‘He can come home with me.” That’s what my 82-year-old uncle, George Whitfield, remembers my grandfather saying one early morning at Grainger High School in Kinston, North Carolina, about 14-year-old George. At that time, the early 1950s, George was nowhere close to being family. His own mother died when he was a year old, his father died when he was 12. His two spinster aunts, “mean as hell,” sent him to boarding school in Virginia. A place he promptly broke out of by plumping up his bed with pillows after the proctors came by to check, shimmying down the fire escape, making it to the highway, then thumbing a ride with a big rig back to Kinston.
George waited at the front desk of Grainger High School for my grandfather, Amos Sexton, the basketball coach on a winning streak. George had read about him in the paper, and he wanted a part of the action.
“There’s a boy in there who wants to play basketball,” George overheard the receptionist, Catherine, telling my grandfather. “But he doesn’t have anywhere to go.”
Amos agreed to take him home before taking a look at him.
“Why are you knocking on your own door, Amos?” asked my grandmother, Lee, that evening with two boys, ages 4 and 2, at her heels, food on the stove. “Are you bringing company home for supper?”
Boy was he. Amos brought home a runaway with two dead parents, two mean aunts and a determination to play basketball for Grainger. Lee pointed out the obvious: Amos had his hands full with coaching, and teaching, and his radio program and selling pots and pans to housewives on the side to make ends meet. He didn’t have time for a teenager. No matter. “It’s something I gotta do,” was all he said. Within weeks, George was part of the family.
And he never forgot it.
George drives me and my oldest son around Kinston, 60 years after my grandfather left North Carolina for Louisiana in search of a more lucrative income. Even the offer of a head-coaching job at Wake Forest didn’t promise much more than a high school coaching stipend. Still, in nine seasons of coaching, Amos Sexton won three state championships and three runner-up finishes. He won the Northeastern Conference eight times, the NEC tournament five times and the district title six times.
These numbers mean a lot to George. But what means more was the opportunity he was given. “Your grandfather was a tough disciplinarian,” he tells me, with admiration. “On and off the court.” George shows us the gym—still with the original wood floors—where they played. He shows us the houses they lived in. He shows us the rec center where everyone in town learned to dance the shag, and the swimming pool where the teenagers would hang out. He points out where Shady’s Soda Shop once stood. “They had the best hotdogs in town. I have no idea what they put on ’em.” And the athletic hall of fame, with all of my grandfather’s accolades on the wall.
But George has many there too.
After college, George Whitfield went on to coach baseball, amassing nearly 1,000 victories in Goldsboro, Hamlet and Richmond County high schools. He was a two-time National Coach of the Year, his teams won eight state championships and 15 conference titles. George was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
He was driven to succeed, because he was given a chance.
“Mr. Sexton never did tell me why he did it,” says George wistfully, driving slowly through Kinston, making sure he doesn’t miss a landmark I need to know about. “Every time I brought it up, he changed the subject.” It was something he had to do.
This story made an impact on me as a young child. “My dad has an adopted brother,” I would tell my friends, although it wasn’t entirely true. But it was kinda true. George lived with them during his formative years, and he considers us family. His family. This informed my decision to adopt my own children decades later. Families can be cobbled together in many different ways: doesn’t always have to be blood kin to be part of the fold.
A quick decision made with determination during a winning streak might have a more lasting impact than trophies in a case.