Jake Bequette, Peyton Hillis and the notion of the new white pioneer

Last season, Cleveland Brown back Peyton Hillis emerged as a national star by bulldozing his way through legions of NFL defenders. Along the way, he also smashed racial typecasts. For decades, the best NFL running backs have been black. Not that it mattered to the former Razorback:

“I don’t put race into the equation,” Hillis told ESPN in October. “I’m a human being just like everybody else.”

This season, Razorback defensive lineman Jake Bequette, like Hillis, enters his senior season as one of the premier players in the SEC. He credits Hillis, along with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, with inspiring him as a redshirt freshman:

“Those guys were great teammates and great role models. Every one of them were supremely talented, but they worked their butts off and they showed me as a young freshman what it takes to get to that point.”

But Bequette shares more with Hillis than a strong work ethic. He is a rarity in his own right, an All-SEC  white defensive end who attended private school in central Arkansas. He is the only white defensive line starter in the SEC West division, taking into account projected starters listed in the 2011 Hooten’s Arkansas Football issue. The SEC East is a different story. Tennessee and Kentucky each have starting white defensive tackles, while all four of Vandy’s d-linemen are white.

Like Hillis, Bequette says race within the framework of the team doesn’t matter to him:

“I’m one of the only white guys on the defensive line, but I don’t look at it like that. We’re always just competing to see who’s the best regardless of race, gender, whatever.”

I asked him whether, in the larger picture, his race could matter. For instance,  it could inspire central Arkansas private school kids (most of whom are white) to believe they can star as defensive ends in SEC football. Bequette replied:

“Yeah, hopefully I have that effect. I’d say that’s kind of a factor in why I like Jared Allen so much. He’s one of the best defensive lineman in the NFL and happens to be a white guy. And, hey, I’m white. I hope that’s not the only reason why I’m inspiring kids, but if I am, then that’s a good thing.”

Race is a potentially dicey issue, but should be discussed in an open-minded way. Sure, most race discussions should have a much more serious objective than worrying about the prevalence of a certain skin color at various sports positions. Nobody, after all, is suffering an immediate injustice  if almost all NFL running backs and defensive ends are black. The presumption is those jobs were earned on merit, which is how just societies operate. (although some argue  socioeconomic conditions dictate why most applicants for those jobs are black to begin with)

As a journalist, I am drawn to exceptions, not the norm. Bequette’s ability already qualifies him as a rare player; his race, only more so.

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