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What Abner Haynes started in 1965 is reverberating through the Broncos, NFL today

The former Broncos running back led the first protest among pro football players - and his message back in 1965 is still relevant today.

Black Lives Matter Protests Held In Cities Nationwide Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

In early 1965, then-Chiefs’ running back Abner Haynes (later a Denver Bronco) was called a “monkey” twice while he was trying to check into his New Orleans hotel for the AFL All Star game.

Although the 28-year-old, four-time AFL All Star who had integrated college football in Texas in 1956 was not unaccustomed to such racial slurs, that moment proved to be enough. It was 1965, the Voting Rights Act had passed and the Civil Rights Movement was in full force.

Abner Haynes was done with inequality.

“When it was my time to get my room, the woman said to me, ‘Where are you monkeys from?’ I said, ‘What did you say? She said, ‘Where you monkeys from?’ I was through with it. I just walked away because I wasn’t going to get caught up in that kind of bull,” Haynes told us last week in an interview with the 83-year-old pioneer. “I stepped out of line and she called the next guy a monkey. We decided then and there we needed to have a meeting because I’m not going to put up with this all week.”

Within an hour, Haynes and others had organized a meeting of more than 20 players - both Black and white and from different teams. With the support of white AFL stars such as Buffalo quarterback Jack Kemp and San Diego offensive tackle Ron Mix, Haynes and the players told AFL commissioner Joe Foss that they would not play in New Orleans, and the game was moved to Houston.

“I was never so proud of my teammates who stood up for us and made it known ‘if they aren’t going to treat Abner better than that, we’re not going to play,’” Haynes said.

Now 55 years later, American pro athletes are not facing the same kind of outright discrimination as their predecessors and are generally seen as superstars and celebrities.

But that hasn’t meant Black athletes have been immune to the racism that still exists in American society. And as contemporary racial turmoil hit a peak over this summer, many pro football players felt the same as Haynes in January 1965.

It had been enough.

Aiming to “inspire change”

This past week the Denver Broncos unveiled their new social justice campaign, Inspire Change.

In a promotional video, Justin Simmons, Jurrell Casey, Von Miller and Dalton Risner are featured speaking from the heart about needing a different kind of America and being proud to use their platform as pro athletes to push that progress along faster by being a voice for change.

“It’s not enough to just not be racist. It’s not enough to just believe there is a problem. What are you doing to help this?” says Risner, noting that as an NFL player and a white male, he wants to use his platform - and wants others to join him. “I can speak up and use my voice and say this is not OK. Racism is a complete joke. It shouldn’t even be a question. It’s sickening. It makes my stomach hurt. There needs to be social reform, there needs to be justice reform. It’s not going to get fixed in one day, but what I can do is use my voice and speak up.”

Already this season, the national anthem has come under fan scrutiny once again as the NFL followed through with its plan to play two national anthems at every Week 1 game - ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,’ a song known as the Black national anthem, before also playing the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’

And once again the naysayers have been loud.

Boos echoed across a relatively empty stadium at Arrowhead last Thursday night as the Texans stayed in the locker room during both anthems and Chiefs players stood, many arm in arm. One Chiefs player, defensive end Alex Okafor, knelt and raised an arm while a teammate put his hand on Okafor’s shoulder.

While this vocal section of sports fans loves to cry “stick to sports” to athletes and commentators during these moments when our national turmoil spills over into our athletic fandom, rampant racial injustice this past spring has made it impossible for so many Black athletes to stay quiet about a prejudice they have felt and experienced their entire lives. And more importantly, a prejudice their families and ancestors have felt for decades.

Activism is not new

Activism in sports - among athletes at every level and in multiple sports - is not new. But sports exist on a much bigger playing field now. And Black athletes have a greater presence in the pro ranks and can make their feelings known with much more impact. This summer alone, a protest among NBA teams stopped playoff games. A similar pledge by the top women’s tennis player halted the U.S. Open.

When Kaepernick chose to kneel in 2016 during the national anthem as a protest against racial injustice, specifically police brutality toward Black Americans, he was met with immense criticism and derision - not just by fans but by the NFL brass. And he got only minimal support among his fellow NFL players.

Justin Simmons even spoke to that issue recently when talking about the Inspire Change campaign.

“When D.T. (Demaryius Thomas) and B-Marsh (Brandon Marshall) were consistently kneeling, I think for a guy like myself who wasn’t really established, trying to find my way, it was a scary moment,” he acknowledged, referring to the 2017 game against Buffalo when several players knelt after President Donald Trump had called players “sons of bitches” and said they should be fired over their protests. “To be at a divide like that, it just felt like it was choose one and not the other.”

At the time, Simmons chose not to kneel. But it didn’t mean he was against the premise.

“The thing that I don’t think a lot of people understood at the Buffalo game—I know a lot of people were upset, but it was a message not only for our country but to the President,” Simmons added. “It was like, ‘Yeah, man, there are guys taking knees, but just so you know, there are guys that aren’t taking knees that are in full agreement with the guys that are taking a knee. We’re just doing it differently.’”

But now as a fifth-year veteran and a moral leader to his teammates, Simmons believes his role is more than just as a football player.

“I feel like now it’s like a no-brainer. If you can’t see it at this point, then you’re choosing not to see it,” he said last week. “There is clearly an issue in our country with police brutality and community. It has nothing to do with our flag. It has nothing to do with the soldiers that fight for our country and give us the freedom to be able to peacefully protest. It has nothing to do with actual police, but police brutality.”

I imagine Simmons would really appreciate the thoughts Haynes shared in the “Full Color Football” documentary years ago, commenting on how the Chiefs ended his contract with the team following his AFL boycott.

“They wrote me a two-page letter, explaining to me how a football player’s role is not to help his people. All I’m supposed to do is play football and keep my mouth shut,” he said, adding that within three days, he was traded to the Broncos. “You’d be surprised how many [Black players from the boycott] were out of the game within a year or two. ...But I’m more concerned with being a good dad and my son isn’t hearing 30 years later how I chickened out and didn’t have no backbone. It was time for some men to stand up and be counted. I think that’s what we did.”

Now Simmons and his Broncos teammates and fellow players across the NFL are making sure they aren’t silent while others are standing up to be counted.

“We’re still in talks of what the protest will look like for us in Week 1. If we decide to take a knee, I hope the Broncos will have their players’ backs as wasn’t really the case when B-Marsh and D.T. were here in 2017,” he said. “I’m really hoping that we have full support because it was tough having conversations with D.T. and B-Marsh. It was tough to go out there on their own and be like no one really had their backs to speak up on those things.”

Three years later, many fans may be no less tolerant, but league owners recognized a groundswell within the ranks this spring and this time chose to get behind it.

Even if somewhat reluctantly, doing so after players created their own Zoom video, “What if I was George Floyd?”

Whether you like where the NFL is in this movement or not, it is moving forward, and players are the ones leading it.

Exactly like Haynes and his teammates did 55 years ago.

It’s about dignity

Talking with an 83-year-old Haynes this past week, it’s clear that his motivation had nothing to do with trying to be a civil rights icon among the pro football ranks.

It was even simpler - but possibly more profound - than that.

“The Hayneses were about dignity. That’s what I was seeing from my family, and what they were telling me to do for my kids,” said Haynes, who had been both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player for the AFL in 1960. “That experience in New Orleans wrecked me. They didn’t even have the decency to refer to me as a man. I had no problem moving on. It wasn’t anything new, but I had moved on.”

As one of two Black players at the University of North Texas, Haynes couldn’t live on campus, couldn’t eat in the school cafeteria, and was often subject to verbal abuse by opposing fans when traveling for away games. After a game at Oklahoma State, fans attacked the team bus, thinking Haynes was on it. But his position coach and former 49ers fullback Ken Bahnson, who had heard what was going to happen, loaded Haynes up in his car and drove him home.

“He would take care of me, make sure I was safe. It was a hell of an emotional thing. While I was having problems, I was developing friends,” Haynes said, noting that his teammates started bringing him food from the cafeteria, so he didn’t have to walk a half-hour home between two-a-day practices. “Vernon Cole, the quarterback, I never will forget him. He would sneak me out burgers. They would bring them to me on the side of building. I thought that was marvelous. My teammates started to help me out.”

Also, the abuse from opposing teams just got Haynes more ready to fight for yards on the field.

“They shot at me a couple of places, but that wouldn’t do nothin but fire me up,” he said, laughing. “They didn’t know that.”

Looking back on it, Haynes knows that it was the game of football that brought some understanding between Blacks and whites - even in a time of intense racial division in the country.

“Football is a funny thing. The key to it is you must come together and trust each other, depend on each other to throw your block, make your tackle,” he said. “I noticed a very important key at the time - me being good and me trusting in my white teammates who were supposed to make the block or make tackle. Me believing in them, they delivered, and that developed a relationship.”

A member of the All-AFL Team, Haynes has been paying attention to the current players leading another effort for racial justice in the country via their football platform.

And he could not be prouder.

“The show is not over. There is no reason to not address what’s going on and listen to these youngsters. They’ve been listening to us,” he said, noting that without the AFL players’ stand in 1965, pro football might have looked different for a while longer.

What he really likes about the current efforts are the planned actions by the entire team, making it easier for everyone to join the fight for justice.

“These guys are planning and they know what they’re doing. We had no idea what would happen, how people would react. It hadn’t happened before. It hadn’t been looked at. You had to have some backbone to stand up,” he said. “I’d get people who would try to discourage me, but I wouldn’t let them run it. I listened to the people who encouraged me. And that’s what I was taught at home.”

If there’s any question whether Haynes’ example was taken to heart, it has been answered emphatically by his son, King David Haynes.

“One of the things I always noticed - and I keep this with me - is that it’s not the story totally of the ‘evil neanderthal white people.’ There were always the forward thinkers,” he said, recalling the white teammates and coaches who gave Haynes a chance and didn’t follow societal norms at the time. “That’s still true today.”

Haynes the younger says the boycott is certainly a favorite story to hear from his dad, but it’s more about the collection of stories that all reflect his father’s character - character that showed through while he battled addiction to drugs and alcohol for several decades.

“I was a lot to handle when I was younger and he was one of the ones not afraid of me. I had a lot of people wash their hands of me, and I don’t know what would have happened,” says King David, who now has his own online counseling program for others suffering an addiction. “A lot of days when I needed a hand, he wasn’t afraid and gave me a hand.”

Not being afraid has been a way of life for Haynes, and he’s eager to see how current NFL players continue that kind of legacy.

“It wasn’t about me,” Haynes said. “It was always about those coming after me.”

As if Simmons were channeling some of Haynes’ energy, the Broncos safety echoed similar sentiments a few weeks ago.

“We know that it takes time. This is not something that—even if we put the greatest heads in America in support of trying to fight for equality—it’s not something that’s just going to happen overnight,” he said. “My biggest goal is to leave something behind that the next generation can pick up and continue to move forward with and we’re no longer taking steps backwards.

“I may not see the legitimate change, but hopefully my kids or my kids’ kids can say, ‘Man, I remember,’” Simmons said. “That’s something I look forward to that I hope happens down the road. Really seeing this change happen and that we don’t take steps back, and as generations go on, we take steps forward in terms of equality for all.”