Monday, August 4, 2014 || By Michael Romain
MAYWOOD, Last Monday — Al Nuness was looking at the billionaire owner of an NFL football team. The billionaire was looking back incredulously. The two were in the middle of the rarest of business negotiations–they were discussing the customization of a Super Bowl ring–when the proceedings hit a blip in the road. The billionaire, who looks as if he were born in an executive suite, didn’t believe Nuness, the former basketball star, was the man with whom he should be dealing at this point in that rarest of business negotiations. The source of the NFL owner’s disbelief need not be mentioned.
Suffice it to say, Nuness, towering over the owner, advised him to look at the name on the contract. When the billionaire read the name, he looked up at Nuness and said, “You are the man aren’t you?”
For Nuness and other African-Americans in sales, that minor ‘blip’ in negotiations is as routine as a handshake; but like a handshake, it’s something they often have to take in stride.
“A lot of times [black sales people] aren’t given credit for what they do,” said Nuness to a roomful of kids seated around a table on the second floor of Operation Uplift’s Fifth Avenue base of operations. The small group of about a dozen youth, who ranged from adolescents to teens, sat spellbound around an elegant encasement full of championship hardware as Nuness talked of people and places and situations beyond their imaginings. They are participants in Christy Dodson’s World of Work (WOW) program, a nonprofit that provides area children with mentors, budding professional networks and early professional training.
Dotson started the organization nearly ten years ago. She said that she’d had the desire to work with youth for a long time, but just didn’t quite know the specific capacity.
“I always wanted to own like a tutoring business or ice cream shop, where kids could work at. My ant, Lorraine Wilson Grace, was going on African Missions as head of her own ministry, Manifested Love ministries, and I decided to start this organization [under her nonprofit status].”
Since then, the Maywood-based program has partnered with companies such as McDonald’s and WGN, and individuals such as Nuness, to provide area youth an entry into worlds and opportunities that would otherwise be closed off from them.
“The wealthy live a totally different life than the rest of us,” Nuness said, animating his pep talk with Robin Leach-like tales of the rich and famous–not so much to boast, but as a lively vehicle for getting kids to the real gist of his message.
“You can be whatever you want to be, but you’ve got to work at it,” he said.
Nuness, a native of Maywood and Proviso East alumnus, played college basketball at the University of Minnesota, where he also served as that institution’s first African-American assistant coach. From coaching, he went to work for several Fortune 500 companies. Early in the Minnesota Timberwolves’s history, Nuness served as the franchise’s Director of Ticket Sales. The rings, however, are products of his tenure with Jostens, the American apparel and accessories company, where he serves as Vice President of Sports Sales.
Nuness is the man NFL, NCAA, NBA and MLB teams go to after they win championships and the luxury of ruminating about the size and design of their rings. Nuness’s work stays with superstar athletes for life. It becomes among their most cherished and valued possessions. When they’re old, they’ll unknowingly pass along something of Nuness to their children and their children’s children. In a way, the whole point of professional sports is the ring. The ring is it. And Nuness makes it happen.
“Our goal is to send our kids out there with a specific outlook in the back of their minds,” said Dotson. “They’ll hear it over and over again–you have to know what you want to do, you have to be specific about what you want to do and you have to focus on that goal.”
Dotson knows that putting a face and perhaps a few real life props (like Super Bowl rings) to that message is one of the best ways to make it stick. However, she said the the mentors and executives that she often puts in front of the kids are also expected to go beyond a single speech. She encourages the youth, who range from 10 to 18 years old, to exchange contact information and ideas. She also gives them $50 per week stipends, half of which is provided to them throughout the program and the other half distributed at the program’s end.
WOW typically runs for several weeks each summer and only takes in a handful of youth so as to maximize the program’s intimacy and, thus, its effectiveness. To stay financially solvent, the group receives donations from individuals and various entities in the community.
“We’ve been to McDonald’s headquarters, WGN, Pacific Gardens, the Washburn Culinary Institute, Motorola,” Dotson said. “On the last day, we do an activity like Great America.”
Dotson, currently a career coach for Leyden Township high schools, said she’s pleased with the organization’s progress. After nearly a decade, she’s to the point where she can rattle off triumphs like a celebrity listing her upcoming projects. By her count, there have been more than 100 youth who have cycled through her program.
“I’m always going to graduation parties. Most of the kids have went to college. I have some who have entered law school. One is at Iowa State–he’s a wrestling coach. I’ve had one who is going to be a minister and whose preaching at a local church in the area,” she said.
However, Dotson is also ready to grow into what she considers the organization’s natural next phase.
“We’ve kept it small, because we’re able to get into certain areas that we can’t with a larger group,” she said. “But we’re currently working on a website and some other things to upgrade ourselves. We’ve been a well kept secret for some time.”
If Dotson has her way, that won’t be the case for much longer. VFP
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of Christy Dotson. This article has been updated to reflect that correction.