Mylai Tenner was an enthused tri-sport athlete when he attended Harding High School.
He shot hoops, ran track and played football, all as a varsity player. As a senior, he was given the “H blanket,” an award given to the school’s top three-sport varsity athletes.
Now 42, he’s receiving another award that he’s been hoping to see for a while. He’ll be one of a handful of Harding athletes inducted into the school’s relatively new hall of fame there this year.
He takes particular pride in this, in part because his younger sister beat him to the punch (she was inducted in 2004) but also because he’s the first African American male to be inducted.
Tenner said he’s “honored and blessed” to be the first African American man in the hall of fame. But even “just to be inducted is an honor,” he said.
His former basketball coach Gerald Keenan, who’s now the Harding athletic director, started the program in 1996 as a way to instill a sense of history in the school.
“I did it because we had no pictures on the wall at Harding,” Keenan explained. “I think it’s important that the history of the alumni are recognized. ... It helps build the tradition of a school.”
So he began building a hall of fame, dating back to the school’s beginnings in the late 1920s. Seventeen years later, he’s caught up to a period when African American and Asian American students started becoming more common in the school, which is how Tenner ended up getting chosen this year.
For Tenner, his hall of fame ranking is a marker of the trials he went through growing up. When was at Harding, the majority of students were white, he recalled.
Reasons to work harder
Tenner said that at times, it was tough being a student of color at Harding in the late ‘80s.
When Tenner was a junior in 1988, there were 125 African American students, or about 6.8 percent of the school’s population. Nearly 75 percent of the student body was European Americans.
Fast forward to the 2012-2013 school year, and only 10 percent of the Harding students are white, while African Americans make up about 20 percent.
In a way, Tenner’s bright, athletic presence at Harding indicates the beginning of a change in school and neighborhood demographics.
When the Tenners moved to the East Side from Chicago, Mylai Tenner said his family stuck out -- there weren’t many black families in his neighborhood, he said.
And while they did face adversity -- he said that in one instance, a cross was burned in their front yard -- after neighbors saw that they were a hard-working family involved in the community and the schools, “people warmed up to us.”
When Tenner was a young boy in the late 1970s, his parents divorced. His mom moved him and his sister to the East Side, into Section 8 housing.
From there, his mother worked her way up and “busted her butt to the point where we didn’t have to be in Section 8,” Tenner recalled. She worked in the Army as well as at 3M, staying on the East Side through her childrens’ upbringing.
Rather than letting adversity get to him, Tenner took it as an opportunity to make something of himself.
“I learned a lot,” he said. “It made me a tougher person. It made me able to persevere and get through hard times.”
And persevere he did -- he was a successful athlete, and according to Keenan, a really popular guy.
Keenan said Tenner and his teammates were like brothers -- “that’s the beauty of sports: you’re with each other literally day and night, and you interact every day.” It didn’t make a lick of difference to the athletes what the ethnic background of the other players was, he said.
Former coach, now a friend
From Tenner’s former coach and current buddy Willie Taylor’s point of view, Tenner was a bright, positive force at the school, and a very popular kid as well.
“He was always a happy person, (there was) always a smile on his face,” Taylor said.
The two became friends when Taylor was a young track coach at Harding. Tenner was someone who goofed around, sometimes to the point where Taylor felt challenged.
But Keenan suggested that rather than fight against Mylai Tenner’s goofball tendencies, Taylor ought to “take him under your wing.”
He did just that, and they’ve been friends ever since, sometimes coaching together. Taylor is now a coach at Central High School, and is even hoping Tenner will help him coach track next spring.
Sibling rivalry and love
For Mylai Tenner and his younger sister, Shannon, love and rivalry go hand in hand.
Shannon Tenner was also inducted into the Harding hall of fame, years before her brother, back in 2004. This is something she’s teased him about, and something that’s made Mylai a bit jealous, Shannon said, laughing.
Keenan explains that the 36-year-old made it into the hall of fame before her older brother in part because the history of girls sports at Harding is much shorter. Girls athletics didn’t start at the school until 1972, he said.
Shannon, too, said that the family faced adversity at times. But “that just made us stronger and made us want to persevere,” she said.
The sibling rivalry helped, too -- “Being that we’re brother and sister, we have the competitive edge,” she said, amused.
But not so much competition that she can’t be happy for her brother.
“I love him with all my heart, she said.
He’d do it all again
Tenner went to college at Southwest Minnesota State University, where he was a linebacker and a “utility guy” on the football team, he said.
Upon graduating, he worked in law enforcement and played in minor league football -- he played for the Hamilton Tigers, the Milwaukee Mustangs and the Minnesota Pike, hoping to land with a pro football team.
He even made it so far as to work out with the Vikings, the Jets and the Colts, but in the end, it didn’t pan out.
“It wasn’t for me,” Tenner said.
From there, he pursued coaching, and started taking education classes. Nowadays, he’s working “to turn urban schools around,” he said.
He has education and principal licenses, and does consulting work at schools. He’s also working on promoting a book he’s written about education in urban environments.
Now a father of two, he has a message he uses when mentoring children that stems all the way back to his days at Harding.
“Do not let society or anyone put a label on you,” he said, “go to the own beat of your drum. ... Make sure you entrench yourself with people who have character and integrity.”
And that’s what he said he did at Harding -- he attributes his successes in part to the people around him, like his former coaches Gerald Keenan and Willie Taylor, teachers, and teammates, as well as his mother.
But it also had a lot to do with his personal drive. “I had to be better than just the norm,” he said.
Despite the challenges of his upbringing, Tenner said he’d do it all again.
“That’s how good the East Side has been to me,” he said.
Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at email@example.com .
The time to celebrate
The Harding High School hall of fame dinner celebrating this year’s memorialized athletes takes place Saturday, Nov. 9, at 6 p.m. in the school cafeteria.
It’s $15 per ticket and is open to the public. Current athletes at Harding will wait on the tables, something that gets them to “realize that we’ve got this good history,” athletic director Gerald Keenan said.