A 5-year-old girl went to visit Santa Claus but found bigotry wearing a white beard and red suit. The year was 1959. The place was Alabama. The young girl was Condoleezza Rice.
“I’ll tell you an interesting story,” Rice said this past Sunday as we stood in a hallway near the locker rooms of Empower Field at Mile High prior to the Denver Broncos’ home game against the Las Vegas Raiders.
This is a story of how hope triumphs over hate.
“I’m 5 years old and going to see Santa Claus. Santa Claus is taking all the little white kids and putting them on his knee while holding the black kids at arm’s length.”
Her parents watched this scene unfold in disbelief and anger, with John Wesley Rice telling his wife, Angelena, that if the bigot treated Condoleezza the same way, he might rip the stuffing out of jolly old St. Nick.
“I remember thinking many years later: ‘What a strange way to experience racism. From Santa Claus,’ ” said Rice, who discovered as a child prejudice permeated the Deep South, from the schoolyard to the local diner. “Racism did infuse everything in life. But it also didn’t stop you from succeeding. It made you very tough. You learned to deal with tough circumstances.”
A racist goof in a Santa suit could’ve been the Grinch that stole a little girl’s faith that America was a good place. Rice, however, was taught from a young age to never blink in the face of prejudice. As a daughter of a former semi-pro offensive lineman, rising after a hard knock is embedded in her DNA.
“The essence of America — that which really unites us — is not ethnicity or nationality or religion,” Rice said during a speech at the Republican National Convention in 2012. “It is an idea, and what an idea it is: That you can come from humble circumstances and do great things. That it doesn’t matter where you came from, but where you are going.”
At the turn of the 21st century, Rice went to the White House and made history as the first female to serve as U.S. national security advisor. In 2005, President George W. Bush entrusted her with the responsibilities as Secretary of State, fourth in line of succession to the presidency.
More than six decades after being regarded as unworthy of sitting on Santa’s lap in the segregated South that was the Birmingham of her childhood, Rice took a seat on Sunday in the owners’ box of an NFL stadium in the Mile High City as a shareholder with a small stake in the Broncos.
“My dad was a football coach when I was born. I was supposed to be his all-American linebacker. When he got a girl, he decided to teach her about the sport instead,” Rice said in August when members of the new ownership group were introduced after Rob Walton’s record $4.65 billion purchase of the Broncos. “Even though my father has gone to the Lord, I have to think that today he’s thinking: ‘She finally got a really important job.’”
Raised by lifelong, professional educators who stubbornly believed the ignorance of prejudice is no match for the power of knowledge, Rice’s dreams were strong enough to take root in the red Alabama clay.
Her father coached football and basketball at segregated Fairfield Industrial High School, where Willie Mays made a name for himself as the “Say Hey” kid capable of swishing jump shots and smashing home runs. On Sundays in the fall, Rice sat alongside Dad at home, transfixed by the magic Jim Brown or Johnny Unitas could make on a black-and-white television.
“My parents didn’t allow us to see limitations. They told me: ‘There’s nothing you can’t do.’ And I believed them,” Rice told me. “In my community, it was all about faith, family, and education. If you could get educated, you could do anything.”
This young girl’s big ambitions, however, bloomed when her family began to chase the endless blue sky and sweet sunshine of opportunity in Colorado. In 1960, the same year quarterback Frank Tripucka and the Broncos won four games during their inaugural season in the upstart AFL, Rice first hopped in the family car and traveled 1,338 miles with her parents to Denver, where an annual summer project became earning graduate degrees they were forbidden to pursue at the University of Alabama.
By the fall of 1968, only months after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Rice family pulled up stakes in the Deep South. “That’s when we moved to Denver permanently,” Rice said. Days of her youth in Colorado were filled with cutting figures on the ice as a skater and dancing fingertips across the keyboard as an aspiring concert pianist. She remains forever grateful for the wisdom gained as a graduate of St. Mary’s Academy and the University of Denver.
And was there football in Condi’s new life in Colorado? You bet.
“I was already a big football fan. And I immediately loved the energy of the Broncos,” recalled Rice, who pledged allegiance to the team during its dark days of habitual losing, well before the dawning of the Orange Crush or a receiver named Haven Moses became her favorite player.
“We’d go to maybe one game per year because my father had connections that could get us tickets. We did not sit in the South Stands. We were not that rowdy. But I was there in the old Mile High Stadium many times during my youth,” Rice told me.
In the span of her 68 years on earth, Rice has climbed from the segregated South to the White House, from the cheap seats to the owners’ box.
It doesn’t matter where you’re from, but where you’re going.
Her father passed away more than two decades before Rice made the ownership team of an NFL franchise they had cheered for together long before the Broncos won three championships.
“What would touch my Dad most about me being involved with the Broncos is not only that I can do something in football, but that I could reconnect with a city we love and has meant so much to our family,” Rice said.
Reuben Droughns, who rushed for 1,240 yards on a team that beat the Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders on its way to the 2004 NFL playoffs, stood on stage at the front of a banquet room packed with 250 active duty military personnel saluted at a brunch inside the Broncos’ stadium.
“I was so nervous!” admitted Droughns, honored to applaud men and women who defend our nation’s freedom. “I’ve played in big games before, but never had to do anything like this.”
Serving as master of ceremonies at a brunch? That was no problem. The personality of Droughns lights up a room.
But at the end of the meal, when select members of the Marines, Navy, Army, Air Force and National Guard were called forward to be presented with a game ball, Droughns was required to repeatedly make handoffs to Rice.
And his trepidation about fumbling? Never higher in his life.
Proving to be a clutch performer, Droughns did not drop the ball. He executed 10 handoffs to Rice. Each one was perfect.
“I got to hand her the football! With her history, everything she’s done for this country and the fact that she’s an African-American owner of an NFL team? Oh, my. That was crazy exciting,” said Droughns, the father of four children.
“What did this moment mean to me? Condoleezza Rice gives my children hope,” Droughns said. “When I look at my daughters now, I know my daughters could be her one day. And hope is what it’s all about.”