Joe Parham Stands Up

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Beneath Parham's grinning senior picture in the 1962 Muskegon Heights High School Yearbook are these words: "Little Joe . . . likes girls and sports . . . dislikes homework and sophisticated females . . . well liked by all . . . football for three years . . . Senior Co-Captain . . . the Track Man . . . Champion of Champions."

It's hard to link the grinning face on the yearbook page with the circumstances of Joe Parham's life. He was a father in high school and worked from the age of 8 to buy school clothes. His father, employed at a piston-ring factory, could not afford to clothe his six children.

When a recruiter from Arizona State University asked Parham to attend college on a football scholarship, he was stunned. He hadn't considered college possible, given his other responsibilities. And because he was black, he hadn't been allowed to take college preparatory courses. Back then, at least in Muskegon, Michigan, African-American kids were steered to the "general education" track, meant to prepare them for blue-collar jobs.

But Parham did not want a blue-collar job, and if Frank Kush wanted him to play at ASU, it was a ticket out.

His experiences on ASU's football team were fodder for the doctoral dissertation he would write several years later. The well-researched thesis examined reasons most black athletes failed to graduate from the university. Parham concluded the school regularly recruited undereducated blacks, encouraged them to take easy courses so they could maintain grade point averages necessary to qualify them for athletic scholarships and then four years later, when the scholarships expired, dumped the athletes back on the streets, without professional football contracts or diplomas. Parham offered a number of solutions, including remedial classes for black athletes.

"If the University is going to continually recruit deprived blacks, it must also provide the athletes with the special educational treatment they require," he wrote in his dissertation, which caught the attention of Phoenix newspapers and infuriated ASU athletic officials.

Parham had no remedial classes. He remembers staying up night after night, trying to master reading and spelling and math that had not been drummed into the heads of the future factory workers at Muskegon Heights High.

There were other struggles, of course. He almost left school for good after a dorm official accused him of stealing sandwiches. He occasionally had to return to Michigan to work in factories to help support his child. And during these visits, he sired other children.

"Every time I went home," he says, "somebody got pregnant."
During one visit to Michigan, Parham and his girlfriend got in a fight, and he brought his son to live--illicitly--in the dorm with him. His friends baby-sat when he went to class.

In all, Parham has seven children from four different women. He only married two of these women--briefly. The others, he says, wanted to marry him, but he was wary of marriage. He says the women may have become pregnant in order to coax him into marriage. He modeled his relationships with the opposite sex on the behavior of his dad, who had children by different women.

In Parham's streetwise world view, there is nothing morally wrong with his having had a bunch of kids with a bunch of women, because, he claims, he financially supported all his children.

Despite the obstacles, Parham was the only African-American member of his football team to graduate from ASU in 1967. A year later, he entered graduate school on a scholarship, working on the side as a counselor for ASU, the City of Phoenix and Maricopa County.

When he received his doctorate and returned to Michigan, a few of his old friends didn't believe he'd actually earned the degree. Many thought he'd been in prison or in Vietnam.

He began to see he was different. He saw himself as a role model for his race, and he began to feel isolated--even from the women with whom he was in love.

Those relationships never lasted because he hid his failures and weaknesses, he now says.

After a while, he gave up on the thought of being happily married.
In Arizona he always seemed to be working several jobs at once. He spent so much time with street kids and gang members that he had little time for his own children. His adult daughter Renae says she felt her dad was unavailable, distant, sometimes inflexible.

"He feels we have to go through the same struggle he did," she says, adding that she learned of her father's battles with the psychology board from a newspaper article. He could not bring himself to discuss the embarrassing event with Renae.

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Terry Greene Sterling