That was my plan before Thursday’s final hours, when the racial controversy roiling this town took another nasty turn that will only fan the flames.
Smallwood, 16, already had been hit with the heaviest week of his career as an athlete and student. When I met him Thursday afternoon at football practice, I hoped that he already had endured the worst.
Speaking with him and his family was inspirational. They were full of grace and insight in their reaction to what has become probably the most notorious and widely shared photo in the history of this small southwest Iowa town, the seat of Union County.
You know the photo I’m talking about: Five high school students and football players were pictured wearing white hoods that evoked the Ku Klux Klan.
One brandished a gun. One held a Confederate flag.
They stood next to a pathetic gnarly little burning cross. They look to be standing somewhere on a farm.
Social media on Wednesday instantly spread the photo far and wide and thrust it into the middle of our heated national debate on race.
Lately, we’ve been arguing over everything from the neo-Nazi tragedy of Charlottesville, Va., to the visible scars of Confederate monuments strewn nationwide, including in Iowa.
Smallwood is a towering 6-foot-3 African-American young man, a popular basketball and football star in a predominantly white town.
But suddenly he was confronted with five of his teammates posing in a racist photo, emulating a violent strain of white supremacists who routinely lynched blacks.
“I would see that kind of stuff like Charlottesville and think that’s pretty messed up,” Smallwood said. “I never thought that would happen to our small town.
“I don’t want to be playing with kids like that.”
Smallwood’s coach, Brian Morrison, whom he deeply respects, kicked the five players off the football team.
“I thought these guys are my friends,” Smallwood said. “I’ve been to some of their houses before. I’ve talked to them.”
He wanted to ask the five why they posed for the photo. Smallwood hadn’t yet gotten that chance.
And then late Thursday, news spread that the threat of litigation might lead to the students’ reinstatement on the football team.
Morrison late Thursday night told Des Moines Register reporter Linh Ta that “lawyers are involved right now in the situation,” but his stance remained that they were off the team.
When I met him earlier in the day in Creston, Morrison, perpetually on the verge of tears, talked about how he had been appalled and disturbed by the photos.
“It’s one of those things that curdles your stomach,” he said.
I nearly went to bed Thursday night having written about hopeful signs and inspiring characters responding to the crisis.
Smallwood’s parents and older sister thought that justice had been done to see the five students kicked off the football team.
Smallwood’s father, Robert, is a black man raised in Prescott, Ark. His mom, Danielle, is a white woman born and raised in Creston.
The couple, both 44, met as fellow students at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. They moved to Creston 20 years ago when their daughter, Tanna, was 4 months old.
They made a conscious choice to raise their family in what they saw as the safe, friendly environment of a small town.
And Creston mostly has lived up to that ideal, they said. Robert remembers the strange looks he got at first in the 1990s.
“Once people got used to seeing me, seeing someone different, it went away,” Robert said.
As a local mail carrier, Robert by default is one of the community’s most visible members. He encounters his neighbors every day, face to face as he walks down their sidewalks and onto their front porches.
This week he has been receiving hugs on his route.
“That’s the silver lining, I could say, about this whole situation,” Danielle said, “is how much our town has come together.”
Some in the community would like to see the five students suspended or expelled from school, not just kicked off the football team. Even before the threat of a lawsuit, school officials stayed mum on that, citing student privacy restrictions.
Danielle would prefer the students remain in school.
“I think they should have to go and look at all the high school kids that they have hurt,” she said. “Whether they’re black, white, whatever, they hurt a lot of people, and I think they should have to go back and face that.”
When racism rears its head, we tend to say that it can happen anywhere. And that’s true.
But to his credit, high school Principal Bill Messerole didn’t trot out that sentiment to downplay what happened.
“Even though this could happen anywhere, it happened here,” he said, looking as distraught as his head football coach. “So we’ve got to own this and move on in a positive way.”
By all accounts, the school and community at large were shocked by the brazenness of the photo. There were no other incidents in recent months preceding it.
Five years ago, I reported on a family that left Creston because they had experienced widespread racism. It became a talking point when the mother of the family wrote a letter to the editor, published in the local Creston News Advertiser, declaring as much.
Another woman wrote to agree, saying, “Racist jokes and phrases can be heard in every corner of the community.”
The Smallwoods said they didn’t remember that. And it hasn’t reflected their everyday lives.
The first thing Danielle told her son after the photo cropped up is that she was sorry this happened. She told him she loves him.
She told him that unfortunately, this is the world we live in. And that she hated he had to learn this so early in life.
Robert wasn’t quite as shocked, having grown up in the South, with the Confederate flag as a part of the everyday scenery.
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He just didn’t expect to see this sort of behavior in his adopted Iowa home — staged by kids he also knew.
For his part, Kylan Smallwood called growing up in Creston “perfectly fine.”
“I’ve never had threats or anything,” he said. “Nothing like dealing with this kind of stuff.”
The word “family” came up a lot in conversation with the Smallwoods, school officials and townsfolk.
Smallwood and his 68 remaining teammates are using the photo, he said, “as a way to bring us together as a family more. I know now that these guys have my back no matter what. That’s helped me a lot.”
Here’s what you take from this, Danielle also told her son: See how this community has rallied to support you and your family.
Residents are not condoning the racism. They want to make you feel safe.
And now you know who your real friends are.
I also like something Robert said: The racists are the true minority. They’re still outnumbered.
Even if this Creston controversy now descends into a bitter legal battle, exacerbating the pain for this football family and the entire community, we shouldn’t lose sight of that.