Remarks by Alan C. Page at the Pro Football Hall of Fame
July 30, 1988
It is a great honor to be here today. Football was very good to me, and my good fortune has continued in my chosen career as a lawyer. But in the world where I now work, professional accomplishment is measured on a very different scale, over a much longer period of time. So I find it a bit strange to again be the object of this much attention for what I accomplished years ago, in a very narrow field of endeavor, called football.
As my football career ended, many of my contemporaries were already beginning to make their impact felt in society. And they continue—healing the sick, creating jobs, defending people in trouble and seeking peace among nations. Very few of them will receive a fraction of the tribute lavished on someone like me, who once tackled people for a living.
It’s hard to say what today’s inductees will mean to future generations, but for now, we are still looked upon as role models. And role models have an obligation, I think, to relate to the needs of the future, and not just relate to the deeds of the past.
It’s certainly okay to enjoy the glory and the fruits of bygone efforts. But I think all the men you see here reached the Hall of Fame because they couldn’t be satisfied with their past performances. So as I try to give meaning to this event for myself, I want to focus on what I can do here and now.
On this occasion, I ask myself, “What contribution can I still make that would be truly worthy of the outpouring of respect and good feelings as I have felt here today?” And the answer, for me, is clear: “to help give other children the chance to reach their dreams.”
I don’t know when children stop dreaming. But I do know when hope starts leaking away, because I’ve seen it happen. Over the past 10 years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with school kids of all ages. And I’ve seen the cloud of resignation move across their eyes as they travel through school, without making any progress. They know they are slipping through the net into the huge underclass that our society seems willing to tolerate.
At first, the kids try to conceal their fear with defiance. Then, for far too many, the defiance turns to disregard for our society and its rules. It’s then that we have lost them—maybe forever.
But this loss is not always as apparent as the kid who drops out of school for life on the street. I’ve seen lost men in the National Football League.
When I played for the Vikings, a new defensive line coach decided the best way for players to learn the playbook was to read it aloud. Maybe it was a good way to learn…for people who could read. There were nine players in the group—all college products. Three had no trouble reading the book. Two did okay. But for the other four, it was an agonizing struggle. And we all shared their pain.
These same young men were once the heroes of their schools, showered with recognition and praise for their athletic achievements…and allowed to slide by in the classroom. And for their time in the NFL, at least, these were the fortunate ones. They had beaten the long, 18,000-to-1 odds of even making it that far. But without reading skills, what were their chances of finding a dignified, fulfilling job after football?
We are doing no favors for the poor young men from Miami and Chicago and Philadelphia and LA, if we let them believe that a game shall set them free. At the very best, athletic achievement might open a door that discrimination had held shut. But the doors slam quickly on the unprepared and the undereducated.
We are at a point in our history where black teenagers constitute the most unemployed and undervalued people in the population. And instead of making a real investment in education that could pay itself back many times, our society has chosen to pay the bill three times:
Once, when we let kids slip through the educational system;
Twice, when they drop out of a street life of poverty, dependence and maybe crime;
And a third time, when we warehouse in prison those who do cross over the line and get caught.
The cost of this neglect is immense—in dollars and in abuse of the human spirit. We must educate our children.
Once we’ve let it reach this point, the problem is virtually too big and too expensive to solve. But we can make a difference, if we go back into the schools and find the shy ones and the stragglers, the square pegs and the hard cases, before they’ve given up on the system…and before the system has given up on them.
Then we say to those children: “You’re important to our world, and to our future. We want you to be successful and have the things you want from life.
But being successful and reaching your dreams takes work. It means being responsible for yourself. If you aren’t willing to go to class and do your homework and participate in the opportunities to learn, then you have no right to complain about the unfairness of this world. You’re not alone in this. But only you can do the work that will make you free.”
“If you wait until college—or even until high school—to get serious about an education, you may be too late. It’s hard to go back as an adult to learn what you missed in third grade. It’s important to dream, but it’s through learning and work that dreams become reality.” We must educate our children.
But we can’t preach responsibility to our children if we don’t accept it ourselves.
We as parents—especially in the black community—must accept that we bear responsibility for our children. We must work with them. Not just by developing their hook shots or their throwing arms, but by developing their reading and their thinking abilities. If we don’t have the skills ourselves to pass on, we can still encourage them, reward them and praise their academic accomplishments. We can educate our children.
We shouldn’t put down athletics, because they can teach children the value of teamwork and disciplined effort. But insist that your children take school seriously as well. And if they can’t handle the demands of both, school should come first, and athletics should go.
Finally, you and I can make a difference as members of our communities. We can’t just leave it up to the schools, or the social workers, or the police and the legal system. We ultimately pay the cost of our educational system’s failures. But we also have the solutions within our power. If we educate our children.
We can support the schools and the teaching profession instead of complaining about them. We can honor students and teachers who excel with the same rewards and recognition that we give to our athletes and coaches. As it stands, how can we expect kids with poor self esteem and shaky reading skills to pursue academics when often the only reinforcement they get is in sports?
Now, these words may seem too simple to the people on the front lines who have seen too many of the lost, and too few of the victorious.
The jobless single mother may have too little hope of her own to share some with her children.
To the kid surrounded by drugs and violence and acres of rotting city, a job in a law firm may seem more remote than a shot at the Hall of Fame.
And so we, who have been insulated by our successes from a loss of hope, must not turn our backs on these kids. We must not concede their lives to the forces that have worn so many children down. We must educate our children.
Yes, the things I’m suggesting are simple. But I’ve learned from school, from football, and from the law that even the biggest, scariest problems can be broken down to their fundamentals. And if all of us cannot be superstars, we can remember to repeat the simple fundamentals of taking responsibility for ourselves, and for the children of this country.
We must educate our children.
And if we do, I believe it will be enough.