The morning commute to drive her son to school always included a stop at the house down the street, for reasons Yvonne Thagon didn't fully understand.
Her youngest son, Eric Kendricks, asked Thagon to make the stop each day to pick up another boy on the way to Hoover High School in Fresno, Calif. Thagon would pull into the driveway, finding the boy's parents' cars parked out front.
"Why are we taking this kid to school, Eric?" she would ask her son.
"Is there a problem, Mom?," he would reply. "Is there a reason we can't take him to school?"
One day, he told her why he insisted on stopping.
"'It's because I'd rather know he gets to school in the day than to worry about him being out causing problems in the community,' " Thagon recalled. "I'm like, 'OK, I'll shut up. Thank you for the lesson.' "
The boy Kendricks worried about eventually spent time in juvenile detention. But while the daily pickups happened, the boy stayed out of trouble.
Her youngest son, whom Thagon had called Chubba since his days as a "chunky baby, with a big, round bald head," had done "what he's always done."
"I could always count on Eric," she said. "If nobody else wanted to do something [like chores], Eric might not want to do it, but if it doesn't get done by one of my other two [kids], he was always the one to step up and make sure it got done."
Much of his life is now in Minnesota, where Kendricks is an All-Pro linebacker and the heart of a Vikings defense in transition. It's here, in many ways, where he's confirmed his life's work is to try and pack as many people into the car as possible, in hopes of getting them where they're supposed to be.
In a sports year defined by athletes using their platforms to address the nation's reckoning with race, Kendricks was a poignant voice in the city that became the epicenter of that reckoning. He paired his history of private social justice work with a newfound public activism, shining a light on the issues that gripped Minneapolis while excelling on the field for the state's most popular team.
For that, Kendricks is the Star Tribune's 2020 Sportsperson of the Year.
"This city has given me a lot," said Kendricks, 28. "I just wanna give back, man. My ultimate goal is to give back in the town where I'm from. Fresno is always on my mind, as far as that's concerned. But I'm here, and there are awesome organizations all around here. Everyone loves the Vikings here, so it makes it that much easier to give back in the community. People listen. People watch. It's important to me to show, not only the youth in this city but people who follow and support, ways to be [helpful]."
Visits to the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center introduced Kendricks to young people who reminded him of the boy he picked up each day in Fresno — kids who could do great things with the kind of guiding hand Kendricks had as a child while his father, Marvin, battled drug abuse. That led him to learn more about recidivism and sparked his work through the Vikings' social justice committee, partnering with the All Square Institute to help formerly incarcerated people successfully re-enter society.
Days after he'd recoiled in shock at the video of George Floyd's killing in police custody in south Minneapolis in May, the ordinarily reticent Kendricks shook off his concerns about speaking up, becoming one of the first players to call out the NFL for a lack of meaningful social justice action joining teammate Anthony Barr and 16 other prominent players in a video that prompted Commissioner Roger Goodell to apologize for the NFL not listening to Black players sooner.
"It touched all kinds of people in different ways, and I think that touched him," said Vikings co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson, who leads the team's social justice committee. "I think that made him say, 'OK, I've been involved, but I just had my big toe in the water. I'm going to put my whole body in the water.' That's exactly what he did. He wasn't afraid to speak his mind. He wasn't afraid to speak from his heart, and be compassionate and vulnerable.
"I think that's the biggest thing: football players don't like to show their emotion, or themselves being vulnerable, and he showed that. That's what tells you he was touched, and he wanted to get involved with everything that he had."
The idea for the Vikings' visits to the juvenile detention center came from Quinn Adams, who had been hired as the team's new community relations coordinator in Sept. 2018, just as the social justice committee was making plans for its first full season.
The Vikings asked Adams to plan an event with a social justice focus. A juvenile detention center visit she'd organized during her time with the Colts had gone well, so she thought she'd try a similar outing in Minnesota.
That first visit, on a Tuesday in September, sparked something within Kendricks.
He entered a high school English classroom with Adams and offensive lineman Rashod Hill. The players sat down and started listening to poems the students had written. Kendricks observed it all quietly at first, JDC corrections institutional supervisor Jeff Townsend recalled, and when the group went outside to play basketball, he started to let his guard down.
Adams had barely met the linebacker before that day, but as they shared an elevator when they left, Kendricks said to her, "This is what I want to do. I want to do more of this."
Kendricks and Harrison Smith were back two weeks later. The linebacker hasn't missed a monthly visit during any of the three Vikings seasons since, Townsend said, even as the NFL's COVID-19 protocol meant the meetings had to happen virtually this year.
"Most of our kids [are here] probably three weeks, maybe a month," Townsend said. "And then we have some kids in here with very serious offenses, that are here throughout their appeals for three to six months. Even those kids were like, 'Wow.'
"The kids would write letters of appreciation to the players, and the themes we would hear about Eric are, he's real. He's genuine. And he really cares. … When kids are in confinement, the most valuable thing to them is the outside world — phone calls, visits, letters. So when you have a person like Eric come in, who's just so passionate, committed and upbeat, it means a lot, not only for their stay here, but it helps them prepare for when they leave here."
The day after the Vikings lost a Week 17 game at home against the Bears to miss the playoffs in 2018, Kendricks found Adams and asked if they could set up a JDC visit for the following day. He brought Smith with him.
"I feel like I've grown up not only with kids that are just like them, but I can see myself in them," Kendricks said. "There's mistakes they've made, but they like to play, they like to joke around, they like to laugh. They may not have the same support at home, but they need guidance. They need mental help, as well, in certain areas. I feel like they reacted well to me and my teammates. We were able to go shoot hoops with them, tell them how we had struggles and how we overcame them — just get real personal with them. I kind of saw the people I grew up with that got in trouble [in them]. I was just like, 'I've got to come back.' "
The visits, and social justice committee conversations with teammates such as running back Ameer Abdullah and former Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly, left Kendricks eager to learn more about the link between juvenile detention and adult incarceration rates, and how to break the cycle.
He's also continued his work with Every Meal to provide food for at-risk children, and he's been the driving force behind the Vikings' work with All Square, which received a $250,000 grant from the team earlier this year.
A recent visit to All Square's Minnehaha Avenue sandwich shop, where the fellows told Kendricks he'd be the Vikings' nominee for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, was documented by a camera crew. Most of his trips there are not.
"Eric has never come in with an agenda," said Emily Hunt Turner, who left her job as a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development attorney to start All Square. "They've built real relationships. There's no helicoptering in for a photo op and then they bounce. They come in for lunch. They call. They check in."
In the hours after Memorial Day weekend, Adams got a text from Kendricks with a link to a video. She clicked the link, unsure of what she was about to watch, and proceeded to view the footage of Floyd's killing for the first time.
"He had [the video] right away," Adams said.
She pulled together a group text where key members of the Vikings' social justice committee could share their unfiltered thoughts, and shortly thereafter, Kendricks was booking a flight from California to Minnesota.
The committee had laid the groundwork for a meeting with Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo months before Floyd's death, and the team scheduled time to talk with the chief 12 days after it happened.
Kendricks' mind also went to the young people at the JDC; Kendricks and Barr were on a Zoom call with them by early June, to let them react to what happened and talk through how to handle things if they ever found themselves in a similar situation with the police.
The question of whether — or how — to react publicly was the one that took the most thought.
Kendricks said he wrestled with insecurities about whether he'd say exactly the right things or forget to mention something that could have helped people.
In the NFL, the richest and most popular American professional league, players do not have guaranteed contracts, and Barr's mind went to the examples of those such as Colin Kaepernick who'd borne a cost for speaking out.
"Naturally, the first thing that comes to mind is, 'What are the repercussions for this? What's going to come of this if I do it?' " Barr said. "Once you can get outside of yourself, get over yourself and realize, 'I'm going to be fine, whatever the consequences may be,' or, 'Let's not worry about what's going to happen to me, because there's a much larger issue at hand,' that was the thing we had to get over."
Kendricks posted a Twitter thread on June 2, asking the NFL what steps it was taking to address racial justice and calling the league to move beyond a statement of condolences to the families of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery that, in his eyes, "said nothing."
Barr shared the same words an hour later.
On June 3, in a video Kendricks issued through the Vikings, he spoke through tears to the people who might have wrestled with the same questions he had.
"You feel a little bit helpless, like you can't do nothing," he said. "You want to help, you want to be the change, but you don't know how to in this situation. It's real deep. Minneapolis is a place I care about really deeply. It breaks my heart to see the people of Minneapolis not only treated like this, but how hurt they are by this."
Kendricks appears in the video saying, "What if I was George Floyd?" and "I am Ahmaud Arbery," and asking the NFL to admit it was wrong in silencing players from peacefully protesting.
"Before we posted on social media, we were texting each other, like, 'Here we go — there's really no coming back from it once we do it. Let's not be afraid of what people are going to say,' " Barr said. "Once you put it out there, you can't really run from it, so it's important to engage in those tough conversations. I'm not going to always be right, and what Eric says is going to be taken differently from certain people. But if we can have those conversations, it starts being more productive."
Soon after the video, the two had conversation with Goodell.
The Vikings reconvened for training camp in late July, and their season was marked by open conversations about race and social justice in Zoom calls, news conferences and even practices. The Vikings ended an Aug. 28 practice at U.S. Bank Stadium with Abdullah calling for a "proper" prosecution of officer Derek Chauvin for second-degree murder charges in Floyd's death, a day after an emotional two-hour player-led meeting following Jacob Blake's shooting in Wisconsin.
The Vikings had not had a player kneel for the national anthem before this season; Kendricks has been one of a handful to do so each week in 2020.
Playing in largely empty stadiums this year, the Vikings have been somewhat insulated from fan reaction. But the events of 2020, Patterson said, have alerted enough people to the underlying reasons for kneeling during the anthem that it "isn't a big deal any more."
"When Kaepernick did it, it became a big political issue," Patterson said. "Because at that time you didn't have all the other stuff going on, the politics of it won out. Everybody lost the message of what was being said. Someone was able to take it and flip it and make it something it really wasn't meant to be.
"This time, when it happened, because of everything that was going on, it took the politics out of it. Now, it's viewed as what it was meant to be from the get-go."
Even if the negative attention has receded, the positive attention is something with which Kendricks is still learning to get comfortable.
"It's a fine line," he said. "I have to put myself out there in ways I may not want to, but it's giving exposure to these organizations that are doing such great things. I have to keep reminding myself, 'That's what I'm doing it for.' "
If Kendricks set the tone for the Vikings' social justice efforts off the field this year, his voice on the field has been louder than ever.
He was on his way to a second All-Pro selection, having posted 107 tackles and a career-high three interceptions before aggravating a calf injury in pregame warmups on Dec. 6 and missing the Vikings' next four games.
He's been responsible for setting the Vikings' defensive front since he was a rookie in 2015, but with veterans such as Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Xavier Rhodes gone, and Barr out for the season because of a torn pectoral muscle, Kendricks had taken on a larger role as one of the defense's standard-bearers.
"It's like being a quarterback," Patterson said. "You're going to end up being a leader because you say the play. It's the same with Eric: he calls the defense. People are going to look at you as a leader because of you doing that. They are used to hearing his voice, so now that his voice has taken over even more, it was easier for players to accept that.
"Eric has fun at practice. It's like being at a Little League practice; he's running around, catching passes when the defense isn't on the field. He's like the Energizer bunny. He's taken young guys under his wing and told them, 'Hey, I had struggles, too.' "
One day, when his career is over, Kendricks expects he'll find himself back in Fresno, maybe as a high school coach, maybe at a juvenile detention center. He's interested in the charter school former Steelers safety Robert Golden opened in Fresno; Kendricks said he's planning to go see it at the end of the season.
Jeremy Wright, a favorite AP English teacher at Hoover High School, persuaded Kendricks to major in political science at UCLA. He's learning more about hiring practices and different types of workplace discrimination, while trying to acquaint himself with lawyers that might be able to help children. He's paying attention to hiring in the NFL, too, where successful Black coaches such as Patterson sometimes go decades without a head coaching interview.
In 2020, the world saw Kendricks' heart for Minneapolis. The work continues in 2021 and beyond; Thagon knows her youngest son is ready for it.
"I take pride in the fact he's my child," she said. "In my brain, I say, 'There goes Chubba again.' At the end of the day, that's just my child. He's always been there, loving, caring, giving to others."