This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 17, 2012 - Kevin Carroll may be in his early 50s but he doesn’t look like a man pushing middle age.
“I like to tell people I’ve got a little bit of that Benjamin Button gene in me,” said the Philadelphia native with a chuckle.
But Carroll’s youthful demeanor is more than just a mindset. It has become something of a career, even a calling. As author of the “Red Rubber Ball” book series, the former NBA athletic trainer and self-described social change agent has made it a mission to get others to rethink the value of lighthearted recreation, giving talks promoting that message in companies, schools and other organizations.
“Sport and play should never be marginalized,” he said. “They should be celebrated and recognized for their value as related to problem-solving, abstract thinking, creativity, innovation and imagination.”
Some of that innovation will be on display at COCA late next week when Carroll will appear with former Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee to deliver remarks at the opening of an exhibit showcasing various artifacts from his travels. Entitled “The Art of Sport + Play,” the work will be up in the facility’s Millstone Gallery until September.
Earlier the same afternoon, Carroll will host a hands-on workshop across the street called “Find Your Own Red Rubber Ball” which will focus on inspiring organizational success through the power of storytelling.
Carroll has already done plenty of storytelling regarding his own life. Beset by a troubled childhood, he found solace at a local playground, where his mystical connection with what he called the red rubber ball began.
"There is where I learned that I had the gift of speed but even more so I learned about the ball,” he said. “The playground was a safe place and the ball is a symbol for me of what I was chasing -- which is my dream, my passion, my purpose, my intention.”
He would go on to spend a decade in the Air Force as an interpreter before settling into life as an athletic trainer, first in the high school and collegiate worlds and, later, with basketball’s Philadelphia 76ers. Finally, there was a stint at footwear icon Nike before founding his own company, Kevin Carroll Katalyst in 2004.
Since then, the author of three books has addressed dignitaries at the United Nations and worked with organizations from ESPN to Mattel to The Discovery Channel to Procter & Gamble. His words even appear on millions of Starbucks Grande cups.
It’s all designed to promote play and talk about the necessity of keeping an eye on the intentionality of the red rubber ball.
This month’s opening will show items from Carroll’s “Play It Forward” effort, an initiative in which individuals exchange balls with others during their global travels. He calls it an “interactive and experiential” exhibit.
“I have a ball collection from all over the world,” he said. “We’re going to share these wonderful artifacts from my globetrotting and my friends bringing them to me so we can see clearly how we all speak ‘ball’ and how it’s a universal language. No matter where you go in the world, people are playing regardless of their circumstances or situations.”
There is also a book drive and other events scheduled. Carroll’s remarks are free and open to the public but there is a $125 charge for the workshop.
“We’ve invited local artists to participate in the exhibit in their own way,” he said. “We’re giving them a canvas of an oversized playground ball to let them actually interpret it whatever way they want to tell it.”
Carroll said the concept of the red rubber ball “saved my life” and said it can help others as well.
“First, you need to recognize what inspires you daily and how you are committed to it,” he said. “[My grandfather] always said, ‘Don’t talk about it, be about it.’”
Physical health also plays a role.
“How are you taking care of yourself?” he said. “That’s my sports medicine background. How are you making sure you have the requisite energy to chase your red rubber ball on a daily basis?”
Finally, there is the topic of his upcoming workshop: the centrality of narrative in building your organization and creating community.
“It’s important how you tell your story because it inspires others to want to assist and support you,” he said. “Entrepreneurs especially have to be great storytellers and have to be passionate and tell it with an intention that inspires others to join you.”
Innovators often must deal with problems and speed bumps in the road, he said.
“It’s especially important for an entrepreneur to recognize that we are going to be challenged and be in a lot of those predicaments where it doesn’t feel like we have the resources available to really manifest an idea,” he said, “but I truly believe that circumstances never defeat someone’s destiny and that we have the ability to do a lot with a little.”
The presentation, set for July 20, is a part of COCAbiz, an entrepreneurial offshoot of the Center of Creative Arts. Carroll visited a COCAbiz event last year and the organization became interested in what he had to offer.
“We had a conversation about some of the images I shared in my PowerPoint and they were really taken by them,” he recalled. “They said, ‘Have you ever done an exhibit?’ and I said ‘No.’ They said, ‘We’d like to talk with you about it.’”
“And here we are,” he added.