CRESTON, Ia. — I had planned to write a much different and happier narrative about Kylan Smallwood, the junior quarterback at the heart of the Creston/Orient-Macksburg High School football team.
That was my plan before Thursday’s final hours, when the racial controversy roiling this town took another nasty turn that will only fan the flames.
Smallwood, 16, already had been hit with the heaviest week of his career as an athlete and student. When I met him Thursday afternoon at football practice, I hoped that he already had endured the worst.
Speaking with him and his family was inspirational. They were full of grace and insight in their reaction to what has become probably the most notorious and widely shared photo in the history of this small southwest Iowa town, the seat of Union County.
You know the photo I’m talking about: Five high school students and football players were pictured wearing white hoods that evoked the Ku Klux Klan.
One brandished a gun. One held a Confederate flag.
They stood next to a pathetic gnarly little burning cross. They look to be standing somewhere on a farm.
Social media on Wednesday instantly spread the photo far and wide and thrust it into the middle of our heated national debate on race.
Lately, we’ve been arguing over everything from the neo-Nazi tragedy of Charlottesville, Va., to the visible scars of Confederate monuments strewn nationwide, including in Iowa.
Smallwood is a towering 6-foot-3 African-American young man, a popular basketball and football star in a predominantly white town.
But suddenly he was confronted with five of his teammates posing in a racist photo, emulating a violent strain of white supremacists who routinely lynched blacks.
“I would see that kind of stuff like Charlottesville and think that’s pretty messed up,” Smallwood said. “I never thought that would happen to our small town.
“I don’t want to be playing with kids like that.”
Smallwood’s coach, Brian Morrison, whom he deeply respects, kicked the five players off the football team.
“I thought these guys are my friends,” Smallwood said. “I’ve been to some of their houses before. I’ve talked to them.”
He wanted to ask the five why they posed for the photo. Smallwood hadn’t yet gotten that chance.
And then late Thursday, news spread that the threat of litigation might lead to the students’ reinstatement on the football team.
Morrison late Thursday night told Register reporter Linh Ta that “lawyers are involved right now in the situation,” but his stance remained that they were off the team.
When I met him earlier in the day in Creston, Morrison, perpetually on the verge of tears, talked about how he had been appalled and disturbed by the photos.
“It’s one of those things that curdles your stomach,” he said.