Hitting moral puberty in middle age

Two volunteers at Community Renewal in Shreveport, Louisiana, one of the nation’s most impressive community-building groups, show that positive change is possible at any age.

I sometimes read that people don’t change much after middle age. But everyday experience contradicts this on a weekly basis.

For example, this week in Shreveport, Louisiana, I met two guys in their 60s named Bo Harris and Mike Leonard. Bo was a football star at Captain Shreve High School. During his junior year, the school was integrated, but in the worst possible way.

The black players, whose high school was closing, were told to watch the existing team practice through a chain-link fence. Words were exchanged and Bo went out and pinned one guy, who had a broken bottle in his hand, up against the wall before administrators intervened.

Racial tensions ripped through the school, and for his own safety Bo was told to come to school only for the classes he absolutely needed for graduation.

He went on to play linebacker at Louisiana State University and wasn’t always a gentle soul. “Anger was a resource I called upon on the field” — and sometimes off it.

Mike joined Bo on the LSU football team a few years later, though they didn’t get along. Mike’s father, who died when he was 14, had the bigoted attitudes of the time and place. Mike was raised in that tough-guy culture. Once, an LSU fan threw a whiskey bottle at Mike and hit him in the back. Mike charged the stands to take revenge.

Both went on to lead successful lives. Bo played for the Cincinnati Bengals for eight years before returning to Shreveport to work as a financial adviser. Mike created one of the city’s most successful dental practices.

And things went on that way for a few decades. Until they didn’t.

Bo joined a group of 14 guys who had breakfast together every week. The friendships opened his heart. Then in 2009 he was driving with his preteen son with a .45 automatic rattling around on the dashboard. Bo heard an explosion and felt a pain in his leg worse than anything he’d experienced in the NFL.

His son called 911 and drove the car to a place where they could be met by an ambulance. The EMT looked at Bo and said, “In all my years of doing this, I’ve never seen a guy as lucky as you.” The emergency room doctor and nurse said the same thing. If the bullet had gone one way it would have hit an artery and killed him. If it had gone the other it would…

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