Eleven-year-old Rickira Isaac knew about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. She hadn’t heard King’s staircase advice until a Zoom call on Jan. 11.
“Faith is taking the first step,” reads the quotation attributed to King, “even when you don’t see the whole stairway.”
The quote was apt for the Zoom call on which Isaac, a sixth-grade student at East Tampa’s Young Middle Magnet School, learned it. Tampa Bay Buccaneers players teamed up with students via their youth leadership program to discuss what the civil rights icon meant to each. How could they channel his legacy to improve their communities, especially when they don’t always like what they see?
“The stairway one really stood out the most to me because it’s really inspiring and can help you,” Isaac, one of 25 Bucs mentees, told USA TODAY Sports. “It basically tells you: If the stairs are really high where you can’t see nothing, are you going to go up those stairs?”
Each team in the NFL has faced a choice in recent years, conversations reaching a crescendo especially in 2018 amid protests during the national anthem and again in 2020, following the death of George Floyd and shooting of Jacob Blake. Athletes throughout the summer had taken unprecedented moves to advance these conversations. NFL teams wondered how to follow suit upon their return to training camp in late July.
The Chiefs and Buccaneers, who meet Sunday in Super Bowl 55, were resolute. Each franchise established institutional ways for players to support their community and combat injustice, ranging from transforming their stadiums into polling locations during the national election to identifying clear, actionable items for players and management to address communal issues over an extended period of time.
As they prepare to compete on the biggest stage of the sport, the Chiefs and Buccaneers send a message that time and energy spent combating societal ills neither distracts nor detracts from on-field success.
“It’s important for our lives here,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Wednesday. “I think the more people get along, the better off we are and the better place the world is. We can sure get rid of a lot of garbage that is going on right now and … just have a better life for everybody.
“If we can do that worldwide, that’d be even better.”
Mahomes, Mathieu send message
Community impact efforts in Kansas City and Tampa Bay did not begin in 2020. But the tenor and urgency to directly address racial injustice in America spiked last summer. In Kansas City, quarterback Patrick Mahomes and safety Tyrann Mathieu were on the front lines of that fight.
Each appeared in a video that posted to social media June 4, in which NFL stars lambasted the league for silencing their right to peacefully protest and not explicitly expressing that Black lives matter.
“How many times do we need to ask you to listen to your players?” Mathieu says five seconds in.
“What if I was George Floyd?” Mahomes joins a chorus 10 seconds later. Before long, Mahomes’ eyes pierce the screen as his solo completes a chorus that “We, the National Football League, believe Black lives matter.”
The message was directed at the NFL. It reverberated in the halls of Chiefs headquarters. Defensive backs coach Dave Merritt texted Mathieu and Mahomes in the aftermath. “Great job, young men,” he says he told them. “I hope this can air on TV.”
Teammates took note.
“Patrick did an unbelievable job starting that conversation,” Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said. “Patrick and Tyrann Mathieu were the leaders in that regard and we love them for it.”
Open dialogues ensued during position group meetings, in the locker room, and between players and management. The Chiefs and Hunt Family Foundation identified key areas for community impact: voter registration and access, supporting minority-owned small business, and education.
They turned Arrowhead Stadium into a polling location for the national election, Mahomes splitting the cost with the team for voting machines used by more than 2,100 local residents with plans to use the machines in future elections.
The Chiefs are partnering with investment organizations to strategically fund local minority-owned businesses based on player input. And in November, the Chiefs announced a program called Kingdom United, with five pilot elementary schools signing on to a curriculum that teaches students about race, diversity, inclusion and acceptance. The schools included four in the Kansas City area — and a fifth in Pflugerville, Texas, where defensive end Alex Okafor grew up.
“Everyone wanted to get involved but didn’t necessarily know how or what they can do,” Okafor told USA TODAY Sports of his decision to fund his elementary school’s participation. “One thing I loved about this program was it was hands on, got right down to the root of the issue and really can make change.”
That chance to effect change and direct it specifically to counter systemic injustice buoyed the locker room, defensive tackle Chris Jones said.
“For a lot of guys from different races to come together and all reach common ground and find a way to improve this world? To me, that was striking.”
Building bridges in Tampa
Tampa sixth-grader Lenora Arenas also has found the chance to build bridges striking. Before an Oct. 20 Zoom call with Buccaneers players, she says she had never seen a football player in her 11 years of life. Fast forward to Super Bowl week: She’s since discussed with them police brutality and racism, picked their brains about how difficult high school and college will be (“I don’t want to move on too fast, but I just wonder”), and bonded over a shared difficulty in math.
“What I really like about this opportunity is we get to bond and meet new people,” Arenas told USA TODAY Sports. “We get to talk more and have trust in different people.”
The Buccaneers’ youth leadership and mentorship program is among players’ favorite opportunities. But the team’s efforts extend more broadly and date to 2018, when anthem protests prompted players and ownership to meet. The Glazer family, which owns the team, subsequently committed $1 million to launch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Social Justice initiative.
“Players came together and said: ‘This is what we believe in, this is what needs to be tended to,’” Buccaneers left tackle Donovan Smith, one of four Bucs on the social justice player board, said. “The Glazers came together and heard us.”
The player-directed effort focused on youth empowerment, police relations, criminal justice reform and workforce development. Players learned more about community needs via visits with local police, inmates at correctional centers, youth at detention centers and ex-offenders re-assimilating into society.
The team turned Raymond James Stadium, where the Super Bowl will be held, into a polling place that more than 8,200 residents voted at. Last week, the Buccaneers made a $25,000 donation to help launch the University of South Florida Center for Justice Research and Policy.
“Breaking down barriers to equality, uplifting those in need, being leaders for our youth — that’s a legacy we’re committed to leaving,” Buccaneers co-owner Darcie Glazer Kassewitz told USA TODAY Sports via email.
The youth leadership program has allowed the players to continue connecting despite pandemic restrictions. Each of the 25 middle-school students has a mentor on the Buccaneers staff, in addition to Zoom calls with 15-20 players throughout the season. Left guard Ali Marpet was moved by the students’ candor in this safe space.
“I felt shocked how just emotional and real and scary some of their experiences are – just really how a seventh- and eighth-grader internalizes the world around them,” Marpet told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s really scary and intense stuff.”
But the students say discussing these matters with players, many of whom also came from difficult socioeconomic backgrounds, eases their minds.
“It’s a lot different (from talking) with your family,” Isaac, a sixth-grade mentee, said. “Because I feel like they can really understand where we’re coming from.”
‘Just not the case anymore’
At kickoff on Sunday, Marpet and Smith will be charged with protecting quarterback Tom Brady against the likes of two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Frank Clark. Their cohesive teamwork has grown across six seasons together in Tampa. But it’s deepened also as they tag-team Zoom breakout rooms in the youth leadership program.
“It’s just cool to see him light up talking about trying to get kids engaged,” Marpet says of Smith. “I think it inherently sort of brings you together to see your teammates in a different light.”
Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians agrees. He marvels at how happy the mentorship program makes his players and cherishes their updates, noting “those guys really connected to those kids.” Arians doesn’t worry about the time they spend away from football, instead encouraging them to deliver on their promises.
“Words are one thing, but action speaks way louder than words,” Arian said. “And our guys have been active.”
In Kansas City, players are active, too. Mahomes and Mathieu set the tone long before training camp. Okafor and others advanced the baton during the season. Several Chiefs expressed a sense of calm and appreciation stemming from the knowledge the organization will support them, a statement the team delivered clearly and publicly when Mahomes and Mathieu cameoed in the June video.
“We love and support our players,” the Chiefs tweeted that night, sharing the video. “We’re proud of you Patrick and Tyrann.”
Chiefs nose tackle Derrick Nnadi’s takeaway: “They kind of just really give us the green light.”
Okafor is optimistic the light will stay green, teams continuing to create opportunities to combat injustice like the education initiative his hometown now enjoys. Football is moving away, he believes, from the perception that “you’ve got to be 100% locked in, football all the time, or you’re not going to succeed.”
“That’s just not the case anymore,” Okafor said. “Life moves on, life goes on and there are more important things than football. We should be able to speak up and voice our opinions and take on things such as that while we’re playing. I’m just glad that people’s thinking has changed in terms of being able to juggle your profession and your interests off the field.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein
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