By Eric Atkins, as told to Saundra Young
I played basketball all my life, so I’d always been in motion. But when I stopped playing and started coaching, the motion stopped, and I had to find a way to still get my cardio in. I picked running. I started running outside, and found that it feels good for me. It’s kind of a stress reliever, something where I can kind of just let myself go.
When we went into quarantine, running felt like a relief from all of the craziness – I was running every day.
Until I saw that video of Ahmaud Arbery being murdered while running.
Seeing that video was the first time I thought, This could happen to me.
It’s not that I’ve been completely immune to the danger that comes with being Black in America. I first felt it when I was about 12 years old. My friends and I were outside a gym waiting for our parents to come pick us up. One of my friends threw a rock, then we heard the cop car sirens. We ran – just out of fear that we were doing something wrong. When they caught up with us, they put me against a concrete wall and handcuffed me. I was so scared.
Other interactions with police just reinforced that fear. Though most were routine traffic stops, I always felt I was in danger. I was always just hoping and praying that I would make it out alive.
Though I had been in several situations over the years that made me fear for my life, I think that because I went to the University of Notre Dame, a predominately white institution, and then became a college basketball coach, I was able to convince myself that what happened to Ahmaud – or George Floyd, or Breonna Taylor, or countless others – wouldn’t happen to me. I wanted to believe that because of my education and my job I might be spared from experiencing the most violent forms of racism.
But I’m not exempt because of anything that I have accomplished in my life. Maybe I was ignorant to that before, but Ahmaud’s death opened up my eyes.
Seeing that video of Ahmaud being murdered while running really just shook me to my core. Just the thought that someone can have such a problem with your skin color – or the thought of your skin color – that they would take your life.
Ever since then, even to this day, I haven’t run outside. The thought of running scares me because I start thinking, What if someone thinks that I stole something, they think I broke into a house, and they want to take out their anger on me? So now I just work out inside my house.
I miss running, and losing it has affected my mental health. Running has always been something that just helps clear my head. It makes me feel better about myself. So, usually, if I need to think through things, running helps me. But it can’t help me now because running is one of the things I’m scared of.
And maybe my fear is about more than just running. I remember my dad saying to me once when I was 8 or 9 and dashing back inside after taking out the garbage, “What are you afraid of?” I didn’t have an answer. I don’t know what I was running away from, just the fear of something.
I don’t know when I’ll run again, but when I do, I want to feel free – I don’t want to be nervous.
I think I just want to take my time with it – I don’t want to get out there too early before I’m ready. Once I get to a better place, mentally, when I can run again without being afraid, I will get back out there.
Eric Atkins is an assistant coach for the Howard University Men's Basketball Team.