Heidi Russo came home from work on Memorial Day, turned on the TV and saw the awful images of George Floyd dying at the hands — and knee — of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Her thoughts immediately turned to her oldest son, whom she has yet to meet.
Russo is a cardiac nurse at a suburban Denver hospital. She’s married and the mother of three children who are each involved in youth sports in the north metro area. Russo also happens to be the birth mother of Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who was the first prominent professional athlete to take the unpopular stand — or, to be more accurate, to not stand — against police brutality when he began to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem prior to NFL games in September 2016.
“Yeah, of course he comes to mind…what he’s standing for,” Russo says. “I just think this stuff has gone on for way too long. There’s been this kind of injustice for decades. This was horrific.”
Russo and her oldest son have never even spoken. She was just nineteen years old when she gave birth to Colin in 1987 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The baby's father didn't want to have any role in raising a child (in fact, he left the scene before the birth), and Russo wasn't ready to be a single mother. So she helped arrange for the baby's adoption by Rick and Teresa Kaepernick.
It’s been Colin’s choice that they not meet, but Russo holds out hope. She stayed in touch with Teresa, though that relationship has faded over the past couple of years.
Her anguish has not.
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“It affects me a lot,” Russo admits. “When I hold on to that hope — like seeing him at football games — I get very angry. I get angry because I had to make the decision to place him for adoption…that just doesn’t make me a very good mom. Not a very good parent. I just need to cut back on that hope that we will meet. I just can’t. It’s too painful.”
Russo had watched Colin Kaepernick's football career from a distance with a certain amount of quiet pride, including his years at the University of Nevada and as the quarterback who led the San Francisco 49ers to the 2012 Super Bowl. Early in 2016, it looked like Kaepernick was perhaps going to become a Denver Bronco, but the team and Kaepernick’s representatives could not agree on contract terms acceptable to both sides. (The Broncos offer would have required the QB to take a substantial pay cut.) Instead, that season, Kaepernick — who was rehabilitating shoulder, thumb and knee injuries — played part-time for the 49ers, and then opted out of his contract to become a free agent in March 2017. He hasn’t played a down in the league since.
Meanwhile, instances of police brutality have continued, each one drawing more public outcry than the last. Other active NFL players and prominent athletes joined the protests. Yet little changed away from the field.
To most, what happened to George Floyd was not a surprise.
“I wasn’t, number one, surprised watching the video,” says former University of Colorado star and NFL linebacker Chad Brown. “I grew up in a community of color in Southern California, so I’ve seen ‘over-policing’ of people of color my entire life, so that was no surprise there.”
While the violence against African-Americans has continued, so have the silent and peaceful protests — which Kaepernick started, but which were always bigger than one man. He became the symbol — and the lightning rod — for everyone who followed his lead and took a knee. The NFL establishment certainly didn’t have his back. He was essentially blackballed by the NFL, and eventually took them to court before reaching an out-of-court financial settlement.
At the time, Russo, too, at was critical of Kaepernack's actions. Not because of the cause, but more because of the venue. She and Teresa agreed that Colin was “committing career suicide.”
“I completely support and agree with what his protest is all about, and I always have,” Russo says. “I just never agreed with the manner in which he chose to do it. There are other ways he could have done it instead of kneeling while he was playing football. It’s like no other job that anyone else has. I know people who are famous have this whole other platform, and I get that. And I get that it’s not about the national anthem and the flag. But if I were to go to the hospital and protest about something I believed in, I would no longer have a job.”
Brown sees it a little differently.
“Once you start trying to tell people how and when they can protest, that could get a little tricky,” he notes. “Let’s not forget that when all this really kicked off a few years ago, there were a couple of instances on an NFL Sunday when the players kneeled after the national anthem…and guess what? They were still booed by the fans. So for folks who are saying, ‘Why can’t you do things like Martin Luther King did, super peacefully?' Let’s not forget that Martin Luther King was assassinated for his views! As a person of color, you start to get a little frustrated. Wait, I tried to do it (peacefully) during the anthem to bring some eyeballs to it and showcase my protest and do the kneeling thing. They still got booed then.
“According to former Green Beret Nate Boyer — the guy who explained to Colin that kneeling would be the right thing to do — there’s no more peaceful stance than kneeling.”
Over the past four years, while Kaepernick hasn’t been playing football, he’s been involved in numerous charitable and fundraising activities, all to benefit disadvantaged minority communities. By 2018, he’d already given away an estimated $1 million.
Fast-forward to 2020 and George Floyd’s death. On Instagram, NBA star LeBron James was quick to post an image of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck next to an image of Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem. The images were accompanied by these words: “This…is Why.”
"When civility leads to death, revolting is the only logical reaction. The cries for peace will rain down, and when they do, they will land on deaf ears, because your violence has brought this resistance. We have the right to fight back! Rest in Power George Floyd."
While prominent athletes, from James to soccer star Megan Rapinoe and hundreds of others, have been steadfast in their support of Kaepernick from the start, recent statements from Roger Goodell and John Elway may indicate a shift in thinking from those who run the NFL.
“Because of the many public figures — athletics, the entertainment industry — that our kids connect to, that have stepped out there to condemn any kind of racism and police brutality, that the conversation is going to be less controversial or uncomfortable than maybe it was a year ago when someone took a knee," says Rhonda Blanford-Green, the commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Association and a former track star at the University of Nebraska.
“I think more people have taken the opportunity to step out,” she continues. “These are the people that our kids look up to. I think [moving forward], the conversation is going to be less taking of sides because of the Denver Broncos or the CU football team or John Elway and many of those public figures that maybe wouldn’t have felt comfortable themselves to step out are now doing that. So it does make it easier than maybe a myopic point of view from a minority. There’s a collective voice out there now again with our public figures that are saying, no, something is wrong about this and we need to address it.”
Russo hopes that’s the case.
“I think with everything that’s happened, when people saw that video of what happened to George Floyd, and with everything that’s happened following that, the rioting and the looting,” she explains. “I mean, people are pissed off. At this point, what else can they say?”
Could a change of heart in the NFL hierarchy mean actual change can start to happen in the sport?
Brown believes it could, as long as people around the league listen to the players.
“Last time I checked, being angry doesn’t solve anything," he said. "It may give you some passion, it may give you some energy to move forward, but being angry doesn’t solve anything.
“We need the ability to listen to each other and not attack each other,” Brown continued. “Let’s take the [Broncos head coach] Vic Fangio statement [from June 4]. He said he doesn’t see racism within the NFL. I think we can all think of some immediate clear examples. ... But rather than attack Fangio and say what an awful person he is — he really didn’t say anything that was racist…he said something that was a little tone-deaf, that was insensitive considering he’s been in the NFL for 33 years.”
Fangio clarified his remarks the following day and apologized for any misconceptions. “So let’s not always attack someone,” Brown added. “Let’s try to understand where they’re coming from; let’s try to educate them so they can gain some new perspective. In the end, isn’t that what we’re trying to do?”
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After the outbreak of violence and rioting in the wake of Floyd’s death, Russo took the unusual step of tweeting at Kaepernick, asking him to consider helping the store owners and other innocent victims of the unrest across the country rather than being singularly focused on defending those arrested in the disturbances.
“I do think that instead of funding the attorney’s fees and bail-outs for people who are rioting and looting, he could help those victims — they are burning the very communities they live in," she tweeted. "So how about Colin, helping that community?”
Russo hopes that George Floyd's death is a turning point for everyone on all sides of the “take a knee” debate. The importance of the cause is not up for debate.
Take a knee. Take a break. Take a moment. But the question still lingers: When will we be past the point of taking a side?