Faces of Diversity: All in the family

Lori Linkimer was shopping for groceries that Saturday morning, pushing her cart up and down the aisle, minding her own business, when it happened for the first time.

An elderly man walked by, looked at the dark skin on Linkimer's three adopted children, looked at the light skin on their mother and decided he didn't approve.

"Look honey," the man said to his wife. "There's those n----- babies."

The man's wife slapped him, but before the couple ran out of the store, leaving their grocery cart behind, 3-year-old Lindsey Linkimer -- the oldest of the three kids -- looked up at the couple and shared an opinion of her own.

"You must not know Jesus," the toddler said. "I'm sorry."

Lori smiled. She knew. Sure, life wasn't going to be easy. Sure, three black children with two white parents in a white Chicago suburb was going to rub some people the wrong way. But for the first time, she knew her kids could handle it. She realized that the lessons she had been teaching about Dr. Martin Luther King, about how it was the "content of their character" and not the "color of their skin" that mattered, had paid dividends.

"It showed me that they weren't afraid," Lori said. "That Lindsey wasn't scared to speak to people and stand up for her brother and sister. That's when it hit me -- nothing was going to stand in the way of our family."

Fast forward 18 years and there's Lindsey again, bridging the gap between her "black friends" and "white friends" as a junior volleyball player at Augustana College. There's her younger sister Kirstie, a sophomore at Illinois State, frowning when her friends tell her to "act ghetto." And there's their younger brother Adam, the only one still at home, a senior football player at St. Charles (Ill.) High, who this past fall became the first of the Linkimer children to play alongside a black teammate.

Theirs is a story about family. About race. About love trumping genes. About building a bond so tight, with so much resolve, that no matter what anybody says or anybody does, you ignore it. Even when somebody slashes the tires of the family van. Even when a teammate asks why the "black girl" doesn't jump higher. And even when an ignorant old man belittles you in a grocery store aisle.

It's also a story about sport. Not so much about serving the most aces or kicking the most goals, but about spiking, tackling and blocking your way to acceptance. All three Linkimer kids have grown with the same goal: to get people to stop staring at appearance and start appreciating character.

"People always wonder, 'Is it weird being the only black girl?' But this is all we know," Kirstie said. "This is how we were raised. I'm an athlete. Take me for what I'm good at, for what I stand for. Not what I look like."

The quest for a family

Giving and receiving life lessons in race relations was never the goal. Mike and Lori Linkimer just wanted a family. When the couple realized they likely weren't going to be able to have children, they adopted.

Black History Month is a time to reflect on the changes that diversity brings to sports. Over the past year, ESPN.com has explored those changes and found it isn't only a matter of black and white:

Racial harmony: The Linkimers embraced the differences among their family, while remaining indifferent about them.
Closing the cultural divide: It's more than a seven-hour drive that separates Long Beach Poly and tiny Lee Vining. but students at the schools are closing the gap.
Friday night fights: In Dearborn, Mich., an all-Arabic football team shows its opponents the way the game was meant to be played.
No guts, no glory: Vanessa Lucero is out to prove that sports are only for boys until a girl joins in.
A football melting pot: In Atlanta, football players learn more than X's and O's; they learn how to be American kids, too.

"Right away they asked us, 'Would you be willing to take a hard-to-place child?" Lori said. "Race, handicapped, whatever. We didn't care. We wanted to be parents. We wanted a child."

Soon, one-month-old Lindsey arrived in January of 1985. A year later, two-week-old Kirstie joined the family. Another year later, six-month-old Adam was on his way and the Linkimers found themselves at a car dealership in the market for a minivan that could hold three car seats.

Mike and Lori finally had their family. But it was different. People stared. Pointed. Whispered. It forced the kids to grow up with extra-thick skin.

"You see a white woman in the grocery store with three black kids, you're going to look," Lori said. "People aren't always nasty, they're just ignorant. They just want to know, 'Are they really sisters?' And I'm like, 'Oh yeah, we signed the paperwork.' And then they'll go, 'Where did you get them?' So I'll say, 'The train station.'

"You have to put some levity with it."

By the time the kids started kindergarten, they began to grasp how different they were from each another, from their parents and from the other kids in their classes.

"I remember looking in the mirror, looking at my parents, realizing we were all different and then wondering why," Adam said.

The topic was never a secret. Mike and Lori explained to their kids that they were adopted. For the most part, the kids understood. When a reporter asked Lindsey, then just a toddler, what it would be like if her mom were black, she answered simply, "She'd look weird." Kirstie struggled with the concept at one point, though, crying to her mom that she, "wanted to be white."

"Mom came over, put her arm around me and said, 'Kirstie, if you were white, you wouldn't be as pretty as you are now,'" Kirstie said. "That stuck with me."

The world of sports

As the children grew older, the gravitation toward sports was inevitable. It was in their blood. Lindsey's birth mother, Mike and Lori were told by the adoption agency, was a terrific high school basketball player who played her entire junior season pregnant. The day after her team's last game, she went into labor with Lindsey. Kirstie's father was a boxer, and her mother starred in tennis. And Adam's father played high school football.

Playing sports not only felt natural, but it was a way to get outside, have fun and compete. It was a way to meet new friends and new families.

"It was the huge equalizer," Lori said. "It helped us wedge our way into the community. Kids got to know them as individuals. We got to know the parents. It worked."

Lindsey eventually gravitated toward volleyball, becoming a team captain in high school. Kirstie did the same with soccer. Adam also played soccer until a series of serious knee injuries compromised his lateral movement and forced him to quit the sport to concentrate solely on football as a lineman.

But along the way, there were plenty of hurdles to overcome. Each time the Linkimers stepped on the floor, the court or the field, they were immediately labeled: The black athlete. The gifted one. The one who doesn't have to work for it.

Adam remembers pickup basketball games when, as the only black kid, the other team immediately put its best player on him. He grew even more uncomfortable when his team, made up of all white players save for him, would show up at a tournament and play an all-black team.

"I just stood out so much," he said. "It was like I should be on the other team. It was a weird feeling."

Even in college, Lindsey said the stereotypes have continued. Based on her skin color, her teammates at Augustana expected her to dominate preseason skills testing during her freshman season.

"Everybody was looking at me to break the record in this, break the record in that," she said. "I'm like, 'Whoa, where did that come from?' They look to me to be all these different things, just because of my skin color. Sometimes I am, sometimes I'm not. But I'm rarely looked at just as myself."

Kirstie's biggest challenge came when she played under a goalie coach who was black.

"She just put more pressure on me," Kirstie said. "'Because we're black, you have to do this. Because we're black, you have to do that.' She'd put that on me when I wasn't even thinking about it."

But in the end, through the ups and downs, sports helped the Linkimer kids build a bridge to people they now consider some of their closest friends.

"I can't imagine life without [sports]," Adam said. "My entire life, that's how I relate to everyone. That's how I relate to other kids."

The Help of Each Other

Relying on the friends they've met in sports and the support of one another has helped the Linkimer kids grow into their unique upbringing. All their lives, they've grown up as young, black Americans within a nearly all-white world. "Full House" instead of "The Jeffersons." "Saturday Night Live" instead of "In Living Color."

They have a unique place in the world: colorless as they relate to their family and friends, yet black when they step out of the house and interact with strangers in society.

It's a position that almost nobody can understand. So the older the Linkimer kids get, the more they rely on one another, the more they complement one another. Lindsey, the oldest and most sensitive, is the trailblazer. She's the one who helps bring the issue of race into the open, embracing the uniqueness of her siblings and herself.

"She puts our minds there," Kirstie said. "She'll tell me, 'Look, you're different. You look different.' Without her, I don't know if I'd even think about race."

Kirstie, on the other hand, makes sure that skin color doesn't define them. She's majoring in social work and plans to work in adoption.

"She's my inspiration," Lindsey said. "She doesn't let stereotypes hold her down. She doesn't care what anybody thinks about her. She tries to share that with me and Adam."

Their little brother just soaks it all in.

"They sort of show me the way," he says. "How I should act around certain people, when I should just be myself."

A few years ago, Lindsey came home with an assignment to write a paper on the genealogy of her family. One of the questions, for Lindsey, her mother and her grandmother, was who had the biggest influence on her life.

While Lindsey answered her mom, Lori thought a little deeper and came to a more profound conclusion: Martin Luther King Jr. Without him, she said, these three children might have never come together, might have never been a part of their lives. And several people -- including that old man in the grocery store -- might still have a shallow view of race in this country.

"If we broke down one barrier, it was worth it," Lori said. "Because for this family, color is not an issue. Black, white, it doesn't matter. People that know us have seen love based not on skin, not on chromosomes, but on family. And that sticks with people."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.