Dave Winfield reflects on fame, race

Marshall Fine

Most athletes who reach the limelight realize they are idols and heroes to millions of sports fans, a good number of them children.
As a standout pitcher for the Gophers baseball team and then as a forward for the Big Ten championship basketball team, Dave Winfield has become a hero to Black youths, a status which pleases him and makes him feel a little more serious about his influential role as an athlete.
“People look up to you and you feel you have to set an example,” he said in an interview Thursday. “I don’t think I’m any different than I used to be. But more and more people get to know who you are, from the newspapers or television. I don’t mind. If I can set an example for kids, that’s fine with me.”
Not outspoken, Winfield is nonetheless straightforward and open in his approach to athletics and, more importantly, to Black studies, which is his major. He realizes that, as an athlete, he has the opportunity to be heard in a way which others might not.
“I have my own convictions about things which happen in society and I will always make my feelings known to my people,” he said. “I don’t think you should stick a label like ‘militant’ on me. I just want people to know where I’m coming from, and that I’m with them, which I always will be. If I can do any good in any area that concerns Black people, I will. I figure that’s my job.”
The development of Winfield’s perspective was a gradual one, he said, but he added that “it’s a learning process that last for your whole life.
“Like, in grade school, the teacher would talk about history but she would never say anything about Black history,” the 6-foot-6 senior said. “At the time, I didn’t realize there was such a thing.
“And when she would mention Africa, I’d kind of slide down in my seat. The white kids would laugh or giggle and I would get a feeling of shame.
“Since then I have become aware that I am a Black man in what is basically a white society, a society in which we don’t have a full part.
“Everyday of your life someone makes the distinction that you’re Black,” he continued. “And you have to deal with that — you can’t overlook it. It doesn’t matter how well I’m paid I might be in the future. Even if I was to become a millionaire, I’d still be Black; there’d still be someone who would call me a ‘nigger’ just because of my face.”
Although Winfield said he would like to eventually work with kids, he wants first to “go off into my own thing for awhile, whatever it may be.”
There is indeed reason for speculation. By the end of this academic year, Winfield will probably become the first athlete in Minnesota history to be drafted in three professional sports: baseball, basketball and football.
He has been a standout pitcher for the Gopher baseball team, of which he is captain and the only Black member this season.
Last year, he stepped straight into the starting lineup of the Gopher cage squad from an intramural team. he became the Gophers fifth man when Ron Behagen and Corky Taylor were suspended and has held his own as a starter for most of this season.
Endowed with an amazing ability to jump vertically, he has averaged 11.1 points a game, as well as 6.2 rebounds per contest.
In January, he was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings because of his physical ability, in spite of the fact he has never played intercollegiate or high school football.
In short, he is a natural athlete with the ability to adapt and improve rapidly in a given sport. Furthermore, he is a fierce competitor because, as he has said in the past, “I love to play and I love to win. I always play as hard as I can because it’s the only way I know.”
Yet he says that acclaim “hasn’t changed my lifestyle. I feel like I can, will and do set a pretty good example for kids who look up to me. I’m just another brother who’s trying to make it.”
One of the places he wants to make is Nashville and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) regional basketball tournament. To do so, Winfield and the Gophers must defeat Northwestern on Saturday and, possibly and probably, Indiana in a play-off on Monday.
“We can’t look past anyone now,” he said. “I think we might have done that a little with Iowa. If we do that again, there’s going to be no Nashville or St. Louis (site of the NCAA national tournament). Then we’ll just end up in New York in the Loser’s Bowl (the National Invitational Tournament).”