Oak Lawn High School football coach Harold Blackmon (right) teaches his son Jai'el Blackmon about what it's like to be a Black man in America. Credit: Harold Blackmon

Evan F. Moore is a culture/entertainment writer with the Chicago Sun-Times. Evan attended Donald Trump’s Chicago rally and lived to tell about it.

A coach who has the distinction of being a three-sport star in the Chicago Catholic League at Leo High School, a Big Ten all-conference defensive back and team captain at Northwestern, an NFL player for the Seattle Seahawks, and an assistant coach at Northwestern and North Park isn’t normally drummed out of a gig where they turned around a losing program.

On paper Harold Blackmon seems to be someone any school in the country would want to lead their football team. But what was said to him in 2012 by an alumnus, within his first week at St. Laurence, a coed Catholic high school in southwest suburban Burbank, shows that his personal accolades aren’t worth a damn if alumni, fans, and school officials refuse to see past the color of his skin.

“This guy walks up to meet me and says ‘Hey Harold, why don’t you come out and have a drink with the guys in the neighborhood so we can get over the fact that you’re Black?’ It’s this kind of one of those surreal moments like, I really signed up for this?” Blackmon, the first Black head coach in school history, told me. “So needless to say, I did not go out to have that drink. He said he went to St. Laurence president Joe Martinez after this, who downplayed the incident.

Despite a 41-37 record and making the state playoffs in four of his seven seasons, achieving an overall team 3.0 grade point average, having players elected school president three times, and some players picking up Division I offers, it seems that it wasn’t enough for parents, staff, and boosters at St. Laurence. Blackmon, who was fired on April 1, 2019, said it was one thing after the other.

Historically, when a Black man is one of the few at his gig, his accomplishments are belittled, and his mistakes are magnified. And the worst you can do outside of messing up the bag for someone behind you is be viewed as “ungrateful” and “difficult.” These two labels were eventually utilized to describe Blackmon.

Some of the accusations hurled Blackmon’s way in his tenure at St. Laurence were mentioned as reasons for his firing: “not being friendly enough” toward faculty, not hiring the nephew of a booster to his coaching staff, not raising the team’s GPA enough, and not recruiting from St. Laurence’s historical boundaries. (He did.)

Blackmon said President Martinez read him an e-mail sent from the same alumnus who said disparaging remarks about getting a drink, accusing Blackmon of “hiring the first Black person off the street.” Blackmon obviously denies this, but Martinez asked him to submit a racial breakdown of his coaching staff.

Blackmon said that of a staff of 15 coaches, “we’re a rainbow.” His freshman level had two Black coaches, two white coaches, and one Latino coach; sophomore level had two white and two Black coaches; and varsity had three white coaches, two Black coaches, and one Native American coach.

Martinez, who started at St. Laurence the same year as Blackmon, told me he never received an e-mail questioning Blackmon’s hiring practices. He said it’s not “uncommon” to ask for coaching staff demographics. He also cited a Tribune article in which Blackmon said he didn’t “fit in” with the culture at St. Laurence and that he was “not talking about race.”

“I cannot speak to the alleged conversations Harold had. . . . I can speak to the fact that we take racial comments very seriously and investigate them when they are brought to our attention,” Martinez wrote me in an e-mail. “Harold never brought to my attention that he was having any issues with race at St. Laurence.”

Blackmon shot back. He said Martinez is aware of the e-mail and said that he’s being pressured by alumni. “I mentioned not about race because I knew I would eventually have to find another job and was concerned that claiming race would limit any option that I may have had,” said Blackmon. “In my career, I have always put race as the last determining factor because I know how divisive it can be and how some may use it to ignore their own culpability.”

In the aftermath of Blackmon’s firing, his son Jai’el was the one who initiated the conversation. “That day I had collected some of my things from my office and he was helping me put them in my car,” said Blackmon. “As we were riding home he says, ‘You know how you always talk about what it’s like being Black in society?’ He said, ‘Today is the first day I’ve actually seen what you mean,'” said Blackmon.

While Blackmon dealt with the fallout from his firing, Jai’el was going into his senior year at St. Laurence. He didn’t want any blowback to land on his son. He thinks of the cautionary tale all Black fathers tell their children before they go into the world: how to deal with being pulled over by the police.

Bobby “Fluff” Russ, a former Northwestern teammate of Blackmon’s, was killed in 1999 by a Chicago police officer amid a traffic stop. Russ was killed the same day as another motorist, LaTanya Haggerty.

“When his mom and I talk about Bobby, we talk to him about how to react if/when he ever gets pulled over by police,” said Blackmon. “We let him know that cops have prejudices and he cannot put himself in a position to give a cop a reason to use force. I also just talk to him about how I originally heard the news, and the overall sadness of the team. I told him that Bobby was a great person, who unfortunately lost his life to a cop on the same day that another person suffered the same fate.”

He continued. “I first heard the story on the news and couldn’t believe it. I hopped in my car and drove to Bobby’s house on campus. All I remember was my teammates sitting around in front of the house in sadness, shock, and disbelief.”

In May of 2019 Blackmon was hired by Oak Lawn High School as their football coach, and Jai’el graduated from St. Laurence. He’s headed to the University of Illinois this fall.

In Blackmon’s last season at St. Laurence, the Vikings went 4-7 and failed to make the IHSA playoffs for the first time since 2013, his second season. Adam Nissen, who took over for Blackmon, was a rookie head coach. He inherited 19 starters who were projected to return. The Vikings went 8-5, played in the IHSA 5A state playoffs, and won the Prep Bowl with many of the players Blackmon recruited.

“It was frustrating because, on one hand, I have Black parents like, ‘You never get upset, you’re doing this, you’re doing that.’ I’m like, I can’t afford to get upset. I can’t afford to have these outbursts,” said Blackmon. “My thought is the next Harold Blackmon will never get a chance if the current Harold Blackmon doesn’t do the right things, so I’m always conscious of my image. And even with that, [school administrators] created a narrative.”   v

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