Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Ike Maxwell, who once electrified Elyria, Ohio, as an athlete, sitting outside Donna’s Diner.
By DAN BARRY
Published: October 16, 2012
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.
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.”
So many colleges came calling that The Chronicle-Telegram published a cartoon depicting recruiters beating on the young man’s door. He eventually accepted a football scholarship to the University of Miami, where his future seemed like a clear field of green.
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
A photograph of Ike Maxwell from the 1972 Elyria High School yearbook.
But the big time never happened for Ike; that is, it had already happened, in Elyria. After less than a year at Miami, he transferred to the University of Akron — to be closer to Beverly, he says — but did not stay long. Suddenly, he was just another former high school superstar, facing the hits and tackles of everyday life.
While Ike struggled, Elyria erupted.
Late one August night in 1975, two white police officers spotted a young black man climbing out a window of the Mayfair Tavern. As the suspect ran away, one of the officers ordered him to stop twice, and then fired his gun twice. A bullet to the back of the head ended the brief encounter.
The man was 19. He was carrying about 50 pennies, some cough drops and six packs of cigarettes. He was Daryl Maxwell, Ike’s younger brother.
The Elyria police chief had explained that the department had a policy of “no warning shots,” and that officers were trained to use their guns as a “last resort” to stop a fleeing suspect. If Daryl Maxwell had made it around the building, the chief said, “he would have been gone.”
For two nights, hundreds of black people protested the shooting death by taking to the streets. Store windows were broken, firebombs thrown and shots fired in spasms of “racial violence,” as The Chronicle-Telegram called it. Recalling those nights, Ike lowers his voice to say that he was so angry that all he wanted to do was throw rocks at the police — “like they did at Kent State.”
In his heyday, Ike Maxwell, left, was unstoppable on the football field.
By the second disturbed night, 41 people had been arrested, more than half of them white. Among those caught in the mayhem was Donna, 20 years old and living in a subsidized housing project. A thrown brick smashed her truck as she was trying to drive her two young daughters to safety.
During the rage-charged unrest, a black city councilman named Leo Bullocks — father of Forrest Bullocks — spent long hours driving around the city, talking to angry clutches of people, easing tensions. He could ease but never eliminate those tensions, especially when the authorities later ruled that the shooting death of the unarmed Daryl Maxwell was justifiable homicide.
Still, Leo did his part. Because he had standing, Forrest says, “they listened to him.”
Leo Bullocks personified much of the Elyrian black experience. A Tennessee sharecropper with an eighth-grade education, he joined the great African-American migration north, seeking opportunity in the industrial boom that followed World War II. He chose Elyria because a relative had said jobs were sprouting there like bolls on a cotton plant.
Leo got a low-level job at the Harshaw Chemical Company, worked his way up to supervisor and made side money by driving a taxi and a dump truck. But he still found time to immerse himself in all things Elyria, from its Little League to its City Council, as if to gently but emphatically tell the white majority that this, now, was his home, too.
Leo was forever loyal to Elyria, Forrest says. “Elyria gave him a chance to reach his full potential.”
When word spread in 1992 that Leo had developed lung cancer at the age of 70, after decades of chain-smoking Chesterfields, more than 250 people honored him at a country-club gathering at which the mayor wept for all of Elyria. And when he lay dying in a Cleveland hospital, Leo shared a few final words with his family, including this: “Tell Elyria that I love her.”
Later that year, Leo’s son Forrest was elected to the City Council. By now, Forrest had served four years in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, married and found a job in machinery repair at B. F. Goodrich that kept him busy enough. But he was also the son of Leo; he needed to serve his city.
Drugs and Erratic Behavior
By this time, another prominent resident of Elyria — one also deeply affected by the riot — had fallen hard: Dynamite Ike Maxwell.
Sometime around the time of his younger brother’s death in 1975, Ike and his wife, Beverly, started an office-cleaning business. She remembers the fledgling company winning over some clients because they held her husband in awe. She said they’d ask: “Are you THE Ike Maxwell?”
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Now, at the diner, Donna Dove must sometimes urge Ike to calm down. His usual meal is chef salad, steak, hash browns, rye toast and root beer. He eats in silence and leaves a good tip.
But Ike struggled with drugs, alcohol and social navigation, she says, so much so that she left him, taking their children to another state. And things only got worse.
In the fall of 1980, a man repeatedly hit Ike in the head with a baseball bat at the Red Fox Lounge on Broad Street, causing multiple skull injuries. Five months later, he was shot and seriously wounded in the Showcase Lounge.
By the 1990s, Ike’s name was appearing in the newspaper and in public records for reasons unrelated to his football exploits: criminal trespass, assault, harassment, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of cocaine. Wandering the downtown streets, his shouts echoing off the ancient buildings, he now seemed to be playing on an entirely different field.
If Elyria has grappled with the Ike Maxwell of then and the Ike Maxwell of now, it has not been to Ike’s favor. Though he was clearly one of the most dominant athletes the city had ever known, Ike has never been inducted into the Elyria Sports Hall of Fame — in part, a spokesman says, because its trustees also consider a candidate’s moral character and contribution to the community.
At one point, Ike says, he even sold his Golden Helmet trophy to buy crack cocaine — then immediately felt bad about it. He says that with the help of a lawyer, Bill Balena, another regular at Donna’s, he eventually retrieved the trophy and donated it to Elyria High School.
Over the years, a few of his former teammates have tried to help Ike, but he has worn out their patience with his erratic behavior. Sometimes, with the gentle counsel of, say, the lawyer Michael J. Duff, he can be calmed down long enough to talk thoughtfully about his life in Elyria. But too often he seems unable to follow a logical thread in conversation, or even to speak in a soft, level voice.
And when Ike shouts out the names of old teammates — Sunagel! Chlepciak! Miles! — you can’t quite tell whether he does so in solidarity, or anger.
One of those teammates, Steve Sunagel, continues to watch the video of the Elyria-Lorain game of 1971 right to the end, when the undefeated team carries its coach, Bill Barton, off the field. But his pleasure in reliving football glory is tempered by his inability to reconcile the Ike he remembers and the Ike he sees today.
“Everything that all of us were — he was, too,” he says.
Strains of Racism
Forrest Bullocks was elected to nine consecutive terms on the City Council, eventually serving as its president. He stepped down last year, but he serves as the Council’s clerk and is involved with a civic booster organization called Main Street Elyria. He also visits every day with his mother, Mary, 89, who still lives in the modest house built by her Leo, after whom the city has named a ball field and a major roadway.
Sitting beside his mother in the family home, surrounded by photographs of the Bullocks family’s journey from rural Tennessee to suburban Ohio, Forrest says race relations in Elyria remain a work in progress — nearly 40 years after the riot, and 60 years after Leo Bullocks first arrived.
Yes, it’s true that the days when Forrest and his wife would be asked to leave a Las Vegas night at a private social club — even though it had been advertised in the newspaper as open to the public — are gone (though, he adds, “we haven’t been back there since”).
The racism is more nuanced now, he says, the mutual distrust more subtle and most often expressed behind one’s back. Some white people still grumble when a black person is promoted. Some black people still dislike the police, seeing city life through the prism of the death of Daryl Maxwell, shot in the back of the head, pockets filled with pennies.
This is the country’s constantly interrupted conversation, Forrest is suggesting, a conversation sometimes marked by tension, other times by hope, still other times by a silence mistaken for tolerance.
“We camouflage it better,” Forrest says. “But there’s still a lot of prejudice in Elyria. It is still here.”
He says, for example, that African-Americans “know where we’re welcome and where we’re not” — though he adds that he and his wife, Gloria, will go to any restaurant in the city. One restaurant they prefer is Donna’s, whose owner was once so determined not to be near black people that she dropped out of high school.
Donna is 57 now, and her attitudes about race have evolved, are still evolving, in fact. Her defenses began to break down when she was a scared young woman living in an Elyria housing project and an older black woman named Queenie took Donna under her wing. After that came all the time she spent with black co-workers and black customers — people she never would have encountered in Bay Village.
It’s not as though Donna has experienced a we-are-the-world epiphany. “I took it slowly,” she says, before adding, “I guess I grew up.”
Now, on Friday afternoons, Donna can expect Forrest and Gloria Bullocks to arrive for their lake perch dinner. She will greet the couple with a hug, and when the food is served, she will sit and talk with them about anything and everything.
“The conversations go on like we’ve known each other for years,” Forrest says.
Donna can also expect Ike to appear at any moment. He came into the diner not long ago, shouting again about the father, the son and the Golden Helmet, until she told him to quiet down. He said he had money — he receives disability and lives on a tight budget — and wanted to eat.
Ike ordered his usual meal: chef salad, steak, hash browns, rye toast and root beer. As usual, he used impeccable manners, his back erect. He ate in silence and, when he was done, left his usual good tip.
Then, with body at an angle, Dynamite Ike Maxwell left the diner to continue the never-ending conversation with his city, wandering its streets — and noticing, he says, how the whites still live here and the blacks still live there.