Saturday, August 8, 2009

Pride and Prejudice

The Steeler Nation is bursting with pride today. One of ours is being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I will, along with a friend of mine who e-mailed me last night, have my Rod Woodson jersey out of mothballs and be wearing it proudly. I am sure about a million other old timers will as well. For us, this is one more reason to be supremely arrogant right now: our beloved team is the defending Super Bowl Champs, the Penguins rule the ice, and we have a first ballot inductee. Face it, we kick butt. But, for a while he was a persona non gratis in and around the Steeler Nation because he didn't end his career wearing Black and Gold, so it is with some amusement that I watch my fellow fans revel today. I was thinking back to an encounter I had with another fan about seven or so years ago. As often happens, we struck up a friendly conversation about our mutual favorite subject, and he asked me who my favorite player of all time was. Now, I know full well he expected me to say Jerome "Bus" Bettis who ruled the town at the time, or one of the old timers from the Super Bowl era of the 70's. I shocked and dismayed him when I claimed Rod Woodson. He actually argued with me for a minute. At that time, no one could stomach admiring him because he did a stint with the hated Baltimore Ravens and even had the audacity to win a Super Bowl ring with them. I can tell you that was a horrible day in the Nation: how do we reconcile being happy for Rod when we were in agony over the Ravens winning anything? But, despite my understanding that particular conundrum, I stand by my statement to that nameless fan.

Rod Woodson, who played cornerback for the Steelers from 1987 until 1996, was the total package. He was a dominant defensive player on a team known for its dominating defense. He was active in the community, doing good works and starting a business in Pittsburgh. I ate at his restaurant once, and although I don't believe it's around anymore, he was admired for investing in the town at that time because Pittsburgh was still struggling to find itself following the collapse of the steel economy. He was gracious to the fans. Very. I saw it first hand. He was part of the team that included a lot of superstars in the mid-90's when they went to Super Bowl XXX. Since Mother lived just outside of Pittsburgh at the time and the Steelers came to Texas once a year to play the Oilers, I was able to see them in person more often that I get to now. A lot of the other big names, Kevin Greene most notably among them, managed to get egos as big as their biceps. Rod always was very approachable. I never could bring myself to talk to him despite having a couple realistic opportunities over the years. I always froze. But, I saw him interact with lots of other, braver fans. You may have noticed from the photo: he was gorgeous. He remains so to this day. He is of mixed race, which at long last brings me to the real subject of today's post. He shares that with some other Steeler greats, notably Franco Harris and Hines Ward. They have all spoken out about that and how that impacted their lives. With Franco, that wasn't that surprising sadly. He grew up in a time when the race divide was still pretty wide. Hines has the unique situation of having a Korean mother and works to fight the prejudice in that culture, where a child of any mixed blood is shunned. But, I remember being surprised that Rod found himself in a situation where his race was in play. Maybe because I looked at him and was dazzled. Maybe because I naively thought by the end of the 20th century that shouldn't really matter anymore. But it did. He spoke out about how players, both black and white, would taunt him across the line of scrimmage. He was not totally comfortable in either world. You could say that more than a dozen years have passed since then, and we now have a President who is of mixed descent, but I think not much has changed actually. As a matter of fact, I would toss out there that race is a bigger issue today because of President Obama and the conservative reaction to him. And that worries me. I will never understand what it is to be anything other than what I am, which is Wonder Bread white. I can barely get a tan. But, I do know what it is like to have people shun me because I am not like them. It sucks. And it breeds a mutual dislike. The natural reaction to someone's disdain is to dislike them back. Next thing you know, it's "Us" and "Them". Neither of us understands the other one, and we're not too willing to try. It is so easy to see how prejudices fester and grow. And with racism, it's easy to spot people who aren't on the surface like you and then leap to a conclusion about them. It's not just Caucasians doing this, everybody does it. I've wandered into areas where I clearly am the minority and see how people's eyes follow me with suspicion. I am different than they are, I do not belong, so why am I there? It is so easy to see how prejudice festers. Not so easy to see how to heal it. I have no answers, dear reader. But, now take someone who has a foot on both sides of the line, and I can only imagine how hard it must be. All the more reason to admire Rod Woodson for rising above that and excelling. A compulsive over-analyzer, as I contemplate his induction, I am contemplating his life situation and wondering how we go about making this a country where we can look at him and see just how smokin' hot he is instead of what "color" his skin is.

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