Former Northwestern coach Ricky Birdsong’s untimely death hurt so much.
June 24, 2007, dawned overcast and chilly, nice weather to cover 3.1 miles on foot. “Runners’ weather,” Sherialyn Byrdsong, Ricky’s widow, says. Make that 2,200 runners’ weather. A record turnout made suburban Chicago’s eighth annual Race Against Hate the most successful yet. Ricky Byrdsong may not be with us, but his vision lives on.
Even if Smith’s odious act hadn’t been committed, there’s a good chance the Race Against Hate would have been born. At least its spirit would have been felt in the Byrdsong family’s work. Once Ricky left coaching, he became a one-man community relations dynamo, trying to imbue the Chicagoland area with his vision. Had he lived, that message would no doubt have stretched much further. It had no choice. With an engine like Ricky powering it, the word would have been heard. Count on that.
“Once he was fired, Ricky’s thing was to see how he could impact young men’s lives,” Sherialyn says. “Everything happens for a reason. With God controlling his circumstances, Ricky knew he had been given an opportunity from God to do something more than he had been doing with his life.”
She’s not saying coaching isn’t a noble profession. It is. But Ricky’s giant personality shouldn’t have been confined to 15 players on a Big Ten hoops team. So, in 1998, when he got a chance to work for Aon as VP of community affairs, he pounced. It was almost too good to be true. He would speak in schools, develop programs to help people work their way out of trouble. He could run basketball camps to impact hundreds. And he would write his book, Coaching Kids in the Game of Life. Could there be a sweeter deal for someone like him? “Being fired from Northwestern was a blessing in disguise,” Sherialyn says.
Byrdsong was on fire from the moment he began at Aon. His reach extended to large groups. Small families. Single individuals. James Saunders was a man who maneuvered his wheelchair into position on the corner of Wacker Drive and Monroe Street in Chicago every day and asked for money. He had lost his legs to infection after being stabbed in the back. Every day, Byrdsong passed Saunders on the way to work. One day, after giving Saunders five dollars, Byrdsong started a dialogue that eventually led to Saunders’ asking for a job. So, Byrdsong arranged for Saunders to get a job in Aon’s mailroom. Imagine that, going from panhandler to paid employee. That was amazing. That was Byrdsong.
“I don’t think he would have coached again,” Sherialyn says. “[When he was shot], he had finished one book and had ideas for two more. He wanted to be a community servant and an advocate for young kids. He wanted to be a role model for African-American kids.”
Done, done and done. Byrdsong’s life may have ended prematurely, but his legacy is clearly a beacon for hope in Chicago. This year’s Race Against Hate raised $70,000 for the YWCA, thanks to the record turnout and contributions of more than 40 sponsors. The money goes to the Y’s anti-bias curriculum, which teaches elementary school students how to work through stereotypes and prejudices that have become part of our society.
Sherialyn sounded the horn this year to begin the race. She and her family took part. The three Byrdsong children are a tribute to her strength and faith, as well as the rock-solid DNA and lifelong example of hope provided by their father. Two—Sabrina and
Kelley—are in college, while the third, Ricky, Jr., is heading into his third year of high school. They are forever impacted by the horrific crime, but they won’t let that define them. Every day, they move ahead, just as Ricky would have wanted them to do.
As for Sherialyn, she is a successful entrepreneur and pillar of her church. And she is trying to forgive. “Forgiveness is a process. The first step is to do it as a mental thing,” she says. “You say it. You pray it. That’s a major step. Then, as time goes on, it becomes more of a reality in your heart. That’s what happened with me. I knew I had to forgive, and I did that. It’s in God’s hands. Over time, I have had more and more of a sense of peace. I trust in God’s sovereignty.”
And we trust that people will get the message. Ricky Byrdsong was larger than life. He’s even larger in death. We need to see that, so we can carry on his mission.