Column: Day dreamin'

By Pete Barrows | 1/21/15 10:31pm

field

I have a day dream, and every time I pick up a football, Scotty beams me back to my childhood backyard. Let me tell you, it is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking your own Transporter up.

The fresh cut Buffalograss unrolls like shag carpet beneath my feet when I close my eyes tight enough on the trip, and I'm welcomed back home to the faint smell of fermenting crab apples nestled about the swing-set my old man built by hand. The adjacent barren patch between the sandbox and the shade of the Dogwood was our end zone, and I visited it often.

Dressed head to toe in an off-brand Honolulu blue jersey, silver pants and plastic helmet ensemble my grandma picked up on sale at K-Mart, I was uncatchable as the impossibly twisting helicopter seeds rained down by squirrels from the maples above. Adorning the uniform was the number 20 emblazoned across the chest in a crisp white.

As my dad humored four-year old Pete by playing linebacker for hours, I was Barry Sanders – a blur of blue that made looking running around in circles look good – and you couldn't tell me differently. The furthest thing from my mind was that Barry was black and that I was white.

All I knew was that Barry was Barry and that Barry was the best at what he did. And in the sphere of sports – ability – not adherence to arbitrarily determined societal standard and preferences, is the primary currency. We live in an imperfect world, and sports are often a reflective microcosm of it, but teams that make it a practice to enlist players by skin, hair or eye color, religion, sexual orientation, pinky size or favorite ice cream flavor historically don't succeed.

It's a truth realized when pioneers like Jack Johnson, Jessie Owens, Kenny Washington, Earl Loyd and Jackie Robinson boldly blazed trails in their respective sports and made waves with their contributions not just as inherent civil leaders, but as transcendent athletes.

It's a truth Grand Valley State University was primed to accept when it opened its doors in 1960 rural Bible-belt West Michigan as liberal education institution with less than 200 incoming freshman and a dream of doing things a particular way.

The sports didn't come until 1965 when PE department head Dave Sharphorn founded a men's cross-country team. Men's golf followed in the same year, as did men's varsity basketball, rowing and tennis in 1966. In 1968, freshly inaugurated University President Arend D. Lubbers authorized the construction of GVSU's Fieldhouse, and student Katie McDonald's write-in choice finished just ahead of the Voyagers, Bruisers, Warriors, Bluejays, Ottawas, Archers – all alternative mascot options – in the polls.

No sooner than the Laker athletic program was born, it began making strides on the straightaway to race ahead along the sporting equality curve.

Dan Poole signed on as a member of the second-year basketball team in 1968, and by the time his career concluded in 1971, was GVSU's career leader in rebounding (1,270). He still holds that distinction today and ranks 11th in career points (1,431).

He – as well as track star Bob Eubanks – are also the first African-Americans inducted into the GVSU hall of fame and made the cut in the inaugural class.

In the same year Poole hung up his sneakers and powder blue short-shorts, Athletic Director Charles Irwin resourced funds so that Joan Boand could get her women's basketball and volleyball projects off the ground. In its next trick, GVSU became the first college in Michigan to award athletic scholarships to women by offering Donna Sass Eaton in 1974, and the titles kept coming.

As of today, GVSU has won 17 national championships in six sports, and has been national runners-up thirteen times in eight sports. Fourteen of those titles have been contributed by women's teams under legendary coaches like Boand, Doc Woods, Jerry Baltes and Dave DiIanni. I's frequently argued that GVSU has constructed the premiere athletic program in all of Division II sports by brick laying contributions from athletes and coaches of all different colors, creeds, shape, sizes and sex.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke on Aug. 28, 1963, of a dream about a nation that citizens would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, a diverse and prosperous athletic program was probably not foremost on his mind. But it's progress.

Just as GVSU's campus has evolved from the Kirkhof Center out alone in the corn into a beacon of higher learning, and its athletic program has developed from a few conjoined extracurricular activities into a national power, the civil rights movement has come a long way. In sports and otherwise.

And still, we're not there yet. We may never be.

Despite an immaculate new library raised against Kirkhof that emanates advancement out of its glass walls, GVSU has expansion projects lined up beyond the end of the decade. Despite 17 national championships, GVSU has it sights set on 18. Despite progress in accordance to Dr. King's precepts, stories of unsightly hate and injustice still splatter the news on both ESPN and BBC.

It's crucial to look forward and dream about the future, just as it is equally essential to look back and remember the dreams logged in history worth keeping alive. It's the dreams that guide us – even if they're never fully realized – and it's the pursuit of them that's as imperative as the actualization.

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