I grew up in a really small town. Tiny, really.
There were only two stoplights (there are still only two). My 1st grade classroom was only about 200 yards from where I sat in my senior English class. When you moved from elementary school, you literally turned two corners in the hallway, and you were in junior high. To go to high school, you walked out the breezeway. We only had four channels on television until I was 10. We never had more than eight or ten stations until I was out of college. Tiny, I tell you.
It's a good place. But it's not a place that many people leave. Especially to become a football star.
Ours was Kenny King. When I was little, I can remember him coming to visit his hometown and making an appearance at the high school pep rally. He came to our classroom, and I stuck my hand out to say hello and get his signature in my autograph book. His hand engulfed mine, and I saw that he had on a very pretty ring. It looked similar to the college ring my dad always wore, but bigger. And shinier. He was so tall, with such a deep voice, but his smile was wide and welcoming.
I still have that autograph book somewhere. It has the signatures of my brother, my mom, my Grandma Henrietta, and a Super Bowl champion.
My mom and dad, both avid football fans, almost fell over when I showed them my book. And once they explained just who he was, I almost did too. Because of their awe, my awe was doubled. Every time he came to visit, or made an appearance, I was starstruck and too nervous to ever say hello again, no matter how many times he signed my t-shirt or binder or notebook paper.
Even now, when the Super Bowl airs, you can spot #33 in a clip, on his 80 yard touchdown run -- a record that would stand 16 years. And even now, when I see it, I get a little weak-kneed at having once come so close to a star. I can remember the way that he stood with his old classmates and teammates and teachers, taking pictures, signing shirts and footballs, so at ease, so normal, so like all of them (just with a fancier car and flashier jewelry). It didn't make sense to me that they should feel so comfortable in the midst of someone who had -- gasp! -- been on TV.
In the time since I was 17, I've managed to teach or coach thousands of kids who have grown into tremendous people, including: doctors, lawyers, entertainers, soldiers, mothers, teachers, and two professional basketball players and a national champion. Last night, I turned on Sportscenter to see a former student, so shy and quiet when I knew him in the 7th grade, burning up the highlight reel, hitting seven 3-pointers for his team in their first NCAA tournament game. And then tonight (and all season), I've watched another former student-athlete grow and develop into a solid collegiate player under the eye of an NBA and NCAA hall of fame coach. All such wonderful kids whose hard work and dedication took them far beyond their own city limits.
As I see them, playing on TV, earning the respect of commentators and players that I, myself, grew up in awe of, I am amazed that I came so close to greatness without even knowing it. And I begin to finally understand how those men and women could stand and chat with a legend with such ease. They knew him not before he became great; rather, they knew him through all of the things that led him to be so.
I'm amazed at how they've changed as I study them in timeouts and interviews. But then I will turn my head quickly to see a gesture or a smile or a face that isn't 30 or 23 or 19. When I look closely, they're 13 again... turning in their homework or challenging me to a game of Knockout or hauling their tuba down the hallway. Those are the faces that now leave me a little starstruck, and tomorrow I'll look into my classroom and wonder about the futures waiting inside.
And I remember how lucky I am to see greatness rise, every day.