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Late Sunday afternoon – following their 31-7 blowout of the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Stadium – a trio of Cincinnati Bengals players showed themselves to be passionate, thoughtful and patriotic when they were talking about the volatile flap surrounding the recent protests by NFL players before their games.
“There is not a person in here who’s not standing for the flag or the soldiers who have put in numerous hours and work to be sure we’re at home safe so the bomb men aren’t shooting off bombs over here,” said veteran cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones.
“I personally have had people who have been in the Army, been in Iraq. I have a great deal of respect for the flag.”
With emotion welling up in his voice, Jones looked around the dressing room and happened to see defensive end Michael Johnson across the way.
“Mike Johnson’s dad has a Purple Heart,” he said before suddenly going silent and rubbing his arm. “I got chills over that.
“It can’t get no dearer than that. You’re playing with a guy whose dad has a Purple Heart.”
Johnson was momentarily taken aback when I asked him about his dad’s Purple Heart while the rest of the postgame conversation was about the Bengals first victory of the season.
“Wow … yeah. … He served in Vietnam. He was on patrol and stepped on a land mine. He lost his pinky toe and right index finger. Shrap metal still comes out of this body to this day.
“And this all happened at a time when African-Americans did not even have the same rights (back) in America. But he was still over there fighting for the country.”
Johnson said he and his father had a heart-to-heart conversation last year after Colin Kaepernick, then the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, first decided not to stand for the national anthem as a protest of social inequality in America and the often brutal treatment of blacks by certain police officers.
“We talked about it last year and I discussed how I was going to handle it,” Johnson said. “And he made a good statement to me.
“He said, ‘Colin started the movement, he started the conversation, now it’s up to everyone else to go out and put forth the actions to improve them.’
“He said it came down to everyone black and white looking in the mirror and saying, ‘What can I do to be a part of the solution – whether it’s going to boys and girls clubs and talking to kids or going into your community and trying to make a difference however you can.
“Racism is taught and passed down. And it can be unlearned.
“You just got to go out and give a continuous effort to be the best you you can be. You do unto others as you’d have done unto you.”
This was part of the message NFL players were trying to convey last weekend and again Sunday – although they went about it differently on some sidelines.
Last week several players knelt during the anthem and many entire teams – including coaches and owners – stood at attention and linked arms. The Bengals were all linked at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Against the Browns, Jones said. "we all stood up."
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“The reason we joined hands last week was because of the ignorance of whatever the guy’s name is,” Jones said.
He was referring to President Donald Trump, who had blasted the actions of the players, the majority of them black, during a speech to a nearly all white audience of his fervent supporters in Huntsville, Alabama.
His interpretation of the players’ intent was far different – and quite calculated many say — than theirs and he called the players “sons of bitches.”
Jones shook his head: “I don’t give a (expletive) what the president’s saying. It has nothing to do with me.”
Or, the other players in the dressing room.
“Some people took the whole movement and put their own agenda behind it,” safety George Iloka said. “They put their twist on it. I see people saying that it was a national anthem protest, a flag protest, a military protest. It was none of that.
“Why would we protest people protecting us?
“It’s about social inequality, whether it be police brutality or a plethora of other things,”
Jones said the decision to stand at attention was simple: “What are we gonna do? There’s a time and place for everything, And the thing is we have the utmost respect for our soldiers and everything.”
Iloka said regardless of how it is done, some people will be against the message.
He said when Kaepernick first sat during the anthem, “he talked to some military guys who felt it was disrespectful and that it would be better if he knelt. So he knelt and people weren’t happy with that. And when we stood and locked arms, some people weren’t happy with that.
“But regardless, the message is getting out and now that we are drawing some awareness and starting a discussion, it’s time to get to work.
“We have to be in our community as players and politicians need to work on laws and legislation. And we all can do something with our vote.
“Our guys do care. That’s what this has been about. And that’s why they go into the community now and try to affect change.
“And I’m happy to be part of a group of guys like that.”