Kenny Stills • Houston wide receiver • Photographed in Houston, Texas
At 27, Stills is in his seventh NFL season on his third NFL team—he was drafted by the Saints, traded to Miami in 2015 and then traded with Laremy Tunsil to Houston the week before this season began. Through it all, he’s averaged an impressive 16.0 yards per catch and missed only three games due to injury (including Sunday, when he sat with a bad hamstring and ankle.) As the feature guest on “The Peter King Podcast” this week, Stills talked football and social activism, his off-season trips to work on social-justice issues … and why, two years after the Colin Kaepernick blowup, he’s still taking a knee during the national anthem before every game he plays. One of Stills’ offseason habits: taking a driving trip through parts of the country he doesn’t know well, to see what people are going through today. One of the trips took near his first NFL team, in Louisiana.
“Being in Louisiana, and going to juvenile detention centers—they’re basically little-person prisons. It blows your mind to see 11, 12, 13-year-old kids in a prison-like environment. Like, we’re giving up on them already. It’s frustrating to think a young person makes a mistake, a real critical mistake, and for the rest of their life, they’re supposed to spend it behind bars … We need to do a better job at rehab and re-enter. We just can’t lock people up and leave them in there and expect them to change.
“We [Stills’ foundation] ran a mental-health summit before the season started. We had around 300 kids and their guardians or parents. We talked about feelings and emotions and healthy-living practices, just really trying to get the younger generation to talk about mental health, to talk about the feelings and emotions they’re going through. Give them positive, constructive ways to cope. Working with companies like Head Space, to introduce them to meditation … They can re-wire their brains by thinking positively, thinking positive thoughts and positive self-talk … The more we hold onto [issues], the more they fester and grow and turn into other problems. …
“I’ve still been taking a knee since I’ve been here. You hear people in the crowd who have things to say about it. I’ve gotten good at ignoring those things and trying to continue to do the work that I do. I get out in the community, and meet people, and do a good job of explaining why I’m doing what I’m doing. There are still, daily, issues of police violence … Officers abusing their power is something that’s been happening for a long time. People have had experiences with police brutality. [Some] people say, ‘Thanks for taking a knee. You haven’t forgotten where you come from.’ It’s an issue that still needs to be talked about. When I got here, I went and met with the Houston police chief [Art Acevedo] and we talked about accountability and trying to build strong relations between our community and our law enforcement and that’s what it’s all about.
“For everyone who disagrees with my stance—what I’m doing, what I’m saying—it’s important for us to try and be in another person’s shoes, to try and see their perspective and see where they’re coming from. Everything I’ve ever said or done has been out of love. I’m open to have conversations with people who don’t see or understand, and I think we’ve always come out of those conversations with a little bit more understanding.
“I don’t see the kneeling being something that stops.”
Stills told ESPN’s The Undefeated recently if the kneeling and the activism costs him his football career, he’d understand.
“I’d miss the game. I’m miss the competition, I’d miss the camaraderie and being around the guys in the locker room. But I’m okay with it. I’d rather be able to look myself in the mirror every night … I’m happy with the decisions I’ve made and the person I’ve become and the man that I’m trying to be. If that means I can’t be a part of the NFL or play football, it is what it is. But I’ve got to be able to live with myself and be proud of who I am.”