Ralph David Abernathy embraces legacy

Ralph David Abernathy cradled Martin Luther King Jr. in his arms as he drew his last breath, a source of comfort, yes. But perhaps more than that, Abernathy served as a source of reassurance.

The fight for equality would not die with King.

At that moment, Abernathy was charged with leading the transformative civil rights movement. His son, Ralph David Abernathy III, went right along with him.

At age 9, Abernathy III was arrested for taking part in The Mule Train, part of the civil rights movement, in Douglasville, Ga. He would go on to become a reverend like his father, and a state senator, his passion for effecting change sown at his daddy's side.

Now here stands Ralph David Abernathy IV, a teenager charged with upholding a legacy that has shaped modern American history. It is a huge blessing, but one that comes with a pressure most of us have never known. How does this young man follow in the Abernathy tradition?

He already has his plans. They are big plans, meant to expand on the family name, not merely preserve it.

Those plans involve football.

Abernathy IV just finished his freshman season at Cincinnati, making his name primarily on special teams. And to his credit, he already understands the power of sports. Athletes now have the biggest platform to try and reach those who have tuned most everybody else out. Sports today have the ability to unite, to spread a message not only across the country, but across the world.

As Tim Tebow has shown us all, football is not a small or insignificant way to lead -- not in the era in which we live.

"When you go into a normal neighborhood, kids don't look at doctors and lawyers and say, 'I want to be like them.' They look at athletes. I can be somebody they identify with," Abernathy IV said in a recent phone interview. "My dream is to play in the NFL, and through that I would like to give back to kids and give back to my community. If I can change one person's life, then my life is complete."

These are not words meant for show. Abernathy IV is serious when he says he has a legacy to uphold, that he refuses to be the "weak link" in the Abernathy chain. That it is his duty to make sure his future children carry on the name with the same dignity as those before them.

While some may shy away from such enormous responsibility, Abernathy IV has made it a part of his everyday life -- working in community outreach and giving to those less fortunate. He has taken all of this on with honor, and without complaint. It drives him, and shapes him, and gives him a refreshing maturity beyond his 19 years.

"The biggest compliment I can give him is he has a level of consistency at his age that I've never seen before," Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. "He's never shaken. He has great discipline. You know what you're getting every day with Ralph David IV. He understands what his name is all about. We always talk about, what does your name represent? He's always very conscientious about what he's representing with his actions on and off the field, and that speaks to his character."

Abernathy IV began hearing the stories about his grandfather when he was a child. But reality first hit in the third grade, when he saw his grandfather's name in a history book.

"The coolest part about all of it is being able to say I have the same blood and I am the grandson of the man who helped Martin Luther King, a man who changed the course of history," Abernathy IV said. "Our name is on Google, encyclopedias. That can't be erased."

Until that day in grade school, Abernathy IV may have been only superficially aware of the significance his name held when he passed Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard in his hometown of Atlanta, or when his parents told him he was not a normal child.

His father was not a normal child, either. Abernathy III was born during a tumultuous time in America, where even as a child he could sense that he was being treated differently. He heard the stories about his family home being firebombed in Montgomery, Ala., before he was born, with his sister asleep in the crib and his mother pregnant.

Though the family moved to Atlanta, Abernathy III lived in constant fear that his house would be firebombed again. He had to sleep with the hallway lights on, and his door cracked open. Abernathy III turned to sports as a child for a cathartic release.

"Athletics was an outlet for me," Abernathy III said in a phone interview. "It was where I found solace, where I was really able to take my mind away from the childhood pressures and things that would go on psychologically with me, being in a very prominent family like mine was."

Abernathy III and his best friend, Dexter King, integrated their elementary school and were the only two black football players in the city league. King, the son of Martin Luther King Jr., was the lead blocker for Abernathy III on their Spring Street team. Their teams dominated every game they played at Chastain Park during the six years they played together.

But there was no real escape from reality.

"We never lost one game, but we never got a trophy," Abernathy III said. "We never got acknowledged. Dexter and I talk about that even today. We killed the whole city conference, but we got nothing."

Abernathy III continued next to his father, but he also flourished in sports, playing football, tennis, basketball and running track. His mother refused to attend any of his football games, believing he should be focusing on his academics first and foremost.

A serious knee injury ended his hopes of playing football in college, but those dreams now live on with his son. Watching Ralph David IV brings back the memories, the way Abernathy III refused to be tackled, the unbridled determination of his youth.

But it also brings back memories of his father, who passed away before Ralph David IV was born. Though they never met, there is no mistaking that Ralph David IV embodies his grandfather. Abernathy III says the same "warrior spirit" that propelled his father forward despite the naysayers allowed Ralph David IV to prove to his many detractors that he could indeed play in college despite being told he was too small at 5-foot-7.

"And what a great thing it would be for Ralph David to make it to the NFL," Abernathy III said. "He would have the attention of his generation. With that attention, he could embody a spirit of goodwill and a spirit of love and just be an example of how to live and love each other righteously."

That spirit is one Jones and his players have gotten to know in the last year. Jones made it a point before the first fall practice to tell his team about the Abernathy family. To perhaps allow Ralph David IV his own football identity, running back Isaiah Pead nicknamed him "Quatro" -- four in Spanish.

Ralph David IV quickly emerged as the lead kickoff returner for the Bearcats last season. And his grandmother Juanita -- the same woman who never saw her own son play football -- has become his biggest fan.

She has had only one chance to see Ralph David IV in college -- the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Vanderbilt in Memphis. The historical implications of that city on the civil rights movement were underscored when Ralph David IV ran through the tunnel.

Here it was, 43 years after King was assassinated some five miles from the very stadium where the teams played. Black fans and white fans sat in the stands. Black players and white players took the field. James Franklin, one of three black head coaches in the SEC, called the shots for the Commodores.

Jones' wife, Barbara, sat a few seats away from the Abernathys during the game. After Vanderbilt pulled ahead 21-17 early in the fourth quarter, Ralph David IV took his place for the ensuing kickoff. Barbara Jones looked over at the Abernathys.

Juanita was saying a prayer to Martin Luther King and Ralph David Abernathy.

Moments later, Ralph David IV sprinted 90 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

"That return will live forever in the history of our program," Jones said.

The Abernathys do have a way of making history.

Andrea Adelson covers the Big East for ESPN.com.