So suddenly, it seemed, in a matter of minutes one night, it was over.

It was the stuff that makes for some painful new realities whenyou're a seventh-grader: who's good enough for the team, and who's not.

Lloyd "Butch" Keaser had no doubt he was not. He counts that realization among the saddest moments of his life.

Pinned on the mat, humiliated, but more than that, about to give up the most important thing in his young life, his tears flowed freely.

"I wanna quit," the boy stammered, looking at the floor of the locker room at the old Brooklyn Park Junior-Senior High School.

A wrestling coach looked into his face and saw the child's hurt and somehow sensed what this meant to him.

Then the coach smiled gently and told Butch Keaser a few simple words he would never forget: "Hang in there, kid."

Nextmatch, Butch Keaser, figuring on at least one sure win, got pinned again, by an opponent from the Maryland School for the Blind.

But he hung in, and kept on hanging in over the years, ignoring a lot of nasty laughter, a few racial slurs early on, and a lot of people who urged him to be a bit more reasonable and realistic in his goals.

He would hear none of it.

He decided he would go and wrestle in world competitions, where he won the world championship at 149.9 pounds in Tehran in 1973. Then in the biggest competition of all, he won thesilver medal in the Olympics in 1976.

Today, the 41-year-old Keaser, who grew up in the all-black North County community of Pumphrey, has long since hung up the red, white and blue uniform he wrestled inwhen he lost the 1976 gold medal to a Russian he had beaten in an earlier contest.

Butch Keaser, however, still carries the silver medal around with him a lot.

The kids can't get enough of it.

Their eyes widen, and they listen to Keaser, not only because he holds this medal but because he speaks their language.

He does this not toboast or build his own ego, mind you.

Fact is, he's painfully shyabout getting up before a group of people, enough to feel the familiar dread before every public speech. Still, he keeps doing it, and has hundreds of times.

He delivers basically the same message, telling little stories to get across big ideas about hope and dreams,

He tells his story, of a black child from a poor family in an all- black neighborhood. But then, he says, he never gave much thought to being black in a white-controlled society at a time when Jim Crow still reigned.

That's because he never heard much in the house where he lived with his mom and dad, three brothers and three sisters about how being black would stop him.

"My folks just taught me you can do anything anyone else can, because you're a Keaser," he says. "I can never remember hearing about black or white or anything else holding anyone down."

But before he even gets to saying that in his free public talks, Keaser often begins by posing a question about Olympic-sized dreams: "How many of you have the dream of a lifetime?"

He asks the question of elementary school children and graduating high school seniors from the suburbs like Anne Arundel and Howard counties to inner-city high schools in Baltimore, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

He asks children and senior citizens who come to the Pumphrey community center that now bears his name. He asks his 14-year-old son, Michael, the same question. He has also asked it of poverty-stricken young black women with children.

"And you wouldn't believe it," he says,shaking his head. "Only about half the hands in a classroom or an assembly go up when I ask how many have the dream of a lifetime. Then I ask how many believe they can realize that dream. And about 20 to 30 percent of the hands go up."

Keaser, now an IBM executive who advises systems engineers and conducts motivational seminars, winces when he says that.

"Often, these are kids we're talking about, kids," he says. "Kids just aren't supposed to put these limits on themselves, on their dreams.

"Everybody has a hot button, something that moves them, and there's just not enough effort to find that button forso many. They're embittered, they look around and see no chances, nodreams fulfilled."

A few years ago, one child drew the laughter of his classmates when he answered Keaser's question by saying, "I want to be another Michael Jackson."

Butch Keaser turned to the boy and said, "Don't let the laughter bother you. You'll be laughing at them down the road. Never let anybody destroy your dream."

Keaser, whose blue wool pinstripe suit still reveals the lean fighting machine he was taught to be at the Naval Academy and in the Marine Corps, once again tells a story to drive home his message.

Young black single mothers, with children, but without jobs or hope, came to an IBM/Urban League experimental job-training program Keaser helped start and ran until 1986.

He recalls the progression among the 80 annual students: "They came in with their heads down, beaten. They went out strutting, suddenly knowing they had what it took all along."

The success astonished almost everyone involved: More than 95 percent of them, over two years, thrived in computer-related jobs.

"And all itreally took is their knowing someone believes they have a chance to be more. Instead, people talk down to them or at them, instead of talking to them."

It's the sort of story Butch Keaser likes to tell and tells often.

But don't think Keaser takes his message to citiesand towns elsewhere, at the expense of his old neighborhood.

He lives in Baltimore County now, but is returning to Anne Arundel, closer to his mother's house in Pumphrey, within the next week, he says.

He teaches wrestling and other sports at the community center that bears his name, visits often, serves on its board of directors and a related task force and lobbies tirelessly for more money and role models to make more dreamers in his old neighborhood.

The center, vandalized and neglected over the years, has seen better days. Keaser has decreed it will be fixed, and wants a Head Start program for low-income pre-schoolers and an expansion of the free-lunch program for low-income seniors and adult day care.

And he wants to be around to see it all happen and to say things people want to hear and need to hear.

So the Olympian is coming home. He never really left.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad