Book Review: Matchsticks: An Education in Black & White by Fred Engh

You know a story’s going to resonate when it includes a scene with the protagonist’s mother telling them it’s time to get their life together and make something of themselves — in a loving way. Towards the beginning of Fred Engh’s inspiring memoir, Matchsticks: An Education in Black & White (Square One, January 2021), that’s just what happens. The admonishment spurs him into action, and thus the story starts. But this isn’t just a story about tapping into potential. It’s about tapping into the potential of a society to fix itself — to undo systemic racism. It’s about just what it takes, person by person, and game by game.

For context here, Engh founded the nonprofit National Association of Youth Sports (NAYS). It’s an influential organization that vowed to give all kids, no matter their race, equal access to the sports they want to play. With NAYS and his other endeavors, Engh has helped take the black and white out of organized sports, ensuring they are run more fairly — from coaching to fans. Diversity and inclusion aren’t buzzwords to him: they’re the key to a better society for everyone, and sports are one of the best ways to achieve it. Engh sees athletics as a way to bring people together and help kids tap into their own potential — and this mission stems from his own life story.

In 1961 Engh was living in a trailer park with his wife and children, a young man with less than promising prospects, holding down a part time job and living day to day. One day he was listening to a local radio show and heard a college football coach talk about becoming a Physical Education teacher. That was enough to inspire him to want to go to college himself. And unlike nearly any white kid growing up in the highly segregated early 1960s, Engh wound up attending an all-black college, Maryland State. He was, in fact, the first white student to earn his diploma from one. It hadn’t been his intention to break any color barriers. He was just looking for a way forward. But at the time, the school was the simplest route from point A (a lackluster existence) to point B (becoming an accredited teacher).

At Maryland State, Engh certainly stood out as the one white student. “How has your experience being on a Black campus changed you … a white man?” he was asked. He first answered with a joke, he recalls: “I’m white?” But he has plenty of opportunities to get serious, and he does. His position, as he writes, gave him a unique vantage point for witnessing the nonstop racism Blacks experienced. When he paired up with a Black student athlete to form a golf team, he saw even more. His golf partner, Bob Taylor, was routinely treated with prejudice and derision. But Taylor was a phenomenal athlete — he’d later play pro football — and the team’s success was undeniable. They weren’t just winning; they were starting to shift attitudes as well — and creating an enduring friendship that would change Engh forever.

Matchsticks is filled with heartening moments, told with warmth as well as honesty. Engh candidly explores his own upbringing and confronts how deeply racism was ingrained in how he thought and how he behaved. He notes that the Black students he went to college with were more open-minded and insightful than most of the whites he encountered. Sadly, his fellow students had often internalized their sense of pessimism about their place in the world and the prospect of change. And that’s one of the formative reasons that led Engh into a career pushing boundaries on and off the playing field. To be equal, people have to feel equal — and to feel equal they have to have equal access to the same opportunities. Certainly, as we go through the process of reckoning with the fact that racism is alive and well even now, it’s great to read a story like this — whether you’re a sports fan or not.

**

· Publisher : Square One (January 21, 2021)

· Language : English

· Hardcover : 176 pages

· ISBN-10 : 0757005055

· ISBN-13 : 978–0757005053

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Jana Martin is a writer, editor and book reviewer based in the Hudson Valley.

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Jana R. Martin

Jana R. Martin

Jana Martin is a writer, editor and book reviewer based in the Hudson Valley.

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