Derrick Zeigler grew up in an all-black community and went to an all-black school in inner Detroit. He didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with white players or white coaches until he played basketball at Cleveland State University.
Brian Stephenson grew up in Northwest Ohio and attended Shawnee Local Schools in Lima, where social economics and race are pretty diverse, with about 25 percent of the population representing the African-American community. He played football and ran track in high school.
Derrick DeJarnette was born and raised in Bainbridge Township, where the population is about 95 percent white. He lives in the black community of Chagrin Falls Park, but the four-year varsity starter for Kenston had all-white teammates his junior and senior years of high school.
Their upbringings were different, but those three gentlemen have the commonality of being African-American athletes who went on to become coaches. Zeigler was the head boys basketball coach at Orange from 2014 to 2017, before joining the staff at Benedictine; Stephenson is entering his third year as head football coach at Hawken School; and DeJarnette has been at the helm of the Kenston boys basketball program for the past two seasons.
All three coaches said sports teach athletes calmness and composure during times of duress. Particularly for black athletes, those lessons could be invaluable.
All three coaches also said racial tensions were few and far between, if not absent, during their times as black athletes.
For the most part, Stephenson said he didn’t have to deal with racial unease throughout his sports career at Shawnee, because he and his fellow athletes always had the support of their coaches, parents and community members, who traveled well to away games. But, from a young age, he learned how to handle himself if someone showed him animosity on the sports field.
Stephenson, a 2005 Shawnee graduate who rushed for 3,408 yards, said he was only about 8 years old when someone first called him the N-word during a youth baseball game.
“I was walking up to pitch, and another mom said, ‘That ‘blank’ better not hit my son,’” Stephenson said. “So, that was a teaching point for my parents, and we learned how to deal with that.”
As a kid, Stephenson was put in a situation where he had to learn to handle the world in that way, but he said not all people are like that, and it’s up to parents, coaches and teachers to help kids navigate those situations.
“Always conduct yourself with calmness and composure, especially in situations like that, because you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you give someone an excuse or a reason,” he said. “And that gets into what can be seen as respectability politics at times. And, so, it’s a very thin line that a person has to walk, when you have to be aware of your actions and how it affects others.”
Zeigler, a 1993 graduate of Cody High School in Detroit, went on to play in 104 games at Cleveland State, including 64 conference games, the most ever by a Viking.
With all the craziness that goes on in the world, most recently with last week’s death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis, Zeigler said it’s almost like athletes are separated from those racial tensions in the sports world.
“Growing up in the community where I grew up, I had barely any interaction with white guys or white people,” he said. “But when I was in college, I don’t recall having situations where I was being mistreated because of my skin color. And I felt like basketball, or sports period, is kind of the equalizer. Once you get into that team dynamic, everyone kind of has the same goals.
“Obviously, everyone on your team is not going to be your best friend, you don’t have great relationships with everyone you play with, but we were able to coexist, and everyone had that common goal where we’re just trying to win, we’re all in this together – that kind of feel.”
Although, Zeigler said during his time as a coach at Orange, his team of predominantly black players did experience some racial tensions when they traveled to play certain opponents in more-or-less all-white communities.
Zeigler said his main advice to his players was simply to maintain composure, ignore any signs or comments from the opposing spectators and use what they hear or see as motivation to win.
“I would always prep the boys for our trips to Perry, because we kind of knew it was coming,” Zeigler said. “Perry is a predominantly white community. Their coach (Al Iacofano) was always open and never mistreated me, but, when you go to places like that, an all-white community, I would talk to the guys, ‘Don’t get caught up in back-and-forth verbal exchanges. Just try to ignore it the best you can, maintain your composure and let your play do the talking.’”
DeJarnette, a 1994 Kenston graduate who remains the Bombers’ all-time leader in career points (1,378) and assists (248), said racial tensions were more or less absent during his playing days, which also included stints at Lincoln College in Illinois and at Lakeland Community College.
Now the head coach at his alma mater, DeJarnette said he believes sports brings togetherness, teamwork and teaches athletes to deal with certain situations at a different level.
“My thing is, basketball don’t have a color,” he said. “The basketball is orange. Teammates are teammates. So, I think you have to work together to be successful.”
During his playing days at Kenston in the old Western Reserve Conference, which he was the MVP of his senior year, DeJarnette said there were a few opposing teams that just had no respect, but his teammates always had his back.
In addition, he was good enough to let his game speak for itself.
“There might be a few guys that say different things, and I’d just go score on them and laugh in their face,” he said. “They couldn’t stop me at the time. And I grew up playing playground ball, and, when you’re playing playground ball, it’s a lot of trash talking. You know what I’m saying? So, you have to be able to deal with those types of things anyways.
“And I played with a lot of grown men in grade school, and I really had to stand my ground with these guys. So, if I wanted to be that standout, they told me, ‘you’re going to have to deal with this.’ And, I did.”
DeJarnette said he’s passing those lessons on to his current players at Kenston. He said he tells them to be confident in themselves, there are going to be guys who try to get them out of their game, but they just have to let that go and dominate those opponents on the court to shut them up.
Zeigler and Stephenson said, if they felt any racial tensions in college, it was outside of sports.
Stephenson played football at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where the student population is less than 10 percent African-American, while the city population is about two-thirds of black and Latino decent.
“In college as a football player, I was absolutely fine,” Stephenson said. “It was really dealing with being a person of color on campus and making sure that people knew you were a student on that campus so they didn’t treat you a certain way. So, for us, as students, we always wore our yellow IDs when we walked around. That way, you never had anyone coming up to ask you, ‘Why are you here?’ Or, ‘Are you supposed to be here?’ Even then, it would still happen.”
In many ways, wearing his student ID was an avenue of protection from being racially profiled, Stephenson said. Even now, as the head football coach at Hawken School, Stephenson said he wears his Hawken gear around Northeast Ohio, because it’s a way of letting people know he’s associated with the school, which is seen as having a certain status.
“It helps people be more accepting,” he said. “And it kind of provides a shield. That’s unfortunate and sad, but that is the reality that we face sometimes.”
Before Hawken School, Stephenson was a coach, English teacher and student adviser at Woodberry Forest School, a private, all-male boarding school in Virginia, which was predominantly white but diverse in the fashion of including students from 14 different countries and from all over the United States.
After the Trayvon Martin shooting, a 17-year-old African-American boy who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012 in Florida, Stephenson said he tweaked the 10th-grade curriculum at Woodberry Forest to include more African-American literature and to talk about race, gender and social justice.
“We would have those conversations in the classroom, because it is important to know American history, and a lot of times African-American history isn’t included in that,” he said. “And being able to have those discussions in class and talk about the pathology of some of these things, for me, that was important as a teacher in terms of educating our whole community, not just football.”
Likewise, Zeigler said racial tensions were absent among his teammates at Cleveland State. One of his white teammates, Brian Hocevar, a Villa Angela-St. Joseph graduate who now has two daughters playing hoops at West Geauga, was one of his close buddies and one of the coolest guys on the team, Zeigler said.
But, from a social aspect at Cleveland State, Zeigler said he sometimes ran into tension when he’d go hang out at a party on campus or a bar with a predominantly white clientele.
“You might walk in, and they’re going, ‘Oh, who are these black guys coming in?’” he said. “I remember those situations, where there would be some tension, but, again, I never personally remember having a situation where some belted out the N-bomb to me or made some underline comments.”
In regards to last week’s police-brutality episode involving George Floyd’s death, DeJarnette and Zeigler said they felt anger, and Stephenson said he felt sad after the video came out showing a white officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck.
“I just feel that we are God’s people and we all should be equal, and what happened to George (Floyd) is terrible,” DeJarnette said. “It’s a terrible thing. And really, I see a lot of whites protesting, just like the blacks. I think people in general are just fed up with it.”
Stephenson said, “It just brings up fears that many African-Americans and people of color have. Sometimes you have to be a little bit worried about, ‘Am I going to make it home to my loved ones today? If I go out and I have interaction with someone, is it going to go wrong and cost me everything?’ And that’s not a burden everybody has to carry, but it is a burden that certain people in our country do. And that’s sad.”
After anger, Zeigler said he went through an assortment of emotions, including sadness, disappointment and disbelief. Also in his mid-40s and with a family of his own, Zeigler said he naturally put himself in Floyd’s position.
“Like, ‘Wow, that could have been me,’” Zeigler said. “I’ve had interactions with police officers and being pulled over. Immediately, your anxiety levels go through the roof, because you don’t know what to say.”
Zeigler’s dad died when he was 12 years old, but he remembers conversations they had in regards to how to handle police interaction, including how to talk to them, how to remain calm and how to prevent agitating the situation, he said.
“You sit there,” Zeigler said. “You hope and pray that the officer you have to interact with doesn’t have certain kinds of thoughts and feelings. So, you’re always on edge.”