Ricky Miller: The Original Black Quarterback
When I was seven some boys spotted me and my brother, Steve, leaping onto the huge planters that fronted our Church. It was right before Baptist Training Union and we were avoiding going in until the last minute. The planters were beige stone structures that graduated in height from street level to the top of a stack of steps at the entrance. We leapt high and laughed hard when the other one fell on his landing. Our Buster Brown shoes were scuffed green and chalk white from the shrubbery and brick. Behind us the boys huddled on the Jacobs’ front facing yard and watched silently. At some point one of the boys; a tall, dark-skinned, muscular boy with long arms and huge hands yelled out, “Hey!”
I was landing bad and stumbled sideways with a big, falling forward motion when he had yelled. Looking toward his shout I saw a football slicing the distance and zeroing in on my face at the very spot where I didn’t know I was landing. I caught the ball with a fanatical squeeze and slap of my hands together and rolled forward onto the walkway. The boys across the street laughed and pointed and shook their surprised mouths closed with clasped hands and grass-staining rolls. It was the first time that I had EVER caught a football. The yelling boy smiled big and held up his hands in the same catching motion, expecting back the football. I walked to the edge of the street, pushing my torn shirt back in place against my road rash belly, and flung the ball sideways in baseball fashion. More guffaws.
My older sister came to the entrance and shouted, “Get inside“. Across the street the tall boy picked the spinning football off the sidewalk and jacked back his head in a familiar anti-nod. His close cut hairline was pushed back on his slender, black forehead. As I turned and took the first step, he licked the tips of his fingers with a huge, dark pink tongue before gripping the leather ball and tucking it under an arm. Another of the boys waved as they began to stand. At BTU, Peter left the boat and walked, briefly on water.
Later that week my Stepfather called me and Steve out of our room and to the front porch. In the yard were the gang of boys with the tall boy spinning a football in his huge palm. “Go ahead“, my Stepfather prodded, “You can ask ’em yo’self, son.” The boy said, “Uh, my name is Ricky Miller. Ya’ll wanna come up to the high-line field and play some football?” My Stepfather turned back inside saying over his shoulder, “Get back t’the house before I hafta light the porch.” Me and Steve followed the boys to the field at the top of the Morrell Street.
The boys introduced themselves as we walked and most were brothers: the Mcpherson boys were Ricky Lane, Larry and Michael; Keith Wayne Jernigan and Chili-Wayne Epperson were singles; the Taylor boys were Mickey, Gilbert and lil Keith. The big boy was Ricky Miller and his younger brother was Clifton.
Once at the field Ricky Miller showed me how to hold and throw the football, then sent me trotting down the field to catch the ball some more. He quickly discovered two things: I could run faster than most and had no idea what I was doing otherwise. He took me aside and drew jagged lines in the dirt that I was supposed to follow. He promised me that the football would be thrown at the area marked with an “X” and that I was supposed to catch it there. I ran the zigzags faster than the “Safety” boys who tried to keep me from doing it. Ricky Miller yelled a lot and the ball zipped through the air and landed on the various imaginary “X” marks.
Walking us back home Ricky Miller asked, “Don’t ch’all watch the Dallas Cowboys games on Sunday?” We both replied, “Sometimes, before we go back to BTU, but Mr. Howard yells and cusses too much at the t.v., so Mama says to play outside.”
“Do y’all know Craig Morton?”, Ricky Miller tried again. ” How ’bout Walt Garrison? Bob Lilly? Don Meredith? Lee Roy Jordan? Y’all never heard of Bullet Bob Hayes or Pettis Norman, either?”. Before I could lie about knowing these names, Ricky Miller said, “Try to stay inside and watch the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday”. Then, without my asking, he handed me his football saying, “Throw it to each other and bring it back up to the field with you next time”.
We were half a block away from the house and Mr. Howard stood watching for us from the screened in porch. Morrell Street was leaning into the early grays of evening, but everything around us was suddenly brand new, imaginary zigzag patterns and “X’s”. Steve took off and ran across Ms. Palmer’s front yard yelling for the football. I threw it like Ricky Miller had been showing me. The worn, brown leather ball rose in the air and wobbled like a shot duck before dying ten feet away and bouncing to a stop.
Steve ran back a few feet to get it. As he chucked the ball back, a little less dying duck style to me, the bulb from our screened in porch sprang to an amazingly brighter life.
Jas. Mardis is an Award winning Poet, Writer and Art Quilter. He has been awarded the Push Cart Prize for Poetry and is a 2014 Inductee to the Texas Literary Hall of Fame.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress Photo collection Farm Security Administration collection