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18 years later, murdered coach Ricky Byrdsong's kind spirit lives on in hearts, good work of others

On September 12, 2017

 

BY VERSHAY BURKS

VN SPECIAL WRITER

 

More than 18 years later, the memories remain vivid and the pain heartfelt.

It was the July Fourth weekend in Skokie, Ill., 1999. 

Half past 8 p.m. on Friday, July 2, in a neighborhood known for its safety and diversity, Ricky Byrdsong left his house with two of his children, 10-year-old Kelley and 8-year-old Ricky Jr., and started on his nightly jog.

Byrdsong, a former University of Detroit basketball coach, was a few minutes into his run, with his children nearby on bikes, as he approached the intersection of Foster and Hamlin. The route would change all of their lives.

“We literally just hit the corner and I heard this very loud engine behind us roaring and then all of a sudden all these bullets, all these noises, these fire-cracking sounding noises,” said Ricky Jr.

The car was a 1994 blue Ford Taurus; the driver, a 21-year-old white supremacist, Benjamin Smith, who earlier that evening had shot nine Orthodox Jews in a north Chicago neighborhood.

Smith fired in the direction of the Byrdsongs, hitting Ricky Byrdsong seven times in the back.

“I see my dad limping against this tree and this car just flying down the street,” said Ricky Jr.

The boy ran to a neighbor for help. His sister raced home.

Byrdsong tried to make it back to his house but collapsed three blocks away.

“Every minute seemed like a day,” said Ricky Jr., who watched his father squirming on the ground.

At Evanston Hospital, Byrdsong died after midnight.

The next day, Smith shot and injured an African-American minister. The day after, he killed a Korean-American graduate student, before shooting himself while pursued by police.

An autopsy confirmed that one of the bullets severed Byrdsong’s aorta. He died from internal bleeding.

Smith had chosen to cut this man’s 43-year-life short simply because he was black.

Smith did not know that Ricky Byrdsong had been the first African American head basketball coach of Northwestern University, A Big Ten school, or that earlier he had lead the University of Detroit Titans.

He didn’t know that Byrdsong had been training to be a pastor, or that Byrdsong and his wife were high school sweethearts.

He had no idea of the hundreds of hearts that would be crushed at the news of Ricky’s untimely death.

Most important, Smith had no idea that his malicious act would do the opposite of what he intended.

The act would spread love, not hate, and show how tragedy can unite people of different backgrounds.

Smith would never know the degree of impact his act of violence would cause.

The murder left Ricky Byrdsong’s wife, Sherialyn, a widow, and his children Sabrina, Kelley and Ricky Jr. fatherless.

The lives of the other victims’ family members changed forever that weekend, too.

 

**

 

Those who knew Ricky Byrdsong remember him as a gentle giant devoted to his family and a supportive coach who mentored his players and the youth in the communities where he lived.

“He definitely was a man who believed in developing character in young people,” said Sherialyn.

From the basketball court to the streets, “he was always looking to help the next person,” said Ricky Jr.

Nineteen of Byrdsong’s 43 years saw him coach basketball.

In 1988, he got his first big break, coaching the Titans on the McNichols campus.

“We had a great five years in Detroit,” said Sherialyn.

They attended Rosedale Baptist Church on Sundays, and Byrdsong even started a basketball camp in the shadows of the Motown museum at the Joseph Walker Williams Recreational Center.

That is where current Detroit Mercy head basketball coach Bacari Alexander first encountered him.

“I got to see his infectious spirit, his giving nature and his keen ability to connect with young people of all ages,” said Alexander.

Alexander said he draws inspiration from the positive example Byrdsong set and is humbled because he knows the pressures and demands that come with being a head coach.

“Every person he came in contact with he made them feel a little bit better about them self,” he said.

As a coach, he was no less motivating.

“He was able catch the hearts and minds of the community that surrounded our campus,” said Alexander.

Mickey Barrett, who once again works for the university basketball program, was among Byrdsong’s last assistant coaches at Detroit.

He gave Barrett his first job opportunity at Detroit Mercy.

“He would come in my office and we would just sit there. He’d ask me a question about academics or basketball and two hours later we’re talking about how to solve the problems of the world and then realize we’ve got to get practice planned,” said Barrett.

Barrett remembered Byrdsong as a wonderful thinker and as being disciplined with the team.

There were times where Detroit had a game out of town and if any players were just a minute late in meeting the bus for departure, Byrdsong would have the bus take off without him to teach him a lesson.

“The players on those teams knew how much he really cared about them,” Barrett said.

It was on those bus rides that Barrett would sometimes get the opportunity to spend time with Ricky’s children.

“Ricky Jr. would be on my lap and Kelley sitting next to me,” he recalled.

There is a photo of Ricky Byrdsong placed on the wall at the north end of Detroit Mercy’s Calihan Hall.

The image is in front of Detroit Mercy’s fountain; his hands are open. He is well dressed in tan dress pants, a navy suit jacket, white shirt and red tie with gold diagonal stripes.

His big smile lights up the photo that was taken almost thirty years ago.

“As coaches, we always try to teach life lessons, not just basketball lessons, and Ricky was exceptional at that. I have a great deal of love and respect for him. I always will and it’s a part of my life that’s missed,” said Barrett.

 

**

 

“When you first come into a job, everybody thinks he’s got the magic touch,” Byrdsong said in the Jan. 6, 1990, issue of the Titan Court Report.

Before Detroit, Byrdsong served six years as an assistant coach for the University of Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball team, five of those years under the tutelage of head coach Lute Olson.

The Wildcats at the time had just made an appearance in the 1988 NCAA Final Four. Six year before, they had won only four games in a season.

When Byrdsong arrived in Detroit, the Titans had been on a losing streak and had not been to the NCAA tourney since the hey days of head coach Dick Vitale, almost 10 years earlier.

Byrdsong knew what it was like to go from losing to winning. He was given the task of building a winning basketball club.

“When you’re winning, you take it for granted,” Byrdsong said, “but I’ve found out you can never put too much time into getting the job done.”

His first season saw the Titans win seven games in an all-Division I schedule and get the team to the finals of the MCC tournament. The Titans seemed to be making progress.

Three years after he came to Detroit, he graced the cover on the Jan. 6, 1991, issue on the Detroit Free Press Magazine.

The headline read, “Against the Odds: Ricky Byrdsong is trying to win respect for the University of Detroit. But first he’s got to win some games.”

Byrdsong did win some games in the five seasons he served as head coach for Detroit Mercy, but he never got the Titans back to the NCAA tourney.

But he did win the hearts of his players, colleagues and much of the Detroit community.

 

**

 

It’s 1992, Herman Jenkins, who at the time was a senior at U of D Jesuit High School, met Ricky Byrdsong for the first time.

The previous summer Jenkins had played with Chris Webber on the super friends AAU team. “That summer, coupled with a good senior year in high school, got Ricky Byrdsong’s attention,” said Jenkins.

Byrdsong wanted to recruit Jenkins as a walk-on. The only problem was that he couldn’t offer Jenkins a scholarship

Jenkins had already been offered full ride scholarships from other schools, like Lake Superior State and Florida A & M, but he wanted to stay close to his hometown.

It was a conversation that Byrdsong had with his mother during a home visit that won over Jenkins.

“I’ll never forget my mother saying these words to Coach Byrdsong,” Jenkins said. “ ‘Mr. Byrdsong, you say to me that you going to treat my son like one of your own? And you sit here on my couch and you say to me my son is going to be guaranteed a scholarship next year? Are you telling me and are you saying this to me as if it’s true?’

“Byrdsong replied, ‘Ms. Jenkins, your son is my son and I will treat him as such. And I guarantee you that the first scholarship that becomes available, it will be his.’ “

After a teammate had lost his scholarship over legal trouble, Byrdsong gave Jenkins a scholarship his freshman year.

Jenkins was one of the last players Byrdsong recruited, and the funny thing is Jenkins never got to play in one game for him.

Jenkins played center in high school, but Byrdsong saw a different potential for Jenkins.

“I have a vision for you,” he told him. “I see you being a strong two guard, a strong defender, athletic three man, physical on the wing, and that’s where I’ll need you, but you have to sit out a year in order to get stronger and be ready to do it. But to reward you, I’ll let you travel and suit up for all the games.”

Jenkins was eligible to play his sophomore year, when Byrdsong accepted his last head coach position in college basketball –  at Northwestern University.

His sophomore Jenkins made the winning jump shot in a conference championship to help the Titans advance to the NCAA tournament, but the Titans never did make it to the tournament.

Three days after that season ended, Jenkins had received a phone call to his home.

“Coach Byrdsong is on the phone for you,” Jenkins mother told him.

 “He said he was very, very proud of me. It just made me feel really, really special. I mean I was just very, very humbled and so appreciative that he did that,” said Jenkins.

The two would meet again – over a tragedy.

Michael Hamilton, a teammate of Jenkins whom Byrdsong had recruited, had been shot eight times in retaliation for a home invasion.

“All the guys came in for Mike Ham’s funeral and I remember Byrd was there and we talked,” Jenkins said, noting that Byrdsong felt that he had lost one of his sons.

 “He talked with each of us about how he didn’t want that to happen to any more of us,” said Jenkins. “I was so hurt to find out years later that he was tragically gunned down in a hate crime.”

 

**

 

On July 7, 1999, more than 1600 people of all backgrounds filled the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church in Evanston.

Ricky Byrdsong’s bronze casket was placed in the front of the church.

Hundreds sat out on the lawn of the church to hear the funeral service through loud speakers.

It was Ricky’s voice they heard.

A few months before his murder, Byrdsong had recorded a sermon as part of his training to become a pastor.

That sermon played during his own service. 

Mrs. Byrdsong did not know that her pastor was going to play that sermon, and when she heard her husband’s voice it gave her strength to keep her head high.

“I really felt his spirit there at that time,” she said. “I felt like he was talking directly to me. It was very encouraging to me to hear his voice. It gave me the sense that his voice would live on even though he was dead. His voice, his life, what he stood for would live on.”

The message of Ricky’s sermon was simple but poignant: “Do the things that you have the potential to do, do the things that you’re afraid to do… With Jesus all things are possible. You can walk on the water.”

Among those sitting in the pews of the church were Herman Jenkins, Perry Watson, Mickey Barrett, Lute Olson, Scott Perry and Paul Swanson. All were there to remember a man they loved.

“It was one of the most loving things I’ve been around and tear jerking … hearing Ricky’s own voice at his own funeral. That to me will always be in my heart and in my mind,” said Barrett.

His body was transported to his native Atlanta for a second funeral service, where was laid to rest.

 

**

 

Just like the nights following the murder of Ricky, when his entire neighborhood would come together and walk the route he once jogged, nearly 5,000 come together on every Father’s Day in Evanston, Ill., to take part in the Ricky Byrdsong Memorial Race Against Hate in honor of his life and legacy.

The event was established 18 years ago by Ricky’s widow and the Ricky Byrdsong Foundation.

Every year his widow and their three children join the participants who knew Ricky and others who love to run in the event to share memories of the late Ricky Byrdsong.

Ricky Jr. sees the race as a time to be thankful for life and a time to be inspired in reflection on the impact his father made while living.

“When you get older and you learn about your dad and you talk to people who knew him, you’re like, ‘Holy cow, this guy was the real deal,’ ” said Ricky Jr. “He inspired me just to care about others and to always show people respect and do right by others.”

Ricky Jr. is in construction work and lives in Evanston.

His oldest sister Sabrina is in the television production business in Atlanta, and Kelley is a special education teacher getting her master’s degree in special education at DePaul University.

Ricky’s wife moved to back to Atlanta in 2009 and she teaches seventh grade math at Renaissance Middle School.

Every first day of school, Sherialyn shows her students a video that was made years after Ricky’s death called “Fly Lika a Byrd.”

“It just helps them to see that I’m a real person, that my life hasn’t been perfect like some of their lives haven’t been perfect,” she said. “But you can still persevere through that and have a good life and it’s just a way to build a relationship with them.”

Part of Sherialyn’s purpose in life is to mentor and be a positive influence for the youth.

“That’s what I do,” she said. “Ricky did it on the basketball court and I do it in the classroom.”

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