CHAMPAIGN – But for his great sense of humor, Mike Sola might be curled up in the fetal position crying right now.
The 50-year-old former weatherman for WILL-TV and, before that, WCIA-TV, is among the latest in a growing list of white men in town being slugged for sport by young black men. (Earlier reports indicated a slang term of "polar bear hunting" for these attacks, but police officials say that term is not evident in the recent attacks.)
The attacks seem to have been concentrated on campus during August but lately have been spreading across Champaign and have even included young white boys in city parks.
"My facial swelling has gone down to where it looks like I had a cheap botox injection. My crow's feet are totally gone on the right side," he quipped Tuesday, some four days after being attacked while walking home from a Central High School football game. "I've been beat up worse than this by my brothers."
Sola said he decided to walk the couple of miles to his south central Champaign home Friday night after the game let out at Tommy Stewart Field behind Centennial High School.
He was near Jefferson Middle School on Crescent Drive about 9:30 p.m., one of several people leaving the game, when "out of the blue I feel something hit me in the back of the head."
"It's hard. It wasn't a fist," he said, adding that whatever struck him wrapped around to the front of his neck, causing it to bruise. Although stunned, his little bit of karate training sent him into a defensive mode.
"I go into a crouch, get a little bit of a defensive stance, reach out and grab somebody, and throw a punch. I hit somebody," he said, adding he was peppering his assailants with a few well-chosen phrases of outrage.
He doesn't know how many there were – he believes at least two – and couldn't recognize them in the dark, but knows they were probably teens leaving the game just as he was.
"They didn't look out of place in a group of high schoolers," Sola said.
Within seconds, police and other passers-by, including Central High School Principal Joe Williams, were helping Sola.
Several officers were already there lighting the darker portions of the street with their squad-car spotlights as they watched the fans leaving.
Sola said an ambulance attendant cleaned him up a bit, but he gratefully accepted a ride from Williams to the hospital so as not to have to incur the expense of a co-pay for an ambulance ride for something caused by someone else.
Sola said he told Williams he could announce at school Monday that "the old man attacked on Friday night would like a cage match."
He had to have four or five stitches to repair the cut to his right earlobe. The right side of his face was also fairly swollen and his face was scratched.
"I do have quite a nice shiner. I grew up with seven older brothers on the South Side of Chicago, so I know how to fight," he said. "Unfortunately, when you get hit in the back of the head, all you can do is go into defensive mode and lash out.
"This was the epitome of cowardice to come up from behind and out of the dark. If that's their gang initiation, that's a ... (cowardly) bunch of gang members," Sola said.
His bravado and humor aside, Sola said he's saddened by the random attacks.
"I'm not a racist. My black friends are just as frustrated and (ticked) off as my white friends," he said. "The frustration transcends race, but the activities all seem to be race-related."
And he's nervous that an attacker or an innocent bystander is going to be killed by a victim who might be armed.
"There's more consequence than just the personal ones to me. I'm a victim, but I'm not victimized. It's a sad statement when you can't walk down the sidewalk at 9:30 at night. Did we lose ownership of the streets?" he asked.
"If these kids had a family background where a dad was bringing home a paycheck and instilling parental control, this wouldn't be a problem," said Sola, who said he doesn't want unemployment and underemployment to be an excuse for such behavior. "If you're a good person, you're a good person. If you're a piece of trash, you're a piece of trash."
Out of work himself for three months after being laid off from WILL earlier this year, Sola said he put the time to good use doing work for some older folks on their homes and learning how to take an outboard motor apart and put it back together.
He was recently hired as an account executive for SJ Broadcasting, a group of radio stations based in Champaign.
Ironically, he said one of his first sales as a radio ad executive was to the owner of a martial arts academy.