Black quarterbacks are out here changing the game and how we see leadership NFL’s black signal-callers make a way out of no way


The meeting between Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens and Russell Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks a couple of weeks ago, on one level, featured the kind of marquee quarterback matchup for which the NFL is famous.

But on a deeper, historical level it spotlighted two black quarterbacks (rare), each a possible MVP (rarer still) and a eureka moment that crystallized both how America views leadership, and how, week by week, black quarterbacks are changing the face and nature of the role.

With the score tied at 13 late in the third quarter, the Ravens faced fourth-and-2 on the Seahawks 8-yard line and Coach John Harbaugh had sent in the kicking team. But Jackson, 22, his second-year star quarterback, paced the sideline, urging a different call.

“Do you want to go for that?” Harbaugh asked Jackson in a late October video clip that’s been viewed more than 3 million times. “Hell, yeah, coach, let’s go for it!” the quarterback yelled. On the next play, Jackson, took the snap in the shotgun, ran right, juked left and ran up the middle for a touchdown, propelling the Ravens to a 30-16 victory.

“In my mind, they are the next generation of civil rights workers because in some ways, they’re risking their bodies to change a country.” — Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution

The significance of that moment wasn’t just in how it showcased Jackson’s elite athleticism, field awareness or football intelligence (which was also on full display in the Ravens’ win over the previously undefeated Patriots last weekend). And it wasn’t his preternatural confidence. It was that his authority was given free rein. It was that faith in a young black man inhabiting the quarterback position — which has been synonymous with leadership, and a tacit proxy for white masculinity for the century-long history of the sport — was rewarded and telegraphed around the country.

“In my mind, they are the next generation of civil rights workers because in some ways, they’re risking their bodies to change a country,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, who in May became the first African American secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in its 173-year history. They’re comfortable and confident enough “to take that extra gear and to do that thing that hasn’t been done before.”

The pace has been glacial, but over the past 50 years, we’ve “beat back the kind of pseudoscientific ways that people used to think about African American intellectual ability” and those associations with black quarterbacks, said historian Julian Hayter, who teaches leadership studies at the University of Richmond. “These dudes are actually out here throwing their way out of scientific racism.”

James “Shack” Harris won three conference championships at Grambling State University, where he played for legendary coach Eddie Robinson. But after refusing to change positions, he wasn’t selected until the eighth round of the 1969 NFL draft. Harris nearly walked away from football before Robinson persuaded him to fight for his rightful place in the league. He went on to become the first black quarterback to start an NFL season opener, start and win a playoff game, play in a Pro Bowl and be named a Pro Bowl MVP.

Harris sees the new prominence of black quarterbacks — this season ties 2013 for the number of starters, and includes the most celebrated players in the league — as a positive development for young African Americans aspiring to do anything. The quarterback “is perhaps the most singular position in all of sports in influence and leadership. And we have more blacks today participating, but I don’t think it’s increased our ability to lead,” Harris said. “We’ve been able to lead since birth.”

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes (left) of the Kansas City Chiefs shakes hands with quarterback Lamar Jackson (right) of the Baltimore Ravens after the Chiefs defeated the Ravens 27-24 in overtime at Arrowhead Stadium on Dec. 9, 2018.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Black quarterbacks were just rarely given the chance.

Hayter defines leadership as “a co-creational process based on role agreement.” In times of crisis human beings have a cognitive need to look to people with particular traits to resolve these crises and “in some ways, sports are controlled crises, right?”

The encoding of quarterbacks as white leaders is an agreement that was birthed with the sport that emerged from mid-19th century Ivy League culture. Quarterbacks call plays that direct other players’ assignments, touch the ball the most and are the most visible players on the field. Even as football migrated South and became more blue-collar, the quarterback position retained that association with intellectualism. The positions of center, inside linebacker and especially quarterback were held out as thinking positions, too complex for black athletes to master.

As 20th century black athletic achievements destroyed racist myths about the physical superiority of white men, and the civil rights movement helped open professional sports to black athletes, white team owners, coaches, media and fans clung to myths of black intellectual inferiority.

“There’s so many stories of black quarterbacks in college who get forced to play wide receiver and defensive backs,” said Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. Even Jackson, a Heisman winner, was doubted as a quarterback and criticized for not running a “pro-style” offense, which called for remaining in the pocket and reading coverage, before this standout season finally quieted that noise. Hard to ever imagine a white player with Jackson’s gifts being told to switch positions.

The question became whether black men, who were already leading black churches, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their own communities, “had the capacity to lead white men and white institutions,” Neal said.

That question becomes particularly acute when you take into account the improvisational nature of black culture and how that shapes black leadership, especially in sports.

“Underlying that message really was that not only was the league fearful of the leadership potential of some of these men — and this is of course applicable to corporate America also — but they were fearful of the way that black men could improvise,” said Neal. And that means they could change the game in ways that were not intuitive or immediately replicable for white quarterbacks. (Not so much physically, but culturally, though with constant practice, the two go hand in hand.)

Black improvisation is best understood as a kind of creative problem-solving that stems from the dynamics of black life that often require you make a way out of no way, said Neal. “How do you problem-solve lack of resources? In another context, it’s Big Momma in the kitchen with a small amount of resources and a family of 10 to feed. And how does that get done night after night, week after week, year after year?” Neal asked.

Improvisational leadership gets encoded as “genetic” — as “natural” athleticism in sports — but it’s more specifically political, environmental, economic. And it’s smart. There can’t just be one way to get something done, because that way often ignores black people or works against them. In 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened with a permanent exhibit called Making a Way Out of No Way. The off-ramp thinking required to outwit challenges or gain advantage for black people in myriad aspects of American life gets stylized, and celebrated as a bedrock of black culture when it works. And when it works repeatedly, it changes the game — music, politics, science, sports —whatever the game is.

Last year, the reigning NFL MVP, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ no-look pass against the Ravens electrified the league, but it was also a play he’d studied and practiced since college.

People have the tendency to “think that our ability to improvise means that we don’t know how to play by the rules. No, it means we know how to play within them,” said Hayter. Jazz “is not an explosion of the rules, it is understanding the rules of musical theory so well that you can bend them in a way.”

The no-look pass and the stutter-step running of Jackson, and Michael Vick before him are examples of that improvisational leadership, said Bunch. “Improvisation is how black people have historically survived. So of course when they play sports, there’s improvisation. But that’s been held against them.” Especially in football, where improvisation at quarterback has been cast as an inability to process, and make leadership decisions. The traditional model is to step back in the pocket, and take what the defense gives you. But if black people just took what we were given historically, we’d be dead.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson reacts after throwing a touchdown in the first half against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Oct. 27 in Atlanta.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“Look at Doug Williams. Just look at Patrick Mahomes. The list goes on,” said Hayter. “Look at Russell Wilson. These guys could extend the play in a way that changes our perception about what the [quarterback] position actually is. And I think in some ways that’s what people are reluctant to deal with.”

Consciously or unconsciously, for those wed to white leadership, the nature of quarterback play is perceived as a binary. Either resist adopting the changes, or, like the NBA, cede the league to black players. Rules enacted over the past 15 years to protect the quarterback, including recent changes banning a tackler from landing on the quarterback, make it easier to preserve the hegemony of white quarterbacks “trained to play a particular way,” said Neal. “You had men like a Randall Cunningham and a Warren Moon, obviously Michael Vick, come along,” Neal said, and “you now enact these rules within the game that in fact forces them to play the game in very traditional ways, and doesn’t protect them when they go against that script.”

Neal cites Carolina Panthers quarterback and former MVP Cam Newton, who has used his size and strength to run the ball, as an example. Critics say “he gets hurt because he refuses to play within this particular script, right?” said Neal. But it was that script that required his improvisational leadership in the first place: “I don’t have a great running game, I don’t have the best receivers,” Neal said, channeling Newton. “How do I solve this problem without them? I’m the most gifted athlete on the field. That’s how I solve the problem.

Sports has rarely been about fair and equal competition, “it’s been about perception, it’s been about leadership” and drawing audiences, Bunch said. And when it comes to the racial coding of the quarterback position, it’s about control. “And control is about fear.” One of the best ways to control black people has been to say they’re inferior, “but then you’ve got to put the laws in place to make sure you reinforce” those ideas, he said.

Any black person who has broken through a leadership barrier has to confront white fear that something is being taken from them, said Bunch, and their own fears about being good enough to carry the burdens of the race.

This is why the political activism of former quarterback Colin Kaepernick has kept him out of the league while playing out differently for other player/protesters. “Leaders are dangerous,” Bunch said. “If they lead down a way that makes people uncomfortable, they’re dangerous.

“The black quarterback is probably the most visible black male figure in America in terms of the number of people who see him play,” Bunch said, and that has a ripple effect as people start to recognize they have skills that transcend race. “But they never really transcend race, right? … You don’t have the freedom to be average. You’ve really got to be stellar or else you don’t get on a field.”

When he’s optimistic, he thinks “every black quarterback who throws a touchdown, who signs an autograph for a kid is really changing the way the world sees black folks.” When he’s pessimistic, he wonders “how many of us have to keep doing what we do” until black leadership is normalized.

Perhaps we’ll get to the point that even the black journeyman quarterback is a regular part of the league, and a face of black leadership. Right now, said Bunch, “we’re still kicking down the barriers.”

‘Watchmen’ episode three: ‘She Was Killed by Space Junk’ G-woman vs. vigilante cop: Jean Smart and Regina King face off

Laurie Blake can’t get over her blue god of an ex-boyfriend.

So she keeps calling Mars and leaving voicemails, despite the fact that he never picks up.

What at first seems like another round of inscrutable weirdness from the Watchmen writers turns out to be the opposite in episode three, “She Was Killed by Space Junk.” You just have to be willing to sit and ponder a spell, and also be willing to acknowledge that your theory might be completely wrong.

Jeremy Irons as Adrian Veidt in Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

She’s only just been introduced, but I’m not quite sure what to make of Laurie (the ineffably great Jean Smart), who, 30 years earlier, wasn’t a G-woman, but a vigilante herself. Laurie was the masked hero Silk Spectre, one of Doctor Manhattan’s original acolytes (peep the Warhol-like portrait that hangs in Laurie’s apartment, and the nifty bit of camera framing that puts her face squarely in the fourth quadrant of it). Not only has the great alien squid hoax of 1985 seemingly turned Laurie off the idea of superheroism, she’s now actively fighting it. Episode three begins with Laurie leading a sting in New York to capture some guy in a Batman suit calling himself Mr. Shadow. She and her team stage a bank robbery and tip the guy off, then shoot and arrest him when he shows up.

Episode three has an oddly inspired structure about it, framed by Laurie’s calls to Mars, which also double as prayers offered in a futuristic-looking confessional of an interplanetary phone booth.

While Laurie seems pretty self-assured in her position at the FBI, she’s clearly harboring some doubts about her role in society. For one, she keeps placing calls to Doctor Manhattan, whom she also refers to as Blue God, to tell him jokes that never seem to have a punchline. “Mostly, I don’t give a s— about humanity,” Laurie says bitterly as she interprets the attitude of her ex.

Episode three has an oddly inspired structure about it, framed by Laurie’s calls to Mars, which also double as prayers offered in a futuristic-looking confessional of an interplanetary phone booth. Her prayers/jokes provide much-needed context for the extraterrestrial craziness that’s happening in the show. Alan Moore’s graphic novel ends in 1985, with Smartypants Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (he of the genetically engineered tomatoes and army of clone servants) deciding to take the Machiavellian approach of ending the Cold War by killing 3 million people. He fakes an alien squid attack on New York to bring about an existential crisis from space with the idea that if there’s a bigger, intergalactic enemy at large, perhaps the Earthly humans will stop fighting each other.

Jeremy Irons as Adrian Veidt in Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

The one person who knows the truth and tries to alert others is Rorschach, but because Rorschach is an unreliable source (he’s a psychopath), no one listens to him. Instead, Rorschach ends up inspiring a community of conspiracy theorist truthers, et voila: The Seventh Kavalry is born, no one knows what is true anymore, and they definitely don’t trust newspapers.

Laurie basically recounts this as she’s leaving Doctor Manhattan a voicemail. And just like there’s no guarantee, other than faith, that God, blue or otherwise, actually listens to prayers, Laurie is not so sure Doctor Manhattan is listening to her. Well, until he throws some junk out of the sky in the form of Angela’s (Regina King) car, the one he sucked up with a giant magnet as Will sat in the passenger seat in episode two.

Anyhow, Laurie is dispatched to Oklahoma to investigate the hanging of Chief Crawford, given that the last round of white supremacist terrorism ended in the massacre of nearly the entire Tulsa police department. There’s definitely some deep thinking about federalism going on in this episode, as evidenced by Angela Abar’s choice of song at the Chief’s funeral.

When a Seventh Kavalry suicide bomber shows up at the funeral, Laurie tries to save the day by shooting him. The bomb, which is rigged to the bomber’s heart, begins to tick. Angela quickly drags the dead suicide bomber into Chief Crawford’s grave, then dumps Crawford’s casket on top of him. No one gets hurt, but whatever evidence that is still lingering on the Chief’s body about who might have killed him has been destroyed.

Humph. So far the score is

Will – 1

Agent Laurie – 0

I haven’t said anything about Angela’s choice of undercover detective costume until now, because it looked cool. But there also didn’t seem to be anything to explain why she would choose to be a dominatrix nun named Sister Night when she’s doing police work — well, aside from Angela’s love of beating up white supremacists.

But this episode, with its allusions to faith, confession, and feeling forsaken by the one you love most has me rethinking that. Nuns, according to Catholic catechism, are betrothed to Jesus. Laurie has strayed from her blue god of an ex-boyfriend. She’s not even convinced the universe has a hero. After all, in the joke Laurie offers up on her phone call to Mars, both Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons) and (regular) God end up in hell. Laurie says she kills God after throwing a brick in the air that hits him in the head.

She and Angela are both cops; one just happens to work for the federal government. They both have weird relationships with God(s). Might the two have more in common than seems obvious at first glance? Right now, the relationship between Angela and Laurie is characterized by suspicion and mistrust. But Doctor Manhattan seems to be set on bringing them together by dumping Angela’s car at Laurie’s feet with a crash that should have awakened the whole neighborhood. Subtle move, Doctor Manhattan. Real subtle.

(I really hope the Abars had comprehensive coverage on that Infiniti, because it is completely trashed. Perhaps Doctor Manhattan could learn to have a little more respect for other people’s things!)

I’m inclined to take the title of this episode more figuratively than literally, and if anything has been killed, it’s Laurie’s heart and her faith in Doctor Manhattan. If men are trash, well then, perhaps the Mars-dwelling, levitating Doctor Manhattan is the space junk in question.

Stray, but maybe important observations:

  • On their flight to Tulsa, Laurie makes a retort to her FBI fanboy/lackey, a historian who now works for the bureau, after he pulls out a mask in an attempt to show some solidarity with the Tulsa police department and its murdered chief. “When in Rome,” he says.

“Tulsa’s not Rome,” Laurie responds dryly. “And you’re a federal agent. Not the Lone F—ing Ranger.” It’s true. But you know who might have actually been the basis for the “Lone F—ing Ranger”? Bass Reeves!

  • I don’t know where Veidt is, or who The Gamekeeper is, or even the rules of Veidt’s refuge. But unlike the newspapers that have declared him dead, Veidt seems to be very much alive.
  • The American flag in this show is vastly different from our own. A circle of white stars sits on a blue background, surrounded by red and white stripes.
  • Did Doctor Manhattan make that giant blue vibrator Laurie carries around with her? What a hilarious nod to his penchant for calling attention to his giant blue phallus and his trademark eschewing of clothes.
  • Angela’s funeral dirge, dedicated to her dead boss, is “The Last Round-Up,” made famous by Gene Autry in the The Singing Hill.

The film is about the conflict between what’s good for a rich few versus what will benefit the community. In this case, cattle rancher John Ramsey (George Meeker) wants to buy up a big patch of land for his own use from an heiress. If he does, he’ll eject other traders who have been using the land to graze their cattle.

Ramsey wants the land so he can jack up the rates charged to other cattle traders who don’t own their own land. The move would bankrupt the traders and give Ramsey a monopoly. Autry plays the guy who stands up to the Ramsey and convinces town authorities the deal is bad. The West prides itself on the open range and personal freedom, but in The Singing Hill, the traders need Autry and the government to stand up for the little guy in the face of one rich, selfish muckety-muck. Again, the chief clearly sees himself as the good guy, not Meeker’s character.

John Singleton’s ‘Snowfall’ came to a tragic finish The season finale remains gutting a week later

Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) knew the consequences of selling drugs were inevitable, but seeing who suffered as he burned the world around him still remains gutting a week after Snowfall‘s season finale.

Early critiques of FX’s Reagan-era drama exploring the origins of the crack epidemic said that it moved too slowly and neglected the drug addicts.

But while Snowfall, created by John Singleton with Dave Andron and Eric Amadio, spent two seasons building the characters and their worlds, season three wasted no time destroying unblemished characters’ lives. The show’s accelerated pace helped the show emerge as one of the best dramas on television.

Damson Idris plays Franklin Saint, who grows increasingly cutthroat as he makes choices that alter the lives of everyone in his orbit in season three of Snowfall.

Prashant Gupta/FX

At the beginning, Saint is a kid with more ambition than options. Season three shows the young drug kingpin grow increasingly cutthroat as he makes choices that alter the lives of everyone in his orbit. The expansion of Saint’s business draws the ire of Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Andre Wright (Marcus Henderson), his former neighbor, who is eager to take him down because of the damage he’s causing in their South Central community and his relationship with Wright’s daughter, Mel (Reign Edwards).

Snowfall delivered a crushing blow in season three by turning an innocent, college-bound teenager into a crack addict without the heavy-handed tone of an anti-drug public service announcement.

Viewers see Wright cruising through South Central, appalled by crack’s effect. His most disturbing discovery is a girl, no older than his daughter, who nearly dies while stealing to feed her addiction. He knows the source of the problem: Saint. In turn, Wright drives Saint to a crack house for a closer look at how he’s poisoning the community.

“[Wright] sees what crack is doing more clearly than most people, which is why he’s taking a strong stand against it,” said crime novelist Walter Mosley, who joined Snowfall as a consulting producer and writer in 2018. “And in doing that, he and Franklin [Saint] become nemeses.”

Special Edition Roundtable: ‘Snowfall’ uses the past to explain the present and the cast explains it all

In a reference to the gang sweeps that the LAPD executed in advance of the 1984 Olympics, Wright gains support for his mission within the department by telling his superiors that crack is making its way toward the site of the Games: the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The police, led by Wright, attack Saint’s operation and family. As quickly as Wright becomes a hero within the department, he’s disgraced after Saint orchestrates the theft of his badge and gun in retaliation. His resulting suspension from the force, despite the successful initiative he led, is a harsh reminder that he’s black first and a cop second. This is underlined when he’s assaulted during a traffic stop by two white cops who only check to confirm that he’s a colleague after beating him.

In reality, Wright’s fate is sealed the moment he faces off against Saint. Both know the other’s vulnerabilities because of their complicated relationship, turning their battle into an antagonistic chess game. While Wright recognizes Saint is no longer the kid he watched grow up, underestimating him proves to be a fatal mistake. Before Wright meets his demise at Saint’s hands, he endures the pain of seeing his worst fear confirmed: Mel, his only child, is ensnared by the drug that’s ravaging the streets of Los Angeles.

Franklin Saint (Damson Idris, left) and Mel (Reign Edwards, right) have an on-again, off-again relationship. It has always been one of Snowfall‘s bright spots, even with the knowledge that it couldn’t last.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP Photo

Mel’s descent into addiction has been Snowfall’s most heartbreaking development. In just a few episodes, she goes from Spelman-bound to vanishing the day Wright is supposed to take her to college because she’s trying to score crack. Her shocking turn illustrates not only how widely available crack was during the 1980s but also how quickly it could dismantle anyone’s life, no matter how bright their future or sturdy their support system.

By ramping up the chaos it’s been building since the pilot, Snowfall depicted crack’s impact on a human level. John Singleton would be proud.

“In the beginning, people didn’t think, ‘Oh, this is terrible, I’m gonna be addicted,’ ” Mosley said. “But the next thing you know, it does happen.”

And no one thought it would happen to Mel. Her arc this season was a harrowing look at addiction, which erases morals, scruples and, in some cases, all traces of who the victim used to be. “Once the rock get a hold of they ass,” Saint’s friend and enforcer Leon (Isaiah John) tells him, “the person you knew, they’re gone.” Mel is sweet-natured and radiant, but as her addiction worsens, Wright, serving as a proxy for the audience, stops recognizing the person he raised. One chilling sequence, a montage set to Roy Ayers Ubiquity’s “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” ends with Wright realizing that he can’t stop his daughter.

It’s through Mel’s addiction that Saint is forced to reckon with the weight of his own actions. He’s in his early 20s and establishing generational wealth for his family in less time than it would have taken him to finish college. Creating this life on his own terms is how Saint justifies selling crack.

According to Mosley, Saint sees his exploits through “million-dollar glasses,” a myopia that blinds him to the societal impact of what he’s doing. He’s able to rationalize everything as “just business” until he’s forced to pull Mel out of a crack house. It’s easier to sell drugs if you don’t humanize the people buying them. In Saint’s mind, he’s giving them what they want from a safe distance.

He’s rattled, however, after seeing what they do to someone he loves. “It takes him a while to realize the absolute devastation of those drugs, and I think toward the end of season three, he’s seeing that and more so experiencing it,” Mosley said.

Saint and Mel’s on-again, off-again relationship has been one of Snowfall’s bright spots, even with the knowledge that it couldn’t last. Needless to say, it’s unlikely that a drug dealer and a cop’s daughter have a future together.

That’s what crack did as it spread throughout the nation during the 1980s. It turned neighbors into enemies. It turned the girl next door into an addict. It turned the boy next door into a monster. Seeing this unfold so rapidly has been tragic, but it’s the payoff of Snowfall’s meticulous approach to storytelling. That Snowfall has even arrived at this point is a testament to patience and the power of slow-burning drama.

John Singleton (left) and Damson Idris (right) arrive at the Oscars on March 4, 2018.

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP Photo

Viewers stuck with Snowfall without much buzz or critical acclaim because the show keeps improving as the drama mounts. Snowfall’s evolution is proof that some shows need room to grow. Imagine if HBO gave up on The Wire after season two.

It’s just unfortunate that Singleton isn’t alive to see Snowfall’s progress, although Mosley says Singleton’s vision and faith in the writers, producers and directors empowered them to make something they’re sure he’d love.

Snowfall delivered a crushing blow in season three by turning an innocent, college-bound teenager into a crack addict without the heavy-handed tone of an anti-drug public service announcement. Mel’s undoing was a tragedy, but it was presented as just a reality, making it more haunting. Wright fell victim to his own morality, and Saint was forced to face the consequences of his actions in a way that changed him for the worse. No one in this complicated triangle emerged unscathed.

By ramping up the chaos it’s been building since the pilot, Snowfall depicted crack’s impact on a human level.

John Singleton would be proud.

Toni Harris made history by getting a football scholarship. Now she needs to make tackles. Free safety has already overcome doubters, cancer and family trauma. Playing against men doesn’t faze her.

FAYETTE, Mo. — Perhaps you’ve heard of Antoinette “Toni” Harris. Earlier this year, the 23-year-old became what is believed to be the first woman to accept a scholarship to play football at a four-year college — not as a kicker, as other women have done — but as a position player.

Harris, a free safety, signed with Central Methodist University, a school with 1,000 undergraduates that plays in Division I of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). She’s arrived on campus three weeks ahead of camp to get extra time with the strength and conditioning coach. And, like everyone else on the team, she’s hoping to see some playing time when the season starts on Aug. 31.

Fayette is a dot on the map between St. Louis and Kansas City, a four-block town surrounded by cornfields and soybean farms. On a sweltering Sunday morning in July, the women at Savory Bakery are serving coffee and tea as the radio pipes in The Platters singing “The Magic Touch,” a song that hasn’t seen the Billboard charts since 1956.

We’re two blocks from town, in the center of Central Methodist’s campus, with Harris, head coach David Calloway and defensive backs coach LaQuentin “Q” Black in Calloway’s office on the second floor of Brannock Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. Harris’ hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail. She’s wearing a “Women are Dope” T-shirt and has a diamond stud in her left nostril. She stands only 5 feet, 7 inches tall, but her 165-pound frame is rock-solid.

Central Methodist head coach David Calloway, left, and defensive backs coach LaQuentin Black, right, both view Toni Harris as a budding talent who has the skills, aptitude and eagerness to develop.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

She didn’t play for her high school varsity team and only sparingly during two years of junior college. Her demeanor isn’t that of a sports star but of a wide-eyed college student. But Toni Harris is famous.

“There have been so many women — I can’t even count, like over probably 100 or 200 — that contact me every day, whether in middle school, high school or getting ready to go to college, that want to play [football] at the next level,” she says. “They say I’m an inspiration and ask if I have any tips on how they can become better football players. I tell them to just keep pushing and working hard, and just never give up believing in yourself.”

The world discovered Harris over the course of 60 seconds on Feb. 3. During Super Bowl LIII, Toyota debuted a commercial featuring her and her quest to play football. Tens of millions of viewers saw Harris running, training, lifting weights and driving a Toyota.

“They’ve said a lot of things about Toni Harris,” intones narrator Jim Nantz. “They said she was too small. They said she was too slow. Too weak. They said she’d never get to the next level. Never inspire a new generation. Never get a football scholarship. Yeah, people have made a lot of assumptions about Toni.”

Harris then looks into the camera and delivers the closing line, the one she proudly says she wrote herself, the one that sums up her remarkable journey.

“I’ve never been a big fan of assumptions.”


It would have been easy to write off the young Harris when she was growing up on the west side of Detroit. Placed in foster care at the age of 4, she ended up in three different homes by the age of 15.

“You don’t really see anything wrong with it until you’re older,” she says. “I wanted to see my mother and I wanted to know who my father was. But I was always one of those kids who was very optimistic. I had my faith and believed in a lot of things that were positive.”

Harris met her biological father, Sam Clora, four years ago. He is now a part of her life, as are her nine biological siblings (five sisters and four brothers). But her birth mother, Donyale Harris, with whom she always maintained a relationship, died in a car accident this past spring.

Facing obstacles is nothing new for Toni Harris. At 4 years old, she was placed in foster care. And in her freshman year in college at Toledo, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

One of Harris’ obstacles was simply getting onto a football field. She became infatuated with the sport when was 5 years old, watching her older cousin Demetrius and the Westside Steelers win the national Police Athletic League (PAL) championship.

As Harris remembers it, what she saw on the field that day was a happy, teary-eyed family. “After that, I kind of fell in love with the game of football and never put the ball down.”

With no PAL team willing to accept her, she picked up the game on her own, watching others and playing in neighborhood pickup games. She finally talked her way onto the junior varsity squad at Redford Union High School in suburban Detroit. She was the only girl on the team and played wide receiver and cornerback. (She was also a cheerleader, which is, ironically, how she suffered her worst athletic injury, a bruised knee.) But in the midst of transitioning to senior varsity, she was booted from the team.

“The athletic director [Mike Humitz, who passed away in January] told me he didn’t want to let me play,” Harris recalled. “He said, basically, football was a man’s sport and I shouldn’t be out there. And he was being really sarcastic. He was like, ‘So what’s your next sport? Boys’ basketball? Men’s wrestling?’ ”

Actually, Harris did have a plan: playing in college. She enrolled at the University of Toledo intending to walk onto the team. But fate dealt her another blow. In her freshman year, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“Because of the radiation I had lost the back of my hair and my body was very weak, and most of the time I wasn’t able to go to school. At first, I was gonna stop playing football, but then I was like, you know, if I can beat this, then what else can I overcome?” — Toni Harris, on dealing with cancer

“The chemo was really hard to handle because my body went from 170 pounds to 90 pounds,” she says. “The chemo was worse than the cancer was. Because of the radiation I had lost the back of my hair and my body was very weak, and most of the time I wasn’t able to go to school. At first, I was gonna stop playing football, but then I was like, you know, if I can beat this, then what else can I overcome? And so just after the chemotherapy, that’s when I decided to go back to football and try to gain back my weight.”

We can’t help but ask how she absorbs these gut punches. She’s taken so many.

“I think God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers, and I feel as though I’m one of God’s stronger soldiers,” Harris says. “So I feel like I can overcome anything that’s thrown my way.”

Harris enrolled at Golden West College, a community college in Huntington Beach, California, south of Los Angeles. There, she was thwarted in her efforts to play football when head coach Nick Mitchell turned her down.

“She tried out for the team [as a wide receiver and defensive back], but didn’t make it,” Mitchell said in a phone call with The Undefeated. “I didn’t think she was ready for the collegiate level. It had nothing to do with her being female.”

Harris then tried women’s soccer, but it didn’t scratch her itch for football. So she signed up at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) while still enrolled at Golden West and pursued (and ultimately earned) two associate’s degrees simultaneously: one in social and behavioral sciences, the other in criminal justice. At ELAC, she badgered head football coach Bobby Godinez to put her on the team. And, eventually, he caved.

But Harris didn’t just want a uniform, she wanted to play. After everything she’d already been hit with, how much harder could she get slammed on the field?

“She wouldn’t accept no as an answer,” Godinez says on the phone with The Undefeated. “[But] my ‘no’ was out of fear. Having a daughter myself, I was nervous about what the repercussions could be. You have injuries at a high, high level in this sport. But I did tell her that if she sticks around and she proves that she belongs, things could change.”

Harris never missed practice, never missed a meeting, never missed the weight room.

“She was very, very persistent with her goals, and she wouldn’t give up,” Godinez says. “And when it came down to it, her teammates were the ones who said, ‘This girl belongs here.’ ”

That moment came in Week 2 of her first season. As Godinez recalls, “A defensive lineman approached me and said, ‘Coach, give her a jersey, she deserves it.’ ” Harris rarely got on the field that season but still got a scholarship offer from Bethany College, an NAIA school in Kansas. She elected to stay at ELAC, and as a sophomore she played in three games, in which she broke up a pass and made three tackles, including one for a 24-yard loss.

She put those highlights on video and sent them off to four-year programs in the hopes of catching a coach’s eye.

“I don’t even know how many schools [I sent to],” Harris says. “Probably over 200.”

The timing couldn’t have been better. Harris’ highlight video went out right before the Super Bowl and the Toyota commercial. Suddenly, the media was championing the young woman who was challenging stereotypes and defying assumptions. Radio hosts talked about her. Good Morning America and The Today Show featured her in prime guest spots.

The gamble to stay at ELAC had paid off. Now she had scholarship offers from five more colleges — one a Division II school in the NCAA, the others in NAIA.

But only one of those coaches impressed her: Calloway at Central Methodist. He’d been there before the hoopla, emailing her, phoning her, recruiting her. And he’d always been straight with her.

“He wasn’t one of those coaches who was promising you things,” Harris says. “I think what attracted me to this school, to this coach, was him telling me, ‘You’re gonna have to work for your spot.’ ”


Calloway was a four-year starter at Langston University in Oklahoma, graduating in 1997, and has spent 21 years coaching at the collegiate level. At Central Methodist, he faces an uphill battle. Since he took over as head coach in 2016, the Eagles have gone 8-24. But judging from all of the thank-you notes from former players and students pinned to his corkboard, Calloway is a patient and supportive coach who has generated a reservoir of goodwill.

Calloway leans back in his swivel chair and we ask the obvious question: How did it feel to make history? We’re surprised to hear Calloway say he figured some other female athlete had already done it.

“[Making history] never crossed my radar,” Calloway says. “I assumed somebody had already kicked or something.”

Central Methodist head coach David Calloway says Harris will be fighting for her position in the defensive backfield with a three-year starter and another junior college transfer.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

In fact, several women have kicked for four-year schools since Liz Heaston did so for Willamette University in 1997, becoming the first woman ever to score in a college football game. Others include Ashley Martin at Jacksonville State, Katie Hnida at Colorado and New Mexico, and April Goss at Kent State. But not one received a scholarship to a four-year school at the Division II level or higher until 2018, when Rebecca Longo signed to kick for Adams State in Colorado. (Shelby Osborne, a defensive back, signed with Campbellsville University in Kentucky in 2014, but she was not initially on scholarship.)

And now Harris is “the first female incoming student to receive a football scholarship as a position player,” says Jennifer Saab, director of communications at the NAIA.

So if Calloway didn’t intend to make history, why did he recruit Harris? He said he sees his role as giving young people opportunities, not just to play football but to graduate. He views Harris as a budding talent, one with skill, an aptitude for the game and an eagerness to develop.

Coach Q agrees. “Her feet are really good and she’s quick out of her breaks,” he says. “When you’re bringing someone on in the [defensive] back end, you want someone that you feel can lead and take charge, and I haven’t seen anything different from her. We’ll see if she’s coachable once we get her on the football field and in the meeting rooms, but so far, so good.”

If Harris takes the field this season, isn’t she bound to run into guys, big guys, who don’t think she belongs there?

Calloway doesn’t seem concerned.

“[Think about] what she’s been through in life,” he says. “Football’s probably not gonna be that tough when all is said and done. Having beat cancer at a young age, and then growing up in foster homes and then maintaining a great attitude through all of it, I think that’s gonna help. That’s what I [see] from a character standpoint. When she puts her mind to things, she can get stuff accomplished.”

Harris has what it takes to withstand any pushback on the playing field, Calloway says. “You read on social media, ‘I will run her over,’ ” he says. “She’s not gonna just sit there and let you run her over. She has more sense than that. She understands she’s on the field with 21 other guys. We’re putting her in position to make proper tackles.”

“[Think about] what she’s been through in life. Football’s probably not gonna be that tough when all is said and done. Having beat cancer at a young age, and then growing up in foster homes and then maintaining a great attitude through all of it, I think that’s gonna help.” — Central Methodist head coach David Calloway

When the hits come, Harris is convinced she’ll be ready. “I don’t feel like it’s out of the norm for me to be playing with men,” she says. “I mean, [former NFL wide receiver] Trindon Holliday was 135 pounds and 5-6, and I’m much bigger. … Football is about being mentally strong. Are you mentally ready when somebody catches a pass on you? Are you mentally ready to get over that and go to the next play?”

It remains to be seen whether Harris will be on the field against Clarke University on Aug. 31. Calloway makes it clear that she’ll be fighting for her position with a three-year starter and another junior college transfer.

But, as Harris has demonstrated before, competition only feeds her drive.

“I don’t expect anything to be easy,” she says. “It’s never going to get easier. If anything, it’s going to get harder every day.”

That’s probably true, especially if she follows her dream to play in the NFL. If she doesn’t make it to the pros, would she consider playing in one of the women’s semipro or amateur leagues around the country?

“If they made a women’s NFL, then yes,” she says. “I know people play recreationally, but I want to get paid to play just like anybody else. I want a career. So if they don’t plan on putting in a WNFL then I’ll be seeking other things and other ways to make money.”

After meeting Harris, we try not to assume she’ll do it all — take the field on opening day, intercept a pass. And we try not to fantasize that one day she’ll live her dream and put on an NFL uniform.

It’s not easy, because she’s so easy to root for.

Steelers’ Mike Tomlin teaches faith along with football Coaches were ‘the guys that told me right from wrong’ as he grew up without his father

Millions of fans see the cross hanging from Mike Tomlin’s neck on Sundays as he commands the sidelines for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But when he steps in front of the microphones, the questions are never about faith — they’re always football.

What does that cross mean to Tomlin? What guides the man behind the mirrored sunglasses and guarded coachspeak?

Ahead of his 13th season as the Steelers’ head coach, I spoke with Tomlin about his spiritual life and then followed him to the annual Christian men’s conference ManUp, which supports young people in the Pittsburgh area whose fathers aren’t involved in their lives.

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin speaks to a group of men during a ManUp conference breakout session. Tomlin’s coaching method involves encouraging his players to grow personally and spiritually.

Justin Merriman The Undefeated

Football is full of overt appeals to God: Touchdown Jesus, postgame prayer circles, players in the end zone pointing to the heavens. After winning the Super Bowl in 2018, Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson credited “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Tomlin’s mentor, Tony Dungy, has an open Bible in his commemorative locker at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

None of that is Tomlin’s style. During our interview, and listening to him speak at ManUp, he rarely used the words “God” or “Christ.” He declined to discuss his churchgoing activities. Instead, Tomlin emphasized pragmatic virtues and actions that are needed on the playing field of life.

“We’ve got to find artful ways to instill that moral fiber and that decision-making we’re all talking about,” Tomlin said during a session at ManUp entitled “Coaching to Transform Lives.”

Tomlin’s high school coach burned life lessons into young Mike’s memory as the team sweated through leg lifts in practice. “Maybe your style and delivery is different,” Tomlin said, “but you better find a way to consistently deliver messaging that’s going to push them to be better people. And you got an awesome vehicle in which to do it through your coaching.”

Mike Tomlin (left) is joined onstage by pastor Tunch Ilkin (right), a former Steelers player, as he speaks at the ManUp conference in Pittsburgh.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Steelers tight end Vance McDonald said a subtle undercurrent of faith runs through Tomlin’s interactions with his team.

“He does a great job of his approach as coach, and as leader of the Steelers, of applying biblical and Christian truths but doing it in a way that’s not right in your face,” McDonald told me. “And it’s superdelicate: You’re going to overstep or you’re not going to present it as much as you should. It’s delicate, but he does a great job. He does it humbly, and he does it well, because guys respond to things that he says. And when you are a Christian in the audience, you’re like, ‘Hey, I know exactly what he’s talking about.’ ”

Tomlin, 47, told me his method is to encourage his players to grow personally and spiritually, “but they’re not tangible goals. I want to see continual growth as players and as men, and I think we all should aspire to live our lives in that way. This journey of life that we’re on, or this journey that is a professional football career, you’d like to think that you’re learning from the experiences that you go through. You’d like to think that you’re getting better through the process, and that’s my hope for them.”

Tomlin (center) poses for a photo with a group of men during a VIP meet-and-greet at the ManUp Pittsburgh conference, which drew about 2,000 people.

Justin Merriman The Undefeated

At the ManUp conference, which drew about 2,000 people to a huge church in suburban Pittsburgh earlier this summer, Tomlin showed another side of his coiled-steel work demeanor. He smiled and joked. He wore no hat or sunglasses. He spoke often about the challenges he and his wife face raising their daughter and two sons, including the eldest, Michael Tomlin Jr., nicknamed “Dino,” an incoming freshman wide receiver at the University of Maryland.

Tomlin got one of his biggest laughs at the conference after revealing that his kids accuse him of enjoying their “short-term misery” because it provides teachable moments. Dino finished second in the state of Pennsylvania in the 100-meter dash his junior year, then missed the 2019 championship with a hamstring injury. “Man, I kind of enjoyed it,” Tomlin said, then corrected himself. “I’m just gonna tell you straight up: I enjoyed it.

“It was an opportunity for me, one last opportunity for me, to have my hands on him and be around him as he endures adversity,” Tomlin said. “Injury is a part of sport an any level, particularly once you get beyond high school. So, man, it’s a great opportunity for me to watch him deal with injury in a professional life manner and do the things that you’re required to do.”

Tomlin has a career regular-season record of 125-66-1 with the Steelers and is one of only two African American head coaches in the NFL.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

He spoke about growing up without his father in the football hotbed of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Until age 5, Tomlin lived with his mother and older brother at his grandparents’ home. His mother then got her own apartment and later remarried. Tomlin credits his grandfather, stepfather and youth coaches with serving as his father figures.

“I didn’t get into this to be the head football coach of the Steelers, to be quite honest with you,” Tomlin said during his keynote address at ManUp. “When you come from a less-than-advantageous background, socioeconomic issues and things of that nature, fatherlessness is very prevalent in those communities. And so those young men, they look around and they’re looking for truth. Forget what people say, they look at how [other people] live, how they conduct themselves, what the day-to-day looks like, and the most stand-up guys in my community were coaches. Those are not only the guys that told me right from wrong, but when I watched them, they were living it out.

“I just had so much respect for the living witnesses and for the lives of those men, and wanted to be like them. I wanted to impact kids that were like me.”

Tomlin on his coaching style: “I try to display legitimate humility. There’s not enough of it. And boy, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn it.”

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Tomlin is now a living witness for the grown men who play for the Steelers. He was 34 when he was named head coach in 2007. In 2009, he became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl. He reached another Super Bowl in 2011 but lost to Green Bay. Now with a career regular-season record of 125-66-1, and one of the best winning percentages in football, Tomlin is one of only two African American head coaches in the NFL. He should soon surpass Dungy as the most successful black coach in league history.

Asked by a ManUp audience member what role faith plays in his coaching, he cited the Christian maxim that “humility is confidence properly placed in God.”

“That is my coaching style … I try to display legitimate humility,” Tomlin said. “There’s not enough of it. And boy, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn it. I just try to live that out in every way that I can, to show legitimate humility, and that I got my confidence properly placed.”

Ronnell Heard, head football coach at Imani Christian Academy in Pittsburgh, and his twin brother, Rodney, an assistant coach at Imani, said Tomlin’s remarks helped them keep faith central to their coaching. “Coach Tomlin spoke about the elephant in the room,” Ronnell said.

“Faith is the biggest aspect of how we coach,” Rodney said. “Everything we do, we put God first. Our performance on the field is in honor of God. The way we conduct ourselves is in honor of God.”

When I asked Tomlin what role prayer plays in his coaching, he said he never prays for victory. “Just leadership, good decisions, but not necessarily anything specific relative to the outcome of games. We’ve all been blessed in all the appropriate ways. I just ask for the wisdom and discernment that comes with the decision-making and leading these guys.”

He became most animated when I asked if there is any conflict between the qualities associated with great football players — ferocious, violent, merciless — and the kindness and mercy encouraged by New Testament scriptures such as “the meek shall inherit the earth” or the Gospel of John’s “God is love.”

Clinton Bridges, 49, of East Liberty, Pennsylvania, asks Tomlin a question during a breakout session at ManUp Pittsburgh. Bridges coaches basketball and expressed his concern about young men swearing.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

“I don’t think there’s a conflict at all,” Tomlin said with a smile. “If Jesus was a football player, I think he would go extremely hard and extremely fair. I think he would finish. I think he would embody all the tough elements of the game that we embrace. Notice I don’t talk about being dirty. I talk about just playing hard and fair, within the rules of the game and the ways that endear you to your teammates. Being selfless in your efforts.”

What position would Jesus play, coach?

“Good question. Let me think about that for a second.

“He’d be a quarterback and a middle linebacker — because you would want to put the game in His hands.”

NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo on faith, being his father’s legacy, and more

‘Insane. Crazy. Ridiculous. Fake. A dream.’ 2018-19 NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo can think of a lot of words to describe his journey from Greece to basketball superstardom. In his own words, he explains what it means to be his father’s legacy, how he got here, and what he tells others who hope to follow in his footsteps.

Janet Jackson trained like a sprinter for her new show Her personal trainer reveals how the 53-year-old star got herself into Vegas shape

LAS VEGAS — As a wall of digital screens flashes the initials of one of the most consistent pop superstars of the last three decades, a crowd of 5,200 Janet Jackson fans waits for the metamorphosis to begin.

Flanked across a stage inside of the Park MGM Theater, 14 backup dancers – ranging in age, size, gender and race — fall into formation as Jackson begins the first notes of her new track, “Empty.” They begin to deliver the precise, coordinated steps, high shoulder movement and head shakes that Jackson has been bringing to arenas since her first Rhythm Nation World Tour in 1990.

“I look at her as an athlete. I have got to make sure that she is fit to do the show.”— Paulette Sybliss, Janet Jackson’s personal trainer

But this one is different. This brief residency in Vegas — celebrating the 30th anniversary of her game-changing album, Rhythm Nation 1814 — began in May and will finish up in the next 10 days. Titled Metamorphosis, it takes place in the most intimate space she’s ever appeared in as a solo act. Over the course of 100 minutes, Jackson — at 53 — will run through a setlist of 37 hits from the entirety of her career.

And she does it without missing a beat.

Not one, single, solitary beat.

We’ve known Janet Jackson the Pop Superstar almost as long as we’ve known ourselves. But now we’re meeting Janet Jackson, the high-functioning athlete.

“I am from a sprinter’s background, so I train her at that level, and it’s intense,” said 49-year-old Paulette Sybliss, Jackson’s personal trainer who is a former amateur sprinter and long jumper who ran in primary and secondary school in London. “It is 45 minutes of intensity, doing some drills that I know from my athletics background. She — as a 53-year-old woman — will take on many who are half her age, and put them to shame, to be quite honest with you. She does that a lot of the times in sessions with the dancers. I look at them, and they look at me, and I am like, ‘Yeah …’ ”


On April 6, 2016, Jackson announced to her fans via video that she was unexpectedly ending her Unbreakable tour, because she and her then-husband, business tycoon Wissam Al Mana, wanted to start a family. The two had secretly married in 2012, didn’t confirm it until 2013 and at 49, Jackson wanted to become a first-time mom. (The couple divorced in 2017.)

She promised she’d hit the stage again as soon as she could, telling fans in a video she posted on Twitter: “My husband and I are planning our family, so I’m going to have to delay the tour. Please, if you could try and understand that it’s important that I do this now. I have to rest up, doctor’s orders. But I have not forgotten about you. I will continue the tour as soon as I possibly can.”

Jackson’s high-impact touring shows have come like clockwork for decades — Rhythm Nation World Tour 1990; 1993-1995’s Janet World Tour; 1998-1999’s The Velvet Rope Tour; 2001-2002’s All For You Tour; 2008’s Rock Witchu Tour, 2011’s Number Ones, Up Close and Personal World Tour; 2015-2016’s Unbreakable World Tour and her most recent State of the World Tour, 2017-2019. Emphasis on the high impact. Once she shifts into the first 8-count of a complicated choreography, it doesn’t end until the show’s conclusion.

According to her trainer Paulette Sybliss, Janet Jackson’s ability to endure her grueling schedule is due to intense weight training.

Photo by Farrenton Grigsby/Getty Images for JJ

Her ability to endure that schedule — especially now — is due to intense weight training, said Sybliss.

“Predominantly, all of her sessions are based around some kind of weight training, as well as interval training. Sprinters do a lot of interval training, where you’re working really hard for maybe 30-45 seconds. When I mean hard, I mean your heart rate is at the highest, and then she will maybe take a rest at that period of time,” said Sybliss, who claims that at 13 she was once clocked as the fastest girl in London. “If you ever see sprinters’ training sessions, that’s how they train. It’s full-on intensity, you take a bit of a recovery. And then you go again.”

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APPRECIATION -Pt2 I am a working class gal from South London who is travelling the world with #Icon @janetjackson . I wake up everyday grateful,humble and determined to work harder in all aspects of my life. We live in a world where so many are takers, leeches, and are just plain greedy for other people's money .. People ask me often, how did I start working with Janet -It's a simple answer, I was busy working hard on my own business to be the best I could be and was discovered, there was no referral other than my work with my clients and on myself Nothing beats hard work and integrity. Keep your head down, stay focused, don't cause drama, don't try to f*CK others over( you'll always get found out, God doesn't like ugly ) Remember you never know who's in the background watching you .. Thank you Janet for the continued faith and love you show me. Vegas we are #READY #metamorphosis

A post shared by Paulette Sybliss (@paulettesybliss) on May 2, 2019 at 11:01am PDT

Sybliss said she uses Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey, who ran at a world-class level into her 50s — as an inspiration for Jackson’s training. She first began working with Jackson when Jackson’s son Eissa was 6 weeks old. They’d work out four times a week for 45 minutes to an hour. Back in 2017, the goal was to trim the pounds Jackson gained from pregnancy — she eventually dropped 70 pounds — and to build lean muscle for her forthcoming State of the World Tour.

“Once she had the baby, we were doing a solid five times a week, because time was not on our side. With her hectic schedule now, it may be three to four times, sometimes five times a week. I never take her into an hour. She doesn’t need it,” Sybliss said. She stops to chuckle before adding: “She probably wants me to finish after 30 minutes, it’s so intense.”


Jackson doesn’t take her first significant pause until she’s 16 songs in, after she’s been going at it for about an hour. This is when she tells the crowd she wants to slow it down before going into her slow ballad, “Come Back To Me,” from the Rhythm Nation 1814 album. She chases that with three more soft ballads. As she works through the final notes of “China Love,” from her 2001 All For You album, she looks out at the audience and breaks into a smile. Satisfied with the eruption of cheers, Jackson then looks over her shoulders at everyone backing her up, nods her head and jumps into an uptempo track from 1997’s The Velvet Rope, “Together Again,” a house-music tune that pays homage to a friend she lost to AIDS.

“I am from a sprinter’s background, so I train her at that level, and it’s intense.” — Sybliss on Jackson

Jumping alongside her dancers — much like she did in the summer of 1998 as she performed “Together Again” at NBA arenas across North America — Jackson’s stamina is impressive for a performer of any age. But for one who in her fifth decade? It’s mind-blowing.

What we’re seeing on stage is a better version of Jackson, even better Sybliss thinks, than what she saw as a fan in her 20s, dancing to “Control” and “Nasty.” Those same movements that Jackson performed next to Tina Landon, the former Laker Girl who choreographed the tours in 1993 and 1998, sometimes look even better now than they did when she debuted them.

Throughout the entire show, Paulette Sybliss has Janet Jackson drinking water with electrolytes. After the show, it’s about muscle recovery.

Photo by Farrenton Grigsby/Getty Images for JJ

“She is probably a lot fitter now,” Sybliss said. “Sometimes [I] have to pull her back from maybe doing too much. As we get older, we get injuries, but it’s not necessarily getting the injury, sometimes it takes longer to recover from the injuries as we get older.

“For women as well, as we get close to our 50s, and then there are changes that are coming on as well. It’s accommodating things like that, and saying that we may need to tail back on something like this, or push harder in this section of the show. At the end of the day, she is doing a lot of shows, so we don’t want her to get burnt out during the first few shows. If Janet’s ill, there’s no show. My job is not just to train her, it’s to make sure she’s recovering, she’s getting the right fluids, the right liquids during the show, and also post-show as well.”

Throughout the entire show, Sybliss has Jackson drinking water with electrolytes. “If you see Janet during a show, it’s so intense. We don’t just lose water, we lose salt as well. I need to make sure that during the show, that she’s getting hydrated and getting electrolytes, because the worst thing that can happen is that she cramps on stage.”


After the show, it’s all about muscle recovery. “I look at her as an athlete. I have got to make sure that she is fit to do the show. She might want to train with me the day after the show, I will say, ‘Well, you know, it’s a rest day tomorrow.’ ”

“Sometimes [I] have to pull her back from maybe doing too much. As we get older, we get injuries, but it’s not necessarily getting the injury, sometimes it takes longer to recover from the injuries as we get older.”

“She’s competitive,” Sybliss said. “She likes to push herself, and she knows that I will be able to push her. If it’s a new session, as challenging as it may be, I can see in her face the determination … ‘Well, OK, I’m going to show you I can do this.’”

Near the end of the show, Jackson tells the audience she first performed at an MGM casino in Vegas as a 7-year-old with her brother Michael and her sisters.

The show appears to end with the title track of Rhythm Nation 1814 — the album she’s celebrating the 30th anniversary of. But Jackson still has three more songs left in her: “Morning,” “Doesn’t Really Matter” and “Made For Now.” On that digital screen, she’s draped in a gold material, and you can hear her son Eissa off-screen.

“Now she’s a mother and she’s still working, and she’s in Vegas. She’s touring around the world,” Sybliss said. “It really is incredible.”

A world premiere opera, ‘Blue,’ confronts the police shooting of a teenage boy A powerful new work is destined to join the American canon

There are stories that become part of the fabric of American culture, told, retold and reimagined many times over, like West Side Story, Porgy and Bess, and A Raisin in the Sun. In recent years, a number of storytellers have attempted to fold police shootings of black people into works that are similarly grand and timeless.

Few of those efforts have been so memorable, so unshakable, that they ascend to something more. Blue, a new opera that just had its world premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, may be the exception.

The show begins with The Mother (Briana Hunter, right) chatting with her Three Girlfriends about giving birth to a baby boy. The Girlfriends say America is no place to safely raise a black boy.

Connor Lange/The Glimmerglass Festival

The opera, by composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson, is a tragedy built on big themes: familial loyalty, race and regret. Blue tells the story of a black couple in Harlem and the death of their only son, who, as a teen, is shot and killed by a police officer (whose race is not specified). What’s more devastating is that the teen’s father is a police officer too. One of his colleagues killed his son.

Police violence provides a rich area for opera and theater in general. The tragedy of innocence and hope interrupted by untimely, unprovoked death works in the same way that consumption provides a common vehicle for life cut short in La Traviata, La Bohème and Les Contes D’Hoffman.

What makes Blue stand out is that it demands a place in the American operatic canon. Thompson and Tesori skillfully marry the traditions of opera with modern storytelling to create new archetypes, which is underscored by Thompson’s decision to keep his characters nameless. They are simply identified as The Father, The Mother and The Reverend, with supporting roles played by Three Girlfriends and Three Police Officer Buddies.

The show opens with The Mother (mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter) cupping her pregnant belly and chatting with her Three Girlfriends. She’s married a cop, much to their horror, and is about to give birth to a baby boy.

Her friends’ advice is morbid. They counsel her to have an abortion and try again for a girl. America, they say, is no place to safely raise a black boy. If she insists on having the kid, maybe raise him in China, where he won’t be seen as a threat before he even hits his 10th birthday.

But The Mother and The Father (bass baritone Kenneth Kellogg) carry on, making a home in Harlem for their little boy, who quickly grows into a teen questioning how and why he ended up with a cop for a father.

Aaron Crouch (right) stars as The Son and is well-aware of how he’s perceived in the world. He’s angry and full of resentment toward his cop father (Kenneth Kellogg, left).

Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Tesori’s orchestrations hum with the aural signatures of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, two composers who shaped the sound of Americana. But Tesori also uses Blue to expand definitions of the quintessential American sound by including a few bars from Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” in a scene where The Son (tenor Aaron Crouch) is arguing with The Father. The Son provides yet another variation on Bigger Thomas, updated for 2019. This time, he’s a middle-class skater punk. Costume designer Jessica Jahn has kitted The Son in the Gen Z aesthetic of the newly woke: a plaid shirt, a Thrasher hoodie, ripped jeans, DC sneakers and, most notably, a half-shorn head topped with dreadlocks à la Erik Killmonger.

Blue centers on one big conflict. In The Son’s bedroom, The Father and his teenage progeny engage in a well-worn argument. The Son, hyperaware of how race colors the way he is perceived in the world, is a simmering cauldron of anger and resentment directed toward his cop father. He can’t understand why his father would choose to earn a living by contributing to the mass incarceration system that disproportionately targets black and brown people.

Sings The Son:

That’s exactly what I am.

Endangered species.

Black men brought into this world as white people’s fodder. For labor and for sport.

Go so far but no further.

But we keep multiplying and climbing and advancing. Now they can’t get rid of us fast enough.

The Father has more immediate concerns: providing for his family, and keeping his son safe. He tells him:

Stay alive.

That’s what you’re supposed to do.

Look at you.

Dressed like somebody’s damn Gypsy.

Get a haircut, pull up your pants, remove the jewelry.

Take off the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie.

The generational divide between parent and son over race and respectability, especially with regard to police violence, is a common trope at this point. Thematically, Blue has a lot in common with the Broadway play American Son and the third season of Queen Sugar, which both feature teen boys pushing back against the way their parents choose to navigate race and prejudice in America. Jamal, the never-seen son in American Son, and Micah West (Nicholas L. Ashe) hate the politics of respectability and actively rebel against them.

They reject their parents’ accommodationist tactics for dealing with white supremacy. In American Son, it’s Jamal’s father, Scott (Steven Pasquale), who has faith in the American judicial system. In the most recent season of Queen Sugar, Micah finds himself at odds with his mother, Charley (Dawn Lyen-Gardner), who wants to repair a broken system from within. Micah, by contrast, wants to set the whole system ablaze.

In all three stories, the parents must face the fact that they are helpless when it comes to protecting their sons from state violence. Their sons see their attempts as capitulations to white supremacy. Normal family squabbles, like the emotional distance between a stoic, conservatively masculine father and his radical son, get complicated and even more hurtful.

In Blue, The Son sings:

If you struck me

or put your arms around me …

Just once …

I’d begin to know there was a human being inside that blue clown suit — who imagines he’s my father.

A black man.

In blue.

Pathetic!

Kellogg, Crouch and Hunter make for a powerful trio of voices, and when Hunter disappears for nearly a third of the opera, it’s impossible not to wonder if Thompson forgot about her. The argument between The Father and The Son is momentous, and The Mother’s absence prompts a question: What is her role when it comes to the ideological rift between the two most important people in her life? The stage goes black with The Father embracing his son as he stews with teenage rancor. When the lights come back up after intermission, The Son is dead and The Father is sitting with The Reverend (Gordon Hawkins), trying to process the guilty ache his son’s homicide has created.

Kenneth Kellogg as The Father is trying to process the guilty ache his son’s homicide has created.

Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

But Thompson, who also directs the production, is not forgetful, merely strategic. A flashback in the third act hinges on The Mother’s role as nurturer, caregiver and peacekeeper. It also takes a largely predictable plot someplace devastating. Thompson fashions The Mother, The Father and The Son into a new black Everyfamily. Their pain can be easily projected onto so many parents, whom we come to know when the worst moments of their lives become hashtags and images of their slain children echo across the internet.

The story of Blue crystalizes a horrifying event, the killing of an unarmed black child and the extinguishing of hope and innocence, while its score never lets its audience forget that this, too, is part of the American tradition.

HBO’s ‘Euphoria’ is awash in teen nudity, drugs and sex. But listen to what it has to say. The new Drake-produced drama shows us a grimy reality of Gen Z we’d rather pretend doesn’t exist

If any subject has been mined to death in American film and television, it’s the idea that everything is not idyllic in the American suburbs.

Somehow, though, Sam Levinson, the creator and director of Euphoria, found a spark of life within that theme. His new teen drama, based on an Israeli series of the same name, premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO, and it’s already stirring up condemnation and panic thanks to its copious and graphic depictions of teen sex, drug use and self-harm.

I’ve seen the first four episodes of the season, and the first and fourth are especially terrific. The Drake-produced show centers on a biracial 16-year-old named Rue (Zendaya), who spent the summer before her junior year in rehab. Born three days after 9/11, Rue’s witnessed the 2008 financial crisis and her father dying of cancer. Before she started experimenting with the hard drugs that came with her father’s in-home hospice care, Rue was on a cocktail of prescription meds for anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder. She was a veteran pill popper by the time she’d entered middle school. Her best friend, Jules (Hunter Schafer), is new to town, and the two girls become fast friends after meeting at a party. Jules also happens to be a transgender girl.

Born three days after 9/11, Rue has witnessed the 2008 financial crisis and her father dying of cancer.

Eddy Chen/HBO

“There’s nothing I’m really passionate about, ya know? Like, I’m not dying to say or do anything, really, and every time I admit that to people, they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s so sad,’ ” Rue admits to a friend at one of her Narcotics Anonymous meetings, the one person who clocks that she’s still high even as she’s proclaiming to be clean. “But I think that’s the case for most people. Like, when I look at my mom, or the kids at my school — like their profiles or their posts or their Tumblr rants — you realize they’re all just f—ed up too. And lost. They just have a reason to mask it. Whether it be like their families, or their boyfriends, or their hashtag activism.”

As Rue astutely observes, the others in her community have their own issues, which fall along a spectrum of teen drama tropes. Jacob Elordi plays Nate, a jock who falls for a girl who’s inappropriate for the strictures of his highly scrutinized social life. As Kat, Barbie Ferreira is a nerdy, horny girl who writes One Direction fan fiction on Tumblr and tries to reclaim some control over her body after footage of her losing her virginity gets uploaded to Pornhub. There’s a nighttime carnival where everyone’s lives collide in predictable ways. But, boy, is it engrossing to watch how all of these things are colored by the fact that they’re happening to Generation YouTube.

What’s equally fascinating and disturbing about Euphoria is that it’s not set in a vaguely medieval universe full of giants, dragons and ice zombies. Its purview is suburban America, right now, and it’s not a pretty sight.

There’s been a spate of engaging, fun, sometimes thoughtful portraits of youth culture lately, including On My Block, Sex Education and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which are streaming on Netflix. The delightfully cringey PEN15 is on Hulu. Olivia Wilde’s movie Booksmart features two high school seniors dipping a toe for one night into the behaviors that are practically standard on Euphoria. Kay Cannon’s 2018 comedy Blockers encouraged parents to have more faith in their daughters’ ability to make intelligent decisions, especially about sex, by making them look like hovering, panicked idiots. Soapy teen dramas of the 2000s such as Gossip Girl, The OC and Friday Night Lights came equipped with a content restrictor plate by virtue of being broadcast network properties, as does the contemporary Riverdale, which airs on The CW.

Euphoria is different. It isn’t interested in the kids who have a cushy mattress of family wealth and acceptance to elite schools to soften whatever tourist jaunts they take through the valley of bad decisions. The security blanket of these other films and shows is that they tend to have happy endings. They’re full of girls who find their way back to sensible decision-making. And there was never a question that the feckless boy stoners in Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared would somehow stumble through life without too many Big Problems.

Euphoria is more like Kids, the 1995 film starring Rosario Dawson, Chloë Sevigny and Leo Fitzpatrick that scandalized audiences so much, the MPAA smacked it with an NC-17 rating.

The friendship between Jules (Hunter Schafer, left) and Rue (Zendaya, right) is the show’s strongest feature.

Eddy Chen/HBO

Rather than simply being scandalized by the sex and drug use on Euphoria, viewers could take a breath and ask what its presence is telling us about the world of these teens. To borrow an example from another genre, both rape and consensual sex on Game of Thrones reflected the patriarchal nature of the Seven Kingdoms. They were depicted as natural consequences of the way gender functioned there: Women were dismissed and assumed to be either unworthy or incapable of holding power. Even female characters who escape gender-based violence, such as Arya Stark, Cersei Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, are shaped by the atmosphere that harbors it.

What’s equally fascinating and disturbing about Euphoria is that it’s not set in a vaguely medieval universe full of giants, dragons and ice zombies. Its purview is suburban America, right now, and it’s not a pretty sight. Right alongside the existence of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Warren, the heroines who inspire the dutiful good girls of Booksmart, there’s a country full of kids who simply are not all right, and the sex in Euphoria is symptomatic of that.

The show’s female characters find themselves feebly objecting to boys whose entire expectations around sex have been shaped by Pornhub and similar sites. That’s life for Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie) and her bestie, Cassie Howard (Sydney Sweeney). I appreciate the consideration given to Cassie and Maddy in this series. Often, girls like them are dismissed as vain, airheaded sociopaths, and few seem interested in examining how the world made them that way in the first place.

In one telling moment in episode four, Cassie and Maddy meet up at the carnival. “Hey, you’re not having fun,” Maddy observes, after her boyfriend has admonished her for dressing “like a hooker.” “Me neither,” she continues, before blithely adding, “You wanna do molly?”

Cassie and Maddy aren’t high-flying, Yale-bound overachievers who read Rookie and fill in their meager sex ed with actual facts from Scarleteen. They’re both dating football players, and they have subsisted on a steady diet of contradictory messages telling them to be sexy but not slutty, cool but not careless, and that the best thing they can hope to be is hot. That ideology is upheld by their parents. Amy Poehler’s comedic take on the Juicy Couture-sporting, chardonnay-guzzling Cool Mom in Mean Girls has been supplanted by something much darker in Euphoria. Cassie’s Cool Mom is either oblivious or in denial about what’s happening in her daughter’s life.

Options are limited for girls like Cassie and Maddy. They can disengage from the social strata of high school or find a way to cope. Coping, in this universe, means reclaiming agency in bits and pieces and telling yourself that the decisions you’re making are your own, even when they’ve been shaped by a culture that has little regard for you. You concoct ways to make yourself matter: by having public sex in a swimming pool to make your boyfriend jealous, by participating in a beauty culture ruled by Instagram influencers and butt injections.

That is what powers the show through its equal-opportunity nudity. I have seen more penises in four hours of Euphoria than I have encountered in 30 years of television-watching. But none of this matters if the show isn’t any good. Penises and a plethora of scary-sounding street pharmaceuticals will only hold an audience’s attention for so long.

Levinson, thankfully, is interested in more than that. He opens each episode by focusing on a different character. Zendaya, as Rue, is an omniscient narrator for these sketches. Her delivery is flat without being monotonous, like a person who’s seen too much and is already, like, over it. Rue’s barometer for what constitutes normalcy is not like yours and mine, and yet Zendaya’s line reading goes a long way toward making you believe that maybe it’s not that far off.

The friendship between Jules and Rue is the show’s strongest feature. They’ve both been forced to grow up fast, in ways they’re ill-equipped to handle, and they are the ports in each other’s storms. I’m eager to see what the show does as its big secrets reverberate through the community it’s built. Moreover, I’m hoping that folks can see past the condemnations of its nudity and drug use, which are really unfulfilling escapes from the Age of Anxiety and a societal mess that’s been decades in the making.

DJ Khaled’s ‘Higher’ is a heartbreaking victory lap for Nipsey Hussle ‘Almost like church,’ the song is part history lesson, part manifesto

Back in March, a smirk flashed across Nipsey Hussle’s face. Pictures of him and DJ Khaled in the studio had surfaced on social media. The two had known each other for some time, even joining an investment group last year in an attempt to purchase the luxury Viceroy Santa Monica hotel. But how would a collaboration between the two sound, he was asked on Power 106’s The Cruz Show.

“It’s crazy,” Hussle said. “It’s like a real album favorite, you know what I’m saying? It’s one of them ones I think you gon’ appreciate the album for.”

Three weeks later, Hussle would be gunned down in front of his Marathon Clothing store near the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson in Los Angeles. Hussle’s death reverberated worldwide. Former President Barack Obama wrote a letter read to mourners at his funeral, a massive gathering held at the Staples Center in his hometown of Los Angeles. In the month and a half since Hussle’s death, he has become almost a religious figure in hip-hop. He was a man who stayed, in his words, “10 toes down” to the community that he not only represented and believed in, but also invested time, money and, most importantly, his soul in.

That was the background when a flood of new music and projects invaded streaming services on May 17, including Megan Thee Stallion’s Fever, Tyler, The Creator’s IGOR and Chance the Rapper’s “GRoCERIES.” Yet another project, Khaled’s Father of Asahd, carried with it a sense of wistfulness. Not just because the typically loquacious Miami-based DJ adopted a reserved approach for the album’s rollout. But also because it includes a cut called “Higher,” a collaboration with himself, singer John Legend and Hussle — the first new work from the rapper since his death.

Khaled announced a day before the album came out that Hussle’s death had changed the energy behind the album. “Higher” “reminds us that vibrating on a higher level was the essence of Nipsey’s soul,” Khaled wrote in a statement posted on Instagram. All of the song’s revenue, he said, would go to Hussle’s children, Emani and Kross.

Before his death, Hussle stressed the record and the visual’s importance. It wasn’t intended to be a No. 1 record. But “Higher” would undoubtedly resonate in a way no Khaled record had before. “It almost sounds like church,” he said.

With Hussle decked in a fitted blue satin shirt and pants, his angelic aura in the visual for “Higher” is no coincidence. Though not as morbid as Tupac Shakur’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” video — like “Higher,” the last one Shakur filmed before his death — it is part history lesson and part manifesto.

“My granny had 13 pregnancies and has two kids. She had 11 miscarriages from my uncle to my mom,” Hussle revealed earlier this year. “She was just telling me, ‘Imagine if I would have gave up on my 10th miscarriage, my ninth miscarriage.’ … I never thought about it. I wouldn’t be here. You can never repay your mom, your granny, with material s—. You gotta repay them with standing up in life, being something they could be proud of.”

Even through the pain his grandmother endured, he was a product of her faith. Her relentlessness. Her pride. Her love. “My granny 88, she had my uncle and them/ A miscarriage back-to-back every year for like 10,” Hussle raps on “Higher.” “Pregnant with my moms, doctor told her it was slim / Was bed rode for nine months, but gave birth in the end.”

A sense of peace amid chaos looms over “Higher.” It is apt, too, considering the concern expressed by Hussle’s team on the day of the video shoot at an Inglewood parking structure in late March. Security was added to prevent an attack on Hussle, TMZ reported. Whatever tumultuous energy surrounded him that day, Hussle appeared to handle it with street-savvy grace.

DJ Khaled reveals the official cover for his new album Father of Asahd while visiting Extra at the Levi’s Store Times Square on May 15 in New York City.

Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Maturity isn’t necessarily a product of age. Instead, maturity evolves through life experiences and how a person chooses to grow. Careening through his parents’ love story into his own with actress Lauren London, he says on “Higher”:

“Pops turned 60, he proud what we done / In one generation, he came from Africa young / He said he met my moms at the Century Club / Los Angeles love kinda like Hussle and Boog / Mani turned 10, Kross turned 2 / Startin’ to see this life s— from a bird’s view.”

That evolving sophistication, akin to what happened with Biggie Smalls, is a painful musical “what if” he leaves behind.

“[Nipsey and I] used to talk. We gotta go. We don’t know if we gon’ go at 80, 60, 30 or 20. But the one thing is to make sure when you go, you go the right way,” Samiel “Blacc Sam” Asghedom, Hussle’s older brother, said, fighting back tears at the funeral last month. “You stand up for what you believe in.”

The edict the Asghedom brothers lived by is at the heart of both the song and the video for “Higher.” From the obvious gospel influences to Legend’s mammoth presence and the video’s references — the 25-second mark symbolizes the gates of South Central heaven in the form of his partners in the street opening up as Hussle, back turned, stares at a bright beam of light — the song feels Hussle’s entrance into the same heavenly ghetto his idol Shakur once eulogized.

“South Central state of mind, high crime rate / Homicide, hate, gang banging’ll get you all day” — Hussle forecast the environment he grew up around and died attempting to shift the narrative it carried. But not before the song’s hardest-hitting and most painful bar: “And look at my fate.” Unless other tracks are tucked away, those are the last words we’ll ever see Hussle spit in a music video. It’s inspiring, yet chilling. Stirring, yet macabre. “Higher” is a fitting connection to a life whose spirit will loom over hip-hop, the home turf that now bears his name and a promise he made only months earlier.

“I’d just like to have laid the blueprint down that other people could follow that come from similar situations,” Hussle said of how he wanted to be remembered. “Elevated my team, my family, myself and inspired [others]. [That] would be the most important thing looking back 10 years from now.”

“Lookin’ back at my life make my heart race / Dance with the devil and test our faith, he waxes. I was thinkin’ chess moves but it was God’s grace.” “Higher” feels like the soundtrack that accompanied Hussle into the afterlife.

“Higher” is a beautiful reminder of who Hussle was as a man and artist, and also a tragic reminder of the reality he leaves behind. The first release from a deceased artist, in particular one slain in the manner Hussle was, is always a unique experience. There’s a human desire to have one last conversation with a loved one who has died. In the days after Hussle’s death, his music streams increased by nearly 2,000 percent. But moving forward, this is the new normal. We watch Nipsey while Nipsey presides over the marathon he mandated continues even without him.