This story originally aired in November of 2016.
On September 10, 2016 football players from Mission High School in San Francisco were headed to a game in Redwood City. They were led by San Francisco Chronicle 2015 football player of the year Niamey Harris, a 17-year-old senior quarterback from Bayview.
“We were talking about it on the bus with each other,” Harris says. “And we were talking about what Kaepernick did a couple of days before. And right before the national anthem came on, we were coming back from the coin toss, and we told everybody to take a knee. We’re going to take a knee for the rights of the United States. And when I took a knee, and everybody else took a knee, I felt like a big leader, and that I was doing something right.”
Everybody followed his lead, that is, except one player. Kicker Duncan Lau stood behind his teammates as they knelt during the national anthem. And he held his fist in the air. He respected the protest of his football family, but he also wanted to honor his grandfather.
“He was a colonel in World War Two, and he risked his life for the anthem, and for the flag, and he lost plenty of friends and family for it, too,” Lau says. “It’s not supposed to be disrespectful towards anybody. It’s supposed to be more supportive and constructive toward both sides. That’s why I raised the fist as well, just to show that I was with both sides of my family.”
The impromptu demonstration took head coach Greg Hill by surprise. He says he supported his team, but he himself stayed standing.
“I have uncles who have Purple Hearts in the military from when they were in the armed forces,” Hill says. “So I’m supporting my team in what they do, and at the same time, I stand out of respect, you know?”
The team’s protest drew national media attention. Kicker Duncan Lau says he and his teammates received praise and criticism.
“Ah, there was a lot of racist comments, sexist comments, a lot of using hateful words that I’m not going to say in the press,” Lau says. “It’s just a lot of hate that we shouldn’t see in our country, because we’re supposed to be one people. But the reason why we kneel right now is because we’re not one people, we’re just two separate sides.”
The action brought the team together. They went on to sweep all of their games in the San Francisco Unified School District — and Niamey Harris also went on to lead the Mission High School basketball team to the first state championship in the history of the school district.
Over in East Oakland, Ed Washington was coaching the football team at Castlemont High School. After his players staged a protest, laying down during a public rendition of the national anthem, he got a call from Kaepernick’s manager. The NFL quarterback wanted to meet with them. So he did.
“What’s most important is that you look out for one another,” he told the student athletes. “This is your family. These are your brothers. I look at all of you as brothers. I see your strength. I see your power. I see your courage, your confidence. And that’s something you have to be able to speak into each other as well. Speak confidence into him. ‘You’re going to play great today. You’re going to be the best player out there. And not just the best player on the field, but the best player when you walk off that field and into the real world.’
Coach Washington says the students were stunned, excited and happy.
“You are important,” Kaepernick told them. “You make a difference. This matters. Everything you do matters. Look out for one another. Lift each other up. That’s what this is about. I had to come support y’all because of the same way y’all took a stand and stood with me, I had to come out here and stand with y’all. So I appreciate what y’all did. I love y’all. Y’all are my brothers. I’m here with you.”
Coach Washington says Kaepernick’s contact with the team didn’t end with that visit.
“Kaepernick buys us pregame meals every week,” he says. “He buys postgame meals, just to get these kids fed and help me out. ‘Cause he really appreciates what we’re doing. He invited us down to the little function he threw downtown. And, man, it’s just a beautiful thing, man. When he said he was our brother, he was their brother. And he meant that. He meant that because he’s showing that. We got people from Oakland wanting to come over to our school. We’re in probably the roughest part of Oakland. And people who won’t even show up, you know what I’m saying? [Kaepernick] has got that platform. So for him to do that and take a stand, that was real big. And that was powerful.”