INDIANAPOLIS – Their worlds have collided this summer, leaving emotions raw but hopefully leading to something better.
Players from every corner of the country – they were the Indianapolis Colts’ montage roster – shared life experiences during three days in June as the nation protested and the team wrestled with the death of George Floyd and others at the hands of police officers.
It was on a Zoom platform, but it was as personal as it gets. One by one, the curtain was pulled back as this player shared his exposure to racial profiling and that player relived an encounter of abuse at the hands of law enforcement.
Ryan Kelly sat and listened. His father, Dave, is a 30-year veteran of law enforcement in Ohio. His brother, Mike, graduated from the Naval Academy and recently was deployed overseas.
At one point, Kelly joined the conversation.
“When he speaks up and tells everybody his dad’s a police officer, you can imagine,’’ Frank Reich said Friday as his team spoke individually and in unison on how it plans to make an impact on racial injustice and growing mistrust between the Black community and law enforcement.
“In a Zoom meeting where the meeting discussion was on police brutality against the Black community . . . (and) all of a sudden one of your players – one of the guys you love and respect – says ‘My dad’s a police officer.’ It adds a whole different perspective to the conversation.
“The way our team handled that was the way it should be handled. Respect. Listening. And it was a two-way street. It really requires a maturity that’s beyond your years to hang with it and really get deeper into the discussion.’’
The deeper the conversation got, the more Kelly understood the pain so many of his teammates had been dealing with.
“We sat there and listened three hours a day, three days in a row,’’ the veteran center said. “It seemed like everybody had a story, whether it was they were targeted for speeding or whatever it was and they felt uncomfortable or their family’s the product of murder . . . there’s a horrendous story that everybody’s got.
“It’s tough for me. I know that there’s good out there. I just didn’t think there was that type of evil as well. It was a learning curve for me.’’
The more Kelly talked Friday, the more he wrestled with his emotions and the enormity of the fight he and his teammates are waging.
“To be honest, I feel the country is kind of out of morality at this point,’’ he said. “It’s tough to get on the news. To get on social media every single is exhausting. Obviously there’s evil out there every single place you look. You’ll never eradicate that.’’
However, he added, “I truly believe we have something special here. We have a platform. We can reach out and help people.’’
At one point, Kelly mentioned his father’s long career in law enforcement.
“I grew up in that lifestyle,’’ he said.
Every year, Kelly is involved with the Concerns of Police Survivors organization, which meets in Shelbyville. He promotes the group each year through the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats initiative.
“It’s hard, man, to hear those families . . . (officers) that are never coming home,’’ Kelly said. “It’s hard for me’’
He started to choke up, and paused the Zoom conference call to gather himself.
“I know that there’s good cops out there,’’ he said. “That’s the thing that hurts me. You see bad apples out there as well that tarnish the name of other people. I hate to see pain on either side.
“I’m happy that there’s tough conversation that we have. Every side hurts a little bit. Hopefully we can narrow the gap.’’
That’s Jacoby Brissett’s objective as well. He’s dealt with racial injustice, first as a youngster growing up in an impoverished area of West Palm Beach, Fla. He’s now doing his part in that community to bring together the youth and law enforcement.
Like Kelly, Brissett is part of the Colts’ nine-player Social Impact Council that serves as a locker room conduit to Reich and general manager Chris Ballard. The council is committed to making a difference in the local community.
Kelly and Brissett bring different perspectives to the social injustice discussion, which has proven beneficial.
“It’s been unique. It’s been great,’’ Brissett said. “I’ve had conversations that I never thought I would have with Ryan. And finding out that his dad was a former cop and how important that is, and his brother being deployed. You find out certain things and you go, ‘Dang, I didn’t know that.’
“Then you understand a person more. He’s provided tremendous insight. He’s provided ideas that honestly, I would have never thought of and other players in our group would have never thought of. He’s opened my eyes to a lot of things and I think vice-versa.’’
The Social Impact Council met Wednesday, discussed how best the Colts can impact change moving forward and then approached Reich.
“They laid out a very clear vision and said what they had been talking about and what they wanted to do,’’ he said. “You should write a textbook on how they handled it.
“I just listened. All nine of them (spoke) with deep conviction and understanding of a process of what it would take.’’
That conviction came as a “double-edged sword,’’ Reich said with a smile.
The players were not going to practice Thursday. Instead, they were going to use the time to really hone in on their plans.
“They were kinda saying, ‘Hey, we would really like you to sign off on this, but at the same time, this is what we’re going to do,’’’ Reich said. “It was very respectful, but it was also very strong conviction.’’
Initially, the players got everyone registered to vote. On a larger scale, they’re committed to “getting as many people registered as possible, getting it to the point where they’re able to get to places where they can vote,’’ said linebacker Zaire Franklin.
But players also laid the groundwork to make a serious impact in the community. They are focused on closing the gap of mistrust between law enforcement and the public, ensuring low-income areas in Indy have access to food and supporting the local school systems. You’ll find Colts throughout the community this season on Monday, their off day.
Brissett downplayed his leadership role, but he clearly has emerged as a driving force in the locker room.
“We want X, Y and Z,’’ he said. “I’m very outspoken about things that I’m passionate about. I don’t waver. This is something I believe in with every being in my body.
“I told Chris and Frank some of these things are non-negotiable and I’m willing to risk my job for it. I’m willing to lose it all because at the end of the day, it means nothing if I’m not helping change.’’
The recent actions – no practice Thursday to allow for in-house meetings aimed at making a difference in the community, and several players speaking out and endorsing change in a public forum Friday – can be traced back to those difficult discussions in June.
“What we proposed back then was, ‘Look, we can’t change the world, but maybe we can change the city,’’’ Kelly said. “Maybe we can make an impact on a kid’s life who’s headed down the wrong direction or maybe change his interaction with a police officer or that starving family that’s looking for their next meal and wondering where it’s going to come from.
“Maybe we can be that light. Maybe we can be that city that stands up and protects its own.’’
The bottom line: things must change, and somebody’s got to make that happen.
“It’s extremely frustrating just to think about where our country was at and still is. It’s tough,’’ Franklin said. “We need wide-scale change.
“To see the events that transpired in Wisconsin from the video of Jacob Blake being shot to the vigilante or terrorist walking past police officers with an AR-15 is troubling to say the least. I’m trying not to get emotional, but it hurts.’’
And it’s time to make a stand.
“I know a lot of people think professional athletes should be activists,’’ Franklin said. “I’m not an activist. I’m a football player. But I was a Black man before I ever picked up a football.
“It’s important for me to be that voice and champion for my people. I know I may be heard and they may never be heard.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.