|Tuesday, May 22
Updated: January 31, 5:12 PM ET
A racial divide between father and son
By Wayne Drehs
While his classmates spent spring break lounging on the couch and sleeping 'til noon, Kellen Winslow Jr. traveled to Miami, Fla. for a little self-assurance.
There, he pretended like it was August, like he was already playing football for the Miami Hurricanes. He lifted weights. He watched film. He ate with his future teammates - anything to get a feel for what to expect this fall.
Things weren't always so clear. Three months ago, Kellen Jr. was arguing with his father that the University of Washington was for him. His father, the NFL Hall of Fame tight end of the same name, shot back that another school, Michigan State, was the place he should play his college football.
As it turned out, it looks like they were both wrong. And although the final outcome has elicited smiles from both father and son, the circuitous path that brought Kellen Jr. to Coral Gables was anything but pleasant.
There was father asking son to consider the racial makeup of the coaching staffs and universities he wanted to play for. There was father refusing to sign son's letter of intent to Washington. There was a canceled live television appearance, on which Kellen Jr. was supposed to announce his college intentions. And there were a handful of heated arguments.
"Oh yeah, it got really frustrating," Kellen Jr. now says. "It was very hard. But I tried not to let it get to me. I just concentrated on school and basketball season so it couldn't affect my everyday life."
But it wasn't easy. Kellen Sr., who made waves during his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech in 1995 when he blasted the NFL for its lack of minority hirings, said he was trying to make a socially significant point. He wanted to make sure that - all things being equal - his son would consider a school where minorities were in a position of authority, be it on the coaching staff or in the athletics department.
"What type of father would I be, to know what I know, to go what I've gone through and not discuss these things with my child?" he said. "I'd be the worst father in the world. Race is an important issue in this country and you're almost burying your head in the sand if you don't talk to your children about it. It's denial."
The story was well documented in the Pacific Northwest, where Husky backers felt spurned by the family's sudden change of heart. The controversial minority issue also turned heads, especially considering that Washington boasts of its athletics director, who is female, and a pair of assistant coaches, who are black.
But elsewhere, few paid much attention. The storied push-pull relationship between father and son did not surface. Its social significance was missing in the transactions of the daily sports page.
"The typical minority kid doesn't have a father like Kellen's to help him realize all these things," said Bob Minnix, president of the Black Coaches Association and an associate athletics director at Florida State. "It's just a question that doesn't come up that often. And yet it's a very important one."
'We chewed it up pretty good'
With Kellen Jr. set on Washington and Kellen Sr. set against it, there was tension throughout the final weeks of the recruiting process. It finally boiled over the night before national signing day, when the two got into a heated argument. The next night, the two were scheduled to appear live on Fox Sports Net, where Kellen Jr. would make public his college intentions. The show had been hyped for weeks. Most everyone expected the answer to be Washington.
But the night before, the two argued and Kellen Sr. refused to sign his son's letter of intent. Since a legal guardian must sign all national letters of intent when a recruit is younger than 21 years old, Kellen Jr. couldn't proceed without his father's permission. "We chewed it up pretty good," said Kellen Jr., who will celebrate his 18th birthday on July 21. "He wasn't going to sign the papers. And I asked, 'Why? Why this? Why that? You have to let me go. This is my decision; it isn't your decision.'
"He said, 'I know it's your decision, but you're still immature about this and you don't know what's going to happen at Washington. I don't trust them.'"
Kellen Jr. says he got about two hours of sleep that night, still unsure what signing day and the live television appearance would bring.
"We went at it," Kellen Jr. said. "I was begging him to sign the papers because I really wanted to go to Washington. But it didn't work out. We had to postpone everything because we couldn't agree."
Kellen Sr.'s take: "I told him, 'Kellen, I don't feel comfortable. If I'm being a bad father by telling you this before you're supposed to go on national television, so be it. But I don't feel comfortable at this point."
The drastic turn of events, in which Kellen Jr. went from destined for Washington to undecided almost overnight stunned many, including John King, Kellen Jr.'s basketball coach and a football assistant at Scripps Ranch High School in San Diego.
"I was as shocked as anybody," King said. "I thought he was going to Washington for sure. He wanted to sign. He wanted it over with. But as an educated parent, Kellen Sr. saw that a lot of recruiting was 'Hurry up, hurry up, you've got to make your decision today.' And Kellen Sr. said, 'Wait a minute. We don't have to do anything today.' He wanted to wait until they were both comfortable."
The moment the Fox spot was canceled, rumors began to swirl. Some critics, aware of the race issue, suggested Kellen Sr. was taking advantage of his son for his own political gain. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Winslows were concerned Husky coach Rick Neuheisel was soon leaving for the NFL. And other newspapers suggested Kellen Sr. held a grudge because Neuheisel was a replacement player during the 1987 NFL player's strike.
"It was a complete loss of focus and totally off-base," Kellen Sr. said. "The entire time, my focus was on Kellen Jr."
Kellen Sr. said he was acting like any other good father -- making sure his son was thorough in his search for a college. After all, Kellen Jr. has said he wants to be a coach when his playing days are over. His dad wanted him to play for a school that would give him the best opportunity to someday return as a coach.
"I told him to take a look around," Kellen Sr. said. "Thumb through the media guides and see how far you have to turn before you get to a person of color. And if you don't see people that look like you, there's a problem. There has to be some reason behind it."
Still, it wasn't easy for Kellen Jr. to understand. He looks back now and says he was na´ve, unaware of the bigger picture. Eventually, he came around and trusted his father's instincts.
"I thought about it and asked myself, 'Why doesn't he want me to go to Washington?' I decided to just put my faith in him and my trust in him. He's been there. He knows what's up."
Neuheisel would say only, "I have nothing but positive things to say about the Winslow family and we wish Kellen Jr. all the success at Miami."
As the Winslows' search continued, it became clearer that Miami, a school that Kellen Jr. had privately liked since a January visit, was the right choice. It had been Kellen Jr.'s second choice all along and Kellen Sr. liked the hard-nosed coaching style of assistant Charles Johnson, who is black. Kellen Sr. was impressed that Johnson, who would potentially be Kellen Jr.'s position coach, was the man recruiting his son.
"CJ is an old-school coach that takes nothing from his players," said Kellen Sr., whose tight end coach at the University of Missouri, Curtis Jones, was black. "He's a guy who will chastise them, love them, and they will respond. He tells it like it is."
But Miami was going through some uncertainty of its own, with Butch Davis leaving the school to become the Cleveland Browns' head coach. To smooth the transition, Larry Coker, who replaced Davis, joined Johnson in hopes of maintaining a strong relationship with the Winslows.
"We never felt like he was ours, but we always felt we had a chance," Coker said. "So until they called us to tell us he wasn't coming, we stayed positive."
And one week after signing day, one week after the Winslows' tension-filled argument over Washington, father and son happily agreed on Miami.
Now, four months later, Kellen Jr. said he looks back and understands what his father was trying to do. The entire process, he notes, has brought the two closer.
"I didn't know what was going on, there was just all this hype," Kellen Jr. said. "But he helped me see things in a bigger aspect. It opened my horizons and I matured a lot.
And that's all Kellen Sr. said he was trying to do through this entire process - help his son see the light, no matter how blinding it may have been.
"What I did I did mostly as a father concerned for his son," he said. "My motive behind it was to keep him from looking at things through rose-colored glasses. It was a lesson in more than football. It was a lesson in life."
And if not for that lesson, Kellen Jr. knows his life this fall would be drastically different.
"I dodged a bullet," he said shortly after his spring visit to Coral Gables. "I'm sure I would have been happy (at Washington or Michigan State), but not as happy as I am now."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.