by Jordan Atkins
I was one of the invincibles in eighth grade. Family, friends, and fans called us the "B5"-- five talented black athletes within a predominantly white community. With 31 wins and 0 losses, we reached the goal of a perfect season while dominating our opponents and inspiring excitement in our community. We could make history if we continued to play with the same level of intensity in high school. It would be the first time in our high school's 65 years that African-Americans would comprise the entire starting lineup in any sport. Our future high school basketball careers and prospects for a state championship looked as bright as the infamous "Fab Five," Michigan's 1991 recruiting class. There was one problem: I knew that basketball at the next level would consume all my free time and prevent me from pursuing other interests.
Community and friends versus my own heart: At the end of freshman season, I had to choose between succumbing to the pressure of pleasing others and following my true interests. In looking back, I tapped into the courage I found when I began to negotiate the boundaries of stereotyping. It started in sixth grade, with friends often saying: "Jordan, you're the whitest black person I know," referring to my proper style of speech. These comments were hurtful, and although said jokingly, I felt the stereotyping and disrespect inherent in them. I was born in the same suburb as my friends and had experienced a strong sense of community. Yet, I realized the powerful stereotypes of race and athletes. In the beginning of eighth grade, I built up the courage to confront those making such comments, and the jokes stopped.
Months later, it hit me. If I continued basketball, I would have limited time to improve football and baseball skills, explore my interest in business outside of school, or even volunteer in mentoring programs. Working with younger kids was a passion and skill that started when I attended a small private elementary school. In third grade, I began work with preschoolers, spending half of my lunchtime reading stories to them. Eventually, I helped those in younger grades with schoolwork. I never had time to pursue this kind of volunteering once I began playing basketball at an intense level. So, before the basketball season started in my sophomore year, I made the decision to walk away from the sport.
Without the added demands of basketball, I began participating in business competitions held by the Business Professionals of America. I spent countless hours taking notes and studying fundamental accounting, banking, and finance principles. The determination to dominate at these business competitions felt similar to the tenacity with which I used to practice my shots before game day. But rather than looking for external encouragement from coaches, I became self-motivated. In my first year, I qualified for nationals.
I always loved football, and could now explore that interest. At first, I faced discouragement from future teammates, since I hadn't played on the freshman team. But again, I stayed true to my interest and ended up starting on both offense and defense my sophomore year. I am now a team captain for the varsity team. In some ways, my role resembles my elementary school mentoring, helping younger football players maneuver the grueling demands of football and academics. I also advise them on other off-the-field issues such as taking ownership for behavior in and out of school.
Quite honestly, I do miss basketball, and think about the missed opportunity for fame and heroism. But, I do not regret my decision. When my school's team made it to the State's "final four" with only three of the B5 as starters, I often thought and was told, "That could've been me playing." Yet every good decision comes with sacrifices.
Jordan Atkins, a freshman at the University of Michigan, is a graduate of Adlai E Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois.