Cal junior Ted Agu, who died after collapsing in a workout this morning. Photo: Cal Athletics
Cal junior Ted Agu, who died after collapsing in a football workout at UC Berkeley. Photo: Cal Athletics

O what is like the awful breach of death,
Whose fatal stroke invades the creature’s breath!
It bids the voice of desolation roll,
And strikes the deepest awe within the bravest soul.

–George Moses Horton (1797-1883)

By Cecil Brown

The recent death of Ted Agu at UC Berkeley shocked the college community. On the morning of Feb. 7, he collapsed while training with the football team, where he was a defensive lineman. He was only 21, and nobody knew why he died suddenly.

I was crushed by the news, because he had been one of my students. If you teach at Berkeley, you often run into your former students, as I often did with Ted and his other teammate, Kenan Allen.

A few weeks ago, driving up Durant Avenue to the campus, I saw somebody at the bus stop who looked like Ted, and yes, it was he. He jumped in the car, filled up the whole passenger side, and said, “Hey, Professor Brown! Thanks!”

I felt a little awkward with him, because Cal Football had had a terrible season, losing all of their games except one. To make it worse, I had gone to all of them, including the Cal-Stanford game in which Cal got clobbered.

As he put the seatbelt on, I asked him, “what happened to the team.?”

He was embarrassed, I could see that.

“Some of the times, to be honest with you, Professor Brown, I didn’t want to get on the bus. But… you know… I’m a team player!”

“That’s right,” I said. “Go Bears!” He smiled and promised that next year was going to be better.

Yet the excitement of sharing a few minutes with a student who did well in your class was overpowering, and soon we switched topics and started laughing about something else.

In that short drive of a few blocks, I got to know my student.

It is a rare moment that two black men, student and teacher, share together at Berkeley.

In November the East Bay Express had a headline, “Why Blacks Students Are Avoiding UC Berkeley.” Since California voters approved Proposition 209 in 1989, which prohibited the consideration of race and ethnicity in hiring and college admissions (euphemism for keeping black students and black faculty out of UC Berkeley), there has been a pall of anti-black student feelings hanging over the university. The numbers of black students dropped from 8% (some say as high as 15%) to half that.

In a recent survey, nearly 60% of African American students at Cal have a dim view of the university.

In that rare moment with Ted, we talked about his status at the university and what he was thinking about doing with himself if the football thing didn’t work out. He said he was preparing for medical school. If he didn’t become a doctor, he might become a professor.

I said, “Really?”

That flattered me, of course, but had he not observed the small number of black professors at Berkeley? He laughed at that.

When our little trip ended, he shook my hand, and said he was going to invite me to a lecture his fraternity was giving. We bid each other good-bye. A few weeks later, I did get an invitation to attend a discussion of black films, sponsored by his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi.

Black students have a hard time at UC Berkeley

I did go. I wanted to see what black students were up to when I didn’t see them in the classroom. Black students have a hard time at UCB, and largely because the white faculty are indifferent to their concerns.

I entered a large room in the bottom floor of the dormitory across from the campus. There, at the end of a crowed room, my man Ted stood at the podium. He had on a suit and tie. In his left hand he had a stack of cards, he crossed from the podium to connect with his audience of about 50 black students, many of them women from a sister society.

“Good evening, I want to introduce my panel.” I took a professor’s pride in seeing him in a different light. I had seen him in the back of my classroom, and I had seen him on the football grid. But this was another side completely, and I relished it.

He acknowledged my presence and a few other teachers he had invited. This was a big moment for him, in a way, playing a master of ceremony.

He gave an introduction as to why they were putting on the event and why they were discussing current black films. Apparently, the fraternity had already screened 12 Years a SlaveThe ButlerThe Long Walk Home, and footage of Kanye West.

Ted moderated the discussion.

“Before we begin,” he said, with the eraser in his hand, “I hope you all will agree that whatever it is that Kanye West is trying to say in his lyrics, can we agree that whatever that is, it’s irrelevant?” The students broke into loud laugher and a round of applause as he drew the eraser through Kanye West’s name.

In the end, he moderated an interesting discussion on topics that the university didn’t have classes in (but should have) — topics that are in dire need of airing out for black students. Indeed, he was a leader.

It was through Ted’s efforts in his fraternity, and the interest of other students, that we were experiencing this laughter, this insight, this positive feeling. In his short time, as an athlete, and as a student, he demonstrated his maturity and his leadership ability.

The Cal community gathered on Wednesday Feb. 12 at Memorial Stadium for a vigil to remember Ted Agu. Photo: Ted Friedman

On Feb. 12, the university presented a vigil for Ted at the Memorial Stadium where he played football.

As I entered the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Plaza, which is adjacent to Memorial Stadium, I saw over a thousand students and Cal community. In the front, a trio played a dirge. Across the back was a large picture of Ted Agu (1992-2014).

When he was born in 1992, Prop 209 was a few years off, but, by the time that he arrived at Berkeley as a freshman in 2012, the policy of excluding African Americans based on their ethnicity was well in place.

The number of black students at Cal is just 3.5%

The number of black students was cut in half after the first year, 1998, and has remained 3.5% every year since. (Even 3.5% is an inflated number since many students say they are African Americans on their application, because they think it improves their chances of getting in.)

The first speaker was the director of the UC Berkeley Athletic Program, Sandy Barbour.  She said “that ‘Ted was’ but ‘Ted is,’ that Ted will always influence us.”

Next up was the UC Berkeley’s head football coach Sonny Dykes. “I’ll be a better man having spent a short time with Ted Agu,” he said.

Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” played during a slide- and video-show, and then came a video that flashed Ted’s life before us: his baby picture, his frat brothers, his prowess on the football field, his bright smile.

As the Black Campus Ministry Gospel Choir sang “Amazing Grace,” I could not help but think of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet bird of Youth,  Pindar’s praise of the Greek athletes, and of George Moses Horton, the slave poet, who wrote about college life better than anybody.

Then students came to the mic and related their sorrow. First, his roommates who had seen him hours before his tragic end, then frat brothers (his nickname was “Pre-med Ted” because he was determined to be a doctor), and then the girlfriends.

One student related to us how she met Ted. She had been at a party and, having a bit too much to drink, ended up in a tree and couldn’t get down.

After two hours in the tree she saw a black man, who said, “Jump, I’ll catch you!” She took a leap of faith and leaped into the night. That student who caught her was Ted, and they had been friends ever since. As this student cried out her pain, I remember her from my class. She always found a seat next to him.

The last testimonial was from one of his four sisters, who all appeared on the stage together.

“He would want you all to know how much he loved you,” the eldest said. “Whenever he came home [to Bakersfield, Calif.],” she said, “he would always talk about you guys. He really loved you. He really loved Cal.”

Goodbye, Ted. Cal really loved you, too.  You will always be in our memories.

This opinion piece was first published on Oakland Local.

Photos: Cal community remembers footballer Ted Agu (02.13.14)
Candlelit vigil tonight will honor Cal footballer Ted Agu (02.12.14)
Cal footballer Ted Agu collapses, dies after workout (02.07.14)

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related and local authors are preferred. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

Cecil Brown is a visiting professor in the Department of English at UC Berkeley and the author of ‘Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor became Richard Pryor.’
Cecil Brown is a visiting professor in the Department of English at UC Berkeley and the author of ‘Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor became Richard Pryor.’