Why Lance Kendricks sat in protest for national anthem

Ryan Wood
Green Bay Press Gazette
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Green Bay Packers tight end Lance Kendricks (84) and tight end Martellus Bennett (80) sit on the bench during the national anthem prior to the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY - You are Lance Kendricks. You are the grandson of Sgt. Thomas Kendricks, a World War II veteran. You are the nephew of Vietnam veterans Thomas Kendricks Jr. and Robert Kendricks. Before them, your family’s military history traces to the Civil War.

You love this country. Your country. You cherish the soldiers guarding your freedom. Patriotism was ingrained during your childhood. The American flag flew outside your house every Fourth of July.

You’re a tight end for the Green Bay Packers. A year ago, you watched San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sit, then kneel, during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” You supported his protest against racial injustice. You did not join.

Never in your life have you sat through the national anthem.

“I was one of those people,” Kendricks explains, “who was like, ‘I understand why he’s doing it, but I wouldn’t do it.’ That’s how I felt about it.”

Even now, you don’t want to sit. It’s against your ideals, your instincts. But you aren’t only the grandson of Thomas Kendricks. You’re the husband of Danielle Kendricks, a woman proud of her Puerto Rican heritage.

Through her, you fell in love with the Caribbean island. It’s in ruins now, leveled after Category 4 Hurricane Maria steamrolled every inch of its 3,515 square miles, leaving a territory home to more United States citizens than Iowa without electricity. Water is in short supply, food scarce. Wind blew away jungle brush, leaving residents with little shade or sun screen.

Some of the stranded are your wife’s family. One uncle waited in line 12 hours for gas. You want to make a difference. Maybe, you think, your platform can raise awareness.

After the storm, you constantly check the news for updates. President Donald Trump is speaking at a rally in Huntsville, Ala., and you anticipate encouraging words from a president whose authority extends to Puerto Rico. You hear something entirely different. “Son of a bitch,” Trump curses. He doesn’t mean the hurricane.

“That broke the camel’s back,” Kendricks says.

You’ve played football your whole life. Two days after the president's remarks, you wake up on game day wondering for the first time what will happen during the national anthem. You know this Sunday will be unlike anything you’ve seen. You’re conflicted.

Driving to Lambeau Field, you consider your options. To do nothing, you believe, would be to overlook the disaster.

On the sideline, you hear the stadium announcer introduce the national anthem. More than 80,000 fans wait to see what you’ll do. You’re still unsure. For a moment, you consider locking arms with teammates, but there’s no opening in line to stand. You think it’s a sign.

So you do something nobody, not even your father sitting in the first row, expects.

When everyone in the crowd rises to their feet, you sit on the bench.

“Lance has always been very quiet and reticent about his views,” Leon Kendricks says of his son, “and this was a bold step on his part based on his past history. That’s why it surprised me.”

As protests increase this season, the NFL continues grappling with its public image. There are no easy answers. Direct attacks rain from the nation’s leaders. Vice President Mike Pence, acting on directions from Trump, walked out of a Colts game before kickoff after many San Francisco 49ers kneeled.

A meeting is scheduled next week between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and player leadership to discuss the protests. The league says there is no change in its national anthem policy, which does not require players to stand. Players presumably would not be pleased if they were ordered to do so.

“I don’t think that’s the best message of leadership from the top,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers says.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) congratulates tight end Lance Kendricks (84) after he scored a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, September 24, 2017, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

Supporters believe players who sit or kneel during the national anthem are peacefully highlighting a worthy cause. Dissenters see ungrateful millionaires disrespecting their country and the people who defend it. Emotions on both sides are raw.

Kendricks surveys what’s happening — the bickering, the booing, the misinterpreted motives — and fears the reason for protesting is lost.

“As a diehard fan,” Kendricks says, “you might want to at least try to understand or do some research into it, and be like, ‘OK, I understand why he did what he did.’ As opposed to just automatically being like, ‘No, eff you guys. That was stupid. Stand up.’

“You wear this jersey at this bar, and you’re proud of what we’re doing on that field, and we’re busting our ass for you. But when we voice our opinion on a social issue, you’re against us?”

Kendricks, a Milwaukee native, knows not everyone will agree with his protest. He isn’t seeking approval. Just empathy. To better explain, he invited a reporter to his house on the evening before the Packers traveled to Dallas.

Inside the gray, two-story home in Oneida, two blue balloons with “It’s a Baby Boy!” inscriptions float above a flat-screen television. Lance and Danielle have two Australian-German shepherd mixed breeds, rescues named Ella and Elroy, but their family recently expanded.

One week earlier, Danielle gave birth to a son named Lennox.

“It’s a crazy time in our lives,” Danielle says as she walks downstairs, smiling with a handshake. Lance follows, holding their newborn.

No, this isn’t a convenient time to talk.

Their message is too urgent to wait.

‘People just think we’re idiots’

Lance Kendricks is you. A few inches taller. Certainly faster and stronger. He’s a professional athlete, but Kendricks could’ve been a financial analyst. He earned his diploma from the University of Wisconsin, choosing economics over an art degree, he said, because of the rigorous coursework.

He wishes there was no need to use the national anthem in protest. Kendricks was a Cub Scout. In uniform, he saluted during the pledge of allegiance. He learned how to fold the flag.

Kendricks left the Scouts when sports conflicted, but he never lost an appetite for world events. It doesn’t matter how much money he makes playing a game, Kendricks says. He is a person with multiple dimensions.

Your “stick to football” pleas offend him.

“People don’t understand how smart football players are,” Kendricks says. “I think people just think we’re idiots, we’re dumb jocks from high school with the letterman jacket that cheated on tests and just got good grades, and went to college and lived their life. It’s like, no, we’re extremely smart.”

Kendricks, still holding his son, settles into a beige sectional sofa in his living room. A red, Badgers throw blanket is folded on the seatback cushion behind him. Lennox lays his left cheek on his dad’s chest. Mouth open, he sleeps through the two-hour conversation, a parent’s dream.

No topic is off limits. The Kendrickses explain their love for Puerto Rico, a place Danielle has frequently visited since she was 6. They don’t mince words discussing disappointment in President Trump, but Danielle makes a point to say she supports anybody occupying the White House.

“I don’t want to make it seem like I’m against our president,” Danielle says. “I’m for whoever is running the country, but be a leader. Unfortunately, when you have somebody who calls players sons of bitches …“

Yes, the president's comment disturbed the Kendrickses. Worse, they said, was the lack of attention on Puerto Rico relief.

Damaged and destroyed houses in the neighborhood of Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, 11 days after Hurricane Maria hit the island.

When Hurricane Maria made landfall Sept. 20, Trump tweeted “we are with you.” His next tweet about Puerto Rico didn’t come for five days. By then, Trump posted more than a dozen tweets about the NFL’s national-anthem demonstrations.

Two days after Maria’s landfall, Trump spoke at a campaign rally in Huntsville. He offered prayers “to the people of Texas and Louisiana and Florida and Georgia and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.” He didn’t mention Puerto Rico again in the 83-minute address.

Meanwhile, the Kendrickses frantically searched for information. Danielle, a distant relative of famed Puerto Rican author Enrique Laguerre, estimates she has about 100 family members on the island, some she still hasn’t heard from. Without electricity, cell phones can't be charged.

Danielle says she didn’t hear from her 82-year-old grandfather for 10 days. She learned that dust from the storm triggered his asthma, sending him to the hospital.

“You think about the fact that he’s just one person,” Danielle says, “and you have 3.4 million people on this island. It’s really devastating, because people don’t have access to basic needs: water, cash. The power is out, so everything they had in their fridge, they can’t eat anything.”

Kendricks sympathizes with the racial movement behind player protests. Growing up in Milwaukee, he says, he was the target of racial profiling. An avid artist, Kendricks remembers trying to buy sketchbooks and colored pencils at a supply store, only to have a white cashier wrongly accuse him of trying to steal.

In 2014, Kendricks played for the St. Louis Rams when white police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man accused of shoplifting. The killing sparked racial unrest in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb.

Lance and Danielle Kendricks on vacation in New Zealand.

When several Rams players, including future Packers tight end Jared Cook, exited the tunnel before a game against the Oakland Raiders in a “hands up, don’t shoot” pose, Kendricks did not participate.

“He’s very good,” Danielle says, “about not voicing an opinion right away. He’s more of a thinker. Me, I’m vocal, so how I feel is how I feel.”

Danielle started taking Lance to meet family in Puerto Rico soon after they met in Miami during spring break in 2010. They married on the first day of 2016, and honeymooned in San Juan. Though they hit the tourist spots, their favorite locations were private beaches, known to Danielle only because she’d spent a lifetime visiting the island. They are “hidden gems,” Lance says.

He donated $10,000 to the United Puerto Rico Relief Fund, organized by New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz, but wanted to do more. Nobody was talking about Puerto Rico.

He’d find a way to remind them.

‘It took a lot of courage’

Danielle is talking to two landscapers at the front door when Lance poses a question. He heard the “USA! USA!” chants while the American flag was unfurled at Lambeau Field last month before kickoff against the Chicago Bears. Several players embraced the chants, saying they showed unity.

Kendricks wonders if they actually showed discord.

At the very least, the public invitation from Packers players for fans to lock arms in the stands was mostly ignored. Only a minority joined the demonstration inside Lambeau Field.

“I think it’s so ironic,” Kendricks says, “how the country is called the United States, and we’re locking arms to show unity, and people get offended by unity when our country name is the United States.”

The invitation to lock arms sprouted from a team meeting one day after Kendricks, along with tight end Martellus Bennett and cornerback Kevin King, sat during the national anthem.

Grey Ruegamer, the Packers’ director of player engagement, informed players of an influx of phone calls from fans concerned about the protest. With the Packers playing Week 5 before a national audience, Kendricks says, Ruegamer stressed the need to collectively agree on how to approach the national anthem.

When coach Mike McCarthy opened the floor for discussion, Kendricks says, quarterback Aaron Rodgers spoke first. Rodgers called for unity within the locker room. No matter personal opinions, Rodgers said, teammates needed to support each other.

“For him to be the first one to step up and say something in that meeting,” Kendricks says, “I think that kind of lifted a weight off of everybody’s shoulders. Because that’s the leader of our team.”

Bennett followed Rodgers, Kendricks says, and gave an impassioned speech about life as a black man in America. At one point, Kendricks remembers, Bennett apologized to McCarthy for speaking too long.

McCarthy told Bennett his message was something the team needed to hear.

“He could’ve won an Oscar,” Kendricks says.

Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, running back Ty Montgomery and receiver Jordy Nelson also lent their voices to the conversation, Kendricks says. Kendricks believes Bennett’s words, especially, were eye opening to white teammates with different life experiences.

Nelson, the Packers’ representative to the NFL’s player association, says the meeting made him more aware of social issues.

“I’ve had great conversations,” Nelson says, “with my family, and some other friends and family that’s back in Kansas, about all this. Because I don’t think they truly know what’s going on. So it’s great just to open that conversation up, and I think that’s what a lot of these guys are asking to do. It’s been great for me these last couple weeks of talking to my teammates and our other fellow receivers about things, and opening my eyes.

“Because growing up in rural Kansas and now moving to Wisconsin, I don’t see it. But just because I don’t see it, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. So I think conversation is great. If you agree or disagree, there’s nothing wrong with having a conversation.”

Before the Packers chose their uniform approach, Kendricks already decided he would not sit again. Those fleeting moments on the bench, he says, were not enjoyable.

They almost didn’t happen.

Usually, players travel from their hotel directly to Lambeau Field. Because the Packers were playing a late-afternoon game against the Bengals, Kendricks had time to stop home before arriving at the stadium. Danielle says she doesn’t start game-day conversations, allowing her husband to focus. On this morning, she could tell Lance was preoccupied, and it worried her.

“As a football wife,” Danielle says, “you don’t want your husband going out there thinking about anything else but the game, his health.”

Danielle suggested Lance drop to two knees in prayer during the national anthem. Lance says he preferred staying in the tunnel instead of being on the sideline, but that wasn’t an option. He went back and forth on whether to stand until the song was introduced.

When he saw Bennett sit, he decided to follow partly for support.

“It took a lot of courage for me,” Kendricks says, “because I’m not one to create conflict or to cause any turbulence or anything like that. That’s just how I am as a person. If I have an issue with someone, I’d rather just ignore them and just move on and do something different, as opposed to get into an argument. So for me to do something like that, it was tough.”

Green Bay Packers tight ends Lance Kendricks (84) and Martellus Bennett (80) sit on the bench during the national anthem prior to the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Lambeau Field.

Kendricks says Packers president Mark Murphy's statement in response to President Trump emboldened him. Murphy called Trump’s comments in Huntsville “divisive and offensive” and said it was “unfortunate” the president misused his platform. While several owners around the league released statements, Murphy was first to respond from a region that voted for Trump.

Murphy, through a team spokesman, declined to comment for this story.

Kendricks says he felt alone in the stadium as the national anthem played. He describes it as an “out-of-body” experience. Adrenaline blocked most of the noise. He couldn’t hear the crowd, barely heard the music.

During the song, Kendricks remembers, Bennett thanked him and King for sitting. Kendricks says the moment allowed him to understand how difficult it’s been for Bennett to be alone in his protests. In the Packers’ first two games, Bennett was the only player to show any demonstration, raising his right fist during the national anthem.

“It’s hard to stand for something,” Bennett says, “when you’re standing by yourself. It’s easy to stand for something when there’s a group of guys doing it, but when you believe in something so strongly that you’re willing to go out there and stand by yourself, it’s totally different.”

Kendricks thinks it isn’t coincidence he caught his first touchdown for his boyhood team that day. He recalls the play as he sits on his living room sofa. Wide open, the 1-yard catch might have been the easiest touchdown of his career, if not for the pressure.

You can’t sit for the national anthem, Kendricks says, and drop that pass.

As Lennox starts to stir, Kendricks stands from the sofa. He knows there will be more touchdowns in his future, but his protest is complete. For the rest of the season, he suspects, the Packers will only lock arms during the national anthem.

“It’s pretty clear,” Kendricks says, “we got the message across.”

Puerto Rico's future is more uncertain.

Kendricks wonders what’s left of the private beaches. He hopes to someday take Lennox to those hidden gems. Or the pigeon park in San Juan where he and Danielle visited on their honeymoon. Right now, it feels like a distant dream.

The lights are out in Puerto Rico. If you can understand the hole in his heart, you’ll know why Lance Kendricks sat.

Packers tight end Lance Kendricks celebrates his touchdown against the Bengals with a Lambeau Leap.



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