HOUSTON – It was the last day of 11th grade at Jack Yates High School in Houston, nearly three decades ago. A group of close friends, on their way home, were contemplating what senior year and beyond would bring. They were black teenagers on the precipice of manhood. What, they asked one another, did they want to do with their lives?
“George turned to me and said, ‘I want to touch the world,’ ” said Jonathan Veal, 45, recalling the aspiration of one of the young men — a tall, gregarious star athlete named George Floyd whom he had met in the school cafeteria on the first day of sixth grade. To their 17-year-old minds, touching the world maybe meant the NBA or the NFL.
“It was one of the first moments I remembered after learning what happened to him,” Veal said. “He could not have imagined that this is the tragic way people would know his name.”
The world now knows George Perry Floyd Jr. through his final harrowing moments, as he begged for air, his face wedged for nearly nine minutes between a city street and a police officer’s knee.
Floyd’s gasping death, immortalized on a bystander’s cellphone video during the twilight hours of Memorial Day, has powered two weeks of sprawling protests across America against police brutality. He has been memorialized in Minneapolis, where he died; in North Carolina, where he was born; and in Houston, where he spent most of his life.
Now a time stamp in the prolonged history of violence against black people, Floyd’s killing has inspired people of every race to march in the streets in hundreds of cities and small towns.
But Floyd, 46, was more than the nearly nine-minute graphic video of his death. He was more than the 16 utterances, captured in the recording, of some version of “I can’t breathe.”
He was an outsize man who dreamed equally big, unswayed by the setbacks of his life.
Growing up in one of Houston’s poorest neighborhoods, he enjoyed a star turn as a basketball and football player, with three catches for 18 yards in a state championship game his junior year.
He was the first of his siblings to go to college, and he did so on an athletic scholarship. But he returned to Texas after a couple of years, and lost nearly a decade to arrests and incarcerations on mostly drug-related offenses. By the time he left his hometown for good a few years ago, moving 1,200 miles to Minneapolis for work, he was ready for a fresh start.
When he traveled to Houston in 2018 for his mother’s funeral, he told his family that Minneapolis had begun to feel like home.
Floyd was born in Fayetteville, N.C., to George Perry and Larcenia Floyd. But he was really from a Houston neighborhood called the Bricks.
After his parents split up, his mother moved him and his siblings to Texas, where he grew up in the red brick world of Cuney Homes, a low-slung 564-unit public housing complex in Houston’s Third Ward.
As a child, Floyd was known in the Bricks as Perry, his middle name. As he grew, so, too, did his nicknames. He was Big Floyd, known as much for his big personality as his sense of humor.
After graduating from high school, Floyd left Texas on a basketball scholarship to South Florida Community College (now South Florida State College).
Floyd transferred two years later, in 1995, to Texas A&M University’s Kingsville campus, but he did not stay long. He returned home to Houston without a degree.
For about a decade starting in his early 20s, Floyd had a string of arrests in Houston, according to court and police records. One of those arrests, for a $10 drug deal in 2004, cost him 10 months in a state jail.
Four years later, Floyd pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon and spent four years in prison. He was released in 2013 and returned home again — this time to begin the long, hard work of trying to turn his life around.
After prison, Floyd became even more committed to his church. Inspired by a daughter, Gianna Floyd, born after he was released, Floyd spent a lot of time at Resurrection Houston, a church that holds many of its services on the basketball court in the middle of Cuney Homes. He would set up chairs and drag out to the center of the court the service’s main attraction — the baptism tub.
“We’d baptize people on the court and we’ve got this big old horse trough. And he’d drag that thing by himself onto that court,” said Patrick Ngwolo, a lawyer and pastor of Resurrection Houston, who described Floyd as a father figure for younger community residents.
Eventually, Floyd became involved in a Christian program with a history of taking men from the Third Ward to Minnesota and providing them with drug rehabilitation and job placement services.
His move would be a fresh start, Ngwolo said, his story one of redemption.
In Minnesota, Floyd lived in a red clapboard duplex with two roommates on the eastern edge of St. Louis Park.
Beginning sometime in 2017, he worked as a security guard at the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center, a downtown homeless shelter and transitional housing facility. The staff got to know Floyd as someone with a steady temperament, whose instinct to protect employees included walking them to their cars.
“It takes a special person to work in the shelter environment,” said Brian Molohon, executive director of development at the Salvation Army Northern Division. “Every day you are bombarded with heartache and brokenness.”
While working at the Salvation Army, Floyd answered a job ad for a bouncer at Conga Latin Bistro, a restaurant and dance club.
Jovanni Thunstrom, the owner, said Floyd quickly became part of the work family. He came in early and left late. And though he tried, he never quite mastered salsa dancing.
Floyd spent the final weeks of his life recovering from the coronavirus, which he learned he had in early April. After he was better, he started spending more time with his girlfriend, and he had not seen his roommates in a few weeks, said Alvin Manago, 55, a roommate who met Floyd at a 2016 softball game.
Like millions of people, his roommates in the city that was to be his fresh start watched the video that captured Floyd taking his last breaths.
They heard him call out: “Mama! Mama!”
On Tuesday, 15 days after that anguished cry, Floyd was laid to rest beside her.