Minneapolis City Conference football coaches and players met via Zoom on Wednesday evening in what was probably the most important meeting they’ll have all year.
The topic of football never came up.
Concerned for the well-being of their athletes against a backdrop of protests and civic unrest, Minneapolis South coach Rodney Lossow and Minneapolis Washburn coach Ryan Galindo, both of whom live and teach in the city, conceived the meeting. They saw it as a chance to give players and coaches a platform to make their voices heard.
Lossow, who coordinated the meeting, said it sprang from a feeling that they needed to reach out to their players after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. Their neighborhoods turned tumultuous and fearful with rioting and looting in the days that followed. South’s field, just south of Lake Street, is a couple of blocks from stores and buildings damaged or destroyed by fires.
“I wanted to know what I could do,” Lossow said. “Guys like Galindo got my brain stirring and I thought, ‘OK, what can we do virtually?’ ”
Eleven players, representing five of the city’s seven schools, and 10 coaches from those five took part, along with Antony Fisher, Minneapolis athletics and activities director. The Star Tribune was invited to be present as well. Lossow asked for and received participants’ approval to share the recording on YouTube.
The players, invited as team leaders by the coaches, were asked to address three questions: How do you feel about what happened? What would you like to see changed? What are you afraid of?
“We cling on to hope. I’m tired of hope. The feeling is all too familiar. Hope tends to let our guard down, until another black man, woman or child is murdered. It will stop when we the people have had enough that we no longer react, that we take action.”
Zoom would not have been the platform for this conversation if not for the pandemic. Yet watching teenagers of all colors speak truth from their kitchens or living rooms or cars about what changes they want to see, both in their own behaviors and from the adults in their communities, created a powerful experience. The coaches responded into their phone or laptop cameras with passion and emotional pleas for understanding and unity.
“This isn’t the greatest way to meet, but it was probably the best way because all got heard,” Lossow said.
Emotions ran from anger to frustration, from fear to worry. And to a sense of hope.
‘Am I next?’
Washburn senior John Lyman led off the responses from players and set a tone by calling out the behavior of police.
“We need to find the root of the problem, and that is police and how they become police [officers],” said Lyman, who is white. He called for more rigorous evaluation before they are hired to root out those with racist backgrounds.
Mistrust of law enforcement was a thread that carried throughout the meeting. Many players said they frequently feel scrutinized and suspected simply because of the color of their skin.
“It’s how black males are looked at,” Washburn’s Jamar Nelson said. “It’s not fair how we should go out every day and be scared of police officers. They’re supposed to be here to protect and serve us, but we feel like we’re not being protected and served. We’re dying.”
“The thing I’m afraid of,” said Minneapolis North senior quarterback Zach Yeager, “is that that next person to be killed by a police officer is me or one of my loved ones.”
Said Minneapolis Southwest senior Darnell Harper: “I’m black, I’m 16 and I’m scared that the next one could be me.”
Southwest coach Josh Zoucha told of receiving a photo from the mother of recently graduated senior T.K. Marshall, a star running back on last fall’s team. The picture showed Marshall walking among protesters in Minneapolis, holding a sign that read “Am I next?”
“That crushed me,” Zoucha said. “To hear the things these kids have to think about every day before leaving the house that I don’t have to think about, it’s powerful. These kids are speaking their truths.”
Mixed (blue) feelings
Yeager’s coach, Charles Adams III, is also a Minneapolis police officer and a longtime student resource officer at the school. The Minneapolis School District’s recent decision to end its relationship with Minneapolis police meant the end of Adams’ role within the school.
“I’m torn right now,” said an emotional Adams, the only black head coach in the meeting. His teams have reached six consecutive football state tournaments, making the Prep Bowl three times and winning the Class 2A championship in 2016.
“You see the color of my skin. You know what I do. I am in the worst possible position you could be in. I’m from the north side, but I wear blue. My daddy’s a cop. My uncle’s a cop.
“But under no circumstance did I feel that anything that was going on [with George Floyd] was justified. I’m not stupid. I’m not blind. Sometimes people don’t understand that the uniform comes off. I do take the uniform off.”
Adams talked about his role during the nights of violence.
“I had no clue if I was going to come back home. I’m talking going from fires to fires,” Adams said, passion rising in his voice. “Getting shot at. Stuff thrown at me. And all I’m thinking about is that Polar Pride, boys. Can I get back to them?”
Optimism, plus skepticism
That fear was not limited to those in authority. Roosevelt senior lineman Jesus Moreno said he felt compelled to participate in the peaceful marches but couldn’t leave home, fearing for his family’s welfare.
“The thing I’m afraid of is that that next person to be killed by a police officer is me or one of my loved ones.”
“The day after [Floyd] died, we went down to Chicago Avenue to see where it happened and there were a lot of people there, saying his name. It was really powerful,” said Moreno, who is Hispanic. “I wanted to march in the protests, but my family was hearing threats that there were people going into houses and hurting people of color. If I was gone, I wouldn’t be able to do anything for my family.”
Amid the overall serious overtone of the meeting, many echoed a theme of hope. That, finally, there might be an end to the inescapable racial oppression felt so strongly by the black community.
“I’m saddened, but I’m also glad,” Yeager said. “I’m glad to see people of all races come together to fight for the same cause.”
Minneapolis South senior Kader Diop echoed Yeager’s thoughts. “I’m hopeful because I think the spark from this case is bringing people together,” he said. “Not just people of color but people of all races. I’d like to see that continue.”
Not all saw hope as a shining light, however. Many said they fear the current groundswell of change will fade away, as has happened before.
“There’s hope in the air, and that scares me,” said Robert French, a Minneapolis Southwest assistant coach who is black and wore a custom-made hat that read Make Racists Afraid Again. “We cling on to hope. I’m tired of hope. The feeling is all too familiar. Hope tends to let our guard down, until another black man, woman or child is murdered. It will stop when we the people have had enough that we no longer react, that we take action.”
Here is the full Zoom meeting as posted on YouTube: