A private, anonymous donation raised outside official university channels took care of the design and printing costs as a bulwark against potential criticism of using university funds to make a political statement. EKU’s players, as well as new coach Walt Wells, assumed the statement would blend in as one of many similar expressions across college football and the greater sports landscape in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the then-ongoing investigation into the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor.
But on Sept. 5, 2020, a normally packed opening weekend schedule of college football had been ravaged by coronavirus delays. At 1 p.m. Eastern time, EKU’s game at Marshall was the only one on the ESPN family of networks.
That meant an entire viewing nation watched Eastern Kentucky’s players, coaches and staff assemble at midfield of Joan C. Edwards Stadium for a team prayer, wearing the shirts. ESPN’s broadcast led with footage of the moment, and suddenly a small, rebuilding Football Championship Subdivision program with a predominantly Black roster representing an overwhelmingly White community was thrust into the spotlight.
“We certainly weren’t expecting that part,” Wells said. “And as far as what all it took for a moment like to happen in front of an audience like that, I don’t think that’s something a reasonable person could ever expect, and certainly you don’t plan on it.”
It has been more than a year since EKU gained a moment of national attention for a unified act that earned as much positive acclaim from EKU’s small university community about 30 miles south of Lexington as it did scorn from a portion of their fan base and a litany of angry, anonymous online commenters.
The reaction that followed the Colonels’ public protest followed the usual notes: Faculty and administrators supported the player-conceived and -executed plan, and a group of alumni and fans swore to never support the Colonels again. In a wave of dissent originating almost exclusively from online comments and emails to the university, those who disagreed with the statement promised that the actions of the 2020 team would forever divide the Colonels football program from its community and hinder its long-term success.
A year later, none of those predictions have made it from email to reality.
“You can go back and take a look at the original tweet from the school — it’s still up,” said EKU redshirt junior defensive lineman Shane Burks II, a Lexington, Ky., native. “That’s the worst of it, personally for me, just what was written in response. I sat there on the way back from the Marshall game and read every comment. The only word I have for it is ‘disgusting.’ We’re young men standing up for a cause we believe in, and there’s people speaking against our names.
“I always felt supported in our area, where we actually were. To me, and I feel like it’s always like this, the blowback is where you can hide behind the screen. You can type whatever you want. But there wasn’t blowback to our faces. On campus, even with people on campus not affiliated with our team, it was kind of surprising.”
Wells was hired Dec. 9, 2019. The Colonels want to regain their former status as a dynasty in college football’s second tier, earned during the 1970s and ’80s under program architect Roy Kidd. Wells worked under Kidd as an assistant from 1997 to 1999 before becoming an offensive line coach and coordinator at Western Kentucky, South Florida and Tennessee.
As a program, EKU has slumped since Kidd’s retirement after the 2002 season, but it aspires to keep company with current powerhouses such as North Dakota State and James Madison, and possibly even more. The Colonels were one of a handful of FCS programs that elected to play a fall season in 2020. They scheduled a nine-game slate as an independent, severing ties with the Ohio Valley Conference in a move that seems to position them for a potential move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Wells, a first-time head coach, inherited a new roster without the benefit of a normal offseason to acclimate and build relationships in a pandemic.
“It was, ‘Okay, here we go,’ ” Wells said. “You start implementing everything you’ve ever thought about when it comes to being a head coach. Even if you’re not telling yourself you want to be a head coach one day, you’re always asking yourself: ‘How would you handle this right now? How would you handle the staff, how would you handle the administration, the media?’
“What’s funny is, you’ll see the guys you work for handle specific situations and you file it away so you’re always ready, or you think you will be. Always in control. Coaches ‘control the controllables.’ And Year 1, I get the two most unbelievable situations you could put together — a pandemic and social injustice. And I can’t control it. No one can.”
The combination of the Floyd murder and the increasing tension across Kentucky and the rest of the nation as the investigation into Taylor’s death continued forced a college football coach to do the unthinkable: relinquish control.
It became inevitable to Wells, who is White, and his new staff that a majority-Black, majority-Kentuckian roster they barely knew, players who were emotionally processing the events, would seek to express themselves using their platform as college athletes.
“And honestly, given what’s going on in their lives off the field at that time, what can a stranger ask them to do?” Wells said.
One of those just-in-case notes Wells took throughout his assistant coaching career was the necessity of a players’ board. Most programs have some group of active players who act as a representation of the entire roster to the head coach (and vice versa).
In a normal season, a players’ board might be used for a more mundane purpose — to vent frustration over scheduling or the dress code. Wells and his staff hastily assembled a group that could represent as much of the team as possible.
“The first meeting was pretty standard, about a player who had opted out for the year and wanted to come back to the team,” Wells said. “The second meeting, I knew we had to address what was going on. I had one question and two requests: ‘What do you want to do? I want to do whatever that is as a team.’ And: ‘Don’t surprise me. Tell me now, so everything I know, I can help advocate to my bosses.’ ”
“It didn’t surprise us when he came to us,” junior defensive back Daulson Fitzpatrick said. “We didn’t know him or the other coaches that well back in quarantine, but we’d seen where the coaches went out and marched [in Richmond protests], which meant a lot to me. He sent out a really long message to our players after [Floyd’s murder]. So I kind of assumed it would be something we’d talk about. Because he showed he was the kind of guy who cares about what we think about what is going on in the world, especially things that might affect us directly.”
At the time, there were individual plans for expression — various phrases and words, some on wristbands, maybe some on cleats. Wells’s only request was that the team adopt a singular strategy. The result was a helmet sticker of a raised fist, which was used the entire season, and the T-shirts.
“Honestly, that was one thing that built the relationship,” Burks said. “The players’ board worked specifically with our head coach — he was the person we worked with to get this done. And it was real relationship-building right there. He really got to see what we stood for, how we felt, and I feel like it went a long way because he got to see us share some passion and intensity for something that wasn’t football.”
The T-shirts became a season-long statement for EKU, including for some members of the coaching staff who wore them during games. The Colonels finished their ad hoc schedule 3-6, including a win over Western Carolina at home in a game the school turned into the impromptu “Opportunity Bowl,” and the Colonels started 2021 with a 31-28 win at Western Carolina before losing to Louisville last week.
A year later, there aren’t any T-shirts or unified expressions planned. The players’ board still exists, though, and there has been no sign of waning support from fans as Wells and his staff start to rebuild the Colonels in earnest.
Even in the nascent days of an attempted rebuild, whatever doomsaying followed the public protest by EKU’s players has yet to materialize.
Numbers shared with The Washington Post by EKU’s athletic department claim a 139.2 percent increase in ticket revenue over 2020. That number is certainly skewed by the pandemic, but the school says it has seen a 30.5 percent increase over 2019, when EKU averaged 6,500 fans per game, and a 5 percent increase in overall season tickets sold compared with 2019. Before the coaching change, officials said attendance dipped below 3,000 for the Colonels’ final home game in 2019.
“It allowed for us to feel like we have a voice, you know? There’s a lot of times you feel like you get into football and it’s just ‘Yes, sir, this; yes, sir, that’ — doing what you’re told to do. But I feel like it was an opportunity for us to show what was in our hearts as people,” Burks said. “It allowed for us to have a voice. There’s always going to be the LeBron [James] thing of ‘shut up and dribble,’ but this allowed us to step out of that shadow.”