Milt Lee: Hey Milky, Let’s Race

Milt Lee is Director of Community Programs and K-12 Athletics for the South Bend Community School Corporation. He is planning to write an occasional column on South Bend teams, athletes and coaches.

“I wanna race Milky!”  Clarissa blared at the top end of her lung capacity.  

The Harrison School fifth- and sixth-grade track team was wrapping up practice.  We always finished with sprints that allowed challenges within your event group.

As a chubby sixth-grader, I was targeted for insults and was relegated to the throwing events for fat kids, like the shot put. There were two other throwers on the team, and both were a lot slower than I was. These final sprints always were welcomed, rare moments of athletic dominance for me.

But on this day, we were practicing inside, sharing space with the girls track team. That put me within the reach of Clarissa Lassiter, who had branded me with this dumb nickname I hated.

It was about my skin color. My rich, ultra-dark complexion gave me names that started as Dark Chocolate, Milk Chocolate, Milk and finally Milky.  

Like a bighorn ram determined to pound a competitor into submission, Clarissa repeated the challenge. “Come on, let’s see what you got!” 

I was nowhere near her match as an athlete or in any other way. Clarissa had a short, curly, well-maintained afro that topped a bunch of pleasant facial features — none really striking, but easy to look at.   

Her lips were in a constant smile that occasionally cracked open for a short, powerful burst of laughter. Her power wasn’t limited to these moments of outward joy. Clarissa owned the space in which she roamed, striding along with the gait of a world-class athlete.  

Her shoulders rolled forward with each confident step, while her chin pointed up and out, giving her direction and stability. She expected victory at all times — especially against me.  

Me, I was a shaky cartoon, a Ghetto Charlie Brown.

My coach, Mr. Hubler looked at me squarely, gauging my interest in a foot race he knew I would lose. I kept silent, but my eyes were flashing a desperate signal, like a highway warning sign. “Please, Coach, don’t do it!”

Hubler was the son of a decorated law enforcement officer. He was structured and disciplined, and generally thoughtful.  But like many of the coaches and teachers at Harrison, he was no match for Clarissa.

“OK, Milton, you ready?”  Damn!  The word in my head seemed loud enough to be heard throughout the entire school.  

“I’m not even stretched out!” I tried to buy some time. Maybe I could fake a trip to the bathroom and pull the fire alarm?  

”Yeah, I’m not stretched either,” Clarissa said.  I touched my toes a few times, and I took a few practice strides, hoping my prep routine would be intimidating.  

“Ah, shucks!  I can do that too!” she said. And she did. She did so on her toes with a quick-twitch, powerful bounce.  

I had one big hope. Although I shopped exclusively in the husky section at Sears, my agility caught most people off-guard. I planned a quick “get off” to surprise her and maybe gain a slight, early advantage.   

“Ready … Get seeet …” 

I leaned into my hands, thumbs in, fingers out, and eyeing the finish line. I spotted a classmate there, grinning and pointing to a spot near his feet. At that very location, he expected to launch into humiliating, convulsive laughter upon my defeat.

“Go!”  

I bolted out. One stride ahead, then two. My desperation grew as my lead faded and she pulled even. “Don’t break form,” I thought over and over.  I found those words gave me rhythm, like a drumbeat. “Don’t break form, don’t break form, don’t break form, don’t break form.”

It worked. One stride ahead, then two.  I won!  

“She let you win!” screamed Aaron Shaw.  “Did you let him win?” 

Clarissa smiled wryly. “Naw, I didn’t. Milky is fast!” 

That smile let everyone knew otherwise. The real victory was hers, not mine.

As days passed, word of the race spread through Harrison, the toughest, most athletic school in the city. I knew if I wanted to compete for the respect of others, and earn self-respect, I needed to shed my fleshy cocoon.

It would take three years.  I played football on the offensive line as an eighth-grader, the defensive line as a freshman at Washington High School, and fullback for those awesome West Side Panthers during the Robert “Beans” Van Camp/George McCullough era of the early ‘80s.  

By then, no one laughed when I ran. But all these years later, deep inside, my life’s perspective is defined by my “Milky” experiences.

Through the lens of that chubby, dark-chocolate-skinned, Ghetto Charlie Brown kid, I see other student-athletes’ experiences. Every athlete, even those like Clarissa, has moments of deep insecurity and fear. Often, even their victories feel like defeats.

I honor their stories. Maybe together, we can discover the wins in those moments where effort should get as much recognition as victory.