The Fight of Their Lives

Meet the team of 11- and 12-year-old mini-Kaepernicks protesting during the national anthem in southeast Texas—despite death threats and their coach's suspension after a nonstop fight against injustice


Illustration by Nick Iluzada

September 26, 2016

Bleacher Report

Football is religion in Texas. There are larger-than-life coaches, high school mega-stadiums that would make some colleges jealous and fanbases ready to erupt with every big play. It’s the pulse of the fall.

And in southeast Texas, one team is having its season—and its players’ lives—threatened for taking a knee, but it isn’t backing down.

On September 10, the Beaumont Bulls senior team, comprised of 11- and 12-year-old middle schoolers here in Beaumont, the oil town just east of Houston, sprinted onto the field. Emerging out of a cloud of smoke spewing from a giant inflatable helmet emblazoned with the Bulls logo, the team prepared to play football—a time-honored Texas tradition. But first, an even older custom: the national anthem.

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Players and coaches of the Beaumont Bulls senior team kneel during the national anthem before a game Saturday, September 10, 2016. (Photo courtesy of April Parkerson)

After huddling with their coaches, the boys gathered in an arrow-straight single-file line. And as Beyonce’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” readied to blare from the speakers at Beaumont’s Ozen High School, they got down on one knee.

And the coaches knelt with them.

They didn’t know what would come of the protest. They didn’t know their head coach would be suspended for the rest of the season two weeks later. One player thought there “was gonna be some hating,” but that was about it.

The protest went viral, and along with it came threats—teams threatening not to play them, the Beaumont Bulls board threatening to cancel the boys’ season and people threatening the children’s and coaches’ lives.

Through it all, the Bulls—these 11- and 12-year-olds—continued to protest.

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When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began sitting during the national anthem this NFL preseason, few people noticed. Kaepernick was not in uniform for the first two games, but in the team's third preseason game, against the Green Bay Packers, he ignited a firestorm.  

He was called racial slurs and “unpatriotic” and accused of disrespecting the military. He was told to go back to Africa and that it wasn’t his place to sit during the anthem. Other responses erred on the side of support. And some people simply wondered, why?

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Colin Kaepernick (right) of the San Francisco 49ers kneels on the sideline during the national anthem prior to a game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on September 18, 2016, in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Getty Images) 

He answered those questions in late August, telling NFL Media’s Steve Wyche in an interview: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” And he was not looking for approval. He said his protest was “bigger than football” and that looking the other way would be selfish.

Kaepernick knew he stood to lose endorsement deals, but that didn’t matter. Kneeling being the right thing was justification enough. And that immediately struck a chord around the country. Football players at Castlemont High School in Oakland, California, have started protesting during the national anthem, too, and on Friday, Kaepernick knelt among them as they laid on their backs in a “die-in” protest.

Many people just don’t understand.

But the coaches of the Beaumont Bulls do.

“How can you not feel some kind of way about someone on the news getting shot down by police?” one coach asked, speaking of the September 16 fatal police shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “How can you be so comfortable with injustice that you don’t want to do anything?”

Shortly after Kaepernick began kneeling, the staff of four devised a plan to kneel during the team’s next game. In an interview with B/R Mag, they said they decided to join after digging into the reasoning behind the protest. But by the time practice rolled around on Tuesday, September 6, they had backed off the plan. They didn’t want to steal attention away from the boys.

The players—whom the coaches sometimes drive 20 miles to pick up for practice—were most important, they said.

But that day at practice, the players took the coaches aback when they made a request: The Bulls—these 11- and 12-year-old boys—wanted to protest. Having previously planned to kneel, the coaches knew why people were making that choice, but they wanted to make sure the middle-schoolers fully understood what they were doing.

The players—all of whom are black―did.

Jaelun Parkerson, an 11-year-old running back on the team who coaches say is small but can hit with the best of them, said the players, too, saw Kaepernick, the Denver Broncos’ Brandon Marshall and others taking a knee. They saw the protest. They knew why they were protesting. And they wanted to be a part of it.

“Since Colin Kaepernick took a stand, we wanted to do the same,” the sixth-grader said. “We wanted to stand against racism and injustice.”

The Bulls head coach, Rah-Rah Barber, then went to the players’ parents, as well as the boards of the Beaumont Bulls and the Bay Area Football League, for approval. Everyone supported the boys and the team in their protest—including a coach and parent who served in the Army and Air Force, respectively.

And that Saturday, the entire team, all 22 players, took a knee.

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Media attention was swift. Local news outlets picked up the story the Sunday following the game, and by that Monday, it was everywhere from ABC to the New York Daily News. But as quick as the media was to arrive on the story, so were people contributing vicious messages on Facebook that included death threats.

That’s what worried Jaelun the most.

“Like, the people saying they should lynch us, and burn us,” he said, “it sort of disappointed me, because everybody is the same—they just don’t know it.”

The hate came from all over, but according to Jaelun’s mother, April Parkerson, a lot of it was homegrown. “[It] has been here locally, for the most part,” she said. “Texas, Oklahoma area.”

"Since Colin Kaepernick took a stand, we wanted to do the same. We wanted to stand against racism and injustice."

— Jaelun Parkerson, 11

But they were not deterred. The hate that is fueling the death threats, players, parents and coaches said, is the same reason they are kneeling during the national anthem. And they resolved that the protest would continue, in spite of it all.

The executive board of the Beaumont Bulls released a statement September 12, two days after the game when the team first kneeled. In it, they expressed support for the boys saying, “Our players made the choice to kneel and not sit during the National Anthem in a silent and peaceful manner and we supported them then and now.”

The board was “disheartened” that the protest provoked “hateful comments and threats” to the boys’ lives, according to the statement, saying those “types of responses are not how we teach them to react when they don’t agree with something.”

But by that Thursday, five days after the game, the parents and coaches say, that all changed.

The board called a meeting to discuss the protest with the team, and in a statement released to local media outlet KFDM, the board said the meeting that evening “got out of hand, and nothing was resolved” about the protest. The statement went on to say that the senior team would “continue to kneel, if they choose to, at the playing of the National Anthem.”

But several parents and coaches say it wasn’t that simple. And that it was not much of a meeting at all. Instead, they say it was an ambush. The board threatened the team with suspension, they said, and they were told their season would be canceled if they continued the protest. They also said the board told them this was coming from the team's parent organization, the Bay Area Football League.

The coaches and parents were shocked.

“Because our kids decided to take a knee,” Parkerson said, “are you telling me they are really going to cancel football?”

“We have a parent who was a veteran,” another player’s mother said, “who was like, ‘I served X amount of years in the military and I’m taking a knee,’ and they laughed at us,” speaking of the Bulls board members at the meeting.

That Friday, the day after the senior team parents and coaches met with the board of the Beaumont Bulls, the Bay Area Football League issued a clarifying statement of its own in support of the boys. The statement said they were “notified by the Bulls organization prior to the protest, and we fully supported the players’ request to express themselves in the manner they felt justified.”

The Bay Area Football League further expressed that they “can not interfere with club business,” in a Facebook message to a parent, and that “a suspension of a coach or player can not be done by BAFL.” (Bay Area Football League officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

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Players on the Beaumont Bulls senior team huddle around one of their coaches on September 10, 2016, as coaches Alfred Dean (left) and Rah-Rah Barber (right) talk strategy in the background. (Photo courtesy of April Parkerson)

Going into the next game, on September 17 against the Alvin Raiders, the team had a decision to make: end the protest and stand up for the national anthem or, for a second week in a row, take a knee. And the decision wasn’t made lightly. Coach Barber said he told the boys prior to Saturday’s game that they didn’t have to continue the protest.

But the boys told him no. They wanted to keep going. Many of them chose to kneel, while a handful stood behind the kneelers, arms locked in solidarity.

Those who locked arms still wanted to stand with their teammates. Trealyn, the team’s 12-year-old quarterback with a wiry frame, said they saw “the Seahawks, Christine Michael” and others lock arms and thought it would be a good way to support their team. They were worried their season might be canceled, but they wanted to be there with and for them.

“They are just as brave for doing what they did,” April Parkerson said of the boys, many of whom are now considering kneeling with their teammates for the rest of the season.

Fans of the Raiders, the senior Bulls’ opponent in week two of the protest, were not as supportive, according to Bulls parents. In fact, one fan posted on Facebook saying the protest “hurt my heart.” And commenters agreed with her. One person said, “I [can’t] believe these athletes are getting away with this,” while others said they would have grabbed their sons and left.

“I think people can't get past the protest itself,” Parkerson said, frustrated with those who refuse to see what is fueling it. "Why are we still having a conversation about why we're doing this?"

The coaches said they allowed the boys to continue protesting because the kids didn't want to quit, and because as coaches and role models, “We can’t teach them to.”

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In an email to B/R Mag on Sunday, more than a week after a reporter first reached out for comment, the Bulls board said it was “moving forward” from the protest.

“We [are] putting our focus on our kids,” Seterria Anderson, the board president, said in the email. “We are no longer doing any interviews at this time.” Later that day, Barber attended an “emergency meeting” with all seven board members. He was summoned to the meeting via text message several days earlier.

The board suspended the head coach for the rest of the season.

Barber said the board told him it felt he lost control of his team by allowing the parents to talk to media and the players to continue their protest. One board member, who was not in favor of his removal, according to Barber, told him it was the most controversial decision in the all-black organization's history.

Other members of the coaching staff, as well as players and parents, are furious.

“He really cares about these kids,” all of the coaches do, said Alfred Dean, an assistant coach for the senior team and six-year Army veteran who knelt alongside the boys. “What people don’t realize is that we’re not getting paid for this.”

Upon learning of the the head coach’s removal, Dean, whose son Larry plays on the team, told B/R Mag he was tendering his resignation. And his son is contemplating whether or not he wants to remain in the organization; several team members are, parents said.

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Beaumont Bulls coach Rah-Rah Barber and Jaelun Parkerson. (Photo courtesy of April Parkerson)

In an email to parents, players and coaches of the Bulls organization, which was forwarded to B/R Mag by a parent, the Bulls board denied that Barber’s suspension was due to the senior team’s protest. The official reason for his removal, according to the board, was the improper removal of a coach and player from the team as well as a text message that wasn’t distributed to the entire team.

The text from Barber, which the coach forwarded to B/R Mag, asked for the parents’ feedback on whether the team should continue the protest. In the message, Barber told the parents that the president of the Bay Area Football League expressed his full support but “that every team in BAFL doesn’t agree with [the team’s] actions.” The coach said he respected whatever decision the parents made.

“Coach fought for us, for our kids,” April Parkerson said by phone Sunday night, upset with the board’s decision. “We will fight for him.”

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When they aren’t at practice or at games on Saturdays, the boys are outside playing basketball or going to the park and playing football. Most of them play Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball for the local teams in Beaumont and Houston.

They like to play video games and hang out with friends. They go to school and are required to keep all of their grades above a 70 average or else the coaches won’t let them practice

They’re kids.

But with ever more frequent video footage of police killings and brutality, it’s becoming more difficult to allow them to just be young, to be 11 and 12 years old, one coach said.

“You have to have grown-folks conversations with them and still let them be kids,” he said. “How you explain to a seven-year-old that they can’t have their hands in their pockets? They can’t wear a hoodie? How do you do that?”

Dean echoed that sentiment.

“You have to have that conversation with your kids. You have to talk about drinking, drugs, sex and now you have to talk about being black,” said Dean. “It’s hard explaining to your kids that they’re going to get profiled.”

But that’s the reality. And the boys know it. And that’s why they are kneeling.

“You have to have that conversation with your kids. You have to talk about drinking, drugs, sex and now you have to talk about being black.”

— Alfred Dean

Twelve-year-old Larry said he hopes people can get beyond the anthem and come to “an understanding that the cops need to stop killing.”

The decision to protest was the boys’ and theirs alone, according to the parents and coaches.

“This is something that our boys are going to remember for the rest of their lives,” Parkerson said. “They’ll know that they can fight for what they believe in.”

The senior Bulls didn’t have a game Saturday. They were scheduled to play the Bayou City Gators, but the Gators were not able to field enough players for the game—something that team has experienced in past weeks.

But when the Bulls players were asked if they would continue the protest this week, every player responded the same way:

“Yes, sir.”

“Our kids are waking up,” said Barber, “and when that happens, change happens.”

Adam Harris is a journalist based in New York City. His writing on sports, politics and culture has been published in BBC and EBONY magazine, among other outlets. He previously worked at ProPublica. In his mind, the San Antonio Spurs are going to win the NBA championship every year. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays.

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