His lessons as Tabb High QB have helped Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney navigate tumultuous year

Marty O'Brien, The Virginian-Pilot
·5 min read

Mayor Levar Stoney likens leading the city of Richmond in 2020 to the pocket closing in on a quarterback attempting to throw a pass.

On a single day, Stoney, 39, might be called on to make decisions about the pandemic, protests, removal of Confederate monuments or the economic downturn in the city. Criticism bears down on him from both sides, like onrushing defensive ends.

Protesters, he says, consider him too pro-police, and police think he’s too pro-protesters. Looming is a re-election bid that culminates Tuesday.

Football metaphors come easily for a guy who started two seasons at quarterback for Tabb High School in the late 1990s, on teams that were average at best. The decision-making skills he exhibited as a quarterback serve him well these days in balancing his options as Richmond’s 80th mayor.

“I’ve said to them I stand with Richmond, with doing what’s right and doing my job,” he says of the critics. "Between the left and the right, that’s the pocket closing in on you, and you do what’s right on behalf of your citizens and the greater good.

“When you’re the quarterback, the ball is always in your hands, and when you’re mayor, essentially, the ball is always in your hands. When things get chaotic, you have to perform under pressure, and I recall from my days of playing on the gridiron, you can’t panic.”

And sometimes you have to call an audible — change the play on the fly. That’s the term he used to describe his decision to march in early June with citizens angered that police tear-gassed a group of protesters described in one news report as “nonaggressive.”

“I had not planned on marching at first,” said Stoney, who addressed the crowd on the steps of city hall to apologize for the police actions. "But when I was asked to do so, I wanted to do it because I felt there was a whole lot more pain out there than just the murder of George Floyd.

"There was a whole lot of pain built up after all of the injustices that happened to a lot of people. I guess you could say that was an audible, but working in this field calls for quick decisions.

“I embrace being the one in the arena responsible for making decisions. Sometimes you’ve got to lead with your heart.”

Responsibility is something Stoney has embraced from an early age. The family often lived off his grandmother’s Social Security check and, from age 10, Stoney balanced the checkbook and paid the bills.

His hard-working father, a janitor, taught him the value of competing. NFL players Terry Kirby and Chris Slade were a decade ahead of Stoney at Tabb, but provided role models for a young African American looking to climb.

“I thought if they could make it, I could as well — not in football, but in public service and politics,” Stoney said. “I owe a lot to sports, because sports bring people together.”

In addition to playing multiple sports at Tabb, Stoney was Sportsman of the Year and student council president, blending seamlessly with his mostly white classmates. Stoney says he did not experience a great deal of racism growing up in York County, but occasionally he heard racial slurs.

He says racial slurs have also been hurled at him some this year, along with death threats, for his leadership in the removal of Confederate monuments in Richmond. About a dozen Confederate monuments and plaques — including those of generals Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, and naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury — have been removed from public in Richmond this year.

“That’s part of life in leading the former capital of the Confederacy,” he said. "I know that by removing those monuments, what’s refreshing for me is now the city is free, unshackled to live up to what I think it can be.

"That is: ‘The Capital of Inclusion and the Capital of Compassion.’ We’re going to see real benefits from that.

“No longer will these Confederate symbols have their knee on our necks. Instead, it will allow us to heal properly, healing us to rip out systemic racism wherever we see it — whether it’s in government, housing, our criminal justice system, in policing.”

Stoney, however, wants to be known “for more than just removing monuments of bronze and granite.” He wants to be remembered for transforming public education and public housing, closing the achievement gap and broadening economic opportunity.

Proud that Richmond is “the biggest agent in Virginia for individuals to practice their First Amendment rights,” he nonetheless condemns violence and vows to protect businesses and residences from vandalism and destruction. Long thought to be a rising star in state Democratic politics, Stoney says he will not run for statewide office in 2021 to focus on his goals as mayor of Richmond.

He admits that he makes mistakes, just as he did in football. But he feels he’s made the right calls more than not and will ask the citizens of Richmond on Tuesday for a second term.

However hectic things get, he says he’ll keep his composure, stay poised and make the best decisions he can under pressure — all of those things he learned as Tabb’s quarterback. As he does, he hopes to make his late grandmother (Mary Stoney) and late father (Marcus Stoney) proud.

“There’s not a day I don’t think of them,” he said. "I want them to be proud of their grandson and son, that he took care of people and made a difference.

"I didn’t get into politics to push paper. I know that I have to push the envelope sometimes.

“Richmond is my home, my city. I love this city and there are certainly, certainly better days ahead.”

Marty O’Brien, 757-247-4963, mjobrien@dailypress.com

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