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How to Unify in a World of Division
We were about a week from the historic 2008 Presidential election between Senator Barack Obama, who could become the first black President of the United States, and Senator John McCain. Our football team at Hardin Simmons was in the middle of the season, ready to make the final push for a chance to win the ASC title and advance to the Division III Playoffs. But our team was soon taken over by discord, arguments, and disruptions because of the election.
All of us were dumbfounded. We never felt this type of division from our teammates in the year we spent together. We built a team foundation on "brotherhood" and camaraderie. But now, the team had clear racial divisions pouring into our commonplaces, like the dorm halls and cafeterias. At this time, Facebook posts were becoming common, so the insult manifested online, too. "If Obama wins," I remember one teammate wrote, "I'm leaving the country." But when the friction affected practice and our locker room, our fearless and infamous head coach, Jimmie Keeling, stepped in to address our issues.
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Creating unity where it doesn't exist is where Coach Jimmie Keeling shined the brightest. He chose to coach a team with all the excuses in America to stay divided. In 1967, Lubbock ISD opened its first fully-integrated high school—Estacado High School. Martin Luther King, Jr. was alive, and the country was as divided as ever. But that didn't stop Coach K from taking on the challenge. "He took the job, but he never told anyone because he wanted to prove them all wrong," according to David Moody, a former Estacado Matador player. People thought Coach K was crazy for taking the job "because blacks and whites couldn't work together and because they never had."
People outside of the community wanted division. "We couldn't go into a restaurant if we didn't call ahead and explain that we were a mixed group," said Coach Keeling. They weren't even allowed to shower after games in some cities. A stranded family member couldn't get help on the side of the road with a flat tire because they had a Matador bumper sticker on their car. However, those forces of division didn't stop the Matador team's decision to remain unified.
Through grit, determination, and unity, the Estacado Matadors overcame the odds of racism and discrimination. In the team's inaugural varsity season, they hammered their competition and ran through the gambit of the 1968 Texas High School 3A State Playoffs. With just one game left, the 3A State Championship at TCU's Amon G. Carter Stadium n Fort Worth, the Matadors would not be denied their destiny. They defeated the Refugio Bobcats 14-0. The victory capped a perfect season. They were the first team ever to win a state championship in their first year of varsity UIL competition.
So Coach Keeling didn't shy away from addressing our divisions when he witnessed what happened in our locker room at Hardin Simmons. Surprisingly, he wasn't even disappointed we had differences. He coached teams with differences before. Any coach can expect differences (political, racial, and wealth) on any team. Coach K, however, was disappointed we allowed our differences cause division.
"Love," Coach K told our team, "is the strongest bond that can hold a team together. We don't have a team if we don't have love." He gave us examples of the type of love he witnessed about that 1968 Matador team and what it takes to overcome external forces insistent on keeping people divided. I've heard other people—motivational speakers, clergypersons, coaches—talk about these things before, but hearing it from someone who lived it was more meaningful.
After Coach K addressed our team, we'd go on to lose in the first round of the playoffs. No magic bullet speech could make the team win football games. But Coach K was able to stop a catastrophe. Our team was closer. Despite our differences, we respected, listened to, and loved one another a little better. But the biggest win is Coach K's lesson for our team: we're better together. Not better if we're the same, just together—unified.
[Read or watch the full Estacado Matador story here]
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