Raymond Webber grew up wanting to be a football player.
In some ways, that made him more “at risk” than other kids at Jefferson School. Many black boys from the inner city have hopes of being a professional athlete one day. And most never make it. And when they don’t, then what?
Raymond’s mother and father knew the risks. The two are divorced, but each has been a major force in their children’s lives. Raymond is the youngest of three children, all of whom are college graduates. His eldest sister, Kiara, has two master’s degrees. Kymm is finishing a master’s degree.
“My mother taught me that my success was based on what she called a ‘three-strike rule,’” Raymond said. “The first strike was that I am a male [from the inner city]. The second was that I’m black. And the third strike was up to me. I could use the first two strikes as an excuse to fail, or I could take control and do what I needed to do to succeed.”
Raymond and his family grew up on Hebert Street in the historic Hyde Park neighborhood of north St. Louis. Although the area has seen some redevelopment over the past decades, it is pocked with blighted and vacant homes. Raymond’s parents knew they had to keep him and his sisters focused and disciplined.
Raymond’s dad, Baby Ray, as he was named by his parents, though he is anything but small, served as a city firefighter and is now retired “He was so big, and I was this tiny dude looking up to this big 6- foot 1-inch man… I never wanted to be in trouble,” Raymond said.
“Even though my father didn’t live in the home with us, he still provided for us,” Raymond said. “He taught me a lot about being a man, and that if certain circumstances don’t work out, then you still have to do what you have to do to adjust.”
Raymond’s mother, Lisa Ross, by contrast is petite, but no less a force. She worked at a nearby YMCA where she got to know lots of kids and their parents. She was active at Jefferson School and in her neighborhood.
Ross appreciated what civic leaders were trying to do at the school but she said the primary responsibility for any child’s success is up to the parents. And parents in her neighborhood help each other out, creating their own support system and safety net for their families.
“Everybody around here, we know each other,” she said. “We all work together. When something goes wrong, we help each other. During the ice storm in ’06, we were running extension cords to each other, and checking on each other like, ‘Are ya’ll good? We got the grill going, we got some warm soup.’”
“When it came to report card day and the PTO, these parents came out. The kids had all types of support. The teachers and parents worked hand in hand together. If the parents were on drugs, the grandma would take care of them. They went to schools clean. You didn’t have kids coming to school hungry.”
Ross maintained that the support system was in place well ahead of the Vashon Compact. If there was a disconnect, perhaps it was that the outsiders -- the do-gooders – saw the glass half empty. They didn’t always take notice or show appreciation for the teachers, parents and grandparents who were going the extra mile to support their kids. Sometimes reformers try to fix what’s not broken.
Raymond said that when his parents weren’t watching, he knew “Big Mama” Mary Spencer was. The term “Big Mama” is a popular reference in African-American culture for the female elder of the family. Everybody loves and respects “Big Mama.” She’ll put you in check if nobody else will. But she’ll love you like no other, too. Most of all, you don’t want to do anything to disappoint “Big Mama.”
As for matters outside of school, Ross felt it was important for Raymond to stay busy. Raymond played football for the community’s little league football team, City Rec, and during his high school years while at Cleveland JROTC and Career Academy. He also took a job at the White Castle down the street.
But education always came first. If that suffered, Raymond knew football could be taken away.
After being scouted by college football teams during his high school career, including the University of Missouri, Raymond enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Raymond made a name for himself there, breaking records for the most receptions and the most yards in a game and season. He joined Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, and he majored in business marketing.
Then the dream came true. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2011. A hamstring injury in training camp forced him to the sideline. In 2012, he joined the Jets and later got a tryout with the Miami Dolphins. Then it was on to the Canadian Football League, but he didn’t stick. Now he is under contract with the Arizona Rattlers in the Arena Football League. Maybe he will make it. Maybe he won’t.
Always, there has been Plan B.
B as in Business.
Raymond currently works in management training at Murphy Oil Co. outside Augusta, Ga. He plans to open a business one day that will cater to young athletes in St. Louis.
He also spends his days taking care of his 7-month-old daughter, Kylee, and her big sister, Jada, 7.
“My kids are achievers,” Ross said. “I tell them all day long that there is nothing that you can’t do. If you want it bad enough, you’re gonna do it,” Ross continued. “And if you do it the correct way, you’ll appreciate it.”