At the end of a year where he added a high-profile role as an activist to a history of behind-the-scenes work on social justice issues in the Twin Cities, Eric Kendricks is the Vikings' nominee for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
The Vikings recognized Kendricks as their 2020 Community Man of the Year, and officially put him in the running for the league's highest off-field honor, in a ceremony on Wednesday afternoon.
After co-owner Mark Wilf and General Manager Rick Spielman praised the All-Pro linebacker for his work in the community, and before he took questions from reporters, Kendricks became the interviewer and took time to highlight the work of three organizations with whom he's been involved for several years: the All Square Institute, Every Meal and the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center.
"I don't want it to be too much about me; I want it to be a lot about the organizations I've been working with in the Cities," Kendricks said. "I've been fortunate enough to not only work with a lot of people in the Twin Cities, but learn from them, learn about what's going on in our communities, learn what's going on with the kids. It's been a beautiful thing. There's a lot of hardships out there, a lot of people who need help."
Kendricks has worked with Every Meal (formerly known as the Sheridan Story) for the better part of his career, helping to provide meals for underserved children in the Twin Cities. His work with the Vikings' social justice committee introduced him to children at the Juvenile Detention Center and led him to learn more about the rates of incarceration for Black men he'd seen from a distance as a kid in Fresno, Calif. That led him to take an active role in the Vikings' partnership with All Square, which provides a path to employment for former prison inmates.
When Kendricks met with the organization recently to deliver a $250,000 check on behalf of the Vikings' social justice committee, All Square fellows Randall Smith and Terrein Gill were among the ones to tell him he'd won the team's Community Man of the Year award.
"If you look at these three organizations, these aren't like the big, flashy nonprofits," said Every Meal founder Rob Williams. "These aren't the organizations that have a big PR firm that can help drive more publicity for Eric. These are causes that he cares about and chooses to be involved in — not for the cameras, not for the big publicity and everything. He knows about these issues, and he's taking action to support those that are taking action on the issue. He's a big thinker. He doesn't have a narrow focus; he can see more about what's going on in the whole system. He's just a very genuine person that truly cares about these issues."
Kendricks' nomination for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award follows three consecutive nominations for tight end Kyle Rudolph for his work at the U of M Masonic Children's Hospital and three for former Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, who continues to serve chronically and critically ill children through his Lead the Way Foundation.
In the 25-year history of the award, named for the Bears Hall of Fame running back, the Vikings have had two winners (Cris Carter in 1999 and Madieu Williams in 2010). Longtime Vikings center Matt Birk won the award in 2012 while playing for the Ravens.
This year's winner will be announced during Super Bowl week.
Kendricks had been deeply involved with the team's social justice committee since its inception three years ago, but was recognized in a year where his activism reached a new level after the killing of George Floyd on May 25.
Kendricks was among the first NFL players to demand more substantive action from the league in the wake of Floyd's death, initially through a June 2 Twitter thread that criticized the NFL for offering statements but not taking concrete steps to address social justice matters.
In a video he released through the Vikings on June 3, a tearful Kendricks said, "It breaks my heart to see the people of Minneapolis not only treated like this but how hurt they are by this."
On June 4, he joined teammate Anthony Barr and 16 other prominent players (including NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes) in releasing a video that called on the NFL to apologize for ignoring systemic racism and discouraging players from peacefully protesting. Commissioner Roger Goodell released a video the following day, admitting the league was wrong for not listening to its players sooner and saying, "We, the National Football League, believe Black lives matter."
A day after Goodell released his video, Kendricks and a group of nine other Vikings players met with Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo to discuss ways the department can improve its relationships with Black people.
Asked what led him to speak up about social justice issues this year, Kendricks said, "I guess it was always a little bit of insecurity. I always wanted to give back; I always felt myself trying to be involved. I just didn't feel like I needed to be putting it out there as much. It is a fine line. But with these events that have occurred, I've realized my platform is larger than most, so maybe I need to be speaking up a little more than I have been."