Stefon Diggs walked into a classroom in north Minneapolis on Nov. 20 with a teammate whose presence was designed to jolt the students at Franklin Middle School.
Adam Thielen, one of Diggs’ closest friends with the Vikings, was the only white person in the room.
“But that was good, though,” Diggs said with a smile. “They were making fun of him a little bit.”
The NFL’s most prolific receiving duo — a Division II product from Detroit Lakes, Minn., and a star from the Washington, D.C., area who became the nation’s top recruit — talked about issues in their hometowns. They listened, and pledged their help, as students shared their own stories.
Most of all, they tried to show their seemingly unlikely bond was genuine, deep and replicable.
“I think that was the whole point of the thing — because they probably don’t feel super comfortable with people like me, maybe,” Thielen said. “Diggs was able to show them — “He cool,” Diggs interjected, finishing Thielen’s sentence.
Diggs and Thielen’s visit — one black player and one white player talking to at-risk students in Twin Cities schools about the value of cross-cultural relationships — was among the first of its kind for the Vikings, but there will be more. As the team wrestled for nearly a year with how to address social justice concerns in the Twin Cities, it landed on a multifaceted initiative to provide school supplies and scholarships for low-income students, legal aid for the disadvantaged and opportunities to improve relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. Owners Zygi and Mark Wilf committed $250,000 from their personal wealth, telling players they could allocate the funds however they saw fit.
The program launched with little fanfare; players’ visits to schools and juvenile detention centers, as well as ride-alongs with Twin Cities police, have come without cameras or news releases. Linebacker Eric Kendricks and defensive end Stephen Weatherly said they were met with suspicion the first time they visited the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center; their subsequent visits prompted thoughtful letters from students who began to see the effort wasn’t motivated by a photo op.
And before they reached out, they looked inward, forming a leadership council of a dozen or so players that has regularly held frank discussions with coaches, team executives and the Wilfs about how their backgrounds and upbringings shaped their worldview.
“It’s been one of the most satisfying things I’ve had a chance to be a part of,” said defensive line coach Andre Patterson, who has served as something of a mentor for the group. “Me being an older African-American male, I was able to express things that have happened in my life, and to my family members. [It’s], ‘First of all, these things happen, and then secondly, how do you deal with it? How do we go about making things better, so when your children grow up, it’s a better place?’ ”
Opening up in the locker room
The meetings, Patterson said, began with no agenda — other than that players, not coaches or executives, would drive the conversation.
“Guys were able to just open up and freely talk,” he said.
As they did, they revealed layers of themselves that Patterson suspected few had shared before.
Diggs, who said he rarely saw white people in his hometown of Gaithersburg, Md., described the culture shock of his first year at Our Lady of Good Counsel, a private Catholic high school where the student body is roughly 70 percent white. Tight end Kyle Rudolph’s all-boys Catholic school was more than 90 percent white but was located in Cincinnati’s diverse Price Hill neighborhood.
Players recalled interactions with law enforcement, experiences with racial injustice and instances of domestic violence that shaped their childhoods. When asked to speak, Patterson shared his upbringing at all-black schools in Richmond, Calif. — plagued for years with one of the nation’s highest murder rates — and his arrival in 1981 at the University of Montana, where “there were 10 black people, max, on the whole campus.”
“I’ll give you a funny story that my wife gives me a bad time about to this day,” Patterson said. “Where I grew up, you always locked your doors: You locked your house doors, you locked your car doors. If somebody knocks on your door, you yell, ‘Who is it?’ You just don’t open it. I’m not opening it until you tell me who’s standing behind that door. I was shocked people don’t lock their car doors at night, people don’t lock their front doors at night. But all of a sudden, it clicked in my head: That’s a better way to live than what I’m used to.
“At some point, you’re willing to learn and put your guards down. The first thing that comes across your mind is, ‘I’m not going to sell out. I’m going to stay me.’ The way I communicate with you now is totally different from when I first moved. At some point, I had to make a judgment on my own to say: ‘OK — I’m going to improve my vocabulary. I’m going to improve the way I communicate with people. And I’m not selling out on my blackness to do that.’ It doesn’t mean that you don’t have pride in the black community and in who you are. You’re improving yourself so you can be the best you can be.”
Facilitating all of it were the Wilfs, whose own upbringing as children of Holocaust survivors gave them a unique window into injustice at its worst as they met with the leadership council last spring.
“Of course it resonates,” Mark Wilf said. “They appreciated it, but I also learned a lot about what some of our players have been through, whether it’s directly or [through] family members. I think it was impactful on all fronts. In a way, this whole initiative has allowed us to get to know our players a little better — not just in the building or on the field, but things that matter to them, or what they’re hearing about.”
Said Weatherly: “It shows that they care. [The issues players are talking about] are something that doesn’t directly affect their group, but it affects part of their team. And they’re like: ‘All right, this is a big problem, and I see it as a big problem for a couple guys on our team. This is what we’re going to do.’ They didn’t have to do that, but they did, and that means a lot.”
Putting words into action
No Vikings player had made a public protest during the national anthem before Sept. 24, 2017, when President Donald Trump’s comments critical of protesting NFL players prompted the Wilfs and General Manager Rick Spielman to stand on the U.S. Bank Stadium field and link arms with players before a game against the Buccaneers.
Even that decision, Rudolph said, was the product of long conversations, resulting in a unified gesture to shield individual players from potential blowback.
Both Mark Wilf and coach Mike Zimmer have said they believe it’s important for players to stand for the anthem, and the arm-in-arm gesture, which continued for much of the 2017 season, remains the only one the Vikings have made during the anthem.
Their efforts have been less public, but perhaps more tangible.
Rudolph and running back Latavius Murray made a school visit similar to the one Diggs and Thielen made this fall. Four players — Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers, Everson Griffen and C.J. Ham — have joined Minneapolis or St. Paul police for ride-alongs, to better understand the decisions officers must make while on duty.
“Their job is serious,” said Ham, who accompanied a close friend from college on a ride-along through St. Paul. “It takes a lot of courage to do what they do. Not everybody can go out there and put their life on the line. That’s one thing that we all have to respect — that these men and women are going out there, and they might not come home. To see and hear some of the things they have been through, it’s an eye-opening experience.”
Weatherly, safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Eric Kendricks’ initial visit to Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center was so profound that all three have returned repeatedly. During Weatherly’s second visit, with teammate Danielle Hunter, he played chess with a girl named Destiny and convinced her to share a spoken-word piece she had written about forgiving her mother for abandoning her as a child. The two are now exchanging letters.
Kendricks has made three visits, and said he is planning to go back this week.
“I feel like I’m supposed to be there,” he said.
Like Weatherly, he has received letters from a handful of kids he has met there. On one visit, when Kendricks told the group he was open for questions, one asked him if he had ever felt like giving up.
“It’s hard, man. You see these kids — they’re probably like 14 through 17 — and for them to be asking that question, obviously they’ve been through a lot,” said Kendricks, who told the group about the perseverance of his mother, Yvonne Thagon, as his father, Marvin, battled drug addiction. “I just told them, ‘Hey, if you guys ever feel like giving up, use me as an example.’ The skills we learn, the things we do, we learn from somebody. These kids are good kids; they just happened to be in the wrong situation.”
It starts with dialogue
The issues Vikings players are choosing to engage — improving relationships with law enforcement and education assistance in a state with some of the largest achievement gaps in the U.S. — are inherently thorny. So, too, is the process of creating the kind of open conversations about race that take place in an NFL locker room, which naturally creates a melting pot of players from different ethnicities and parts of the country.
“I ask myself that all the time,” Kendricks said. “In the locker room, we’re very blessed; we’ve got people who come from absolutely nothing, and we’ve got people who may be doctors’ kids. We have the whole spectrum, so we get all types of political views, different elements of growing up, and it makes us more well-rounded, I like to think. I think it starts with dialogue.”
Said Diggs: “It takes time, because when somebody comes from a different background, you assume they’re already judging you — because low-key, you’re judging them. When I went to a white high school, I was like, ‘I don’t know the way they do things. It’s just different.’ It just takes time.”
Time — in addition to the money the Wilfs already have committed — seems to be one thing the Vikings are willing to invest.
“In life, our common goal should be to do good,” Rudolph said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s violence, if it’s police brutality; we know good and bad. We know what’s right, and we know what’s wrong. If we can all work toward what’s right — and be there for one another when someone does something right, that may not be the popular thing to do — you may have more people who are more likely to do good.”