Peter King is on vacation until July 20, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Michael Thomas, who plays safety for the Houston Texans.
Three months into the 2016 season—my friend Colin Kaepernick’s last in the NFL—the 49ers came to Miami for a game. The Niners were 1-9. We were 6-4 and headed for the playoffs. I entered the NFL on San Francisco’s practice squad in 2012; by 2016, I was in my fourth season playing safety for the Dolphins, and I took the field that afternoon in south Florida knowing our biggest priority on defense was to stop Kap.
In the last four years, Kap’s been blackballed from the NFL and has become an international hero for the oppressed. I’ll get to that subject in a moment, but I want to express what a great player he was when he last played, and why I believe he absolutely must have the chance to get his job in the NFL back. Now.
The pressure on Kap that hot afternoon was enormous. We had won five games in a row. Though he was a great player, he was getting a lot of attention for other reasons. Kap started protesting during the National Anthem that preseason, to draw attention to systemic racism and police brutality, first sitting during the anthem and later kneeling. Eric Reid joined him in San Francisco. It was not a popular stance with the public. Kenny Stills, a wide receiver on our team, and I joined in solidarity in Miami so during the anthem before that game, while I was kneeling, I could look across the field and see Kap doing the same.
That feeling was monumental. We were getting nothing from the league, no statement of support, no willingness to back the players. There was more tension that day, because Kap had previously worn a T-shirt with a photo of a meeting between Fidel Castro and Malcolm X. In south Florida, with such a large Cuban population, anything pro-Castro does not go over well. So that was a massive thing for the Miami media, and he had a heated discussion with a reporter from the Miami Herald during a mid-week press conference that got a lot of attention. That game had extra juice before we lined up on Sunday.
Kap played an incredible game. It might have been his last truly great game in the NFL. He threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns and he had his last 100-yard rushing game in the league, with 113 yards on the ground. We were up 31-24 but they had first and goal at the six-yard line with five seconds left and Kap was looking to get them into the end zone, tie the game and send us to overtime. He got the snap and tried to run it in, and for a minute it looked like he was going to do it. But he got tackled by Ndamukong Suh and Kiko Alonso at the two-yard line, and that was the game.
We rushed the field, we were celebrating, and I remember being mad at myself afterwards because by the time we were done with all that, I’m pretty sure Kap was off the field, and we didn’t get to chop it up. Obviously, I was glad we won. When I’m playing against Kap, when I’m playing against anyone, I’m trying to make my plays and win the game as my absolute first priority. But at the same time, Kap’s my guy, and I want him to ball. And I was really happy that he balled, because there was absolutely nothing negative anyone could say about that game. We know the added pressure that came with us taking a knee. If you give them any excuse, they’ll tear you down and demand you get cut. You’re just a distraction.
That season was life-changing for me. Following the back-to-back unjust murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in the summer of 2016, I knew I had to do something. I was done with t-shirts and hashtags. I was ready to fight, because this was bigger than me. I had zero guarantees in my contract at the time. Miami could cut me at any point and not owe me a thing, not even owe me a goodbye.
I had to make a decision. My parents always raised me to be a leader, to take a stand for what was right regardless of potential punishment, but even they were scared. My wife Gloria and I prayed about it. Here’s what it came down to: If I say that I care about my people, if I say that I care about the Black community, I needed to do something. My daughter would be watching.
To be honest, I had no idea what exactly that something was going to be. Until I saw Colin Kaepernick kneel during the National Anthem. When I heard why he was protesting, that he was fighting against systemic oppression and police brutality, it was an incredible moment of clarity.
Kenny, who has conviction like no other, said to me, “Mike, that’s what we need to do.” Players across the league were having conversations about locking arms, raising fists, but we knew that would distract from the message and allow it to be co-opted. We had to kneel in solidarity with Kap, and we had to have that conviction to know that even if we were going to get bashed, we were in it with our brothers. In our hearts, we knew it was the right thing to do.
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick woke me up.
I pray that we figure out a way to make this NFL season work safely amidst the coronavirus pandemic. I’m a vice president on the board of directors of the NFL Players Association, and we’re talking about that right now. If and when it does, I have no doubt that we’ll hear any number of statements and sentiments from the teams, from the league and from Roger Goodell about racial injustice, about Black Lives Matter, about making change. We’re already hearing them now. Great. It’s the middle of July. But I don’t think any player will really believe the sentiments of the NFL if Colin Kaepernick doesn’t have a job in the league this season.
When I initially spoke with Peter King about writing this column, he wanted to know if I might propose a creative solution to make that job happen for Kap. I said no. The NFL created this problem. The NFL has to solve it. It’s not my job to do that. If the league really feels like it’s going to back the players when it comes to ending racism, Colin should have a job. That’s the only way that the Black community and the players are going to truly believe the NFL is serious about what they say. Otherwise, people will always reference what you did to your own. You have to look in the mirror and clean your own house first.
Like I said, I’ve played against Colin, and he’s a winning quarterback. He wasn’t winning the last time we faced each other, but he’s proven he can compete, and he’s taken his team to the Super Bowl. People love to talk about how long Colin has been out the game, how hard it might be for him to get back to that NFL level. But I know he’s been working and staying in shape. That’s different than actually playing, and I don’t know if his first role when he comes back will be the starting quarterback for a team. But I know for a fact that of all the backup quarterbacks on a roster right now, he’d be one of the best, if not the best. And probably better than some of the second-tier starters.