Aaron Rodgers came back from being carted off the field to lead the Packers to a remarkable comeback Sunday, while across the field, Khalil Mack was as dominant a force as the Bears could have hoped for in his debut with the team. The Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill continued to show his knack for making improbably huge plays, and Ryan Fitzpatrick conjured arguably the most “FitzMagic” of his lengthy career in engineering the Buccaneers’ high-scoring upset of the Saints in New Orleans.
That said, a strong case could be made that the most newsworthy player of the NFL’s first full day of its regular season was the Dolphins’ Kenny Stills. The veteran wide receiver created headlines as one of just two players to kneel Sunday during the pregame national anthem — teammate Albert Wilson was the other, while another Miami player, Robert Quinn, raised his fist — and then he led his squad to a win over the Tennessee Titans.
With four catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns, Stills accounted for all of the trips Miami’s offense made to the end zone in a lightning-delayed, 27-20 victory (the team also scored on a kickoff return). When not throwing in his direction, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill could only muster 124 yards on 16-of-23 passing, with two interceptions.
Before those heroics, Stills continued his protests of racial injustice, as he had been doing for most of the previous two seasons. That put even more of a spotlight on him than in the past, given the apparently dwindling numbers of players intent on continuing the demonstrations.
Despite all the discussion the NFL’s protests have sparked, to a large degree because of President Trump’s frequent criticisms, only a relative handful of players have engaged in them, except for a mass showing before Week 3 games last season following Trump’s “son of a bitch” remarks at an Alabama rally. To judge from the start of this season, that small number has shrunk, with the 49ers’ Marquise Goodwin the only other player Sunday reported to have to publicly demonstrated, as he raised his fist during the anthem before a game against the Vikings, while the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas and Brandon Marshall stayed in the locker room during the song.
Before Thursday’s season-opening game between the Eagles and Falcons, Philadelphia’s Michael Bennett took a seat near the end of the anthem but teammate Malcolm Jenkins declined to raise his fist, as he had done since 2016. “I really want to get this conversation to move away from the anthem,” Jenkins, who has taken a leadership role in negotiating with the NFL on the issue and has also been active in the area of criminal justice reform, recently told The Post’s Kent Babb. “I think it has served its purpose.”
It remains to be seen if the Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch, who has been sitting during the anthem since returning to the NFL last season, does so before Monday’s game against the Rams. In the meantime, Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who began the protests and has become the centerpiece of a major Nike ad campaign, offered praise for Stills and Wilson.
The two Miami players “continue to show their unwavering strength by fighting for the oppressed!” Kaepernick said on Twitter. “They have not backed down, even when attacked and intimidated. Their courage will move the world forward!”
Wilson is in his first season with the Dolphins, after staging a protest last season with the Chiefs, and Stills said in August that he was grateful to have a teammate join him in kneeling during the anthem. “I thank God for having Albert next to me,” he said (via the Miami Herald). “Being a part of this protest hasn’t been easy. … I’m grateful that he sees what’s happening and he wants to do something about it as well.”
“It’s a peaceful protest. We’re not harming anybody,” Wilson said at the time. “We just want people to continue to know what’s going on.”
The demonstrations earned condemnations in August from a pair of law enforcement organizations in south Florida, with the Broward County Police Benevolent Association calling on its members to boycott upcoming Dolphins games. On Sunday, though, Stills said that “there’s been a huge difference between when we first started protesting and now, a lot of people reaching out and supporting us.”
Stills thanked the supporters for their “positivity” and added, “Let’s keep doing our best to make a positive change, and have these conversations and make this country a better place.”
As with Jenkins, Stills has backed his demonstrations with community-minded activity. He has helped host town halls and set up police ride-along programs, and last year he was nominated as his team’s candidate for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
“On any Tuesday, if you try to get a hold of him, you’re going to have to wait until five or six o’clock because he’s doing community stuff all day,” Dolphins Coach Adam Gase said of Stills in December. “I’ve been impressed with how he’s made himself available, how much he tries to do.”
Stills has also grown into his role as an on-field leader for the Dolphins. Since arriving in a 2015 trade from the Saints, the former Oklahoma Sooner has increased his receptions and yards every season, and with DeVante Parker injured and reception-maven Jarvis Landry off to the Browns, Miami needs him more than ever.
Through one week, Stills has responded nicely, even while commanding attention from both opposing defenses and those who have strong opinions on the NFL’s protests.
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