Note: More than three years ago I wrote a column about my experience at Livingstone College. I was later asked to expand on it for a feature in a Livingstone College publication. What follows is that longer article.
I arrived on Livingstone College’s campus in August 1970 ready to play football – or so I thought. I didn’t really know what to expect. It was hot. And making matters worse we practiced three times a day – early in the morning, midday and early evening. For about a week or so we were the only people on campus.
After the last practice of the day we had meetings to review our assignments and plays. And we were also at the mercy of the upperclassmen. We ran errands for them, oftentimes reluctantly, and tried to get some sleep before the grueling process started all over again the subsequent day. It was hard work, just like a job. And to add insult to injury the upperclassmen shaved our heads. Suffice it to say we were at the bottom of the food chain and treated as such.
I almost quit.
A couple of weeks after I arrived on campus, on a day designated for parents of freshmen to visit, my parents and paternal grandmother, Florence Alston, came to town. When they entered my dorm room they were surprised to see my bags packed, waiting at the door. What they didn’t know was I was ready to go home. I’d had enough of the three-a-day practices, the treatment upperclassmen were dishing out and I just didn’t think this was the place for me at that time. My grandmother, Mama Florence, looked at me and said: “Stay for a year and if you don’t like it, then come home.”
Fortunately I took her sage advice and didn’t quit.
Turns out I truly enjoyed my college experience after making some initial adjustments, adapting to the routine, meeting new people and developing some friendships that have become lifelong. I pledged Omega Psi Phi fraternity and believe it or not was the only one on my “line.” My guidance counselor, Marie Burney at R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, had connections that helped land me a full scholarship at Livingstone. Also helping me get adjusted to college were two high school teammates, Walter (Sam) Dillard, who became my roommate, and Charlie B. Dulin, who sadly is now deceased.
Getting adjusted to college life is one thing. Buckling down and applying yourself is another. I credit Mrs. Lancaster, one of my professors, with providing the spark that motivated me to take full advantage of the fact that I was in college with a chance to better myself. One day while I was walking across campus she appeared out of nowhere, tapped me on my shoulder and said: “Mr. Alston, football season is over. You can do better.” That was it. She kept walking, leaving me to think about what she’d said. That was truly a defining moment for me. Without being specific, I knew she was getting on me about my grades. More profound to me, however, was the fact that she obviously saw something in me. I wasn’t sure what she saw, but her words inspired me to change my ways and live up to her expectations.
Football, as you may imagine, was a big part of my campus experience. Coach Fletcher Jones, our defensive coordinator at the time, was a big man who commanded attention with or without his paddle. He used it occasionally to reinforce a point – on your behind. Of course coaches can’t do that today, but back then Coach Jones could and did. The best way to ensure you spared yourself the embarrassment – not to mention the pain – was not to mess up.
As I recall, one player just wasn’t getting the job done in practice. Basically, he was indecisive, which was a “no-no.” His inaction irritated Coach Jones to no end, prompting him to bark a few choice words I can’t repeat in this column. I can tell you that with a sense of urgency he yelled, “Do something, even if it’s wrong! Then at least I can correct you.” If memory serves me correctly, Coach Jones used his paddle that day. I know it sounds harsh, but all he really wanted was the players to act so he could provide feedback on their actions and help them make the necessary adjustments. Being decisive is a message that has stuck with me to this day.
I vividly remember my first road trip as a Livingstone College football player. It included running through the “belt line,” a ritual for your first trip that was just another step in the initiation process.
The Livingstone College Blue Bears football team was easily recognizable when we traveled because we wore light-blue blazers with the Blue Bear emblem on the breast pocket. For the most part we were teen-agers, barely into manhood. Yet, we knew we represented something much larger than ourselves, much bigger than our individual talents. Though only young men at the time, we understood we represented a black college – the term HBCU hadn’t exactly caught on back then – and that meant we had to show up, to do and be our best at all times.
I received a good education at Livingstone College, and that’s also where I met my wife of nearly 33 years, Sarah Debra Littlejohn. We met three months into our freshmen year and began dating on November 14, 1970. We celebrate that day as well as our December 17th wedding anniversary each year.
I am so thankful for Mrs. Burney’s connections, for the infinite wisdom of Mama Florence, Mrs. Lancaster’s much-needed verbal kick in the butt and the influence of my coaches. Because of all of them, I graduated ready to compete and have fared well in the decades since.
And while it’s probably pretty obvious by now and doesn’t really need to be said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t state that I’m eternally proud to be a Livingstone College Blue Bear.
Nigel D. Alston is President of Nigel D. Alston & Associates, Inc. He is a motivational speaker, Dale Carnegie trainer and meeting facilitator. He also writes a bi-weekly column for the Winston-Salem Journal and was honored for his column “Today, I cried” by the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) in 2002. He and his wife reside in Winston-Salem.