Louis Delmas, left, is black. Tony Scheffler is white. Their relationship is one of the tightest bonds in the Lions dressing room, but it is a test to society. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)
Allen Park — Their relationship began 10 years ago when Louis Delmas was a volcanic, trash-talking freshman at Western Michigan University.
Tony Scheffler was the big man on campus, a senior with NFL promise. Delmas was the abandoned 17-year-old adjusting to campus life after a rough life in Florida. Scheffler took Delmas under his wing even though the young safety barked at him every time the tight end ran a route.
Their friendship grew over the years, and they remain tight as members of the Lions.
“Hey, cracker,” Delmas often says to Scheffler inside the Lions practice facility.
“How’s my n-----?” Scheffler replies.
Delmas is black. Scheffler is white.
Their relationship is one of the tightest bonds in the Lions dressing room, but it is a test to society. Usually whites use the term to tear down and ridicule. Most blacks use the word with an “a” at the end rather than an “er,” and it is a term of brotherhood and endearment. Scheffler and Delmas use both forms.
This is the way they’ve greeted one another for years, and this revelation comes on the heels of Riley Cooper, the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver who hurled the N-word at a black security guard during a Kenny Chesney concert.
Riley’s drunken rant went viral and disgusted folks both black and white. Although Eagles teammates publicly supported him, Cooper was removed from team activities for four days while undergoing sensitivity training.
Delmas said there is a difference between using slurs in public and doing it behind closed doors with a close friend you consider a brother, even if the brother is white.
“Me and (Scheffler) have a relationship many people do not have — both black and white,” Delmas said. “I look at him like my brother. I love him to death.
“He greets me, ‘What up, n-----?’ But I understand it. So I say, ‘What’s up, cracker?’ But we would never take it outside the building.”
A tough dynamic
Scheffler knows the history of the word and the sensitivity he must use. He would never call another teammate that. He never calls Delmas the N-word outside the dressing room or in front of his family. They are playful exchanges in meeting rooms and the practice field.
“I treat Louis like a little brother,” Scheffler said. “He knows my wife and kids. He calls me ‘white boy’ and ‘cracker.’ We go back and forth with it and we are both comfortable with each other.
“I can’t say the same with other relationships in the locker room or how other guys would feel about it. So it is a tough dynamic when you are using those types of words. Everybody does not react the same.”
I know what some of you are thinking: How can Delmas allow a white guy to call him the N-word? How can Scheffler be so comfortable in using it around him? And if Delmas is upset about Cooper, how can he call Scheffler a cracker, or “cracka,” which is a word blacks often use in a disrespectful way toward whites?
Well, here is what I keep hearing from black people: Most blacks use the word as a term of endearment. If Scheffler and Delmas are like brothers, then why is it not OK for them to use it but it is OK for a couple of blacks to do the same?
When you think about it, their relationship is more complicated than just being teammates. It is a test for society to judge.
And before you label Scheffler racist, consider the following. He and Delmas work out during the offseason in Florida. Scheffler is also good friends with tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who is black. Scheffler and Pettigrew go bowling most Friday afternoons after practice, and Scheffler often talks to him about racial issues to better understand black culture and perspective.
Delmas was angry when Cooper screamed at a security guard and talked about fighting every N-word in the stands. Delmas believed the words rolled off Cooper’s lips too easily in a public setting.
So how is that different than what he and Scheffler do?
“My teammates understand me,” Delmas said. “They call me n----- all the time. We have a bond that can’t be broken. And the minute you let that bond get outside this organization and you use that word outside this building, then you need to look yourself in the mirror and address it. The way the public blew up the (Cooper) situation, it should be blown up that way because he needs to learn a lesson. You can’t say that. You will never see me going outside the building calling someone cracker. You can’t do that.”
In the name of harmony
I spoke to a few players off the record about this issue and they were OK with the Delmas-Scheffler relationship. However, white players said they did not like being called white boy or cracker by black teammates they were not close with. But they believed it is better to remain silent to continue team harmony.
I asked one white player if he really knew his black teammates. He said no.
“Just look in our lunch room,” he said. “Black players are at one table and most of the white players are at other tables.”
There are some who routinely break the color barrier. They include Dominic Raiola, Rob Sims, Calvin Johnson and Pettigrew. There are certainly others, but those were the players who were brought to my attention.
I asked Scheffler how he feels about being called racially insensitive names by black teammates he is not close with. He shrugged.
“We are a great team and have a great team bond,” he said. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time you shrug it off for the sake of the team. You put the blinders on and move forward. We are all grown men. We understand what we are here for. Things like that you try not to allow them to get in the way. It is part of life and it is part of the workplace.
“I would not say it happens all the time, but you’ve got guys with so many different backgrounds. People get offended. You have to stick to your core values, and as long as you are good with yourself and can look yourself in the mirror and are good with what goes on, then it kind of washes away.”
Delmas concedes these are words that should eventually leave our vocabulary. He is right about that. But for now he continues to use it as a way to bond, as many professional athletes do.
“We know each other so well that it just comes out,” Delmas said. “And when it comes out, we don’t take it personally. We love each other to death. But outside here it is a word that should not be used.”