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How Bears used emotional meeting to start a discussion

Dan Wiederer
Chicago Tribune
The Examiner

As a kid growing up in Ohio and later Florida, Danny Trevathan never thought a lot about the ritual. His mother, Michelle Hicks, would send him off for the day – to school, to practice, wherever. But she rarely let him leave without a kiss on the forehead.

Like any young boy, Trevathan would quickly wipe it away. "Ma! Get out of here!" he would think to himself, fearing embarrassment in front of friends and peers.

But now Trevathan realizes that daily kiss was more than just a routine. His mom had her own worries.

"Now," Trevathan said, "I see the reason behind it. She feared I would never come back home to her. That's terrifying – as a person, as a human."

Trevathan is 30 now, a father to two young daughters, a Bears linebacker and a proud U.S. citizen who is deeply troubled by the events of the last week and a half. Once again, he is confronting the discomfort and anxiety that can come with being an African American.

On May 25 in Minneapolis, 46-year-old George Floyd was arrested in front of a deli and forcefully restrained by Minneapolis police officers. One of those officers, Derek Chauvin, planted his knee on Floyd's neck and didn't let up for almost nine minutes. Three other officers failed to intervene.

Floyd gasped for mercy. "I can't breathe," he said. But his breath never returned.

Floyd died that night. Chauvin wasn't arrested until four days later.

On a human-to-human level, the cellphone video of the encounter proved deeply unsettling. That it was a white police officer using such extreme force against an African American man who was being taken into custody for allegedly using an illegitimate $20 bill served to expose the country's raw nerves and underlying racial tension.

Over the last week, protests have been ongoing nationwide, including in Chicago. Many have been peaceful demonstrations, intended to draw attention to racial injustice and abuses of power by police. Some, though, have also included looting, arson and heightened violence. The pushback to the protests has been aggressive and vicious at times.

Trevathan has found himself in deep reflection, trying to process what is unfolding and how the nation's division is being illuminated.

"Wrong is wrong and right is right," he said. "It costs nothing to love one another. It costs nothing to care about one another. We can't keep ignoring stuff and pushing it under the table."

He has also found himself thinking about his daughters.

"I don't want to give them a broken world that's confused and full of hatred," he said.

‘No ignoring’ it

Trevathan was one of the first players Bears coach Matt Nagy called over the weekend. Nagy, too, was having difficulty wrapping his mind around all that was happening.

He was upset by the way Floyd died and was trying to process the widespread unrest that had flared up, including a volatile night in downtown Chicago on Saturday. Police cars were set on fire. Storefront windows on the Magnificent Mile were smashed. Looters ransacked businesses. Officers and civilians clashed.

Nagy, a former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator, reached out to several team leaders. Just to talk. To tell them he was there for them. To say, "I love you."

"I just wanted to get a pulse for where everybody was," he said.

Trevathan appreciated the outreach.

"There's no ignoring what's going on," he told his coach.

Those weekend calls persuaded Nagy to hold a full team meeting over Zoom on Monday, an open-forum, anything-goes dialogue between players and coaches.

At first, the premise was a hard sell for some. Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks was resistant, ready to roll his eyes at whatever cliched, come-together-as-one treatment the team was prescribing.

"I wasn't excited to get on that call," Hicks said. "I didn't think anything positive was going to come from it. I didn't know why we were having this moment where we were singing 'Kumbaya' and trying to get over what's really happening in the world.

"I felt like it might be a control situation where they wanted to control the narrative and point us in a direction so when we talk to (the media), there's only going to be a certain message you hear."

Yet by the time Hicks closed his Zoom window after a call comprising 139 people in which more than 40 spoke their minds, "it was the complete opposite," he said. "It was totally different. Young black men. Young white men. Older coaches from all across the United States. Just watching everybody reveal themselves in a way that isn't common in sport or with masculinity in general."

The conversation, players and coaches said, felt raw.

Nagy listened to his players' voices and heard fear, disgust, anger, surprise, sadness and compassion. There were disagreements. There were tears.

Most importantly, the conversation felt honest and representative of all that is happening in the outside world.

"It was probably the most powerful meeting I've ever been in and will ever be in," Nagy said. "There was a protectiveness to the meeting. There was a vulnerability to people's stories."

Trevathan thought of times in his life when law enforcement had unjustifiably confronted him, blessed that his status as a star football player might have helped. He thought of the distress so many young African Americans feel every day.

"Just to be feared," Trevathan said. "Or to have that fear in you of being pulled over or of being comfortable or of being yourself. That's not cool. That's inhumane. We all deserve the right to be comfortable. We all deserve the right to feel like we are protected instead of being looked at as bad creatures."

‘Eyes and ears open’

Hicks, a 6-foot-4, 352-pound black man, understands how it feels to be seen through a lens of trepidation.

"At an early age, not just being a larger kid but a larger black kid, I was seen as the antagonist in a lot of situations," he said. "I was seen as the bully. As a person, I was not seen in the best light. I understood always that I had to make other people feel comfortable before myself.

"I'm going to continue to do that. I'm going to continue to make sure people feel comfortable around me (first). Is it unfortunate that I have to live that way? Call it what you want. But I do it because that's how I'm able to move through society and have people OK with me."

These were the types of feelings shared throughout Monday's two-hour meeting.

Wide receiver Allen Robinson sat through the conversation and was reassured. Over the last week-plus, he has seen more positive come out of the country's commotion than negative and has been heartened by both the volume and the diversity of those pushing for change and willing to listen.

"It's a group of people past the threshold of just sitting back and being calm," Robinson said.

Robinson understands Floyd will not be the last black man to lose his life unjustly. He realizes that, eventually, the tension and turmoil will calm and life will slowly settle again. But that's where many of the Bears leaders are vowing to stay awake and active to push for change.

Robinson stressed the need for awareness and solution-based conversations that build a bridge. Concern over troubling societal matters, he emphasized, should not heighten only when an act of grave injustice is captured on videotape and publicized in a high-profile manner.

"The biggest thing for me is just challenging everybody – African American, other ethnicities, white, no matter what it is," Robinson said. "When we get past these next days, weeks, months and even years, keep this same energy and keep this same mindset that you have now. As open as your eyes and ears are in this current moment, in the future have that same kind of humility to have your eyes and ears open to the people who are protesting.

"And to some of those people who are looting? That fire and that passion that you have for your community, for your peers? Have that same energy when it comes to being able to give back in the community, even when things aren't happening where a man is being killed for being black and being arrested."

‘Start a wildfire’

When the passion of the current protests recedes, the true heavy lifting of change will need tending to. Promises require followup and action plans. Nagy has reminded his players of the platform they've been given and the potential change they can stimulate.

"We can start a wildfire," he said. "Love needs to be greater than hate."

In 2018, Hicks was one of the original five players selected to serve on the Bears' social justice committee, a group that has aided with fundraising and outreach to organizations in underprivileged communities. Trevathan felt compelled to join last year and is pledging to increase his community involvement.

"I feel like I have a voice and I have to use it," he said. "I have a platform for a reason. ... It's nothing just to want to be heard, man. It's nothing just to want to be treated fair. A lot of times in America it's like, 'Why are you not grateful for the things that we have done for you already?' It's just not enough to feel like that."

During Monday's emotional meeting, Trevathan wanted his teammates to understand their bond and their reality. No one is alone, he asserted. Everybody has a voice.

At this point in history, Trevathan understands his obligation to confront society's ugliness rather than look past it.

"People can't just ignore this stuff," he said. "We're all going to be judged one day. No matter how you see it. And I feel like what you do in the presence of fear and the presence of danger and evil is what you will be judged on. I don't know about you all, but I don't want to get to the gate and have to turn back around. I'm trying to help everybody come with me."

Hicks stopped to consider all that has bubbled to the surface since Floyd's death – the constructive conversation along with the hostile arguments.

"Do I believe something positive is going to come out of this situation, out of the protests and the demonstrations?" he said. "Man, I hope so."

That hope can feel comforting. But really, who knows? Effort and action must also follow.

"The next step is creating change, affecting change," Trevathan said. "That's where we have to be on board. We have to get out as a team moving forward and bring as many people as we can. Rent a bus. Rent a daggone big old subway if you have to."

Trevathan remembers his mother's kiss. He thinks of his daughters' future.

"I will help and do my part," he said.