Most boys of color are given sports playbooks. My books were different.
I relentlessly trained and practiced with my science textbooks, not on the fields or courts, but in libraries and laboratories. The hours of memorization drills did not always lead to mastery. I experienced countless failures big and small that shook my resolve and amplified my doubts.
If I could encapsulate the mantra that allowed me to overcome all those years of doubts and adversity into one phrase it would be, “Why not you?” the pillared phrase of the foundation created by Russell Wilson, quarterback of the Seahawks.
Now the years of hard, lonely work are paying off. Recently, an older man silently stared at me with a glimmer in his eye. After a few long moments, he said, “It is so good to see you.”
I knew what he meant.
This 60-year-old African-American man in Portland, a city with few African Americans, had never seen someone who looked like him in a long white coat with an MD badge hanging from the lapel.
Since I was a child, everyone in my life told me I mattered on and off the athletic field. They told me I could be whomever I wanted to be, whether a professional track and field runner, firefighter, sports analyst, lawyer or even a physician.
I wish other boys of color had that support and guidance. I offer them this playbook outline to becoming more than an athlete:
- Excellence comes in all shades.
As a young boy, I would chase after my mother’s powerful stride in the hospital. She was director of the Howard University Cancer Center, one of several researchers, physicians, nurses and staff who were all different shades of black. Each were esteemed leaders and honored caregivers. They walked with their heads held high, eyes clear and purposeful, and voices that commanded respect. Each came from different social and economic circumstances. Some had fortunate, even privileged backgrounds, while others had financially insecure beginnings. Whatever their start, they each had to go through the same rigorous training, mastering their own adversity along the way.
- Dream big.
I had minimal awareness of the elevated pressures of being cool and athletic over studying and being associated with the nickname “geek.” One evening I sat with track and field teammates, a tough workout in our rearview mirror. They began speaking about college with the consensus the only way they could attend was with their athleticism. In that moment, I wanted to challenge their beliefs — pushing them to see they could dream big and strive for more — but their thoughts were deep-rooted. I wanted them to believe a successful trail lay ahead of them off the athletic field. In that moment, I learned doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.
- Find a mentor who believes in your vision.
Mentorship in communities of color has been sparse because numbers in positions to mentor are far fewer. However, foundations such as Russell Wilson’s give hope to despair. With the right direction and guidance, the same excellence and discipline used to excel at sports can be transitioned into the libraries, research laboratories and writing workshops.
As a third-year medical student finishing a long day, I began questioning my pursuit. My resolve was dwindling. I contacted a mentor. Dr. Ebony Hoskins — a guide of 10 plus years — reminded me: “It’s worth it. You’re going to change someone’s life, to save someone’s life, to heal someone. A road that leads to these opportunities should never be easy.”
Now as a young physician, I still have many dreams of my own, but the most important is that a young boy of color uses this playbook to become more than an athlete.
When doubt creeps in, remember excellence comes in all shades, dream big and find a mentor who believes in your vision. And ultimately, ask yourself, “Why not you?”