Maya Washington – ‘Through the Banks of the Red Cedar: My Father and the Team That Changed the Game’

As a lifelong Minnesota Vikings fan I’m always interested to learn more about the history of the team and its players.

Will this look at the career and life of Gene Washington, through the eyes of his daughter Maya, score big or will it come up short?

First let’s get to…

The Details

Through the Banks of the Red Cedar: My Father and the Team That Changed the Game is written by Maya Washington.

It’s published by Little A which is the Literary Fiction and Non-Fiction imprint from Amazon Publishing.

It’s scheduled for release on January 1st, 2022 and I was able to read an advance copy via the Amazon Prime “First Reads” program.

The Summary

Photo courtesy of Goodreads

From Goodreads:

“Gene Washington’s football career ended long before his daughter Maya was born. She never saw the legendary powerhouse as anything but her dad. She didn’t yet grasp the impact he’d had on the sport—and on America. To understand his historic role in the integration of college football, witness his influence on generations that followed, and fully appreciate his legacy, Maya had a lot of catching up to do.

Maya retraces her father’s journey from the segregated south to Michigan State during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement and his journey as an NFL pioneer after the 1967 draft. She reflects on how her father’s childhood—and the racism he faced—shaped her upbringing and influenced his expectations of her. She also discovers how unbreakable the emotional bond between teammates can be. But above all, Maya and her father get to know each other. As their own bond deepens, so does Maya’s connection to the sport that changed the trajectory of her father’s life…and hers.”

The Good

As a football fan and a Minnesota Vikings fan, I’m always on the lookout for accounts like this. Books that share a little more about the stories happening with the players or team through their history. And while there isn’t A LOT from the Minnesota Vikings side of things here, there are some cool stories and tidbits from Washington’s time with the Michigan State University Spartans.

Being that the book is written by his Daughter, there are also a number of nice moments and thoughts shared that illustrate the bond between father and daughter. Moments that had me thinking of my bond with my own Dad, as well as with my kids.

It’s startling to me just how little she knew of her Dad’s life as an athlete at arguably the highest level, and the moments she talks about just how little she knew about that side of him hit me as so profoundly sad for some reason. Moment’s like this passage really made me feel a sadness about these people that I have no personal connection to, which is a testament to the quality of Washington’s talents as a writer.

I’ve probably learned more about both of their lives from public speeches than I have from intimate conversations in private.

Washington, Maya. Through the Banks of the Red Cedar: My Father and the Team That Changed the Game (p. 34). Little A. Kindle Edition.

And the way she shares moments from “on the field” times, such as this passage about college quarterback of Michigan State Kirk Cousins(who is interestingly now the starting QB for the Minnesota Vikings just to keep things all full circle), had me feeling the excitement of the game atmosphere.

On the final play, Kirk Cousins launched a Hail Mary pass to Keith Nichol for a 44-yard touchdown. In a matter of seconds, the Spartans won the game 37–31. The entire suite became an explosion of cheers. I helped my mom off the floor,…

Washington, Maya. Through the Banks of the Red Cedar: My Father and the Team That Changed the Game (p. 14). Little A. Kindle Edition.

However, as good as those moments are… that brings me to:

The Not So Good

The biggest problem I have with this book is that it seems to promise one thing and then deliver something quite a bit different.

Based on the title we are led to believe we are going to get an in depth look at Gene Washington and “The Team That Changed The Game”. This being the Michigan State University, which we DO hear referenced a fair amount.

However, what we get feels more like a general history lesson about the civil rights movement. Outlining events happening across the United States during this time with small glimpses of the actual team or Gene Washington shoved in to tie things back to the title when possible.

In fact, at times it feels like the time spent on the “team” aspects of the book are actually focused more on other players than on Gene Washington himself. Bubba Smith is a heavy focus, a college teammate of Washington who was arguably more famous for his impact both on and off the field, as he went on to star in films after his football career.

While it makes sense WHY we hear about him, as his funeral is what spurred the idea for the book, it feels like the book never shifts gears and focuses on what the title claims to want to share.

In short, it feels like the author had an idea of what they wanted to accomplish with the book but then got a bit lost in the general history details, the other players, and multiple other directions.

I can absolutely see how it can happen.

But the fact that the book can’t decide if it wants to be about Gene the player and his team, Gene the Father and his relationship with his daughter, or the Civil Rights Movement in general which Gene lived through left me wholly unsatisfied with this read.

The Bottom Line

Overall, it’s an interesting look at just how different everything was for players back then. An interesting insight into a Father/Daughter bond that had me thinking about my relationship with my own Dad as well as with my kids.

But mostly it left me wanting MORE about Gene Washington’ s actual football and sports career, stories about the team referenced in the title of the book, or even a deeper look at the beautiful and slightly sad Father/Daughter bond between Maya and Gene.

Instead, what we get which is a disjointed mix of the general history of the civil rights movement with a smattering of actual sports/football stories and a bit of extra talk about the nature of the relationship between Gene and Maya as his whole career in football happened largely before she was even born.

It feels very scattered and unfocused, in terms of the story, yet the writing flows nicely.

When I grabbed this book, given the title and how it says it will be about Gene Washington and the team that changed the game, it feels like it promises one thing and delivers something vastly different.

Setting up an expectation that it never intends to meet or maybe more appropriately that it never intends to FULLY commit to. Opting instead for the safer ground of the broader historical events of the time and shying away from too much detail on the personal story side of things with her Dad.

I found myself wishing that the book would have just picked a focus and went all in on it.

If it was to be about his career and that team, then go ALL IN on those stories and details.

If instead it was to be about the events happening in society during the Civil Rights Movement, fantastic, write the book about that and skip the Gene Washington and the team that changed the game parts.

But because it doesn’t commit to any of them, it feels like they are all kind of short changed for attention in the book.

Very unfortunate as I think any one of those topics, had they been the only focus of the book, would have been very interesting to read and the author does a nice job writing and bringing us along on the journey.

I’m sure there will be some who feel “I’m missing the point of this book because it’s a powerful look at the immense struggle based around race that players faced in that time.” Believe me, I absolutely understand, and would have LOVED if the book would have focused on that to better share those struggles. What these players faced in those days was insane, what they accomplished in the face of that is incredible.

But this book only lightly scratches the surface of telling us about it.

I give it a 2 out of 5 stars.

It teased, gave tidbits, and ultimately just left me wanting MORE about this amazing player, his history and even the bond between Father and Daughter… and by the end it wound up being just a bite sized sample that wasn’t sure what it wanted to be.

The quarterback had protection, the receiver was open… but the ball missed the mark.

***

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