Growing up in Mississauga, all Jael Ealey Richardson knew about her father’s pro football career was that it was hard to dust and clean around his trophies. Although she’d been curious about his early life in Ohio, it wasn’t until she needed a topic for her university thesis that she delved into how Chuck Ealey came to lead the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the 1972 Grey Cup championship as quarterback, and win the most valuable player trophy. The chance to accompany him back home to his 40th high school reunion set her on a path that she says she was finally ready for — one that helped her understand how her family’s African-American history had shaped her life.
Ealey’s young life was fraught with difficulty. Born in 1950, he grew up in a low-income family in Portsmouth, a city divided by segregation. His mother had only a grade-school education, his father left when Chuck was five and his young brother died of cancer. Through it all, his mother’s message stuck with him: education will set you free.
His route to that education was through football. At 13, he would go to the nearby train tracks to give his throwing arm some practice. “I learned to be a quarterback by throwing stones at the Norfolk and Western trains that came through our towns,” he tells Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer. “I used the movement of the train and the letters on the train as a way to anticipate where the receiver would be.”
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Hearing these stories made Richardson thirsty for more and deeper information about her father and his family. “When we hear of people coming from these circumstances, we have the assumption that it’s hopeless, that it’s not going to get any better.” Richardson says. “But Dad for me was a testament that it can get better, that if you have your focus on the right things, it can change the trajectory of your life.”
Writing about her father helped her understand and feel more comfortable with her black heritage. “I haven’t always felt welcome in Canada,” Richardson says, despite being born and raised here. “There are things that are difficult when you’re a minority that Canada sometimes doesn’t want to acknowledge.”
Richardson adapted The Stone Thrower, published as a memoir in 2012, into a children’s book. “A friend of mine is a teacher librarian in Peel,” Richardson says. “She said we really need more stories like this that feature black characters and Canadian black history. So that was one of the main reasons I wrote it, because there was sort of a gap in the children’s book industry for stories that tell African Canadian stories.”
The following are excerpts from The Stone Thrower with text by Richardson and illustrations by Matt James.
She wanted things to be different for Chuck.
“Those coal trains that come through, they don’t stop here,” she said. “They don’t stop until they get where they’re going. I want you to be just like that. Do you remember where you’re going, son?”
Chuck smiled at her with a big, broad grin.
“I’m going to get out of the North End and get my education.
She smiled and squeezed him tightly.
“That’s right,” she said.
The train charged towards him, and Chuck fixed his eyes on the “N” on one of the coal cars. As the train passed, as the wind whooshed against him, Chuck pulled his arm back and threw the stone as hard as he could.
He picked another stone and tried again.
At a game against a rival school, Chuck played a team that was lean and mean. The players called him names, and they ran at him with anger in their eyes and in their hearts.
“Crush him,” they cried. “Get him,” they yelled.
With a few seconds left on the scoreboard, Chuck’s team was down by five. The team huddled together, heads bent down, arms around each other. They didn’t want to lose, but there was only time for one more play.
These excerpts are taken from The Stone Thrower, text copyright © 2016 by Jael Richardson, illustrations copyright © 2016 by Matt James. Reproduced with permission from Groundwood Books, Toronto. www.groundwoodbooks.com