Neil deGrasse Tyson to Kyrie Irving: “I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA” Astrophysicist is pop culture’s ultimate superfan

Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to talk. Loves it. When you ask the New York native and director of the Hayden Planetarium a question, his voice lights up. Whether it’s about science or popular culture, Tyson is eager to educate, often offering more than you even asked for.

The fourth season of National Geographic’s StarTalk, his hit late-night talk show (née podcast) that features the likes of Bill Clinton and Terry Crews, premieres Oct. 15. “I care deeply about what role pop culture plays in hearts, minds and souls,” said DeGrasse. StarTalk mixes science with comedy with interesting conversation for a show both entertaining and educational — but most importantly, accessible. “I can start where you are, what you bring to the table, and I just add to that,” he said. “I think that’s part of the successful recipe of StarTalk.”

What’s a bad habit that you have?

I’m always aware of bad habits, so I’ve probably gotten rid of it already. I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, [fried] in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw? Is it a bad habit, or is it just a habit? The real question is, if anyone has a bad habit, why haven’t they done anything about it yet if they are self-aware it is bad? I used to twirl my hair when I was a kid, but then I stopped. I notice when other people are twirling their hair, it’s interesting. I empathize with them.

“Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body.”

Kyrie Irving once said that the world is flat, although he later admitted to (supposedly) trolling. What would you say to him about this?

We live in a free country, where you can think and feel what you want, provided it doesn’t violate someone else’s freedoms. I greatly value that. So to Kyrie Irving I would say, ‘I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA.’ It’s a reminder there are jobs for people who have no idea what science is or how and why it works. And in his case, basketball is serving him well. The problem comes about if you are not scientifically literate, hold nonscientific views and rise to power over legislation and laws that would then affect us all. That’s the recipe for social and cultural disaster.

What’s the last museum you visited? Do you find yourself going to museums often?

I very much enjoy museums. The last museum I went to that was not local in New York City … it was an art museum in Sydney, Australia. There was a whole section that had aboriginal art, not only of Australians but also some from the Maori tribes of New Zealand.

“I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, fried in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw?”

What is your favorite social media spot?

Lately, I have to say Twitter because of the value I derive from it. I have these random thoughts every day, and Twitter is a means by which I share these thoughts with the public. And in an instant, I get to see people’s reactions. Were they offended? Did they laugh? Did they misinterpret it? Did they overinterpret it? So I get a neurosynaptic snapshot of how people react to thoughts that I have. And this deeply informs public talks that I give. It’s my way to get inside people’s heads without violating their space.

People go to your Twitter feed to learn, so it’s nice to hear that you enjoy learning from your followers.

It’s not like I’m Professor Neil on Twitter. I tweet about a lot of really random things. People say, ‘Why don’t you give us the latest news?’ I’m not a news source. If I don’t think about that news today, you ain’t getting a tweet about it. I don’t start the day saying, ‘What am I going to tweet today? Let me think something up.’ No, it’s random. … You just happen to be eavesdropping in my brain. Before the end of the month I’ll be engaging in my Instagram account. I’ve yet to post to it. I deeply value photographic arts. It’ll mostly be artsy things, more artsy than purely educational. Then I write my own little caption about it.

So no pictures of your dinner?

If the dinner evokes some cosmic thought, yes, you’ll get a picture of my dinner. Otherwise, no.

If you could be any athlete, dead or alive, who would you be?

I think about Jesse Owens often. I think about Jackie Robinson often. Simply because of how great they were at what they did, how honed they were in their performance and the fact that their existence meant more than their performance. In other words, the whole was greater than the sum of their parts: great athlete, at an important time, doing an important thing, having an influence on people in a positive direction.

Have you ever been starstruck?

I was a little bit starstruck when I interviewed Jeremy Irons. There are movies he’s been in where I just — how can you be this good in that role? How is that even possible? And just to shake his hand and interview him for StarTalk, that meant a lot to me. And here’s one you won’t expect. I’ve never met him, but I’d be delighted to. I’ve got him on my short list: Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body. He’s beefier in the last two years than he was about 10 years ago, when he was actually wrestling. He beefed up extra for the Fast and the Furious series, so not in that state, but in an earlier state, of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. When I looked like that, no one was interviewing me in the newspapers. No one was asking to publish my books. So he’s a modern reminder of a lost chapter of my life.

When you were wrestling in high school, did you want to become a pro wrestler?

No. No, no, no. No! You want to talk about physics — physics in pro wrestling is what allows things to look like they hurt when they don’t. But it’s the laws of physics exploited to fool you, rather than exploited to win.

What sport do you most enjoy watching, from a purely physical standpoint?

I like many. And there is physics in all sports, so I don’t rank them in this way. In fact, StarTalk because of the success of our shows where we cover sports, we spun off an entire branch called Playing With Science. It’s all the ways science has touched sports. We talk about famous catches, famous hits. We do talk about concussions. We brought in a neuroscientist to talk about [concussions] from football. We talk about NASCAR and the technology involved with that. We talk about the physics of driving around a track. There’s a lot of fun physics in essentially everything, you know why? Because there’s physics in everything.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Shawne Merriman takes 100 students to NASCAR The ex-NFL player launched ‘Lights Out Drive’ youth initiative that exposes children to the sport

Shawne Merriman named it after his apparel line — Lights Out. The former NFL player recently expanded his personal brand to launch Lights Out Drive, an initiative that gives children exposure to NASCAR. Which is why on Oct. 1, 100 children from the program visited Dover International Speedway.

“All those kids won’t get the opportunity to be a football player in the NFL, [or play in the] NBA, but exposing them to a different demographic and exposing them to a different platform will ultimately, at the end of the day, allow them to be a part of the NASCAR circuit, somehow, some way,” the three-time All-Pro linebacker said.

“There’s media departments. There’s marketing. There’s working at the track, being a part of whatever it is. NASCAR is such a big sport, there’s so many different levels and so many different ways to be part of it, that’s ultimately what you want to do. Out of those 100 kids, you want a good percentage of kids walking out of there to still follow the sport and want to go to another track.”

Merriman’s passion is in line with NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, an initiative launched in 2004, which works to diversify its drivers. As owner of NASCAR K&N Pro Series West driver Jesse Iwuji’s Chevrolet, Merriman’s goal is to offer accessibility to youths. Iwuji is one of two black drivers in NASCAR.

Merriman grew up in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and as a high school player quickly gained the nickname “Lights Out” because players who he hit were rendered unconscious, as the story has been told. He attended the University of Maryland, was drafted 12th overall in 2005 by the San Diego Chargers and was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Merriman spoke to The Undefeated about giving back by bringing children to NASCAR.


When did you first get interested in NASCAR?

You know what, it happened in 2008, when I was invited out to be the grand marshal of the race in Fontana [California], and it really caught me off guard because I was going to a NASCAR event. I didn’t think that people would really know who I was or know who I am. I was honored. It was cool for NASCAR to invite me out. I didn’t know that it was going to be that many football fans.

So they announced me over the intercom, people went crazy, and from that point on, I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy. I didn’t even know.’ I was walking up to the top, I was about to start waving the green flag. A guy behind me tells me, ‘Don’t drop the flag,’ and I’m looking at him like, ‘What are you talking about? It’s just waving a flag. There’s nothing to it.’

The cars all started up, and the crowd went crazy and I got so nervous because my hands started to get like clammy and I felt myself about to drop the flag because I was so damn nervous, but it was that adrenaline and it was the energy from the crowd that kind of made me fall in love with the sport. That was my first time actually being at a race. I used to watch it on TV growing up as a kid, but I had no idea it was that much excitement, that much energy there at the track.

What do you think about the lack of diversity in the sport?

For me it never really hit me hard. It was 2008, so basically nine years ago. I was in my mid-20s, and that was the first time I had an opportunity to go to a track but I got the opportunity to go to the track because I was Shawne Merriman, football player, linebacker of the San Diego Chargers at the time. That was my opportunity.

If I wasn’t who I was, I don’t know if I’d-a been open to going to the races. I don’t know if I would have been invited. I don’t know if I would have ever got a chance to see how exciting it was. That was part of my initiative of trying to get more ethnicity in there, more minorities involved in the sport, because without the opportunity, how do you really know?

I would have never known how to go to a track or how to look up the schedule or anything about the sport. That’s just part of our whole initiative to get this done.

Did the children on hand to go to the race as part of your initiative enjoy the event?

It was incredible because they really didn’t know what to expect. And we got there, and walking into the parking lot they heard a couple of the cars, it was probably two or three cars, on the track and they were doing all their practice runs. They were like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s loud,’ so they all wanted the little earpieces. I said, ‘No, no, no. Those are two or three cars that are practicing right now. Wait until 20-plus cars start up and then they start going around the track, then you’ll really see how the intensity and how crazy it is to be there.’

Maybe one day, when they get older and they’re looking for a career, they’ll remember that race that they went to and how exciting it was and want to be a part of the organization. To me, it was much bigger than trying to really inspire them to just be in the car racing.

How did you choose that group of students? What was the process for getting that initiative started?

I got the James Madison Middle School, where I went to middle school, so I got some kids from there, but I also got some at-risk kids at a top-notch program in Baltimore. I got some kids from D.C. We really wanted to get inner-city, most of the city as possible, because those are the kids that won’t have the opportunity to even go or won’t even find out the information to go or how do we get there. Whatever the case is.

I hope that grows from 100 to 1,000. I thought it was a great turnout. The kids really enjoyed themselves, and I would love to have even more involved and possibly even one day having a big race even closer to the inner city, if possible, so even more people will get the opportunity to be there.

How did you meet your driver?

So I have my company, Lights Out brand, which is an apparel company, and I was having a fashion show in downtown Los Angeles at a place called Brigade, where we hold a lot of our fashion shows at and I was introduced to Jesse, my driver, by a mutual friend of ours who’s a really big YouTube and social media star named Jason Dozier.

We talked about another 30 minutes or so at the event and I said, ‘Man, just come up. I would love to hear more about what you’re doing and how can I be more involved in the sport. Will you come to my office in the next few weeks or so?’ And he drove up from Monterey, California, all the way to my office in downtown Los Angeles, and from that point on we made it happen. He became an ambassador for my company, for Lights Out, and I became his car owner.

We were able to bring on a huge partnership and sponsor, Perfect Hydration, the water company, and they really liked our efforts and what we’re trying to accomplish. Without them, I don’t know if we could continue to do what we’re doing right now. They just really came in and gave us the resources that we need in order to be successful in our initiatives.

What do you have upcoming?

I have stuff for Lights Out. Actually, I’ve got a show coming out that I guest-starred on, the comedy Get Down, on BET, with George Lopez, Cedric the Entertainer, Charlie Murphy, Eddie Griffin, D.L. Hughley.

How was it working with the late Charlie Murphy?

Oh, my God. I was so privileged to not only work with him on the screen, but off set, when everybody’s trying to just relax and stuff like that, you hear Charlie. Charlie’s so real and raw and blunt and up front. I was in hair just listening to him talk all the time. He was just so damn funny. I was really blessed to get a chance to work with him before he passed away.

Are you missing football?

I’m still around it. I’m at every home Chargers game in L.A., support them in that move and really trying to get them more involved in kind of L.A. market and just do whatever I can. I’ve been around the team since 2005, and so I’m just glad to be a part and still kick it with them.

‘Playing While White’ examines privilege on and off the field New book says that sports, like America itself, is a place where race matters

Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field by Washington State University professor David J. Leonard shines a light on whiteness in sports culture and the ways in which white athletes are characterized compared with black athletes. Leonard wrote an adaptation from his book, released in July, for The Undefeated.


Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field explores the ways that white athletes are profiled as intelligent leaders, hard workers, underdogs and role models.

Exploring a spectrum of athletes from Tom Brady to Johnny Manziel, several teams, including Wisconsin basketball and the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as extreme sports, NASCAR and lacrosse, I look at the ways whiteness is imagined within America’s sporting cultures.

America’s sporting fields are not postracial promised lands; they are not places where race doesn’t matter because the only thing that counts is whether you can score touchdowns or make buckets. Sports is not the “colorblind mecca” that we are routinely promised each and every weekend.

Sports, like America itself, is a place where race matters. While writing about the NBA, USC professor Todd Boyd makes this clear, writing that sports “remains one of the few places in American society where there is a consistent racial discourse.”

It is a place where anti-black racism is ubiquitous, from the press box to the coach’s office, from the stands to the White House. It is also a place where the privileges of whiteness are commonplace.

After my book was published, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich highlighted the nature of white privilege, or what it means to be #PlayingWhileWhite inside and outside the sporting arena.

“It’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash,” Popovich said during a recent news conference. “You’ve got that kind of a lead, yes, because you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically rare. And they’ve been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.”

The power of whiteness can be seen in the celebration of Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Tim Tebow and countless white athletes as leaders and role models on and off the field. Praised as disciplined, hardworking and humble, while their black peers are consistently depicted as either “ungrateful millionaires” or “natural athletes,” the power of race can be seen in the descriptors afforded different athletes.

To be a white athlete is to be a scrappy and gritty player, whose motor never stops, whose “drive never relents” and whose determination is unmatched. To be a white athlete is to “play the right way,” to be unselfish, to be without ego and to always put winning and team first and foremost. These sorts of racially stratified descriptors are common in the sports media, from coaches and general managers, and from fans alike. As are the consistent attribution of hard work and intelligence to white athletes whose IQs, work ethic and intangibles are the source of constant celebration. To be a white athlete is to be cerebral, a student of the game, a throwback to a different era.

The power of whiteness is equally evident in the trash talk of John Stockton, Larry Bird, Brady and Manziel. Amid widespread nostalgia for greater sportsmanship and respect for the game, whereupon hip-hop and black athletes are blamed for the intrusion of toxic values, the trash-talking of white athletes is either ignored or celebrated as evidence of their passion for the game and competitiveness.

Brady is what #PlayingWhileWhite looks like inside and outside of sports. Despite coming from immense privilege and opportunity, earning a scholarship to the University of Michigan and being drafted into the NFL, Brady has been recast as an underdog, who through hard work, intelligence, dedication and unselfishness has become the league’s greatest quarterback. He’s a winner and a leader. Yet he also is a victim of being underestimated, and of those who “falsely” accused him of cheating. The story of Brady is the story of whiteness, of advantages and systematically produced opportunities.

White privilege is also the celebration of Bill Belichick’s hoodie as African-American youths are seen as criminals and “thugs” for their similar clothing choices. It is “Gronk being Gronk,” while any number of black athletes are denounced as selfish and out of control.

White privilege is the NASCAR CEO endorsing Donald Trump, while its fans historically waved the Confederate flag, all while it threatens consequences to anyone who protests during the national anthem.

White privilege is fights in hockey, among NASCAR pit crews and in baseball being recast as tradition, as fun and as part of the game, while the shoving matches in the NBA prompt national panics.

White privilege is silence about drug use in extreme sports and in those white-dominated collegiate sports amid headlines about NFL and NBA marijuana arrests and a war on drugs waged in black and Latino communities.

To #PlayWhileWhite is to be seen as smart, scrappy, determined and a leader. #PlayingWhileWhite is to win, to be celebrated in victory, redeemed in defeat, lifted up when down and sympathized with by others as a real or imagined victim. It is to be innocent and a repository of excuses for failure. It is being empowered to be silent; it is being seen as a person and not just as an athlete, as a commodity, as someone who dunks or makes spectacular catches. And that privilege is bigger than any contract, any commercial and any award, one that extends beyond the playing field.

Professional wrestler Booker T’s raw life An orphan, a dropout, a felon – and now a famous, married father running for mayor of Houston

They came out bug-eyed and angry, just like the promoter had instructed. Real-life brothers in a phony sport, mean-mugging in lavender tuxedo jackets, bow ties and shades.

“Ebony Experience!” the announcer boomed.

Just like the pro wrestling gods of their youth — Ron Simmons, Junkyard Dog and all those thickly muscled black men who used to enrage fans at ringside — Booker and Lash Huffman ticked off the crowd that night, too.

The 300 or so fans in the mostly empty Sportatorium, a dilapidated Dallas bandbox built in 1934, bent their torsos over the railing as the fledgling tag team made their way to the ring. They contorted their faces and screamed every racial epithet they could think of for a black man.

“C—!”

“N—–!”

“Go back to Africa, you f—– j——s!”

Booker wanted to jump the barrier and throw haymakers. Lash, six years older, laughed, camouflaging his anger. These bigots “are everyday stuff in America to us,” he told himself, widening the ring ropes for his little brother to slip through.

It was 1992, less than three years after Lash had told Booker he needed to come up with $3,000 to attend a pro wrestling school in Houston. And now, for $100 each, they had a tryout with the Global Wrestling Federation. The script called for them to go out as heels (villains) against two beefcakes called Brute Forcz. They would then emerge as faces (good guys), aiming to win the crowd’s affection by the end of the match. If the Huffmans were entertaining, they’d get more work.

But when the promoter told them, “You have to make the guys you’re working with look good,” Lash shook his head and pulled his brother aside.

“It looks like the fix is in,” he said. “Let’s just go out there and make these guys look better than they’ve ever looked in their life.”

They played the heels to the hilt at first, scowling and grunting as the N-bombs cascaded from the stands. But then Booker began quarterbacking the match. “OK, throw me into the ropes,” he whispered to one of his opponents as the match was going on. “Now duck.”

Incredibly, the crowd began to turn. “Same dude that just called us all that awful s— is now going crazy for us,” Booker said.

When it ended, Booker went to the middle of the ring and began break dancing, ending with his shoulders on the mat and his legs twirling in the air, a move the ringside announcer christened “The Spinaroonie.”

Within a week, Ebony Experience was the Sportatorium’s main attraction. The Huffman brothers — Booker at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Lash standing 6-5 and pushing 290 — a quarter-ton of bicep-flexin’, smack-talkin’ black ’tude, were packing all 4,500 seats.

After that night, the racist bile from one man’s mouth or an entire crowd wouldn’t faze Booker, because he came to understand an unsettling truth: The same people who N-bombed him were paying his rent, and some of them went on to become his most ardent fans. If he had to smell America’s bad breath, so what? It was the price of acceptance and ascendance in the squared-circle world, a world so much grander and greater than he had known before.


Twelve years later: Another arena, this one on Long Island, New York, another white opponent who needed to look good. Paul Michael Levesque, a stringy-haired behemoth known as Triple H, eyeballed Booker up and down within inches of his face, as if he had bought his opponent at auction.

By this time, Huffman, wrestling under the name Booker T, was no newbie. Propelled by a charismatic personality, the Spinaroonie and a trademark catchphrase purloined from the 1979 film The Warriors — “Can you dig it, sucka?” — he was one of the most popular figures on the pro circuit. That’s why it was so disturbing when, weeks before Triple H and Booker were to face off for the heavyweight championship at Wrestlemania XIX in Seattle, Levesque went to sinister places to sell the card.

“Somebody like you … doesn’t get to be a world champion,” Levesque told Booker at an event in the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, pausing between sneers for effect. “People like you don’t deserve it.”

People like you?

“You’re here to be an entertainer. … Go ahead, Book, why don’t ya entertain? Do a little dance for me, Book. Why don’t you give me one of them Spinaroonies? Come on, don’t be embarrassed. That’s your job, to make people like me laugh. You’re very good at it — with your nappy hair and your ‘suckas.’ ”

The payoff had to be revenge, right? Black good guy over white meanie? When faces absorb such abuse from heels, the story is supposed to end with the face getting vindication via pin — or something that felt like the karma gods had spoken.

In the match itself, Booker T nailed his routine, breaking out an arsenal of dropkicks and clotheslines. At one point, he flipped 360 degrees off one of the turnbuckles and landed perfectly flat, next to Triple H’s head, which he elbowed. It was a feat as skillful as anything Greg Louganis ever managed off a 3-meter diving platform.

When both men collapsed in exhaustion at the end, the crowd was waving handmade, pro-Booker T placards. But as Triple H feebly laid an arm on Booker T’s chest, the “referee” counted the face out instead of the heel.

Crestfallen adults and children could be seen in the crowd. These people had bought in. They were sure of the outcome, knowing it would be as sweet for Booker T. as for them.

And then … nothing. No silver lining.

Not that night.

“I found out about a week before the match that that’s how it was going to go down,” Huffman, 52, says now. “I had to make the crowd feel a certain way about a guy with a silver spoon in his mouth beating a guy who pretty much worked his way up from the trenches. I didn’t question it, argue it. I knew everyone wanted me to win. But I just went along with what they wanted.

“It was easier that way. If I didn’t go along, where would I really be now? Could I have done the things I’ve done, overcome the things I’ve overcome?”


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

There are no victims here, only volunteers. This is a story about a professional wrestler who used an artificial sport to build a real life.

It’s about a kid who dropped out of high school before becoming a convicted felon, and the big brother who refused to let “Junior” throw his life away. He found a career and his second wife in the ring. And after vanquishing multiple fictional foes, he now wants to take on education and homelessness as the next mayor of Houston.

Booker T’s loss to Triple H that night crushed many fans because, perhaps more than anyone else in the wrestling business, his reality was so integrated with his ring character that it often was hard to distinguish between the man and the actor.

He grew up orphaned and poor. He caught no breaks early, got in his own way later and somehow still found a path to prosperity in a profession that mirrors and magnifies the best and worst in its heels, faces and audience.

His career blew up nearly 20 years ago after a seemingly innocuous visit with wrestler Diamond Dallas Page to a juvenile detention center. He debated that day whether to tell his actual life story or stick to clichés about hard work and keeping your head on straight. But when he noticed that some of the hard-knock kids were rolling their eyes at Page’s motivational speech, Huffman went all-in. He told those kids everything, down to the day he got out of prison.

Some teared up. Others sat there, wide-eyed. When he finished, they stood and applauded. Page was so moved he told Huffman he needed to tell his story through his character, that his odyssey was much better than anything wrestling’s scriptwriters could come up with.

“It’s funny, you know, they love to say how wrestling is so fake and made-up,” Lash Huffman said. “And the irony of the whole thing is, the best thing about my brother is his honesty. Junior is so honest.”

Booker T inside of the ring at his gym, Reality of Wrestling.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

The more his story was told, the more the lines blurred. Was this real or entertainment? Sport or theater? Is the scripted racism damaging or satire? Do the heels and faces of pro wrestling reflect the world, or are they a caricature of it?

In the end, those are false dichotomies: The answer is always yes.

It is sport and theater. It reflects society and is a caricature of it. The racism is harmless and hurtful.

Pro wrestling is entertainment and real — especially for a boy who lost his mom young.


Danny, Carolyn, Lula Gayle, Billie Jean, Donald, Lash, Bonita and the baby, Booker: Rosa Huffman had eight children by three different men. And every member of the family watched pro wrestling, including a 4-foot-6 grandmother who had an old mattress put in her backyard for her grandchildren to practice flapjack pins.

Booker’s father, said to be a serious man and a good provider, ran moonshine, gambled and worked legitimately at the local pool hall in Plain Dealing, Louisiana. Booker Jr. was just 10 months old when his father went to retrieve a block of ice for the pool hall and dropped dead of a stroke. He was 59.

Rosa Huffman couldn’t bear staying in Louisiana after her husband’s death. She moved the family to Houston, where she worked as a nurse and supported all eight children by herself.

But when she was just 49, Rosa fell through the ceiling onto her back and neck while trying to fix the kitchen fan. She kept telling her panicked children she would be OK. And she was, for a few months. But a second surgery to remove fluid from her spine left her in a coma.

After several weeks, she was taken off life support. Booker, 13, and Bonita, 16, lost the only responsible adult in their lives. The older siblings tried to play guardians for a while, but many were running the streets, bringing home drug people and others who left Booker and Bonita so afraid to go to sleep at night that they wedged a chair against the bedroom door handle. Lash, the third youngest, couldn’t take the madness. He moved to a friend’s house without telling his youngest siblings.

Soon, the chaos of their siblings’ lives scared Booker and Bonita into moving back into their mother’s crumbling apartment by themselves. When the water was shut off for lack of payment, they schlepped 5-gallon buckets to a service station up the street, filled them with water and lugged them back, the skin of both palms bloodied by the metal handles. Bonita says she and her brother used the water for drinking, bathing, dishwashing and “filling up the toilet so it would flush.”

“Lot of days we just ate one meal at school and went hungry at home,” Bonita recalled. “No social worker even knew we were there. I could see my brother upset about a lot of things at that point. He was angry.”

Booker took out his meager station in life on other neighborhood kids. Bonita never remembered her brother losing a fight. “He wasn’t a bully or anything like that. He just never backed down,” she said. “That was something I loved about him: You don’t run, you face it head-on.”

Booker T holds an old photo of himself and his brother Lash.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

At 17, he impregnated a 15-year-old girl, who kept the baby even though her high school beau stopped answering his phone when she called. Still, Booker got a job at Fiesta Mart to help support their boy and began lifting steaks and whatever else he could manage. He was fired soon after — not for stealing, but for trying to impersonate his sister Billie Jean, calling his manager in a comically high-pitched voice to say, “My brother isn’t feeling well and won’t be in today.”

Booker dropped out of school. Bonita had moved to Dallas for work, and none of his uncles or aunts wanted him staying with them. Every reservoir of familial goodwill had dried up, except for one.

He’d barely had a relationship with Lash in the four years since their mother had died. But Booker swallowed his pride and moved into the Willow Creek Apartments with his older brother, who told him he could stay if he got a job.

So working a mile and a half away, he began dropping frozen fries into hot oil, assembling burgers with cheese and filling cups of soft-serve ice cream. He didn’t exactly rock that red shirt and black cap. But with no diploma and a newborn son, Booker was happy to have a job at Wendy’s.


A few months later, he was transferred to a different Wendy’s across town, which meant he had to catch one bus, wait 30 minutes and transfer to another one to get to work each day. In no time, the job went from a needed employment opportunity to a dead-end gig.

Billie Jean hooked him up with her boyfriend, a prominent marijuana dealer, who routinely had pounds of cannabis on his dining room table. Booker began slinging $5 and $10 bags of marijuana on the side, often smoking most of his profit.

He saw less and less of Lash at home, falling in with a crew that included his childhood friend, Wendell Sylvester, and Zackery Claybourne, a streetwise brother who had been to prison for robbery. They began carousing the club scene, wearing matching Adidas suits and coming up with nicknames for themselves: Booker was Nature Boy (after wrestler Ric Flair), Zack was Z-Boy and Wendell became Mr. Big Stuff.

Booker and Zack both worked at the Gulfgate Mall Wendy’s off Telethon Road, where their manager kept riding them about overcooked fries, undercooked burgers and the need to scrub the rings of caked-on chili off the pots. Eventually, Zack quit and Booker was fired for not showing up.

One night as they all smoked up Booker’s sales, someone threw out an insane idea: “Why don’t we get some guns and rob Wendy’s?” It kept coming up over the next few weeks until they decided on the most wacked notion of all. Zack and Booker each had a few uniforms.

Let’s rob Wendy’s with our uniforms on.

Decades later, it’s still one of the city’s most brazen string of robberies. Pretty quickly, they stopped concealing their faces with stocking caps, walking into a restaurant with .38-caliber pistols and their work uniforms, often behind legitimate employees taking the trash out at closing time. Booker would wait outside in his aunt’s car.

Soon, the crime was less a rush than getting home in time to watch the local news — “Wendy’s Bandits Strike Again” at 11:01 p.m. Over the first three months of 1987, Booker and his friends had robbed 12 Wendy’s, stealing between $400 and $4,000 each time. In what would be their last holdup, Booker went into the restaurant with Zack and Wendell, pistols drawn.

Houston police issued a reward of $5,000 for information that would lead to their arrest. The ads began playing on a local “CrimeStoppers” segment, and one of the interested viewers was Zack’s girlfriend.

On what became his last day of freedom, Booker met Zack at McGregor Park, smoked and sold weed, and headed home around dusk. As he neared the front door of the unit he shared with Lash, he sensed an eerie quiet.

Police officers in SWAT gear had him on the ground and cuffed in seconds. Booker feigned ignorance at first, but he was picked from a police lineup by witnesses who remembered him from the night he went into the Wendy’s for the robbery.

Within months, Booker, Zack and Wendell were in separate 6-by-8-foot cells at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville – Walls Unit. Named for its brick facade, Walls Unit was where all convicted felons were processed through the state’s penal system. It also housed the state’s execution chamber.

Huffman recalled something his mother once told him: “Junior, you know right from wrong. There’s no gray area in between. If you don’t stop, you’ll end up dead or in jail.”

At 22 years old, he was 1 for 2.


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

Good behavior allowed Booker to serve just 19 months of consecutive five-year sentences for armed robbery and aggravated assault. Sylvester, by contrast, said he served 9½ years of a 22-year sentence.

Though Booker’s lying killed much of the trust Lash had in him, Lash knew his younger brother wasn’t a career criminal. He told Booker, “I’ll help you get back on your feet. But whatever you do — sweeping floors, washing dishes, digging ditches — you gotta pay your dues and walk a straight line.”

He got a job at American Mini Storage, completing his parole and getting custody of his son, Brandon, 6, who had been turned over to child protective services because his mother was unable to care for him. A part of him missed his old life: the partying, the chaos, the sense he could go buck wild at any moment. But that world couldn’t compare with microwaving Ramen noodles, adding chicken, cheese and crumbled-up crackers, and sharing dinner with his son.

As a lark one afternoon in 1989, Lash went by a small wrestling school in Houston owned by Ivan Putski, the bodybuilder/wrestler whose duels with the Iron Sheik and Jesse Ventura fueled the sport in the 1970s and ’80s. He simply then said to Booker, “Let’s start rasslin’.”

Booker thought he was joking at first, but Lash kept going. “Man, we’ve been fans for so long, and we both need something more in our lives. We’ve both got size, we’re athletic and we’ve got personality off the f— charts!”

Lash said it would cost $3,000, and Booker sulked. He didn’t have that kind of money anymore. But his boss at the storage company, Bruce Gasarch, gave Booker a $3,000 bonus and told him to make him proud.


“Cowboy” Scott Casey, a former World Wrestling Federation star, mentored Booker at Putski’s school. He also came up with his first character at the time the Gulf War had begun: “G.I. Bro, America’s greatest hero.”

Lash was given the character name “Stevie Ray,” and within two years they were on their way to Dallas and the Sportatorium for their first tag team match. Booker wrestled on the Texas Independent Circuit for two more years and kept the job at the storage company until Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling signed him for $70,000. Booker left for Atlanta and a life he’d dreamed about as a kid.

“It was an escape for me,” he said. “I had been in prison. I had lost my parents at a young age. I had no high school diploma.

“I finally found something that I really did very, very well. It was like, ‘Wow, I’m better than everybody else at this.’ I’m serious. It was like that. I knew I was better than everybody else. I had done theater and been a drum major for a while in high school. Then when I found wrestling, it was like déjà vu. Like, ‘Man, I’ve done this before in another life.’ ”

In 2000, wrestling’s once-dominant organization, World Championship Wrestling, was in a no-holds-barred battle royal with its rising competitor, the World Wrestling Federation. The WCW decided to pit its world heavyweight champion Jeff Jarrett against Booker T at the end of the season’s tour in Daytona Beach, Florida, in a card titled “Bash at the Beach.”

For the first time in his solo career, it was decided Booker T would emerge with the belt — the exact one (sans a few missing gemstones) that his childhood hero, Flair, had once worn. But in a bizarre turn of events, Hulk Hogan went off script. He had creative control written into his contract. And on the evening of the event, he told the WCW brass he wanted to be champion.

A poster of Booker T wearing the WCW World Championship belt inside of his home gym.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

Organizers were furious. But they created a storyline where Jarrett lay down in the ring with the belt at his side. Hogan, looking equally angry, circled the ring with a microphone and called the WCW a “bulls— organization” before half-heartedly climbing atop Jarrett. The referee counted to three for the pin and the lights went down. This was all part of the show, but it was followed by an unusual turn: WCW head writer Vince Russo coming to the ring and launching into a five-minute tirade aimed at Hogan, calling the wrestling legend a “god damn politician,” among other epithets.

Later in the evening, Booker T’s music began playing and everything restarted. Jarrett came out as if he was still champion, and he and Booker T performed the heel-face dance to perfection. For the first time in his individual ring career, Booker T was a heavyweight champion of the world.

No pro wrestler actually wins his title in the ring, of course. The decision is made backstage or weeks before by company presidents and scriptwriters. But once the belt is bestowed on you, it means your employer believes you are ready to be its most important ambassador. WCW believed an African-American with a backstory better than any they could write would sell. And Booker T sold.

Although promoters often wanted him to play a stereotype, he made a conscious decision to try for crossover appeal. He refused suggestions that his walk-up music be gangsta rap. He enunciated all his words. The only from-the-’hood line he used was his trademark slogan, “Can you dig it, sucka?”

“If I was wrestling a white guy and he was a good guy, they would cheer for him and boo me if I was a stereotypical black guy,” he said. “But me not being the stereotypical black guy, I can get away with it and be cheered just as much as him.

“They were cheering for Booker T — not the black guy coming out from the curtain.”

It wasn’t exactly “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” But for many people in the crowd, he seemed like a good guy with a remarkable backstory, and they were happy to cheer for this black man.

Booker realized how famous he had become one night in 1995 at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. He was eating a steak dinner when an older gentleman interrupted him. “Are you Booker T? My kids love you. You mind if I take a picture with you?”

Booker did a double take. Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons knows who I am?

“You know why the fans were sad [about the Triple H loss]?” he said. “Because I touched them. And that doesn’t happen very often in this business, where someone of color can make them feel that way. I always worked on emotion. On telling my real story. My goal was to make them cry.”

A year after he was made champion, the WCW was taken over by the WWF and rechristened World Wrestling Entertainment. Huffman signed on. More than a decade after Putski’s wrestling school, he was now contractually obligated to WWE CEO Vince McMahon.


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

It’s been 14 years since his Wrestlemania loss to Triple H. You want Huffman to be angry, resentful even, that McMahon and his writers wouldn’t let his character win that night.

He’s not.

“I never lost a wink of sleep over that,” he said. “Let all the fans know because they ask me about it all the time. They wanted Booker T to win the title more than I wanted to win myself.”

Triple H, he said, “was just playing his part, however f—– up that part looked.” At the time, Triple H denied any bigotry on his part, saying, “Why would anybody think I am a racist? Did I ever mention the word ‘black’?

Asked for comment, a WWE spokesman responded with this statement: “WWE is committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide. Just like other TV shows and movies, our entertainment programming features fictional characters who play the role of protagonists and antagonists. Over the years, WWE storytelling has evolved along with the social landscape, and today WWE offers family-friendly, PG-rated programming.”

“They used me and I used them — that’s how I looked at it,” Huffman says now. “I was never down with being the stereotypical brother, and I made sure of that as my career went on.

“But at some point, you also realize white guys invented the sport and still control it. If you want to work, you gotta play by their rules and sometimes be who they want you to be.”

Perhaps that’s how you last in an entertainment genre that routinely traffics in ugly stereotypes about African-Americans.

One in which Rowdy Roddy Piper once pretended to feed bananas to a poster of Mr. T, saying he would “whip him like a slave.” And Ventura used to refer to black wrestler Koko B. Ware (James Ware) as “Buckwheat.” Kamala (Jim Harris) was billed as an almost-mute African savage. Tony Atlas was remade into Saba Simba, replete with shield, spear, headdress and a cringe-inducing “tribal” dance.

When Lash and Booker came to the WCW in 1993, their storyline called for them to play two convicts, won in a card game by cigar-chomping, seersucker-wearing manager/plantation owner Col. Robert Parker. At some of their first shows, the Huffmans dressed in prison jumpsuits and leg shackles because that’s what their white bosses thought would sell. Naming a modern tag team composed of two African-Americans Cryme Tyme seems almost benign in comparison.

Moralizing about it, expecting cultural enrichment and organic diversity is like expecting NASCAR fans to lower those LDL numbers. It’s the world of the Tonga Kid, the Mad Hungarian and an Asian-American man with perfect diction called Mr. Fugi, who practiced speaking broken English. Every minority is crudely stereotyped in the squared circle.

“Understand the only thing that has ever been real for me with wrestling is the entertainment and the performance in front of the crowd,” Huffman said. “In the end, it was all a show. … If it was real, I would have been one-time heavyweight champion because I would have beat up everybody.”

Late in his career, as a heel named King Booker, Huffman won the now-retired WWE World Heavyweight Championship, a belt the company created in 2002 for its Smackdown and Raw brands. But since the WWE’s origin in 1963, through 50 champions and more than 130 belt changes, no African-American has won its highest-profile title, the WWE World Championship. John Cena had 13 title reigns. Triple H had nine. The Rock (Dwayne Johnson, whose mother is Samoan and whose father is African-Canadian) held the title nine times.

“It’s still the one title that no [African-American] has ever won,” Booker said as we ate lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, a few hundred yards from his Reality of Wrestling training gym. (He has another facility an hour south of town where wrestling shows are taped for TV, and he also promotes boxing and MMA cards.)

“Why I never won it? Look, it’s their company. It’s almost like, I went to play a pickup game at the park. The one kid who’s got the basketball, he may be an OK player but maybe not the best player. But he’s on the team. It’s his ball. If I’m not a big person about that, I’m going home.”

It’s worth noting that Booker still works for WWE, where Levesque is now an executive vice president, as an announcer on Monday Night Raw. Booker never slammed the WWE for its decades of race-baiting. But then, how could he when he never objected to playing his part in the wincing black-white bits?

He played Triple H’s victim during that racially loaded promo. A few years later, he and Sharmell, his stage partner and real-life wife, conveniently stood off to the side as McMahon called John Cena “my n—–.” (“Tell me … he didn’t just say that?” Booker responds in what he acknowledges is one of his worst acting jobs. “I got so much grief for that from the black community. Part of the show.”) One time, he used the N-word himself while talking about Hulk Hogan during a promo, although he later acknowledged it was a mistake.

He retired as a full-time wrestler in 2012 and officially in 2016. With distance comes perspective.

“Look at these poor cats, New Day,” he said, referring to a current black tag team, a three-person outfit allowed to keep the two-man title under the “Freebird rule.” (Because why wouldn’t you have three black men following a rule named for three whites who once showed up for a match at Comiskey Park in Chicago with their faces painted as Confederate flags?)

“They’re the new token black guys,” Huffman said. “It’s as racist as it’s always been, most black wrestlers still being put in the back seat. I just never spent too much energy on it, other than not getting my total just due as being a champion, which I deserved.

“I woulda been a great champion, great ambassador. I know I would have.”

Does he get to play both sides of this fence? On his way up, Booker permitted wrestling to use his race. Now that it’s over, he gets reflective.

Was he genuinely hurt by his profession’s racism or not? Again, it’s a false choice.

He cared and he didn’t care. He didn’t care what sold the product. But he did care that he had to play by rules that kept him in the box labeled “Black Guys.”


“I look forward to having a dialogue with the voters of Houston, and if I am so privileged to serve, I will fight for them as hard as I have fought for myself and my family over the last 30 years,

— Booker T. Huffman’s Twitter account, December 2016

“You’re a mess,” Booker says to his 6-year-old son, Kendrick.

“You’re a mess, Dad,” Kendrick says back.

“Yeah, Daddy, you’re a mess,” echoes his twin sister, Kennedy.

Booker never really retired from wrestling. He just went into business as a suburban father. His pectorals and arms are still Royal Rumble-ready. He does 400 pushups each morning, not out of vanity as much as to ensure a 52-year-old father of young twins remains on this side of the soil as long as possible. (Brandon, now 33, had his own trouble with the law growing up. He lives in Houston and works in marketing.)

Booker T speaks on the phone while his twins, Kennedy and Kendrick, play on his shoulders.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

The felony conviction from 30 years ago still follows him. When he began traveling for wrestling shows internationally, Booker was frequently questioned by immigration agents. He had trouble at first getting a liquor license for his venue that hosts wrestling shows and boxing cards. And he needs a pardon from the governor before he can legally be a candidate on the November 2019 ballot.

“The paperwork is already in,” Booker said. His three personal references: Stephanie McMahon, Vince’s daughter, Triple H’s wife and the chief brand officer of WWE; Joanne Herring, the Texas socialite who persuaded the U.S. government to train and arm the Afghan mujahedeen fighters during the Soviet war on U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson’s behalf; and Gasarch, his former boss who lent him the money for wrestling school.

Incumbent Sylvester Turner, an African-American Democrat, was a longtime member of the Texas Legislature before winning the mayor’s office in 2016 on his third attempt. Booker has yet to declare a political party, but he’s serious about his campaign. He’s hired an aide and an adviser to help formulate a platform.

Houston’s growing homeless problem, inspiring the city’s youth and fixing its educational system are his first priorities.

“You’ve got to go to the young people and look at it from their perspective,” he said. “We’ve heard forever, ‘Respect your elders,’ and it’s made us help little old ladies across the street and pay attention to our senior citizens. But I’ve never heard one time, throughout my 52 years, someone say, ‘Respect your young people.’

“We’ve got these classrooms of 40 kids, and it’s so disruptive the kids can’t learn anything. My mother-in-law works in the school district. She sees it daily. Something needs to be done about that. I’m not against public schooling, but I feel like the money that’s going into public schools needs to be appropriated properly.”

No Houston media outlet has taken the town’s temperature over the 2019 election, so it’s hard to say whether Booker’s candidacy will be received well. But he says with conviction, “I think I can win. I’ll get the young vote, the millennial vote.

“Sylvester Turner, Harvard [Law School] grad. He’s a very smart guy. But it’s not about him. It’s about my legacy, how many people I can help while I’m on this earth. Thing about it is, if I win I win, and if I lose I win. It’s not about just winning. It’s about getting off my couch and doing something.”

Maybe 20 years ago, the idea of a pro wrestler becoming mayor of a major American city might have been politically fraught. But we are in the post-Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger world now. A reality show host is our nation’s president. Why would we think Booker T can’t win? He’s already completed an apprenticeship of what it takes to move the masses in America.

“I pretty much made some dirt when I was a kid and made sure I got a big broom as an adult so I could sweep it,” he said, laughing. “I’m still sweeping to clean it up.”

Almost exactly 30 years after his robbery conviction, he still has nightmares of that swarm of police in riot gear. Strangely, there is also gratitude for those 19 months in prison, a reminder of the 336 months of freedom that followed.

A few years ago, he was contracted to give a speech to a group of wealthy Houston residents and wondered what he could say to motivate millionaires. “They’re already rich.”

He decided to tell the story of the Wendy’s Bandits feeling young and invincible before their fall. They gave him a standing ovation, unaware that Booker had a surprise for them.

“I want to introduce you to Wendell,” he said, pointing to a man immaculately dressed in fine Italian wool like many of the others in the room.

Booker had run into Sylvester at a gas station. He had no job, hadn’t shaved in weeks and looked hungry. Booker got him cleaned up and asked if he would accompany him to the speech.

Sylvester, who says he’s been straight since he got out of prison in 1995, now works as a driver for a trucking company. Although Booker says he wanted to keep helping him, the two men have since lost touch.

We want a world of bright lines. Heels and faces. But that’s not real life. It’s not the wrestling world, either. Both are messy. Complicated. Good and bad are mixed together, and both can be profitable for anyone willing to play their part.

Can you dig it, sucka?

NFLPA and Fanatics team up to help players prepare for life after football NFL players say the experience helped them prepare for the next chapter of their lives

NFL players often experience a moment in their lives when they are faced with contemplating life after football. They realize they may not be entirely prepared for what happens when their football career ends.

NFL journeyman cornerback Justin Rogers recognizes that sentiment. He has played for five different teams since he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL draft. He is now a free agent, last playing for the Washington Redskins in 2015.

Thanks to a three-weeklong externship program hosted by the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), Rogers, who is currently earning a master’s degree in business administration, was able to apply what he’s learning in his postsecondary degree program to real-life professional experiences. He spent his time at one of the program’s externship host companies, Fanatics.

Rogers, 29, knows the importance of preparing for his post-NFL career. He will graduate in May from Indiana University.

“I am getting my MBA and I now see how with Fanatics I applied a lot of this stuff firsthand. I was getting the best of both worlds. Learning and actually having to apply it. That was one of the most interesting parts of the internship for me,” Rogers said.

“Fanatics did a good job with showing us the ins and outs,” he added. “They wanted us to see how everything was to find out what we might be interested in. I think that kind of helped me because it’s life after football. I wanted to join the corporate world, the business world. Find out what area I wanted to go in and I think that internship with Fanatics helped.”

Justin Rogers preps a custom made-to-order shirt at the Fanatics manufacturing facility in Jacksonville, Florida. Fanatics is the global leader for licensed sports merchandise.

Fanatics

According to its website, Fanatics is the market leader for authentic, officially licensed sports merchandise and offers the world’s largest collection of timeless and timely gear from every pro and college team.

Nineteen NFL teams were represented in this year’s externship class, with the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers boasting four externs each. This year’s externship program marks the NFLPA’s fourth installment with a record 41 players sprinkled across 15 different organizations. The program is offered to current and transitional players and assists them in gaining practical experience to help them pursue careers after football. A total of 86 players applied to the program. Six of those players, including Rogers, spent time at Fanatics, which is in its third year as a host company with the NFLPA.

Rogers joined Indianapolis Colts defensive end Arthur Jones, Denver Broncos linebacker Corey Nelson, San Diego Chargers tight end Jake McGee, New Orleans Saints defensive end Mitchell Loewen and Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle Cameron Bradfield. The 2017 class met at the Fanatics’ East Coast headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida, to begin the program. Throughout their time there, they learned about the business of global sports retailing by gaining on-site training in such areas as marketing, operations, business management, product design and development and in-venue retail operations.

Fanatics program director Rebecca Kulick said the externship program has been great for the company and the players involved.

“It’s been a really valuable experience not only for the players, but for us as well,” she said. “They get to come in and interact with people in our company. It’s a pretty valuable experience for us, where we get to learn a lot from them, then really take their feedback to heart and listen to their views as coming from a player perspective.”

Kulick also added that the program has expanded each year.

“This year, we had six players,” she said. “The year before, we had five, and the first year, we had four.”

Nelson said even though the externship was only three weeks long, he was able to learn a great deal about Fanatics.

“I learned a lot about how a company would work from a CEO on down to chief executive on to the board to the vice president … I learned how an organization really operates and that was pretty exciting to me. I actually got way more than what I thought I was going to get out of the externship,” he said.

Leaving the gridiron introduces a new set of challenges to players, becoming acquainted with life that excludes planned workouts, a team of sports management professionals and a regimen that is conducive to football. They face the harsh reality that their playing days have ceased. It takes an emotional toll on players and their families and studies show that many players don’t make a comfortable transition into everyday life.

“I’m living through it right now,” Rogers said. “I am taking a break and enjoying myself and stepping away from the rigor of training and having your body pounded all the time and taking the weight — taking some time off. That’s where I am. I am in school right now. I want to step away and just focus on school. That’s pretty much what I was looking forward to after playing football.”

Newsday and the NFLPA conducted a survey of 763 former NFL players that concluded that 61 percent said “they found it difficult to adjust to daily life after their career, while 85 percent said they did not believe the NFL adequately prepared them for the transition.”

According to CBS News, “studies have shown that a high percentage [78 percent in 2009] of NFL players declare bankruptcy after their playing days, and many others suffer financial difficulties.”

“The externship has become a staple program of this organization and has provided an opportunity for our members to obtain gainful experience and critical skills needed to excel during their NFL careers and beyond,” said Dana Hammonds, senior director of the NFLPA’s player affairs department. “These players are to be applauded as they have sacrificed time away from family and friends because they understand the value and concerted efforts, led by their union, to gain meaningful professional experience.”

The program, run by the NFLPA player affairs department, is designed to assist players in realizing their potential and value beyond football. The externship serves as one of several NFLPA postcareer programs built on the theme of helping players — both active and transitioning — find their niche and unearth more of their gifts.

Jones said he appreciated the externship at Fanatics because the company is sports-related.

“I’m still currently playing, and going into the program was me figuring out what I wanted to do post-football, because, as we all know, you can’t play forever,” Jones said. “Pretty much where can I fit in this company, and me as an athlete, I couldn’t see myself just sitting around doing office work, and something that really gets me into sports, something related to sports, and this company was definitely an awesome fit for me.

“One day, we met with apparel, what all goes into making the jersey and we did [work] with T-shirts and what’s a hot market item. I will keep some of these notes, and I could go on for hours on all the knowledge that I learned about the company. Everyone, they really loved their job and they’re passionate about what they do. The work ethic and the culture around it was amazing. Football was always my goal since high school. I worked hard and put my mind to it, and right now I’m living my dream. If I wasn’t playing football, I’d probably jump in law enforcement and either public speaking, communications, something — broadcasting.”

Jones said the hardest part was participating in meetings at different restaurants.

“As a current player, eating at steakhouses every week is not the best for trying to keep your weight down in the offseason,” he added. “That was probably the hardest part. It was an amazing opportunity. I’d advise other guys in the NFL to do the same. Figure out what you want in the offseason and take advantage, because the NFL pays for these things.”

The group at Fanatics also participated in NASCAR operations during the 2017 Daytona 500, which many experienced for the first time.

Aside from the Jacksonville office, they visited the Fanatics’ West Coast headquarters in San Mateo, California.

The program at Fanatics has grown from four to six interns over the past three years, and they’ve already seen some stars shine through and become full-time team members. Former 49ers, Raiders and Panthers strong safety Reggie Smith participated in the inaugural program in 2015, and following his retirement from the NFL, he’s worked his way into a senior management position in one of Fanatics’ busiest warehouses.

New England Patriots player Eric Rowe is also a 2016 graduate of the program.

Other host companies that participated included the Broward Sheriff’s Office, United Way, the University of Washington athletic department, Whalerock Industries, CSN Mid-Atlantic, ESPN 980, Events DC, Marriott, NFLPA, Panini, The Trust, the University of Maryland athletic department and Under Armour.

Kulick said the most memorable part of this year’s externship program was learning what the players, who bring a unique experience to the business world, receive from the training.

“For me, it is seeing what they get out of the program, as well as what our employees get from them,” she said. “There’s a lot of interaction with our employees, who get to really show them what they do on a daily basis, and the players get to learn what it’s actually like to work in the corporate world.”

As the NFLPA continues to partner with companies such as Fanatics, they will maintain their goal of assisting players in navigating their life after football. Everyone in the Fanatics class said they would recommend that all NFL players sign up for the externship program.

“I definitely refer them or anybody in professional sports, whether they’re a rookie or whether they’re a 10-year, eight-year vet. Anyone that’s playing professional sports and looking to aspire to something outside of football, I think this is definitely the route to go,” Nelson said. “I think this organization is definitely the route to go, because they teach you so much that you can take with you to another job or, you know, to your team, throughout your day-to-day life. There’s so many things that they taught us.”

Daily Dose: 3/13/17 Michelle Obama gives a little help to Yara Shahidi

The Morning Roast produced a fantastic photograph this week, which features me, Domonique and Mina riding on a motorcycle with a sidecar. You’ve got to listen to the episode to get it, but it’s actually pretty funny, stand-alone.

I wouldn’t be able to tell you who wrote my college recommendations if I tried. What I do recall, however, was that being one of the most stressful and shameful experiences of my life. Nothing says, “I’ve wasted my whole high school career” like not knowing where to begin on that front, but luckily it worked out, I guess. But for black-ish actor Yara Shahidi, she drew upon a rather awesome resource in her quest for higher education: Michelle Obama. I mean, I can’t imagine that anyone will say no, at that point.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is living in a different time. For whatever reason, he decided to show solidarity with a Dutch politician who is looking to “de-Islamize” the Netherlands should he be elected to the country’s top post. By doing so, he drew on some hyperracist philosophies, saying “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” If you’re wondering, yes, that’s a mindset rooted in white nationalism with a little sprinkling of supremacy on top. Even other Republicans are saying he’s way out of pocket.

Here’s the thing about President Donald Trump’s “America First” outlook: It’s not effective. Hypernationalist economic policies never really have worked, because, think about it, isolation is just a dumb way to try to make money. Guess what! I can do everything myself! Oh, yeah, well you can also sell those things to yourself because no one wants to deal with that. Certain industries, aka most, can’t survive without global participation. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party ruined Germany’s fashion industry and some are worried that Trump’s America might do the same here.

NASCAR is full of thugs. That’s what people would say if most of the drivers weren’t white guys, but alas, they’re just hard-nosed men who love to grind, right. In all seriousness, these pit row fights have become what feels like a regular part of the racing these days. This time it involved Joey Logano and Kyle Busch. At this point, they might as well make it an official part of the race. Just set two guys up in an ad-hoc boxing ring right there on the infield, and let willing participants duke it out.

Free Food

Coffee Break: In 2017, music radio program directors aren’t the ones moving the needle when it comes to picking the music that tops the charts. That tastemaker job now has been taken over by those that curate playlists for streaming music services. Check out this profile of Spotify’s Tuma Basa.

Snack Time: I don’t like to make fun of guys and their weight problems after they leave whatever league they play in, but this tweet about Antoine Walker is funny.

Dessert: Here’s a story about the life of a Jesuit-owned slave from Maryland in the early 1800s. For perspective.