Feb 27, 2013, 2:00 PM EDT
Editor’s Note: In honor of Black History Month, CAA Football will interview a different league coach every week throughout the month of February to get his thoughts on black history as it relates to his life, his career, the sport of football and society at large. In the fourth and final week of our series, we talk with James Madison running backs coach Ulrick Edmonds.
In what ways does black history relate to the game of football?
My first thought is the people who have been involved with both. In both respects, you’re dealing with people of character and many talents; people who have shown perseverance and incredible motivation. Those individuals were determined and passionate about their goals and made sure that they reached them.
When it comes to both black history and the game of football, there was great leadership. There were great leaders involved in both arenas. These leaders planned and organized so they were able to take advantage of opportunities to ultimately be successful. This success came in the form of equality in society and on the playing field. It’s made a big difference in the lives of many people.
Can you speak to the contributions that African-Americans have made to the game both on and off the field?
I reflect back on Doug Williams, who was the first African-American quarterback to start in and win a Super Bowl. Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy, also comes to mind. And this goes back much further. More recently, you think about Tony Dungy winning a Super Bowl in a game where he faced another African-American coach in Lovie Smith. Mike Tomlin has also made great contributions as a coach in the league. These coaches have allowed others to aspire to their level of football.
And if you look at these individuals off the field, each is looked at as a role model and mentor. Everyone respects them given what they’ve accomplished and the way that they’ve carried themselves. It’s been remarkable. I think their on-the-field success has made people also look at what they’ve done off the field, which is a lot as well.
How significant is it for a sport like football to have been so shaped by this legacy established by black players and coaches?
This legacy has been very significant. As a player you want to leave a mark on the institution or organization you’re a member of, and as a coach you want to do the same in the minds and hearts of each player you encounter. So any coach who participates in the game of football strives to make an impact on others and to be seen as a man who’s worked hard and done things the right way. As a player you want to make sure that at the end of your career, people remember you for positive reasons.
When you talk about black players and coaches, there have been many who have made this kind of impact and will be remembered as good people. Going back to that last question, what they did on the field allowed people to then see what they’ve done off the field as well. That legacy has been shaped and will continue to be shaped in this same way.
Who were the African-American individuals, famous or not, who influenced you as a child?
That’s an easy question. My father and mother, Louis and Arlene Edmonds, were the first to make an impact on me. I also had a strong background in the church, so the leaders there had a big impact me as well.
These people persevered a lot throughout their lives. They were men and women of great integrity, work ethic and also showed me the importance of humility and hard work. They talked to me a lot about life and were positive role models to me every day. They taught me a lot about the little things and making sure I respected each person I met.
My mom and dad were not athletes or sports fanatics, but they showed me a lot outside of sports and what the real world would be like. They taught me how to persevere, have integrity, work hard and be genuine to everyone. What they and the others did for me has allowed me to get to where I am in life.
Who were your black mentors or role models during your playing days?
The one person who really sticks out is George Barlow, who used to be the defensive coordinator here at James Madison and is now the secondary coach at Vanderbilt. He was a person who you could always go to and just talk things out with. He is such a good person, and as a player I looked at him and told myself that I wanted to be like him someday. When people are down or have something on their mind, they can always go to him. His door is always open.
He had a significant impact on me while I was a player here. Being around guys like him taught me not only a lot about football, but also about life.
Are there any African-American individuals who have served as personal mentors since your joining of the coaching ranks?
Once again, George Barlow. He knew that I wanted to get into coaching and has always been someone that I looked up to. I’d say Chip West as well. He was a coach here at JMU and is now at the University of Virginia. Both of these men showed me the importance of being the hardest worker on staff and the best coach possible.
What does it mean to you to be a black coach?
It means that parents have looked to me to help mold their sons. That’s an honor in itself. I have to challenge these young men and at the same time support them. It means I have to allow them to grow but to also watch them closely.
The importance of my color is that it’s human nature to gravitate towards the people who have commonalities. But regardless of a player’s race, I just hope that they see me as a strong, confident man who holds three things very near to his heart: Faith, family and football. These drive me in everything I do.
As a coach, you need to be there for a player regardless of a his race. Someone has entrusted you to watch over and develop their son. So it’s an honor and a privilege that someone’s entrusted me to do that. That’s why you coach: You want to see your players grow and get better athletically, academically and in every aspect of their lives.
Several of the coaches I’ve talked with have spoken to the fact that there are now many more black coaches in the game today. What is the importance of having black coaches serving on your staff?
I think this signifies that when given the opportunity, a driven person can accomplish anything with the proper direction. The opportunities may not have been as many 25 years ago, and I think the significance of that now is that people who are getting opportunities today are making sure that they do everything humanly possible to take advantage of them and to go above and beyond in their jobs.
Thanks to our digital world, children of all backgrounds are consuming sports and now have the opportunity to follow the careers of African-American players like never before. How important is it for the younger generation to have access to these kinds of potential role models, many of whom are African American?
I think the access to these role models is amazing, but it’s also important that this access is controlled. If you get on Twitter, you can follow any star and get their daily thoughts – the good and the bad. This is something that many players now want to emulate.
I follow a number of professional athletes, including Robert Griffin III and Serena Williams. With social media you get to see their daily lives and how hard they work both in season and in the offseason. You get to see how they respond to adversity and their daily interactions with fans, coaches and the media.
So if what the younger generation is viewing is controlled and monitored, it can be a great thing. But while there’s a lot of good, there’s the bad out there as well. What athletes are sharing can serve as inspiration and motivation. And when someone does something extraordinary, everyone knows about it in a matter of seconds. I think that’s great, but I think it should be controlled to some level when you have younger people following so closely.
Who would you consider some of these positive black role models for the younger generation nowadays?
I’m a Heat fan, so I’m going to start with LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. And I think you’ve got to include President Obama, too. There are other role models like a Maya Angelou who the younger generation may not know as well. She’s certainly not as well known as the first three, but they’re all people who’ve had a positive influence.
LeBron has done things on the basketball court that are completely out of the ordinary. Dwayne Wade has done some amazing things in the game, too. And whether you agree with him or not, Barack Obama is the President of the United States and is a guy who has to make a lot of tough decisions for our country. He has accomplished so much in his life.
I’ve also been reading about Stuart Scott. Every kid watches ESPN, but not everyone may know his story. He’s been battling the reoccurrence of his cancer and in a recent article he talked a lot about vulnerability. He said that even though he’s Stuart Scott, he’s scared of what could come. But the motivation he’s found and his will to overcome this for his daughters speaks greatly to his character and his love for his family.
As a coach, this is something we want all of our players to have. We want our players to be men of character and love the people who love them most; most often this is their family. So it’s people like Stuart Scott with maybe lesser-known stories who are great for our young people to hear about.
Sports, and football in particular, over the years have brought people of all backgrounds together to play in a spirit that that exists outside of factors like race, color and religion. How important has this tradition been?
It’s been a very important factor in helping show Americans that things like this don’t have to divide us. Football brings people of all different backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses together for a single purpose, which is to win. One of the most beautiful sights is looking at fans after a big win – alumni, students and people all over a community; people who would never all be in one place together – and seeing all of the smiles and cheering for their team.
Just as important, if you stand around in a locker room after a big win, it’s really a magical feeling. It gives me goosebumps when I see the freshmen that six months ago were so raw now hugging and celebrating with seniors. It shows the love they have for one another, which isn’t always so common in other parts of our lives.
Football truly brings so many people together that wouldn’t even hang out or say hello to each other in any other setting. There’s a commonality there: They’re cheering and playing for the same team and all trying to reach the same point.
Black History Month is an important month for not only blacks, but for people from all different backgrounds alike. Why should this month be celebrated by all people?
This month should be celebrated by everyone because not only does it highlight the accomplishments of African Americans, it symbolizes the accomplishments of mankind. We’re all in the position we’re in because someone along the way mentored and guided us and allowed us to flourish. Some of these people were black and some were not.
With this month highlighting the accomplishments of African Americans, I think it should be celebrated by all because we live in this world together and everyone has been shaped by so many different people regardless of race. We interact with people of all backgrounds each and every day, and each of these people is creating their own part in our story.
This month is absolutely for everyone. Everybody needs help along the way. We talked about Barack Obama. He got to this point in his life with the help of many different people. So in this light, while you can narrow it down to a month that celebrates our accomplishments as African Americans, in a bigger sense it’s a celebration for us all.
What would you consider the most important takeaway that we can all glean from Black History Month?
We can take away the fact that the past shapes our future. African Americans have made so much progress when it comes to everything from sports to politics to inventions. These progressions have been made over decades and even centuries. People have put forth a lot of hard work and many have died.
When it comes down to it, there were many different people who all went through something to achieve the liberties that we all now share. I think America is a blessed place, and it’s always been my hope that we’ll continue to accept and celebrate the differences in our fellow man.
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