“America in the 1980s seemed to belong to conservatism, materialism and consumerism – people liked routines, loved their flashy cars and brand-name preppy clothes and enjoyed spending money. It was also an age when big movies started hitting the screen, and music videos were introduced thanks to cable network stations, like MTV,” Jillian Smith stopped next to her podium, and made a dramatic turn, and went into a dance pose with one leg slung on her desk.
She looked back at her 35 students – all college freshmen – and started to laugh. Her little movement had caused some of them to sit up straight, and even woke a few up.
Jillian put her leg back down on the floor, stood up straight, and pulled the wrinkles out of her green pullover, cotton t-shirt, and wiped some lint off of her denim blue jeans. “You didn’t know I had moves like that, did you?” Her big green eyes glittered in the fluorescent lighting.
Murmurs and snickers from her class could be heard as she hoisted herself up on the stool behind her podium. Jillian was one of the youngest professors in the creative writing department, and one of the most popular. Her classes were always full.
Today’s was no exception. “So, what I am thinking is that you take your pick on the decade, and write me a short story, fiction, please, and turn it on Tuesday.” She said, and paused.
A man, dressed in a pair of khaki pants, a lavender shirt, and dark shoes, with a gray beard and a cabbie’s cap on top of his head, had walked in. He had on a pair of suspenders that matched his pants.
Hands shot up, and she motioned them back down. “1,500 to 3,000 words, single spaced, with a title and byline on the cover sheet. I would like hard copies, and if you can’t honestly get to a printer, come by office an hour before class, and I will have it open so you can use mine.”
“Ms. Poplin, does it matter what we write about?” A young man in the back of the auditorium asked. “I mean, we can just pick something from the decade?”
Jillian stood, “As long as it is from the decade, fiction, and what class?” She asked, put her hand to her right ear – cupping it.
“In our own words.” The class said together.
She laughed, “And in your own words, I am fine with it. Now get … Be nice … You see the dean is standing over there.” Jillian nodded, leaning against the desk.
The man smiled. As the students walked by him, many would say, “Hey Dean.” “Hey Dr. Poplin!” “Hey Dr. Poplin.”
Jillian watched as her dad would respond, chat with a few and exchange some animated ‘jabs’ with a few of the guys. Sean Poplin was even more favored by the students on campus than Jillian was. It was probably because of the way he made himself available and got to know things about the students, so he could talk with them.
Or it could be the way he dressed. Sean would do the suit and tie kick when he had to, but most of the time he was in his khakis, his suspenders and a nice dress shirt.
Jillian loved the idea of casual too. She wore casual clothes a lot – most of it artistic type of clothes, flowing, comfortable, but with a little bit of style, and a lot of color. Today, though, was Friday, and she was headed out on a road trip very shortly, so Jillian came in her blue jeans, t-shirt and her dark brown hair was up in a bun.
As soon as the last student had left, Sean walked over toward his youngest. “The 1970s versus the 1980s?” He asked walking behind the desk, and pulling out the wooden chair behind it.
Jillian was putting her stuff in her leather brief case – well, satchel. As Sean sat down, Jillian said, “Yeah. I wanted to see what these youngsters could come up with. I mean, those were two very exciting decades.”
Sean gave his daughter a quizzical look, “Jilly, you were born in 1978. How do you know?”
She laughed, and put her bag back on the desk, and sat on the stool behind the podium. “I have always told you and Mom I was born in the wrong era. So, what are you doing here, Pop? Getting a little antsy up on the hill? Miss the teaching?”
Sean looked at the floor, and back up, “Sometimes, you know, I do miss teaching. Been thinking about adding some classes next semester.”
Jillian’s eyebrows raised, “Say what?”
“Just thinking about it … Listen, we have got a situation on our hands, and I think you are the one to solve it for me,” Sean looked at his daughter.
Jillian glanced down at her day, and met his gaze. “Pop?”
“If I say one word, you will know what it is,” Sean played with a pen on the desk, and watched it spin.
Jillian already knew what it was. “The touchdown that he never made but everyone thought he did?"
Sean laughed. “I told President Checker that you would figure it out pretty quick … yup … There is a representative from the collegiate hall of fame coming down to talk to your grandfather today about possibly getting inducted, and they are basing it on ...”
Jillian stretched out her legs, and, yawned. “The touchdown that never was … so what do you want me to do?”
“Spin something. Do something … use those journalism and creative writing degrees for the common good of the university? For Big Daddy? He still thinks to this day that he made that touchdown … and only a few people know that he didn’t … that George made that run and got the score before he was clobbered.”
Jillian walked around the desk and podium, thinking, “It is too bad there were not television cameras all over the field back then.”
Sean nodded. “Yup. Who’d have thought that he would be nominated for something that he really didn’t do? A 98 yard touchdown when he could barely run 25. Big Daddy was a big old boy then.”
Jillian turned around, and sat in a student’s desk, “So, tell me the story again … the short version.”
“Your grandpa was on the varsity football squad … he was an offensive lineman. There was a game where they were playing for the play-offs … It was a crazy day. Apparently, it was bad weather that day, lots of rain, and everyone on the field was just kind of playing all crazy like – whomever could get the ball would run with it … well, George Davis was the running back – a big old dude with speed and flexibility."
"The rain was pouring down harder and harder. Somehow or another, George ran in a touchdown, but got clobbered at the end zone, and Big Daddy ended up with the ball. The refs couldn’t see much anyway … no one in the stands could either … they assumed your grandfather was the reason they had won the game.” Sean explained.
Jillian said, “And no one, not even George, called him on it? Told them different?”
“That is the kicker … George got knocked out cold, and was in the hospital for a concussion … he didn’t remember a lot, except they played a game … A few of the players felt like George had actually done it, but they never said much … back then, they really couldn’t. “ Sean said.
Jillian asked, “Why?”
“George was black.” Sean stood up, and stretched his own legs, looking at his cell phone that he pulled out of his pocket.
He looked over at his daughter, and held the phone out, “Big Daddy is on his way over here.”
“Lordy. Daddy, what do you want me to do?” Jillian asked, rubbing her hands on her jeans’ legs.
Sean made a face … his eyebrows furrowed. “We don’t want to lie. President Checker said he will stand behind us whatever … but we don’t want to hurt your grandfather’s feelings. He thinks he scored the touchdown.”
At that moment, a deep voice bellowed from the classroom doorway. “No, he doesn’t. He knows that he didn’t score that touchdown.”
Sean and Jillian looked at each other, eyes wide, and she slowly turned toward the back of her classroom. Sean said, “Pop! I told you I was going to come get you before the man from the hall of fame got here.”
Jefferson Poplin, at age 85, still moved around pretty well. In fact, he looked more like a 75 year old man than his son looked like a 67 year old man. He was not as big and built as he used to be – age had been a good weight loss factor for him.
“I am not dead yet, and I only live three blocks away. I walked over. It is a pretty day. Jillian, you are looking well.” Jefferson walked down the steps from the back of the classroom to where his son and granddaughter were now both standing.
Jillian grinned, “Thanks, Big Daddy, I try. So … how do you know that you didn’t score that touchdown? All these years, you haven’t acted like you knew that.”
Sean nodded, “Yeah, Pop? How?”
Jefferson sat down in one of the student desks, and Jillian sat next to him. Sean pulled a chair over to sit in front of his dad.
“I didn’t know until last year. I kind of knew then, but everything was so crazy that day, and folks were pummeling on me, telling me I just scored, I just went with it, and didn’t question anything. All these years, at the celebrations and homecomings, everyone just kept on saying I had done it, so I guess I finally let myself believe it. Coach Madison never said a word.” Jefferson licked his lips.
Sean squinted, and rubbed on his beard. “But what gave it up?”
“You two … and your uncle. I overheard the conversation you had last year at homecoming. I think that’s when you found out about it, Jillian? Your Uncle Gray and your dad were talking after a meeting with President Center, and I was over near the tent … I just kind of put two and two together. George scored that touchdown and should have been recognized for it.” Jefferson said, and added, “And now, he will … posthumously though.”
Jillian asked, “What do you mean, Big Daddy?”
Sean answered for his dad, “You are going to tell the truth to the rep?”
Jefferson nodded, “It is the only way. All I did that day was stand there as a blocker, and was lucky to pick up the ball when he dropped it after they knocked him cold. Plus … I don’t want to be used as a safe face.”
“What is a safe face?” Jillian asked, turning her head to look at her dad, but he wasn’t paying her any attention. He was watching his dad’s face.
Jefferson sighed. “George was amazing on the field, and he was a good guy, but he was treated poorly because of his race. They never gave him credit for anything … and I think that is why Coach Madison never corrected anyone about the touchdown … blacks were not supposed to be good at anything.”
Sean nodded. “Racism was strong then … it was a different kind of racism then. People were mean and ugly and just blunt, now there is so much more violence and killings.”
“Oh, there were killings then … just we didn’t have the media outlets that we do now. And people didn’t have social media,” Jefferson said. “I remember some of us wanted George to go get a hamburger with us once after the game … Coach got wind of it, and well, he told us in no uncertain terms were we to socialize outside of practice or the locker room with George. He even called him a nigger.”
Jillian exclaimed, “Oh my. But he would play him?”
Jefferson snickered, “Oh yeah. It was like, George was OK when he was wearing football pads and a uniform and a helmet, but once those came off, George was nothing more to Coach than gum on the bottom of his shoe.”
“What did George do?” Jillian was curious.
Sean said, “I have heard this … George never fought. He never said anything. He was always, ‘yes sir,’ ‘no sir,’ and ‘thank you,’ wasn’t he?”
Jefferson nodded. “Yup. He had the smallest room on the hall – used to be a linen closet or something, and he made it the best he could for himself. He ate by himself, walked to class with some of his colored friends, and spent a lot of time in the basement of the library where they were allowed to study.”
“What time is the man coming?” Jefferson asked.
Sean looked at the clock. “He should be pulling in soon … he was coming to my office first.”
There was silence in the room. “Big Daddy, what did you do for George?” Jillian asked.
Jefferson sighed, “Nothing … until now. It’s time to right a wrong.”
Sean asked, “Are you sure?”
Jefferson nodded, “I don’t want to be famous for something I didn’t do.” He stood up, and looked at his granddaughter, “Come on, girlie, you can be my mouthpiece if I struggle … we all know you can spin a tale.” He grinned.
Sean laughed, “That is for sure.” He stood up and moved the chair back to Jillian’s desk.
Jillian shook her head, and walked over to get her briefcase. “Well, I’ll be … you two beg for my help, then you want to pick at me.”
As they walked toward the door, Sean put his arm around his daughter, “But we love you.”
Jefferson was walking in front of them, and flipped off the lights. Sean ran to hold the door open. “Sometimes we do.” Jefferson said.
Jillian feigned like she was hurt. “Oh, that was harsh … especially when we all three know that I come by every quality I have honestly ...” She walked out ahead of her grandfather and her dad, and turned to point at the two of them.
Both Jefferson and Sean laughed. Jillian grabbed her grandfather’s hand, “Come on, Big Daddy, let’s enjoy these last few minutes of fame you have.”
“It was fun while it lasted,” Jefferson said as the three of them walked down the hall.