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Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills kneels during the national anthem before a game at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports

Kenny Stills’ activism isn’t for show

‘Injustice to one person is injustice to all’

MIAMI — Two years after Miami Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills announced his activism to the world by kneeling during the national anthem, he still senses volatility regarding his decision.

“If something happens here and the staff gets flipped around, I definitely think it is something that will be brought up,” Stills told ESPN in December. “I’m prepared for it. I save my money. I love playing ball. I’ve been doing it for 20 years, but I know I can do something else.”

Stills’ premonition came true a few weeks later when Adam Gase, a supporter of his, was fired as head coach. What’s next isn’t clear, but Stills is prepared for all options. The Dolphins say all of their decisions are strictly football-related.

“I’d hope it doesn’t come to that. I hope my work over the last three years speaks for itself. But I’ve seen it happen in this league and things change,” Stills added via phone Thursday night. “I’m prepared if I end up on the street and nobody signs me. I’m fine with it.”

This protest of social injustice and police brutality, started by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in August 2016 and continued by Stills and others, has been impactful yet controversial. Stills says he received hate-filled death threats and many people, including some teammates, treated him differently afterward.

Kaepernick hasn’t played since that 2016 season, and Stills believes the dual-threat quarterback has been boycotted by NFL teams. He figures he’d be naive to think he’s immune to the same fate.

“Injustice to one person is injustice to all,” Stills said. “If they’ll do that to Kap, they’ll do it to any of us.”

This era of athlete activism has sparked diverse conversation and a desire to be defined by more than a box score. Stills’ protest doesn’t tell his full story, but it does set a starting point for his ongoing quiet pursuit to change America — a country known as the land of the free and home of the brave.

“Every single stadium, home or away, fans would yell, ‘Stand the f— up!’ They called us everything except a child of God. We prayed together,” said New York Giants safety Michael Thomas, a former Dolphin who kneeled with Stills in 2016. “I know if Kenny believes in something, regardless if it pisses people off, he’ll say or do something about it. He has a genuine love for people and wants to help as many as he can with the time he’s here on Earth.”

Behind the scenes, Stills’ benevolence working with kids, police and afflicted communities alongside the Miami Dolphins Football Unites program and owner Stephen Ross’ foundation, the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), has made him a beloved pillar in many South Florida sectors.

“I’ve always tried to bring people together through conversation instead of dividing people,” said Stills. “If you can do one deed a day, it can change the world.”

Little victories

It’s 6:30 on a late November evening. Stills is riding in the passenger seat of a police car, having an engaging talk with officer Ransom Carter about community relations, police brutality and police training.

“A lot of these officers are more afraid of dealing with a suspect than vice versa. Most aren’t trying to hurt anyone,” Carter tells Stills. “Applicants look good on paper. But when we take you off paper and a person doesn’t do what you want them to do or they don’t respect your badge, what do you do? That’s what we have to find out.”

They aren’t alone on this ride-along. About a half-dozen police vehicles with their lights on join them as they pull up to the Center Court Apartments, a North Miami complex that had been a common scene for crime.

One by one, residents peer out of their windows as Stills, a few other Dolphins players, the Football Unites crew and about 10 officers get out and walk to the pavilion. It’s dark.

Three young black men, early 20s and slender, are talking but abruptly stop as they see the crew walk up. So does a middle-aged black woman with three kids standing cautiously near her apartment stairway.

“Who got shot?” she shrieked. Her fear was palpable. Her thoughts were clear: Why else would all these cops show up here?

But the situation quickly turned positive.

Stills, safety Walt Aikens, running back Kalen Ballage and tight end MarQueis Gray greeted the residents individually and told them the plan to create a positive interaction. Officers handed out bottles of Gatorade and water. The Dolphins crew handed out team memorabilia. They all took countless photos. Stills had several energetic FaceTime conversations at the request of residents.

Fifteen minutes into a surprise pop-up, the event got 56 residents, many of them kids, laughing, hugging and enjoying the company of Dolphins players and police officers.

“At the end, the lady you mentioned walked out with us and said, ‘This is great. Can’t wait for y’all to come back.’ Those are the little victories we get,” North Miami police chief Larry Juriga said. “If you’re respecting people, it can eliminate fear. It’s a two-way street.”

On the way to Center Court Apartments, Carter told Stills his story of growing up in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood when the drug trade was at its peak. He said he saw white people and black people selling and buying drugs but only black faces arrested on TV. “That changes perception and creates unwarranted fear,” he said.

Stills responded: “I’ve always felt like conflict resolution and communication skills are what we’re missing out on in education.”

Stills, the Dolphins’ two-time Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee, said it was one of his favorite Football Unites events.

As the crew walked back to the police cars, one of three young black men spoke aloud to himself: “This was dope, man. Made my night.”

‘He’s genuine’

Stills’ background doesn’t suggest someone who’d become a central figure in the athlete activism era.

He’s a laid-back California kid who grew up near a military base with many family and friends serving. His Pop Warner coach, a father figure, was a 20 years-plus Marine veteran who asked him not to protest. He doesn’t enjoy public speaking. He declines interviews and shies away from cameras at community service events to shift the focus away from himself. He used to spend much more time on video games than politics.

But Stills broke down crying on the way to work in the summer of 2016. He watched on consecutive days as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed that July. Terence Crutcher was killed in September, five days after Stills’ initial protest. No officer was charged in the Sterling shooting, while officers were charged and acquitted in the other two.

Stills felt helpless. He thought about his brothers and father. It made him feel like their skin wasn’t important. He said he’d regret it for life if he didn’t use his platform to effect change. This launched Stills’ passion to protest.

However, Stills’ journey wasn’t without challengers such as Luther Campbell — known as Uncle Luke, a rapper turned activist who is somewhat of a gatekeeper for the athlete-rich community — who in September 2016 said on radio station 940 WINZ that Stills and three other protesting Dolphins were doing it “for a show.” Campbell, who co-founded the Liberty City Warriors Optimist Club for youth development, said he hadn’t seen them at a community meeting.

Stills didn’t directly respond to Campbell, who later changed his tune, but he already understood he needed to do more. He initially deferred to fellow protester Arian Foster to speak on his behalf to media. Stills was passionate and well-meaning, but speaking about politics and civil rights didn’t come naturally to him.

So Stills did a deep dive to educate himself: He read John Lewis’ memoirs from the civil rights movement. He spent hours watching YouTube videos on post-traumatic slave syndrome. He took a four-week activism course. He listened to Malcolm X’s autobiography on Audible. He embraced people’s ideas and experiences.

“I removed my filter when it comes to politics, religion, social issues. I’m not worried about whether people are comfortable or uncomfortable,” Stills said. “Unarmed black people are being killed by police. It’s unfair that we’ve got people sitting around being comfortable. I’m uncomfortable with that.

“People want to stay in their own bubble. They don’t realize how much of a privilege that is.”

Stills acknowledged his privilege as an NFL player too, and he transfers that into work. No Dolphins player has allocated more time to his community than Stills. He received the Dolphins’ Nat Moore Community Service Award for the third consecutive season.

Kenny Stills (upper right), a North Miami police officer (center) and seven kids from the North Miami PAL program discuss words that come to mind when they think of the police and ways to change negative perceptions.

Courtesy of the Miami Dolphins

“Kenny has been a role model not just for young people but also for other athletes,” RISE vice president Kim Miller said. “I’ve seen it firsthand with RISE; he’s been a big part of helping us improve race relations. He’s the kind of leader that listens.”

Ross has invested $8 million into his RISE foundation. Stills and Thomas acknowledged that Ross supported them at start of their protest when few owners would do so.

Campbell commends the Dolphins work in the community and has done a 180-degree turn on Stills after seeing the receiver’s quiet actions back up his protest.

“I understood he was kneeling for the same reasons as Kaepernick. But I wanted to know that he was doing something,” Campbell said. “He comes by our programs with no hoopla, no cameras, no Instagram pictures. He hangs out with the kids and takes kids home. He sees how social injustice impacts them. He’s genuine. Because of that, I respect everything he does.”

‘There’s no bargain’

While Stills works with the Dolphins and RISE to bring about change in South Florida and beyond, he remembers the rocky transition at the beginning.

Before Stills’ protest began in September 2016, he led a team meeting in the Dolphins’ locker room in hopes of making a stand as a team. The meeting went sideways quickly.

“This wasn’t a kumbaya-type thing. It was some real s—,” Thomas said. “We learned a lot about many of our teammates that day. But I gained a lot of respect for Kenny, his conviction and fearless leadership.”

Stills, a current team captain, spoke about players using their platform to help shine light on growing examples of social injustice. The topic proved too divisive. Some players walked out. Others ignored Stills’ message.

“I always treated my teammates as my brothers. I thought we were together,” Stills said. “You start to realize other people don’t care if it doesn’t affect them or their people. There’s a lot of selfishness in this world. There were also some guys who were talking about protesting the day before, but when it came down to it, they weren’t rocking.”

Six months later, before his March free agency, Stills said, only two teams, Chicago and Philadelphia, expressed interest in signing him. He believes his protests were the reason. He re-signed with the Dolphins before he officially hit the market.

“So many things happened in this building and outside of here that were behind the scenes. There were so many different ways they were trying to get us to stop protesting,” Stills said. “I got to the point where I said I’m going to do this and they are going to get rid of me or I’m going to do this and they aren’t. I’m good either way.”

Stills, 26, leads all NFL players with 15 touchdowns out of the slot since 2016, when his protest began. He had a down 2018 season, but he’s still a talented deep threat.

“I decided if the league has an issue with us speaking up for our people, it’s not a brand I want to be a part of it,” Stills said. “I had conversations with my agents that said I should wait [to protest]. I said if I can’t express myself, then I’m OK with not playing.”

Stills acknowledges he can be stubborn with his beliefs. It’s part of why he split from the Players Coalition along with Kaepernick, Eric Reid, Thomas and Russell Okung in 2017. Stills believed the $89 million social justice partnership between the NFL and the Players Coalition was an attempted quid pro quo to end the protests.

Despite the split, the Players Coalition has made progress with its resources, such as bailing nine people out of a Philadelphia jail one day before Thanksgiving via a $50,000 grant from the Philadelphia Eagles Social Justice Fund. The Eagles, Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are among teams that have started allocating their funds.

So both sides now separately try to effect change in their own ways.

“There is nothing you can offer me to get me to stop protesting. We can work toward a solution, but there’s no bargain for me to stop protesting,” Stills said. “I want to know you care about the issues that are affecting this country, like police brutality, social injustice and racism. If you really cared about these issues, Kap would be in the league.”

That’s also why he simply smirks at the common question of when he will stop protesting. This decision changed his life, and it will define his life. There’s no stopping.

“Activism isn’t something you just kind of get involved in and then turn your back on it,” Stills said. “This is something I’m committed to forever.”

Changing perspectives

An hour before that late November 2018 ride-along, three dozen grade-school kids in the North Miami PAL (Police Athletic League) program were told to write down words that came to mind when they thought of police. Responses included racist, authority, enforcer, loyal.

This RISE exercise was also given to police, Stills, Aikens, Ballage and Gray. Words were primarily negative. Growth came when everyone in the room discussed how to change perspective. Stills discussed how he strives to be a role model and show that athletes are multilayered. A 10-year-old boy stood up and said he also wants to be a role model at his school.

“Often we want to talk about an ideal society, but we have to talk about reality too,” Miller said. “Communication, respect, conflict resolution are common themes.”

Juriga added: “Just because we don’t always see eye to eye, that doesn’t mean we’re adversaries. When Kenny first took a knee, I didn’t understand why he did it. But after hearing his reasons and passion behind it, we have a better understanding.”

The Dolphins are very active with community service work, particularly since their Football Unites program was launched in August 2o18. Events include joint programs with RISE like the one with North Miami PAL, cultural diversity tours, ride-alongs, and gift and food giveaways. Stills attends an event every Tuesday and is a part of the team’s marketing campaign.

“The Football Unites program is designed to bring together groups of different races, genders, sexual orientations, identities and faith around the power of football,” Jason Jenkins, Dolphins senior vice president of communications and community affairs said.

Stills isn’t just limited to social justice initiatives: He was named a “Luminary Icon” by LGBTQ rights group SAVE. He visited the Miami VA Healthcare System in September. He led a town hall meeting and spearheaded a RISE to Vote campaign that resulted in every Dolphins player becoming a registered voter for the first time in team history.

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills kneels during the national anthem before a game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in Wisconsin.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

As Stills finishes year three of his protest, he seeks more creative ways to leave people with something tangible.

He’s planning another recreational vehicle tour this offseason. Last year, he mentored kids and educated himself and others about civil rights, prison reform and social injustice while touring several states in the South.

Stills is also starting a Miami branch of the OK Program, a nonprofit mentoring initiative that will connect young black men with black police officers. Stills is also seeking one player in every NFL city to start a program, promising that it doesn’t take much work.

“We can change our communities by having young black kids building relationships with black police officers. It’s important to have black positive mentors,” Stills said. “In the inner city, we don’t have good relationships with law enforcement. That’s a problem. We have to change perspectives.”

Stills doesn’t believe he’s doing anything special; he’s just putting action behind what he believes in. He never wanted to be a face of the movement. Stills would rather be remembered how Junior Seau was by kids like him in Southern California: a regular guy who was accessible to everyone, cared and tried to do right by others.

Maybe he will. That’s for the future to decide. But Stills’ quiet pursuit to change America is ongoing, and it goes far beyond the controversial knee he takes every Sunday during the NFL season.

Cameron Wolfe is a contributor for The Undefeated. His home state of Mississippi is still in his blood like catfish, Big K.R.I.T. and magnolia trees. He will convince you that a hot dog is a sandwich.