Padecky: For Casa Grande High grad being a white player at historically black university a lesson in acceptance

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PETALUMA - Apologies to Robert Frost, this was the road less traveled. At least less traveled by white athletes.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Peter Parrick, a white athlete from Casa Grande High School and SRJC. In January 2017, Parrick was a bit uneasy, which is a bit unusual for someone who is 6-foot-3, 320 pounds.

What was this going to be like? Yes, Parrick had to ask himself that question. He was going to play football for Alabama A&M University in Normal, Alabama. More specifically, Parrick was going to a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to play football in the Deep South.

“Imagine putting downtown Richmond into downtown Petaluma,” Parrick said. An East Bay city, Richmond is 39.6 percent white. Petaluma is 78.08 percent white.

Alabama A&M’s football team? The Bulldogs had 91 players on their 2018 roster. Six of them, including Parrick, were white. At the university 91.3 percentage of the students were African-American, just 2.5 percent white.

Was Parrick intimidated? Nope. His parents, Rocky and Bret, had taught their son to be color-blind. People are people. Pain and joy, tears and laughter, experiences common to all. This, however, was different. Such core beliefs are more abstract here than experienced, as Petaluma is not a hot-bed of diversity.

“I love Petaluma,” said Parrick, 22. “It’s a perfect place for a kid to grow up. Petaluma is comfortable, a comfy little town conveniently located to everything you’d ever want. But I was in a shell. Petaluma was my shell.”

It took just two days in Normal for Parrick to feel normal, his unease had floated away as if it was some fine mist caught in a soft breeze, leaving him now to work hard to remember it was there at all. He assimilated without effort, either from him or from others. Sure, he already had a place to squat. He was on a football team, on scholarship, in a fraternity of sorts, built on immediacy and of need.

Parrick had to prove he belonged there, that he was willing to share the sweat, that he wasn’t some spoiled white kid from California. The Log Rolls did just that. Spoiled kids don’t do Log Rolls.

“Each week a coach gives you a test on the next opponent,” said Parrick, who started at center his second season at A&M. “If you miss a question you do a Log Roll.”

A player laid flat on the goal line and then rolled over and kept rolling over until he reached the other goal line. Did Parrick ever miss a question?

“Every week,” he said. “Sometimes more than one to be honest. Whatever you had for lunch …”

If a player’s grade point average dropped below 2.5, a player would have to do SIX Log Rolls. AFTER practice by the way. Yes, a lot of players left practice hungry. That’s how players bond. Suffering is a remarkable unifying agent.

So what if Parrick was on a Division I football scholarship? Log Rolls don’t discriminate. Neither do players.

If you can play, if you can handle the suffering, if you don’t act spoiled or like a jerk, skin color doesn’t matter. You’re one of us.

“I never felt like an outsider,” said Parrick, who will coach the junior varsity offensive linemen at St. Vincent’s this upcoming football season. “So I was a minority. So what?”

Parrick — who graduated earlier this month with a degree in liberal studies — was not naive. He’s not a dull tuning fork. He’s sensitive. He was aware he was in the Deep South. He was aware of racism and the violence it encourages. For all intents and purposes, Normal is a small burg located inside Huntsville, a city of 197,000 people. Outside of Huntsville is the Alabama countryside where, you might say, people might be more direct in their opinions.

“I’d walk down the street with one of my brothers,” said Parrick of a teammate, “and I’d get this look that said: Why you walking with him? We’d look at each other smile. I never did anything. I understood I represented something bigger than myself.”

Parrick represented tolerance, acceptance, companionship, friendship. He knew he was being watched by those uncomfortable with what they were seeing. He knew they were watching, hoping he would react the way they would react.

And then they were stunned when he didn’t.

A white guy and a black guy together? Easily? Having fun? Is this the New South? No, this is the Old Peter.

“We’d go to a nightclub in Huntsville,” he said, “and they (black teammates) were told to leave for the smallest stuff. Like the cap they wore. Or the jeans they wore were too low.”

Parrick kept his mouth shut and his eyes open. He’d watch, observe and those incidents of intolerance are not what first pops up when he thinks of his two years in Normal.

He thinks of the class size; he never had a class with more than 50 students.

He thinks of the Step Shows, some organized, some spontaneous, in which kids would dance just for the hell of it. The campus quad would be suddenly roped off and the dancing would go for minutes or hours.

It was unrestrained joy. A release from classroom demands as obvious as the smiles on their faces.

Parrick was part of the culture, the campus, the team. And when he had to fly back to California after graduation, he had a whole bunch of stuff to unload. A television. A mattress. Clothes. Shoes. A small refrigerator. He gave it all away.

“How could I ask them for money?” Parrick said. “Those are my brothers. How could I ask my brothers for money?”

In describing his time in Normal, Parrick used “brothers” whenever he referred to students who became friends. And while these names may not mean much to you and me — Rico Thomas, Damien May, Averee Giles, Josh Williams — they mean everything to Parrick.

They mean what happened when a white guy went to a black school.

They mean that Parrick didn’t care if they were black and one day, who knows, he might even forget they are black. That’s how much Parrick cared more about the content of their character than the shade of their skin.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Too simple even? Wasn’t hard for Parrick. He just accepted people for who they are. The rest of it just took care of itself.

“It was the best two and half years of my life,” said Parrick, who is still learning how to dance. Some things take time. Other things, well, they come naturally. Like seeing black and white and not being able to tell the difference.

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