I lived in the building in the background of this picture. The area of grass behind the building was our "football field". We treated it like it was the Rose Bowl. That's where I honed my skills and where I learned the game. EJ and I would meet some days on the field just to play catch. We would spend hours every day outside. This was the early 80s! This was the era before video games and MTV. We knew how to have fun. We didn't realize that we didn't have much because everybody in the "projects" were just like us...black people living in low income housing. While you could never confuse our neighborhood with Cabrini Green or Bed Stuy, we didn't live in the nicest section of Florence, SC. I never felt unsafe, though. By the time I was 10, my parents bought a house and we moved away. I was still attending the same elementary school so I would still see my buddy, EJ at school. We'd play football at recess and have a good time. We never missed a beat. Friends forever.
"But like the old saying goes / Time goes on, and everybody grows." - Tupac Shakur
By the time I was 14, my parents divorced and I moved to another side of town. I was no longer going to school with EJ. I didn't have his phone number so we lost contact for a few yrs. On day during my junior of high school, I was hanging at the mall and I ran into EJ. We both were excited to see each other. We spent about an hour catching up. Much to my surprise, EJ was going to West Florence High (one of my high school's rivals). He was supposed to be going to South Florence but he got into some trouble and left. He told me that he knew I was at Wilson High and doing well on the football field. We exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch.
The following year was our senior year. The first game of the season was against West Florence. Whenever you play a rival, you want to win but I had more incentive because I knew EJ would be at the game. I couldn't let my homie down. I had a great game...5 catches for 125 yards, 1 touchdown. More importantly, we won. It's ALWAYS great when you beat West Florence. After the game, I looked for EJ. I didn't see him. I called him the next day but the number that I had was disconnected. Later that day, I drove past his aunt's house (they eventually moved from the apartment complex) but the house was empty. Not only was it empty but it was abandoned. EJ had moved but I didn't know where he was. I was disappointed that he had disappeared without even telling me where he was heading. It would be another year before our paths crossed again.
During the fall of my freshman year at South Carolina State University, I decided to come home one weekend. I was being red shirted on the football field so I wasn't playing. I was homesick so a trip to Florence was necessary. During the weekend, I decided to drive past my old neighborhood. I parked my car and decided to walk on the old "football field". Nothing looked the same. The buildings looked different. There were no kids playing outside. It looked gloomy. But it felt good to be back. I stood and thought about the days of playing football with EJ and my friends. All of a sudden, I heard someone call my name. It was EJ! I was shocked to see him. We greeted each other with a pound and a hug. I was happy to see him. He told me that he heard I was a "star football player" at SC State. I laughed and told him that I was just a lowly freshman trying to find my way. I asked him about where he had been for the past year and what happened to him. That's when the complexity of the conversation changed. EJ stumbled through a few lies before he admitted that he dropped out of school. He and his cousins had moved out of his aunts house back into the apartments. When I asked him what he was doing with his life, he quickly changed the subject. After EJ's cousin walked over to inform him that "somebody was waiting for him around the corner"...I realized that EJ was selling drugs. I didn't want to believe it at first. I gave EJ my number and told him to call me. I told him when I'd be home again and I suggested that we hang out. I even offered him to come to SC State to hang out with me. He looked at the ground...then he looked away and said..."Nah, Kyle. You've changed. Things have changed. And it ain't like how it used to be." Those words felt cold but that was his reality. I gave him a hug and a pound and told him to take it easy. I watched him walk away and around the corner.
I pondered those words for awhile. Had I really changed? Did I make him feel like we weren't cool anymore? I never tried to make him feel like I was successful and he wasn't. Maybe he saw that the two kids who were once the best of friends were headed in opposite directions. We were headed in different directions. That was the last day that I saw EJ. He'd spend the next few years selling drugs. He eventually got caught and went to jail. I heard that he eventually started using drugs. The past 5 yrs of EJ's life have consisted of him being in and out of jail and drug rehab. Sometimes when I go back to my hometown, I secretly hope I bump into him. There's a part of me that would like to see him. There's a part of me that doesn't want to see him. He's lost. I can't help him because he doesn't want to help himself. Rather than dwell on what we lost, I prefer to remember us as kids. And I'm cool with that.