‘You feel like you can’t breathe’: Former Citadel athletes on being black in America

As seen in The Post and Courier, by Jeff Hartsell

His feet dangling off the floor, Lamar Sales could feel the officer’s watch digging into his windpipe.

Sales, then 15 and a sophomore at Fort Dorchester High School, was a promising baseball and football player who had just earned his Eagle Scout Award the week before. He was attending a Sunday evening event at a North Charleston teen club when a ruckus broke out.

Sales wasn’t involved, but all of a sudden he found himself in a choke hold applied by a law enforcement officer.

“He’s choking me, and he gets his watch underneath my trachea,” Sales recalled. “Before, he was choking me. Now, he’s cut off my circulation, and my body goes limp. I couldn’t breathe. I start to fade, and I can see people. I go from seeing black to color, and I’m literally fading.

“And then he lets me go and tries to push me down the stairs, and runs back in the place.”

The moment, Sales said, was “the end of my Peter Pan childhood.”

“He controlled me,” said Sales, who went on to play football at and graduate from The Citadel. “My essence was escaping me at the hands of someone else. That moment was when I became a man and knew that people hurt other people.

“After that, I would go to Northwoods Mall and see people walk to the other side of where I was walking. I’d never noticed that before. Walking into Piggly Wiggly, I’d see people lock their car door when I went by. I’d see women clutch their purses when I was near. I never noticed that before because my innocence as a child never let me see that I could be a threat.”

Former Citadel quarterback Alvin “Scooter” Johnson was just 4 years old when his innocence was ended. Young Scooter had two white friends and a black friend that he usually played with, but one day found himself playing alone on the playground in front of his family’s apartment.

He approached a little white girl to see if she wanted to play. The girl’s father was standing nearby.

“Tell him,” the father told the daughter. She said, “I can’t play with you because you are black, and white people and black people aren’t supposed to play together because black people aren’t good people.”

Four-year-old Scooter shrugged and went back to playing with his red fire truck. But looking back, Johnson, now 39, says that incident “set the narrative for my life and introduced me to race.”

“I just remember my mom telling me, ‘Not everyone in the world is nice.’ And that set the stage for me, because now my innocence is gone and I’m fully aware that I’m different, that some people think I’m inferior due to my race.”

And a memory that’s stuck with Johnson: The girl’s father, seated on his porch with a shotgun in his lap, making sure the children did not play together.

In the aftermath of the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis and the nationwide protests that followed, The Post and Courier asked four former Citadel athletes to talk about their experiences, emotions and hopes as young black men growing up in America.

They range in age from 39 to 51, and their experiences stretch from the near tragic — Johnson had guns pulled on him and his friends during traffic stops, then drove away with no ticket issued — to the absurd. Renowned opera singer Morris Robinson, a former Citadel lineman, had just stepped off the stage in a starring role when a white woman asked him if he was the bus driver.

Despite all their successes — Nick Johnson is a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, Alvin Johnson a civil engineer, Sales a director at USAA — they’ve had to deal with issues of race all their lives.

Here’s what that has meant for them.

‘You have to adapt’

Sales played linebacker at The Citadel and graduated in 2003. Motivated by 9/11, he joined the Air Force and also served in the Army, earning two Bronze Stars over a 10-year military career, and now lives in San Antonio with his wife.

“9/11 was my junior year, and I took it hard. I felt my country was attacked, so I commissioned in the Air Force, and I was stationed in Texas. My lieutenant school was in Ohio, and on that drive from Texas to Ohio, I got stopped (by police) seven times. After a while, it became routine and I figured they were calling ahead. I actually put my blue hat with my lieutenant bar on the dash so they could see it, and left my driver’s license on my console so I wouldn’t have to reach into the console to get it.

“After I got out of the comfort zone of the football field, of the baseball field, of my coaches and my Citadel group, I knew I had to determine very quickly what kind of person I was dealing with. Most of the time in my professional life, there is not another African American male with me. And that’s one of the hardest things. You look to your left and your right as a grown professional, you don’t see many of us. And you have to adapt. Every single day is a new day that you have to prove yourself.

Former Citadel football player Lamar Sales earned two Bronze Stars during his Air Force and Army careers. Provided photo

“I was choked when I was young, and I couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t that no one could hear my voice or they couldn’t see me. I couldn’t breathe, the essential thing to be alive. I have been in the military, and I’ve seen things happen. But to see someone’s life taken from them like George Floyd’s was, it’s hard. I go back to when I was 15 and my feet were dangling. It was hard to watch.

“I plan to have a family, and I do have hope. Without hope, there is nothing. There are more good people than there are bad, so I do have hope.”

‘Even in the opera house’

Morris Robinson was an All-American lineman at The Citadel, where he was known as “The Singing Knob” and graduated in 1991. Now 51, he’s a world-renowned opera singer and lives in Atlanta.

“There was a stretch between the years 2001 and 2009, I was pulled over by the police 11 times. I never got one ticket. It was always, ‘What are you doing in this neighborhood?’ or ‘That’s a really nice car’ or ‘You look suspicious’ or ‘What do you do for a living?’ Once I got pulled over with my dad, my son and my two nephews in the car. My son said, ‘Dad, were you breaking the law?’ And I said, ‘No son, I’m just black.’

“You eventually recognize that no matter how much you accomplish, how much you play the game by the rules and are a law-abiding citizen, no matter how many people look up to you, by virtue of the color of my skin, I’m looked at in a certain way by certain people.

“Will Smith said it best: Racism in this country isn’t getting worse, it’s just getting filmed. I feel like, finally, the same thing we’ve been preaching for years and years, people are actually seeing it now. I’ve been telling people what it’s like to walk around the earth with a perpetual paranoia because you know someone will judge you for no other reason than I have pigment in my skin. I live that every day; I live it even in the opera house.”

Commencement speaker Morris Robinson, who played football at The Citadel, talks to graduates during the commencement ceremony in McAlister Field House in 2017.

“We’ve seen some bad stuff. We’ve seen Walter Scott get shot in the back, we’ve seen Dylann Roof go into a church and kill nine people. But this one was a slow, methodical murder of George Floyd that we witnessed. Is this a tipping point? I think the difference now is, we are calling people out. Big corporations are speaking out and saying enough is enough, and Colin Kaepernick tried a few years ago and people gave him crap because he took a knee.”

‘I’ve cried’  

Nick Johnson, 41, played tight end at The Citadel and graduated in 2001. He’s a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, the father of three sons and a daughter, and lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

“Being from Georgia, I remember that every time I saw a Confederate flag, maybe on a car or a truck, it would kind of take my breath away. I’d kind of get into a panic, because to me it represented a kind of racism.

Citadel graduate Nick Johnson is a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. (Photo provided)

“At The Citadel, I can remember guys like Maurice Drayton and Dary Myricks and Lorenzo Jackson pulling me aside and telling me, ‘Never let them marginalize you. Never let them feel like you are less of a human being because of your skin color.’ And those words stuck with me. 

“One of my sons is my size, and I call him the gentle giant. But I tell my kids, people will look at you different until you open your mouth and talk to them, and then you can break down barriers.

“I’ve cried at least three times since the George Floyd incident occurred. That really hurt to the core. But when I look at my kids, I can’t stop. I can’t give up hope, because then they won’t have a bright future. I’ve always been a minority in the school I went to, in my job, and sometimes you feel like you can’t breathe yourself.”

‘I must be wrong’

Scooter Johnson played receiver and quarterback at The Citadel, graduating in 2003. Now 39, he’s been married for eight years and has two daughters, and he works as a civil engineer in Charleston. As a Citadel cadet, he was twice in cars that got pulled over by police, the first time as a passenger and the second as a driver.

“The first time, the K-9 unit pulled up. I told my friend, ‘Don’t make eye contact with the dog.’ But he looked at the dog, and it jumped and barked at him, and that’s when all hell broke loose. There were guns drawn, and ‘Put your hands out of the car.’ They put us against the back of the car and asked permission to search the vehicle. I asked the officer, ‘Sir, is all this warranted for a failure to signal a lane change?’ And he said, ‘Do you have a problem with blue lights?’ And when he said it, he put his hand on his gun. So I decided I better be quiet. And we got no warning ticket, no citation, nothing.

Alvin “Scooter” Johnson played quarterback and receiver at The Citadel. (Provided photo)

“The second incident, I was driving with three of my teammates in the car. We pull over, and I was asked to get out of my car, and again I’m walking backwards with my hands in the air. Something must have happened in the back of the car, and the second officer pulls his gun out and is like, ’Put your hands in your lap!” And I’m standing there petrified. And that ended the same way as the first, no ticket, no warning, no nothing.

“That was during the summer, when we had voluntary workouts. We went into the locker room, and we wouldn’t even talk about it. I guess this is what our fathers and parents were preparing us for. And we didn’t want to introduce any potential angst or divisiveness into the locker room. We were all brothers who hung out together and bled together and went to battle together, but we never really talked about it.

“I remember my dad would say, ‘Put The Citadel sticker on the back of your car,’ and I’d try to figure out why. But it was, anything that could give you a chance, that could separate you from the stereotype and give you a chance of surviving, you need to do. The frustration of it was, we were never told what we did wrong. So you are left with, ‘I must be wrong.’

“I’m kind of hoping that (George Floyd) is something that my grandchildren will one day want to talk to me about, about the year 2020. Not because of COVID-19, but because this is the event that started making real change about how systemic racism affects a group of people in this country.”