The Oregonian: Tuskegee Airmen deliver powerful message to Nigel Burton's Portland State football team
Author: By Ian Ruder
Posted: April 21, 2010

After wrapping up Wednesday's practice, Portland State football coach Nigel Burton gathered his players to talk.

He could have easily given a speech similar to those coaches give all across the country, but on this day the Vikings new coach had something much more powerful.

Standing at his side were retired Lt. Cols. Alex Jefferson and Bill Holloman, two of the 103 known surviving Tuskegee Airmen pilots.

What better speakers to address the topic of the day: Mental toughness.

"You guys don't understand this, but at the time," he said, pointing around, "this didn't exist -- a white kid from Oregon playing with a black kid from the Bay?

"That didn't exist."

"Even thought they were heroes and fought for their country, when they got back they still had to go through the same sort of racism and things and types of tyranny they were fighting overseas to defeat," Burton said, "You talk about mental toughness -- how do you fight through that?"

Once Burton finished his introduction, Jefferson and Holloman spoke to the hushed team. Wearing worn leather airmen's jackets, covered in fading patches, they passionately spoke about the importance of these young men getting educated and taking advantage of the opportunity football had given them.

"You've got to learn how to survive and don't be afraid of knowledge," Jefferson said. "If you're gonna play football and be a dummy what the hell are you gonna do after that ... if you don't know how to deal with money you're a damn fool."

"How many damn fools do we have?" Holloman asked, drawing laughs from the players.

The two veterans are some of a handful of remaining Tuskegee Airmen who travel the country speaking about their experiences and the importance of education.

Wednesday's visit to Portland State was made possible by former Viking offensive lineman Ken Buckles ('74-'76). Buckles has known Jefferson and Holloman for years and has arranged many speaking opportunities for them. He thought their messages would resonate with Portland State's players especially in this era of excess in college sports.

"I'm just trying to get kids to realize that we have a pretty good lifestyle and a lot of freedom of choices," he said. "It was paid with some pretty high costs and they need to know that, be aware of that, remember (and) thank them."

For Burton the visit was a no-brainer.

"The biggest thing is when you're a football coach in college your not just a coach, you're a also a mentor, a counselor and an advisor," he said. "Sometimes you get those rare opportunities where you actually get to give (your players) lessons in life and history and this was one of those opportunities we had to take advantage of."

From the rapt looks on the players faces as Jefferson described being shot down in German territory and spending nine months in a prisoner-of-war camp, Burton and Buckles appeared to have succeeded.

Senior tight end Julius Thomas introduced himself to Jefferson and Holloman after they finished and told them he has a poster of the Tuskegee Airmen hanging in his room. He said the Airmen had inspired him.

"The way that they went out there with everything stacked up against them and just showed that they could be trusted and showed that they could do above what was expected was just amazing," he said. "I just had to tell them it was an honor to finally meet (a positive black role model) that's not a basketball player or a football star.

"I never thought I would get a chance to meet them."