Jael Ealey Richardson: My Father’s Game-Changing Advice

Book Cover The Stone Thrower

My father, Chuck Ealey, grew up in a poor, segregated neighbourhood in a small town in southern Ohio during one of the most turbulent eras in modern American history. He was a high school student at the peak of the civil rights movement—a college student during the Vietnam controversy. But when I was younger, he rarely talked about his story.

My father said he didn’t remember very much about his childhood, or about the events that would lead him not to the National Football League to play professional football in the country where he was born, but to the Canadian Football League where he started out in Hamilton. I have always found that hard to believe, that he didn’t remember—mostly because during that time of American discord, political upheaval, and personal tragedy, my father managed an unprecedented winning streak on the football field. He never lost a game.

What my father did remember about those times, and what he told me when I asked him how he won all of those games, was that he saw the wins before they happened. He had heard that advice from another athlete he admired and he never forgot it.

“By the time the game happened, I had played the game several times in my mind already,” my father told me.

Whether he was playing at Municipal Stadium in Portsmouth, Ohio, or in the Glass Bowl Stadium in Toledo, Ohio, or in a stadium somewhere in Canada, before each game my father imagined handling the unexpected in advance of the kick-off whistle. He imagined perfect passes and timely runs; he pictured himself scrambling successfully, evading defenders.

It’s advice that goes far beyond the football field. It’s advice I thought about often over the last four years as I embarked on my own journey—writing a memoir about my life, my father, and history. I thought about what the end result would look like before tackling what seemed like an impossible project fraught with hard decisions and overwhelming obstacles.

The famous poet Lord Byron said, “If I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad.” For me, writing came from that same place—that deep need to avoid madness, to understand my storming insecurities, to answer the questions I had about the legacy that shaped me.

Ealey in Toledo

Part of that need to empty my mind involved understanding where I’d come from; it stemmed from a desire to know the truth about my father’s famous story, to unearth memories that, for my father in particular, were uncomfortably personal.

As I travelled to my father’s hometown and the place where he went to college, as I sat down with him and gathered information, the big question I was left with was how to write this particular story.

How should I craft a story about a man who had been written about in so many newspaper articles already? How could I tell a universal story to people who didn’t know the history, who didn’t know about, or even like, football? I decided to use my father’s game-winning advice to tackle my most ambitious project.

In graduate school, where I started to write The Stone Thrower, I read Lost, a memoir by fellow Canadian, Cathy Ostlere. I finished it quickly. Reading that memoir was when writing my father’s story became something I didn’t just want to do, but something I could. Ostlere’s book revealed to me new options in writing nonfiction that fell between the stylized fiction I enjoyed and the story of my father’s life that I was anxious to retell.

Creative nonfiction is like the documentary style of literature. It gives writers a chance to craft a known story uniquely, with careful, artistry. There’s a predetermined storyline, but there’s also a range of creative options for writers to narrate the context and the history. The result is like a literary quilt—memories and stories that are carefully stitched together with an eye for detail and texture.

The Stone Thrower is not just a story about football. It’s a story about black history, American culture, and how the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the protests of men like John Carlos have influenced my life as a black Canadian born of American parents. It integrates history and creative prose and archival sports articles. It tells the story of a man who threw stones at a train in the projects alongside the story of a privileged, African Canadian girl searching for identity forty years later.

Jael Richardson

While it may not be what my father envisioned when he gave me the okay to write about his story four years ago, it’s the book I have read over and over in my mind—long before it appeared on the page or arrived in tangible print on the shelves of Canadian booksellers.

Jael Richardson has a Bachelor of Arts degree and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Excerpts from her first play my upside down black face are published in the anthology T-Dot Griots: An Anthology of Toronto’s Black Storytellers. Her first memoir, The Stone Thrower, is due for release in the fall. She currently lives in Brampton with her husband and son, and teaches literature and communications at Humber College.

September 3, 2012
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