Justice B. Hill / SBNation.com
Inside his one-bedroom apartment a block-and-a-half off Jefferson Avenue, the main east-west stretch of asphalt that snakes through downtown Detroit, Ernest Wagner Jr. sits in a black highchair at his dining-room table, a few feet from an off-white wall where photographs of his past hang – five photographs, all of them black and whites, all framed in black metal. Easing out of the chair, Wagner ambles toward the photographs and, using his right index finger, points to a basketball player in a team photo: “That’s me there.
In the photo, Wagner stands in the middle, his arms behind his back, dressed in the short-short trunks, long socks and white Chuck Taylors worn by a basketball player during the 1950s. He was a Harlem Globetrotter back in the day, back when he was younger, back when his 6‘2 frame didn’t tilt forward like a branch in a stiff breeze, when he didn’t teeter as he walked. He was a handsome man, a man whose reddish-brown complexion and slim, athletic build appealed to women. His looks brought him girlfriends then – and wives, too.
Wagner, his full head of hair now speckled with gray, the skin on his face showing a few of the deep recesses of a black man speeding toward 80, takes no pride in his infidelity, nor in the other horrible things he once did. All his wrongs are behind him, he says. Now he lives to follow God’s orders, and God ordered him to help the children. No, he isn’t “paying back”; he detests that term. He prefers to say he’s “paying forward,” trying to ensure boys and girls don’t trace his path, that they find a haven to keep them away from the Cass Corridor and other places where misadventure brews – and that they don’t trade athletic glory and a star-spangled ’Trotter uniform, as he did, for the drab garb of an inmate, number 07232-039.
What Wagner does now is save souls, and in the down-on-its-fortunes Motor City, souls are there to save. Yet before Wagner could save anybody else’s soul, he had to first save his.