SAN ANTONIO – This offseason has been filled with challenges for UTSA football.
In December, the Roadrunners welcomed Jeff Traylor as the third head coach in program history. Just as players were adapting to Traylor’s style, the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in mid-March and wiped out the spring practice schedule, leaving teams across the country in limbo. Since then, the Roadrunners have adapted to quarantine regulations and used Zoom meetings to stay connected with their teammates and the new coaching staff.
But in the wake of a senseless, horrific tragedy -- the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th -- the UTSA football team was forced to confront a very different enemy: racism. After a few days of measured silence, Traylor spoke out on social media and sided with the swelling momentum of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. His players responded in kind, and together, they chose to discuss their own personal views on, and experiences with, racial injustice in America via a Zoom call. Afterwards, Traylor praised the meeting, promising that the Roadrunners will “make the City of San Antonio proud as we keep the George Floyd movement relevant with our platform.”
In light of that discussion, KSAT 12 reached out to UTSA to see if the team would like to share their opinions on recent events and how they plan to use their status as student-athletes to help society march closer towards reform. Lorenzo Dantzler, Solomon Wise, Sheldon Jones, Myles Benning and Hunter Duplessis all joined Coach Traylor for an exclusive interview, which proceeded as follows:
Q: WHY WAS IT IMPORTANT TO HOLD A TEAM-WIDE DISCUSSION OVER THE DEATH OF GEORGE FLOYD?
COACH TRAYLOR: “I saw the long version of the George Floyd incident, the 3.5 minute video. When I heard him say he couldn’t breath, and he’s crying out for his mom… I did some research and saw that he played at a Texas high school and a Texas college. I started thinking about how many of my players, in my 30-year coaching career, that I had coached. That could be one of my players. It could be anybody’s son. That bothered me tremendously. I constructed a tweet to go out, and I’m ashamed to say that my first thought was, ‘How much backlash am I going to get for taking a public stance on this?’ Then my second thought was how many of my former players are going to be looking at this and want me to say something. I’m choosing my players, I’m going to press send. I didn’t push it out immediately. I spoke to five of my closest friends, and at the time, it wasn’t that huge of a deal. It had just happened. I told my players that’s the very thing we can’t do anymore. I can’t be that guy. I made my mind up that I wasn’t going to be that guy anymore. I was going to have the courage to speak up, push send or whatever that might be. That was going on in my mind and my heart, so I wanted to reach out to my players and set up a Zoom meeting.
Our players really came at it from every angle that you can imagine. I wanted it to be a 15 minute meeting, and then we were going to split up and go into 10 position meetings. I opened the forum up, and you can ask these guys, but I’m going to guess it went 2.5 hours. Special Teams went last. I didn’t think any Special Teams guys were going to be left. Hunter was still hanging in there and wanted to make sure he got his ‘two cents’ in at the end. It was an amazing meeting that I think will forever keep our team bonded when they’re 60 years old and I’m 85 in an ‘Old Folks’ home. When they come to see me, we’ll be talking about that day.”
SHELDON JONES: “We thought it was necessary, but it was a shock that it happened. It truly showed who Coach Traylor really is, and as we move forward through June and July, we’re still really getting to know each other. One thing we always talk about is integrity. That’s telling the truth over a period of time, and he hasn’t lied to us yet. By actually stepping up and doing that, taking that risk on Twitter, which is a very large platform... putting himself out there really meant a lot."
Just completed a Zoom meeting of over 2 hours with @UTSAFTBL. Wish our country could have heard all of the stories our players shared. We promise as a team to make @COSAGOV proud as we keep the #GeorgeFloyd movement relevant with our platform. #BirdsUp 🤙— Jeff Traylor (@CoachTraylor) June 1, 2020
Q: WAS THERE ANY HESITATION IS DISCUSSING SUCH A HEAVY TOPIC WITH A NEW HEAD COACH?
MYLES BENNING: “In general, there might be a little hesitation, just to see what the reaction is. But since day one, he’s let it be known that he’s a player’s coach. Everything that he’s done and said is for us. He’s definitely built that team environment and that team bond, whether it be going through four quarters or whatever we might do. He made it clear that whatever we do as football players, we’re going to do it as a team. I think he handled it perfectly, and I don’t think any of us were surprised that he said, ‘We’re going to talk about this.’ He asked us if there’s anything we want from him or want to see from him. We all appreciated that call. It was a long call, but it was a much-needed call, and I think a lot of people gave coach a lot of respect for how he handled that situation.”
Q: DID YOU FEEL COMFORTABLE SHARING THOUGHTS ON THESE ISSUES WITH YOUR TEAMMATES?
LORENZO DANTZLER: “I feel like our locker room would be able to talk about it because we’ve been together for a long period of time, and this has been going on for years. We all know about it. It’s on social media. We just never sat down and discussed how we could handle the situation, or what we could do about the situation. In the locker room, there was no hesitation because they know us. They see us every day when we’re in the facility. We’re brothers. The world can’t judge us by our skin color because we’re on a team. But like I was saying in the Zoom meeting the other day, we just have to come together as one, as people. Coach Traylor said if the world was built like a football team, and they were all in the locker room together, they’d have to get along because you’re not going to judge them by the color of their skin. You’re going to look at them as a teammate.”
Q: HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO USE YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORM NOW?
LORENZO DANTZLER: “I feel like student-athletes, and professional athletes as well, need to use their platform because we’re looked at the most. Everyone sees us on TV every Saturday night or every Sunday, so I think it would be huge for athletes to use their platform and come together to speak about the situation, raise awareness and give knowledge to people who don’t have knowledge on the background of police brutality among people of color. I feel like it would be a great opportunity to speak out about it, boost the situation and not make it go away because every time something happens like this, people forget about it a week later. This time it’s going to be different. I feel like no one is going to forget the month of May, so I feel like it’s heading in the right direction.”
SHELDON JONES: “At least one person looks up to each one of us, and I’ve heard a lot of coaches say, ‘If I could save one player, just one player, that would be great.’ Well, if I could help one person, that would be great, too. We’re going to keep tweeting, keep snap-chatting, keep using everything that we have to get awareness so it just doesn’t go away.”
MYLES BENNING: “To me, the way you keep it relevant is by educating the people on the side that need to be educated or the people who the subject doesn’t affect every single day. This isn’t the first time we’ve had tensions like this, with other situations and shootings where people have ‘rioted’ or tried to protest, but you always see it build up and die back down. You’ve got to educate and keep it relevant, and at the same time, you’ve got to establish some patience. Not everyone’s going to understand where you’re coming from. You have to have that amount of patience and wherewithal to try and educate those who want to be educated. Now I’m not saying you’re going to be able to change everybody’s mind because that’s just not how it works. But if you can put your best foot forward and try to help them, then at the end of the day, the decision is up to them. But you still know you put your best foot forward.”
Q: IS THERE ANY FRUSTRATION THAT SOCIETY IS STILL DEALING WITH SYSTEMIC RACISM?
MYLES BENNING: “Yeah, I would say I’m frustrated, as a lot of people are. This should have been handled 100 years ago. It should have been handled with the first shooting. People can be frustrated, and a lot of us can have that anger and frustration on the subject. You’ve just got to try and get the point across in the right way. Some people might believe we’ve done it one way, and that way isn’t working, so they try and go another way. I’m going to try, as well as my teammates, to push stuff to be relevant and try to do stuff the right way. As student athletes with the NCAA, we know there’s a certain way we have to carry ourselves, and we’re going to do everything we can to do it the right way.”
SOLOMON WISE: "We have to be patient while we explain to our white friends and our other non-black friends because they don’t understand what it’s like having to experience going through the emotional, physical and mental turmoil that we have gone through. We have to be patient. If we really want this to go through, if we really want change, we have to hone in our passion and not let it turn into rage because that can be the difference between somebody listening to us and somebody turning the other ear and going back to what they used to do. One guy can change the perception of how they see us.
Q: AS A WHITE PLAYER, WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO HEAR OPINIONS AND STORIES ON THIS TOPIC FROM YOUR TEAMMATES?
HUNTER DUPLESSIS: “Well, first thing, I’m obviously not black, and I will never truly understand what oppression feels like. There’s no way of being directly in their shoes because I have white privilege. That’s due to a big societal scheme that involves racism against people of color. Point blank, that’s what it is, whether we want to accept it or not and whether I want to take advantage of my white privilege or not. It’s always rolling for me. I was fired up about this topic as soon as it came out, and I was very enlightened and educated on this subject matter from my own teammates because these guys are my family. Going around and talking to these guys, I didn’t want to leave any doubt in their mind that I wasn’t on their side. It’s going to take all of us. Their fight is my fight. I may not understand it, but I understand that I need to stand up for them. We had stories shared on our Zoom meeting, and you just had to hear them. Every one was like a dagger to my heart. It helps because even though I can’t stand in the shoes of a black man, woman, or child, each of those stories allows me to see, from a window, what they’re experiencing and what they’re facing day-in and day-out. It only helps me to contribute in a new way, and find new ways to help them out.
Before you can speak, you have to listen. You have to listen before you can even gain your bearings on where to go with the conversation. When it did come around to where I could speak, I wanted to speak with a zero-tolerance tone of voice and a call to action. Until the majority of white people are on board, this doesn’t change altogether. Recognizing white privilege, recognizing that there’s corrupt societal standards of racism that we just consistently allow to sink our ships... Finally, it’s just a love for people. Politics aside, teams aside, difference aside, you’ve got to love people. There’s clearly one group that’s being targeted by these covert racist acts. In some cases -- we’re talking about what happened with George Floyd -- that’s an overt racist act. If that doesn’t stir something up inside you, then I’m not sure what you stand for."
Q: IS THERE ANY GUILT WHEN REMEMBERING SITUATIONS WHERE YOU COULD HAVE SPOKEN UP OR DONE MORE TO HELP?
COACH TRAYLOR: “I’ve had to speak to some players in private about: is white silence condoning what happened to George Floyd? That is a very deep and powerful statement. What does that mean? What does that sound like? It might just be asking somebody, ‘What is it like to be black?’ It might mean speaking up when you never used to speak up. It might mean a tweet. It’s just a matter of not being silent, just talking. Our black players expressed to us that they want to hear the thoughts of their white brothers, brown brothers and black brothers.”
LORENZO DANTZLER: “We definitely wanted to hear our white teammates’ thoughts on the situation because when we go into the locker room, we have to be around them. We don’t want to be uncomfortable with them being in the locker room because we know that will affect what happens on the field. We just wanted to know their thoughts on the situation because the majority of us on the team are black. We have some white players, but the majority of us our black. I had to know what their feelings are about black people being continuously killed or abused by policemen. If they think it’s wrong, or if they think they’re just doing their job, I wanted to know that because then, like Myles said, we can start to educate them on what is taking place. It’s on video. It’s pretty common sense what’s going on, but for some people, you have to take the time to explain it. You have to explain why Black Lives Matter, but not why only Black Lives Matter."
Q: DO YOU ALL FEEL MORE UNIFIED AS A TEAM AFTER HAVING THIS CONVERSATION?
SHELDON JONES: “Definitely. It’s always great to know the backstories of your teammates. Even to just sit down for an hour with just 10 of your teammates could bring your guys closer together. Knowing where you come from, knowing where Zo comes from, knowing where Hunter comes from is something that’s going to stick with me and make me want to give my all for them on the football team. Everything that we’re doing now, in a meeting or on a Zoom, just hanging out with our friends… it all means something, and it’s all going to show.
Q: WHAT IMPACT HAS SOCIAL MEDIA MADE ON THIS MOVEMENT?
SHELDON JONES: “Social media isn’t the best thing, but it’s great because you’re actually seeing what’s happening with your own eyes. Like coach said, he has black players, and this could have been anyone of us. This could be me in an hour, we really don’t know. It just makes you feel it a little bit more now that you’re seeing it up close.”
MYLES BENNING: “Social media does get a bad rep. A lot of things can get taken out of context, but at the same time, it definitely spreads the message very, very fast. Just getting the message across and seeing how many people are being affected by this situation… I think social media helped get that whole point across, and I think it helped wake up the people that are anti-racist that they need to speak up against that. They can learn how to help the movement, help educate the people on that and ultimately stop this whole ordeal as a whole to get as close to equality as we can."
Q: WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THOSE PEOPLE WHO TELL YOU TO “SHUT UP AND PLAY?”
SHELDON JONES: “At a young age, I was always taught that I was a student first. So I will never shut up and play. I’m in college just like everyone else here, and they’re not told to just shut up and read a book. How does that sound? “Shut up and play...” It’s just not something that makes sense. I’m a student-athlete and not an athlete first. I’ll just use my platform to get these types of things out.”
LORENZO DANTZLER: “When I first heard that phrase, I took from it that they’re scared of the power we have as athletes. They know that athletes are everything in the United States. If you’re an athlete, you’re held to a higher standard and put on a pedestal, no matter what color you are. With them saying that, they’re scared of us putting it out there and making people come together to educate others on the situation that’s going on in this country.”
MYLES BENNING: “The ‘shut up and play’ statement was so big for us as athletes in general because I think that pushed everyone to realize how big our platform is, and I think people did exactly the opposite of that. LeBron [James] took that, and once LeBron took a stand on it, all of the other professional athletes and student-athletes in college started to realize the type of platform that we have. Like Sheldon said, we’re student-athletes -- students first. Being able to realize the type of power you have in that platform, I think we’ve definitely shut that whole ‘shut up and play’ movement down, and we’ve done a lot more than that. I think that goes for every athlete and every sport.”
Q: WHAT’S THE NEXT STEP FOR THIS TEAM?
HUNTER DUPLESSIS: “Action. It’s not good enough for me to just tweet it. It’s not good enough for me to post it on instagram. There are also going to be people from other communities that are going to share their support verbally, but until we act on this thing, nothing is going to change. Along with the education piece, continue to educate yourself. If you’re not black or a person of color, continue to reach out to find those resources and inch closer and closer to understanding the true situation at hand. Only then can we be enlightened enough to make big policy reform, big policy changes and force the hand of society to do something. It’s gone on long enough. Once we’re all on board with that and acting out in that manner, all using that pedestal, then we’ll see big changes being made. That’s a start.”
SOLOMON WISE: “First off, we should truly understand both sides and get a grasp of what we should do and how we can find the solution. That’s it. Get with your friends. Get with your black friends. Get with your peers. Have a conversation and talk. Make the topic relevant. Keep it in there. This isn’t about a culture thing. This isn’t about a food, this isn’t about a sports thing. This is about right vs. wrong and what do we as a black community and as a nation want to progress this forward.”
COACH TRAYLOR: “We’re going to all get registered to vote. We’re going to all go vote. That’s a simple thing, but we’re all going to go do it. I’m going to make sure they all get registered. It’s one of those things that we take for granted. I would hate to guess the percentage of my players that have voted in the past, but it’s going to be really high this year. Our chief of police on our campus is a black man. He’s going to be in our building. He’s going to be talking to our players. Community service, too. What can we do? What can we use for our platform to keep it more relevant? It’s about to be football season. Twelve Saturdays in a row, we’re going to be relevant. How do we use our platform? Getting involved with the police, getting involved with the city of San Antonio, getting registered to vote. Those are some examples, but when we get back together, I’m going to form a leadership group that’s voted on by their team and their coaches and we’re going to meet and have ideas on what kind of community service to do and what ways to use our platform. This is still new. It’s been happening for years, but it’s new for these guys to have their chance to move forward. They’re all excited to serve in all kinds of ways.”
Q: HOW DO YOU KEEP THE MESSAGE ON EMPOWERMENT RATHER THAN A DEGRADATION OF THE ESTABLISHMENT?
MYLES BENNING: “That’s where that patience and maturity on the subject has to come in. I can’t fault all police officers for the actions of a handful, and I’m not saying there are only a handful of bad police officers in the entire police force. But just because of the actions of these guys, I shouldn’t be judging these other guys over here. I have a lot of respect for police officers because it’s not an easy job, and you’re putting your life on the line every time you go out there. When you have this conversation and it comes up, as a person of color, I’m very passionate about it because we are being targeted and racially profiled by the police force. It is a hard thing to balance, but you do have to pay attention to it.”
SHELDON JONES: “My father is actually a police officer, and I know how hard this is on him right now. He’s met a bunch of players on the team, and it’s really taking a toll on him right now. In New Orleans, most of the police officers are walking amongst the protestors. They’re just wearing regular clothes and walking with them. It hurts him to have to wear that badge every day, knowing how a lot of people feel about it. I have gotten both views. I know what’s in his mind when he’s going to stop someone. I know how scary that can also be. It’s tough knowing both sides.
I told my team this the other day in our Zoom meeting. We know who we are, but we don’t know who we’re truly going to be until we get there. I say this because, as of right now, we’re in college, one of the most pivotal times in our lives. This can make or break us honestly. This could set us for 40 years, for who we want to be one day.”
Q: HOW ARE YOU BALANCING ALL OF THE CHALLENGES LIFE HAS PRESENTED YOU IN 2020 SO FAR?
SHELDON JONES: “Mental Toughness. We talk about it every day. You’ve got to have mental toughness to get up every day and work out on your own for 3 months straight without seeing your coaches. It’s tough. But when you make it our lifestyle, it’s easy. We’re going to keep a set schedule, even at voluntary workouts. It’s voluntary, but I bet everybody in San Antonio is going to be there, and we’re going to make sure of it.”
LORENZO DANTZLER: “In playing football, you go through adversity, so I feel like that has helped a lot. Coach Traylor always asks, ‘What are you going to do when it doesn’t go your way?’ That’s what helped me a lot, just thinking about what I’ve been through in the past on the football field, and using the tools that have been given to me to handle adversity, put the blinders on and don’t worry too much about what’s going on in the outside world.”
COACH TRAYLOR: “There’s nothing better than being on a team. They don’t care that their coach is white, bald-headed and goofy. They don’t care. They want to win the game. It is what makes sports so fantastic. Our school colors might be blue and orange, but we bleed red, baby. We all bleed the same. That’s what it is, and that’s why sports is so amazing. But it’s forced me to get to know them, and it’s forced them to get to know me. That makes me proud.”