finding it, Mr. Williams also acquires maturity. His anger and hatred are transformed into committed determination to succeed on his own terms.
As Mr. Williams fights the gang members in Compton over the tennis courts, one wonders why this battle didn’t end fatally for him. Why didn’t the gang members just pop the old man right there, leaving Mr. Williams and his plan to die on the spot where all his dreams began. It didn’t happen because I believe even these young men felt some respect for him based on the unwritten rules of the street. Who couldn’t respect a man willing to fight one or more (usually more) young men half his age for his daughters and for his dreams.
[Unfortunately that tragedy would come to the family later in 2003 — after the championships, money and fame and a move to Florida—the oldest daughter Yetunde Price, who chose to stay in Compton, was shot in the head by a member of the Crips gang who was gunning for her boyfriend driving the car.]
BLACK AND WHITE cuts straight to the chase on what the author/subject has designated as the teaching moments in his life. This is not a book for the reader looking for repentance from the author. There’s only room for gratitude.
In some ways you wonder if the journey has been more important to Mr. Williams’s understanding of the world than the destination. Personally, I’ve always been a strong believer in Rule #8: Always have a Plan B. There was a time Serena Williams wanted to be a veterinarian. Her father would’ve said, “Why not? Go for it.” Both Serena and Venus are designers for interiors, ready-to-wear, tennis fashion. Plan B, C, and probably the whole alphabet plan are in play.
The first pages of BLACK AND WHITE open on the green grass of Wimbeldon – tennis nirvana. The grass descends into the place where fathers and mothers never want to be. When your child is ill and there’s nothing you can do. This opening chapter is what kept me turning the pages. Nothing can describe a parent’s pain when he/she feels helpless. It’s a struggle to apply Rule #2: Always be positive.
For me, this chapter expresses Mr. Williams’ love for his daughters more than any page in the book. And most, if not all, parents can relate. As harsh as the world may be, The Rules have kept Venus and especially Serena on their “A game” despite the smacks and jibes from the forces around them.
The Williams are masters and champions of the 10th and final Rule: Let no one define you but you.
…let’s start with the terminology “OWNER” when it comes to team [of people] sports. Even with the lucrative contracts, we still have “trades” [of people], “scouting,” “drafts” (those are your orders). Bought and sold. Was LeBron James’ move from Cleveland to Miami a rejection of the game’s “owner class” system? Will Le Bron James and/or other league players lead a sit out “revolt” in support of the Clippers team players; and against the tongue lashings of its “owner” Dan Sterling and others like him?
About 3 years ago, I happened upon an exhibit of Hank Willis Thomas‘ photos at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The images were provocative. It made me go “hmmmm.” Perhaps the LA Chapter of the NAACP should give Hank Willis Thomas an Image Award as they did for his mom Deborah Willis. And Lupita will share her Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” with V. Stiviano.