A Few Simple Questions

When our children were in elementary school and played recreational soccer and basketball, I sometimes helped out as an assistant coach. I wrote this to my son’s basketball team after a particularly rewarding season:

I want to thank every one of you for all that you have given to our team. I also want to take this moment to pass on a story about a person who made a difference in my life when I was young - Jesse Owens.

Jesse was born the son of a southern sharecropper. He didn’t have much when he was growing up. That didn’t matter. He had a mother who commanded respect – not by being glamorous or fashionable. Not by hanging with gangs or driving a fancy car. She nurtured her child through some very tough times. Quite simply – she loved and sacrificed for her kids. Her son, Jesse, was the fruit of her struggles.

Jesse gave me some lifelong advice one day in the ‘Shoe at an Ohio State University track meet, back when I was about 12 years old. He was a legendary figure in the 1930s and 40s. History books tell how he was the fastest man alive and how he won Olympic gold medals in front of the German dictator Adolf Hitler, who erroneously believed skin color and racial features determine your value to humanity. Jesse, it is said, single-handedly destroyed the twisted myth of Aryan supremacy. Jesse Owens’ legend will live forever.

When I saw him sitting in the stands at the track meet one Saturday afternoon, I was too shy to go up to him on my own. My Dad said “I’ll introduce you” and he did. At the time Dad, who was a teaching professor of medicine at the Ohio State University, was on the board of the Ohio Heart Association, and had organized a speaking engagement where Jesse Owens addressed the association. Jesse motioned me to sit down next to him in the bleachers. I had my track and field program in one shaking hand and a pen in the other. I asked him “Mr. Owens, can I have your autograph?”

He smiled and we had a little talk. He asked me (like I later found out he did to all the kids who came looking for him to sign something): “How’s your family? Are you being good to your brothers and sisters? You do well in school, now, and listen to your parents” Only then did he sign my program.

I’ll never forget how that man – the most amazing figure in American sports history – looked at me and, with a few simple questions indicated what truly mattered in life. Looking back now, I realize how important his simple message was. It’s a message I leave with you now as our team disbands: Be good to your brothers and sisters. Do well in school. Listen to your parents.

Jesse Owens’ heroic track and field accomplishments are recalled with wonder and his name has a mythical place in Ohio State sports history. The wisdom, class, and integrity that he showed a young and impressionable boy seeking an autograph at a track meet resonate within me still. Jesse Owens will always be my hero.

Told By Chris Wooley, Anchorage Alaska