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Patriotism and protest don’t conflict, says NFL’s own

South Boston News
Former Comet and NFL running back Barry Word, with a college teammate, retired Army Col. Phil Rogers. / October 09, 2017
The controversy over the NFL and the National Anthem flared anew Sunday when Vice President Mike Pence walked out of a game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers after players with the visiting 49ers team knelt during the Star Spangled Banner.

“I left today’s Colts game because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem,” said Pence in a statement after departing Sunday afternoon’s game. Pence added that while “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don’t think it’s too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem.”

One member of Halifax County’s small community of ex-NFL players would counter that pro athletes have ample patriotism and respect for the military — since their paths in life well might have led to the armed services if sports hadn’t beckoned instead.

Barry Word, who achieved stardom in the NFL as a thousand-yard running back for the Kansas City Chiefs, points out that he comes from a family with strong military ties. Of the five Word boys who grew up in Long Island, three played football for the Halifax County Comets and went on to compete at the collegiate level for the University of Virginia. Barry, the ACC’s Player of the Year in 1985, made it to the pros, where he enjoyed a seven-year career and won the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award in 1990 with the Chiefs.

His two oldest brothers, Thomas (nicknamed “Mack”) and Terry, took a different path: they both enlisted in the Army after high school. If Corwin, Kenny and Barry, the younger Word sons, hadn’t punched their tickets to college via athletics, the military likely would have been their destiny, too.

“For my family, there was no in-between — it was either go into the military or stay home and work in one of the [factories], or work hard and try to get a scholarship,” said Word.

The story with many pro athletes is much the same — “most NFL players come from households that are lower middle class, at best,” he says — which is why Word says “I get really tired” of hearing NFL players described as “spoiled, rich athletes who hate the military.

“If people knew anything about the players, they’d know that the guys of ‘The Shield’ and the guys in the military have a lot more in common than they are different,” said Word.

Aside from similar life circumstances, many NFL players share the desire with service members to give back to their country and to their home communities — by working with youth groups, donating to charitable causes, by setting positive examples. Many players also have members of their immediate families serving in the armed forces. “Anytime I’m around these guys, more often than not, I’m around some of the best people I’ve ever been around,” said Word. “Not just football players. The best people I’ve been around.

“95 percent of these guys are doing a whole lot right.”

Which is why, as he watches the uproar that has ensnared the NFL, Word admits a sense of unease over where the controversy is headed. He said he supports players who protest social injustice — although he has mixed feelings about doing so during the anthem, the gesture that kicked off the fury.

“I don’t know if there is a better way,” said Word in a recent phone interview from his home in Haymarket, where the 53-year-old HCHS alumnus lives after retirement from football. The pregame protests “have people talking, a lot. And I’ve seen more players able to articulate why they’re protesting. They never would have had that platform without the National Anthem. As much as it might be uncomfortable, it’s a conversation.”

The first player to take a knee during the anthem, ex-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, remains unsigned after leaving San Francisco in free agency last year. Even as he is relegated to the sidelines — the victim of a blacklist campaign by NFL owners, say his supporters — Kaepernick’s cause has been adopted by dozens of players around the league this season.

As evidenced by the walkout Sunday by Pence (who said he acted at Trump’s request), the movement that Kaepernick started shows no sign of petering out. The same is true for the political controversy roiling the sports world.

Kaepernick’s cause — a plea for justice and a call for an end to police shootings of unarmed African Americans — is something that Word very much supports.

“I understand people being offended that it comes during the National Anthem. I get that, totally,” he said. “If you’re going to do that during the National Anthem, you’d better be really good at explaining your message.

“I think Colin Kaepernick is an imperfect messenger and I think because of that he became a pretty easy target … However, people have been screaming about the injustices in the African American community. People have gotten killed in situations where there never should have been a gun drawn. That’s just the truth. So how do you protest that? How do you get the most attention in that situation as an NFL player?”

Word concedes that protest is uncomfortable and that responses brought to the forefront by Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement can be “extremely complicated.” No one should be “under the illusion that people are going to come out and embrace [the protests] and say let’s just change things,” he said. But Word added that the outrages that are shown on TV, of unsuspecting black persons shot or abused for no apparent reason by police officers, should spur even those who are unaffected by the situation to insist on change.

“You just have to care,” he said. “It may not affect you on a daily basis, but if you know someone it does affect, you need to care enough to say, ‘Hey man, I get it, and I’m going to do everything I can to pass it on to people who may not get it.’ If you start there, hey, you can make a difference.”

Kaepernick may be a reviled figure among some, Word said, but that’s been true of many black people who have led social protests.

“They hated Martin Luther King, they hated Muhammad Ali, and they probably hated them for the same reason they hate this protest — because they don’t like having to deal with what’s being said, they don’t want to talk about it,” said Word. “But they can’t say it doesn’t exist.”

Growing in Southside and attending high school at HCHS, Word said he gained an appreciation for the ways that people differ, a communal experience that he says made him a better person. “Everybody was either black or white, and I remember a teacher by the name of Pedro Zamora, who was the first Hispanic person I’d ever met,” said Word, referring to the popular retired HCHS teacher and coach. “And now you have people [living in Halifax] from everywhere.

“If you self-segregate, then it makes it really hard for you to see how someone else feels, how someone else is living, and what affects the people they love. That’s what sports does: it brings people together and makes them work together and love one another.”

When players take a knee during the anthem, or link arms, or express solidarity with the players — a gesture that even politically conservative owners have offered — it shows the unifying power of sports. But that desire for unity is not felt by everyone, Word noted. Along with his unease over the situation in the NFL, Word said he was horrified by another incident that unfolded at his alma mater: the white nationalist protests on the UVa. grounds and in the city of Charlottesville that left three people dead this summer. “I’ve never seen anything like it, in Charlottesville, ever.”

While Word is supportive of the campaign for social justice, he’s not sure today if he would join players who protest during the National Anthem. “My 20-year-old self probably would have taken a knee. I would have wanted to support my brothers who were doing that.” But a recent invitation to a retirement ceremony by an old UVa. football teammate, Phil Rogers, left Word with second thoughts on how he’d deal with the protests in the here and now.

The event several weeks ago drew Word to Fort Myer Army Base in Arlington, where Rogers was retiring after attaining the rank of colonel. A walk-on running back at UVa., Rogers “went up against the first team defense all day in practice,” never complaining about his reserve status on the team. “He also happened to be one of the nicest guys I ever met and no matter what, he always had a smile on his face,” said Word.

“He told me, ‘I’d be honored if I would come to my retirement ceremony at Fort Myer.’ Of course, it was really my honor, that after all these years he thought enough of me to invite me to his ceremony. It meant a lot to me.”

The service took place on an open field overlooking the Capitol and Washington Monument. “And he [Rogers] had a chest full of medals. He was the absolute man. He was a colonel,” said Word. “As we were walking to the ceremony, my good friend Howard Petty asked me, ‘Hey B, if they were asking to take a knee today, would you be one of the guys taking a knee?

“I had a really tough time answering that question …. As a 53-year-old with the ability to look back and see how things come together, I don’t know if I’d be able to do that.”

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Well, it looks like some people didn't get that memo. Try not to delete this one too. Liberals who can't support free speech are like happy meals without a toy.


Well they are entitled to their opinion. I don't have to pay to watch a product where in my opinion they are disrespecting the flag. They can protest all they want on their own time. As you can see ratings are declining.

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