Copyright © 2011 by E. Clay
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced by any mechanical, photographic, or electronic process, or in the form of a phonographic recording; nor may it be stored in a retrieval system, transmitted, or otherwise copied for public or private use without prior written permission of the author— other than for fair use as brief quotations embodied in articles and reviews.
Flagrant Misconduct is based on the true story of one of the greatest high school athletes you never heard of, narrated by his best friend and teammate. It takes place in the late 1970s against the backdrop of school desegregation. The author tastefully addresses the darker side of family relations, race relations, bullying, and the pursuit of absolute dominance in high school sports at any cost.
This book is inspired by true events, but the names of characters and locations of events have been changed to protect the privacy of those portrayed.
The Mailman Delivers
It was almost noon, and outside the weather was 99 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade; just another typical autumn day at Marine Corps Base, Camp Courtney on Okinawa, Japan. Lance Corporal Jones, the mail clerk, passed out the mail for the day.
“Master Gunnery Sergeant Thompson, you’ve got mail!” Jones shouted from across the office.
“Anything from Headquarters Marine Corps?” I responded. I had submitted my papers to retire just a few months ago, and it was stressful waiting for the word to come down.
“Nope—sorry, Master Guns. No joy today.”
“Whoever said no news is good news lied to all of us!” I said. Nonchalantly, I began sifting through the junk mail and bills. I found a letter from Parker Science Applications.
“Jones, you are the man!” It was a job offer to work in London, England! I had applied for a computer analyst position with the Department of Defense. All I needed now were my retirement papers. I had taken all my pre-separation classes, including a class on salary negotiations. I had paid very close attention to this class because I did not want to sell myself short. I asked all the right questions, did all the required reading, and even volunteered for a role-play in which I had to negotiate with a prospective employer in front of the class.
When the time came to put all my training into action, I took the first offer without batting an eye. But at least I had a job in the real world.
Also in the stack of mail was a reminder of my thirty-year high school reunion from Westside High School in a suburb just outside Los Angeles, California. I started to feel old; most of the troops under me weren’t even born when I enlisted back in 1978. Whenever we ran for physical training, I was always in the rear trying to motivate the slower youngsters to keep up. No one but me knew that I was running as fast as I could. Yeah, it was time to call it a career.
As soon as I got off duty, I went straight over to visit one of my closest Marine buddies, Warrant Officer Yasmin Mike. She lived on Marine Corps Base Camp Foster, about a thirty-minute drive away. I knocked on her door holding the offer letter firmly in my hand. When she opened the door, I stood there pointing to the paper in my hand with a big smile on my face. I could tell she had just gotten off work because she was still in her camouflage utilities. She looked puzzled because she didn’t know what I was pointing to.
“It’s my offer letter from Parker Science Applications. I got a job in England!”
“I can’t believe you’re finally leaving the Rock! You’d better keep in touch and write us!”
“Of course I will, and I expect you guys to come visit!” I said with a grin. She invited me in, and I sat on her black leather couch.
“Where’s Richard and the boys?” I said.
“Richard got stuck on bus monitor duty this week, so he’ll be late. The boys are at the teen center.” We both started feeling nostalgic as we realized that our families would be separated permanently. We reminisced about all the card games we had played until three a.m. Our favorite card game was Bid Whist, and we were almost unbeatable on the island.
I also mentioned that I would be going to my thirtieth high school reunion and would need someone to watch Clay Jr. She smiled and gladly agreed.
“How much do I owe you? It will only be for one week.”
“The same as last time,” she said.
“Naw, I gotta give you something this time.”
“Just make sure Clay Jr. has some spending money so he and the boys can do their thing.”
Although I was happy to finally punch out of the Corps, I was sad to leave the Mike family. We had been stationed at the same duty assignments for the last twenty years. Her three boys and my one were just like brothers. I cared for Yasmin in a sisterly way, and she was always there for me. As a single parent, I really appreciated that she looked after Clay Jr. whenever I deployed or went on assignment.
It was odd knowing that I was going to be a place where I would be a complete stranger. After one had been in the Corps for a while, it was uncommon to take a posting without knowing at least someone from a past duty station who would be there. But I had been offered a job on a US Air Force base in England, and there were only a handful of Marines there. I told Yasmin that after being stationed in some of the garden spots of the world, like the Mojave Desert and Mogadishu, Somalia, I was thrilled to find a job in Europe of all places.
For about the next fifteen minutes, we chatted about her degree program; she was pursuing her Master’s in Business Administration. We had both come a long way since the old days at Marine Corps Station El Toro, California back in the eighties. I told her I had better get going because I still needed to break the news to my son. As I was leaving, I saw her husband Richard getting out of his car. He looked exhausted—I guess it was from dealing with all those screaming teenagers on the bus. As I drove off, they both waved from their front door.
I was so preoccupied on the way home that I didn’t even notice the stench of the pig farm I passed on the way back to Camp Courtney. It was around five-thirty, and the traffic was pretty congested. It took me twice as long to get home, but that didn’t even faze me. As I entered the base, the military police pulled me over for a random security inspection (the third time that week). Normally, I would have been livid, because it never seems random when you are pulled over; it always seems personal. This time, I was extremely polite and chatty. The whole time, I was thinking, Not much longer. The guard cleared me and waved me through onto the base. I saw Clay Jr.’s bike locked up outside, so I knew he was home.
When I entered the house, I saw my son in front of the PlayStation with his headphones on. He looked up and asked, “What’s for dinner? I’m starving.” I told him to get ready to dine at the NCO Club on Kadena Air Force Base. Immediately, he knew something was up. That was his favorite place to eat, and I always took him there whenever I had to break news to him about a deployment or a temporary assignment.
“Dad, are you going to Iraq?”
“Nope. We are going to England.”
“Nope, for good. We are moving.”
“But dad, I just made the basketball team!” Clay Jr. said as he swiveled his chair around and removed the headphones from around his neck. I really felt sorry for him. He had a good crew of friends, and they were becoming pretty popular at Kubasaki High School. Clay Jr. and Yasmin’s boys had taken first place at the school talent show doing a rap act that brought the house down. They were enjoying almost celebrity status after that performance and looking forward to future gigs on base. I asked him how I could make it up to him.
After about two minutes of silence, he said, “I want to have the biggest going-away party ever, without chaperones and with a DJ.”
“Done!” I was happy that he was finally accepting the inevitable.
I also told him I was going to my thirtieth high school reunion and he would be staying with Yasmin’s boys for a week. Then he got excited. He was always more than happy to stay with the Mikes. Things calmed down after that, and we both went into our rooms to get ready to head to Kadena. As I sat on the bed, I noticed my high school yearbook from 1977 on the top shelf of my closet. I reached for it and began reminiscing about my days at Westside High, home of the Cougars. As I perused the pages, I stopped on the page with a picture of my varsity wrestling team from 1977. As I scanned the faces in the photo, I started to reflect about a special teammate and friend, Jimbo Pernelli. I hadn’t seen or heard from Jimbo since I had left school, and over the years, I had often wondered what he had gotten up to. I came across my school photo and laughed aloud. I was wearing a green-flowered, silk midriff shirt and sporting a Jackson-Five afro. I looked like a seventies Soul Train contestant.
After looking at more pictures, I made up my mind: Westside High, here I come. I bought my tickets the very next day to leave the following Saturday.
On the day of my departure, I called for an Okinawan cab to pick me up from my quarters on base. This was always an experience I looked forward to because of the customer service. While I stood on the corner waiting with my luggage on the curb, I saw the mauve-colored taxi turning right onto my street. The driver slowly approached, and the rear passenger door automatically opened as the taxi came to a stop.
A very old but friendly Okinawan honcho politely greeted me, gathered my luggage, and placed it in the trunk. What always amazed and puzzled me was that after a few minutes into the drive, the driver would pop in a CD for my listening pleasure. But the music was not random; it was like it was a CD from my personal collection—like a mix tape I would have made from my all-time favorite tunes. I often wondered how they always managed to somehow tap into my subconscious and play songs that were so personal to me. I had an hour-long drive to the airport, so I inquired.
“Hey honcho, you always play my favorite songs.
You a part-time DJ?”
“~#$%^&*!” said the driver.
“Sorry, no speaka Japanese.” I said.
“Profile.” The driver said, this time in perfect English.
Apparently, the owners of this particular taxi company realized a high level of repeat business as a result of being able to profile their clients for their music preferences. I found this to be extraordinary and interesting; they had it down to almost an exact science as far as I was concerned. The driver began to explain to me that from the moment he picked me up, he was profiling me. The driver mentioned this was an informal part of his training and that he would note the following in his personal assessment of a client: age, ethnicity, dress, manner of speech, gait, and carriage. “Am I still being profiled?” I asked.
“G.I. …you easy. Berry easy.” He said as he winked at me in the mirror. I was impressed and pleased to realize that type of customer service existed on this tiny island, five miles wide and sixty miles long. Sometimes the song selection was so special that I almost hated for the journey to end. Whatever they taught him in his training was working; this was the only taxi service I had ever used during my many assignments on the Rock dating back to 1982. Once I arrived at the airport, the passenger door opened automatically. The driver jumped out of the cab and assisted me with my belongings.
“Arigatou gozaimasu,” I said, bowing just slightly. I tipped him a thousand Yen ($12 US).
After maneuvering through the check-in line, I finally boarded the plane to LA from Naha International Airport. After over ten hours of flying, nine games of Trivial Pursuit, and three in-flight movies, I finally landed in Los Angeles International Airport. As soon as the wheels touched ground, the passengers began clapping. I had never quite understood why people did that. It had been at least three years since I had returned home, and the first meal I craved was a Grand Slam from Denny’s.
I exited the terminal and I waited in line for the next available taxi. I declined the first few taxis that pulled up to me; the first one smelled like feet, and the second one had a smoky exhaust. Normally, I would never walk away from an available cab, but the drive was over two hours long, and I wanted some comfort. I ended up phoning a limousine company contracted through the airport.
The chauffeur arrived in a brand new black Lincoln Continental limousine with black tinted windows. This was first-class transport and the fare was just slightly over what a cab ride would have cost. As the limousine came to a stop, the driver exited the vehicle to collect my bags. He was in his mid-forties, with salt-and-pepper hair, and he was dressed very smartly. He was dressed in starched long-sleeved shirt with shiny gold cuff links and creased black trousers.
He was extremely courteous when he spoke; in fact, I detected a slight accent.
I asked him where he was from, and he said, “Cambridge.”
“Oh, Massachusetts,” I said.
“I’m from Cambridge, England,” he said with a smile.
During the drive home, we chatted just about everything. I asked him if he had ever chauffeured any celebrities. He said he had chauffeured the football great George Best. Being a football fan myself, I was almost embarrassed to ask what team George Best played for, but I had to ask anyway.
He replied, “George Best played for Manchester United.”
I had never heard of either one, but I quickly figured out that he was talking about an English soccer team. During our conversation, I was getting nervous about driving on the opposite side of the road because in Japan we drove on the other side. But after about thirty minutes of me chatting away, I asked the chauffeur to put on my favorite oldies station, and I nodded off to sleep. When we got to my hotel, I asked the driver for his name.
He replied, “I’m Martin.”
I thanked him for his excellent service and tipped him twenty dollars. After he handed me my bags, I asked him if he could collect me from the hotel next week to take me back to the airport for my return journey. He agreed and said, “Enjoy your reunion. I will see you in a week.”
Thirty-Year Westside Class Reunion
Classmates began to trickle into the main foyer, and excitement spread as former students recognized old friends, some with significant others and some without. After ten minutes or so, I saw Michael, Jerry, and John, with whom I ran cross country. They had been fantastic runners, and they were just as jovial as they had been back then. I also ran into my wrestling buddy Tom; as sophomores, we were very competitive. He went undefeated that year, and I finished 18–2.
Meanwhile, we waited for our tour guide. After about thirty minutes, the tour guide arrived; she introduced herself as the principal and welcomed us to our thirty-year reunion. She was very enthusiastic and had been there long enough to remember most of the teachers we had thirty years ago. She then alluded to the obvious: this was not the same Westside High we all remembered.
She broached the issue rather delicately, stating, “As you can see, things have changed quite a bit since 1978.”
Westside High had metamorphosed from almost an exclusive country-club society to a school fitted with metal detectors, police liaison offices, and security staff. In 1978, all we had were hall monitors, who were mostly fellow students. It was surreal to witness the change over thirty years. The racial demographics within the school had completely reversed. During my first year at Westside, there were maybe three Black athletes between the football, basketball, and baseball teams combined. I once saw in a Westside high school yearbook from 1974 that there was only one Black student in the entire school, and she was biracial. By the time 1978 had rolled around, there were still fewer than twenty Blacks. It was odd to see such a small presence of White students compared to how it had been thirty years ago.
During the orientation, the principal mentioned that the number of students graduating and going on to college was steadily climbing. She also mentioned the names of some celebrities who had graduated from Westside within the past fifteen years. Apparently sometime after we all graduated, Westside unveiled a Distinguished Alumni Wall of Fame. On that wall of fame was a mayor I remembered from my last duty assignment at Camp Pendleton, California. He was the mayor of the city of Oceanside, California, just outside the base. There were also a handful of NFL stars and US Olympic medalists pictured. It was nice to notice that although the sports program in the athletics department had experienced a seismic explosion in talent, academics were still the centerpiece and heart of the school.
Remarkably, the school buildings were pretty much as they had been back then, although they had a very different feel. I knew exactly where my old locker was: D119, right next to the side entrance. I optimistically looked for my old friend Jimbo, but he was nowhere to be found. I was wearing my Marine Corps Dress Blue uniform and was confronted by a former classmate who I didn’t recognize. While holding a gin and tonic, she said “Excuse me, what city do you drive for?” Wow, I thought to myself. I politely responded, “CTA—Chicago Transit Authority.”
“Wow, I didn’t know bus drivers wore medals.”
“Only those who work the south side,” I said with a smile.
Immediately, I noticed the different bonds of attachment I had with my former classmates. I had four: teammate bonds, ethnic bonds, girls I dated bonds, and girls I wanted to date bonds. All were unique and distinct. I regressed; it was like being seventeen all over again, but in the body of a nearly- fifty-year-old. Not the best combination. The feelings I had about my classmates thirty years ago, in 1978, were still very much intact in 2008. It was probably because I had never really kept in touch with anyone after I left home to join the Marines. Most of my classmates remembered me, but there were a few who kept calling me Kenneth (he was another Black kid). After being called Kenneth for the third time, I just answered as though I were he.
Another thing that struck me was that many of the students had aged gracefully. I remember thinking, Who comes into full bloom in their late forties? Before we started the tour, the student organizers passed out some awards. There were awards for who had RSVP’d first, who had the most kids (eight), and who had traveled the furthest to attend. That was me.
Wall of Fame
As the party proceeded down the corridor, I made a detour to the Athletic Hall of Fame. The first picture I stumbled across was of an old friend, Tammy Champion, who had sat in front of me in chemistry. I thought that was a cool last name to have, especially for an athlete. Tammy was no ordinary athlete, though; she was an extraordinary naturally gifted runner. We clicked right from the start because both of our dads were prominent Black pastors in our community. Her dad was a Pentecostal pastor who had very strict standards of holiness. One of the religious conflicts that challenged Tammy was she could not dress out for PE because the uniform exposed her legs. Her father instructed her to attend PE and to participate, but only in her street clothes, which consisted of a knee-length dress or a conservative skirt and blouse. The PE teacher was in a particularly bad position because according to the school policy, all students had to dress out to receive a passing grade. Tammy received an F for her first-quarter grade.
In the second quarter of PE, the students were taught the fundamentals of track. Although she had never run track in her life, she recorded a phenomenal time in the 100-yard dash during practice.
Mr. Black, the boys’ varsity track coach, happened to see her run as he watched from the weight room. He immediately rushed over to Tammy’s PE teacher to check the time. He thought the timing was inaccurate. When Coach Black asked a co-captain on the boys’ varsity track team to race against Tammy to get an accurate time, she beat him in a skirt and in her bare feet. In fact, her time for the 100-yard dash, 11.4 seconds, would have won the state meet two years prior. A couple of members of the school staff decided unofficially to approach her family to allow her to compete in track. From what I heard, that meeting was unsuccessful. As the track season went on, the women’s track coach must have been in knots; no girl in the state so far had recorded a time faster than Tammy’s.
One week before the qualifying district meet, Tammy’s father made a trip to the principal’s office. After being convinced that Tammy might be eligible for a scholarship, her father agreed to let her compete. Her first meet was the district championships held at our sister school, Eastside High. During lunch on Friday, I wished her luck. She seemed quite nervous.
“Tammy, good luck to you this weekend. I know you will do well.”
“Clay, I’m not worried about the running part. It’s just that I’m uncomfortable with the uniform. I don’t like my legs showing where everyone can see them. I’ve been praying on this for a week now.”
“Tammy, God gave you a gift, and my dad says we should recognize God’s gifts.” I wasn’t sure if that was of any help, but it was the only thought in my head at the moment.
I asked her how she did when I saw her on the following Monday in class. She reached into her purse and showed me her gold medal. On the back, it said, “Eastside High District Champion 100-yard Dash.” Two weeks later, Tammy set the state record for the 100-yard dash at 10.9 seconds in the state championships. As of 2011, thirty-four years later, her state record was still standing.
After Tammy won the state championship, she went back to her religious standards of dress and never suited up again. Two races, one state championship…not bad, not bad at all.
The very next picture I came across was of my old friend and teammate Jimbo. I had forgotten how enormous Jimbo was compared to the other kids in school. He had legs like tree trunks and a twenty-two-inch neck. While I was reminiscing about the good old days, a young student passed by and said, “Nice uniform!”
He told me that he was in the Marine Corps ROTC program. I asked him what his fifth General Order was, and he said, “To quit my post when properly relieved, sir!”
Okay, I was impressed—very impressed. I hadn’t learned my General Orders until the second phase of boot camp. We struck up a conversation about sports, and it ultimately led to my showing him Jimbo’s picture. When he asked who Jimbo Pernelli was, I responded slightly animatedly, “Only the best athlete in your school’s history!”
A little debate began, and I then pointed to the four other pictures of Jimbo on the wall. I told the kid, “He played all sports, but wrestling was in his blood.”
The kid began to walk away. After about ten steps, he turned around and asked, “What was it like back then?”
We’re Movin’ on Up (to Westside)
What was it like back then? I remember 1977 as though it were yesterday. A lot of people remember 1977 because it was the year Elvis died. But to me, it represented the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. Disco was on life support, and rap music was two years away from making its debut. Afros were on their way out, and the shag was making its debut; Gerri curls were just around the corner. Car CB radios had reached their peak, and Space Invaders (one of the first video games ever) would be launched the very next year. It also marked a new trend of Black families beginning to migrate to suburbia, away from the city. I called it a trend; however, I have heard others refer to it as “a crack in the dam.” Fortunately, most families didn’t care one way or another. But then there were those families who cared a lot, but not in a very nice way.
To inflame the issue even more, in the summer of 1977 the State Board of Education mandated a remapping of the school district boundaries to force Westside High School officials into achieving racial balance or risk losing its accreditation. If I told you this was unacceptable to some, I would be understating the resentment that awaited some of the first Black students to enroll back then. I pleaded with my dad to stay at my old school, Eastside High, but he said I was there for one reason only—to get an education!
When I arrived at the bus stop on my first day of school, I was relieved to see a lot of my Black friends there as well. What a relief! I thought. But when the Westside bus came along, none of them boarded— only the White kids got on. The Eastside bus collected the Black kids, and they proceeded in the opposite direction. I looked out of the rear bus window, unimpressed that my friends were not joining me. What my dad didn’t know was that despite the new school boundaries, most parents kept their kids in their previous schools, leaving me to be only one of eight Blacks in a school with a student population of 4,000. I had heard some vicious rumors about some really bad experiences the few Blacks at Westside had during summer school, but they seemed too exaggerated to be true.
As I got off the bus and entered the school campus, I was amazed at how large it was. The campus was the size of some universities I had seen on TV. It had three large adjoining wings, each with three floors and a basement. I began to feel somewhat out of place; it seemed as though I had stepped into a members-only club without a membership. I drew a lot of stares, but they weren’t mean stares; they were more like curious stares. As I approached the school’s main entrance, I saw that there was a red Swastika spray painted on the walkway and a message that read, ‘N-word Beware.’ To be honest, I didn’t know what the symbol meant at that time, but I was all too familiar with the N-word.
I got into fights almost daily at school in between classes, mostly as I crossed the courtyard on the way to PE. I always fought back. I tried not fighting back once, and that didn’t work too well. Not only did I lose the fight, but I hated the idea of someone punching me in the face and bragging about it later. Fortunately, for me, it was pretty obvious that I never started these fights, so I never got suspended. However, school policy was that whenever there was a fight, both parties at least had to be disciplined verbally. For a while there, I was a fixture in the principal’s office.
Thinking Man’s Sport
While I was having dinner with my family one night, my dad noticed a shiner over my right eye. He said, “Have you been fighting?”
I lowered my head and responded, “Yes.”
“What, at school?”
I just nodded my head.
“Did you fight back?”
“Good! Always stand up for yourself.”
“Yeah, but it’s hard to fight back when you‘re tackled to the ground.”
My dad sat back in his chair, stroked his sideburns down to his neatly trimmed beard, and paused for a moment. He was having an epiphanic moment. I recognized this look. I was just waiting for some form of fatherly wisdom to be unveiled that I knew would disrupt my game plan.
“Why don’t you take up wrestling? Learn how to defend yourself.”
I really wasn’t keen on the idea at all. I wanted to play basketball instead, but my father had other plans for me.
“Wrestling is a thinking man’s sport; it’s a physical game of chess. Talk to the coach … . You’ll be just fine.”
The next day after school, I headed to the wrestling room, where the wrestlers were doing calisthenics. Among the wrestlers was this giant of a person: he was 6’7” and just under 300 lbs., and he was all muscle. I had never seen anyone that size before. I thought he was an assistant coach, but he was a junior. He looked like the Incredible Hulk, only with long, black, curly hair and brown eyes.
The coach caught me peering into the room and said, “I didn’t know wrestling was a spectator sport!”
There was a sign on the door that said, “Wimps need not apply!” Now that was a challenge I could not walk away from. I immediately signed up, and the next day I went to Coach’s Corner to get my gear. I bought a red-and-white singlet, a pair of wrestling shoes, and a workout shirt that said, “If at first you don’t succeed…it’s because of ME!”
The wrestling room the next day was like a sweatbox, and the heat was on full blast. I thought it was strange that everyone was wearing extra clothing and plastic sweat suits underneath. I soon found out that everyone was trying to cut weight. Coach put me on the scale and introduced me as the new 145-pounder. Everyone was pretty cool and greeted me like one of the team. The behemoth of a person introduced himself to me as Jimbo (his real name was Joshua).
“I think I’ve seen you before,” he said.
“Really? Where was I?” I responded.
“You were on your back,” he jokingly said. I didn’t have a real comeback for that, so I just mumbled something under my breath and rolled my eyes.
During practice, coach introduced a new move: the fireman’s carry. It looks exactly like a firefighter carrying someone draped over his back. It was a move that wrestlers on the team usually stayed clear of because if you did not execute perfectly, the defensive wrestler could counter you and put you straight on your back. It required perfect timing and flawless execution to make it work. Coach touted it as the “sweetest move ever” because it was a high-precision takedown that often went straight into a pinning combination. I admit, when he demonstrated it, it looked smooth and sweet, but it was way above my level. I think everyone else felt the same; no one ever quite got the hang of it.
The coach also stressed the importance of never grabbing our opponents’ heads when we were in the bottom position. That would create an opening for the offensive wrestler to put us in a pinning combination.
At some point during the practice, I got paired with Jimbo, and we were working on takedowns. Although he was a Goliath towering over me, I tried a move we had learned that day, the duck under. It is a surprise attack executed while both wrestlers are locked up. Basically, the offensive wrestler swiftly elevates his opponent’s elbow just enough for him to duck under and get behind his opponent to score a takedown. I executed it perfectly. The room went quiet, and the coach said, “Great execution, Thompson!” To this day, I have never known whether I earned it on my own merit or if he was just trying to make me look good, but that didn’t matter then. Little did I know that the duck under would be my signature move for the next twenty-two years, including my entire Marine Corps wrestling career.
Don’t Say Goodnight
One morning before first period, when I had been in school for about two months, I saw Jimbo quickly dart into a classroom at the end of the corridor that was separated from the mainstream classes. I had study hall, so I was not in a big rush. I peeked into his classroom window. It was a Special Education class for students with a range of severe learning disabilities. Jimbo was dyslexic, and he had a third-grade reading level. He also had some behavioral problems, and he sometimes acted out.
While peeping into his classroom, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that there was a commotion of some sort down the hall. A guy, one of the burnouts, was harassing a freshman girl. He had her pinned against a locker, and his hand was cupping her face. She was moving her head left and right to avoid his disgusting and unwanted kisses. She was no more than 5’2” and less than 100 pounds, and her blonde ponytail had come undone. She was obviously distressed, but no one seemed to take notice. Instinctively, I ran to intervene—not to cause a fight, but just to get between her and the guy. Guys with little sisters understand this reaction. I had three sisters ages fifteen, eight and two. I really hated to see this girl overpowered by that punk.
“Leave her alone, man! What is your problem?” I yelled as I positioned myself between them. The guy sucker punched me in the side of my face, and then I really got mad. I pushed him down so hard that he fell on his butt and slid about a foot. He said a lot of expletives, but what I remember most was his last few words: “You are a dead man after school!”
Then he walked away, looking back at me over his shoulder. The girl adjusted her blouse and put her hair back in a ponytail, and then she looked up at me with a frown that soon became a smile.
“Wow, that was pretty brave. I can’t believe you took a punch for me,” she said.
“Yeah. To be honest, I didn’t see it coming.”
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m cool.” I replied.
She regained her composure, took a big sigh, and said, “My name is Sophie, Sophie Polanski. Thanks for what you did.”
I helped her pick her books off the floor, and we both stood, almost in sync. She sighed once more and said she had better head to class. I thought it was so nice when, halfway down the corridor, she turned around and waved at me. After she turned the corner, I replayed the incident in my head. Those words “You are a dead man after school” began to haunt me. The scary part was that he said it as if he meant it.
I was nervous for the rest of school day; I didn’t even notice that I had yet another black eye. I was pretty sure that idiot who had struck me (his name was Matlock) would be long gone by the time after-school wrestling practice finished (about five thirty). Just to make sure, I called my dad and asked him to pick me up. For the rest of the school day, I hurried between my classes. Jimbo noticed I was not as chatty and friendly as usual during practice, and I think he also saw the bruising around my eye.
“Clay, you all right?” I think he said it twice before I responded.
“Everything is cool,” I said, trying not to make any real eye contact.
After practice, I raced to the main entrance where my dad was supposed to pick me up. There were four burnouts smoking cigarettes outside the door as they waited for me. Dang it! I tried to outsmart them by running to the auxiliary entrance near where we practiced, but there were at least five burnouts there, too. All the other doors were chained shut, and there was no sign of my dad anywhere.
I knew I was going to get seriously bum rushed, but I was determined to get at least one of them before they all jumped me. I was scared and angry at the same time. As I exited the auxiliary door, all of them put out the cigs and walked toward me with their acne-ridden faces and long, greasy hair. They were all wearing denim jackets. Matlock, the guy who had struck me in the hall, emerged. The next thing I knew, I was surrounded.
“Get on your knees and say goodnight,” he said.
“Why?” I said nervously as I was circling with him at the center of the group.
“Get on your knees and say goodnight.”
No way was I going to get on my knees. I would die first. He pushed my books out of my hands. Before he could repeat himself, I heard a booming voice emerge from behind me.
“What the…?” said Matlock.
“Just me,” said Jimbo as he pushed his way into the inner circle.
“Do we have a problem here? I didn’t think so. Clay, you need a ride?”
He walked right through the crowd, and I followed behind him with renewed confidence. Although I was glad Jimbo had intervened, I worried that he was simply delaying the inevitable. I knew it would be just a matter of time before they would catch me by myself and make it worse for me because I had gotten away. This wasn’t a one-on-one fight; I was outnumbered, and the odds were stacked against me.
As we approached the school parking lot, I saw this beast of a car. It had a matte black finish, custom mag chrome wheels, and a supercharged four-speed engine. It looked like it belonged in the movies.
“What kind of car is that?”
“Clay. C’mon, dude. I will give you one guess.”
“Uh…it looks like the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard, but black.”
“Right on! It’s a 1969 Dodge Charger. Get in, my friend. I call her the Black Beauty.”
When he started the engine, I jumped almost out of my seat. I had never heard an engine that sounded so powerful; it was as though the car had a voice, and an angry one at that.
He turned on the CB radio and found one of his CB buddies on the net. As we drove through the gates of the school campus, I saw my dad pull in. I just waved.
Coach Pernelli, Jimbo’s dad, was approaching superstar status as a wrestling coach. Only one achievement stood between him and being the most successful wrestling coach in the state’s history. He had eight state wrestling crowns already; one more would tie his nemesis, Coach Pingatore from Northwestern High School. That year, he was poised to tie the record on the backs of his stellar wrestlers, particularly his star heavyweight, Richard Russell. Richard was a returning state champion who had finished his last year undefeated. He was a lock to repeat as champion.
Richard Russell was, though I hate to say it, a real nice guy. He was 6’4”, 260 pounds and a triple threat. He ran cross-country in the fall, wrestled in the winter, and played baseball in the spring. He took all the college prep classes and maintained a 4.0 grade point average. The only thing flawed about Richard was that he wore too much cologne and he had a very annoying laugh. Not only did he wear too much cologne, but it was that real cheap stuff that old men in their sixties wore. His laugh amused me the first time I heard it, because it jumped at least five octaves in pitch and sounded very effeminate. It was very odd to hear such a girlish laugh come from this super jock. As far as wrestling goes, he was the perfect package. He was not only naturally athletic; he was a finesse wrestler. He did not have a signature move per se, but he was a master technician. Another factor that contributed to his success as a wrestler was his superior conditioning. By the time the cross-country season ended in late October, he was already in great condition. Most heavyweight wrestlers carried a high body-fat ratio, but Richard had a level of muscle definition you rarely saw in high school, especially at the heavyweight division.
Blessed Are the Children
Jimbo had been a special child since the day he entered this world. Jimbo’s incredible strength was the result of a genetic disorder called myostatin-related muscle hypertrophy. It’s a rare condition that promotes the abnormal growth of skeletal muscles but it’s not known to affect the heart. Jimbo’s mother, a former world-class sprinter, had a mutation in one copy of the dominant myostatin-producing gene (MSTN), and she passed it on to her son in utero. It’s estimated that less than 4 percent of the human population carries the mutated gene. Jimbo’s condition gave him almost 40 percent more muscle mass than the average adult male, abnormal strength, accelerated reflexes, and almost no body fat. However, his genetic condition also carried disadvantages. In infants without normal body fat levels, the central nervous system can be impaired. Doctors say that infants need fat to help develop certain cognitive skills.
One of Jimbo’s first displays of strength was as a pre-toddler. When he was in his playpen, he could grab onto an adult’s finger and be lifted out onto the floor without losing his grip. Other kids dreamed of possessing his extraordinary strength and marked athletic abilities, but Jimbo just felt abnormal. Sometimes he resented his size and muscularity. Whenever we worked out together in the weight room, he felt self-conscious about his strength because he drew far too much attention. Hence, you would only see him lifting well below his maximum capability. He was almost like a boy genius in class deliberately giving the wrong answer to avert attention. No one knew how strong he really was, and he was content to leave it that way.
Despite his amazing physical abilities, Jimbo had dyslexia that, although mild, severely hampered his learning. His academic progress was slow, and he began lagging far behind his peers when he was about seven years old. All of his teachers recommended that he repeat the fourth grade, but his father rejected their advice and enrolled him in another school district. Officials at his new school recommended that Jimbo be placed in their special education program. At times, he would show noted aptitude when introduced to new concepts and ideas, but he was never consistent. Jimbo was also prone to memory loss and would forget things that had happened even earlier that day. Counselors concluded the memory loss was a coping mechanism he had for suppressing negative or unpleasant memories. When Jimbo was a young kid, his dad spent time trying to teach him to wrestle, but Jimbo was always able to overpower the other kids with his freakish strength. Jimbo never wanted to learn the more technical moves, because he did not need to—he was just that strong. Jimbo’s dad called him a one-trick pony. He told Jimbo that his strength would only take him so far and that he would eventually be beaten by more technically proficient wrestlers. That is true in probably ninety-nine of a hundred cases, but Jimbo was an anomaly. When Jimbo entered high school, he was almost a foot taller than most other freshmen were, and he had the muscle size and definition of a bodybuilder in training.
During his first two years at Westside High, he didn’t wrestle, but he played defensive end and defensive lineman on the varsity football team. He was a quarterback’s worst nightmare. Jimbo plowed through defenses like a screaming freight train without brakes. Most schools in our conference had designed play formations exclusively for him alone, but none ever worked. When I arrived at Westside, he was already All-State at both positions during his freshman and sophomore years. Several national sport pundits said Jimbo had the size, strength, and mental toughness to jump from high school straight to the NFL…as a junior. That precedent had been set in basketball, but in football, it was unheard of and unimaginable. During the football season, several NFL scouts had set up temporary accommodations near campus to observe Jimbo’s uncanny fusion of size, strength, and speed. Several of the opposing coaches and players accused Jimbo of taking steroids—but not to his face.
A Few Good Men
Ms. Gidden, the history teacher, was my favorite. I liked her because she made her classes fun and used flashcards to help us remember material for the tests. At the end of each class, we had flash card competitions—those were so much fun. She also brought in guest speakers, which was a great way to keep us interested. I remember when we covered the Vietnam War. That class changed my life forever. I remember it as though it was yesterday.
“All right, class. Today we are going to cover the Vietnam War, and we have a guest speaker. I would like to introduce Gunnery Sergeant Irvin Seal.”
In marched a larger-than-life decorated figure in Dress Blues. His confidence, swagger, and commanding voice made a big impression on me. In a way, he reminded me of my dad. Gunnery Sergeant Seal was a member of the First Battalion, Ninth Marines, also known as “The Walking Dead.” He told an exciting story about a Viet Cong ambush during which he and his buddies played dead. The Viet Cong were aware of this tactic and used to stab the motionless bodies to ensure they were really dead. Gunnery Sergeant Seal described the anguish of having to witness the stabbing of his buddies playing dead as he laid ever so still, awaiting certain death. However, when he was turned over to be stabbed with a bayonet, he surprised them with a fully loaded M-16. He mowed down the Viet Cong, killing seven, saving the rest of the squad. For his heroic actions, he was awarded a Silver Star.
He brought a USMC photo album that we all perused, though of course I was the first to grab it and the last to give it back. Aside from his Vietnam combat tour, Gunnery Sergeant Seal was also the light heavyweight interservice boxing champion from 1966 to 1968. He retired with a 49–0 record. At the end of his story, he said, “Any questions?”
“Do the Marines have a wrestling team?” I asked.
“Yes, we do. They train at Quantico, Virginia, and it’s their full-time job.”
“You mean they get paid to wrestle?” I blurted out.
“Yes, all over the country and sometimes overseas.”
“Where do I sign up?”
Unbeknownst to me, Staff Sergeant Gundlach, a Marine recruiter, was at the back of the class. He waved at me with a big grin on his face. He took my name down and made an appointment for me to visit him at the recruiting station. The starting pay was $419 a month! That was twice what I was earning at my after-school job as a janitor.
Later, after practice in the locker room, I was all fired up about the prospect of being a US Marine. I asked Jimbo about his aspirations.
“My dream is to own a small fleet of cabs. Be my own boss, not have to wear a tie, know how each day begins and ends…the simple life,” Jimbo said, smiling.
When the wrestling season began, Coach Rosenthal gave us a motivating speech about the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose. He always compared wrestling to life experience, emphasizing how our attitudes on the mat could carry over into other aspects of our lives. He always said that if we went all out in practice, we would be able to go all out in a match. I had so much respect for him; he had a no-nonsense approach to coaching, and it worked. Coach Rosenthal named Jimbo as team captain, although he had excused from practice that day. Unfortunately, that was also the day we had the team photograph taken. Coach Rosenthal was a great coach; he treated all of us just the same. He’s the kind of guy who inspires athletes to work hard. He taught us sportsmanship and grace. No matter how excited we were after winning a match, it was just as important to maintain restraint and discipline. There would be no victory dances or loud outbursts…those behaviors were typical of athletes who were not accustomed to winning.
During the next six meets, I witnessed Jimbo destroy his opponents with little effort. To be perfectly honest, I think most of his matches were won in the locker room during the weigh-in. He was menacing when he stepped up to the scale. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in his weight class, either. Jimbo had his own signature move; almost all of his pins used the highly unorthodox bear hug to a cradle. I don’t remember Coach ever teaching us that move; I think Jimbo made that sequence up himself. He would go for a double-leg takedown and work his way up the body until he had his opponent in a frontal bear hug. His lock around the waist was so powerful that he would squeeze the will to fight completely out of his opponent, then pile drive the other wrestler to the mat and cradle him into a pin. Once Jimbo locked his massive arms around someone and cemented his grip, there was no escape. If his opponent survived a first period, he was generally too exhausted and spent to compete another round. Defensively, Jimbo had one of the fastest escapes (the standup) from the bottom position I had ever seen for a guy his size. No one could hold him down, much less break him down.
Intruder Alert—State of Emergency
The following Saturday, nearby Midway College was offering a one-day wrestling clinic from one to five p.m. Jimbo asked me and another teammate, Eddie Cortez, our 119-pounder, if we wanted to go. I eagerly accepted, and so did Eddie. At the last minute, Jimbo bailed out, so it was just Eddie and me attending the seminar. We hitched a ride there with a friend and arranged for Eddie’s dad to pick us up.
The seminar was held in a neighboring town not known for its hospitality toward minorities. It was a tight-knit working class town of about 69,000, and I was told that most of the residents were cordial. They were, but mostly to each other. Back in the 1920s and early 1930s, the town was run by three prominent organized crime figures who were notorious for their extreme public brutality against their rivals. Eventually, one man would reign supreme and would rise to world notoriety for his sheer acts of terror in the region. On April 24, 1930, US law enforcement officials declared him ‘Public Enemy Number One.’ In 1947, this man died after serving a prison sentence in Alcatraz and was buried in the cemetery across the street from our school. Thieves often stole his headstone as a souvenir. Under his reign of terror and for many decades beyond his death, this town was successful in resisting Black migration. Despite living under widespread police corruption and contract killings at record levels, Whites feared a ‘Black Invasion’ more. In the early 1950s, a young Black bus driver and his family moved into the all-White town. A mob of several thousand Whites chased them out of town and set fire to their furniture as police stood idly by. Many went on record to state their sentiments regarding the contentious issue.
“Why do they want to move here? We’ve spent a lot of money to make this street beautiful.”
“My car got firebombed when I first moved in. When I went to the police station to report it, they arrested me for disorderly conduct,” said a former Black resident.
“If we see a Black person walking along the street without a delivery uniform on, we call the police.” “What people fear here is not skin color,” says a local real estate salesman, “but devaluation of what they’ve worked all their lives for, a nice home.”
From the founding of the town in 1870 to 2000, the Black population in that town grew from 0% to only 1.1%. To keep Blacks from applying for municipal jobs, legislation was passed requiring applicants to have lived there for a year before they could be hired, according to press reports. Moreover, school principals would not guarantee the safety of Black children. The message was crystal clear to Black families who considered moving there: “Not welcome.”
Just after the seminar concluded, Eddie’s dad called the college and informed us that he couldn’t pick us up. Although we were exhausted from practice, we just decided to walk home. After about thirty minutes, we passed a local youth center where a baseball game was in progress. While we were walking past, Eddie and I noticed the pitcher staring at us with the ball in his mitt. This delay interrupted the game, and soon most of the team in the dugout stood up and began staring and pointing at Eddie and me, too. Within moments, both teams ceased playing and began running in our direction. It wasn’t long before we realized the angry crowd was after us. I looked at Eddie and we did what most sensible people would do in this situation: we ran like hell. But then my common sense kicked in. I was on a public street with adults in the area. How bad could it really get? I would soon find out.
Both Eddie and I ran toward nearby houses to knock on doors and ask for help, but all we got were lowered blinds and closed curtains. Finally, the hostile and angry crowd caught up to us. By this time, the crowd had multiplied in numbers and in hostility. We were quickly surrounded, and three guys about my age began to circle us like sharks before the kill. I kept trying to watch my back; I knew this sneak tactic. There wasn’t much daylight left, which added to my fear. While the crowd was circling us, I said the Lord’s Prayer silently as fast as I could. I wanted to be spared, but there would be no negotiations and there would be no escape: they wanted blood, and they were going to get it. As I turned around to look over my shoulder, I was met with a fist to my face and was tackled to the ground. Eddie went down next, but I couldn’t see much because the crowd blocked my vision. We were kicked, punched, and spat on while being subjected to a tirade of ethnic slurs. This formed a spectacle, and the fight spilled onto the street.
Almost immediately, word got around that two colored kids were in town, and two men were dispatched to the area in a ‘special van’ to collect us. This conversation was transmitted between two CB radios in the local area. Luckily, Jimbo was CB channel surfing at the time in his car. When he realized they were talking about Eddie and me, Jimbo immediately went into pursuit mode and commenced to search for us. He was trying to find us before the van did. While searching for us, he passed a white van with black-tinted windows merging into traffic. The van pulled up behind Jimbo at a traffic light, and Jimbo sped through the red light to get a head start on the van.
When I looked up from the ground, all I saw was a sea of scowling faces. I was panicking. This wasn’t on school grounds, there were no teachers around to intervene, and it was getting darker by the minute. I was being kicked and punched from all different directions, and I tried to protect my face and my privates as best as I could. The guy who had tackled me to the ground got kicked a bunch of times by accident as we kept rotating positions while fighting on the ground.
The strange thing was how many passersby did nothing to stop the fight. However, I did see a ray of hope; I remember seeing a brown Ford Pinto make a U-turn in the middle of the street. Two men in their mid-to late fifties quickly exited the car. They forcefully made their way to the center of the crowd, where everyone stopped fighting because of their presence. I took a deep sigh of relief and began to calm down as the older-looking man wearing bifocals extended his hand to me. As I grasped his hand, I noticed his grip had become painfully tight…and then rage colored his face. He then kicked me in the stomach so hard that his glasses fell off his face; the other man kicked me in the back, but not nearly as hard. I tried to breathe, but I couldn’t. I blacked out, but it couldn’t have been for too long—maybe just seconds. My vision returned first, and then my hearing. The two men then got into their car and drove off.
That was a defining moment for me, because it killed the blind trust in all adults I had as a kid. This was underscored by the presence of an adult umpire in the crowd who appeared to be egging everyone on. Anyway, I thought that would be the end of it when the men drove away, but I was wrong; the beatings quickly recommenced with a vengeance. I think the crowd felt validated by the actions of the two men in the car and the presence of other adults watching. They were treating me like an intruder. Maybe in their eyes, I was one.
Somewhere in the midst of the ruckus, I heard a faint but familiar thunder gaining in volume with each passing second. This time, hope wasn’t a mirage; the noise I heard was the sweet sound of Jimbo’s Black Beauty not too far away. Jimbo had a high-performance 440-cubic-inch engine, and it had a distinct rumble that you could hear more than a block away. I felt like a distressed infantryman trapped behind enemy lines observing rescue choppers just over the horizon. I was just hoping to avoid serious injury until he got there. The crowd had already beaten Eddie senseless. He was nearly unconscious and was no longer defending himself against the angry mob. Soon I became the focal point of the madness. I could hear Jimbo’s engine red lining as he desperately shifted through the gears, letting me know it wouldn’t be too much longer. Soon, the crowd looked up to see who the speed demon was. I looked up too, and I saw Jimbo speeding up the street. He was coming from the wrong direction on a one-way street, driving like a possessed banshee. Fortunately, there were no opposing cars, but every pedestrian in the immediate area stopped to observe.
When Jimbo saw the melee in the street, he realized Eddie and I were in the middle of it. Jimbo sped up onto the sidewalk, almost running over the crowd. We could hear the tires screech loudly as he slammed on the brakes. I smelled the burnt rubber from his tires. Jimbo sat there in the car for about thirty seconds with the engine running. This confused the crowd; Jimbo’s intentions weren’t clear. Eventually, he turned off the engine and exited the vehicle. Immediately, the beat down ceased (again); everyone was wondering who this larger-than-life person was.
He was not angry or emotional; all he said was, “Eddie, Clay, you all right?” in a calm voice.
I caught my breath and said, “Yeah, but I don’t know about Eddie.” He was lying there face down next to the curb motionless. He was bleeding from his mouth and ears, and both of his eyes were swollen shut.
“Get in the car,” Jimbo said. I managed to get Eddie up off the ground, and we made it into Jimbo’s car. We got into the back seat, rolled the windows up, and ducked down out of sight. I can’t tell you how happy we were to see him in his black Charger. But Jimbo didn’t immediately return to the car. After a minute or so, I peered over the seat to see what was taking him so long. Once the crowd realized he was there to intercede on our behalf, their anger had shifted squarely on Jimbo. They surrounded him in a three-quarter circle, and it was like a standoff for about ten seconds. You could have heard a pin drop, or at least that’s how it felt; my heart was beating a million miles a second in a fog of uncertainty. The same guy who had tackled me circled behind Jimbo, and then things got quiet. In less than a blink of an eye, mayhem erupted, Jimbo mule-kicked him straight into a parked car, without even looking. Two other guys tried to charge him, and he kicked both of them in the groin. Jimbo became a one-man wrecking crew.
There were a few adults in the crowd. One stepped toward Jimbo, removing the belt from his trousers. He got pimp slapped to the ground. When I saw that, I snickered with my hand over my mouth; it was almost comical. But at the same time, it was creepy. It was the first time I had seen someone knocked unconscious with his eyes still open. Another guy threw a punch at Jimbo. Before it landed, Jimbo struck him in the face with an upward elbow strike. In a split second, the mob went from being predators to becoming the prey. It truly was like watching a movie, but my assailants wouldn’t be the benefactors of a happy ending.
I was tempted to say he was out of control, but in fact, he was ever so calm. He showed no emotion whatsoever; it was just as though he were taking out the trash. It was as if he were there but not there.
Jimbo’s herculean strength, combined with his superior reflexes, knocked the guys out cold. After the first few minutes of enjoyment, it stopped being fun. The only thing on my mind at that time was getting home safely. Although those guys were responsible for the bruises that covered half my body, I felt kind of sorry for them; they had no chance. One guy snuck up on Jimbo during the frenzy and hit him from behind with a bat across his back as hard as he could. I winced because I thought that would take Jimbo down. It didn’t. Jimbo turned around as if it were a mere annoyance. The guy dropped the bat and ran in fear. It must have been one of those aluminum bats by the sound it made when it hit the ground. Jimbo chased him down like a cheetah pursuing a wildebeest.
I looked away for a moment. When I looked back, Jimbo was the last man standing except for the fortunate ones who had managed to get away. Jimbo got into the car, started the engine, and burned rubber in reverse. He then put it in first and floored it, leaving his signature tire marks and a trail of white smoke. As the three of us drove off, I saw a white van slowly pull in next to the curb. Two men in their mid-to-late forties jumped out with green duct tape and black rope. I wasn’t afraid then, because I wasn’t aware of their intentions until Jimbo told us on the way home. I eventually told my dad what happened…twenty years later.
Eddie ended up with a detached retina, a concussion, and two fractured ribs. His injuries unfortunately prevented him from completing the remainder of his senior-year wrestling season. I was the lucky one; I was indeed spared. Aside from some bruises, all I had was a bloody nose and a chipped tooth from when I hit the pavement.
The very next day, I thanked Jimbo for bailing us out. He just gave me this look, as if he didn’t know what I was talking about. I guess that was his way of putting it behind him. We never spoke of that day again.
After wrestling practice, Jimbo and I usually put in a few extra laps around the track. We always had fun mocking and impersonating our teachers. One of my favorite teachers was Mr. Walsh, who was almost 300 lbs., bald, and about 5’5” tall. He was our physical education teacher. He didn’t look the part, but I liked his enthusiasm and the fact that he always let us play dodge ball for the last fifteen minutes of the period.
One day, when we were in the locker room after practice, Jimbo admitted that when he first saw me, he didn’t know what to expect. I was surprised to find out that he had never met a Black person before.
“So, now that you know me, do I fit the stereotype?” I asked.
“What stereotype?” Jimbo replied.
“C’mon, I’m sure you know a few,” I said with a smirk on my face.
“Okay,okay,Iknowafew.Iwouldn’tcall them bad, though.”
“What are they, so I can enlighten you?”
“Well…like that all Blacks like fried chicken and drink Kool-Aid, and like all Blacks have rhythm.”
“Myth! Myth! Just a myth, I can assure you of that, I don’t even like fried chicken.”
Jimbo also thought that all Blacks had a secret handshake, and that he had seen me do it in the cafeteria. I convinced him it was not a secret handshake, but more like a greeting among close friends that was commonly referred to as a ‘dap.’ For the next fifteen minutes, I tried teaching Jimbo to dap, but like the fireman’s carry, he didn’t quite get it right. In fact, he wasn’t even close. He was unteachable.
During lunch period, I saw Jimbo and called out, “J. P.! J. P.!”
Jimbo looked up and brought his tray to the table.
“What did you call me?”
“I said J. P.! You know, short for Jimbo Pernelli.”
“I kinda like it. I can dig it,” J. P. said. While we were eating our lunch, we sat next to a table of burnouts. Not one peep. I thought that was cool— really cool.
Halfway through lunch, J. P. said, “It looks like I am on my own tonight. Pops has an away wrestling meet across town and won’t be home ‘til late. TV dinners for me.”
“You can come over to our house for dinner! I’m sure my folks won’t mind—our house is like a boarding house anyway,” I told him.
“What do you mean?” J. P. said.
“Well, with my dad being a pastor and all, our house is like a place where problem kids go when their parents don’t know what else to do. Almost like a boot camp for lost kids.”
“Wow…your dad sounds like a really cool dad.”
“Yeah, he is. I never know who will be sitting at the dinner table when I come home.”
“Okay, so after practice we will go to your house and ask permission.”
“Great—I won’t have to take the bus.” I hated taking the bus.
When we arrived at the front door, my mom was surprised to see me with this gentle giant. He lowered his head and walked in.
“My name is Joshua, Mrs. Thompson, but everyone calls me Jimbo.” I then asked my mom if it was okay for J. P. to join us for dinner.
“Of course,” she said. As I took my coat off, I noticed a new kid watching TV in the living room. I asked who he was.
“Oh, that’s Andre. He’s Deacon Wright’s kid. He’s having a tough time at home. He will be here…just until things settle down. You know.”
Shortly afterward, my dad came home from bible study. While hanging up his coat in the closet, he said, “Whose black ‘69 Dodge Charger is that sitting in my driveway with the 10-foot CB antenna?”
“It’s mine, sir. Do you want me to move it?” said J. P.
“Move it? The Charger is one of the last of the muscle cars. You’ll have to let me have a look.”
“Sure, Mr. Thompson,” said J. P.
“You can call me Reverend T. What is your name, son?”
I introduced him to my dad and my dad responded, “So, J. P., are you staying for dinner?” When we were all seated at the table, my mom walked in with a platter of fried chicken. J. P. winked and smiled at me, and I just rolled my eyes to the ceiling. Immediately, I said, “Mom, let me get the drinks!”
I sprang out of my chair and brought out the iced tea from the refrigerator, leaving the Kool-Aid pitcher behind. My dad said a blessing for the food, and I slightly opened one eye to see what J. P. was doing. Yup, he was praying as well.
“Clay is planning to join the Marines. Have you thought about your future, J. P.?” my Dad inquired.
“You know, Rev. T., I love cars. One day I would like to own a small fleet of cabs.” Then I repeated the rest. “Be your own boss, no tie, know how your day will begin and end.”
My dad defended him, saying, “It’s an honest living. And with the sorry state of cab services around here, I think it would be a great idea.”
J. P. leaned toward my dad and said, “I know I can do this.” I think it was the first time he had ever heard a supportive comment about his aspirations.
“When people meet me, the first thing they ask me is what sport I play,” J. P. said. “I love sports, I really do, but my first love is cars. I could start out just driving and work my way up.”
My dad asked Jimbo whether his idea was a dream or a goal, and J. P. looked puzzled. “What’s the difference?”
“The difference between a dream and a goal…is a plan,” my dad said. To be honest, I was surprised by my Dad’s reaction as well. My Dad always said, “Plan your work and work your plan, and be the best.”
My dad and J. P. hit it off like old pals, talking mostly about cars. They debated about what was the best muscle car ever built. My dad was a big fan of the 1967 Ford Mustang GT 500, and J. P. went on about the 1969 Pontiac GTO, also known as ‘The Judge.’
My dad said that the GT500 would someday become a collector’s car, and if given the opportunity, he would jump at the chance to buy one. My dad owned a 1977 Ford Country Squire station wagon because it was practical. He had once owned a ‘67 Mustang GT500, but he sold it to his brother Winston after my youngest sister Melanie was born.
“So do you have a church home, J. P.?” my dad asked.
“I used to when my mom was around, but my dad doesn’t go to church.”
“I am so sorry about your mom’s passing. It must have been really hard on you,” my mom said.
“Oh, she’s not dead. She lives in Arizona, with her new husband.”
“If you need a church home, you are more than welcome to make ours your new home,” my dad said. After dinner was over, my dad leaned over to J. P. and said, “Now let’s take a look at the motor.”
Heavy on My Mind
Thanksgiving fell almost one month into the wrestling season. One of my biggest gripes about the wrestling season was that all the major food holidays fell during it: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, January 10th (my birthday), January 14th (my sister’s birthday), and February 23rd (my mom’s birthday). Why not make it a fall sport that lasted from August to October?
Sitting at the dinner table on Thanksgiving during the wrestling season was like being a recovering wino judging a wine tasting. Cutting weight really does hijack your mind. I started out as a 145-pounder, but I cut to 132 pounds because I considered that my optimal competing weight. When I wrestled at 145 for my first few matches, I was competing with guys who normally weighed 160 or even more. During the wrestling season, I found myself daydreaming about food constantly. I would take pleasure in writing out menus for days when I would be able to eat, like right after a match. The Thursday before my Friday match, I would methodically and lovingly prepare my packed lunch for after Friday’s match. It was ritualistic, and I always did it to music. I didn’t do some of the extreme stuff like purging or taking laxatives, but it was not uncommon for wrestlers to have a spit container on them on the day of a match. Most wrestlers I knew used an empty Coke can. Some wrestlers swore that they could spit the last sixteen ounces off their weight. I remember one Saturday, when a match was canceled due to bad weather, I got so excited because I knew I was going to end my hunger strike and gorge myself silly. I began eating my favorite cereal, Captain Crunch. My dad said goodbye as he walked out the door on the way to the cleaners. When he returned about thirty minutes later with his arms full of dry cleaning, I was still eating. He thought that I was still eating my first serving. Nope: it was my thirteenth.
Eastside High hosted an annual Thanksgiving wrestling invitational. In J. P.’s weight division was the fourth-ranked heavyweight in the state, from Westinghouse. His name was Mark Aguillar. Both J. P. and Mark made quick work of their opponents. J. P., however, was looking somewhat fatigued in his matches. When the referee blew the whistle ending the matches, J. P. was slow to his feet. Even so, no one was able to score a single point against him. On the other hand, Mark Aguillar didn’t surrender a point either. He looked impressive. It wasn’t a surprise when both wrestlers ended up in the finals for the championship match. Much hype preceded this clash of gladiators as the two warmed up for their championship match. Moments later, they were ordered to report to the announcer’s table. Both wrestlers approached the mat and briefly stretched as the referee walked onto the mat. The crowd was silenced and eagerly awaited the showdown. The wrestlers shook hands, and the whistle blew. Mark circled J. P. and shot a double-leg takedown at him. J. P. went straight to his back, and Mark got the takedown. That was the first time I had ever seen anyone score a point on J. P., and it shook me. J. P. had seemed invincible before, and it bothered me to have to question my ingrained perception of infallibility. I didn’t know why, but J. P. was struggling big time. For the entire period, J. P. just did enough to avoid a stalling caution. The second period was a draw; neither wrestler scored a point.
At the beginning of the third period, and J. P. was down 2–0. He had two minutes to score at least three points if he was to secure the win and keep his undefeated streak alive. By the time the referee blew the whistle, the coach and the rest of the team knew that J. P. was suffering from something. Mark Aguillar was on the verge of bagging the biggest upset of his career, and he was content to just dance and not let J. P. get to him. With twenty seconds left, the referee finally cautioned him for stalling and warned him that the next time he did so, there would be a penalty point awarded. It was shocking to watch J. P.’s unbeaten streak just slip away.
There were ten seconds left, and J. P. realized he had to do something. He charged Mark and put him in his signature bear hug. Then he squeezed as hard as he could, let out a scream, and drove Mark to the mat with two seconds left. The referee signaled two points!
All the wrestlers on our team jumped out of their seats and pumped their fists in the air. The match was tied 2–2! His streak was still alive—or so we thought. There is a technicality in wrestling: as soon as a wrestler takes his opponent down with his hands clasped, he must let go immediately to avoid a penalty. The penalty called on J. P. was locked hands. The match ended 1–2; it was J. P.’s first loss ever!
J. P. hung his head in disappointment, shook his opponent’s hand, and headed to the locker room. All of us were deflated, but we knew how much the loss would affect Jimbo. It was his first loss of the season, ending an incredible string of impressive victories. On the bus ride back home, he didn’t say much at all. I was also at a loss for words. As my dad picked me up from school, I saw J. P. waiting out front.
“J. P., where is your car?” I asked.
“It’s in the shop. My dad is picking me up.” As my dad and I drive off, I looked through the rear window and began to panic. J. P. was collapsing.
“Dad! Stop!” I yelled. My dad slammed on the brakes. He was furious at me for screaming at him in the car until he saw J. P. stumbling helplessly. My dad pulled the car around, and we managed to get J. P. into the car. He was pale and shivering uncontrollably and violently. I thought he was going to bite his tongue in half. My dad took off his glove and told J. P. to bite down on it. Then J. P. started experiencing shortness of breath. It was a thirty-minute drive to the hospital, and I kept my eye on him in the back seat the entire way. We got him admitted to the emergency room at Loyola hospital. They brought out a gurney and wheeled him away. The whole time, his only concern was that his dad would be waiting at the school for him.
“Clay, get in touch with my dad. I don’t want him to worry about where I am,” he said as he was carted off.
“Promise!” I replied. I was scared. I didn’t know what was going on, and my father had a look of concern on his face as we watched the gurney disappear behind the double doors.
My dad went back to the school to see if J. P.’s dad was there, and I remained in the waiting room. About an hour later, my dad returned and said his dad wasn’t there. I called J. P.’s dad at home and was surprised when he answered the phone. As I was explaining the situation to his dad, the doctor came out and had a few words with my dad. I put J. P.’s dad on hold to find out what was happening with my best friend. I was reading my dad’s face to brace myself for the worst. My dad took a sigh of relief and turned to me.
“Dehydration. He’s dehydrated.” What a relief. I felt as though a tremendous weight had been lifted off my chest.
“Thank you Jesus!” I said. I went back to the phone to tell Jimbo’s dad the news, but all I heard was a dial tone. I called back.
“Mr. Pernelli, sorry. We must have gotten disconnected,” I said.
“No need to apologize, son. I just hung up. I didn’t know how long you’d be.”
I almost lost my Christian bearing for a split second. I didn’t know what to say to him after that.
“He was dehydrated, and he will be staying the night. But he will be fine,” I said.
“So I guess I have to pick him up in the morning. No problem. Thanks for the update, Clay.”
My dad checked with the doctors one last time before we headed home; J. P. was hooked up to an IV but doing fine. When my dad reached for his keys, he noticed that I remained seated.
“I guess I will pick you up in the morning, huh? You’re lucky tomorrow is Saturday,” my dad said. I thanked my dad and got as comfortable as I could before nodding off to sleep.
1977 State Championships—Conflict of Interest
The week before districts, Coach Rosenthal gave us a pep talk to fire us up. The talk was about perception and how the way we view things affects our reality. He spoke about his experience as a senior preparing for his districts back in 1965. That year, he was seeded fourth at his weight class (155 pounds), but only the top two wrestlers advance to sectionals. He had lost to the top seed earlier in the season. The second seed was a kid who was undefeated but was 13–0–1. Psychologically, Coach said he was worried more about the undefeated kid. But then he realized he had wrestled the same kid to a tie earlier during the season. That dark cloud went away, and his perception changed. The top seed lost his first match, opening the door for a showdown in the finals between him and the second seed. Coach became the district champion by beating the undefeated second seed 13–7.
Regarding his seeding, Coach said, “It’s okay for others to underestimate you, but never underestimate yourself.” After practice, he told J. P. to meet him in his office. Later, J. P. entered the locker room ecstatic. Apparently, his ranking in the state had improved despite his loss against the wrestler from Westinghouse. J. P. had moved up two spots and was now ranked eighth in the state.
“Gimme five, Clay!” J. P. said. He was climbing up the rankings with every match, it seemed. His season thus far amazed me. Although he was a junior, this was his first year in high school wrestling.
J. P. advanced to the state championship meet with only one loss. Coach Pernelli’s team also advanced on the backs of stud wrestlers at 126, 138, and 155 pounds and his star, Richard Russell, at heavyweight. As J. P. and Richard advanced, the intensity in the building increased. No one said it, but you knew it was on everyone’s mind. Could Jimbo face Richard in the finals? Could Coach Pernelli coach against his son? I played that scenario out in my head. If it were me, I decided, I would let my assistant coach take over and I would watch from the stands. But that is not what happened.
Yes, J. P. did meet Richard in the state finals, but Coach P. remained in his position. He even gave Richard a pep talk before the match. There was no conflict of interest for him; his sole objective was to win. The announcer called for the two wrestlers to report, and it was show time. It was all or nothing for J. P., both as an athlete and also a son seeking validation. For Coach P, it was a chance to cement his wrestling legacy.
During the first two periods, J. P. demonstrated absolute dominance. J. P. was on a mission, not giving up a single point. To be honest, I had thought Richard would challenge J. P. more, but J. P. was just too strong and relentless. It was so odd to see Coach Pernelli rooting against J. P. and cheering on Richard. Actually, it was more than just odd; I found it disturbing.
At the beginning of the last period, J. P. chose the bottom position. While in the bottom position, J. P. was facing his dad, who was standing alongside the mat. It was breaking J. P.’s heart to see his dad in that vulnerable state. When the whistle blew to start the final period, Coach P. was yelling at Richard, “You have to pin him. You have to pin him!”
J. P. didn’t try to escape. I thought he was just trying to ride the clock out, but he had other plans. After being completely immobile in the bottom position for the first thirty seconds of the final period, he intentionally grabbed Richard’s head. Richard immediately seized the opportunity and rolled J. P. onto his back, straight into a pinning combination. The crowd jumped to its feet in shock. There were just seconds on the clock. The referee signaled that a pin was imminent and slapped the mat, ending the match. I couldn’t believe what had just seen. J. P. had it! J. P. knew he had it too, but obviously there were other factors in play.
When the referee raised Richard’s hand in victory, Jimbo kept wiping the tears away from his eyes, but the tears didn’t seem to stop. It was painful to watch, and yet it was one of the most unselfish acts I had ever witnessed. After Richard’s hand was raised in victory, Coach P. and the other wrestlers ran onto the mat and lifted Richard up onto their shoulders. This was a particularly sweet victory for Coach P. because he now was tied with Coach Pingatore from Northwestern with nine wrestling state championships.
The interesting fact was that Jimbo and Richard were both juniors, and it was very possible that they would meet up again next year in the state finals. Coach P. was now one state championship away from having sole possession of the most wrestling state championships in the state’s history. After the ceremony, Coach P. told J. P., “You tried your best, son, but today Richard was just the better man.”
They say that business and family don’t mix. Well, if there was ever a case to support that assertion, this would be it.
As athletes, we learn to be warriors, but ultimately we are raised as sons.
School was out, and it was the middle of our summer vacation. J. P. and I had returned to his house from the bowling alley, and his dad was watering the front lawn. Richard showed up in a brand new red 1977 Ford Mustang. J. P. and I laughed as we walked toward his house. This was the worst year ever for Mustangs. They were officially branded as ladies’ cars when Farah Fawcett had one in Charlie’s Angels. Richard honked at us as he drove up toward the house.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead in that car. I can’t believe he had the nerve to put a spoiler and racing stripes on it. What a waste of sheet metal,” J. P. said.
We just waved and gave him a thumbs up with fake smiles. We then darted into a convenience store to buy some shrimp and fries. We saw Richard and J. P.’s dad just chatting away, and Richard was revving the engine the entire time. What a poser. Anyway, Richard said goodbye to Coach P. and sped off. As he crossed the intersection, his car was hit by a drunk driver. I could hear the brakes screeching and the crash from inside the store. It sounded like an explosion. Somehow, I knew it was Richard.
Coach P. heard the crash and yelled, “Richard! Richard!” Richard responded, “Coach, I’m all right. I’m all right.”
We were all glad that he had escaped injury. I looked at J. P. and we both breathed a big sigh of relief. But within a split second, another car rammed the one that had hit Richard, and we saw Richard slump forward onto the horn. Coach P. called 911, and the ambulance arrived within minutes. They rushed Richard to Gottlieb Hospital. J. P. and I accompanied Coach P. to the hospital, trailing behind the ambulance in his car. I had a hard time grasping what had just happened. Here was a guy about my age, hanging on for dear life. It made me think of my own mortality. It was creepy knowing that just ten minutes ago he had been fine.
Richard was admitted immediately into the emergency room, and the doctors began working on him. The crash was worse than anybody had imagined. Richard turned out to have suffered severe brain damage. He was unable even to speak in an intelligible manner. Richard’s accident would ultimately affect all of our lives—Coach P., J. P., and even me. At that time, I just didn’t know how much or how soon.
On the first day of school, I told J. P. during lunch that I had seen his dad during second period in the principal’s office. J. P. acted somewhat surprised; his dad never visited Westside. At dinner, J. P. told his dad that I had seen him at school. His dad then told him that he was transferring J. P. to Triton, where he taught and coached. J. P. literally begged his dad to reconsider, but there was no chance of that.
When J. P. broke the news to me, I was stunned. I had thought we would graduate together. I didn’t have many friends at Westside; J. P. was my main man. I knew from that day forward, life at Westside would be different—very different. It was obvious to me and everyone familiar with the situation, Coach P. was motivated by his insatiable desire to scoop up another state crown. On J. P.’s last day of school, the school had a scheduled assembly. At the end of the assembly, they announced the departure of Joshua Pernelli. He marched down from the bleachers and presented a polished and very articulate speech thanking all of his teachers, coaches, counselors, and even me. I have to say, I was really impressed; he came across as very witty and even quite humorous at times. I didn’t know he had it in him; his jokes were actually really funny, too. Some people are just natural-born speakers, and I guess J. P. was one of them. The school presented a framed picture of him in his wrestling uniform that would be mounted permanently on the Athletic Wall of Fame.
Everyone cheered and chanted, “Jimbo! Jimbo!” Then he became somewhat emotional, and I became sad. To me, at that moment, it was like a funeral and he was giving his own eulogy.
The school staff smiled on our friendship because we demonstrated that ethnic divisions were not drawn by race; they were drawn by people. I was going to miss my friend, and it was hard to imagine him being in a different school.
At the end of the assembly, J. P. approached me at my locker. The only thing he said was, “Dap? Can I get a dap?”
I finally realized what he was talking about. My mind was elsewhere, but surprisingly; he knew it! J. P. was dappin’ like one of the brothas, and he didn’t miss a beat. Before, J. P. had never been able to get past the third movement. In fact, the dap we did wasn’t even the dap I had showed him; it was the extended version I used to do with Kenny James every now and then in the cafeteria during lunch. J. P. must have been practicing, a lot. That afternoon, J. P. really amazed me; it was a side of him I hadn’t seen before.
The Stone the Builders Rejected
Two weeks later, Jimbo honored his promise to accompany my family to Sunday service at church. When we pulled into the church parking lot, Jimbo pulled in right behind us. I was glad to see him. We could hear the choir rehearsing from the church parking lot. They were just warming up for Sunday service. My dad’s church was named Plymouth Rock, and it was renowned for its gospel choir, Aeolian Phi, and my dad’s captivating and inspiring sermons. The choir was so animated and lively that it was rumored you had to pass a physical to join. One of the gospel selections Aeolian Phi sang during service was ‘The Blood,’ led by the organist Mrs. Guy. Whenever she sang that particular song, it was as if God was speaking through her. Just the first few bars of the song made the hair on my arm stand up. I have heard dozens of renditions of that song, but none ever moved me quite the same.
My dad was old-school: he believed in conducting the church in an orderly fashion. He had very little tolerance for sleeping in church or distractions during service, especially while the sermon was being delivered. If you had to vacate your seat during service, an unwritten rule dictated that you had to raise your forefinger and keep it raised until you were out of the sanctuary. Women didn’t wear pants to church, and men wore suits and ties. I wore a navy blue leisure suit with white stitching around the collar seams. I liked the suit a lot, but I had gotten it two years before, when I was fifteen, and the trousers were constantly riding up my backside. After every ten steps or so, I had to adjust, but I always made sure no one was looking.
I had missed Wednesday choir rehearsal, so I wasn’t permitted to sing. But that was okay, especially since Jimbo was tagging along. Clifton, our choir director, was in the spirit and had the choir rocking left to right and clapping in sync. Sometimes it seemed as though he was a front man for my dad, like a warm-up act for the headliner waiting behind the curtain. As the almost frenzied atmosphere inspired by the choir subsided with the music, Reverend T. approached the pulpit with great poise.
“Let the church say ‘Amen.’” My father asked if there were any new visitors in the congregation, and I looked at J. P.
He whispered, “No way man, I don’t do the public speaking thing…bad nerves.”
I didn’t understand that at all; he had given an impressively eloquent and polished speech in front of the entire sophomore and junior class just a few weeks ago. My dad scanned the congregation, and his eyes fixed on J. P.
“Well, I think we have a visitor. Will the gentleman sitting next to my son please stand up? Tell us who you are and if you have a church home.”
Yeah, my dad was good at calling you out like that. J. P. nervously stood up and looked around. He put his hands in his pockets and could barely speak his name. His voice was weak and cracking; his face was beet red. I noticed that his hands were trembling badly, even though they were hidden in his pockets. I was so embarrassed for him because it was obvious he was out of his comfort zone. He quickly sat down and lowered his head into a hymnal. I was sort of disappointed; I knew he was an excellent speaker… just not that day.
About halfway through the service, J. P. looked at the church bulletin and read the title of the sermon, ‘The Stone that the Builders Rejected.’ J. P. looked at me questioningly. I just shrugged my shoulders, not knowing where Dad was taking this particular sermon.
The sermon highlighted the peculiarity of Christians, emphasizing the persecution and rejection we sometimes face. My dad said that sometimes Christians are dismissed by the world in the very same way a mason would discard a broken brick. My dad also emphasized how unique we are and how important we are to God’s work. He further added, “As Christians we stand out and must stand up for our beliefs.”
My father went on to say God loved us despite our imperfections. I loved my dad’s sermons; their messages uplifted and recharged anyone in earshot of his voice. He made us understand life was not meant to be perfect. When my dad got to the heart of his message, the cadence and volume of his voice became melodic and beckoning. Sometimes he would become animated and making commanding gestures. My dad was a brilliant orator and exuded much spiritual charisma from behind the pulpit.
This particular message struck a chord with J. P., and I could see he was fixated. I think he felt like he was one of the rejected stones my father was preaching about. J. P. often spoke of not being like everyone else, but I never understood what he had meant by that. At the end of the service, my dad had an altar call. Some new visitors came forward, and for a minute, I thought J. P. would too.
After service, I would always go downstairs and play ping-pong with the deacons. I was pretty good, too; I had placed third in the church tournament the previous year and designed my own paddle. Anyway, that day Jimbo was particularly quiet after service; I think my dad’s message really must have affected him. He didn’t say much at all. To lighten things up, I challenged him to a game of ping-pong, and he accepted. I asked if he had ever played before, and he said that he hadn’t, but he would try. It was nice finally to compete with him in a sport where his strength was not a factor. We volleyed for about five minutes since he was new to the game. I would have volleyed longer, but he said he was ready. I beat him the first game, but I wasn’t too thrilled that the score was 21–18.
“I thought you had never played before,” I said, unnerved.
“This is my first time,” he replied.
He beat me at the next two games, 21–10 and then 21–5. I won the last game 21–19, but then I realized he was playing me with his non-dominant hand.
“Are you ambidextrous?”
Before he could reply, my dad said, “Clay! It’s time! Let’s go.”
I slowly put the paddle down on the table and just kind of scratched my head. For someone who had never picked up a paddle, Jimbo had skills—amazing skills.
For Whom the Bell ‘Towles’
It was Jimbo’s first day at Triton High. Jimbo was comforted by the fact that he knew most of the kids in the school because they lived in his neighborhood. In fact, he lived so close to school that he could have just walked every day; it was less than a half mile. But that wasn’t going to happen. Jimbo was proud of his ‘69 Charger, and he drove it everywhere. He was sad to leave Westside, but he was looking forward to seeing his dad more and leading the wrestling team to the state championships. For most kids, it would be a nightmare to have a parent teaching at your school, but not for Jimbo.
Jimbo found his homeroom class and made his way to his assigned seat. His teacher, Mr. Hill, passed out the class schedule to all of the students. When Mr. Hill reached Jimbo’s desk, he smiled.
“Welcome to Triton. You will be playing football, right?”
“No, sir, this year I just want to concentrate on wrestling.” When Jimbo opened up his curriculum for the semester, he dropped his head in disbelief. His father placed him in mainstream education, something Jimbo had not experienced since the fourth grade. He requested to speak with his counselor to amend his class schedule, but that required parental consent. Jimbo’s first-period class was with Ms. Blair. Ms. Blair was in her late fifties and was a strict disciplinarian. The only thing she had in common with Jimbo was that they weighed about the same. Rumor had it that she had met Muhammad Ali in Vegas once, and he took her out…but it took ten rounds. She was scary and had a booming voice for a lady. She actually had students bring her lunch to her because she was too lazy to walk to the cafeteria. She immediately disliked Jimbo because many of the students whose parents worked at the school enjoyed preferential treatment. She went out of her way to make life miserable for teachers’ kids, preachers’ kids, and cops’ kids. She thought they were the most spoiled students. Jimbo just tolerated her, knowing it was just a matter of time before he was in the special education curriculum.
Later that night, Jimbo called me up and told me about the mix-up. While we were on the phone, his dad walked in and Jimbo handed him the enrollment form. He read it and said, “No way on this god-forsaken earth.” Then he crumpled it up and threw it in the trash. Jimbo cut me short on the phone, but from what little I knew about his dad, I knew this was a losing battle.
I saw Jimbo the very next day after school. He told me his dad was looking for a tutor to help him in his transition to mainstream education. Jimbo joked about it.
“Maybe she will look something like Farah Fawcett,” he said.
“Or she might look like Ethel on I Love Lucy,” I snickered. Jimbo had a Farah Fawcett poster in his room; he thought she was the most beautiful woman on the planet. I had two nominations, Diane Carroll f r o m Julia, and Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched.
The next day, Jimbo was deflated. Not only was he going to have to endure Ms. Blair for a whole year but he also had to deal with the pressure of adjusting to mainstream education. On his way to fourth-period lunch, he saw his counselor, Mr. Ballenoff, and asked him to recommend a tutor. Mr. Ballenoff was a really nice man who was always honest with his students.
“Do you want the best or the most popular with the students?” said Mr. Ballenoff.
Jimbo paused for a second, thinking about how far behind he was ‘the best.’
“That would be Mrs. Towles, then, but I have to warn you: She has her own style of tutoring.”
“Isn’t she married to the assistant principal, Mr. Towles?”
“Yes, that would be her. She is also head of the music department.”
“Thanks, Mr. Ballenoff. I will contact her later today,” said Jimbo. On the way to lunch, Jimbo saw a row of faculty pictures on the wall. Mrs. Towles had a stern look in her photo, unlike most of the other teachers on the wall. It almost looked like a military photo; she was completely expressionless. But she was the best, and she represented Jimbo’s best shot at making it in the main stream. After the last period, Jimbo knocked on the door of her classroom. She peered up over her glasses and said, “How can I help you?”
“I heard you tutor students, and I kinda need some help,” Jimbo said.
“You are Coach Pernelli’s boy, aren’t you?”
“Yes, that would be me,” he said. Jimbo said he felt uneasy with Mrs. Towles from the moment he set eyes on her. She was arrogant and condescending, especially when she addressed the issue of academic eligibility. Jimbo didn’t know his grades were tied to his participation in sports. That had never been an issue in his special-education classes at Westside, but mainstream education was different. Now the pressure was on. Jimbo just wanted to get started, but he had no idea how high an academic mountain he would have to climb to retain his sports eligibility.
One week later, Mrs. Towles requested Jimbo report to her classroom after last period. Jimbo eagerly knocked on the classroom door and walked into her classroom.
“Come in, Joshua Pernelli.”
As he sat down, he looked up and asked when they could start.
“I have reviewed your inventory test results, and I am declining the offer. You belong in special education, and your father has done you a disservice by placing you in mainstream education. Your scores are the lowest scores I have seen in almost four years, and tutoring sessions would be a waste of my time as well as yours. I will speak to your dad tomorrow.”
“Am I excused now, Mrs. Towles?” Jimbo said.
Mrs.Towlesnodded.Jimboleft,feelingvery discouraged and puzzled.
Two days later, Jimbo was passing the principal’s office when he heard elevated voices coming from inside. Mrs. Towles was being challenged about her decision to decline tutoring Jimbo Pernelli. The athletic director, Mr. Sutherland, and Coach Pernelli were irate. Mr. Glover, the principal, seemed to be neutral on the issue. Mrs. Towles insisted Joshua belonged in special education, and that set Coach Pernelli off on a barrage of cross words.
“No way is my son going to enroll in special education here at Triton. That I know for sure.” Coach Pernelli left in a huff without excusing himself. Jimbo saw his dad leaving the office, and his dad didn’t even acknowledge him.
That Friday, Jimbo got word that Mrs. Towles had agreed to tutor him, and that instruction would begin on Monday. Instead of having study hall for second and sixth period, Jimbo had Mrs. Towles. He wasn’t sure what had changed Mrs. Towles’s mind, but it must have taken a lot of persuading. Jimbo had eight weeks to earn passing grades and become eligible to qualify for wrestling districts.
The Mary Effect
At the end of sixth period, Jimbo was eager to finish his lesson with Mrs. Towles. As soon as he heard the bell, he leaped out of his seat and said, “Gotta go, Mrs. Towles. See you tomorrow.”
Mrs. Towles told Jimbo to stop by the library and pick up the book Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger. On the way to wrestling practice, he passed the library. He backtracked and peeped in. Behind the counter were two ladies. One was gray-haired and in her sixties, and the other looked like an angel. She was about 5’6”, with olive-colored skin and shoulder-length brown hair. She also wore glasses, which gave her a scholarly look. She had a perfect smile and was the librarian’s assistant. Her name was Mary Suarez, and she was a junior. Mary didn’t do cheerleading, she didn’t play any sports, and she wasn’t particularly popular, but she was incredibly, genuinely sweet. Jimbo was strung out from that moment on. Jimbo walked in and asked Mary if she had the book Catcher in the Rye.
“I think we have one left, but let me check first,” she said with a smile. She returned to the counter and said, “I am sorry, but the last book was checked out.”
Jimbo smiled back and said, “Mrs. Towles wanted me to bring it to class tomorrow.”
“But Mrs. Towles is in the music department.” Mary said.
“She is tutoring me.”
“Well, if I get a copy in, I will be sure to let you know. What homeroom are you in?”
“I’m in C232.” The next day, Jimbo walked to his second-period tutoring lesson. As he entered, he began to explain to Mrs. Towles that he was not able to find the book she requested he bring. But before he could explain, she handed him the book.
“You found one,” said Jimbo.
“No, a student brought one by first thing this morning,” Mrs. Towles answered. Jimbo perked right up and smiled from ear to ear. For the next forty minutes, he could hear Mrs. Towles, but his mind was elsewhere.
On the way to fifth period, Jimbo ran into Mary between classes.
“I can’t believe someone returned their copy right after I left,” said Jimbo.
“No one did. You have my personal copy, but I want it back after you are done,” Mary said with a big smile.
“I will be sure to return it. My name is Joshua. What’s your name?”
“My name is Mary, Mary Suarez.”
One of the finest qualities in a woman is beauty unaware of itself. That was Mary. She was all about books and reading, according to Jimbo.
Later that day, Jimbo called me at home. I was glad to hear from him.
“Clay, man, I met my dream girl the other day at the library. I think she’s Pernelli material.”
“J. P., chill for a sec. You don’t even know this girl.” Our conversations for the next few weeks centered on Mary and nothing else. I think everyone remembers their first real crush at school; it completely takes over your life. Jimbo was no exception; he was love-struck. Jimbo would have done anything for Mary. I was just hoping he would take it slowly.
Three weeks later, J. P. called me and asked if I wanted to go to his homecoming dance.
“But I don’t have a dress,” I replied.
“Not with me, chump. On a double date!” Jimbo responded.
“Are you taking Mary?”
“Yeah, but I haven’t asked her yet. I thought a double date would be a great way to take the pressure off of our first date.”
“Cool, just one problem—first I have to find a date.” Fortunately, there was a new girl, Dina, in school who had just transferred from Chicago. We had the same lunch period, so I thought I would ask her.
The next day, I saw Dina at fourth-period lunch. I knew this would be better than asking her in the hallway in passing. All the Blacks sat together anyway, so I shadowed her from the snack bar to the lunch table so I could sit next to her. I was looking for the right moment to ask her, but there were just so many interruptions—or maybe I was just too nervous. I was conscious of making sure not to ask her while she was eating. Before I knew it, the fifth-period bell was ringing and I hadn’t asked her yet. As she was finishing her lunch and collecting her books to leave, I said, “Hey Dina, can I walk you to your class?”
“Sure Clay. What’s up?”
I popped the question just as we were just exiting the lunchroom. I used the direct approach because I wasn’t one for using lines; they just sounded way too corny and lame. Although I would have loved to think I was smooth, I wasn’t. I was just direct, and I was okay with that. I was really surprised that she said yes, because she was absolutely the finest sista from around the way.
One of the reasons I was able to drum up the courage to ask her was that she was new. Being new meant that if she had dissed me, news of my rejection would not have been a public service announcement all over school before last period. Dina was one of the Cougarettes and did modern dance. Dina was special, too; she moved differently than the other cheerleaders, in a very mature way. Whenever the Cougarettes performed at halftime, all you saw was Dina. She was a natural-born entertainer. Dina had several signature moves of her own, none of which could be taught in school. She had an older brother called Jerry who was a senior.
Jerry was an interesting character. He was about 5’7” and no more than 140 pounds, but no one messed with him. Jerry wore a black-and-blue jacket with the word ‘Disciples’ and a six-pointed star on the back. The jacket was almost like a cloak of invincibility for him. Even the burnouts, who always made a habit of harassing minority students on their own between classes, steered way clear of Jerry. It was interesting to observe how someone his size wielded so much reverence without an established reputation.
I had everything all arranged for the homecoming on October 28th. I bought a powder-blue jacket with dark-blue piping around the pocket seams. I had a reversible vest that was dark blue on the outside and had a light blue checked pattern on the inside. I also bought a pair of navy blue knit slacks from Sears to match my vest. They were two sizes too long, but they were on sale. I wasn’t too worried because my platform shoes gave me at least a four-inch lift anyway. I called Jimbo to let him know that everything was okay for the 28th, but he hadn’t even asked Mary yet.
“Okay, who is the chump now, J. P.?” I said.
“Clay, what’s the best way to ask Mary out?”
“‘Mary, will you go to homecoming with me?’ How about that?” I said.
I was a little ticked off. I was really looking forward to going out with Dina, and I didn’t want to blow it because J. P. had gotten cold feet at the last minute. After all, it was his homecoming; Dina and I were guests.
The following Friday afternoon, just before fourth period, J. P. saw Mary in the hallway. Immediately, he backtracked, hoping she had not seen him. But then he turned around and bumped right into her, dropping his books. While he gathered his books off the floor, he kind of squinted his eyes and said, “Mary would you…” and before he could finish, she said, “yes.”
He was confused because there was no way she could have known what she was saying yes to. But it was pretty obvious when two homecoming tickets slipped out of his study folder as he dropped it. Jimbo was thrilled that she had said yes, and he called me that evening and told me all about it, twice.
Almost two weeks before homecoming, Jimbo called me and asked if we could double date that Friday. It was Mary’s idea; she thought that homecoming shouldn’t be a first date. It was all planned: Mary decided she wanted to go to a movie and then dinner afterward. Jimbo was the only one with a car, so he picked me up first and then Dina and Mary. From the moment Jimbo picked me up, he was different from his normal self. You could tell he was excited, but in a very measured and calm way. What I thought was most strange was that his intonation and the inflection in his voice were very different when he spoke to me. He was speaking very proper and smart like. He wasn’t fooling me, though. He reminded me of Slim, one of my Uncle Daryl’s friends, who used to speak in a fake British accent to pick up chicks. I think Jimbo was practicing on me.
I kept on saying “Earth to Jimbo, earth to Jimbo,” trying to get him back to his old self, but he stayed in character. Mary let him choose the film. I wanted to s e e Saturday Night Fever; Dina wanted to see Exorcist II, The Heretic. On the way to the film, we passed theaters showing both movies and pulled one featuring Madame Rosa, a French movie. Guys do stuff like this to impress girls they really like, I guess. I tried to hide my disappointment, but Mary had heard about the movie and had apparently gotten good reviews. I could not believe I was paying good money ($2.50 per ticket, $5.00 total) for a foreign film. I could have almost filled J. P.’s Dodge Charger for the price I paid for these tickets. As soon as we sat down and I realized it was in subtitles, I was about three blinks from serious REM sleep. Dina was right behind me. We both slept through the entire movie, with her head on my shoulder. I just remembered waking up, rubbing my eyes, and seeing the end credits rolling.
“I didn’t snore did I?” I asked Dina
“No you didn’t, but you did drool a bit.”
“Are you serious?” I said, wiping my mouth.
“Psych your mind—just kidding,” Dina said.
After the movie was over, I was ready to dis J. P. for choosing such a lousy film, but both Mary and J. P. were raving about it. It was weird listening to J. P. attempting to speak French to Mary. Mary seemed to be buying it, but I wasn’t.
“Dina, did you like the film?” I asked.
“The best part was the ending,” she said sarcastically with her arms crossed.
The strange thing was that J. P. was still in character. He was almost believable, but I knew better. I called this the ‘Mary Effect.’
Homecoming was on October 28, a Friday night. Jimbo’s Charger was in the shop again, so I begged my dad to let Jimbo drive the four of us in his station wagon. (I had only a motorcycle license at the time.) J. P.’s dad dropped him off at our house and I let him in. He was looking pretty sharp in his black tux and his Stacey Adams. My dad threw him the keys and said to take care of his golden hawk. We picked up the girls. Mary looked like Pocahontas in a formfitting black dress with sparkly sequins around the neckline. Dina looked like the ‘Jet Beauty of the Week’ in a sexy yellow chiffon gown with a gold necklace draped around her neck. When Dina got into the car, she immediately put her arms around me. This was going to be a night to remember. I took out my dad’s Jackie Wilson eight-track and replaced it with ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ by the Brothers Johnson. It was just the four of us, and we were nodding our heads to the beat as we cruised with the windows down. I swear, every traffic light we approached was either green or turning green. We all thought that was a sign that the night was gonna be righteous.
When we got there, the DJ was playing ‘Got to Give It Up’ by Marvin Gaye (the extended version). The dance floor was jam-packed, and the disco ball was refracting a million lights across the room. Although it was hot and people were sweating on the dance floor, it didn’t matter; the energy was feverish, and everyone was gettin’ down. The DJ played all my favorite songs from Earth, Wind and Fire; the Isley Brothers; Chic; and a new artist named Prince. I realized being at Westside gave me an eclectic appreciation of White genres of music. I was already hooked on blue-eyed soul artists such as Ambrosia (‘That’s How Much’), Daryl Hall and John Oates (‘Sarah Smile’), and Average White Band (‘A Love of Your Own’), but I also acquired a taste for artists such as Fleetwood Mac (‘Rumors’), Boston (‘More than a Feeling’), Gary Wright (‘Dreamweaver’), and Jefferson Starship (‘Jane,’ one of my favorites, released the next year). The first time I heard the song ‘Baby Come Back’ by Player, I thought it was a Black group. I came to the conclusion that good music was just good music. Jimbo and Mary didn’t dance that much, but they were all cozied up and having a great time laughing and teasing each other. On the other hand, Dina danced her behind off and pretty much kept me on the dance floor the entire night. Dina pretty much ruled the dance floor. She knew all the latest dances, particularly ‘The Rock’ and ‘The Freak.’ However, what really impressed me was that she could ‘Step’ better than anyone. I couldn’t keep up with her, but she didn’t care. I was most confident just doing ‘The Bump’ and ‘The Bus Stop,’ which my sister Cheryl had taught me in our living room. Then, the DJ played ‘Wishing on a Star’ by Rose Royce, my all-time favorite slow jam. I grabbed Dina, and J. P. grabbed Mary. I had never seen J. P. so happy in all the time I had known him. This time, he was just his usual self, and it was great! When you saw J. P. and Mary slow dancing, it was like watching magic being made; it looked as though they were already in love with each other. At the end of the night, we all hated to leave because we were having so much fun. But I had promised my dad we would have the car back by 12:30 a.m., so we started making our way to the exit. J. P. and Mary were holding hands, and I had my arm around Dina’s waist as we walked into the chill. As we headed out to the street, all of us were looking in different directions like meerkats; we were looking for my dad’s car. I thought I was losing my mind because I knew J. P. had parked it underneath the lamppost, but it wasn’t there. I got real nervous. I knew my dad would seriously trip because it was our only car.
There must have been some sort of mistake, but all of us agreed the car had been parked in the empty spot we were standing in.
After looking for the car for about thirty minutes, we decided to call the cops and report it as stolen. It didn’t make sense to me; there were several nice cars in the immediate vicinity. In fact, there was a brand new Cadillac Eldorado just across the street. Who steals a Ford station wagon with wood grain paneling along the side? The girls started to get cold, and were standing under the lamppost huddled close together for warmth. I left J. P. with the girls and went to a nearby pay phone to report the car stolen. The operator on the line took all of my details, but when I gave her the license plate number, she dropped a bomb on me. The car had rolled downhill through an intersection and been hit by a large vehicle. J. P. had forgotten to engage the brake, and the car was left in neutral. The police suspected the car had been hit by a truck based on the damage it sustained. Sometime after the incident, police officers towed the wreckage away to clear traffic. The operator told me the car was totaled and they were still looking for the driver, who had not stopped after the accident. It was embarrassing for all of us; everyone was getting in their cars and leaving the dance, and we had no way to get home. I went back to the pay phone and called a cab to pick us up. Fortunately, there was one nearby, and he was there in less than five minutes.
We were all bummed out, because the night had been so special up to that point. When we dropped Mary off, she gave J. P. a kiss on the mouth and said, “Things will be okay, and it was a great night regardless.”
I thought to myself, Easy for you to say. You don’t have to face my dad.
On the way to my house, J. P. and I were anxiously rehearsing how we were going to explain to my dad what had happened. When we came into the house, he had his reading glasses on and was doing crossword puzzles in his pajamas and black velvet robe.
He looked up and said with a big smile, “So how was it?” Then he looked out the window and saw the cab leaving.
“Clay, J. P., where’s the wagon?”
Before J. P. could say anything, I just said, “Dad, we had an accident. I am really sorry.”
“Whose fault was it?”
J. P. lifted his hand and said, “Mine, Reverend T.”
My dad took a deep breath and took off his glasses. He slowly walked toward J. P. and looked up at him. I was getting really nervous, and so was J. P. He just put his hands in his pockets and looked down at the floor.
“Is it totaled?” my dad asked.
“Yes…yes, sir, it is totaled.”
My father raised his voice slightly and said, “Are you sure it is totaled?”
“Rev. T., it was totaled by a large truck. At least, that’s what the police said.”
Then the strangest thing happened. My dad had this great big grin on his face. He put his glasses back on and began searching through a stack of papers in the living room. He then began making a phone call. I looked at J. P., and we just shrugged our shoulders.
“Dad, what’s going on?”
“J. P., you just made my day, young man.”
“I don’t understand, Rev. T. What do you mean?” said J. P.
“I’m making an insurance claim. And when it is settled, I am getting that metallic blue GT500 Ford Mustang I have had my eye on for two weeks now.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Two weeks before Christmas, my father bought a 1967 Ford Mustang GT500. It was metallic blue with Wimbledon racing stripes, mag wheels, and a 427-cubic-inch engine. I loved that car, and so did Jimbo. He also bought my mom a second car for Christmas, a 1977 Caprice Classic. It was probably one of the best Christmases we ever had. We later found out that the driver of the truck that hit my dad’s car was drinking, which was why he did not stop at the scene. Looking back, I could not have picked a better ending for that night.
Semester exams were less than three weeks away. Mrs. Towles met with Jimbo’s dad for a parent-teacher conference to discuss Jimbo’s progress. Jimbo was on the verge of failing all six of his classes, and he was not responding at all to Mrs. Towles’ tutelage. Mrs. Towles told Jimbo’s dad she was terminating further instruction with J. P. Jimbo’s dad was counting on her to ensure Jimbo’s eligibility to compete on the wrestling team. In my personal opinion, Coach P. should have put his pride aside and placed J. P. in special education. But Coach P. was just too proud a man to have his own son in special education at the same school where he taught and coached.
I spoke with J. P. on the phone almost every day just before the semester exams. Jimbo was very apprehensive; he realized that the time he spent with Mrs. Towles was completely wasted. However, he confided in me that if it were not for Mrs. Towles, he probably would not have met Mary. We also talked a lot about him wanting more than anything to help his dad win an unprecedented tenth state championship. He just had to pass the semester exams somehow.
That Monday at 7:45 a.m., J. P. was scheduled to take the first of his six semester exams. I was at Westside looking at the clock, imagining J. P. sweating profusely in homeroom as he waited for the first-period bell to ring. When the 7:45 bell rang, I knew it was game on. I just hoped J. P. was prepared.
The results were in a week later. Coach Pernelli and Jimbo were called into the office of Mr. Towles, the assistant principal. Jimbo told me he was really nervous when he walked in; it felt as though he was a defendant awaiting a jury’s verdict. Mr. Towles was the one to break the news to him. He had failed all of his classes, with the highest score being 42%.
Coach P. stood up and said, “Wait a second, Mike. C’mon, surely this must be a mistake. Surely there must be something we can do about this…right?”
Mr. Towles’ hands were tied. Jimbo told me he was in shock, just sitting there with his face in his hands not saying a word the whole time. When Mr. Towles told Coach P. that he had already notified the athletic department that Jimbo was ineligible to wrestle, Coach P. walked out of the office and slammed the door. It was at that precise moment that Jimbo realized the transfer to Triton was a huge mistake—a mistake that may have cost him everything he wanted. There was just one word to describe how Jimbo felt—hopeless.
Later that evening, Mary stopped by to visit Jimbo at his house.
“I’ve been calling for the last hour, and your phone just rings and rings,” Mary said.
“Where is your dad?”
“He is at an away match tonight, and I should be there with the team.”
“Why aren’t you?” Mary said.
“I have been kicked off the team because I failed every single one of my semester exams. I have been ruled ineligible, they say.” Jimbo then told Mary that he was considering quitting school and just getting a job. According to J. P., that’s when Mary went off on him and told him he would regret it for the rest of his life. He mentioned the idea of being a cab driver, but she wasn’t buying the cab stuff at all.
“Okay, let’s be reasonable. There must be a way to fix this,” Mary said.
“There’s no use, Mary. As far as school sports goes, I am finished.” Jimbo had given up, but Mary was determined to salvage the situation somehow.
The next day, Jimbo saw Mary standing by his locker with a big smile. As he approached her, he saw that she was very jumpy and excited.
“Joshua, guess what? I’ve got great news—great news!”
“Does involve me getting back on the team?”
“Yes, yes, yes!” Mary told Jimbo that her student faculty advisor had recommended that Jimbo retake his exams. This was not the news Jimbo wanted to hear; he had failed so miserably that there seemed to be no chance he would pass a retest. Jimbo tried explaining that to Mary, but she wasn’t hearing it. She told him that he was just giving up. Jimbo did not want to endure the pain of a repeated failure.
Mary just looked at him and said, “It’s your life, and you are free to throw it away…your call.”
She then walked away, leaving Jimbo feeling even more defeated.
Later that evening, Jimbo dropped by my house to visit, but it wasn’t me he wanted to see. He wanted to speak with my dad. Dad was in the family room writing his sermon for next Sunday in front of the fireplace. I opened the sliding door and told my dad Jimbo was here and he needed to talk. I was curious…okay, I was nosy. I went out to the backyard and pretended to clean my motorcycle to eavesdrop on their conversation through the slightly ajar window.
“Rev. T., if you were absolutely, positively sure you were going to fail at something, would you go through the motions just to please someone you really cared for?”
“J. P., sit down, son. First, never accept failure as your fate. I can assure you that lesser people have fought against greater adversity and won. You just have to ask yourself: is it worth fighting for? If the answer is yes, my advice to you is simple. Give God a chance.”
My dad and J. P. talked for about thirty minutes. As J. P. was leaving, we chatted briefly about nothing in particular. I was concerned for J. P. I had no answers, and it appeared there were none.
The following morning, Jimbo met with his student counselor, Mr. Ballenoff, and inquired about taking the retests. Jimbo was hoping to get a negative answer so he could avoid yet another disappointment. Mr. Ballenoff thought it was a great idea and that he should have been offered the opportunity immediately upon receiving the failing grades.
“But Mr. Ballenoff, I don’t want to disappoint people all over again; it was bad enough the first time,” Jimbo said.
“If you pass, then all is well. If you don’t, you have lost nothing,” said Mr. Ballenoff. “I will arrange for you to take the retests, but you only have two days before the window closes.”
“I already know I am going to fail. But I don’t want to lose my girlfriend, and I know I will if I don’t do this.”
On the day of his retests, Jimbo was nervous when he entered Mrs. Blair’s classroom and she pointed to his chair without speaking a word. He said he felt as though she were an executioner leading him to the electric chair. Once he sat down, she looked at her watch and said “Begin.” And so he did.
After his last exam, Jimbo reported to Mr. Ballenoff’s office.
“So, Joshua, how did it go?” Mr. Ballenoff asked.
“I’m not really sure—it was kinda like a blur. Just before the exams, I got the worst headache of my life. My head is still pounding,” said Jimbo.
“I think I need to see the school nurse, if that is okay with you, Mr. Ballenoff.”
“Sure, son. I hope you feel better. I know you have been under a lot of stress at school and at home, too.”
Jimbo told me Mr. Ballenoff was very supportive during his visit and recommended he take it easy. Jimbo also said Mr. Ballenoff would have the papers graded by Monday.
I rode my motorcycle over to J. P.’s house that Sunday, and we talked about everything except the exams, which I thought was odd. He did mention the possibility of dropping out of school and driving a cab to make some money. I took that to mean he was not optimistic about his exam results. He and Mary were speaking again, but the communication was not as cozy as it had been. Also, they weren’t spending nearly as much time together as before. We were sitting outside on his porch and before I knew it, it was getting late. I looked at my watch and I told him I needed to get home to watch my favorite show, Night Gallery. I was surprised to find out that he was a big fan too, and that he rarely missed an episode. Night Gallery was the successor to The Twilight Zone, and although the series had ended in 1973, we both were rerun junkies and could quote lines from our favorite episodes. J. P. had Rod Serling’s voice down to perfection. That night, we watched an episode called ‘Specter in Tap Shoes,’ about a dead sibling who becomes her sister’s guardian angel. I am sure Jimbo wished that his guardian angel could have sat for his exams. But in less than twelve hours, he would know his fate.
On Monday morning, Jimbo was called out of homeroom for a meeting with Mr. Ballenoff. As he headed into the office, he saw Mrs. Towles, Mr. Towles, the principal, and the athletic director all standing in the room. Mrs. Towles pointed at him.
“You’re a cheat! Admit it—you cheated!” she said angrily.
Jimbo was very confused by her accusation.
“What are you talking about? I didn’t need to cheat to fail; I can do that on my own!”
Mr. Ballenoff motioned for Mrs. Towles to sit down.
“Joshua, that’s just it. You passed, but your scores are…well, there are no real words to describe the dramatic increase in performance,” said Mr. Ballenoff.
“We are not here to accuse you unjustly; we just would like to hear your side of the story.” Mr. Glover, the principal, said.
“What story?” Jimbo asked.
“Your grades…all I can say is that this is quite out of the ordinary,” said Mr. Glover.
“Why, what were my grades?” asked Jimbo.
“Your lowest scores were a 98% in English and history. You aced math, science, and French and got a 99% in biology.”
“What? Are you serious?” Jimbo said in disbelief.
“I want a full-scale inquiry. Everyone knows he cheated,” said Mrs. Towles.
“How did you do it, Joshua?” she demanded.
“I guess it must have been your excellent tutelage, Mrs. Towles.”
“That is BS and you know it. You ought to be suspended.” Mrs. Towles was out of line, and Mr. Glover put her in her place, reminding her that she had no authority to recommend anything. Mr. Glover announced that he would initiate his own inquiry, but Joshua was declared eligible to rejoin the wrestling team until he found justification for overturning the decision.
“You mean I can wrestle?” said Jimbo.
“For now, it looks that way. It would be unethical to assume there were improprieties without due course.”
“Right on!” Joshua shook Mr. Glover’s hand and excused himself from the meeting to go to his next class.
On his way to seventh period, Jimbo saw Mary standing by his locker. She smiled and grabbed his hand.
“I heard. I am so proud of you,” Mary said. Jimbo asked Mary how she had heard, and she told him that she had heard Mrs. Towles using the library phone to speak to someone about the matter.
“Mary, if it wasn’t for you, I would be off the team. I owe you big time.” Jimbo reached down and kissed her forehead. “Gotta run, I’m late for wrestling practice. I will call you tonight!”
The next day, Jimbo was waiting in the office to see Mr. Ballenoff about enrolling himself in special education when he turned eighteen later in the month. While he was in the office, he overheard a heated conversation between the principal and Mrs. Towles.
“Well, I have informed everyone else, and I wanted you to hear it from me. I have interviewed all of Joshua’s teachers, and I have decided that although these grades appear to be rather inflated, there is no evidence to support any improprieties,” said Mr. Glover.
“What! I don’t believe I am hearing this mess! This is Joshua Pernelli we are talking about, remember?”
“Mrs. Towles, the exams he passed were different from the ones he took initially. You know we never offer the same exams for the retests,” said Mr. Glover. “The questions are randomly generated for all retests; that’s just school policy, and it has been since 1969.”
Mr. Glover further added that Joshua had been under observation during all the tests, and to assume he cheated would be to imply that the teachers were not doing their jobs. Mrs. Towles seemed to be taking it personally, and it appeared that she really wanted her way, according to Jimbo.
The following week, Mrs. Towles walked into the library and informed Mary that she needed to use the library phone for a private matter. Mary just smiled and pretended to be doing administrative tasks. Curiosity got the best of Mary, and she left her desk and positioned herself so she could overhear Mrs. Towles’ conversation. Based on what she could hear, it sounded as though Mrs. Towles was reporting Jimbo’s incident to the District Superintendent of Schools. Mary detected disappointment in Mrs.
Towles’ voice as she hung up, so it seemed the Superintendent wasn’t interested.
The very next period, Mary informed Jimbo about the phone call. Jimbo wasn’t the least bit surprised or worried. No one knew how Jimbo was able to pass the tests with such high marks, and it left school officials puzzled but not accusatory. His test scores were among the top five percent…in the state. Those who knew Jimbo well had no explanation either, but his integrity was never an issue.
A week later, there was a Triton school assembly, and Mr. Glover announced that the school would offer driver’s education in the next school year. According to Jimbo, all the students stood up and cheered. The local Ford dealership had donated five cars to the administration for student drivers. To make room for the new department, the principal announced he was moving the music department to the basement floor of the A-wing. He solicited volunteers from the audience to assist Mrs. Towles with her move. The entire varsity wrestling team stood up and raised their hands. Mary was sitting next to Jimbo, and she stood up to and raised her hand as well. Jimbo said Mrs. Towles was probably already aware of the news, but you couldn’t tell based on the disappointing look on her face. Jimbo said he didn’t hold a grudge against Mrs. Towles and he wished her well.
1978 State Championship—Sudden Death
Over the next six weeks, Jimbo established his dominance in the heavyweight division, compiling an impressive 25–0 record with twenty-three pins and two superior decisions. The California State High School Association ranked him first in the state. He was in a class of his own, with no close competitors. Coach Pernelli had two returning state champions at 119 pounds and 138 pounds, and two others were undefeated at 167 pounds and 180 pounds. Coach Pingatore, from Northwestern high school, had an equally impressive squad with one returning state champion at 112 pounds and three others all ranked in the top five in the state. Coach Pingatore and Coach Pernelli had already been rivals before the infamous blown call in the state meet in 1972 that cost Coach Pernelli the state championship. Apparently, the referee had called a bogus pin when it was clear to everyone watching that only one shoulder was in contact with the mat. The referee had blocked the view of the assistant ref, so the call stood. Coach Pernelli tried to get the referee to agree that it was a blown call, but the referee stood by his call. It was that match that moved Coach Pingatore ahead of Coach Pernelli in number of state titles. Coach Pernelli never got over that.
In what seemed like a last-ditch effort to level the playing field before districts, Coach Pingatore allegedly recruited an out-of-state heavyweight. Coach Pingatore had spotted his new recruit the previous year at the summer Freestyle nationals in Colorado Springs. The kid placed third in the national tournament. In his three years of wrestling in Arizona, he went to state all three times. He was runner-up during his sophomore year and won it in his junior year. His name was Michael Evans, and he was a stud. He had a chiseled physique and the most developed calf muscles I had ever seen. He looked fearless, and his ears were grossly deformed from cauliflower ear. He also sported a crew cut, which I heard was mandated for all Coach Pingatore’s varsity wrestlers.
The Evans kid came from a family of wrestlers. His older brother, Thomas, won the Midlands Invitational at heavyweight in 1975, and he had another brother who had graduated the previous year as a junior college state champion at 180 pounds.
Coach Pernelli petitioned the California State High School Association, citing illegal recruiting practices by Coach Pingatore, but his request was not even acknowledged. Just prior to the district qualifier, the state rankings were republished. Jimbo was ranked second, and Mike Evans was in the top spot. Mike’s wrestling record from Arizona did not carry over (he was 12–0 there, all pins), and his record in the state of California was 13–0. However, had been ranked fifth nationally the previous year, which I believe the tournament officials took into consideration.
Both Triton and Northwestern cruised to easy victories in the districts and sectional qualifiers. The sports media were in a frenzy of speculation about who had the most dominant team. It was split about 50–50 by the sportswriters and pundits who followed wrestling, although the magazine Young Wrestler gave the edge to Northwestern.
I also made it to the state championship…as a spectator in street clothes. My teammate Tommy and I were district champions for Westside, but we didn’t advance beyond sectionals. After the first three rounds of wrestling, there was an intermission. Jimbo was in the bottom bracket, and Mike was in the top bracket. Both sailed to the semifinals.
During the intermission, I asked J. P. how he was feeling. He said he felt great, and he asked me to walk with him to see who he would meet in the semifinals.
When he found his next match on the bracket sheet, he smiled at me.
“I got this,” he said confidently.
“What?” I said as I looked at the bracket sheet. J. P. was up against Mark Aguillar from Westinghouse, the guy who had ended his undefeated streak last year. I saw J. P. getting psyched up, so I wished him well and headed back to the bleachers. I wanted to see this grudge match. Jimbo was hungry for payback.
The referee called both wrestlers to the mat. They shook hands, and then I heard, “Wrestle!” I wanted to get some pictures so I reached in my bag to grab my camera, but the film wasn’t loaded. By the time I got the film loaded and set, the match was over. I hadn’t seen anything; I missed the whole match, all 15 seconds of it. J. P. had recorded the fastest pin of the tournament.
Meanwhile, I was also keeping an eye on Mike Evans. None of his matches went the distance either; he was a beast, and he was fearless. Mike was a master technician, and you could see the confidence of an entire generation of wrestlers in his eyes. He didn’t make mistakes. I watched three of Mike’s matches and couldn’t find a particular takedown that he favored; he was excellent at all of them. He had his own cheering section of his family and friends from out of town. The press followed him to all his matches wanting interviews, but Mike wasn’t about talk.
Heavyweights are always the last to wrestle in tournaments, so the tournament was winding down as the showdown for the most hyped match of the evening approached.
Northwestern had already crowned two state champions, and had one placed sixth. Oddly, their defending state champion never made it to the semis. Triton had one state champion at 119 pounds and two runners-up at 126 and 132. The winner of the heavyweight bout would decide the team state championship. Although I didn’t make it to state as a wrestler, this was as good as it got. I was on pins and needles, pulling for my boy J. P.
Before the match began, the lights went out over the unused mats. Only the light over the center mat was on. This was the last match of the night, and although Northwestern was slightly ahead in points, a win by Jimbo would give Triton enough points to overtake them and win the state championship. The final call came from the announcers table.
“Will Joshua Pernelli of Triton and Michael Evans from Northwestern please report to the scorer’s table.”
Both wrestlers approached the table. Jimbo was assigned the red anklet, and Mike was assigned the green anklet. After a few words at the scorer’s table, both wrestlers ran onto the mat. This was the match everyone had been waiting for. Both wrestlers stretched and stared each other down, each trying to psych the other out. Jimbo and Mike shook hands, and the referee blew his whistle. Immediately, Mike advanced forward and locked up with Jimbo. Bam! Mike hit him with a duck under and took him down, scoring two points. Immediately, Mike threw his legs in and began riding Jimbo. I just sighed. Mike then put Jimbo in a guillotine, bringing him to a near-fall position and scoring another three points. Jimbo seemed lost—really lost. The period ended 5–0 in favor of Mike.
In the second period, Mike chose the top position and let Jimbo escape, giving him a point. Mike again advanced, locked up with Jimbo, and hit him with another duck under! As before, Mike threw the legs in and went for the guillotine. This time, Jimbo was nearly pinned. I was getting bored; this wasn’t the match I had expected to see. Jimbo was falling for the same moves, and he couldn’t figure Mike out.
The second period ended with a score of 10–1. It was embarrassing; all of Jimbo’s might and strength counted for nothing in the biggest match of his life. This match emphasized that finesse and flawless execution render strength ineffective, just as his dad always said.
Just prior to the third period, Coach P. began tearing into Jimbo in front of his teammates and the opposing team. Personally, I thought it bordered on being disrespectful. I wanted to go home at that point. From the coaches’ corner, Coach P. told the referee that Jimbo would take the top position for the third period. As Jimbo left his corner and approached the mat, Coach P. yelled something to Jimbo. It must have incensed him; he stopped in his tracks looking back at his dad, and the referee had to call him to the center of the mat twice. Immediately, I could tell Jimbo was ticked off. Jimbo mounted Mike, and the referee yelled, “Wrestle!” Jimbo let Mike up, giving up another point. Was this some sort of strange protest on Jimbo’s part? It seemed as though he was deliberately throwing the match to deny his father the championship.
Then Jimbo buckled and fell to his knees; Coach P. called an injury timeout. It looked as though Jimbo might end up forfeiting, as he used up almost all of the injury time. Apparently, Jimbo was suffering from a severe migraine, and his vision was impaired. Coach Pingatore accused Jimbo of faking injury to catch a breather. Jimbo managed to shake it off and report back to the center of the mat. But when he got back into his stance, I noticed Jimbo was leading with his left foot instead of his right. He was trying a completely different style, I guess to try to confuse Mike. Then Jimbo did the unthinkable: he began to lock up with Mike. Some people never learn. Mike had killed him from the locked-up position throughout the last two rounds. I could not figure out why Jimbo didn’t shoot a double-leg or a single-leg takedown. All of his teammates just kind of bowed their heads, not really watching, and Coach P. paced nervously along the sides of the mat, screaming at the top of his lungs. I saw it coming as if it was in slow motion. Mike was getting ready to hit Jimbo with yet another duck under. I started to gather my things because I wasn’t going to watch it anymore. But before he could throw it, Jimbo executed a perfect fireman’s carry! It was done with such a level of precision that I could not believe what I was seeing. Jimbo somehow got Mike in headlock pinning combination, and the crowd went hysterical! Mike was on his back trying to ride out the clock, as he was ahead on points. The electronic timer was down to ten seconds, and the timekeeper was poised to throw the towel to end the match. The referee was looking to call a pin, but Jimbo had not quite sunk it in yet.
Coach P. yelled, “Finish him!”
With two seconds left on the clock, the ref slapped the mat, and pandemonium broke loose. J. P. was the new heavyweight state champion! Coach Pingatore threw his clipboard on the floor in disbelief as he saw his championship slip away during the last few seconds of the match. Coach P. raised both hands in victory and threw his clipboard into the air. Within the last few seconds of the match, Triton had sealed yet another state championship.
Coach P. was now in sole possession of the long-awaited distinction of being the most successful high school wrestling coach in the state’s history! Triton supporters threw confetti bombs high into the air. What an amazing comeback! Everyone was on their feet applauding, even some of the Northwestern supporters.
But there was this one little detail. J. P. had not responded to the whistle. He continued to choke Mike in the headlock, despite the ref’s efforts to end the match. All of a sudden, the audience fell silent. Something was wrong. Coach Pingatore and Mike’s parents ran onto the mat to stop J. P. from choking Mike. Coach P. jumps in, too, but no one was strong enough to break J. P.’s grip. Mike tapped the mat to signal he was in trouble. Then his legs begin twitching, and his face became pale. Both teams converged on the mat to assist. J. P. was just too strong. Then it looked as though Mike just went to sleep. Moments later, J. P. released Mike. The security staff swarmed J. P. and took him away.
The ref and assistant ref met briefly at the scorer’s table and decided to disqualify Jimbo for flagrant misconduct. Mike was revived, carted off the mat on a gurney, and taken to Loyola Hospital. In a reversal of fate, Coach Pingatore overtook Coach Pernelli for the state record. Coach P. ran to the scorer’s table. In a fit of rage, he began pushing the referees around and swearing at them. Eventually, he had to be restrained by Tony Staples, the team’s co-captain.
Threedayslater,theEvansfamilyfiled aggravated assault charges against Jimbo Pernelli and initiated litigation against the California High School Athletic Association (CHSAA) for failing to provide a safe environment. The civil charges against J. P. and the lawsuit against CHSAA made local headlines. Meanwhile, J. P. was under psychiatric care at Loyola, the same hospital where Mike Evans was undergoing physiotherapy for neck injuries he sustained during the finals match. The Evans family did their very best to publicize their plight by retaining a high-powered attorney, speaking to the press and contacting at least two city officials.
One week before graduation, Mike Evans went to Loyola, but this was not for a scheduled medical appointment. Mike went to visit J. P. in the psychiatric ward, Peartree Ward. J. P. was in light-blue hospital garments watching television when Mike strolled into the wardroom escorted by a nurse. J. P. was at a loss for words as he leaned forward in his chair, looking up at Mike.
“You know…we never did shake hands at the end of our match.” Mike said with a smile.
Instantly, a calm settled in the room, as Jimbo puts it. Despite what had happened, the two had great respect for the other as wrestlers. The reason Mike had no fear in his heart was that it was filled with compassion. The boys sat in adjacent chairs and chatted for almost an hour. During a lull in the conversation, Mike abruptly stood up and reached into his pocket. In his hand was the heavyweight state championship medal he had been awarded for his match against J. P.
“This belongs to you, my friend.” Mike said as he placed it around J. P.’s massive neck.
“I don’t care how the ref called it after the fact; when time expired you were the champion, not me.”
J. P. was momentarily speechless by this extraordinary act of kindness and forgiveness.
“Dude, I can’t accept this.” said J. P.
“Too bad—I insist. There’s not enough room in my trophy case anyway.” Mike said with a smile.
Mike firmly shook J. P.’s hand and saluted him as he departed the ward.
Against his families’ wishes, Mike dropped all charges against J. P. and withdrew the lawsuit against the CHSAA. Mike’s parents gave one last press interview regarding their case. They indicated they were going to press forward, but they couldn’t because Mike was eighteen at the time and exercised his legal rights as an adult.
Three weeks after Mike’s visit, doctors convened to discuss the results of the battery of psychiatric exams that J. P. was subjected to. These were the doctors’ findings.
On 4 March 1978, a panel of four psychiatrists conducted a Multidisciplinary Assessment to establish a mental health profile for Mr. Joshua Pernelli.
*Higher than normal levels of memory encoding
*Parietal lobe diminutive
*Abnormal cerebral blood flow
*Altered states show distinct physiological markers
*Abnormal hippocampal volumes
*Abnormal amygdala volumes
Induced altered states (hypnosis) revealed the following: Subject displayed two latent separate and distinct personalities.
Psychiatrist’s Comments: Subject is most susceptible to Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) episodes when confronted with intense emotional duress or trauma. These episodes appear to be preceded by headaches followed by a degree of memory loss. Personality splits may be successive. Recommend further testing and evaluation.
MPD Profile: Conclusive: Dr. Mark Blumstein.
For all of us who knew J. P., the doctor’s findings did not change how we felt about this kind soul. Doctors had been wrong before. When he was a child, his doctors told his mom his muscle-growth disorder would have no effect on his heart. They were obviously wrong, because no one had a bigger heart than my friend Joshua Pernelli.
Jimbo was allowed to switch to special education while an inpatient at Loyola. He was tutored three times a week under his new program, and school officials allowed him to graduate with his class in June. In July 1978, he transferred to outpatient care.
Return to the Rock
As I packed my clothes in my hotel room, I glanced at the pictures on my digital camera with a smile. I checked the clock. As I was about to call Martin to pick me up, I saw him pull into the circle drive at the main entrance. As I made my way out of the hotel to the sedan, Martin was standing there, impeccably dressed and waiting with a smile.
“Good morning, Mr. Thompson. I hope your stay was pleasant,” he said.
“Absolutely wonderful,” I said.
“Did you see all of your old classmates?”
“Yeah, I did, actually, except for one. It would have been nice to have seen him, but I think he dropped off the face of the earth. There are a couple of stops I would like to make before I head to the airport. I’d like to get some flowers first.”
“Yeah, my parents. I would like say goodbye before I leave. We have plenty of time.” I stopped by the nearest florist and got the nicest bouquet of flowers in the window. When the florist asked me if I would like a card, I just replied, “No, thank you. The flowers will be just fine.”
After about a thirty-minute drive, we pulled into the cemetery where my parents were laid to rest. I told Martin to wait. There was a large cross almost in the middle of the cemetery, which I used as a landmark to find my parents’ graves. As usual, the finality of it all hit me right in the stomach. My legs wobbled on the short journey, and my eyes welled up. As I approached their side-by-side graves, I let out a big sigh and stared up at the sun, which was beautifully masked by overcast clouds. I reminisced about what wonderful parents they were and how much I loved them.
I could hear my parents’ voices crystal clear in my head. “How are you, young man?” “Okay, love you, dear. Bye.”
I laid the flowers on their graves and walked back to the sedan. I reached for my sunglasses to mask my emotions, trying to keep it together, and I managed. Martin opened the door for me, I got in, and we headed for LAX. After we arrived at the airport, Martin smartly opened the door, popped the trunk, and assisted me with my luggage.
“Martin, I really enjoyed chatting with you. You are indeed a class act.”
He smiled and said, “Glad you liked the service.”
I told him I was being posted to England within a few months and he should look me up if we were ever in town. We exchanged e-mail addresses. We shook hands, and then I briskly walked toward the terminal. After about ten steps, I remembered I had forgotten to tip him, so I doubled back. I was too late. As I saw his taillights merge into traffic, I couldn’t make out the license plate, but I did manage to read the company placard: Pernelli’s Executive Car Hire.
Jimbo never set foot on a mat again after the state finals in 1978. Jimbo Pernelli and Mary Suarez married several years later, but not to each other. Jimbo has three daughters, Candace, Amber, and Angelina, and a son, Brandon. He is the proprietor of a successful executive car hire chain in the Midwest. Jimbo, Mary, and Clay remain close friends to this day.
Clay Thompson enjoyed a successful wrestling career in the US Marines. Some of his wrestling highlights were:
• 2X Okinawa, Japan Armed Forces Freestyle Champion 163 pounds 1982–1983 (Undefeated in 1982).
• 2X All-Marine West Coast Regional Freestyle Champion in 1980 and in 1993 (163 pounds and 198 pounds).
Clay retired from the US Marines and now lives in a suburb of London, England, with his wife, Karen. Clay Jr. joined the USAF and is stationed near his dad in the UK. Clay is a referee during the Department of Defense high school wrestling season. In July of 2010, Clay restored his father’s dream car, a 1967 Ford GT500 Mustang.
Dina became a successful financial consultant with clients across the country. She is married with two daughters, Candace and Classy.
Martin is now a chauffeur for American Dreams, a nationwide car hire company in the United Kingdom, less than twenty miles away from Clay. Every now and then, the two meet up at the pub and watch football (English football).
Coach Pernelli finally attained his lifelong dream. He was inducted into the Coaches’ Hall of Fame three years later, posthumously.
This book is dedicated to my father, the late Reverend Dr. Eddie C. Thompkins Jr., and my mother, Ms. Brenda A. Lewis.
This story was inspired in part by my aunt, the late Winifred Martin (neé Thompkins), who struggled with mental illness for many years until her early death on September 19, 1992, at the age of 49. I saw her through the eyes of a child, and what I saw was a kind and loving heart. You are forever in our hearts, Aunt Winifred. We miss you.
Portrait of a High School Sports Legend
Photo Courtesy of Maggie Ross
Hubert D. Thompson, Proviso West
H.S. Alumni Class of 1997
The author would like to express his appreciation to Hubert D. Thompson for his contributions and accomplishments in the sport of high school wrestling in the state of Illinois. Hubert, also referred to as ‘Boo Boo,’ will probably be remembered as one of the most dominant wrestlers and athletes in state history. Hubert was named to five different all-state teams in three sports during his junior and senior years at Proviso West from 1996 to 1997 (Information obtained from Michigan State Football’s online player bio for Hubert Thompson).
Senior year 1997
Perfect record of 22 wins and no losses
(Heavyweight State Champ) Junior year 1996
33 wins and one loss (disqualified) (Heavyweight State Champ) Pinned all opponents in state meet
1996–1997 record: 55 wins, 1 loss (47 pins)
Ranked as the nation’s #1 defensive end and #7 player overall:
The National Recruiting Advisor
Two-time first-team all-state (1996 & 1997)
Recorded 120 tackles, including three sacks, and caused three fumbles as a senior
A single-game-high of 18 tackles, including two sacks, vs. Glenbard East in ‘96
Height/Weight: 6’6”/250 pounds
Ran 4.7 in the 40-yard dash
Track and Field
All-state selection (shot put) 5th in 1996
Hubert Thompson, thank you for representing Proviso West Wrestling with such grace and poise. Your accomplishments serve as an enduring source of inspiration for all of those who seek to push beyond their mental and physical limits.
I would also like to express my appreciation to Maggie Ross (Hubert’s mother) and Famous Hulbert (a football teammate) for making it possible for me to speak with Boo Boo. It was the best 2 a.m. phone call I ever made.
Hubert ‘Boo Boo’ Thompson’s Photo
Thompson cradles to a pin in 1997 State Finals
1996 and 1997 Two-Time Heavyweight State Champion
Martin Reid (The best chauffeur in the business) and me (Cambridge, England 2011)
Proviso West Alumni
Please support the Proviso West Gridiron Club.
Send donations to the address below.
Proviso West High School
ATTN: Famous Hulbert
4701 Harrison Street
Hillside, IL 60162
Please make checks and money orders payable to the PW Gridiron Club.
First and foremost, I want to thank Jesus Christ, my lord and savior, for all the blessings I have received and those forthcoming.
My dad, Rev. T., for teaching me to be a man and being a source of wisdom and wise counsel. My mother, Brenda Lewis, for all of your years of positive reinforcement and nurturing. I love and honor you.
My wife, Karen, who put up with me spending countless hours on the computer. Thank you for understanding that there are some things I have to do. You are a blessing to me, and I love and appreciate you more than you know.
My son, Eddie. I hope that I am at least half the dad to you, as my dad was to me. Know that your mind is limitless, and never let anyone define your potential.
To the members of my family. Cheryl Keaton, the author of the gospel play Perfect Praise. You and Alfonso have been an absolute blessing with your inspiration and your constant testimonial. Chenelle and Sherri, you are the daughters I never had. Live your lives to the absolute fullest. Give Candance a hug for me. Melanie, Breanna, Hannah and Nathaniel, make plans to visit me in London, I love you guys. Misty, thank you for being a wonderful parental figure during my teen years and beyond.
Uncle Irvin, the author of the book, The Nervous Disorder, your outlook on life helped shape and mold me from an early age. I will never forget when you gave me all of your ‘cool clothes’ during my senior year in school. Thanks! Aunt Gloria, Cousins Jeremy, Tracy and Irvin Jr. Aunt Mariea, it is so nice to receive letters from you and hear how well Pure Hope Ministries is doing. Theron, Doria and Winston, I see you guys on Facebook; I’d like to see you guys here! You are anointed and truly blessed, and I am glad to have you as an aunt. Aunt Ann, as kids Cheryl and I always looked forward to seeing you, Jason, and Roland. No one knows how to have fun like you do. You always made us laugh. Aunt Venida, come visit soon!
Uncle Gregory, thanks for being a gem of a brother to my mother and a role model for me as a young Marine. Aunt Gladys, Germaine, Gregory Jr., Gabriel, Gershon. Uncle Marlon, thanks for being there for my mom, especially the time when you organized her retirement party. High props to you. Uncle Darryl, although your life was cut short, you helped groom me to be a young man while you lived with us. Aunt May, thanks for the pictures! My cousins, Cordell, Renee, Keith, Andrea, Theron, Doria, Tracy, Jeremy, Nikki, Ursula, Treva, and Dennis.
Special thanks to Maggie Ross (mother of Hubert Thompson) and Famous Hulbert (current Proviso West football coach) for making it possible for me to make contact with Hubert. God bless you both.
To my best friends in the whole universe, Jimmy Parker and Yolanda Brantley, your friendship to me has meant more than you guys will ever know. Jimmy, you are my brother, just from a different mother. Our thirty-plus-year friendship has centered me and made me truly appreciative! I will never forget when you took me to the hospital after I was dehydrated and stayed the night. Only a brother would do that. I think I still hold the Milles Bornes Championship belt! One day we have to go back to the Stumps in your new Audi A5. Yo Yo, I still remember leaving your house in the early hours of the morning after playing Bid. Thanks for looking after Eddie and me on the Rock, making sure we always had a place to spend family holidays.
To my good friend Nadina Taylor (neé Brown), thanks for your years of staying in contact and being an integral part of my youth. Keith Sheffield and Kevin Colder…Big Six to da board. Camille and Jerry, thanks for looking out for me during my retirement transition and countless other displays of kindness. Robin Oliver, A. Lightfoot, Terry and Martine Hogan-(Where are we doing New Years’ 2012?), Shanita and Xylina Hogan, Robert Tylor, Gwynn. S., F. Ballard, Ann Strachan, K. P. Miller, Nicole Goodwin, Tony ‘Soultrain’ Sotrines, Israel Archuletta, Andrew Wilson, Elise Deadwyler-Reed, Kevin Colder, A. Robinson, Dana Ferrell, Tammy Tinsley, Allison and Chris Port, Tony Bailey, Bryan and Pauline, Cris and Jo Sharp, Cryn Watts, Chris Starkey, John Frey, Hank LeFebre, Chad Malley (East Anglia MMA Champ), Tara and Jason Johns, Steve Ruder, Malcolm Scott, Wesley Phillips, Martin Read, my neighbors Tim and Gloria, Charlie and Danijela, Malcolm and Jenny, my in-laws Diane and John White, Louise and Chris Horn, Gaynor and Steve Graham, David and Matthew Leadbitter.
To all my friends and teammates at Proviso West, thanks! Mike Pendola, Jerry Tully, John Cassagrande, Donna Hruska, Donna and Dawn Kasik, Frank Lyne, Martha Howden, Barbara Fisher, Evelyn Brown, Bob Smith, Craig Puckett, Derrick Hamilton, Venisha and the late Vanessa Watt, Gail Greene (neé Sanders), Terry Morrison, Tammy George, Cletus Howard, Desiree Pritchett, the late Aubrey McAlpine, Vicky McAlpine, Miranda Ward, Debbie and Karen Parham, Evelyn Brown, Kim Humphries, Kenneth and Sabrina Beard, Clint Brown.
Coaches: Craig Rosengren, Tony Firovanti, USMC 1st Lt. Kerkow, Mr. Ed Yonkus, Howard Current, AHS Coach Bruce Ballard, KOA Wrestling Commissioner Al Shaff, Larry Wieczorek, Mr. Donoho, Mr. Green, Mr.
Mcleary, Mr. Snyder, and the late Mr. Sutherland.
Wrestlers Den: Tom Yudys, Tim Bend, Henry Polancyk, Dennis Smith, Thomas Yassen, Marvin Burrows, Howie Marella, LaRock Benford (USMC Sgt Major ret. and stud wrestler), Pat Yonkus, Willie Staples (State Champ 1976 Proviso East 112 pounds).
Special thanks to Greg Gibson (USMC MSgt ret.), my coach at the All-Marine trials at Quantico, Virginia in 1989. In a career that graced almost thirty years, you were the only American wrestler to win world medals in three international styles: Greco-Roman, Freestyle, and Sombo. And, of course, your silver medal in the 1984 Olympics. Congratulations on your induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 2007.
About the Author
E. Clay III grew up on Chicago’s south side in Hyde Park in the early 1960’s during the de-escalation of the civil rights movement. In 1975 when he was fourteen, his family moved to Bellwood, Illinois (School District 209). In early December 1976, Proviso Township High School District 209 was given until Christmas to come up with a desegregation program, in compliance with Illinois Office of Education (IOE) requirements (Forest Park World, December 8, 1976). The State Board of Education directed District 209 to implement a plan to achieve racial balance (minimum of 15% minority population) within 2–3 years. If the school board resisted, the district would have been placed on probation and eventually would have lost its status as an accredited school district. According to a New York Times article, some felt the realignment threatened the homogeneity of the school environment.
It was this time period between 1975 and 1979 that shaped and influenced the way E. Clay viewed life. During the sometimes tumultuous challenges he (and others) faced being a minority student at Proviso West, there was always a greater good that prevailed. This greater good manifested itself through his significant friendships with teammates, classmates and faculty staff, irrespective of race. Although some racial hesitance was experienced on both sides, athletics was a way for all to come together for a one common cause: to win. Organized sports required teammates to work together, and along the way, preconceived ideations eventually gave way to personal experiences. This experience was echoed throughout his US Marine Corps career: one team, one fight.
After retiring from the US Marine Corps, E. Clay relocated to the United Kingdom where he lives with his wife Karen. In 2006, His son accepted orders on behalf of the US Air Force to the United Kingdom. Father and son are neighbors, living on the same English estate in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.
A special-needs high school phenom is on the way to his first wrestling state championship; the only obstacle standing in his way is one of the most successful high school wrestling coaches of all time from a rival school, his own father. This story also captures the budding friendship between two athletes from different cultural backgrounds. Their friendship, threatened by the unintended consequences of school busing would change both of their lives forever. Meanwhile, father and son are on an emotional collision course as the father coaches against his own son in the state championship finals. Losing is not an option for either. For one, name recognition and legacy are at stake; for the other, his father’s respect and approval.
Who will win?
Every generation bears witness to a super athlete, for whom greatness calls. Flagrant Misconduct is the story of such an athlete…who changed my life.
“An excellent first book!” –
A nickname often used by US Marines to describe the Japanese island Okinawa
(n) Marine slang for ‘Okinawan cab driver’
Thank you very much; Japanese translation
(n) a one-piece, tight-fitting, colored uniform, usually made of Spandex, lycra, or nylon
‘Burnouts’ was a name we gave to all the druggie kids who smoked cigarettes in the courtyard between classes.
(v) Slang: To get beaten up by a large, angry group of people. Literally, to get rushed by bums or lowlifes.
(n) Slang: young Black female
A weekly swimsuit model featured in the Black publication Jet
A form of dance that Black culture developed out of ‘The Bop,’ similar to salsa and swing
A popular line dance during the Disco era, predecessor to the ‘Electric Slide’
Excessive scar tissue from blood clotting due to trauma, causing permanent, odd-shaped thickening of the outer ear. A common injury among wrestlers and boxers.
New York Times (29 May 1994) ‘We’re All Racists Now’ Retrieved on 28 May 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/magazine