Former New Britain High School Football Star Prays for ‘Triple Overtime'
In 1960, John “Jackie” Robinson made it to the pinnacle of college football when he arrived on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, as a scholarship player. At Notre Dame, football players are treated like royalty—destined to live their lives in the pantheon of revered athletes. John was ready for his turn on the throne.
Growing up, John’s heroes were Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown and basketball star Julius Erving, better known as Dr. J. As much as he loved sports, John was more interested in the broader world “because I wanted to understand and grasp life.” Life would be a stern teacher, and John would push back.
The former New Britain High School halfback caught the attention of college scouts as he ran through secondaries on the football fields in Central Connecticut. Describing his talent to me over the telephone in late April 2022, John says, “it just came naturally to me. I knew if I got into the secondary of the opposing team, I was going to score a touchdown.”
He was the type of runner who followed his blockers, or when the conditions called for it, he would create his own masterpiece, like an artist improvising on a blank canvas. His brush was his feet and the field his medium—chunks of grass here, bodies on the ground there.
That was just natural—it wasn’t something that I planned.
He was dazzling and dominating. “There’s one picture of me where I was hurling somebody,” says John. “That was just natural—it wasn’t something that I planned.” John remembers scoring five touchdowns in a game against Mount Pleasant High School from Providence, Rhode Island. In another game, undefeated Bulkeley-Hartford played New Britain on Thanksgiving Day, it was second down, from New Britain’s own five-yard line; John cut right and ran 95 yards for a touchdown. They beat Bulkeley-Hartford 28-0.
John was a three-sport letter winner at New Britain High School after graduating from Nathan Hale Junior High in the ninth grade. As good as John was in football, basketball was his favorite sport. He stood 6’1” and says casually, “Yeah, I could dunk.” He played for three years and believes he could have received a college basketball scholarship had he pursued it.
His prodigious talent translated to sports that required speed and athleticism, including running cross-country his freshman year. He was on the track team for three years, running the 220-meter dash, 220-meter relay and high jump. His team would win a New England Championship in track and field and the Brown University Invitational.
The nickname “Jackie” was placed on his head like a crown in high school as an ode to the great Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier. But all was not well for Blacks, including the seven in his graduating class at New Britain High School. He says, “But you know, there was the atmosphere of racism.” He credits teacher Jerry Fitzgerald for steering him toward taking college-level classes and focusing on the bigger picture.
He knows which sport put him on the map, stating, “Football is what took me to Notre Dame.” The amazing thing is that John played high school football for only two years, his junior and senior years.
When the time came to select a college, his heart was set on the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles; however, his parents didn’t want him to go to California—you can still hear the disappointment in his voice. John visited Northwestern University, but they had no open scholarships available. So, he selected Notre Dame.
Racism was the norm, more deadly than disease, killing hopes, dreams and ambitions.
The South: Hollywood, Alabama
To be young and Black in the fifties and sixties was to settle for less, despite the promises made in the U.S. Constitution. Racism was the norm, more deadly than disease, killing hopes, dreams and ambitions. John’s world was shaped by his environment.
Born in Hollywood, Alabama, to Anna Ellison and Karie Robinson, John was an only child. John’s father left his mother when she was six months pregnant; the couple later divorced.
Anna left John in Alabama with the plan of retrieving him once she was settled in Connecticut. She returned to Connecticut with John in tow, before he started kindergarten.
Anna had promised John's grandmother (his father's mother) that she would visit her during the summers. Anna and John would take the train south; in Washington D.C., they would have to move to the back of the train due to Jim Crow laws. His grandfather would pick them up in Scottsboro, Alabama. “I remember getting off the train in Scottsburg, where there were always those signs: ‘Whites’ and ‘Coloreds,’ hanging over the water fountain. It didn’t really dawn on me until I went to college,” John says.
Looking back on a seminal moment of his life, John comments, “Notre Dame was my driving force. When I went to Notre Dame, I realized that ‘white boys’ knew a helluva lot more than I knew about things outside of sports and life, and I wanted to know those things too. So, I made it my life’s journey to be able to know about all kinds of things, like wine, just about all kinds of things other than sports—to be very diversified, and [to] have a conversation.”
He read a lot to advance himself in life and learned about history and people, including racism. He came to the epiphany that he was still Black in America no matter where he went. This revelation was based on his reality. John’s mother had told him stories about how she had picked cotton, and the family was cheated out of money when it came time to weigh the bags, receiving less than the amount for the actual weight of the bag.
Despite Anna not completing high school, “She was a very intelligent woman,” says John. “She had a very hard life.“ Somehow, she found the time to teach him life lessons, including how to cook. She believed that John might not always have a woman in his life, but he would never starve if he learned how to cook, which he did. He remained very close to his mother until she died on July 13, 2015, at 93.
The Midwest: A New World
Life in South Bend was not like living in New Britain, Connecticut. While not a stranger to racism, John's college life walled him off from experiences that only whites could enjoy. He and his roommate, James John Snowden Jr., at Notre Dame were the only Black freshman on the football team that year. They were forbidden from going to Black neighborhoods, so they would sneak out to get haircuts.
On one trip to South Bend, John remembers seeing a sign in a restaurant window that read, “No Niggers.” He was floored because he had never seen a sign like that in Connecticut. In another incident, he recalls being asked to leave a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) dance because his “presence was offending a white girl.” John says, “It was a tough time,” emphasizing tough.
There was a flicker of hope that change was coming when Nancy Streets-Lyons was crowned the first Black Miss Indiana University in 1959—long before a Black woman would break the barrier and be named Miss America. She graduated from IU in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree. John remembers meeting her and her friends.
To meet women, John and others would go to St Mary’s, at the time, the all-girls liberal arts college that was Notre Dame’s “sister college” (Notre Dame became coed in 1972; St. Mary’s remains an all-women’s college, although clubs and activities and some academic programs are open to students on either campus). John dated white women at the time, which was taboo at best in some places.
John tells the story of one woman he dated. It started when the New York University men’s basketball team traveled to Notre Dame. John told his girlfriend that he was not going to the game. The girl, who wasn’t supposed to go to the game, showed up at the Huddle, the student union. A few of John’s friends tried to cover up for him by acting like the girl was there to see them. But she wasn’t.
You know how sometimes the world gets [so] quiet, you can hear a pin drop?
John says, “You know how sometimes the world gets [so] quiet, you can hear a pin drop? The girl asked me, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were going to the game?’” John was stumped. Bad news travels fast. The Dean of Students summoned John for a meeting. He told John he shouldn’t be dating white women. John replied, “Why not?” Back in Connecticut, John had never had this problem. He realized that to eliminate the problem, he would have to stop seeing the girl.
John calls the issues he experienced at Notre Dame “an eye-opener.” He eventually left school after his freshman year and never played a single game. At that time, freshmen were not eligible to play varsity. They practiced amongst themselves. Under coach Joe Kuharich, Notre Dame went 2-8 that year. Angelo Dabiero was the top running back with 328 yards and three touchdowns. With 11.1 points per game, the offense lacked a punch and ranked 89 out of 113 colleges.
Reflecting on his decision, John says, “It was a big mistake, but I was young.” He enrolled at the University of Toledo briefly but left after getting severe migraines. His playing career was over.
The hometown football fans never forgot John. They came calling in 2014 when John “Jackie” Robinson was inducted into the New Britain High School Sports Hall of Fame. His accomplishments are immortalized in history.
NYC: Then Back to College
When John returned to New Britain and got a job, he played a lot of basketball at the YMCA and in summer leagues. He loved the game. Eventually, John settled in New York City, where he worked for seven or eight years. He lived on West 77th and Columbus Avenue, across from the Museum of Natural History. New York City was liberating and energizing. But it didn’t start that way. John states, “My first six months I was miserable. After that, New York didn’t owe me anything.”
He met Walt “Clyde” Frazier of the New York Knicks and Earl Monroe of the Baltimore Bullets, and later the Knicks. “I hung out with a bunch of good people,” says John. And he went to his share of parties. The city was full of different people. John dated white, Hispanic and Black women. South Bend was a long way from John’s mind.
I got pissed and said I’m going to go back and get it all.
The good times would end when John applied for a new job. He didn’t get that job because he didn’t have a college degree. John says, “I got pissed and said I’m going to go back and get it all.” This was the beginning of his new plan. He wanted to go to a school where he could complete his undergraduate degree and simultaneously work on a master’s degree.
John researched and found that Clark College and Atlanta University (the historically black colleges and universities merged in 1988, creating Clark Atlanta University) would allow undergraduates to simultaneously pursue an MBA. To pay the tuition, he received scholarship funds and borrowed money. While there, he lived in an off-campus apartment.
His life was much different from his days in New York City. There were no late-night parties and carrying on. John took 24 credit hours per semester. His life was “very, very quiet,” focused on studying. He graduated in 1978, having obtained both an undergraduate degree and his MBA in two and a half years. He couldn’t find a job in Atlanta, so he returned to Connecticut in 1980.
Work and ‘the Wall’
John worked at CBT Bank in Connecticut for a few years. Next, he went to Aetna to participate in a management trainee program, with the goal of becoming an officer. With an MBA under his belt, he thought he had ‘the ticket’ to advance in corporate America. He says, “I forgot one thing, ‘I was still Black in America.’”
“Aetna was a tough place. I worked there for almost twenty years, and they kept dropping carrots, saying you have to do this, then it was something else,” John states. He would never make it to the rank of officer. He peaked at class 34, one step below an officer. From his perspective, he found insurance companies to be “very racist at the time.”
John used the euphemism “the wall” to describe racism that often blocked his career path. The wall was always there. “I’m not going to lie; it made me angry as a Black male in America.” He negotiated his exit from the company, where he received health insurance benefits for life. This was his final carrot as he walked out the door.
He worked for the Community Renewal Team (CRT) in Hartford and then studied to get his Series 6 license to sell investments for a bank. For the past nine years, he has worked at HEDCO, a nonprofit lender based in Hartford. The big executive-level opportunities never came. Feeling like he just missed the bus, John says, “That’s probably the story of my life.”
John’s superpower may be the ability to raise strong, Black women. Dana Robinson-Scott is John’s biological daughter. Dana, 53, a technical consultant to programmers, lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She has two grown kids of her own: Kayla, 31, who is a mechanical engineer, and Dallas, 28, who is autistic.
Until she was about 14 years old, Dana spent every other weekend with John in her grandparents’ (Anna and Oscar, whom she called Oco, pronounced Ah-Coo) home in New Britain. Dana and John were two different people. Dana loved the cerebral activity of reading books, and John preferred the physical and mental challenge of golf. But they found a way to coexist at the movies. The first movie Dana remembers seeing with John was Star Wars. She was hooked; from that moment on, if an action-adventure film was playing, Dana wanted to see it.
The grandparents were a good buffer between Dana and John, especially her grandmother, Anna. “She was an amazing cook, and I love to cook,” says Dana. “She taught me everything she knew, and I am forever in her debt.”
Dana’s mother, Sharon, helped her better understand her father, as only a mother can. “So my mother’s model was, ‘Listen, he’s your father, good, better, indifferent. And the Bible says honor thy mother and father, and that’s what you’re going to do.’ That was the discussion.”
Over the years, John did his best as a single dad. He bought Dana’s school clothes. When Dana broke her ankle in three places at age 14, John picked her up from Fox Middle School and made sure she saw the best specialist at the hospital. In her early twenties, he co-signed a car loan for her, and when things went bad, John stepped in and paid it off. The two later had a major falling out, changing their lives. Dana says the reason was that John would take Kayla out, but not Dallas.
Sharon passed away in 2001, and Dana longed for a better relationship with John. For twenty years, they barely talked. Ten years ago, Dana reached out to John and invited him to Kayla’s graduation from UCONN. And things began to thaw.
It changed the dynamic in our relationship quite a bit because I became his ‘little girl’ again.
When Dana contracted COVID in 2020 and ended up in the hospital, John called her daily. She came home from the hospital with an oxygen tank. Dana says, “It changed the dynamic in our relationship quite a bit because I became his ‘little girl’ again.”
Dana describes her father as dapper, energetic, very vocal, and “you never wonder where you stand with him.” Providing more details of the man, she says John is not one to dwell on the negative. “I think a lot of people think that he’s arrogant, but it’s not arrogance. He’s just very comfortable in his own skin,” says Dana.
These days, the relationship is better; they talk every Saturday on the telephone. Dana says, “So in those moments that we get every Saturday morning, I appreciate his insight, his wisdom, and just hearing him.” It’s their way of staying connected.
Father and Mentor-Mentee Relationship
John met Linda Taylor, and their relationship blossomed. Linda had a six-year-old girl named Rayshida, who would grow close to John. Today, they have a father-daughter relationship and a mentor-mentee relationship.
When Linda, John and Rayshida attended the Juneteenth event at the Wadsworth Atheneum, they would get all dressed up. As a kid in the sixth grade, Rayshida would absorb the people, what they were wearing, the jazz music, and all the other things adults did. It was a cultural experience, and she learned about the significance of Juneteenth. She remembers it as a “fun time.” When she graduated from middle school, she got to take a “tiny little sip” of champagne.
In the early days, she and John would talk about education and college; as Rayshida grew up, they progressed to career and life choices. She felt that John was “preparing her for the world.” “So he’s kind of been my dad and life coach,” says Rayshida.
They both have read the book, The Art of War and had conversations about it. When they talk, business is a recurring topic. “It’s hilarious because he's all business even when he’s not in business,” says Rayshida. She recalls all types of lessons John has tried to impart in her life. The time John took her to the driving range, it turned into a teaching opportunity for her—she does not play golf.
Rayshida, 47, has worked for a major pharmaceutical company for nearly 20 years and climbed the corporate ladder. She is the director of reimbursement and has moved seven times to improve her career opportunities but has no plans to leave her current home in Florida—because she is not a fan of cold weather. She believes John poured so much into her to ensure that she would not hit ‘the wall’ that stopped him.
When talking about John, Rayshida says, “He is very polished, educated, and a lifelong learner.” She stated that he’s dedicated to the people he loves and keeps a small circle of friends. Golf is like another person in their relationship—always around. She describes golf as “It’s like his best friend. He wishes he could spend more time but can’t. He’s always appreciative when he’s there.”
Golf and Life
John is the shaman who continues to dispense all he has learned over his long life. He wants his daughters and grandchildren to know their worth. A favorite saying is, “Don’t take no wooden nickels.” in other words, know your worth, because John knows his.
He doesn’t want the people he loves most to run up against the wall he faced in life. In a different time, things might have been different for him. But Dana says, “My father isn’t one to dwell on the negative. It’s just always been, ‘you are your only obstacle.’ That’s the lesson I learned from my father.”
Today, John’s message to young people is, “Although there are challenges in this world, you can never give up. You got to move forward. You can’t let life kick you in the butt. You got to find a way to go around it. You got to just keep moving.”
The golf course is still his toughest opponent—gone are the glory days when he had a single-digit handicap. He’s attracted to golf “because golf is the biggest challenge in life that one can ever have because it’s all about you and about nobody else.” John says, “And if you can master that, you’re doing well. I mean, golf is a sport where you can’t get ahead of yourself. You could be shooting a great round, but you got to stay in the moment.“
His dream is to golf with his favorite player, Tiger Woods—he calls him TW as if they are best friends. Asked if he could add another person, he says, “Oh my god, I would like to play with Michael Jordan.”
John’s body shows signs of wear and tear, but his mind is sharp. His resolve to continue moving forward is like steel. As he approaches the end of his seventies, John says, “I thank God every day for another day because I never know when it will be my last day. I’m playing for triple overtime.”
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, concise stories for people who are curious about the world.