I MISSED THE CALL and didn't think much of it. It was the last Tuesday in September 2016. Two days before that—and after more than a year on the practice squad—I had dressed for my first game for the Panthers. We lost to the Vikings at home. But I was thrilled to be on the active roster.
The missed call came from Panthers headquarters, which wasn't unusual. I knew so many people there—teammates and coaches, but also regular folks in the offices. There was no voice mail, but then I got a text. I was summoned to the office and told to bring my playbook.
Football is a business. We all know that, especially guys on the practice squad. But this seemed strange. I had just dressed for my first game. And I hadn't done anything that anyone would consider wrong. At least not during the game.
Before kickoff I stood during the national anthem. I honored the flag. I prayed. I sang. But I also acknowledged the protests and recent events around the country and in Charlotte. (That very week a black man had been fatally shot by a police officer in the city.) During the anthem, I held up my right hand with my index finger pointing toward the sky. I didn't realize it, but I was the only guy on the team to make any sort of gesture. There was nothing organized; I didn't discuss it with anyone. It was just in my heart that day to thank God for the opportunity and to reflect on the excitement that had built up inside me. Asked about it after the game, I had a two-word answer. "One love," quoting the late Bob Marley. My point: It was a time in the country where I believed we needed unity, where we all needed to come together. I am an African-American man. I was also raised by a single white mother. I was taught the importance of love and respect for all people equally.
I walked into the facility and, as I expected, was told that my contract was being terminated. I questioned the motives immediately. I had put in a lot of work for the organization, and now I was being abruptly released? "Why? What did I do?" I asked. I didn't get much of an answer.
I had to ask: "Am I getting released by Big Cat?" referring to our owner, Jerry Richardson.
"Oh, no, no, no," I was told.
I had my doubts. I knew Richardson didn't want players following Colin Kaepernick's lead and protesting. I knew he didn't want players wearing dreadlocks, which I did. But what could I do? On my level, you don't challenge the Boss Man.
I finished out the season with the 49ers, appearing in five games. I spent 2017 with the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts and have anchored two Grey Cups in my three CFL seasons.
Suspicions about my release from the Panthers came roaring back last month when I read the allegations against Richardson. The SPORTS ILLUSTRATED story mentioned an African-American scout who left the team after the owner used a racial slur. I know I'm not the only one saying, "Told you so."
I know people were upset when Cam Newton seemed to defend Jerry Richardson. That didn't upset me. I'm good friends with Cam. I don't judge him. But you know what does upset me? Jerry Richardson hasn't said a word. He hasn't apologized. He hasn't had to address anyone. The players are left to answer for men with suits and ties on. I have the world of respect and love for the coaches and especially the players. The guys in the locker room stick with you for the rest of your life.
We know that even if Richardson sells the team, the NFL investigation continues. Which it should. A lot of people have questions. I do too. I feel like I was screwed out of a job and my lifelong dream, because ... why? The owner doesn't want a black player raising a finger? Is that fair?
I've thought about that every day. Would I do it again? The answer is yes. One people, one love, one unity. Peace. I stand for that now, more than ever.
"I FEEL LIKE I WAS SCREWED OUT OF A CAREER AND MY LIFELONG DREAM BECAUSE ... WHY?"