Black History Month marks an important time in Canada and the United States to recognize, honour and celebrate the achievements and contributions of African-Americans throughout history. BC Lions general manager Ed Hervey, who came to Canada in 1999 before an illustrious career as a player and now executive, writes about what this month means to him.
February’s always been an important month in my family’s home. It’s always been a time to think about what it meant to be an African-American, to be black in the United States. Understanding the struggles and the fight for civil rights, hearing the stories, watching different stories. As I grew older I understood that I was standing on the shoulders of those who sacrificed and paved the way for fighting for racial equality.
It’s a little different reflecting on this month when I’m in Canada and after the last 19 years I’ve had as a part of the CFL. I came to Edmonton as a player in 1999 and took on the west coast scouting role with the Eskimos after I retired in 2007. By 2009 I’d become the head scout and in December, 2012, I was named the GM. I was the second black man to hold that role in this league, after Roy Shivers did it in Saskatchewan. In 2015, I became the first black GM in CFL history to win a Grey Cup.
I would say that in Canada the opportunities probably have been greater to get to this level, to be a general manager in the CFL. Hugh Campbell and Danny Maciocia played a major role in my decision to give the personnel department a try.
During my playing days, I used to talk with Hugh from time to time. He was the Eskimos president and he always had an open door and time to speak with the players. I really appreciated that. Toward the end of my career, we started talking about what was next. He’d talk about coaching and I knew that wasn’t really for me. I always looked to the other side, to management, but I didn’t see anyone on the management side that looked like me. It was something that intrigued me, so I had a conversation with Hugh. When Danny offered me the west coast scouting job, I actually didn’t take it right away. I sat down and wrote out some goals on a sheet of paper. I basically made a deal with myself that if I wasn’t a GM or considered for a GM job within five years, I’d move on. That was my start in this business.
Where there’s opportunity, there are also challenges. They’re the ones that I started hearing about when I was a kid, 10, 11, 12-years old.
You’d read about them, you’d see it on TV when you’d watch documentaries. They’re things you talk about or you hear. Conversations with some of my elders, uncles, friends of uncles, cousins, they’d talk about it. You’d say to yourself, ’It’s not going to happen to me.’
Then it did. It does. It happened to all of us at some point. In football, whether we were in film sessions or later in my professional career, it was there.
The reality of it is, if we’re having a discussion, everyone wants to be right. I would sit listening to people who weren’t right all the time. No one’s ever right all the time. But if we’re having a discussion and they’re giving a strong opinion and raise their voice or get red in the face, they’re considered passionate or feel strongly about their point of view and it’s accepted behaviour. When I had my own thoughts, and I spoke up with my opinion, which I will do from time to time, I’m aggressive or bullying.
I hear that and laugh. It takes me back. That’s the stuff I heard I would always have to deal with, and dealt with growing up.
If you’ve followed me over the last 19 years, you know my story. You know that I’m from California, that I grew up in Watts and Compton. It was home, but those were dangerous places and all that. That’s the first place I learned about that difference. Me being me, being fiery and me being me, being called opinionated or strong-willed.
When I was a kid, I assumed that part of getting stopped by the police was getting pulled out of your car and put on the hood, face down. I believed that’s how the police handled people everywhere. We’d drive past and see the police pulling someone over on the highway or the side of the road and I’d think, ‘Oh man, someone’s in trouble,’ no matter if it was a white guy, an old lady, anyone.
“I’m unfazed by what people say about me . . . I grew up focused on getting myself and my family out of that tough neighbourhood and people can say whatever they want. I’ve grown up with thick skin.”
For a long time, all I had were the memories of having what the police did in our neighbourhood. When I finally got out and saw other places, I’d see people pulled over and think the worst. You don’t realize that it’s not that way, that it’s somewhat different when you get out of there.
No matter what was going on around me though, I was only concerned about my own business. I had to deal with police, that uncertainty. I’ve heard the n-word yelled out from the stands when I was competing, whether it was in track or football.
The thing is, I’m unfazed by what people say about me or what people try to make of me. I grew up focused on getting myself and my family out of that tough neighbourhood and people can say whatever they want. I’ve grown up with thick skin.
When I became a GM, I had a certain vision for the job. It wasn’t to reinvent the wheel, but approach the job by taking the positives that I experienced as a player and scout and eliminate the negatives that I encountered. I explain to players why we’re doing some things, rather than bring a player into the office, sit him down and tell him how it’s going to be.
The position itself doesn’t allow me to always be a good guy in the eyes of the player. I explain to the players that the position of the job is one thing but the person sitting there is another. I would consider myself somewhat a players’ GM, however with boundaries. I still hold players accountable, but I’m not interested in cheating to get ahead, cutting corners or blowing hot air pontificating. I’m not looking for attention nor am I into self-promoting. I love the challenge of building teams and building relationships and because of those relationships we’ve built over the years we were able to be successful with the players we signed during free agency. I sincerely believe building trust in relationships goes a long way. That philosophy in itself in my opinion has and will pay dividends in the future.
In BC, I keep the door open as much as I can, the same way Hugh did for us. I’ve had players come to my office curious about the work we do or at times attempting to feel me out. Shamawd Chambers reminded me a lot of myself when he asked questions. I was happy to help him out and I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him after he’s done playing. I’ve done the same with other players and other coaches that had questions.
When Roy Shivers had the job in Saskatchewan, I’m sure he thought about who might come after him. I’m sure Kavis Reed thinks about it in Montreal. I do too. My philosophy is that the most qualified person should get the opportunity. My director of player personnel is Torey Hunter. I didn’t choose him because he’s black. I chose him because he’s qualified and will get the job done. Now, if someone sees him in time as an assistant GM or a GM and he moves on, then there’s opening to fill. I’d have no problem hiring a female, either, as long as they’re qualified.
When I was hired I wanted to work hard and be accomplished and win. I didn’t want to be considered token. That’s another one of those terms you’ll hear from time to time. I wanted to be legit and work hard and do the things essential to win and be recognized as that. That’s the same as when I’m hiring, I don’t hire for public relations.
If you’re qualified and can do the job, you’ll get the job. I don’t get caught up in white, black, male, female, transgender, all that other stuff. To me it’s, ‘Can you do the job?’. I grew up in California, where we understand it all. We just ask people to do their jobs well.
That’s the kind of environment I want to create for my staff. There’s still work to be done in terms of equality. Some of the things my mom taught will always stick with me. I’ve never sat in front of anyone and felt inferior.
That’s why the civil rights marches during the 60’s are so significant. They allowed me to walk around and feel good about myself, believe in my abilities and understand that regardless of what my race is, the colour of my skin, if I’m skilled enough to do the job, I should have the confidence to get the job done.
All in all, the opportunities have been great for me. Not perfect, but I understand that there are still opportunities for growth and above everything else, I’m accepted. I’m not only seen as black man. I’m an executive and I’m proud of it. I don’t walk around saying that I’m one of the black GMs in the CFL, however I embrace that and I am proud of it.
I’m Ed Hervey, general manager of the BC Lions. I’m proud of that as well.