The Morning Mile is a daily column written by Culture Editor Ryan Shepard and published at 9 a.m. CT. The views of Ryan Shepard do not necessarily reflect those of Def Pen writers, editors and staff.
There comes a day in many people’s lives when they take their last shot, score their final goal or catch their final pass. Standing at 5’8 and weighing 160 pounds through most of high school, my days as a basketball player were cut short in my sophomore year. My dreams of playing football were lost not long thereafter. The one sport I was able to hang on to was track & field. Being one of the few people willing to run both the 400-meter dash and a 4×400 relay definitely helped me last longer than I previously expected. Still, I struggled to earn a varsity letter until the final semester of my final year of high school. With one race left on the regular-season schedule, I earned my fifth and final point needed to officially earn the letter. Running in front of my high school crush, I felt a bit of extra motivation as I ran my split in the 4×4 relay at a personal-best pace of 52.8 seconds. About seven years later, I can still remember hearing Kid Ink’s “Main Chick” blasting in the backseat of the bus as we celebrated the last win of the regular season. Little did I know, my track career would end that day.
Running against the Westminster School in spring 2014, our 4×4 relay team qualified for the New England regional championships. It appeared that I would end my high school career would end with a picture-perfect outro. Finally, I would have the opportunity to run against the best of the best on the area’s biggest stage. These hopes and dreams were quickly put into question when my Mom called to offer some good news. I had the privilege of being a finalist for the Jackie Robinson Foundation scholarship program. The next step in the process involved me doing an interview with the scholarship advisory committee. There was just one minor issue. The interview was scheduled on the same day as the New England regional championships and I had a better opportunity to get the scholarship if I did the interview in person. With the opportunity to run in the New England regional championships taking place in Connecticut and the interview taking place in New York, I was posed with a dilemma. These were good problems to have, but a dilemma nevertheless. My Mom allowed me to make the decision, but I think she wanted me to make a decision with my future in mind. Keeping this mindset, I did what was best for me in the long run. As my team ran in regional championships, I had the best interview of my life and secured a four-year scholarship. While it hurt to find out that my team finished 11th out of 14 teams, I knew that I had made the right decision. I was going to be a student in college, but there was no chance I’d be running track in college.
In the years that followed, I came to understand just what the Jackie Robinson Foundation is and what it continues to do for young students of color. Year after year, the foundation not only offered the financial foundation that I needed to get through college, but it provided me opportunities that I could have only dreamed of as a young kid from North Plainfield, New Jersey. From sharing the stage with Michael Che at Caroline’s in Times Square to having a one-on-one conversation with Byron Pitts about journalism, the opportunities the foundation offered are unparalleled. Most importantly, the foundation was there when I needed them most. When I nearly failed out of college with a 0.7 GPA, the foundation was there. When one of my best friends died during my final year of college, the foundation was there. When I was prepared to walk across the stage with my diploma, the foundation was there.
Founded just months after his death, Robinson’s legacy lives on through his wife, Rachel, and the talented team that runs the foundation. In this way, Robinson never truly died. While his physical presence is no longer here, his memory, thoughts, feelings and wishes preserve through good times and bad. The groundwork that Jackie, Rachel and the foundation have laid has contributed to the success of graduates like New York Giants Defensive Coordinator Patrick Graham, Rep. Lauren Underwood, MCU producer Nate Moore and many others.
Over the next few days, Robinson’s exploits on the field and the challenges he overcame to thrive in Major League Baseball will be celebrated. He was so much more than a baseball player. He was a father, a son, a husband and a man. Always remember that the biggest plays Robinson ever made were off the field and in the hearts and minds of those who may not have ever had the privilege of meeting him.