Miller’s fillers: tattoos and history

Von Miller has always been a prankster. They didn’t name his position at Texas A&M for his senior year Joker just for football reasons. His locker room antics and infectious grin are as much a part of him as his incredible ability to get low cutting around linemen. It’s just natural to him and who he is.

Miller recently put that sense of humor to work in getting a series of tattoos which included Pac-Man, a slice of watermelon, a dollar sign, a fried chicken drumstick and a Pac-Man ghost which he described as a ‘hater’. What I got from reading about it and listening to what he had to say was that Miller was making fun of those who pigeonhole others by race. He’s never minded getting a little attention for his antics - to him, this is no different.

Me? I’m a white guy, originally from Chicago, a city where one street is named ‘Division’ because for over a century and a half, blacks didn’t dare go above that street unless they were cleaning houses or clearing garbage. Race was a huge issue when I was younger. It went both ways, too - when I was at college, there was a dog visiting one of the dorms I lived it. I petted its head as I passed, and one of the group that was hanging out there yelled, “Bite that honky, dog!”. The rest of them laughed. They’d had worse aimed at them and probably just saw it as ‘giving some back’. Those kinds of incidents were common between whites and blacks, and neither was more to blame than the other.

But later, I taught at that same university. At about the same time, I was asked by a fellow named Chuck Freeman (who turned out to be Redd Foxx’s nephew and a talented comedian in his own right - Chuck opened with a comedy act for Earth, Wind & Fire for a time) if I’d come down to a dojo (training hall) on the South Side of the city to help train some students - all males, all black. I was glad to - Chuck was a longtime friend of my own teacher, had become a friend of mine, was a hell of a person and at that point, I was accumulating all the mat time I could find. Teaching was something I already loved, and any chance to do so was fine with me. I put a lot of miles on the car that year, but I had one of the experiences of a lifetime.

When i first arrived at the ‘school’, it turned out to be the upstairs of a former church, two doors down from the headquarters of the El Rukn street gang. They were formerly the Blackstone Rangers and now a haven for drug sales, guns and violence. 44th and Drexel, the nearest corner, was the center of a burned out urban ghetto, replete with the vacant houses and matching expressions of people who often lived without a vestige of hope in their lives, trying to maintain some form of hard-scrabble survival in a world gone to hell around them.

Several of my new students came out to welcome me at the car - I thought it was a very nice gesture until I realized that they were pointing to folks up and down the street to let them know that I wasn’t to be harmed or disturbed. Since I was driving an exploding 1975 Pinto with Firestone 500 exploding tires, we weren’t all that worried about the car. Even there, no one wanted the thing. Turning on the ignition required an act of spiritual faith. At a tavern two blocks north of Wrigley Field, I once saw scrawled on a restroom wall “I cried because i had no shoes, until I met a man with no brake lights on his Pinto”. It was like that. Once I took a wrong turn, and a very young black boy playing in a dirt yard pointed to me and yelled loudly,

“Mama! Look at that honky, down here! He crazy!” And in truth, I probably was.

But the group of men that I’d taken on were unlike anyone that I’ve had the pleasure of teaching before or since. I was teaching them a somewhat obscure martial art. When they’d decided to study it, they pooled all of their savings, gave it to the oldest of them and chartered a plane to Japan, where they lived with the Soke (founder) of the system and studied with him 6-10 hours a day until the money ran out. They were among the most decent, hardworking, warmest people that I’ve ever met. And race was clearly not an issue to them - a fact of life, certainly, but I was there as Sensei, teacher, and the term carries a level of respect that each of us took seriously. I was instructed not to take the train to within a couple of blocks of that site - I’d never get to the school alive. But once inside, on the mat, I’ve never known people who worked harder, smiled more or brought a more intrinsic sense of dignity to whatever it was they were doing.

I had the honor of becoming friends with several of them, and at times we talked about the world around us and the strangeness of the bigotry and hatred that existed on both sides. What I found was that they felt an honest sense of pity for those of any color who were so imprisoned by their upbringings or prejudice that they were incapable of meeting another person just on his own merits. They didn’t consider themselves poor - they just didn’t have much money. They had a deep sense of personal pride and dedication, though, which was worth a thousand times more than gold.  During my second month there, one of the El Rukn decided to come by and kibitz the honky. He was met at the door by two of my larger students and after a brief and softly spoken conversation he removed his shoes, bowed respectfully as he stepped in and sat quietly in a corner for almost an hour before leaving the same way - bowing first to me, then to the class, after which he stepped out, put on his shoes and went on his way. For a long time, we left each other peacefully alone.

During that time, I learned more about their small, local culture and their feelings on life in general than most whites probably get a chance to experience. They believed that the state of a man’s heart far outweighed the color of his skin: that his personal accomplishments and character meant more than any outward characteristic. On the rare occasions that a job or family issue conflicted with a class or caused a student to be late, the student came in, apologized, did an extra 100 push-ups on the back of their wrists without comment and warmed up before asking permission to step into the class. I can only recall one time that race was spoken of in anything other than philosophical terms - a young man who had just won his first black belt came into class as a visitor, and as Chuck and I were getting dressed, he went on to explain to us how things really were in life. He was 15 years my junior, and between us, Chuck and I had around fifteen black belts, but we listened quietly to him, and after he left, Chuck turned to me with a twinkle in his eyes and commented, “Well, all honkies ain’t white.” And I laughed.

I saw, during that time, the desperation that people lived with in that tormented area. Drunks squatted in burned out buildings. Drug dealers ruled the corners, and violence roamed the streets, day and night. Within that building, though, there was nothing but respect for elders, teachers and education;  respect for anyone who put his life to good use and contributed to the community, raw and unstable as it was. I developed a deeper sense of respect for those students as men - neither black nor white, but as deeply human. All blood is red. As unpopular as it’s often become in these days - it reaffirmed in me that we are all our brothers’ keepers. It’s convenient to forget. It’s also essential that we don’t.

After about a year, one incident would change the entire course of that experience. As I was driving away from the school after a particularly enjoyable class, a deer rifle was pointed out the window of the El Rukn’s HQ at me. It followed my car down the street until I took the next turn and breathed a sigh of relief. I called some of my students, and asked them about the situation. All had the same response - it was meant as a warning, and it was one that I needed to take very seriously. My passport to that world had been revoked by the same bigoted ignorance that the men in that class stood so firmly against.

What Von Miller does with his own skin is his own business, and I won’t make it mine. His sense of humor is legendary at Texas A&M, and I think that he’s honestly making fun of the fact that he loves chicken - to the point of planning to raise them - and that he refuses to be categorized or defined by hatred. In that, I fully support and endorse him.

But I also have to wonder what the men of that class would have had to say to him. Would they have simply smiled and ignored it as the actions of youth? Talked about what they and their families had gone through to give him an insight into why the tattoo has stirred up some feelings on different sides of the racial aisle? Spoken of history? Laughed with him? All of the above?

I’ll never know. I don’t think that Miller means anything of deep consideration with his new tats. He’s a young man with a wide streak of laughter in him. I’m not black, I don’t live in his world, and I don’t know the man - what I know of him is that he liked living alone during college, listens to a lot of different kinds of music in his spare time, likes raising chickens (which his education has prepared him for after football), and that he calls the coaches and front office ‘Sir’ and ‘Mister’, as in ‘Mr. Elway’. He’s inherently polite, a hard worker, a team-first player, has a ready smile and plays like a demon. Beyond that, I don’t have a judgment to make. It’s surely not my place.

But I do wonder if he knows what came before - what it took to reach where we are now, and how much that still means to many of the people of all colors around the country. Perhaps this is his way of pointing out that the ‘haters’ can’t touch his consciousness - he can laugh at the so-called symbols of race. A lot of good people of many races gave up parts of their lives or even made the ultimate sacrifice for that to happen, though. I love that he can laugh at the absurdity of the world around him. I just hope that he knows what it took for him to get that chance.

He probably does. All the best to him.


Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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