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Staff file photo / Chattanooga Lookouts co-owner John Woods

There the Brothers Blaylock sat, all three of them perched near the top of the stairwell in their divorced mother Janelle's suburban Atlanta home. It provided them the perfect view to glimpse the new man in her life before the two adults headed out for a date night.

The biological sons of Janelle, who's white and a former All-Big Eight Conference volleyball player at the University of Oklahoma, and former Sooners All-American and longtime NBA guard Mookie Blaylock, who's Black, have always considered themselves Black.

But standing at the foot of the stairs that night was John Woods, the 1983 East Ridge High School graduate and co-owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts, who's white.

"We were all like, 'Who's this guy trying to date our Mom?'" recalled Daron a few days ago as he thought back to the first time he and twin brother Zack and younger brother Dominick spied Woods in 2003. "We weren't sure about this."

Less than two years later, Woods picked up the brothers after one of their youth league ball practices and told them he was going to propose to their mother, if that was OK with them.

"Then he told us, 'And I want you all to be my best men,'" Daron said. "From the beginning, (John) took us in as his own. What it comes down to is that he's one of the best father figures you could ever learn from. We're so grateful to have him in our lives."

As we celebrate Independence Day this weekend in this most troubling, life-changing and eye-opening of summers, we could all learn much from the road Woods has traveled to promote independence from systemic racism.

"I grew up in the segregated South," Woods said on Thursday. "East Ridge was a close community. Everybody knew everybody else. We didn't lock our doors. I don't know that we minded not having minorities in our neighborhood, and that was crazy thinking. That was wrong."

A walk-on year at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga under football coach Buddy Nix and two more years attempting to play at Tennessee Tech — "I was probably the slowest tight end in Tech history, plus I was injured the whole time I was there," Woods said — surrounded him with Black teammates and opened his eyes to the desperate need for better race relations.

Echoing the sentiment first uttered by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, Woods said, "If we could all judge people on their character rather than their skin color."

Yet it was something else King once said that Woods has seemed to trumpet like few others blessed with his financial success as the CEO of wealth management firm Southport Capital: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

How loudly has Woods embraced the things that matter? Convinced that the three Blaylock brothers, plus his and Janelle's son, Ashton, were spending too much time in diversity-challenged environments, he pulled his membership from an overwhelmingly white Atlanta country club and pulled his children out of private schools in favor of the public Walton school district.

"It cost me a few friends, or people I thought were my friends, but most of my friends have stood by me," Woods said. "I've always believed you lead by your actions. I don't think that growing up in an environment with a lack of diversity is good for kids. It's not the real world."

Here's an action the Woods took: During his time at Walton, Daron was dating a white girl, though her parents didn't know it. When John and Janelle found out, they told her she couldn't come over again until she told her parents about the relationship.

"They thought it would be a bad look for their daughter to interact with me," Daron said. "So we quit dating. My parents handled it the right way, though."

Whatever the occasional problem, John and Janelle certainly appear to have handled their sons perfectly. Daron and Zack played football at the University of Kentucky and are now, at the age of 27, quite successful in the technology business. Dominick is a standout wide receiver at Georgia. Ashton is already considered a major college football prospect as he begins his freshman year at Walton in Marietta.

"I was 38 years old when I met Janelle, had never been a father and wasn't really looking to become one," Woods said. "It was a transition, but I grew so close to them. Now I have four sons and they're everything to me."

Chattanooga, though he no longer lives here, continues to mean everything to him as well.

"I really first became interested in buying the Lookouts because the other man looking to buy them was probably going to move them," Woods said. "I couldn't imagine Chattanooga without the Lookouts."

He also believes he's watching significant change in race relations here.

"There are some very good minority business people in Chattanooga right now," he said. "And I'm so impressed with government and education leaders such as Erskine Oglesby and Warren Mackey. They couldn't have picked a better (school) superintendent than Dr. Bryan Johnson. Then you have people like Joe Smith, who just blows me away with all his YCAP boxing program has done for minority youth. Chattanooga is changing in so many ways."

The whole world is changing. As Woods noted of their youngest son Ashton: "His three best friends are African Americans."

A little more than a week ago, the Woods family was also featured on the website DawgsNation.

"I got 150 texts in three days," he said. "And they were all positive."

Not everything is positive, as the deaths of Blacks George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks at the hands of law enforcement have recently shown us.

"You still run into racism," Daron Blaylock said. "But I think it's gotten better. I think my Dad (Woods) and Mom have helped. We've just got to learn not to look at color. Look at the individual."

Then, as Woods always has, lead by actions rather than words.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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