The author shares his memories of the mighty East High Tigers and his own Columbus youth.
When did you first start thinking about writing this book?
The story has fascinated me for many years. I would even think about it when I was in the middle of my other book projects.
When did you graduate from high school? How far removed were you from 1968?
The only sport I was obsessive about was basketball. And it just so happened that I lived maybe eight blocks from the Fairgrounds Coliseum. So I was at Indianola Junior High School the year that I write about. East was such a marquee team that me and my friends in the north end, we would beg for a $1.50 to get a ticket to go to the Coliseum to see East High School play.
My mother moved to the Bolivar Arms housing projects [on the East Side] the summer when I was 13 years old, and it was a completely different vibe on the East Side. My eyes had to be opened wider, more was demanded of me from my senses. … It was more crowded there. I had to be more alert. And yet, too, I knew that this was the landscape of the mighty, mighty East High Tigers. And one of the things about this completely new landscape that I quickly found out was that the cult—the cult, the image—of East High School was very, very epic, was very, very big. In my heart and soul, it's sort of astonishing to me that I left the East Side, went to college at Miami University and became a writer, and I think the same sharp sensitivity that I had when I moved to the East Side drew me back to this story. This is not the story that I was born to write. I don't like that phrase. But I will say it is the story that the rest of America needs to know about. And I'm all about bringing stories out of the shadows.
I can see some similarities with some of your other works, not only in the biography sections of Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King, but the part about bringing the mothers to that state championship game and having them file in proudly. It's such a great moment.
When I was talking to my editor, Peter Gethers, about this book early on, he had told me, “I want to see the homes. Who was inside of these homes? I want to see the sacrifices that were made by family members.” And so that struck a chord with me because high school athletes need their mothers to support them, to help with their meals, to make sure that they're out the door on time, to make sure that they're studying to stay eligible. All of that really resonated with me, and so when I would track down these players, one of the first things I would want to hear would be the story about their mother: who she was, where she came from, what type of work she did. So many of these mothers were housemaids. That is something that I certainly did not know going into the book, but it was a haunting reality of the times. And of all the years in the '60s, 1968 certainly was about the most heartbreaking. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. There was such uncertainty in the country, and yet, here was a story where triumph prevailed.