There was a second player in that hotel lobby 13 months ago; another San Francisco 49ers player who, later that night, risked his career by kneeling.
It was more than a year ago that Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers’ quarterback at the time, began drawing attention and intense criticism for protesting police brutality against African Americans by first sitting and then kneeling while the national anthem was performed. Kaepernick is now a household name, for better or worse — one of the nation’s most polarizing figures and either pro football’s Curt Flood or the man who spoiled Sundays by dragging politics onto the football field.
From the beginning, Kaepernick’s knee wasn’t the only one on the turf.
“I’m not doing this to be recognized,” Eric Reid, the 49ers’ 25-year-old safety, said in an interview at FedEx Field this past Sunday — a few hours after, along with other San Francisco players, Reid again took a knee before his team’s game against the Washington Redskins.
And, indeed, for his part in what has become an important and perhaps historic moment in sports dialogue — NFL players have, if nothing else, realized the power of their voices and their caucus — Reid remains a highly influential, if mostly anonymous, participant in NFL politics.
After San Francisco’s game Sunday, Reid dressed in the locker room while a small group of reporters waited. He answered a few questions as his teammates left for the West Coast. Reid, though, was staying in Washington before traveling to New York to join a small group of players for a meeting with NFL franchise owners.
On Tuesday following that meeting, Reid told The Washington Post in a telephone interview that owners were “open-minded” while listening to what players see as the league’s role in social activism. But Reid said he will continue kneeling before games.
“We all knew that this is a long-term process, and it’s going to take many years moving forward,” he said. “It’s not something that’s going to be fixed over the next couple months left in this season. . . . We’re going to continue to do what we’ve been doing.”
He has been doing it since September 2016, a week after media members noticed Kaepernick sitting on the 49ers bench during the national anthem before a preseason game. Shortly after Kaepernick’s protest was noticed, an ex-Green Beret named Nate Boyer published an open letter to Kaepernick. It described how veterans might interpret Kaepernick’s protest, and the quarterback invited Boyer to San Diego to talk about their options.
At a table near a window, Kaepernick and Boyer talked, and Reid sat with them and mostly listened.
Reid and Kaepernick had discussed various social issues, including what they saw as unfair treatment of African Americans, and had pondered various ways of bringing awareness to an intensifying problem.
Kaepernick, in the meeting with Boyer and in prior discussions, took the lead. Reid, an intelligent and overachieving young athlete from Louisiana, understood a quarterback’s protest would resonate more than that of a defensive back.
So, as much as anything, he was there as backup. Later that night, when the 49ers gathered on the Qualcomm Stadium sideline, Reid stood to Kaepernick’s right before kneeling with him.
“I was taught growing up that you always do what you believe,” Reid said. “For me it’s learning how to follow before learning how to lead.
“A lot of it was taking Colin’s direction,” he said. “I told him how I felt and told him I wanted to support him, and from there we just kept talking and talking and talking, and here we are.”
But before they arrived here, before representing NFL players in New York or taking a knee in San Diego, Reid was a talented kid near Baton Rouge. He was dependable, his high school coach said, always on time; Reid was — and this is a mighty compliment for a football coach to give — somebody you didn’t have to worry about.
“One of the finest young men that I’ve ever been around,” said Benny Saia, who coached Reid and a great many more players in 15 years at Dutchtown High.
Reid didn’t say much about equality back then, or violence involving police, or anything more than reaching his goals. He wanted to play college football, and after that who could say what would come next?
Coaches tried to get him there, taking a 117-pound player with fragile collarbones and turning him four years later into a 225-pound war machine. Reid showed up, challenged teammates, wore a smile, always performed. Kids like this, Saia occasionally told people, could change the world.
Reid became a star at Louisiana State, and if he is largely unknown in the rest of the country, he most certainly is not in Baton Rouge. Even after the 49ers traded up to draft him in the first round in 2013, Reid returned to Louisiana to lift weights, to donate cleats, to share a few encouraging words.
“He’s as humble a kid that I know,” Saia said, “and never looked for the spotlight.”
If there was a moment Reid began looking beyond football and paying more attention to social justice and inequality, he cannot point to it. But over time, he became acutely aware of what he now sees as inequities in this country, and before he and Kaepernick decided to kneel, he believed certain things needed to be fixed.
“Change in policies, change to the criminal justice system, just changes in our country overall,” he said when asked what he would see as a satisfactory ending to his protest — which has grown to include dozens of other NFL players and athletes in other sports who now demonstrate during the anthem. “We got here through decades and decades of the government prioritizing the needs of one group of people and de-prioritizing the needs of others.
“ . . . They target low-income families, families of color. Any change in policy moving forward is a start. It took hundreds of years to get where we are, so everything is not going to change tomorrow. But we can start today.”
Reid and Kaepernick started 13 months ago, in a hotel lobby, with an open-minded discussion. Then came the first kneels, then the backlash, then Kaepernick’s journey from NFL quarterback to free agent to cultural icon.
When Reid walked through cities over the last year with his former teammate, he found himself amazed by the reactions strangers had to him. They entered gymnasiums and restaurants to say thanks; Reid also heard the critics, including President Trump, blame Kaepernick for taking the fun out of professional sports by turning games into yet another political battleground.
“His love for people is amazing,” Reid said, and just like many Americans, he seems more likely to spend his time talking about Colin Kaepernick than Eric Reid. “It’s incredible stuff, and it’s just amazing to me that the narrative gets so skewed.”
And about the changes in his life? Jay-Z isn’t wearing Reid’s No. 35 jersey on “Saturday Night Live,” after all.
“I don’t think my life has changed, per se,” he said. “I’ve just always done what I’ve felt is best, according to what the Bible tells me. That’s why I started protesting, and that’s what I continue to do every day.”
Not long after he started, the fissures that would go on to further divide the United States would divide Baton Rouge. Some residents, in the one place where Reid’s name is famous, supported him; others derided him.
One of the area’s residents, Saia, texted Reid last autumn. He told his former player that he had to be honest with him: Saia told Reid he loved him, always will, but kneeling during the national anthem isn’t the way Saia would protest.
A while later, Saia’s phone pinged with a response from Reid. “Coach,” Saia said it read, “I’m trying to change the world.”
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