The latest story about an NFL player and a flag began Tuesday morning just after 11, in the great hall of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Frances Perkins building. All 45 candidates for naturalization held miniature American flags as they sat in plastic chairs and listened to government officials deliver paeans to the power of immigration. Those included the first two candidates in the front row, perhaps the smallest and the biggest of the 45.
There was tiny Dahlia Lyons, a native of the Philippines and the only military spouse in the ceremony. And next to her was the 6-foot-5 and 325-pound Arie Kouandjio, a native of Cameroon and a reserve guard for the Redskins.
Kouandjio caressed his little flag as Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas described the United States as a country “like no other, a country that always has been and forever will be a nation of immigrants.” He held it as U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez praised the assembled teachers and custodians and engineers and housewives (and professional athletes) for “adding such tremendous value to our nation.” He held it when the candidates were asked to stand by their country of origin, 38 in all. (Cameroon came after Cambodia and before Canada.) And when Perez read out some of the comments the candidates had written down, Kouandjio heard his own words quoted.
“I’m the one who said that I can finally call myself an American,” he said after the ceremony.
The 24-year-old came to this country with his family at the age of 6 and has spent three-quarters of his life here, mostly in the Washington area. His brother Cyrus, who plays for the Buffalo Bills, also plans on becoming a citizen, and Kouandjio talked about the new rights he now enjoys: He can get a passport, he can vote, he can run for office.
“Before, all I could do is just watch CNN or just watch Fox or just watch; I wasn’t a participating member in all decisions,” he said. “I [still] can’t be the president, which is something that I’ve always wanted to do, but I can do other things, so it’s awesome.”
If you’ve ever seen clips of one of these ceremonies, you can probably guess what it was like: lots of hugs and happiness and family members snapping photos, lots of talk of melting pots and e pluribus unum, and if it didn’t make you feel warm inside, you should probably fiddle with your thermostat. Do you still get those tingles if you’ve been to more than one of these events?
“Every single time,” said Mayorkas, himself an immigrant. (“You’ve got to put me in; this is my only chance of getting in the sports page!” he also told me. Yes, we take requests.)
But seeing Kouandjio standing for the national anthem, and reciting the Oath of Allegiance and Pledge of Allegiance, and clutching his little flag, it was also impossible not to think about what’s been happening in the NFL this fall. The same flag has provided an opportunity for athletes to express sometimes controversial opinions, and to start sometimes uncomfortable conversations. Now Kouandjio was being mobbed for photographs, and speaking into cameras, and posing with a U.S. cabinet secretary after pledging allegiance to that same flag.
“I was thinking about that yesterday, when everything was going on,” he said, referring to the pregame ceremony at FedEx Field, when virtually the entire Redskins roster helped hold a massive flag.
Despite his line about running for office, Kouandjio — who has a Master’s degree in applied economics — mostly steers clear of politics. So he paused often and spoke carefully when asked to put this ceremony in the context of current league events. His parents, he said, came to this country to give their children a better education and a better life. He said it was “only right” for him to become a citizen, and he said there was “a little pep in my step this morning” because of the occasion. Protesting during the anthem, as some of his NFL colleagues have done, is “not the way I’d go about it,” he said.
But he also has been studying to become an American citizen.
“Like many people have pointed out, people fought for their rights to do that,” he said of the protesters. “They have the right to do what they’re doing. I mean, they’re using their platform in a different way, to get their values across. That’s part of what America is.”
This was an event, in any case, that seemed to offer good feelings without reservations. And while there was a large hall full of immigrant stories — “45 people, 45 journeys,” as the labor secretary put it — only one of them was surrounded by officials after the event.
Perez, a Bills fan, showed pictures on his phone of Arie’s brother taken Sunday afternoon in Baltimore, and chatted with Kouandjio about the White Oak neighborhood where they both have spent time. Labor Department employees who root for the Redskins streamed toward the stage, looking for photos. Deputy Labor Secretary Christopher Lu grabbed his Redskins hat from his office when he read the memo about the ceremony and presented it for an autograph.
“Look, even those of us here can be a little bit starstruck every now and then,” he said.
Kouandjio had adjusted some of his work schedule for interviews and appointments as he prepared for this event. His teammates, he said, gave him “a lot of congratulations and attaboys.” One even attempted to attend Tuesday’s ceremony, although he was foiled either by impossible traffic or impossible parking. A television reporter asked Kouandjio to compare becoming a citizen with potentially winning a Super Bowl. “Gosh, we’ve got to say both of them are as American as you can get, right?” he replied.
“It feels great,” Kouandjio said. “I’ve been waiting for this for a very long time, and I’m happy to finally be able to call myself an American.”