"It's the process, the journey, that's important. It's learning about yourself, and who you are. What kind of person you want to be."
Register for Justice Page's Oct. 21 appearance in the LearningLife Forum.
Yes, it's the title of a quirky song from the 1950s. But in Minnesota, the phrase "Purple People Eater" is more than that. For many Minnesotans, it is said with something akin to reverence...not because of the song, but because of the famed--and feared--Minnesota Vikings defensive line of the 1960s and 70s.
Nicknamed "The Purple People Eaters," with a motto of "meet at the quarterback," the quartet of Alan Page, Carl Eller, Gary Larsen, and Jim Marshall helped the team win numerous division championships and make four Super Bowl appearances. They are widely heralded as one of the greatest defensive lines in NFL history.
At a playing weight of 245 pounds, defensive tackle Page was one of the "smallest" of the Purple People Eaters--but his accomplishments left a big mark on the game. Six-time All-Pro selection. Nine consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. Eleven All-Conference awards. And the first defensive player ever named NFL MVP (and still only one of two).
The statistics Page racked up, and the accolades he's earned (including a 1988 induction into the Hall of Fame) are impressive, even for a non-football fan. That he went to law school full-time while playing in the NFL, graduating with his J.D. in 1978, and that he is now a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court makes it even more so.
Unless, of course, you're Alan Page. Then, well...it's just doing what you set out to do.
A remarkable football player, a well-respected and accomplished attorney and judge, and an admired social advocate and philanthropist, Page has been--and is--very successful at what he's set out to do. And he acknowledges it. But in talking to him, you don't see a hint of ego (however well deserved it might be). Humble, thoughtful, and matter-of-fact, Page is quick to point out that he got where he is today not because things came easily for him, but, in fact, because sometimes they didn't.
Too much Perry Mason?
"For me, as an African American child [in Ohio] in the 50s, my prospects were somewhat limited when it came to what I would do 'when I grew up,'" he says. "I looked around, and saw that I could do three things: work in the steel mill, hang out on a street corner, or end up in prison.
"Prison didn't sound like such a good option, and neither did hanging out on the street," he continues with a small smile. "And even at eight, nine, ten years old, I knew the steel mill wasn't for me. So I told people I was going to be a lawyer. I didn't have any real idea what that entailed, exactly (I think I watched too much Perry Mason), but it seemed like a good choice."
One thing he did not set out to be was a professional athlete. In fact, Page never even played football until he was in high school.
"I never thought of myself as particularly athletic. I started out by playing basketball in the eighth grade. I couldn't shoot; I couldn't dribble; I couldn't pass or catch. Other than that, though, I wasn't bad. So I decided that wasn't for me. I switched to football as a freshman because my older brother played. As it turns out, I had some natural aptitude, and I enjoyed it...so I kept at it."
Page also kept at his studies--education always a priority in his household--and managed to excel in both. The drive to succeed and to be able to balance his workload is something he credits to his parents.
"I was blessed with parents who understood the value of education. They stressed it, made it paramount. And they also made me see the importance of seeking excellence--in whatever I did. Their message to us kids was 'whatever you do in life, be the very best you can be.'
"I didn't have to be a lawyer. I could have been a garbage collector or a bookkeeper or... but what I did need to do, was be the best lawyer or garbage collector or bookkeeper I could."
A football scholarship allowed Page to play and study at Notre Dame, where he helped lead the team to a national championship. In 1967, he was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the first round.
"A scholarship to play football in college meant a chance to continue my education--and keep doing something I enjoyed while I did so. I didn't set out to become a player in the NFL. Like a lot of things, I sort of fell into the right place at the right time. But it was a good opportunity.
I certainly didn't go into the league thinking I was going to set the world on fire. And I recognized that this wasn't going to lead me to the lap of luxury and I'd retire sipping tropical drinks on the beach somewhere. But it never once occurred to me that I couldn't do it, couldn't succeed."
Purple People Eater...and full-time law student
The idea that he needed a career when he left football, as well as a desire to keep learning, led Page to enroll in law school at the U of M, full-time, while he was still playing in the NFL.
"Long before I had an identity as a football player, I had a life. The NFL wasn't my sole objective in life. I had a wife and children. And like I said, I knew I wasn't going to end up sitting on the beach somewhere when I was done playing."
And if his teammates thought it was strange or quirky or downright unusual that Page chose to spend his free time studying instead of some other perhaps less cerebral pursuit? "Well, maybe they did. I don't know. I guess some of them probably did think I was a bit odd. But that's who I am. If there was any teasing or ribbing, I was oblivious to it. I was committed to learning the law as best I could. It was the right thing for me to do. It was the right thing for my family and my future."
If his teammates thought his going to school was a bit different, his other hobby was borderline crazy: running. "I took up running in 1976," he says. "But before that, I was definitely a 'no running' kind of guy. In football, that's a punishment, not something you do for fun. But a friend of mine was into it, and it looked like a challenge...so I started. That activity raised some eyebrows, probably more than law school."
Page became the first active NFL player to run a marathon (and eventually did "eight, nine, ten? I lost count."), and also did races such as the Edmund Fitzgerald 100 kilometer (62 miles) race, and the Ultimate Runner race (mile, 10K, 100 meters, 400 meters, 800 meters, and a marathon all in one day). And although his mileage is less these days, he's still out most days of the week.
"One of the things I discovered about running was that in some ways it was similar to studying to be a lawyer and to playing in the NFL. It's the process, the journey, that's important. It's learning about yourself, and who you are. What kind of person you want to be."
Focus, Page learned, is key--focus, determination, and hard work. It made him successful in school, in the NFL, and in his career. Finding that harmony between academics and athletics is something that he stresses continually to young people.
"The conflict between academic excellence and athletics is what I decided to focus my Hall of Fame induction speech on. It's not an easy thing to do--especially now. Some people say 'Oh, it's impossible. You can't be great at both.' But I'm not convinced.
"If it comes down to one or the other, I believe academics has to always win...but you can do both. It's a matter of time management, of discipline. It's asking yourself 'What do I want? How can I make this doable?'
"It's not always easy, and it's not always fun. But the sense of accomplishment in the end is worth it."
Starting the Page Foundation
Upon receiving notification he would be inducted to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1988, Page immediately began planning how he could use the honor to help make a difference--especially in terms of youth education. "[The day after] I found out I was being inducted, I was meeting with friends and family to try and figure out how to make it serve a purpose. It became clear that for this to be meaningful for me, it had to be more than just recognition for past accomplishments. I was deeply honored to be getting in...but at the same time, that part of my life was over and done.
"I had spent years talking about athletics versus academics, and been interested in helping kids of color embrace and pursue academics. Now, I had the opportunity to actually do something."
And so, the Page Education Foundation was born. Initially, the program was conceived as a scholarship program for post-high-school-age students of color wanting to continue their education in Minnesota. Following a conversation with one of his daughters, who was herself in high school at the time, Page and his wife Diane decided to add a mentoring component to the program.
Page scholars receive financial assistance to attend any accredited post-secondary education institution in Minnesota they choose, as well as academic and career mentoring. In exchange, they themselves serve as mentors for younger children in grades K-8.
Since its founding in 1988, the program has grown from funding 10 students to 560 students in 2010. More than 4,000 students of color from across the state of Minnesota have received scholarships--and, in turn, they have volunteered more than 275,000 service hours to younger children.
The foundation's unique format ensures that not only do the students receiving grants benefit, so too, do the generations that follow them. "It's an exponential effect," says Page. "It makes sense--if I can reach a handful of people, and then each of those people can reach a handful of people, it spreads so rapidly. Our students return to their communities to volunteer, and it reaches so many more kids than one person alone could ever do.
"And the effect of someone coming to work with them, serve as a role model for them, and get them excited about education--when that someone looks like them, is from their neighborhood...what these students do, the impact they make in their community is a tremendous multiplier.
"In my work in the courts," Page says, "I've seen that some people just have no moral compass. But for a lot of the young people ending up in trouble, it's not that they lack a moral compass--it's that they feel like there is no hope. And when there's no hope, no options, no path...it gives them the sense that it doesn't matter. By reaching out to children of color early, with mentors from their neighborhoods, we're giving them hope--and heroes. They're getting hope for the future."
Page Education Foundation scholars are a diverse group pursuing a variety of educational paths. Currently, there are Page Scholars at 50 colleges, universities, and technical colleges across Minnesota, including many at the University of Minnesota. They study everything from barbering, business, and auto mechanics, to law and medicine.
"We're all different. We all have our talents and our goals and our skills. And we're all interdependent. The doctor can't do his surgery if the electrician isn't there to keep the lights on. And so on and so on. There's a place for everyone. The trick is getting people into the place and on the path that's right for them--whatever that is. The Foundation's goal is to help them get the education that creates opportunities that they can take advantage of."
He may be one of the greatest defensive players to ever play in the NFL, one of the league's most decorated alumni, and a former University Regent, but what Alan Page most wants to be remembered for is his work helping others. "I loved playing the game. I am grateful for the opportunity and the honors I received. But there was, and is, more in my life... I believe we can make the world a better place, and I'd like to think I've helped do that.
"I still get letters from people who have heard my story or saw me play, and they say 'you've inspired me.' People I've never met. And [with the Page Education Foundation], when we first started it, we couldn't begin to imagine the impact it would have. Our initial goals seem like a drop in the bucket now. Our scholars, out in the community, they influence far more people than I could ever hope to reach out and touch, make contact with on my own."
As he said in a 2004 commencement address at his alma mater, "Some would say the problems are too big and too complex for one person to impact. I believe those people are wrong. You don't need to be a Supreme Court Justice or even a football hero to make change happen. Everyone here, and I emphasize everyone, has the ability, the opportunity, and I believe the obligation to make this world a better place."
On October 21, Justice Alan Page will be the inaugural speaker for the new LearningLife Forum, Witness to History. This new monthly forum examines firsthand perspectives on the decisive moments and movements that have shaped our history. For complete details, including ticket information and upcoming speakers, visit the LearningLife Web site.
More information on the Page Education Foundation and its Page Scholars is available here.
Photos: top--Justice Alan Page
Second--Justice Page with 2009 Page Scholar awardwinners and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak (keynote speaker at the awards ceremony)
Third--Photo by Mark Luinenburg, courtesy of Minnesota State Court Administrator's Office.