BALTIMORE — To help students avoid crippling college debt, former United Parcel Service executive and Morgan State University alumnus Calvin Tyler is increasing his $5 million commitment to his alma mater by $15 million to fund academic scholarships.
The expanded Calvin and Tina Tyler Endowment Scholarship Fund, created in 2002 to offer scholarships for Baltimore students, will now be used to attract students from around the country to a university eager to distinguish itself as a premier research institution, the university recently announced.
“A lot of young people in Baltimore and throughout the country are in need of help right now,” said Tyler. “Putting them further in debt through the reliance on government loans is just not the answer. Getting a college degree and graduating without debt is something that we think is very important.”
Student demographics suggest that nearly every Morgan student will, in the form of partial or full tuition scholarships, be impacted by the increased funds. Of the approximately 8,000 students currently attending the university, 90 percent receive some type of financial assistance.
“Forty-five percent qualify for Pell Grants, federal assistance to support students, at various level based on family support, and about 30 percent of that 45 percent are eligible for maximum benefits,” said Morgan State President David Wilson. “Thousands of students will be impacted for decades and decades to come.”
Wilson said he “literally dropped the phone” when the Tylers informed him that they wanted to raise their commitment to the university.
“When I was having the conversation with Calvin, and he said that he and Tina wanted to make a larger investment, I went quiet, because he doesn’t think in increments of a million dollars,” said Wilson. “We talked about the impact of COVID-19 in the community they come from and how it’s stressful under normal circumstances, and now students have to do three times more. He told me they wanted to do everything they can to ease the loan burden, so students could taste the magic of a Morgan State University education.”
“My wife and I have become keenly aware of the effect that the pandemic has had on a number of young people trying to get an education,” said Tyler. “We have the resources to help a lot of young people … through our endowed scholarship plan. It’s not so much that we’re supporting Morgan, it’s more that we are supporting Baltimore … Baltimore is our hometown, it’s where we’re from.”
Forced to drop out of Morgan in 1963 due to a lack of money to complete his own degree in business administration, Tyler became one of the first 10 black drivers for UPS in 1964. He closed out his career with the package delivery company as senior vice president of operations, retiring in 1998 and taking a seat on its board of directors. Tyler’s company stock options and board compensations make up the bulk of his benefactor’s wealth, according to Wilson.
“Calvin was a hard worker who has made his money work for him,” Wilson said. “He didn’t come up through diversity programs or human resources, though no slight on those organizations. At one point, he was literally the chief operating officer for a major corporation.”
Morgan’s emergence as a top research university
Morgan State University has a long history as one of four historically black colleges and universities in Maryland. Founded as Centenary Biblical Institute in 1867 to train young men in the ministry, it was renamed Morgan College in 1890 in honor of Rev. Lyttleton Morgan, its first trustee board chairman.
The school remained a private institution until 1939, when it was purchased by the state to provide more opportunities for black residents. In 1975, the school gained university status and expanded its offerings to include several doctoral programs.
Today, Morgan has 12 colleges, schools and institutes, with curricula that includes liberal arts, engineering, architecture and planning, social work, global journalism and communications. In 2007, by virtue of its growth among doctoral-granting institutions, Morgan was classified as “doctoral research institution” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Ten years later, the university was designated by the Maryland General Assembly as the state’s “preeminent public urban research university.”
Together with Bowie State University, Coppin State University and University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Morgan State University is an engine that drives both the state and national economies, according a United Negro College Fund report, “HBCUs Make America Strong: The Positive Economic Impact of Maryland’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” released in 2017. Maryland HBCUs, said the report, generate $1 billion in total economic impact and account for more than 9,300 jobs and $9.5 billion in lifetime earnings among its graduates.
With the Tyler endowment, the largest private donation from an alumnus in university history, and a $40 million gift in 2020 from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott, Morgan State is now reaping the benefits of a reputation that was decades in the making.
“These investments show what we’ve known all along,” Wilson said. “Morgan is a serious institution that is turning out the best talent in the country in a period of immense innovation. Philanthropists are buying into the notion that, if they want a significant return on their investment, Morgan is the first option to consider.”
“MacKenzie Scott was vetting us from afar, the Tylers were vetting us from up close because Dr. Wilson has been able to establish a great relationship with them,” said Donna Howard, Morgan State’s vice president for institutional advancement. “But both gifts show that we passed muster as they considered their giving. These two gifts show them to be deeply embedded in altruism and wanting their wealth to have a positive and transformational impact on our students, their families and our communities.”
Washington, D.C. native Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson epitomizes Black history during a month when we remember historic African-American figures and their accomplishments.
Johnson achieved greatness inside the boxing ring. He became the first African-American fighter to win a world title at both flyweight (112 pounds) and super flyweight (115 pounds). He capped an illustrious 16-year career with a record of 44 wins and 5 losses, with 28 of those wins coming via knockout.
A slick southpaw known for his elusive style and defensive prowess, Johnson often made opponents miss and he made them pay. Johnson typically pounced on mistakes made by his opponents. He earned his alias “Too Sharp” by wasting few punches and making every shot thrown count.
In 2012, he would reach the pinnacle of the boxing world when he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as one of the greatest “little guys” to ever lace up a pair of boxing gloves.
Zenger News caught up with Johnson to discuss his ascension from amateur to pro, why he felt he was blackballed by the sport and why he didn’t feel validated until his Hall of Fame induction.
Percy Crawford interviewed Mark Johnson for Zenger News.
Zenger News: I wanted to go back to your amateur career and how you got started in boxing.
Johnson: I got into boxing… my brother was one of the top flyweights in the world – James Harris. He lost to Paul Gonzalez in the ’84 Olympic Trials, Michael Carbajal in the ’88 Olympic Trials and Eric Griffin in the ’92 Trials. Me and my brother was real tight, even though we were five years apart. That’s what got me into boxing. Coming up at the age of 14 and 15, I won the Junior Olympics twice. In the Junior Olympics, I beat Tim Austin. Both of us had won it the year before, so I beat Tim Austin the second year.At the age of 16, I won the Golden Gloves. I beat Tim Austin and Eric Griffin in ’88 to go to the Olympic Trials. I was the youngest fighter in the Olympic Trials at the age of 15 years old. Me and my brother was at the same weight class, 106 pounds. Both of us got to the semifinals; I lost to Eric Griffin. He tested positive for a banned substance, and they were supposed to reinstate me to fight the winner of my brother and Michael Carbajal. But of course, with the politics of USA Boxing, they said they wasn’t going to give us the opportunity to do it two times. My brother lost to Michael Carbajal, and Carbajal went to the ’88 Trials.
Zenger: Was it difficult to make the decision to go pro, and what made you decide to turn pro when you did?
Johnson: It was a tough decision. When I was rated No. 1 in the world, USA Boxing never called me for the Goodwill Games, never called me for the World Games. … They never called me for nothing. So, I felt like I was being blackballed. As the No.1 guy, they never called me for nothing. I turned pro, and my first fight I beat a guy that I had beat in the amateurs. My second fight, I lost to Richie Wenton from Belfast, Ireland. And Wenton went on to fight Marco Antonio Barrera. But yeah, I lost my second professional fight to Wenton.
Zenger: As a top amateur, to lose your second fight as a pro is unheard of, even though Wenton was a 5-0 fighter at the time. How did you overcome that and become a Hall of Fame fighter?
Johnson: I knew that just getting the right fights at the right time and just building the confidence back up – which is what we have to do with a lot of young fighters now – I knew that would get me right back. Once I got to 10-11 wins in a row, that’s when I was ready to go to the L.A. Forum. My first fight at the L.A. Forum, they didn’t even pay me. I paid my own way to the L.A. Forum. I paid for my own hotel. They didn’t even pay me for the fight. So, I knew that getting on the West Coast was the best thing for me. Also, when I came right back to L.A. for the second fight, I knew they would try to get me beat. I fought the No. 2 contender, Raton Jimenez. He had just lost to Muangchai Kittikasem for the WBC title. And I never went past six rounds. And they thought they were throwing me to the wolves; however, they were throwing him to the wolves. They didn’t know how good I was. I knew if I could just go 12 rounds, then I would be one of the top guys in the weight class.
Zenger: The highlight reels now suggest that you were this elusive defensive wizard – and you were that – but I feel you were so much more than that.
Johnson: I think I was a boxer-puncher. I feel like I could pretty much do everything in the ring. That’s why Cameron Dunkin, when he managed Danny Romero, I was Danny Romero’s No. 1 contender. He made Danny Romero give the belt up. I was Johnny Tapia’s No. 1 contender; he gave the belt up. I was No. 2 in the world in ’93 and didn’t get a title shot till ’96. So, that’s the politics of boxing when it came to Mark Johnson.
Zenger: You are the first African-American flyweight and super flyweight champion in the history of the sport. Did you know that when you were accomplishing those things or was it something you learned after the fact?
Johnson: I knew because I used to spar with Louis “Heidi” Curtis. He fought for the IBF title like two or three times. “Heidi” Curtis had fought Dave McAuley for the IBF title on the same show that I lost to Richie Wenton, so I started doing my homework right then and there. And I said, “You know what, this is what I wanna do!”
Zenger: Why do you think there is a shortage of African-American fighters in those lower divisions that you competed in? Do you think it’s just our bone structure and density or something else?
Johnson: I think our bone structure is different. I think now, we have a lot of great fighters in those lower weight classes, 122 on up. I think they have a lot of great young African-American fighters now. I tell all of ’em, as long as you can box and move, you got a great chance. If you can’t box and move, it’s going to be very difficult.
Zenger: What does it mean to you to have those landmarks of being the first African-American champion in those weight classes?
Johnson: Well, you know, to me, I don’t understand it and I don’t feel it because I’m from a city that don’t respect you for nothing. So, I think once things start to move forward, probably next year when I’m getting stuff into the African American Smithsonian Museum, then people will understand. But right now, with the pandemic going on, everything is messed up. I don’t want to be that guy, that unsung hero where everyone praises me when I’m gone. Praise me now. Not only have I accomplished the things that you mentioned, but I’m also the youngest fighter to go into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. These are accolades that fighters would die to have, and we have had fighters that lost their lives in the ring trying to get ’em. So, I’m very proud of the accomplishments that I have, but like I said, once again, coming from certain towns, certain cities, they don’t respect you for nothing.
Zenger: That’s crazy considering that the DMV is a boxing town. It’s crazy you don’t get the respect you deserve.
Johnson: I mean you gotta understand one thing, you had Sharmba Mitchell, William Joppy, Keith Holmes, [DeMarcus] “Chop Chop” Corley and Mark Johnson, all had world championships at the same time, as small as this city is. Even though Holmes and Joppy were promoted by Don [King], even with “Chop Chop” and Sharmba being promoted by Don, those fights should’ve happened.
Zenger: When you look at Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson’s career, would you say, underrated, underappreciated or do you feel like your time in the light just hasn’t arrived yet to get the credit you deserve?
Johnson: I say underrated, underappreciated. If I would’ve fought Michael Carbajal, if I would’ve fought [Humberto] ‘Chiquita’ Gonzalez when I told ‘Chiquita’ that if he won his fight, we would meet at 110, that I would beat him and I would give him his belts back. And he said he would fight me and that night, he lost to Saman Sorjaturong at the Forum. When Danny Romero and Johnny Tapia fought, I was there. I had a sign in the audience that said, “Can I Play? Can I Get Next?” They made me take the sign down. So, everything that they did to African- American smaller fighters – HBO and Showtime – they didn’t do to Latino fighters and fighters that came from overseas because they knew that African-Americans – we want to get paid for the work that we do. A lot of those guys were just taking pennies on the dollar. At that point in time, I would’ve took pennies on the dollar to get the right fights. I think if I would’ve gotten the right fights, then of course, Mark Johnson would be a household name. I know for a fact I would’ve beat Carbajal. I would’ve beaten all them guys. I tried to fight Scotty Olson. The list goes on and on of the guys that turned me down.
Zenger: How frustrating was that for you?
Johnson: I was very frustrated. It got to the point where I didn’t even want to box anymore. It got to the point where I said I was done with boxing. And just like every other frustrated athlete, sometimes people pick up drugs, sometimes people pick up guns; sometimes people pick up other things. Just so happened that I picked up the bottle. I was able to put the bottle down and get back and win another world title. But I was very frustrated because I knew those guys couldn’t beat me. Floyd Mayweather was No. 1 pound-for-pound, Mark Johnson was No. 2 pound-for-pound and Prince [Naseem] Hamed was No. 3, I was even willing to go up to 126 to fight Hamed. I wanted that fight. I was like, “I’ll fight him.” I went up so far, I wanted to fight Junior Jones. I was calling people out. Before Robert Guerrero and all those guys fought Mayweather, I was calling Robert Guerrero out when he beat a guy from D.C. named Eric Aiken. I was just to the point where I was so frustrated, I was calling everybody out. I was even sending out emails saying I would fight Roy Jones (laughing). I was very frustrated, and that kind of took a toll on me in the boxing ring.
Zenger: What did that induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame mean to you?
Johnson: Ah man, that’s a feeling that you can never feel again. You’re on a high of a roller-coaster. You’re looking at the big boys. You’re right there with Sugar Ray Leonard who was there, Terry Norris, Roy Jones, all those guys was there. I was finally like, “These guys really do know me.” Even though Roy was on my ’88 Olympic Trials Team, Ray Mercer was on my ’88 Olympic Trials Team, Kevin Kelley was on my ’88 Olympic Trials Team. I think ’88 may have had more medals than anybody. Kennedy McKinney was on that team. Just to see those guys right there congratulating me … I finally felt like I was the President that day. You get on the plane and they wish you in and everybody standing outside with their cameras and they got the rail, I said, “This is how this feels?” I felt very good, man. It was just so great.
Zenger: You were so special in the ring, it’s sad it took that day to make you feel like you belonged.
Johnson: I look at it like, at the end of the day, when you’re dealing with so many different things, and dealing with your career, and you’re trying to work on different things that you’re trying to work on. And you look at these guys who you know that you really can beat, and you see these guys on HBO and Showtime, and you’re saying, “Just give me that opportunity and that chance,” and that opportunity and that chance came when Mark Johnson was not the real Mark Johnson. When I got in there with Rafael Marquez and those guys, I was just Mark Johnson, there was no more “Too Sharp.”
That’s one thing that I can say about Floyd. With the money he had, he was able to go out on his shield with no losses. And that’s the money that he raised because of what he done. A lot of guys like me and other world champions, we’re still not making the money that we should have made. So once again, we need that next fight. We gotta fill that hunger and we miss that spotlight. I think the main thing for me is, I work with a lot of fighters from the DMV. I train fighters, I’m back in the gym. I do my personal training, so I think a lot of that is what keeps me intact. But every world champion, and I don’t care if they say they don’t, if they say they don’t, they are telling a story. Every time you see a good fight come on, you jump up and you say, “I can do this.” Every time you see a good fight, you jump up and you start shadowboxing. I know I jump up and start shadowboxing. It’s like, who can I call and get on one of these Mike Tyson exhibitions (laughing).
During Black History Month, Zenger News presents “I Saw the Siege,” a series of on-camera interviews with African-American eyewitnesses to the deadly Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“I say a prayer every time I go to work and close that door” following the deadly Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, says a congressional aide who watched it play out in person. Going to work today, he says, is “my own form of PSTD.”
Michael J. McQuerry tells Zenger News that American democracy had a close call when protesters loyal to then-President Donald J. Trump smashed windows, burst through doorways and briefly occupied the nation’s legislative hive.
“I have to make sure we get across what happened, the gravity of it,” he says. “I was there. I saw that. This is serious. We came this close to maybe losing the country. We can’t come that close again.”
COVID-19 pandemic precautions had left the Capitol mostly empty, says McQuerry, putting few people in harm’s way but also leaving most of the building undefended. “You have to realize, on a regular day that complex would have had 10,000 to 15,000 people in it,” he tells Zenger, “but because we were going through the pandemic you might have had 300 to 400 people at that time, who experienced that.”
“If you add that to Capitol police, and the number of people that came in, we were outnumbered,” he says.
McQuerry and his boss Del. Stacey E. Plaskett (D-USVI) both planned to be in the House of Representatives chamber for the reading of Electoral College votes, the final step in certifying the election victory of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Plaskett is a nonvoting delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands but still a House member. McQuerry planned to be in the gallery, social distancing but watching history play out. History had other ideas; he says he feared he would be “squashed.”
Even from the center of the bullseye, McQuerry couldn’t appreciate the urgency of the situation he was in. “I did not go to work that day thinking that an insurrection was going to happen. Who does? So we went to work,” he says.
“And we didn’t really get to see how bad, and how much danger we were facing until two days later, when all the videos came out and you saw people breaking the glass and doing things you could not imagine.”
A Detroit native, McQuerry says he thinks about how easily he could have become a casualty — inside the Capitol, not on the streets where he grew up. “I appreciate being alive,” he says, “because I could have been at the wrong place at the wrong time as easily not be sitting here talking to you.”
McQuerry has worked in Congress for 27 years, and knows every nook and stairwell. He thinks about Eugene Goodman, the U.S. Capitol Police officer who led the mob away from an open Senate chamber door. He took what he called “a symbolic walk” in those hallways before speaking with Zenger News.
“I took that walk over here from the side of the Senate floor where the police, the Capitol Police Officer, directed them another direction,” he says.
“I took that same walk that he took. And I just wanted to, you know, just to think about what was three weeks prior — the hatred that was in that building, in that dome, in a place that was built by African-American slaves.”
(Edited by David Martosko and Kristen Butler. Visuals Produced by Claire Swift/Jorge Diaz/Allison Itz. Video Editor: Ralph Quattrucci. Director of Photography: Tim Murray.)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.” Ray McElrathbey embodies the character that Dr. King expressed. McElrathbey — known as “Ray Ray” on the football field — found himself between a rock and a hard place after he committed to play for Clemson University.
With his mother battling addiction and his younger brother left to fend for himself, McElrathbey had to juggle caring for his little brother, Fahmarr, while fulfilling his duties as a student-athlete. The Disney+ film “Safety,” the story of McElrathbey’s life, reveals some of the many challenges he faced, including getting his brother to and from school and sneaking him into campus housing. McElrathbey has since started a foundation to help families in similar situations; it provides help with addiction and training in money management and other life skills.
In a conversation with Zenger News, McElrathbey addresses the accuracy of the movie, discusses the challenges he faced in college, and offers an update on Fahmarr.
Percy Crawford interviewed Ray McElrathbey for Zenger News.
Zenger News: Congratulations on the success of “Safety.” You have an amazing story, and I couldn’t think of a better time to release an inspirational movie like that because we need it.
McElrathbey: I appreciate it. It was a long time coming, so anytime it came out, I would’ve been excited. But it was definitely needed — not just for me, but for the world, with all the trials and tribulations we’re facing.
Zenger: It was 14 years in the making. Did doubt ever creep in and you think this film would be scrapped and never see the light of day?
McElrathbey: Oh, most definitely! Fourteen years is a long time. I can’t say that I was optimistic through it all. No, there were times where I was like, “It’s not going to happen,” but in my mind, it was my life story and I had a lot of life left living, and maybe it will make the story better. I’ve lived enough for a sequel. It’s been a process. Fourteen years, so…
Zenger: What was the holdup? Information-gathering, someone buying in on the idea, or just finding the right fit?
McElrathbey: Well, a number of different things. A lot of studios were asking, “What will we end it with?” If you’re doing a life story on someone and they’re 19, or 22, or 24, it’s the life story of a kid that most people will say haven’t grown up yet. Even myself, I went through a process where I thought, “Why would they make a movie about me?” But there are a number of different things that happened, and we ended up here, and I’m grateful. The process took 14 years. I signed about three deals within that. You go in, they’ll do an initial option. They pay you a flat fee, and then if the movie goes into production, then you get a lump sum. I did that several different times with several different studios, but the producer of my movie, a gentleman named Mark Ciardi, had done other films with Disney, so there was always that possibility that Disney could pick it up, but until Disney+ came along — it made it a perfect storm type of situation, so it was timing more so than anything, I believe.
Zenger: Anytime you put your life story out there, to a degree you have to be a little bit vulnerable. Were you ever skeptical about putting this film and information out there?
McElrathbey: No! Not up until this point, because the parts that people thought were exciting about my life — which are the parts that the movie covers — I don’t necessarily find that as the most impactful parts of my life. Those were the parts that I think would help the masses the most. Because in the unique situation I was in… I was a college athlete playing D-I football. So, some people will separate themselves from that: “Well, that couldn’t be me because I’m not a D-I football player at Clemson.” But there are more parts of my life when I was more of a regular person. When I was a kid, and I was going through the struggles that I was going through. When I had to worry about where I was going to sleep and what I was going to eat, and if it was going to be a good day. Dealing with my mother’s addiction. Those were more impactful times — and more noteworthy times in my life — where I really had to persevere.
During the times I was at Clemson, not that it wasn’t a task, but I had my basic needs met — what I was going to eat, where I was going to sleep. I was on meal plan and I lived on campus. That’s more than a lot of people can say that they have — a roof over their head and steady meals. With the addiction part, I think that speaks to a whole other community of people that needs to see that. And how I persevered through those times, and how my mom persevered through those times, and the things that she went through. And to know that is not easy. At the end of the day, you see the movie and you think that, even after the movie, that things are great. No! That’s not the case. It’s a process every day. I have my ups and downs, I am not perfect, and there are things that I go through still. And I think those are more important things in my life to highlight.
Zenger: Yeah, it’s easy to get the perception of, since you carried such a heavy load when you were younger, that as an adult everything is roses and all good with you. Do you think the film — and not in a negative way — gave a little bit of a misperception of what your life is today?
McElrathbey: In some respects. Or even what life was like for me then. There were some tough times. But there is only so much that they can cover. There is only so much that we can discuss. In the parts when dealing with my mother or dealing with my father, which are the parts that I think makes me more vulnerable. Talking about those things makes me more vulnerable, and it wasn’t able to be talked about in the film. So, it’s more of a happier picture because, like I said, some basic needs are met in the movie. It’s part of the movie business. I do believe that there will be other ways where I will show and share what I went through and how I went through them.
Zenger: Would you consider writing a book, or do you feel it’s better served keeping it on film?
McElrathbey: No, no, no. I am writing a book, currently. I am hoping to release it in June, no later than July.
Zenger: Anytime I watch a biopic, I am always curious about the accuracy of the film. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being very accurate, how accurate is “Safety”?
McElrathbey: Seven! I would say a seven. A lot of the things that happened in the script was somewhat mixed around in terms of the sequence in which they happened. So, that’s what takes away a lot of the accuracy as far as for me. And then just the characters — the individual people, names and mannerisms, more than anything, weren’t covered. So, that gives a little less authentication to these particular parts of the film. But a lot of the situations, a lot of the things that were shown in the movie, is actually things that I went through, it’s just the order in which it happened, and the people that were there when it happened, are quite different.
Zenger: What did you think of Jay Reeves’ portrayal of you in the film?
McElrathbey: He did a great job. The parts where he might have been doing something different than I would say I would do, I let him know. I was on the set. The director would tell me to always put my two cents in, and he was always willing to hear what I had to say, if I think things should be shown or not shown, because it’s my life. He wanted it to stay as authentic as possible, while doing me justice, as he would say. I was lucky to work out with Jay Reeves and hang out with Jay Reeves. A lot of the mannerisms he picked up on from being around me for so long. We only lived a mile and a half away from each other in Los Angeles when he got the role. We went to the same gym, but never really hung out with each other, never really crossed paths, in a sense. The first day I heard he got the role, I hit him up, and we went and worked out. From there, we were good friends, I trained the cast, and I was there every day on set.
Zenger: How is your little brother, Fahmarr, doing today?
McElrathbey: Ah, man, Fahmarr is getting on my nerves. I say that in a loving brother/father type of way. For me, I want him to know exactly what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, right now. And at his age, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or how I wanted to do it. Fahmarr’s great. He’s living life the best way he knows how, as far as I’m concerned. He’s having fun. He’s actually still living in South Carolina. He will be doing some things with me in the future, as far as speaking is concerned, and he’s helping me out with my foundation. He’s doing great.
Zenger: Tell us about the foundation.
McElrathbey: I’m looking to help individuals like myself and families like my family. Families with a hint of dysfunction, but are good families, and good-hearted people. I’m looking to assist them with various needs — financial needs, organizational needs, and hooking them up with services that are provided for families like those types of families. I did a long stint at a homeless outreach program in Los Angeles, as a career. I saw a lot of homeless people. A lot of people down on their luck, a lot of people who have been through a lot of bad situations. Those are the people that I want to help a lot. Those are the people I adhere to. It’s hard to ask sometimes about all the trials and tribulations that they’ve been through and all their struggles, and then at the end of the day, not be able to help them and provide a hand. We’ll have a lobby of 40 to 50 people, and we’ll have three spots to fill. The rest is just hearing someone’s story and finding out if you can cause some type of assistance for them. These housing vouchers that the state gives away. Seeing if there is a relative that might allow them to stay if we pay the utility bill. Just things like that.
But my foundation is also looking to educate. Financial literacy is a staple killer in my whole process. Most people are just surviving and not living. And it’s not just dirt-poor people. It’s middle-class people and people that used to be in the middle class, but due to the pandemic are no longer in the middle class anymore. We have a lot of relatively poor people that are not actual poor people or strictly poor, but relatively poor. One check away from being poor. My foundation is looking to assist all those types of families and individuals to make it to the next step and get them to a place where they can live and not just survive.
Zenger: From the outside looking in, watching the film, it seems like one of the more difficult things for you was the deceit. You had to be very deceptive to a lot of people. What would you say was the most difficult part about what you went through?
McElrathbey: That can be true. It might have been the deception, but it was more so me finding my way. The film shows it slightly, but not as much. Initially, Fahmarr wasn’t an individual that I had to hide. He was supposed to be there because I told everybody that he was visiting. It was once he was supposed to leave is when things got… that was the most difficult time, because, yes, there was a lot of deception. At that point, I didn’t feel like I lied; I just didn’t tell the whole truth. It was that and the first initial month. We went through it kind of quiet and alone, in a sense. I was just doing it and not knowing if I was going to be able to be successful while doing it. That was one of the things that bothered me about it, because I was unsure about how I was going to make it work. Up until that point, I didn’t have a whole lot of certainties in life. But I knew, based on the position I was in, if I did the things that I needed to do, I was going to come out on the other side. I would come out better than when I went in. During the early months, it kind of jeopardized whether or not that was going to be the process of how it would happen.
Zenger: You refused to give up your football family or your biological family. For the people that would say, “Why didn’t you just quit football and care for your little brother?” Why was it so important for you to keep both families intact?
McElrathbey: They were both my families. A lot of things that happen to athletes once they are no longer athletes — there is a small depression phase you go through. Because you come from having guys that you have always bonded with … you’re kind of alone again. These are the guys that you fought with every day. And by fought, I mean went to battle with on the field or court or whatever sport you played. It gave you a sense that you always had someone that’s got your back. And to give that up is not something you do lightly. Even as a grownup now, you start to realize, the people that are on your side are few and far between. So, you look back and think about those times when you were an athlete, and you remember when you had 60 guys that would go to war for me and fight for me and not ask any questions. We’ll just try to figure it out on the other side, like, “Why did we do that?” But at the end of the day, we’re fighting. That’s something that you would miss once you don’t have it anymore. I had been on many teams before, so I know what that feeling is like. It’s something that I would never want to give up without a fight. And then there is the band of brothers with my real brother like a sports team as well.
Zenger: Great film. Your story is so inspirational, and I wish you all the best moving forward. Is there anything else you would like to say before I let you go?
McElrathbey: Most definitely! Thank you. I’m looking to build a village of individuals who have the same mind and want to change the world. That’s the goal.
Actor Brent Jennings has brought scores of characters to life onscreen. He earned praise for his portrayal of Oakland A’s coach Ron Washington in the acclaimed 2011 baseball film “Moneyball.” Working with Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence and the late great Bernie Mac, Jennings gave a standout performance as ornery prison guard Hoppin’ Bob in the 1999 buddy dramedy “Life.” More recently, Jennings played Ernie Fontaine, one of the lead characters in “Lodge 49,” a comedy-drama series that ran two seasons on AMC.
He now has a prominent recurring role in the popular CW football drama “All American.” A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Jennings honed his acting chops on stages in Boston and New York before launching his screen career with a role in “Brubaker,” the 1980 prison drama starring Robert Redford. Jennings makes his characters believable by thoroughly understanding and empathizing with them before the cameras roll. With more than a hundred credits on IMDb, the hard-working actor has consistently delivered on stage and screen for more than 40 years.
In an interview with Zenger News, Jennings offers his thoughts on the success of stage actors on the big screen and explains how the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing our selfish ways.
Percy Crawford interviewed Brent Jennings for Zenger News.
Zenger News: Mr. Brent, it’s a pleasure being on with you. You just said you are packing and preparing to travel. I was going to ask, how are you handling COVID?
Brent Jennings: With prayer, and faith. This is a family emergency involving my mother, so I have to go. At least I feel I have to go because no one from the family will be present at a time that’s critical for her. I think this whole COVID thing is teaching us something that we don’t seem to want to learn. And that is, the only way that we can survive it and defeat it is if we look out for each other. It’s exposing a weakness in our culture that allows us to be totally selfish, even in the face of an impending disaster. We remain selfish and self-centered. We think of our own individual rights, as opposed to the rights of our neighbor, the rights of the guys standing next to us. Our individual rights not to wear a mask but not that person in front of us’ right to be healthy and not affected by something because we don’t wear a mask. It’s almost like this virus has some sort of intelligence that knows who and what we are.
So, the way I’m dealing with the virus is, I’m trying to honor the person next to me. I’m wearing a mask, I am social distancing, I am washing my hands. I’m limiting my movements right now when I’m on my home turf. I go to the grocery store and come home. I go at a time when there’s not many people there. I go to small places opposed to the big, huge, mega stores. And when I travel, I try to travel smart. Which I haven’t done but once before during this pandemic. I’m forced to have to travel again now. That’s how I’m dealing with it. This may be a long answer, but that’s my take on everything.
Zenger: I speak with a lot of entertainers and musicians and I was shocked by the answer that a lot of them gave me. They said it made them realize that they needed to slow down, and the pandemic forced them to. Slow down, take a deep breath and look at the big picture.
Jennings: Yeah! I think it’s making all of us slow down. I think slowing down is what made me come to the revelation and the assessment that I just revealed to you. My personal opinion about how we need to slow down and start smelling the roses and taking care of each other. We’re in this get-get-get mentality. We’re in this go-go-go mentality, and it has forced me to self-evaluate what’s important in life. So yeah, I can understand that. Particularly with people who are on the fast track. The ones really going from project to project and really moving at that pace. You do have to sort of slow down and take a look around and see what’s going on and try to understand it. And in that moment, you come to realize what’s important to you. We want to get through this, so I started looking at it like, “How do we get through this?” It occurred to me during that moment of reflection: “Oh, this thing is challenging us to slow down and think about each other.”
You look at countries like New Zealand, which is doing very well with this. Because they cooperate with each other. Senegal is doing very well with this. It’s not a coincidence. It’s the way they’re behaving towards each other. And they’re doing it without vaccines. I think New Zealand has it [vaccine], but I don’t think Senegal has it yet. So yeah, it makes us stop and think and be more aware of what we’re doing and how we’re treating each other.
Zenger: I spoke to Ty Granderson Jones and Hawthorne James, and one thing I am noticing is, a lot of very talented actors like the gentlemen I just named, much like yourself, come from theater. What is it about theater that creates such amazing talents on the big screen?
Jennings: [Laughing] I’m going to crack a joke here, but there’s a little truth to it. I think actors of a certain age [laughing] have a stronger theater background, because at the time we came through, if you really wanted to apply your trade at a steady basis, you kind of had to do theater. There wasn’t the work in television and film that there is now. There was, but not to the extent that there is now. I have a son who is acting; he’s done theater, but his primary focus is TV and film. And he’s making progress in that area, because he sees the opportunities there that I didn’t see when I started. He’s always had his eye on that because he enjoys those mediums. So, I think our generation, the guys you mentioned, we’ve opened things up, and the people coming behind us, there are more opportunities for them than there was for us.
When I was young and I decided that I wanted to do this, I lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, which is far removed from the beaten path when it comes to theater, if you want to take it seriously. So, I used to go and research it. I used to go to News Mart on Tuesdays, and I would get the New York Times and read what was going on in New York. And I would be reading about the Negro Ensemble Company, New Lafayette Theater Company, the Public Shakespeare Festival, and the off-Broadway scene. So, I’m reading about … at that time the Black Arts Movement was in full swing. And I’m reading about all of this theater and black actors on stage. So, my thing was, I gotta get to New York. That’s what was going on in my formative years. So, that’s what I aspired to. To be a part of that. Eventually, I ended up in Boston, where I went to college, and then I moved to New York to do theater. And my desire when I got there was to just focus on theater for five years and refine my skills. And then start looking at film and TV, and it kind of worked out that way for me. It was just the world that I lived in at that time, and what I saw, and what was going on, and what made an impression on me. And I think now, it’s a different world, and younger actors can aspire for different things. It’s all timing.
Zenger: Do theater and television and film go hand and hand, or was it an adjustment for you?
Jennings: Well, there’s a saying that it’s easier for a theater actor to adapt to film and TV than a film actor to theater. And I found that to be true for me. It wasn’t that much of an adjustment. The things you have to learn are technical. If you scratch your nose on a certain line, and you come back to do that scene again, you gotta scratch your nose in the same place at the same time. The continuity things and stuff like that. You have to be able to repeat actions so you can match it and it can be edited together. Knowing a little bit about the lenses and what the camera is doing. How wide it’s shooting or how close it’s shooting, and learn how to adjust your performance for that. A lot of people pay a lot more attention to that than I do. I just kind of get what I feel is a comfortable sense of it and rely on my own instincts to tell me when not to be too big for the camera or when to scale it down or scale it up. I just communicate with the cameraman and get them to guide me a little bit when I feel I need that.
But theater, you work from a different place. It’s a verbal, literary median. It’s words that presses it forward and what moves it. That’s the engine for theater, words. It’s your solar plexus, your vocal command, your ability to be loud, but be intimate at the same time. To project, to be heard in a 1,200-seat theater or a 500-seat theater. It takes a totally different type of adjustment, and people who haven’t done it … It’s something you learn by repetition and guidance. I think it’s a good place to start, but that’s because, I feel like if you can do theater, you can do it all. But that’s my bias because that’s also my background.
Jennings: Well, thank you for that compliment. It’s a matter of doing your homework and having empathy for the character that you’re playing. Once again, it just goes back to, you’ve been doing it a long time, you have your own sort of method of getting yourself involved in the character. It’s basically understanding the character and trying to communicate the truth to that character. That’s about the safest way to say it.
Zenger: Your character Hoppin’ Bob in the movie “Life,” starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, but obviously having an abundance of amazing talents in the film: When you have such a star-studded cast, does it bring out your A game?
Jennings: Well, in that case, I think you’re right. But I don’t think acting is a competitive sport. We were just all having fun with each other. I guess in that sense, you can say good actors bring out your A game. But I think good actors always try to present their A game. There is the old saying, “There are no small parts — just small actors.” I think a good actor always wants to be on his A game. And that’s just really fulfilling the requirements of the role. And be the best representative of that character that you can be. And good actors make it easier to do that for you. It’s like playing ping-pong. You start bouncing that ball back and forth across the table, and then the rhythm gets really fast, and people start dancing on that ping-pong table, slamming that ball back and forth. And that’s what acting is like. Like we were saying earlier, it’s really give and take, sharing the moment.
Zenger: It goes back to being selfless.
Jennings: Right, right, right! I think a good actor has to forget himself to be good in a role. To embody that, to give yourself to it. And I’m a character actor, so that’s my orientation. I’m not a guy that puts the butts in the seats. I’m the guy just doing the part that fills some ties in telling the story. Of the better company that you’re with, the easier your job is if you are really aiming to do the best job that you can do and be as honest and open to your character as you can be. “Life” was a very special experience for all of us. I feel very fortunate to have been working with all of those guys. We all were good to each other on the set, and it showed on film.
Zenger: With you, your son and your wife, Mrs. Juanita [Mahone], all being involved in the entertainment field, is there a fine line or a balance on when and when not to discuss work?
Jennings: [Laughing] Well, we’re all very passionate about it, so talking about it is something we like to do. There are times where you go, “Oh, let me back away a little bit,” but sometimes you feel like you can’t be around people but the people who do what we do because we’re the only ones that understand each other [laughing].
Zenger: I see you mess around in that kitchen a little bit too. You’re definitely a Southern man.
Jennings: Oh yeah, I do a little bit. I do get in there and do a little bit [laughing]. I can cook my collards and barbecue ribs. I can do all of that stuff. Even though I switched to vegan about a year and a half ago. So, I’m learning how to cook that stuff too.
Zenger: Any reason for the switch other than health precautions?
Jennings: Just to be healthier and keep everything under control.
Zenger: The evolution of technology and film from your start to now has been drastic. Does that change your approach or anything that you do as an actor, or is that for the directors and technicians?
Jennings: Oh, no, it hasn’t changed what I do at all. I do what I do, and I let all the technicians and experts push me around and tell me where to be, and I do it. I focus on telling my character’s story, and that’s always been the same.
Zenger: Mr. Brent, it has been an extreme honor speaking with you. Best of luck with your mom. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Jennings: We just all gotta take care of ourselves and each other right now.
The holiday gift that keeps teenagers on the sofa with game controllers in their hands may help parents pay their college tuition. For some, training to compete in cyberspace contests like Fortnite and NBA2K could soon replace training for team sports — and create a new scholarship pipeline and professional opportunities after graduation.
Gaming and esports are becoming sources of camaraderie and competition for students at HBCUs. Three of the four HBCU athletic conferences have corporate partnerships with developers of gaming platforms that allow students to compete against on-campus peers as well as students at schools in their conferences. And this popular form of social entertainment is quickly becoming more than just a pastime.
“Having an esports presence is very important to our institutions in the future,” Southwestern Athletic Conference Associate Commissioner Jason Cable said.
Esports teams and individuals compete head-to-head in live online competitions. The industry has grown rapidly worldwide, with annual revenues exceeding $1 billion and global audiences of more than 443 million, according to research by Green Man Gaming.
Most conventional sports franchises took financial losses last spring as American sports leagues postponed events and slashed their schedules to avoid exposing players and fans to the coronavirus. Esports tournaments picked up the slack through sports network TV. College and high school students looking for new ways to live, work, learn and play turned to competitive video gaming more than ever, making esports a cultural force.
Total enrollment at America’s 101 black colleges and universities dropped by 6,000 in the 2018-19 school year. School administrators see a new way to help recover.
“Our institutions are looking to increase enrollment and retain students, and esports gives them a chance to do both,” Cable said. “It’s the next big thing.”
Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams said gaming and esports, which are grounded in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, benefit students academically.
“The move into esports aligns with the educational experience in STEM and overall strategic plan that remains consistent with efforts to continuously grow our brand and advance our students,” McWilliams said.
McWilliams’ athletic conference is one of three dedicated HBCU sports leagues that have attracted corporate sponsorships for competitive gaming platforms and tournaments while athletic sports remain on partial hiatus.
Gamers can compete in tournaments for scholarship money and for the attention of professional sports franchises that may hire the esports movement’s most talented competitors. There were 500 known esports franchises that earned between $95,000 and $36 million in tournaments by the end of 2019, according to Esports Earnings, which tracks the flow of money in the nascent industry. Some socially distant tournaments award as much as $750,000 in prize money.
Educators are more excited about the impact on black students’ professional opportunities when they embrace STEM fields as part of their immersive gaming experience. Programming, software development and cybersecurity can give them the inside track on lucrative career paths. Some are groomed through academic programs as early as high school, preparing them for athletic esports scholarships.
More than 100 U.S. and Canadian schools offer esports scholarships, following the lead of Robert Morris University Illinois, an institution that has since merged into Roosevelt University. Robert Morris Illinois offered subsidies for members of its first varsity-level Sports League of Legends team in 2014. Some packages today can be worth as much as $76,000 over four years of competitive eligibility. The most talented gamers can defray half of their tuition, room and board.
HBCUs aren’t offering scholarships but want students to think outside their Xbox. HBCU Heroes, a nonprofit launched by former NCAA and NBA champion George Lynch and business partner Tracey Pennywell, raises money to help those schools level the playing field with competitive scholarship offers to student athletes. Now that platform includes esports.
Larger universities have vastly more support from sponsors and alumni than most HBCUs.
“My experience at [the University of] North Carolina was on a whole other level,” Lynch said. “We played in the ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference], who had the big TV deal, then went to the Final Four and brought back millions of dollars to subsidize the Olympic sports. But most of the traditional HBCUs that we played when I was coaching didn’t have the funding in the athletic department to support the student-athlete’s needs.”
Lynch saw how tight budgets held back athletes at small black colleges while he was head men’s basketball coach at Clark Atlanta University.
“We learned that STEM and cybersecurity is part of gaming,” Lynch said. “Our goal is to fund 12 labs at HBCUs where students can have a curriculum in STEM and develop their skills that give them options other than [major universities] to learn about them.”
Texas Southern University in Houston has extended its sports management program to include an esports curriculum. The interdisciplinary approach is focused on the management side of staging events, designing games and developing sound systems.
Dr. Kenyatta Cavil, interim associate dean of academic affairs in TSU’s College of Education, said he oversaw development of the program to empower students.
“We want the students to get out of the mindset of just being on the couch. We want them to know what’s on the other side of the games,” Cavil said. “We’re trying to be intentional about getting HBCU students into the business segment of the [esports] marketplace.”
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.