How a surrogate ‘Dad’ taught me to run, and lifted us all in the inner city

 

Rocky Adams stood about six-foot-two, with a big belly and grizzled silver and black hair. In his sixties, he’d been through segregation in Alabama where he’d been made to use “colored only” washrooms. He’d run track on the same team as Olympian Jesse Owens, and talked about Jesse like he was just around the corner, or a phone call away.

I went to Middle School and part of High School in Seattle’s south side, bussed into the inner city. In ninth grade I ran track, and received the great gift of a coach I will never forget.

Most of the girls on our team didn’t have a father living at home, including me. Somehow, they’d divorced or died or drifted away. So Rocky became OUR father, the father of every girl on that team.

I remember how we’d meet on that red cinder track after school, and gather in a little cluster around Rocky. Every girl gave him a sideways hug. It wasn’t like Rocky asked for hugs. We just went up to him and put our arms around his big belly and we hugged him for all the father we could get.

Some girls would hang on him, and he’d have to peel them off and before sending us all around the track for a warm-up half mile. “I have a headache Rocky,” we’d complain, buying a rest or a day off, or “I’ve got pains.” He’d get stern: “Your head hurts, your belly hurts, next thing your hair gon’ hurt! When I was guarding them women in Korea, suddenly they’d go off in them bushes, and come back with a baby half an hour later! And you tell me you can’t get round that track?!”

Rocky worked at a sports store, and he never let a girl or boy go without the spiked shoes we needed to run our races. He made it clear, if you didn’t have the money for a bag, or Bengay, or a new set of spikes, you just needed to ask.

Years later I wondered how much of his own money he’d spent on those shoes. At the time I thought they were magical, free, but now I understand he must have sacrificed for us, like a good father. He lectured us tactfully on athletic wear, that a good bra would improve our performance – get your Mom to buy one. He drew the line at supplying those.

With his stories of Jesse Owens, with his chiding, he encouraged the girls to stay in school and the boys to give their best. Don’t get pregnant, he told the girls, but he didn’t shame or shun when one girl did and she had to leave the team.

As a fatherless girl, I counted on my hugs from Rocky. He gave me unconditional love and support for all the years I ran track with him, at school and during club in the summers when I’d take the bus across town to practice, even though I never came in first, not once, although I came in last plenty of times. My legs were too short, my hamstrings too tight, but Rocky said: “You got heart.”

I am grateful to have lived in a window of time when he could hug us like a father, and we could respond like daughters. I am grateful for Rocky Adams stepping up to be my “Dad” and I’m sorry that I moved to another country and then Ohio so I never got to thank him in person as an adult.

So, on throwback Thursday I want you to know that Rocky Adams was a hero, and I’ll always be trying to pay forward what he gave to me.

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When a highly intuitive mother starts getting psychic hits about the kids next door, she thinks she’s going crazy. She’s not, but her doubt doesn’t stop a clock that’s ticking toward disaster.

The LightCatcher is available at www.thelightcatchernovel.com