Eric Kendricks spent the last days of May stewing over his thoughts, sorting through the pain he felt over George Floyd’s death and searching for the right way to respond to a statement from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell he felt hadn’t gone far enough.
The Vikings linebacker is ordinarily reticent in public, wary of attracting widespread attention. His comments to reporters are typically polite, but brief, and he’d tweeted just once in May, about an NFL Network story on how Kendricks was selling his own paintings to raise money for COVID-19 relief.
But as he played back everything he’d seen and felt — over the video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck and the 150-word statement Goodell released on May 30 offering condolences to the families of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor without mentioning racism or police brutality — Kendricks kept thinking of teammates on the Vikings’ social justice committee with whom he’d shared ideas and processed deep hurt.
“For about a whole day, I just really sat on it,” Kendricks said Thursday. “The thing is, this committee that I’ve been able to be a part of, and the people in the committee that I’ve learned from — Stephen Weatherly’s not on our team anymore, but he’s [been] on the committee. Hearing him and [running back] Ameer [Abdullah], they’re so educated. They’re such smart guys. I felt like, now, with my knowledge, if I say I’m standing for these issues, if I say this is the kind of change I want to make, I had to do something.”
On June 2, he posted a Twitter thread asking the NFL to take concrete steps toward creating racial justice. He released a video through the Vikings on June 3, saying, “It breaks my heart to see the people of Minneapolis not only treated like this but how hurt they are by this,” as he wiped away tears. He and teammate Anthony Barr appeared with 16 other players in a June 4 video telling the league to condemn systemic racism, in words that Goodell repeated in his own response a day later. And Kendricks joined nine teammates in a June 6 meeting with Minneapolis police Chief Medaria Arradondo and three officers to discuss how the department can improve relationships with black people.
The week of public action, in many ways, stood unique in Kendricks’ five-year career. It was prompted by Floyd’s killing in south Minneapolis, which produced worldwide outcry and, eventually, notable contrition from the largest sports enterprise in the United States. It also was the product of three years in a group that has educated many Vikings players and emboldened them to take action.
The social justice committee the Vikings founded in 2017, after discussions among defensive line coach Andre Patterson, General Manager Rick Spielman and team ownership, had two aims: Help players partner with organizations working on systemic issues in the Twin Cities, and create a haven for those players to discuss racial matters together.
It distributed $250,000 in grants from the Wilf family in both 2018 and 2019 to criminal justice reform, education, legal aid, nutrition, youth services and post-prison reintegration programs. It also stoked an activist spirit on the roster: Kendricks’ work with kids in the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center has taught him more about the link between food insecurity and juvenile crime, and last week safety Anthony Harris struck up a 25-minute conversation about police department structures with a white officer in his native Richmond, Va.
The Wilfs this week committed another $5 million to social justice work across the country, and the social justice committee announced a $125,000 endowment for a scholarship in Floyd’s name. In the reaction to Floyd’s death, committee members also see hope for change.
“All people were able to see, for the first time, that it does exist and that this is real,” Patterson said. “It was videoed from the beginning to the end. All the other ones that have happened before, it becomes word of mouth: ‘Was the person resisting arrest? Did the person do something to have the police be this aggressive?’ It becomes, ‘What do you believe?’ Do you believe the person’s family, or what the police is saying happened?
“This one’s different; everybody was able to see what occurred, and how far it went.”
Processing shock together
Patterson, who turned 60 on Friday, grew up in Richmond, Calif., near where the Black Panthers were founded. Now the Vikings’ co-defensive coordinator, he functions as a source of wisdom for the team’s social justice committee, often reminding younger players that change takes time.
Still, he said, “it probably took a week” before he was ready to watch the entire video of Floyd’s May 25 arrest.
“I knew what I was going to see,” he said. “It’s like I told the players — you have to be able to talk, to be able to get it out, because if you don’t, anger will eat you up inside. I had to make sure mentally I was prepared to view it, because I knew the anger and rage would come back.”
Harris first questioned whether the video was real when friends texted it to him. He realized he’d talked before with Donald Williams, an eyewitness whose account of the Floyd killing attracted national attention on CNN, when Williams was working as a security guard in downtown Minneapolis.
“I thought I recognized his voice,” Harris said. “It brought it into perspective, how close incidents like that are to you. I can just imagine him, not only seeing another African-American man, but knowing he’s someone who works in the area with law enforcement, that he wanted to help, and how helpless he could have felt.”
The Monday after Floyd’s death, the Wilfs, Patterson and two players from the social justice committee led a team meeting. Spielman spoke the next day, as did Mike Zimmer. The coach consulted Patterson, his close friend and longtime colleague, about what to say; Patterson told him to simply speak from his heart.
“He humbled himself greatly and said, ‘Man, I don’t understand and maybe I haven’t given this as much attention, but I know I love every single last one of you guys in this room and I’ll fight for you guys just like you were my sons,’ ” Abdullah said. “That meant a lot for me because coming from Alabama, I grew up Muslim and black, so I was a double minority. I didn’t have a lot of people of the other color or other religion speaking for me, even when they didn’t understand my religion, even if they didn’t understand my background. So to have Zim come out and say, ‘I don’t understand, but I stand with you’ was powerful for me.”
‘Group is built to do things’
On Thursday, Patterson and Harris could easily recount their own experiences with law enforcement: Harris recalled older family members telling him to stay still and keep his hands visible during traffic stops as a kid, while Patterson remembered police following him several times as he drove an older Mercedes home while he was Washington State’s defensive line coach in the early 1990s.
At the same time, Patterson said, he heard from black players who were routinely pulled over on the five-minute drive back from Idaho (where the legal drinking age was only 18 at the time), while white students made the short return trip to campus unchecked.
“I went to the head coach [Mike Price], and said, ‘I want you to make me the liaison to the police department,’ and he did,” Patterson said. “I wanted them to see my face. I wanted to find a way to bridge the gap between police and our players.”
He set up ride-alongs and police station visits and held barbecues between players and police; over time, the relationship warmed and the traffic stops lessened. The Vikings’ social justice committee put together similar programs, and players reached out to police on their own this month; Kendricks had a 45-minute conversation with a childhood friend who’s now an officer, and Harris’ talk with the Richmond officer gave him new perspective on the idea of defunding or dismantling police departments.
The group will help allocate the Wilfs’ newest $5 million gift and is still making decisions about next steps for community efforts. Three years of work, and three weeks of processing what’s happened in Minneapolis, seem to have Vikings players ready to step in as boldly as ever.
“That’s the thing — we are all just learning so much [from each other],” Kendricks said. “This group is built to do things, to take action to create change. … The more minds we have collectively, the more effective we’re going to be.”