An Open Letter from a Veteran and Former Club Kid
Growing up in Northwoods was, to me, exciting. Everything I needed to be happy was already there - My family (to include uncles, aunts and cousins), backyards for sports, a school (Cavalry Hill) for learning, "The Blind
Mane Store" for snacks and Jones Store for groceries, "The Fence" where we cooled it during the hot summer days, and St. James and St. Bartley Churches to worship in. We had it all, but I knew nothing much of the world outside of the one with University Drive serving as our southern boundary, the creek running along the western edge of "The Old Project" serving as part of the boundary and Love Subdivision and St. Bartley Completing the western boundary up to the golf course.
The Huntsville Golf Course and Greenside ran the length of the northern boundary while the cotton field ran along the eastern boundary with the Tenth Cavalry Hill neighborhood with Douglas Tabernacle and Jones Store anchoring it. Nope, no reason to look or go outside of these boundaries for anything unless we were taken to visit relatives or to the doctor.
Then came the love of sports and the search for a team for myself and about eight other homeboys from the block wanted to play football and basketball. We were told that the basketball team from Northwoods was "full" and that we should try at the "Boys Club in Lincoln Projects". So we go.
Riding double, walking, even jogging some. We crossed the Parkway and through by the D-Home and Gibson's BBQ and crossed Church Street by the old coal house and then passing the old shotgun houses just before we crossed the railroad tracks and cut through Lincoln Projects and crossed Washington Street. Up the hill on Abingdon and we were there! Whew! Practice or game and backtracking home. Rain or shine. Hot or cold. We were there. The coaches gave us a ride from the Club to our away games and returned us there. Most of the time, we were victorious; beating teams from around the city and county, Redstone Arsenal, Decatur, and Athens.
The love and respect we received, I believe, shaped us all. Ralph and me did twenty years in the military and fought the Taliban. He works as a DOD employee on Redstone. Bernard is a retired engineer. Leroy went on to become one of the most dangerous, gifted, and popular football players this city and Butler High ever had. Bailey didn't want to play, he just wanted to hang out with us. He and I share two grandsons together. PopEye, Rock, and Dwight are gone to Glory. All of our lives were made better for being members of the Boys Club. Rick. Coach Brown. Ms. Peaches. Coach Lumpkin. Coach Larry Eason and his best friend Bobby Eaton. Yes, that Bobby Eaton who starred in the WWE. I learned how to tackle in practice by tackling him. He would play defense with no pads to show us how tough he was and how tough he would make us. He and Larry were more like our big brothers than our coaches. We were 10 year-olds and they were teenagers telling us that we "could make it." They all believed in us and told us that everyday. I can still hear Coach Lumpkin saying (with that heavy lisp of his) "You boys have heart to travel all this way just to play some GD ball!!!!"
Besides my own father, the men, coaches, and staff at the "Big" Boys Club helped shape my life. Not one coach looked like me or my friends, but they treated us all as if were were their younger brothers, nephews, and even sons. We sipped lemonade, tea, and Double Colas at their houses while watching athletic events or old westerns and waiting for the BBQ or some big meal their wives or mothers had prepared just for "The Team." They were always encouraging us to break away from the projects by going to school, getting an education, and dreaming. I always dreamed of leaving the projects behind. I dreamed and I left, but I could never mentally leave the projects because of something Coach Lumpkin told me one day - "Bo, what good is it for you to have doors opened for you that you don't hold open for others?" I continue to give back to this day and I ride through Northwoods everyday just to get some fresh air.
After retiring from the military and going back to college, I met Dr. Kreslin Ellis. She saw something in me and knew that I needed something to do with my idle time and to give my life, outside of my kids and the military, so she suggested I start coaching the girls basketball team for the 11/12 year old age group. Well, there was Coach Lumpkin in my ear again with that dad-blamed door holding comment of his. I was angry, hurt, and destructive when I came back. I hadn't seen my family and I was mad at the world, but coming back to the Club saved my life. I didn't want to do it, but the Lord did the rest. Coming back changed my negative perspective. It gave me life and it gave me purpose. I coached these girls for two years. These girls went from getting soundly beaten by everybody the first year to beating everybody except the Central B&G Club the next year. That doggone Coach Calvin!!!! LOL. I modeled my coaching after people like Coach Calvin, Coach Pat, and Coach Tony McG and always with a sprinkle of Coaches Lumpkin, Larry, Rick, Bobby E., and Brown.
Oh yeah, I was watching as a kid and as an adult. The unsung heroes of the Boys Club who made a wandering group of boys model citizens, soldiers, athletes, coaches, dads, husbands, sons, and Americans. We were all better for our experiences by going from the wandering young boys to focused young men. I salute the Boys Clubs now known as the Boys & Girls Clubs of North Alabama for shaping me into being as much of a model citizen that I can be today.
I have served honorably for twenty years in the Army, been elected (and reelected) as the first Black Commander of the 12,000+ member American Legion's 12th District (Blount, Cullman, Limestone, Madison, Marshall Counties), and served as the Social Worker and Community Liaison for University Place and Sonnie Hereford Elementary Schools for four years.
The Boys Club has been beautiful to me. It was the first place I had ever been that inspired me to think outside the box, see the world, and believe that I could be somebody despite coming from a socio-economically disadvantaged background. It was a place with people I could look up to who weren't cussing and fussing like everyone else. They cared enough about me as a person to ensure that I would be successful. I love my country, I love my people, and I never forget those people who shaped me.