All Ralph David Abernathy IV saw was the football hanging in the air. Everything slowed down like in a movie, the sounds of the crowd silenced by the moment. High-level athletes often say they can block out all their surroundings and see just the ball in situations like this one, but the University of Cincinnati kick returner had never experienced such a phenomenon until the fourth quarter of the 2011 Liberty Bowl.
Vanderbilt had come back to take the lead 21-17 early in the fourth quarter and kicked off seemingly with the momentum of the game on its side. That’s when Abernathy caught the ball on the run at the 10-yard line and brought it forward.
“Most of the time I’m pretty aware of what’s going on around me,” Abernathy said after a recent practice for the team’s 2012 bowl game Dec. 27. “It was kind of weird in that situation. I had a feeling that, right now, I had to take it back for the team. I just focused on the ball and the task ahead and everything went quiet and I was locked in.”
Sprinting down the field near his own 40, Abernathy says he remembered the advice of former coach Kerry Coombs, who told him the kicker would be diving at his legs around this part of the field during long returns. Abernathy did a little high step, avoiding the Vanderbilt kicker just like his coach predicted. From there, it was open sailing.
Abernathy had been caught from behind during a long run earlier in the season, but this time he stayed full-speed the whole the way. As it became obvious to everyone else that Abernathy was going to score, the ESPN play-by-play announcer excitedly spit out every single word of his name: “Ralph... David... Abernathy... the... fourth...”
His mother, Annette, ran up and down the stadium steps screaming. His grandmother, Juanita, jumped up and down. Abernathy’s first collegiate touchdown gave the Bearcats a lead they would not surrender, going on to win the game 31-24.
Such a moment would be special for any player, but for Abernathy the location made it even more meaningful. Ralph David Abernathy IV put his name on the map of college football in Memphis, Tenn., the same city where his grandfather witnessed the assassination of longtime friend and colleague Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., more than 40 years earlier.
The last time Abernathy’s grandmother, Juanita Jones Abernathy, had been in Memphis prior to last December’s bowl game was in April 1968. That’s when James Earl Ray assassinated King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where Juanita’s husband, Ralph David Abernathy, shared a room with King.
Ralph David Abernathy Sr. was one of Dr. King’s closest colleagues and friends. They organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott together in 1955 after Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Abernathy was a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and assumed the presidency of the organization after King’s death. He was arrested a total of 44 times as he, King and others organized civil rights protests and marches across the country.
During what ended up being King’s final speech, on April 3, 1968, King told an audience of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, “Ralph Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world.”
The following day, Abernathy and King shared a room at the Lorraine Motel that staff referred to as the “King-Abernathy suite” because the two stayed there so often. King was shot outside on the balcony, and Abernathy, who was inside the room at the time, was the first person to get to King, holding him until an ambulance came. Abernathy was with his dear friend when he died about an hour later in a Memphis hospital.
The Ralph David Abernathy name today lives on in the form of Dr. Ralph David Abernathy III (Ralph David Abernathy Jr. died as an infant) and UC’s emerging star Ralph David Abernathy IV.
Dr. Abernathy followed in his father’s footsteps, participating in civil rights protests and later becoming a minister. He was first arrested at age 9 when he took part in the “mule train” march in June 1968 and later served as a state senator in Georgia.
Growing up, Dr. Abernathy played youth football alongside King’s son, Dexter, until a knee injury during his senior year of high school ended his career. He went on to college and later got into politics.
Dr. Abernathy says his father encouraged him and his siblings to forge their own paths in life, not to follow his lead.
“Growing up in my father’s home, he always allowed us the leeway to choose our own way. I can hear my father’s words right now, ‘Every tub must sit on its own bottom,’ ” Dr. Abernathy said during a recent phone conversation from Atlanta, where he still lives. “They raised us with the understanding that we could not make it on their life, we had to make our own way in life.”
Dr. Abernathy and his siblings heeded the advice. Dr. Abernathy’s younger brother, Kwame, is now a lawyer in Atlanta. His sister Juandalynn is an opera singer in Germany and his other sister, Donzaleigh, is an actress in Los Angeles, having appeared in several films and on many TV shows, including most recently The Walking Dead.
Ralph David Abernathy died in 1990, more than two years before his first grandchild, UC football player Ralph David Abernathy IV, was born.
“My father never got the chance to see Ralph David or Micah, but he longed for a grandson,” Dr. Abernathy says. “Annette and I didn’t get married until after he died. I thought my father was smiling down on Ralph David when he got that football and scored that touchdown (in the Liberty Bowl).”
Said Annette Abernathy: “The entire three days we were (in Memphis), the ambiance and the spirit of it all was very, very overpowering.
I think it kind of transported us back into the ’60s. We felt the spirit of the city, the spirit of his grandfather. We felt the spirit of Martin, just being in the city with the family. For some of our family members, that was their first time being back in Memphis since the assassination. That in itself was very overpowering and emotional in its own right.”
‘A crown and a cross’
There’s no avoiding the Abernathy name in Atlanta. A large portion of Interstate 20 through the middle of the city is called the Ralph David Abernathy Freeway. There’s also Abernathy Road and Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard. And, of course, there’s also Ralph David Abernathy III and Ralph David Abernathy IV.
There’s no hiding from the family legacy for 19-year-old Ralph David Abernathy IV. He’s has been aware of his grandfather’s accomplishments and his family’s role in the civil rights movement as long as he can remember.
“It’s been like that from day one,” he says. “As far back as I can remember, I’ve seen pictures of my grandfather with Martin Luther King and my grandmother telling me stories about him and Martin Luther King, my father being arrested at a young age, things like that. I’ve always been aware of the weight of my name and what I have to carry and what I have to bare. It just makes me a better person and makes me want to strive to be a better person every day.”
Abernathy IV says his father always told the kids that the name is “a crown and a cross,” especially to the son who carries his grandfather’s full name.
Annette says the Abernathys never thought of giving their son a name other than the one shared by his father and grandfather, despite the expectations that might come with it.
“Life can be a challenge if your name is John Brown, if you’re not doing the right things in life,” Annette says. “It’s just a part of his makeup and it makes him stronger. When his father and I leave here, we’re no longer here, Ralph David carries on this legacy and through him and the other two children, that name will live forever. They have to know how to handle that and it’s all part of growing up.”
Annette jokes that she thought about naming him “Neiman Marcus,” because that’s where she was when she started going into labor, but she never actually believed he would be called anything else. Dr. Abernathy concurs:
“There is a blessing that came with that,” he says. “There wasn’t even any second guessing. This is the first child born, first grandchild born to this legacy — a male child, born on Christmas Eve. There wasn’t a thought in my mind that he wasn’t going to be Ralph David Abernathy IV. In the womb he was Ralph David Abernathy IV. He was always anointed with that from birth.”
A natural athlete
Abernathy’s father is a storyteller. It doesn’t matter what you want to talk about, he has an anecdote, and he loves spinning tales of his son’s athletic feats, as well as his own. When it comes to his oldest son, he recalls early in his life when the comic and activist Dick Gregory saw young Ralph David and noticed the youngster’s balance.
“He’s special,” Dr. Abernathy recalls Gregory saying. “Get him on skates as soon as possible.”
Living in Atlanta, skating wasn’t in Abernathy’s future. He started playing football in third grade, and despite also playing basketball and running track, football was his first love.
By the time he was a junior at the Westminster School in Atlanta, Abernathy had garnered the attention of most of the schools in the South, including Georgia, Alabama and Texas. His senior year, though, Abernathy suffered a high ankle sprain and missed much of the season. In the end, he had scholarship offers from only four schools: UC, Ole Miss, Air Force and Navy.
“I think with his size (5-foot-7), some of the bigger schools, he probably just didn’t fit the mold for those schools,” says Gerry Romberg, Abernathy’s high school coach. “I know Coach (Butch) Jones liked what he saw on tape and offered him a scholarship.”
Abernathy felt the same about the Bearcats, committing to UC without visiting any other schools..
“I came up here and fell in love with Coach (Butch) Jones and the coaching staff,” Abernathy says. “It had a different feel. I really fell in love with Cincinnati and the players that were already committed when I came on my visit. Most of us are still here. It had a family feel to it.”
Abernathy appeared in all 13 games as a freshman last year, mostly as a kick returner. He averaged just more than one carry a game as a running back, but returned 38 kickoffs for 1,034 yards, nearly breaking a return for a touchdown during a game against Syracuse. Abernathy wasn’t used much on offense that year with future NFL draft pick Isaiah Pead in the backfield.
That changed in 2012, when Jones vowed to get the ball in Abernathy’s hands more. In the season-opener against Pittsburgh, he had five carries for 20 yards and four catches for 71 yards, including two touchdowns. He finished with 114 total yards, stealing the show on the game shown on ESPN. It was the type of game that had the TV crew — Rece Davis, Jesse Palmer and former Bengal David Pollack — calling his name so much, it was easier just to abbreviate it to “RDA IV.”
This season he teamed with running back George Winn to give the Bearcats a potent 1-2 punch, with the 210-pound Winn bringing the power and RDA IV as the change of pace back. Despite getting fewer carries over the latter half of the season, his 115.9 all-purpose yards per game ranked third in the Big East.
Abernathy’s not sure exactly how he’ll be used in the Belk Bowl against Duke Dec. 29 by interim coach Steve Stripling or next year by new coach Tommy Tuberville.
“I’m willing to do whatever’s necessary to help the team win,” Abernathy says. “Whatever the coaching staff tells me to do, whatever the new coaching staff tells me to do, it doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter to me what my role is.”
While his role on the field might be undecided, his role as a leader of the team has been well defined. When UC held a press conference to announce Jones’ decision to leave UC for Tennessee, Athletic Director Whit Babcock wanted two players to join him at the press conference Dec. 7. Because the Bearcats were looking to move forward, he wanted the voices to belong to players who, unlike Jones, would be Bearcats next season. Babcock asked Ryan Koslen, the associate sports communication director, to pick two players, and the choice was easy: Abernathy and junior offensive lineman Austen Bujnoch.
Abernathy stood tall before the cameras, delivering a message for a team that refused to be split by circumstances.
“Coach Jones is a great man. I’ll miss him, but we play for the guys in the locker room with the ‘C’ on their chests,” Abernathy said. “We play for Cincinnati. It’s time to just move forward. Change happens. It can either break you or make you. We are going to choose to let this make us.”
Looking back, Abernathy says he was surprised to be asked to speak for the team.
“I just got up there and spoke from the heart and how I felt about our situation,” he says. “It was definitely a humbling experience. It was humbling and an honor for people to think so highly of me and to think of me like that. There were plenty of seniors and other leaders.”
It shouldn’t have been such a surprise that coaches and the school’s media relations staff chose Abernathy — he’s been in the spotlight for years, and it shows. Abernathy is comfortable speaking to a camera, and he looks and sounds the part of a strong leader in front of cameras, reporters and teammates.
“My father has been leading my family since I’ve been around,” Abernathy says. “Seeing him lead, how he handles different situations, how he goes about his daily life. It’s just been an experience being able to watch him.”
His father was impressed with what he saw from his son, as well. But he wasn’t surprised. Not only did he know Ralph David could handle the spotlight, he knew he believed what he was saying — there was a conviction behind his words.
“It’s impressive to me, as a father,” Dr. Abernathy says. “Ralph believes in his team, he believes in his teammates. I’m in awe of his belief in them.
“There are times — and Ralph David has always been like this — he loves his team. Even when they make mistakes, I can’t talk bad about them in my house. I may come home mad because the coach didn’t call the right play or the quarterback threw the ball the wrong way. Ralph David, you can not talk about his team.”
Abernathy was one of the biggest supporters of quarterback Munchie Legaux, who started the season as the UC quarterback only to be replaced later in the season.
“There’s a loyalty I have for my teammates,” Abernathy says. “They’re my brothers. You don’t let anybody talk bad about your family — not even your family. We’re all going to make mistakes; we’re all going to make bad decisions. It’s football, not everything’s going to go right.
“I see them day-to-day. I’m with them in practice. I know what kind of people they are. Just because someone makes a mistake, I’m still going to back them 100 percent. I’ve made plenty of mistakes this year. I’m not without fault, so I’m not going to let anyone else say anything.”
Making a difference
As long as he can remember, Abernathy has had two goals: to play in the NFL and to make a difference in his community, much like those who share his name. Those two, as Abernathy sees it, can go hand in hand.
“With football, I feel this is my way to give back. My father gave back by being a state senator; my grandfather changed the course of history. This is just a way for the Abernathy name to give back in a different way,” Abernathy says. “Because when you go into inner-city neighborhoods, you don’t see kids idolizing doctors and lawyers, you see them looking up to football players, basketball players, people they can relate to. Those are their idols. That would give me an avenue to be a role model for them.”
Abernathy is majoring in business and finance and hopes this knowledge can help him fund his future endeavors, whatever they may be. And because he’s just shy of his 20th birthday, Abernathy says he has no idea what the future may hold. He knows he wants to help, particularly in the African-American community. At the very least, he wants to listen to the voices of those who have not been so fortunate, who don’t have the voice or platform to bring light to their problems. Like his teammates, he believes in those people, in all people. He’s secure in continuing the legacy of his grandfather, to live up to the name.
“This is just another step,” Abernathy says. “I’m just trying to better the legacy. I just don’t want to be the weak link in the chain.”
Dr. Ralph David Abernathy III has the utmost confidence that his son won’t disappoint.
“I’ve said to him, ‘Take the family in a new direction,’ ” Dr. Abernathy says. “If the legacy goes into the NFL and into football, let’s take the ride. You’re a new generation — we’ll take the ride with you, wherever the legacy takes you. It’d be refreshing. You don’t have to be a minister, a senator or a civil rights leader, just take us in a new direction.” ©