It was 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night in 1992. I was five years old, had just started kindergarten, and was attending the first Texas high school football game that I can remember. During those years, it happened every year in Liberty County, Texas: the Dayton Broncos versus the Liberty Panthers. Only six miles separated these two deep-in-football-tradition towns. Back then there wasn’t a rivalry in this small county that could evoke so much emotion out of its players and fans alike. It was at War Memorial Stadium, where the X’s and O’s of football started to be ingrained in me by my grandfather, Harvey Charles Williams.
Harvey Charles was unlike anyone I’ve ever known. Those that knew him constantly talked about his smile, radiant personality, and love of all things black and gold. After deeper conversations with him over the last 30 years, I saw the scars he cared not to discuss. You see, my grandpa was drafted into military service for the Vietnam War. Like many other drafted young men, they put their hopes and dreams on hold for one of our most controversial wars. Papa never complained, though. He was proud of his military service. There were things about that time in battle that he wouldn’t speak about. I’ve learned that that is quite normal for veterans of war. He lost comrades and friends. Even though he came home, a part of him died in Vietnam.
He was a big dreamer. Once he told me that he dreamed of playing baseball professionally. He was an awesome pitcher with a fastball that was virtually unstoppable. Being in the still-segregated South, the opportunities were few. West Liberty High School is where he thrived in sports excellence. The old black high school still stands today, albeit unused. Riding by that building in Liberty, Texas, still reminds me how fortunate I was to be able to go to college and follow my dreams.
Harvey Charles was a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan. I know from many conversations that his bleeding of black and gold didn’t stop with the Liberty Panthers; it dictated his favorite pro team. Much like the local high school team, the Steelers gave my grandpa his weekly dose of pride in the fall.
I always carry at least one Steelers player on my fantasy team. This strategy was solely for my weekly football conversation with Papa. He didn’t care about about my love for all things fantasy; only how Antonio Brown was the reason I won the championship. I can hear him now: “Suga, you only win because you have them Steelers on your team.” I’d laugh while saying, “I know, Papa, but it’s all those Houston Texans too.” He supported my love for the Houston Texans; as long as it wasn’t the Dallas Cowboys, I was still deeply loved.
This football season is my first in my life without him. He passed away on January 31. Often brokenheartedly, I watch the Steelers highlights because, like him, I bleed black and gold to a certain extent. As I sit here on this Veterans Day, I am reminded that my favorite veteran is celebrating the festivities from a seat high above. There aren’t enough words to thank him for his service or for cultivating my love for sports. Today is somber in a lot of ways. It is a reminder that life is bigger than sports, but sports can also be the needed medicine for life.