Alan Page, whose second act in life vaulted him beyond even his Pro Football Hall of Fame career, still remembers a childhood moment which sharpened the “justice for all” mentality that drove him to become the first black justice to serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
“I’ve never talked about this [memory] before, but I will, because one thing I’ve learned is, in order to solve the discrimination that we see, we have to come to grips with our own biases,” said Page, speaking Feb. 18 to high school students from Minneapolis North, Paladin Career and Technical in Blaine, and Focus Beyond in St. Paul. The gathering was part of a panel in honor of Black History Month at the Vikings Museum in Eagan.
Page then shared a story from when he was 12 or 13, growing up in Canton, Ohio, during the dawn of the civil rights era. It was 1957 or ’58 and an entire nation was still wrestling with the infamous case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black kid from Chicago. While visiting family in Mississippi in summer 1955, he was brutalized and lynched by four white men, all of whom were acquitted.
“There was a kid in my neighborhood who, at the time, would have been described as effeminate,” Page said. “We thought he was a gay kid. And we used to regularly pick on him just because he was gay. And one day it dawned on me, ‘How can I expect people to treat me fairly if I’m treating other people unfairly? If I’m bullying other people simply because of the color of their skin or their gender or sexual preference, how can I expect people to treat me any different?’
“That was one of those moments that changed my life forever.”
Meanwhile, fellow Vikings Hall of Famer Carl Eller, who joined Page and Vikings co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson on the panel, used his time to take the audience down memory lane to 1960, the Jim Crow-era South and ground zero of the civil rights movement.
Eller was a high school senior in Winston-Salem, N.C., the day four black college students walked into the F.W. Woolworth Co. in Greensboro just 18 miles away. They sat down at the “whites only” lunch counter and started a movement by sitting still when asked to leave.
At first, Eller viewed the ensuing marches as a good excuse for a young black man to get out of going to class. But their true meaning touched him the day he walked into a hamburger joint in Winston-Salem as the proud owner of “the 15 cents or whatever it took” to order the hamburger he could never afford.
Eller had walked by this restaurant down the hill from his home countless times. He saw the sign out front, the one that listed the hamburger he craved and the price he had specifically worked for to afford.
“There was a young white girl there behind the counter,” Eller said. “She said, ‘I can’t serve you here, but if you’ll go around to the back, I can serve you out back.’ ”
That’s when self-respect and the power of the purse string as a tool against discrimination became a driving force in Eller’s life.
“I had worked really hard for that money,” Eller said. “I wasn’t going to subject it to this type of injustice. So I walked away. That made me realize having my own money meant nobody was going to get it from me unless I wanted to pay.”
Patterson was born in 1960 in Camden, Ark., and moved with his mother to the San Francisco Bay Area when he was 2.
He said he didn’t experience racism in California until seventh grade, when he was bused to an all-white middle school. But long trips to stay with family in Arkansas and Mississippi made Patterson aware at even an early age that he “grew up in two different worlds.”
In Mississippi, he’d see a pristine baseball field and tell his grandmother that’s where he wanted to play. She’d tell him, “No, baby, you can’t play there.” Whites only.
“I could not understand that,” Patterson said. “I could not comprehend that.”
Patterson’s response was to find something no one could take from him. Ever.
“That’s when I had to make a choice,” he said. “I decided that I was going to do whatever I had to do to succeed. And, fortunately for me, I had a mom and a grandfather that stuck education in my mind. They beat that into my head. If you get an education, then no one can ever take that away from you.
“And I talk to my [Vikings] players about that all the time. You see them on TV and know how much money they make. I tell them that if you don’t have education and you don’t get your degree, somebody smart is going to take your money away from you.”
Patterson also preaches self-confidence. Not just in thought but in words people use to describe themselves.
“You have to believe in you,” Patterson said. “If you have a strong belief in you, then no one can ever knock you down.”
Vikings players get a kick out of the nickname Patterson gave himself long ago.
“It’s funny to them, but it’s not funny to me because I believe it,” he said. “I’m a big man but I call myself ‘Big Pretty.’ OK. Here’s the reason why: It’s because no matter how you see me, every morning when I get up and go to shave and look at me in the mirror, I see ‘Big Pretty.’
“If I didn’t have that strong belief in me and who I was, [this career] never could have happened.”
Page had a similar realization. He wanted to be a lawyer from the time he became a teenager. People told him that would never happen.
But the dream never died. He went to law school and practiced law even as he was crafting one of the greatest playing careers in NFL history.
“You can choose what your future will be,” Page told the students. “Maybe you have to overprepare. Sometimes, because of the color of your skin, you’re going to have to work harder than the next person. And that’s unfair. And it’s wrong. But at the end of the day, working harder than anybody will make you a better person.
“By seeking excellence, you will have the ability or the opportunity to reach or achieve your highest self, whatever that is. And when you do that, you will be surprised what you can do. You will be shocked. You will look back and say, ‘How did that happen?’
“Each individual has that power.”