Pellom

My grandfather I barely knew
His memory washed away with the absence of
my father
His identity a mystery until my adult years

Now I stand over a gravesite that gives no
Indications of his ever living
Of our existence
Of our name

-- Pellom McDaniels III, My Beginning

There is nothing in sports -- nothing in life, I suspect -- quite like an NFL locker room after a game. The joy after a victory, the gloom after a loss, yes, these are deeply familiar, they are a part of all postgame locker rooms and clubhouses across all sports. But the pain? The lingering rage? The air of invincibility? The brokenness? That’s particular to the NFL. 

I have never known quite what to do or quite where to go in that locker room after games. The best reporters work the room like Sherlock Holmes, bouncing from one lead to another until they can unravel the mystery of the game. More of us move in packs for safety and ask the most amiable and harshest questions in the most benign ways we can how such as, “Wow, can you describe what you saw on that 93-yard run?” or “It looked like the defensive back might have interfered with you when you dropped that pass in the end zone, is that how you saw it?”

Every now and again though, if you’re lucky, you can find a little magic in an NFL locker room.

It is where I met Pellom McDaniels.

Pellom was a backup linebacker and defensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs in the mid-1990s. If you want to talk about his football playing, he mostly backed up the Chiefs’ Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas. He played very hard -- coaches routinely praised his “motor” -- but he lacked the pure speed and sheer ferocity it takes to play every down. He had gone undrafted out of college. 

I am not entirely sure what led to our first conversation. My suspicion is that it had something to do with timing. As a reporter, when you first get down to the locker room, none of the game’s principal actors are there. They are off showering and getting massages and cooling off and getting their heads together and just plain avoiding the crowds. Who can blame them? But there is usually a scattered collection of backups who are already dressing, and it’s as likely as anything else that I just struck up a conversation with Pellom (or he struck one up with me) to pass the time.

He told me something that I had never heard from an athlete before or since: He told me that he was only playing football so that he could make a difference in people’s lives. That was it. He liked football fine. But there was a higher purpose for him.

Pellom had a pretty good job coming out of Oregon State -- he worked for Procter & Gamble in health and beauty care. That wasn’t what he wanted to do, no, but neither was football. Pellom was a poet, a writer, an artist, an inventor, a historian, a researcher, he had so many ambitions and talents swirling around inside him. There was no one box that could hold him.

Football, though, had always led him forward. Football had inflamed his imagination as a boy without a father; he was enthralled by the violence of Oakland’s ferocious Lyle Alzado play (Pellom wore 77 in Alzado’s honor). Football had gotten him a scholarship to Oregon State where he graduated with a degree in Fine Arts and was second-team all-Pac-10. He had this feeling that pro football could carry him closer to where his life was meant to lead.

So he began playing for the Birmingham Fire in the World League of American Football. He put on 30-pounds of muscle, which led to a couple of NFL tryouts. He didn’t make the Philadelphia Eagles, but he kept at it. The Kansas City Chiefs called and he became an NFL player. He had some good moments on the field. He played on some very good defenses.

But that was all secondary. Once he got to the NFL, he realized exactly why his instincts had led him there. As an NFL player, he had a platform to do the things that his heart sought. He could run a writing program for kids at the public library, and they would actually come because he was a football player. He could start the “Pellom and I Like Art” program and spur creativity inside children. 

“What makes you feel free?” he would ask them.

He could speak out on the haunting beauty of 18th and Vine, which had once been the center of African American culture in Kansas City, and try to bring some of that wonder back. He could write a book of poetry and publish it. He could invent a dental product called “Dr. Brizzly,” to make going to the dentist a bit less painful and scary and sell it. He could write a book called “So You Want to Be a Pro?” where he would talk to kids about using their sports skills to become a professional -- not only in sports (where, he wrote, the odds are against you) but in life.

He could eventually go to Emory and get his Masters and then his doctorate in American Studies. In time, he became a husband, a father, a professor, a painter, a poet, a biographer, an activist, an artist, a curator of the African American collections at Emory. He, perhaps more than anyone I’ve ever known, followed his heart wherever it led. 

No, you don’t run into many people like that, not in NFL locker rooms and not anywhere else.

In time, we became friends -- my wife Margo and I, Pellom and his wonderful wife Navvab -- and we would go to dinners or breakfasts, and when we were together we talked about life, we talked about our kids who are about the same age, and we talked about faith, and we talked about race, and we talked about baseball, and we talked about hope. The one thing we never really talked about was football. t had served its purpose in his life.

One day he gave us a copy of his book “Harlem My Own,” -- the book where the poem on top comes from. We already had a copy but he wanted us to have a special one with an inscription. Inside he wrote: “To the Posnanski’s, Our Time to Dream.”

Our time to dream.

Our lives took us in different directions. He built his in Atlanta with Navvab and their two children. I would think to reach out to him whenever I heard of some honor he’d received, some award he’d won, some incredible thing he’d achieved, and shamefully I would forget or something else would come up. I would check his Facebook page now and think to reach out to him but I would get distracted. I never doubted that our paths would cross again. Such is the blindness of daily life.

Sunday, I got a text that he’d died suddenly at age 52. There are no words other than those from Navvab. “When people asked me about Pellom McDaniels III,” she wrote, “I always smiled and said, ‘I really admire him.’” Yes. That was it. I admired him. Everybody did.