By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — When Devol Yokley-Griffin put on his football uniform for the first time, he hadn’t thought about succeeding on the field.
The 11-year-old had never played the game before 2017, and only joined a local youth program because his father dragged him out of bed one morning. Before he could wipe the sleep out of his eyes, Devol was staring through a mask and goose-stepping through early morning calisthenics.
Soon, he was doing far more than that.
Devol quickly emerged as a proficient tackler other teams feared. His solid build and eagerness to learn has earned him the distinction as a top player, a title he proudly and confidently accepts. But, there’s a remnant of someone else behind the dauntless eyes and football swagger. Within the budding ball player is a little boy who learned what racism and bullying are in a way that’s all too common.
“Because of my skin color, some kids called me chocolate chip boy,” Devol said.
There were other names Devol can barely repeat without fighting back tears. Until he heard them, the word biracial meant nothing. Why his mother doesn’t share his complexion was never a question he thought of asking. There was no need to, certainly not at the ages of 5 and 6. But, jeers and laughter in response to a school-yard comparison to chocolate and human excrement changed all that. Devol was suddenly inculcated with a side of humanity parents fight so hard to keep their children from.
“It made me sad, because I didn’t know why they didn’t like me,” Devol said.
The slurs directed at Devol eventually stopped. But ones flung at classmates he still hears often. And unlike when he was being teased, his classmates know they have a trusted ally.
“A lot of my bullies have moved away,” he said. “So, I don’t really see them, but when people at my school try to do bad things and bully my friends, I tell them to stop. I tell them that they will get in trouble and that bullying hurts.”
Part of being a stalwart in his school isn’t about using football stature. Of course, it does come in handy though, Devol admits. But it’s not fear he intends to invoke. He’s figured out something about bullies he considers when he steps in to help his friends.
“They are sad, too,” Devol said. “They think [bullying] makes them feel better, but it really doesn’t.”
Devol’s football success has also connected him with Malaysia Collins, a precocious 9-year-old whose father is one of his coaches. As it turned out, Collins had also been bullied.
“It was happening 24-7,” Malaysia said of the teasing she endured because of her weight. “But now I tell them I don’t care, or I just leave it alone and walk away.”
Like Devol though, Malaysia hasn’t escaped the indelible scars. She has found an escape in the internalizing she was keenly starting to master. Then came a wife of one of the youth coaches, Tina Jacobs, who went from 540 pounds to a healthy inspiration for ladies around the world. As the men took to the field, Jacobs used a nearby track to work with some of the local women she trains.
Before long, a curious Malaysia joined them. Not long after that, she was a permanent part of the group. Today, Malaysia is excelling in dance and acting and is one of the faces of the #RockYourBodyRockford movement, a collection of stories of women who are overcoming weight and other issues.
“I love it because I get to see Tina all the time,” Malaysia said.
Since meeting Jacobs, Malaysia has auditioned for the Disney Channel and is receiving callbacks. Ironically, talent scouts were drawn to the elementary student’s personality, body type and gap between her front teeth–things for which she was teased.
The teasing hasn’t stopped for Malaysia, but she says she now better equipped to recognize a blatant bully. She says there is still plenty of “rowdy boys” in her school who insist on, well, being boys. They are easy to deal with she said. But when hurtful behavior rears itself, Malaysia is among her classmates who are taking a stand. It’s a process, however. But, like Devol, she has come to know about from where the desire to tease others often comes.
“I am learning that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about [me] because when bullies get older, they will realize what they did.” R.