Wednesday, 17 October 2012

This Land | Donna's Diner: This Land: In the Hard Fall of a Favorite Son, a Reminder of a City’s Scars

AppId is over the quota
AppId is over the quota
He walks the city streets with that block of a body angled headfirst, as if determined to break through life’s defensive line. Often he is shouting with urgent intent, trying to tell the people of Elyria — something. But what?

He shouts about the father, the son and the Golden Helmet. About the time they killed his brother. About the baseball bat. About Les Miles, the Louisiana State University football coach, and a roster of other prominent Elyrians. His words tumble out like bits of broken thoughts.

But what is this man trying to say? As he weaves with purpose through City Hall, around Ely Square, in the front of Donna’s Diner and out the back. As he talks so loudly that the owner, Donna Dove, has to tell him, Ike, Ike, use your inside voice or leave, which is like trying to lower the volume on a damaged radio.

Some people in Elyria try to help out; Ike Maxwell is one of their own. Judge James M. Burge and a lawyer, Michael J. Duff, give him money on a regular schedule, and a couple of Donna’s patrons, from that front-table group called the Breakfast Club, occasionally hand him a few bucks. One day, he’ll use the money to buy a meal; another day, a can of malt liquor.

But at 59, what is Ike trying to say? The truth is, some people know. Donna knows. So does Forrest Bullocks, a former city councilman who comes to her diner on Fridays for the perch special. Others know, too, that he is speaking in Elyrian about glory, regret and maybe even the one subject that vexes through boom and bust: race.

“Do you understand?” asks Ike, a black man, again and again.

Dynamite Ike

Unstoppable. Ike Maxwell on the high school football field was like an adult playing among children. A dominant, dazzling running back, he could stay on his feet no matter what hit him, and oh how he could run.

“Look at that. Look at that!” says Steve Sunagel, 57, a Breakfast Club regular and an old teammate of Ike’s. “You can’t teach that.”

Steve, graying but still football fit, is watching a silent film of one game among many — Elyria vs. Lorain, Nov. 12, 1971 — as the click of the reel ticks like a clock. There’s No. 68, Les Miles. There’s No. 47, Steve Sunagel. And there, forever finding daylight in the black-and-white past: No. 42, Ike Maxwell, running and scoring in a blowout against Elyria’s archrival.

“See how he made that first guy miss,” Steve says, excited. “He just gets through the tiniest of holes. A little shoulder shake and then. ... ”

Ike electrified Elyria. During that 1971 season, the city ached for Friday night, when its very own celebrity was guaranteed to humiliate yet another rival. Home or away, thousands of Elyrians came to see every shimmy and shake of the phenom “Dynamite Ike.”

Ike’s father wasn’t among them. He had been shot dead years earlier in a late-night gunfight at an Elyria bar. When the police found his body face down in a bar, he was holding a .22 revolver with three of its six cartridges spent. Ike was 12.

Nor was young, sandy-haired Donna Jacobson — Donna of the diner. A recent transfer from the overwhelmingly white Bay High School in Bay Village, she was a year behind Ike. She was so intimidated by the black students at Elyria High School that she cut nearly every class and eventually dropped out.

“I didn’t know blacks,” Donna recalls. “I was afraid of them.”

But Ike’s girlfriend, Beverly Wilson, was always there to shout his name. She had been Ike’s biggest fan ever since junior high school, when they first met at a production of “Romeo and Juliet” at the Midway Mall.

“I’m ready to cry,” Beverly says, her voice trembling over a telephone connection from a city far from Elyria. “He was so nice. He told me in ninth grade that he was going to break all the records.”

Ike kept his word. He set school rushing records for most yards in a game, in a season, in a career. After he and Les Miles led the Pioneers to an undefeated 1971 season, Ike was All-Ohio and All-America and was given the award for the best football player and student in Lorain County. It’s called the Golden Helmet.

“Everybody liked him,” Beverly says. “He put Elyria on the map.”

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