The impact of last week’s demonstration by Detroit Lions continues to reverberate through the organization. On Sunday, when first-year special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs stepped to the podium for a video call with media, he showed solidarity with his players by wearing a face mask with the phrase “I can’t breathe” written across the front.
That phrase, tied to the Black Lives Matter movement, became infamous after it was the last words uttered by Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man, who died while being placed in a chokehold by a New York City police officer.
George Floyd also said “I can’t breathe” while Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for several minutes during an arrest in May. Floyd’s death has led to countless demonstrations this spring and summer, with some still ongoing.
“I think just really appropriate, with where we’ve been at over the last week,” Coombs said when asked about his mask. “Just kind of wanted to show a sign of solidarity with our players, with everybody here. Make sure there’s really no question in terms of which side of history I’m going to be on.”
Last Tuesday, Lions players canceled practice after lengthy and emotional conversation following a Black man, Jacob Blake, being shot seven times in the back by officers in Kenosha, Wis.
It’s an act that’s continued to resonate at all levels of the organization.
“For me, personally, to have witnessed that, probably one of the most proud, incredible, learning situations I’ve ever been in in my life,” defensive coordinator Cory Undlin said. “I’ve been able and been fortunate to be in some big games in this league. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a bigger moment than that.
“I think Matt (Patricia)’s said it, players have said it, I don’t even think it’s on the same planet as the game of football,” Undlin continued. “We’re going to relate it and we’re going to bring it back to football somehow, but to sit in that meeting room on Tuesday and listen to these men talk — heard some of the stories in the spring, but when you’re on a Zoom call it’s not the same when you’re sitting in a room with these guys and you’re looking in their eyes and you’re listening to these guys pour out their hearts and their feelings. And then to watch what happened go down, like Matt has said, driven by the players, the players leading us, it was incredible.”
In the days following the Lions’ demonstration, teams across the NFL, MLB and NBA followed suit, canceling practices and games to bring attention to social justice issues around the country.
Coombs closed his call reflecting on what this time has meant for him.
“I was born to a football coach, grew up on a football field,” Coombs said. “My dad (Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs) went to coach at high school in Cincinnati called Colerain High School when I was five years old. I was blessed enough to grow up around Black people and not only to be around them, but those guys were my heroes as a kid. I never really had some of those thoughts, or prejudices, but as you grow up you realize not everybody has those experiences.
“As you start to have these conversations that we’ve had, it goes even further to realize that just because I was around that doesn’t mean that I understood,” Coombs continued. “I think where I’m at right now is just trying to continue to gain further understanding. Trying to listen and mainly trying to let our guys how much I support them. I think if everybody could have the opportunity to be in a football locker room, in particular this one, to have conversations with Duron Harmon, Christian Jones, Trey Flowers, Will Harris, guys like that. They’re really so smart. I’m so glad that there not sticking to sports and shutting up and dribbling because they have so much to share.
“Change is coming and I’m very, very proud to be a part of it and to get to witness it up close first hand,” Coombs said. “I just feel very, very grateful for all that. I wanted to make sure that, as that’s obviously a huge topic right now, politics aside, that’s what right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. Didn’t want to miss the opportunity to let everybody know where I stand on that.”