By: Thom Gossom Jr.
Reviewed by: Chris Bouier
State Street Press/Borders Group, 2008
If you are looking for a different type of civil rights story or if you are seeking a different type of sports tale, then Walk-On is the book for you. Unlike many memoirs connected to the era, Walk-On is not a “nuts and bolts” civil rights tale about politics, social unrest, or any of the usual suspects. Those elements are certainly there to be sure, but this is a resolutely personal story written after the height of the most extreme upheavals by someone who was not directly involved in those facets of the movement. Those elements most often lurk in the background of Gossom’s world until they inevitably rise to the fore and force him to deal with them directly. That is the primary recurrent theme in this book, the theme of how a simple guy with a simple dream “walked on” and found himself thrust into performing heroics both on the football field and the cultural landscape.
Gossom’s voice is active and effective, conveying the pain of his isolation, the strength of his resolve, the confusion of balancing two rapidly changing worlds, and the triumph of his success. Although the print does contain a few oversights of proofing that should not have found their way into such a high-profile publication, the book is very well written, engaging, and easily devoured. Moreover, his choice of using his college football career as a subtly metaphoric vehicle is as natural as it is powerful. Its inevitability is made all the more poignant by the understated matter-of-fact nature in which he notes that it was through football that he “tackled” the defensive line of the old guard at Auburn in the early ’70s.
Though he never explicitly says so, Gossom’s tone constantly reminds one of a single undeniable fact: in Alabama, college-football has been, is, and always will be king. In spite of all the achievements of previous black sports pioneers—especially those of Alabamian Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics—the fulcrum that leveraged the inert mass of white, southern opinion towards an acceptance and ownership of black athletic achievement—and, therefore, provided a thrust in the direction of a more level social playing field in general—was the rise of black college football stars like Gossom and others.
However, it is the personal touch of his story and the well-described reluctance with which he approached his fate as a civil rights pioneer that make this memoir so refreshingly unique and deeply human at the same time. Those essentials and Gossom’s pacing through his use of short, pointed chapters reminiscent of a progression of downs, gains, losses, and goals on the gridiron make this book a prime choice for civil rights or sports enthusiasts as well as for the general reader.
Gossom transports us back to a crux moment in the evolution of the racial picture in the U.S., a time when Legion Field was still the focal point upon which 65,000 Alabamians descended annually with a collective identity to paint the portrait of a long-held tradition even while simultaneously a few brave souls like Gossom were ascending from anonymity to forever transform the racial palette in which that tradition was painted in particular and the overall picture of American race relations in general. Nov 2008
Chris Bouier is a theater technician, musician, and alumnus of the University of Montevallo.