MILLBRAE, Calif. – Colin Kaepernick might have had more vitriol hurled in his path than any other athlete this past month, yet those who stand (or kneel) with the San Francisco 49ers quarterback must wear their share of anger too.
The varsity football team from Mission High School in San Francisco knows that too well. After following the lead of its quarterback, Niamey Harris, two weeks ago and kneeling en masse for the national anthem, the team was engulfed by a swath of attention, much of it hurtful.
“There was a ton of negativity,” senior Duncan Lau, the team’s kicker, told USA TODAY Sports.
Lau was the only player to stand the first time the team staged the protest, while raising a fist, showing solidarity with his teammates yet still honoring his grandfather, a World War II colonel.
“We have heard and seen a lot of stuff,” he said.
The Mission players heard their principal had received death threats and that their team should be disbanded. That their coaches should be arrested, apparently for the “crime” of refusing to prevent or criticize the protest.
The taunt that stuck with Lau the most was one that suggested the group was destined for a life as criminals
“There was a message that said we should put both our hands in the air, because that is what we will be doing for the rest of our lives,” Lau said. “I won’t ever forget that.”
Things are quieting down now, but the boys from Mission likely won’t forget any of it, this crazed couple of weeks when their actions became national news. Only a couple of hundred people where there for Saturday’s road game, a comfortable 45-6 victory over Mills of Millbrae.
The anthem wasn’t played – Mills officials claiming that it routinely doesn’t play the song on non-league games held on Saturdays because of the absence of the school band.
“It had nothing to do with what Mission did in their other games,” Mills athletic director Tim Keller said.
Mission kneeled anyways, just like they have pledged to do until the end of the season, or until matters of social justice improve. Just like Kaepernick.
“They have handled everything very well,” coach Greg Hill said. “This kind of thing and everything surrounding it is not necessarily what you would choose, but we live with it and grow from it. I hope there will come a time in their lives when potential schools or employers will look at what they have done and see it as a sign of character.”
The school mirrors the area it hails from; it is a melting pot of cultures and the football team is no different. America’s problems cut deeply here. They are discussed, yes, like pretty much everywhere else, but they also apply directly.
Harris said that the highly publicized shooting death of Terence Crutcher, a black man, in Tulsa, Okla., had affected the group.
“It is sad but most of all it is scary,” Harris said. “It makes you think, ‘It could be me.’ ”
Hill echoed those thoughts. “For them it is not just something on television,” he said. “They live it. They see it. They experience it, experience the prejudice and the labeling.”
One of the most interesting things about Mission’s protest is that it seems to have been entirely designed and executed without the influence of adults. Harris, a team captain and popular leader who likely has a Division I future in football or basketball, originally raised the possibility and it was followed with enthusiasm and feeling.
It has made some parents are nervous.
But Melanie Williams, mother of Jamal Trayvon Dixon, 16, dearly hopes Kaepernick may visit the school, like he did with Oakland’s Castlemont High on Friday.
“What would help more than anything would be for him to come down and talk to them,” Williams said. “Maybe they are braver than me. I support them but I also think ‘careful, don’t let’s start a war.’ But having Kaepernick come to see them would really help them understand what it is all about.”
For now, they are doing a pretty good job on their own.
Lau, a senior kicker looking to study business in college before opening his own restaurant, says the “hatred has been difficult” but believes it has and will continue to motivate him.
Harris was disappointed Mills did not play the anthem but says he has seen the squad become more “united, more confident.”
For guard Brindan Shepard, 16, the past week hit him hard. Shepard is originally from Tulsa, having moved to the Bay Area two years ago. Seeing his hometown emblazoned on the news for all the wrong reasons was “weird” and brought a new level to an emotional period of time.
“We are very diverse here,” Shepard said. “But that doesn’t matter. We are a family. We are together.”
Together they still stay, this group of players, as they continue their protest, anthem or not.
More is coming on this issue, more bold stances from figures far more famous than a group of conscientious high schoolers. Mission’s brief time in the window of the media cycle Kaepernick spun into motion is coming to an end.
But they are part of it. Social crusaders come in many different guises, and they are part of something that will be debated and divisive, but is now, without any doubt, a movement.