While we have all been coping with the threat of COVID-19, some areas have been more affected than others. The Navajo Nation, which falls within the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, has approximately 190,000 residents, primarily Native Americans who have been hit hard by the coronavirus. As of Friday, the Navajo Nation had 8,568 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 412 deaths. That's 4.5% of the entire Navajo Nation population and a mortality rate of 4.5% as well. In Coconino County, Arizona (population 143,000) where Tuba City is located, there have been 106 deaths and 2664 confirmed cases. When you combine that with Navajo County up north as well, the native population who live in these areas have some of the highest COVID-19 confirmed cases and mortality rates in the state of Arizona.
Due to the severity of the spread of coronavirus up north in the native communities, for the past two months, there has been a strictly enforced 57-hour lockdown each weekend from Friday 8 PM to Monday 5 AM, where no one is allowed to be outside for risk of a hefty fine.
To say the least, there has not been or was not much to be happy about in Navajo Nation for the past several months. But this all changed when Billy Orman (former Tuba City standout who graduated in 2011) was put into the Athlete of the Decade tournament, which we started up in late May.
Some of the nominees in our 64-person bracket knew about this tongue-in-cheek contest right away and were tagging friends, relatives, former teammates, and coaches to vote for them on social media - not Billy Orman.
Billy, since graduating from Tuba City nine years ago as one of the top high school milers in the US, has attained a Studio Arts degree from Harvard University and has traveled extensively over the past several years. He ran for one year in college and then started focusing on his artistic and creative side and simply left his impressive high school running career in the rearview mirror.
"I don't think I even knew about the contest until I got to maybe the quarter-finals," Billy explained. "I'm not very tech-savvy and I am rarely on social media."
Around the time Billy finally learned about being in the running for Athlete of the Decade he spoke on the phone with his father, Dr. William Orman, who still practices as a pediatrician in Tuba City.
"My dad told me that this contest is a big deal over here and I asked him 'Really? Why Me? It's so long ago that I ran in high school.'"
And that is Billy Orman in a nutshell - an extremely humble individual who does not see what he has accomplished as anything special.
But after talking to his dad a little longer Billy saw that it was not so much his high school running career that made this contest important to the Tuba City community but rather that this contest was a bright light in the midst of the darkness that had been swallowing up the Navajo Nation with uneasiness, sickness, and death caused by COVID-19.
Adopted Native Son
To be clear, Billy Orman is not Native American. He is actually a mix of Puerto Rican and European descent. His mom (a teacher) and dad (a doctor) have been pillars of the Tuba City community for years. According to a former teammate of Billy's, Jarvis Attakai, "Everyone loved his mom and everyone knew his dad as the doctor." And when it came to Billy as a kid, Jarvis remarked, "He wasn't shy, was very talkative, greeted everyone in a good way, and he was goofy."
"I'm thankful to my parents for raising me in that community," Billy reflected. "They could have put me in some prep school or something, but my dad was very conscious of how he wanted me to grow up...I'm very happy a grew up on the res'."
For those unaware, running is a huge part of the Navajo and Hopi culture, identity, and tradition. Running is almost a religion in the Navajo and Hopi cultures. Billy recalled many a time people would thank him and his teammates as they ran through the community saying Askwali (thank you in Hopi).
While Billy was a phenomenal runner, it truly was his humility, acceptance, and willingness to absorb as much of the Navajo and Hopi culture as he could. And this is what really drew people to Billy. Beyond Tuba City, people all over the Navajo Nation knew of Billy Orman and his running prowess. According to Pat Brockie, a long time resident of Tuba City, "Billy was like having a rock star in your midst."
A Vote for Hope
Right from the beginning of our Athlete of the Decade tournament, Billy was winning each round pretty convincingly. As he got further along in the contest he seemed to be getting more and more momentum. When looking at Facebook, you could see the multitude of people who were sharing the "Vote for Billy" post.
The "Vote for Billy" post shared on social media was not really about Billy the runner, but Billy the person. What Billy represented to Tuba City and to the Navajo Nation in this time of despair was a little hope. When your neighbors are getting ravaged daily by this invisible viral predator it is nice to have a distraction.
By having Billy in our Athlete of the Decade tournament, according to Pat Brockie, "Brought back some of that magic and good memories to us all." Brockie continued about having Billy in this contest, "It gave us a little hope. A little good feeling. Made us feel very proud of our adopted son."
Another former teammate of Billy's, Shawn Deeschchiinii stated when talking about the effect of Billy being in our tournament, "He is a Navajo celebrity and him being a part of this brought people together up here."
As many of you know, Billy won our tournament with nearly 45,000 votes cast for him and competitor Jaide Stepter. The reason he won was not that he was a more accomplished athlete than Jaide, but rather that his winning the contest went beyond personal glory - for Billy is far from that sort individual; no, Billy winning was not for Billy but for a community desperately trying to find a sliver of optimism - a sense of pride in the doldrums that has been their lives since the coronavirus entered their land. Their votes were cast because they were longing for happiness and hopefulness and it manifested itself into Billy Orman. The young man back in 2011 who ran a 4:05 mile, who the entire Navajo Nation saw as their own because he was accepting of them as much as they were accepting of him. There was, according to Shawn Deeshchiini, "An acknowledgment of kinship." when it came to Billy and the Navajo and Hopi communities. This kinship was what drove thousands of people to vote for Billy Orman.
Toward the end of my conversation with Billy on what he is doing now, he told me that he was in New Orleans playing in a band as a drummer and loving every moment.
"Music is this beautiful thing you truly can carry around with you and share with people," Billy explained.
Without even knowing it the "music" Billy shared with the Navajo Nation a couple of weeks back was a song called hope, which lifted the spirits of an entire community, even if only for a little while and its beautiful melody will be stuck in their heads for years to come.