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Several Commanders to wear custom cleats advocating against gun violence

As part of the NFL's "My Cause My Cleats" initiative, Montez Sweat will wear custom cleats Sunday that pay tribute to his brother, who was shot and killed in December. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The heartache of 2021 may never fade for Montez Sweat.

Months after his mother died, his older brother, Anthony Sweat, was shot and killed in Henrico, Va., roughly 10 miles northwest of Richmond. He was 27.

“It was tough,” Sweat, a defensive end for the Commanders, said Wednesday. “It was real tough. When you lose somebody like that, who you know genuinely cares for you — because there’s not a lot of people out here you can actually say has true love for you — but my brother, my mother, people like that, I can honestly say do. It’s like you lost a trusted soldier.”

Nearly a year after his brother’s death, Sweat is hoping to amplify the conversation about gun violence with the hope of sparing others similar grief.

On Sunday, as part of the NFL’s “My Cause My Cleats” initiative, Sweat will wear custom cleats that represent 100 Black Men of Atlanta, a youth social services organization in his hometown that is campaigning to raise awareness about gun violence.

Its goal, according to its website: ​​to disrupt the gun culture in Atlanta through awareness and educational programming with children.

“I think nowadays, in today’s culture, people usually pick up a gun before they try to settle their differences, whether it be through a conversation or a simple fight or anything like that,” Sweat said. “That’s kind of how I was brought up, and … it’s too easy to pick up a gun [rather] than settle your differences [another way], so I wanted to put some light on that and to just let people who have lost close ones know that they’re not alone.”

He added: “It affects a whole community, a plethora of people. That’s my main objective is just to [encourage people] to settle our differences without guns.”

Sweat said he chose 100 Black Men of Atlanta because of his desire to support African American organizations, especially those in his hometown, and to help raise awareness of the toll gun violence can have on families. His cleats are black, with the name and logo for 100 Black Men of Atlanta sketched in yellow on the outside of one shoe and the words “STOP GUN VIOLENCE” in yellow and red on the outside of the other. On the inside of the shoes, his brother’s nickname, “Fresh,” is stenciled in gold.

Three teammates — running back Brian Robinson Jr., safety Darrick Forrest and linebacker De’Jon “Scoota” Harris — will wear custom cleats Sunday representing Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit launched to advocate for gun violence prevention in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Those cleats incorporate the color orange, in a nod to Wear Orange, an annual initiative to raise awareness about gun violence in America.

Robinson, who was shot twice in August, will wear beige cleats with an orange illustration of two hands snapping a gun in half.

“Gun violence overall is hurting us everywhere, in all cities: back home [in Tuscaloosa, Ala.], up here,” Robinson said. “Almost really, really hurt me — well, it did hurt me. It’s a little more personal when it comes down to me wearing it because I’m a victim.”

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Harris said he joined the cause because of Robinson and the four relatives he has lost to gun violence in the past five years. On the inner foot panels of his cleats there are four names — his brother’s and those of three cousins — next to the letters “RIP.”

Harris noted that gun violence is on the rise among youth nationwide. In 2020 and 2021, gunfire killed more children and adolescents than car accidents, which had for years been the leading cause of death among young people. Harris noted that popular rapper YoungBoy Never Broke Again, a favorite in the Commanders’ locker room, has started speaking out against violence, including on Instagram.

Harris said he found YoungBoy’s advocacy online particularly powerful because, in his opinion, social media is helping to fuel the uptick in violence among young people. Harris’s hope is that by posting and wearing his cleats the message will break through.

“When you see guys like us, where we come up from, in the same situations, using our platform, maybe that’ll grab their attention,” he said.

Does he think the cleats can really make a difference?

“For sure,” he said.

Last season, as a rookie, Forrest wore cleats representing St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital because a young cousin had died of cancer. This year, he is representing Everytown because, he said, gun violence was “a major problem” in his community growing up in Columbus, Ohio. His cleats are orange, with the illustration of a hand snapping off the muzzle of a gun.

“I’ve lost many family members and many friends to gun violence, so it’s something I definitely want to change,” he said.

The Commanders and the D.C. area’s other professional sports teams — the Capitals, Capital City Go-Go, Mystics, Nationals, Spirit, Wizards, DC Shadow and D.C. United — recently teamed up to provide a donation of more than $100,000 to Everytown, which used the money to invest in local organizations.

The joint donation was composed of funds from fans, athletes and team staff members.

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Joe Castro, an artist and graphic designer based in Southern California, customized the Commanders’ cleats, tailoring each pair to the player and his chosen cause. After the Commanders’ game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, the cleats will be auctioned off, and all proceeds will go to each player’s chosen organization.

“Hopefully, it’ll save some lives,” Sweat said. “Hopefully it shows that gun violence is really not the answer.”