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All the High School Football Players Colin Kaepernick Has Inspired

Colin Kaepernick steps inside the visitors’ locker room at King’s Academy in Sunnyvale, California. The former 49ers quarterback is visiting the private Christian high school sandwiched between his team’s new stadium and Google’s headquarters, to see not their students, but rather their opponent, the Castlemont Knights. He speaks evenly and slowly, an image of Muhammad Ali—another famous athlete who famously decided to make unpopular protest part of his career—across his T-shirt. The Castlemont players and coaches are riveted as they watch him close-up.

It’s late September, and the Knights are visiting from East Oakland, one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city of 400,000 across the bay from San Francisco. In the previous 30 days, there’ve been two murders within two miles of the Castlemont campus. And its students were close enough to hear the shots in 2009, when less than a mile away, felon Lovelle Mixon killed four police officers before being killed himself, in the deadliest attack on U.S. law enforcement since 9/11.

“This is your family. These are your brothers,” Kaepernick says to the team of mostly brown and black kids as part of his pre-game pep talk. “I look at all of you as brothers. I see your strength. I see your power, your courage, your confidence. And that’s something you have to be able to speak into each other as well. When you talk to him, talk to him with confidence. Speak confidence into him: ‘You’re going to play great today, you gonna be the player out there. And not just the best player on the field, you gonna be the best player when you walk off that field and into the real world.’”

“I know situations a lot of y’all might be in where people don’t treat you the same, they don’t give you the time of day,” he continues — as captured via one of the iPhones in the locker room. “They don’t give you those opportunities to be the best you can be. That’s why I made the decision to do what I did. And y’all inspire me, with what you did, following that and standing up. Y’all are doing this at a much younger age then when I did. It took me awhile to get to this point, and y’all are conscious of this at this point in time to make that stand.”

As the game began, instead of standing for the National Anthem, Castlemont’s players and coaches lay on their backs in the grass with their arms outstretched. In line next to them was Kaepernick, taking his (in)famous knee, something he’d been doing since Week 1 of the NFL preseason four weeks prior — a demonstration against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and an act that made him either a national pariah or hero depending on your political leanings and location.

“It’s basically showing our vulnerability from them being the authority and power, and us being the citizens,” Castlemont senior and lineman Jadan Starks, who sent the tweet that set the team’s protest in motion, told the San Francisco CBS affiliate. “Why don’t we make a stand, make some noise and tell [Kaepernick] that we got his back by doing the same thing he did?”

Castlemont was just one of dozens of high schools in the Bay Area where students followed in Kaepernick’s footsteps throughout the fall. In November, after Castlemont began their protests, the Berkeley High Yellowjackets also knelt and linked arms during the National Anthem, displaying handmade banners that read “My Life Matters” and “BHS Football Kneels for Justice.” Other banners bore pictures of Oscar Grant, the young black man unlawfully killed by BART police in 2009, whose death is credited with kicking off the widespread national media coverage of the police shootings that followed. And all but one football player at San Francisco’s Mission High knelt before a game in September; the one who didn’t, the team’s kicker, choose to stand with a raised fist instead. Even the members of Oakland Unified School District’s Honor Band dropped to their knees during their performance before an Oakland A’s game the same week Kaepernick visited the King’s Academy-Castlemount game.

The Knights football team had demonstrated in Kaepernick’s image once before, lying on their backs in a pose that recalled Charles Kinsey, a 46-year-old black man shot by police in North Miami. After photos from the game went viral, Kaepernick got in touch and decided to buy the team Togo’s sandwiches before every game for the rest of the season.

On this night at King’s Academy — a night Kaepernick not only purchased their pre-game meal, but also came to tell them how much they inspired him — Castlemont ended up losing 49–44. Not exactly a Hollywood ending. But for the Castlemont players — and many of the other kids at high schools who don’t reap the rewards of the Bay Area’s economic boom — that seemed beside the point.

Twentysomething Edward Washington and I are doing doughnuts in a golf cart on the blacktop behind Castlemont. It’s a beautiful spring day, but the Knights’ head football coach is blowing off steam. He just spent a tense half-hour in the principal’s office disciplining a student (privacy concerns prevent him from saying more), and he’ll be on campus until long after dark.

“[I’m] tired as a motherfucker,” he says later once we retreat to his tiny office next to the weight room — and he means it. Washington works as a coach, counselor, disciplinarian, dispenser of wisdom, ball-buster, consoler and all-around big man on campus at the school of 564 students.

“Fuck football,” he adds. “Let’s talk about education.” Almost all of his players are on track to graduate, and many will be attending college in the fall. And not one of them, he says, his gregariousness fading, has been shot. This is an accomplishment in Oakland, where being gunned down is as likely for a young black high schooler as graduating.

A police cruiser sits outside Castlemont High School.

Washington understands exactly what his players are going through because he used to be one of them. He was raised in West and East Oakland, neighborhoods about which he doesn’t mince words: “It was one ghetto to another.” One of 15 children born to a mother struggling with addiction and a father he didn’t meet until he was 18, Washington says he was raised by his grandmother and uncles.

He, too, went to Castlemont, playing cornerback on the varsity football team each of his four years there. After graduating in 2006, he attended Diablo Valley College, a local community college, before transferring to Texas College, a historically black institution in the Dallas suburbs — playing football the whole time.

Two years later, a social work degree in hand, Washington turned down an offer to play in the Canadian Football League, opting to return to Castlemont instead. The school’s longtime head football coach had recently died, and as Washington puts it, “My school was burning.” After eight years, a reorganization of the campus into three smaller schools had been abandoned as a failure.

Mid-conversation, there’s a knock on his office door. Annoyed, he shouts, “What?” The student mumbles a response. Washington’s face softens. They talk quietly. After the student leaves, Washington explains he’d been asking Washington if he had any food. Washington told him to come back later and he’d find something.

Three years into his tenure as head coach, Washington feels like he’s starting to make progress. In 2014, his first year, the Knights didn’t win a single game. This year, though, they went to the city championship, and more importantly to Washington, they caught Kaepernick’s attention. Clapping his hands with every word, Washington praises the 49ers quarterback who himself grew up in the nearby California’s Central Valley: “Dude. Is. God. Sent.”

“Being available to a young boy’s feelings — that’s masculinity,” Washington continues. “Showing them love from a male’s perspective. Teaching life lessons. That’s masculinity.”

Sometimes his students see this as weakness, but Washington says they’re wrong: “Weakness is hiding; in this hood, weakness is shooting.”

The liberal culture of the Bay Area often obscures the reality that it’s not a very integrated place. High school sports, however, force separate worlds to collide. Take Castlemont vs. King’s Academy, for example: 51 percent of Castlemont’s students are Latino; 40 percent are African-American; and 85 percent receive free or reduced price lunches. At King’s Academy, on the other hand, only 5 percent of students are Latino, and 2 percent are African American. And an impressive 99 percent of its graduates will go on to college — though that’s likely what parents are paying for when they cut a $17,750 tuition check. (King’s Academy’s football players kneel at their games, too — but in prayer, not protest.)

Only 1 in 20 San Franciscans are black, compared to 1 in 7 four decades ago. The tech boom doesn’t seem to be helping: a mere 1 percent of its workers in the Bay Area are African American. Even Oakland, the one part of the Bay known for its black population, has seen that percentage dwindle.

And these populations aren’t distributed evenly — white suburbs, with well-heeled PTAs, gated streets and million dollar home prices — ring the hills just to the east of where Castlemont sits. And for the young, mostly white entrepreneurs fresh out of Stanford (a mere 43 miles away), fixing the social ills of a place like East Oakland isn’t high on the agenda.

So it isn’t surprising that how the community responded to Kaepernick’s protest — and the local high school players who followed suit — diverged sharply. “I think [kneeling during the National Anthem] is very disrespectful,” Kyle Tarzon, a wide receiver and safety at Redwood City’s Sequoia High School, told his school’s newspaper. “I had uncles who served in the Navy, and my grandpa served in the Army. That’s one reason why I don’t do it — because I think it’s disrespectful [toward] them.”

Sometimes that dividing line runs through a single team. Take Santa Clara High School, which by its test scores and ethnic make-up is somewhere between Castlemont and King’s Academy. (Santa Clara is where the 49ers play their home games.) The head coach of the high school’s football team, Hank Roberts, is the son of a police officer and attended University of Nevada at Reno while Kaepernick was a student there, too. “Santa Clara is really cool,” he tells me, “because we have a full range of opinions.”

Case in point: At Santa Clara, one of the team’s leaders took to wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat this year. But, as Roberts points out, that student has proudly bled right next to the black players on his team. “Before you call people racist, let’s have a conversation,” he says.

It’s still a fraught, fractured conversation. The season before this one, the defensive coordinator at Santa Clara, who is also a police officer, showed up to practice in his squad car. Several black students, some of whom have had guns drawn on them by the police, bristled. Roberts asked them to see the defensive coordinator not as a representative of all of law enforcement, but as a person just like them. “We’re going to build the man first,” Roberts explains, echoing Washington’s sentiment. “And the football player second.”

Back at Castlemont, Washington invites me to come back in the fall and watch a football game, though neither of us know for sure if the activist spirit — or Kaepernick’s sandwiches — will still be around then. It’s unclear whether Kaepernick himself will be around. A number of teams have passed on signing him (even as a backup), with many people pointing to his protest as the reason why. (Of course, his declining skills haven’t helped either — or, at least, they haven’t made him worth the headache for ownership and a coaching staff.)

On the way out, we stop into the classroom of a friend of Washington’s, a first-year teacher who runs a class in public health. After we exchange pleasantries, I ask them what happens after the media lets the story die down.

They both laugh.

“The work,” says Washington, “continues.”