Opinion

May 6, 2014

Mark Millican: Racism taught Curry lessons he’s still sharing

— On his first day of practice as a Green Bay Packers rookie, Bill Curry said legendary linebacker Ray Nitschke busted his face mask, his nose and “knocked me out.”

But it was his encounter with a black co-worker years earlier that taught him to be a man — and about race relations in the days when wealthy sports team owners possessed a modicum of good sense and taste.

Curry spoke two weeks ago at a prayer breakfast for Day One, the radio ministry that began in 1945 as “The Protestant Hour.” In his address at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in north Atlanta — before the NBA owner/racism scandal broke — he focused on how his experiences prepared him for a coaching career.

In 1959, Curry was 16 when he landed a construction job. His first boss was a black man named James Harvey. It was a challenge.

“We were not supposed to answer to people of color ... and this guy was the boss,” he said of the 5-foot-11, 230-pound man with a big barrel chest. “But I was taught by my parents we were supposed to love everybody.”

In those days the work crew quenched their thirst with a bucket of water and a ladle.

“James happened to be standing by the water bucket ... and one of the (white) carpenters turned and said, ‘Hey boy, get me some water,’” Curry remembered. “There were two white boys standing there — I was one of them — but he wasn’t talking to us. There was only one guy on the premises who would not be allowed to drink from the water bucket, and he was the one — who was 33 years old — who was being called ‘boy’ and ordered to get a ladle for somebody else.”

Curry said Harvey — who struggled with a speech impediment — didn’t move and “never stopped smiling.”

“The guy said, ‘Did you hear me, boy? Get me some water!’” Curry said the carpenter demanded.

“How, how, how old does a man have, have to be before he’s not a boy?” Curry said Harvey asked.

“It was like a Western shoot-em-up movie — the piano stopped playing, everybody stopped hammering, there were probably nine or 10 carpenters on that frame job — and they all turned and looked at the guy with the hammer,” Curry said. “The guy with the hammer looks at James. James has never raised his voice, never said anything abusive ... The (carpenter) had a decision to make. James had just risked his life to show that he was a human being. Finally the guy said, ‘I apologize, James, I’ll get my own water.’”

As they walked away Curry said he asked his buddy James, “‘Are they going to do something bad to you?’ He slung his big ol’ sweaty arm around my neck and said, ‘Bill, we’ll just go ahead on, we don’t worry none about that.’ Now what did he say to me? He just showed me how to be a man, and how to risk your life in a positive, compelling way. I never forgot that.”

Six years later Curry saw God’s “amazing providence” at work again.

In the past when the NFL had 20 rounds in the draft, Vince Lombardi told an assistant he was exhausted at 2 a.m. after making 19 picks, and to “do something humorous” with the 20th selection, Curry said.

“They did,” he continued. “So this skinny, undersized offensive center from Georgia Tech reports to the greatest team in the history of professional sports.”     

Curry — who would become a college coach at Tech, Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia State — said the “most intimidating player” among the Packers was defensive captain Willie Davis.

Davis called him out one night.

“‘Bill,’ he said in this booming voice — I thought it was God,” Curry recalled. “He said, ‘I’d like to speak to you, young man ... I’ve been watching you in practice and really like your effort. You’ve got a chance to make our team and I’m going to help you.’”

Davis shared being in the Packers’ only title game loss out of 10 championships and the regret he felt at not playing his best.

“You see, there are two pains in life — the pain of discipline and the pain of regret,” Curry told his audience. “The first is temporary. The other lasts forever. You alone decide which to endure.”

Curry said Davis advised him that when Lombardi was screaming in his face and Nitschke was tearing his head off, to “come find No. 87 (Davis).”

“We called him ‘Feel Good’. So sure enough, I got beat up, thought I was going to cry, so I went and found No. 87 and asked him, ‘How ya doin’, Feel Good?’” Curry said. “He said, ‘Feel good, man, feel good. You can do it. You can do it.’ So what did the great man do for the terrified rookie? He changed my life. He didn’t just help me to play in the NFL. Unexpected, undeserved, unrewarded acts of kindness from a great leader change lives. And he did it every day.”

Curry said years later Davis told him it was his Christian faith that motivated him to help a rookie.

Curry no longer coaches — football, at least — but continues to inspire and encourage thousands through his books and speaking engagements. I’m definitely teaching his “two pains in life: discipline or regret” lesson to my grandsons.

That is, after I learn it.

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