It was early in May, 1992. The Rodney King disturbances had just begun to settle down in South Central Los Angeles when a colleague, Al Stone, told me about a contact he had with Diane Watson, the California State Senator from South Central. She asked if there was any possibility for me to speak to the students at Jordan High School in order to try to redirect their focus to the future rather than the sad events that had unfolded just a few days before. Al made the arrangements for the session. It would be a special assembly for about 600 juniors and seniors in the Jordan High School auditorium later that week. The agenda would include things like college, jobs and a brighter tomorrow.
Al suggested that we contact his old friend and former professional football player, Kermit Alexander, whom he had met during Al’s days as an organizer working with professional athletes on a variety of charitable events. Kermit grew up in Watts and enjoyed a special relationship with the neighborhood. He generously agreed to help us navigate through the day.
Getting to Senator Watson’s office located near ground zero of the Rodney King unrest was no easy task. It took many phone calls but we found one cab driver and enough cash to make him willing to take what seemed to be a high-risk trip. The area around the Senator’s office at an intersection of three or four streets was almost traffic-free. The National Guard scheduled to arrive in a day or two had not yet deployed. Buildings in every direction were still smoldering from the fires that had gutted so many businesses and upper floor apartments. It was not a pretty site nor did it engender any positive feelings about my personal safety.
After a briefing by Senator Watson, we headed off to Jordan High School, a place not without problems of its own. The school’s student population was primarily the African-American sons and daughters of Watts and adjacent areas. Upon arrival, we were struck by the signs of security at every turn. Locks and chains were everywhere but the place was pretty quiet. It was almost as though it was in lockdown because of the community upheaval. We met the principal, an extraordinary African-American woman who was as upbeat and as positive a human being as I have ever met. She was a taskmaster with a Pollyanna mindset. She somehow saw goodness and hope everywhere and she asked me to provide some of that spirit to the assembled students. I told her I would do my best and headed for the auditorium. I watched with some trepidation as the students filed in to take their seats. The vast majority of the kids were Africa-Americans and in light of the recent events many were carrying very substantial, justifiable chips on their shoulders. When they settled in, the principal introduced Kermit who set the tone of what would follow. The students listened intently. Kermit was one of their own, a survivor of a troubled community. Then it was my turn.
I spoke for about a half hour and I talked about hope and the fact that if they wanted to go on to higher education, there were enormous opportunities in colleges around the nation who were looking for young African-Americans and minority kids who had talent and who harbored a vision for a better tomorrow. I told them that if they ever wound up in a dead-end job or even in jail and they wanted to blame someone they needed only to find the nearest mirror. I told them that being black and using that as an apology for failure is not only wrong and self-defeating but it is also not very smart. Then I got down to specifics by showing the kids exactly how they could afford college in a way that for many would be less costly than staying at home and attending a local community college. Throughout the duration of my message, you could have heard a pin drop. It was the best behaved, most respectful audience I have ever spoken to and I have delivered workshops to hundreds of groups over a period of more than 30 years. When I finished, I received a very warm, somewhat emotional applause. Many of the students filed out of the auditorium quietly while others came forward to meet Kermit and me and to thank us for coming. All of us have events in our lives where a unique confluence of time and place made them very special. My visit to Jordan High School was one of those moments.
Kermit became a good friend over the years. He helped me with a fund-raising golf tournament on the San Francisco Peninsula. I recall having an array of cash prizes for the participants; closest to the hole, longest drive, lowest net score…that sort of stuff. As soon as the winner of a category had received the cash award, Kermit would follow him to his seat and using his hat as a receptacle, he would gently remind the winner that this was a fund-raiser to help kids attend college not to provide a bonanza for his own use and in every instance, the winner would deposit his prize into Kermit’s hat and ultimately to the bank account of our non-profit organization.
I had some more contact with Kermit for a couple of years and then I lost touch with him. I have often thought about him but I had no idea where he was or what he was doing…until now.
A few nights ago, I was listening to the radio and heard Jeremy Schaap’s broadcast on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines”, a really wonderful show full of inspiring stories about athletes and others who do things that transcend the limited world of sports. Schaap’s broadcast included a replay of a piece called “Kermit’s Song”. It was based on a beautiful story by Tom Friend, a writer for ESPN. It was a story about Kermit and it is a tale that merits repeating.
The title for the piece was prompted by earlier events. It was Kermit Alexander who as a San Francisco 49er, had tackled the great Chicago Bears’ football player, Gale Sayers. Sayers was injured on the play that eventually ended his legendary career. That incident despite the fact it was a normal hit during an unexceptional game plagued Kermit for years. From the fallout of that event there emerged a true story about Sayer’s relationship with a teammate, fullback, Brian Piccolo. It was highlighted in a movie called, “Brian’s Song” starring Billy Dee Williams and a young James Caan. The film chronicled a relationship between the black Gale Sayers and the white Brian Piccolo, a moving story about race, football, cancer and loss. But if you were ever in search of another plot for a movie about the human spirit and overcoming loss, “Kermit’s Song” is surely fodder for the script.
Kermit Alexander grew up in Watts. He was the first born of eleven children of Ebora and Kermit Sr. Despite many difficulties in his early years, Kermit went on to college at UCLA and was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. He played with distinction as a cornerback in the defensive secondary for several seasons. Kermit was eventually traded to his hometown Los Angeles Rams which moved him closer to his family and to his roots in Watts. Away from football, he was always a congenital do-gooder trying to help others find their way out of challenging circumstances. It was a legacy from his devoted mother, Ebora. One day a very young football player caught his eye. Kermit was taken by the boy’s talent but he was troubled by the way the youth acted out what was obviously an inner demon that was manifested by displays of overt anger. The boy, Tiequon Cox, would hit teammates for failing to block for him and he would verbally abuse others. Kermit saw a vision of his own early childhood in the boy, an angry, out-of-control youth. He took note of the boy and felt the tug of his own practice of reaching out to others in need of help but his other obligations kept him from acting on this “better angel of his nature”. He decided to pass on this one. As ESPN’s Tom Friend pointed out, “It was the worst decision of his life”.
Nearly a decade later, Kermit’s world disintegrated. One awful day, August 31, 1984, he received a call that told him to go home immediately. Upon arrival, there were police cars in front of the family house in Watts. The worst had happened. His beloved mother, Ebora, a sister, Dietra, and two nephews, Damon and Damani, had been shot and killed by an 18-year-old, rifle-toting intruder. It was a murder for hire but the killer, a member of the Rollin 60 Crips gang, had misread the hand-written address of the intended target and had, instead, murdered members of Kermit’s family. But it gets worse. The killer turned out to be the young football player, Tiequon Cox, the boy Kermit had failed to help ten years earlier. It was a devastating event for Kermit on many levels. It was a tale marked by endless, tragic irony. Kermit in his emptiness became a drifter sometimes living out of his car. A lesser human being would have simply given up and Kermit almost did but something in him probably related to his mom’s memory kept him going. Ever so slowly he emerged from the depths of his guilt and despair.
Then Kermit met Tami Clark, a woman who, like Ebora Alexander, was driven to do good things for those in need. The relationship grew to love and eventually marriage, the second for both of them. Kermit’s life finally had a new ray of light. He had a chance to escape the devastating cloak of darkness that had enveloped him for more than a decade. Tami became the love of his life. She was a partner in every way. Life had begun anew for Kermit Alexander but there was to be more to his story.
Tami’s life was marked by strong religious ties, something quite foreign to Kermit’s understandable reluctance to believe in higher powers that had anything to do with the outcome of earthly events. A new, unexpected chapter began to unfold before her marriage to Kermit while Tami was on a solo mission to Haiti, a trip that included a visit to an orphanage. Quite by chance, she came upon a somewhat malnourished five-year-old who approached her, touched her and called her “mom”. The boy’s name was Clifton. Tami told the mission’s director about the incident and that Clifton had called her “mom” and had mentioned to other kids at the orphanage that Tami was “my mom”. Tami figured that Clifton always did that with visitors but the director was astonished. “He never does that. Are you sure it was Clifton?” When it came time for Tami to return to California, Clifton who had now befriended her was heartbroken even when Tami promised to return.
Kermit joined Tami on the next trip to Haiti and met Clifton. After their marriage in 2004, they flew to Haiti yet again, this time to adopt the little boy. It was joyous event and it included a different Kermit, now a person with a reason to live and to laugh once again. The adoption road was long and winding and at one point it was a dead end but Tami and Kermit persisted. On one of their many trips to Haiti and Clifton, they were joined by the boy while they were visiting another orphanage. During the visit Clifton went up to a group of four kids to what appeared to be a joyous reunion. It was. Kermit asked Clifton about his friends. Clifton relied, “They are not my friends. They are my two brothers and sisters.” Suddenly, the adoption plan had a dark side, the separation of family members. Kermit had trouble with that. So a new plan was crafted, one that called for the adoption of all five kids. The process dragged on into 2010. Then, as Tom Friend wrote, “….the earth moved”.
For four agonizing days Tami and Kermit, at home in California, did not know the fate of the children. What they did know was that about a quarter million Haitians had perished in the earthquake and that there was a good chance their kids would be among them. Then, on the afternoon of the fourth day following the disaster they heard the news…the children were alive and safe. But because of a paper work foul up, one of the kids would not be available for transport out of the country by one of the designated rescue groups conducting evacuation flights to Florida. It was Clifton. His papers had been misplaced or lost and he would not be allowed to accompany his brothers and sisters for the trip to safety and a new life. With the eleventh-hour intervention of the State Department, Clifton was put on a military cargo plane in time to join the family in Orlando. Hearing that news, Tami and Kermit packed and were on their way to Florida. Upon landing in Orlando and after enduring a lengthy, agonizing grilling by authorities who had been alerted to the unauthorized taking of Haitian children, they were cleared to claim their new family. At four in the afternoon among a crowd of adults and many kids in the waiting area, a cry came out, “Dad!” In an instant the family was finally and forever complete…Tami, Kermit, Jameson, Semfia, Zachary, Manoucheka and last but certainly not least, Clifton. The family that had changed Kermit’s life and had redeemed his tortured soul was now, indeed, a family and Kermit Alexander had been made whole once again. “Kermit’s Song” included the sweetest of melodies.
The ultimate fate of the family is still an unknown. Life doesn’t come with any guarantees. But for me, it is nice to know that I inhabit a planet with people like Kermit and Tami. It is even more satisfying to count Kermit Alexander as an old friend. If Kermit and Tami’s religion is true, then I know one more thing; there is someone, some spirit out there looking down on Kermit, Tami and the kids. She is smiling. Her name is Ebora.
Note: The image of Kermit was taken by Christopher Park for ESPN.