One of the most intriguing, and least well-known, stories portrayed in TSN's Engraved On A Nation documentary series came from Charles Officer's film on Chuck Ealey, who went from a poor upbringing where he trained his arm by throwing rocks at passing trains to a legendary college career at the University of Toledo and a remarkable stint as a CFL quarterback that included him one-upping Riders' legend Ron Lancaster to win the Grey Cup with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in his first CFL season. Many players have gone from horrible struggle to astounding success, but Ealey's story stood out; not only was it a tale of a remarkable man, but there were so many dimensions to it, from his involvement in civil-rights protests such as a sit-in at a whites-only pool following the drowning death of a cousin to how he cleaned the floors to be able to afford to go to a Catholic school to how he was passed over in the NFL draft despite a still-standing NCAA-record 35 straight wins as a starting quarterback. Only so much fit in to that one-hour film, though, and there's so much more to Ealey's story. Fortunately, that's where the new book The Stone Thrower (written by Ealey's daughter, Jael Ealey Richardson) comes in, and it's a remarkable read; not only does it effectively detail Ealey's past and his remarkable football career, it also shows the impact he's had on his family and raises some interesting questions about race in Canadian and American society.
This book may carry the same title as Officer's excellent film, but it takes some substantially different tacks. It doesn't follow a traditional biography format, and that proves to be an outstanding choice on Richardson's part. While a straightforward, chronological narrative of Ealey's life would undoubtedly be interesting, the way Richardson integrates past events in her father's life with issues she faced growing up and with her struggle to get her father to open up about his past is fascinating, and it makes the book difficult to put down. Despite the chronological jumping around, The Stone Thrower never feels confusing or disjointed. Instead, it reads like Richardson is telling a deeply personal and deeply passionate story, not presenting dry facts. The factual material is there, and there's plenty of impressive research into Ealey's life displayed throughout, but it's in service of the story; that enhances the book and makes it a compelling read, not merely a description of what happened when.
One element that's really interesting here is just how much difficulty Richardson had finding out about her father's life. Throughout the book, it becomes clear that keeping quiet has long been part of Ealey's personality; a particularly-notable example comes from how after games at the University of Toledo, he'd drive for hours to visit his sick younger brother, but didn't tell his teammates what he was doing. You wonder if the early challenges Ealey faced (an absent father, a rough neighbourhood, the segregationist policies in place at the time, the death of his cousin, the death of his brother) affected him similarly to how the horrors of World War II affected many Canadian football players-turned-pilots, whose silence was explored in "The Photograph," or if not talking about himself is just a natural part of his personality that would have been there even if he'd had an easier upbringing. In the end, though, Richardson gets him to open up in some remarkable ways, and she learns about herself and her family in the process.
Richardson's decision to share many of her own experiences with race growing up can't have been an easy one, as many of these are deeply personal. However, those stories prove to be an excellent inclusion from a writing standpoint, as they really illustrate how her family has shaped her and why she's so interested in learning about her father. Something else they illustrate is that Ealey's story still has plenty of present-day parallels; the segregated pools may be gone, but judgements by race still remain. It's notable that those judgements can come from a wide range of angles, too; Richardson relates her struggles to fit in with some of her black friends growing up, as some of them saw her as too white in appearance and tastes, but also includes a remarkable story of how she reacted when a soccer coach questioned if she was really black.
The book certainly illustrates that while plenty of progress has been made since the days when the NFL passed on Ealey thanks to his race, racial issues are by no means a thing of the past, in Canada or in the States. That could be a discouraging tale, but that isn't what this book feels like; instead, it's more a tale of hope, faith and perseverance despite the circumstances. Ealey certainly made a massive impact despite the odds being stacked against him, and he paved the way for other black quarterbacks to star in college and in the CFL. Richardson faced countless challenges of her own, both while growing up and in trying to discover more about her father, but she battled through and came out with an incredible book about the process. Perhaps The Stone Thrower can motivate people not just to learn about Ealey's remarkable past, but also to consider what issues we still face today and work to change the situation, as he did so effectively.