(WIVB)–This was about a month ago, shortly after the nation first witnessed the shocking video of a young black man named Ahmaud Arbery being hunted down and shot to death while jogging in Georgia.
Lorenzo Alexander, the recently retired Buffalo Bill, was at home in Paradise Valley, Arizona. His 9-year-old son, Mason, was out riding his bike around the neighborhood. As boys that age will do, Mason decided to push the boundaries a bit.
“He was gone a lot longer than usual,” Alexander said. “Instead of thinking, ‘Ah, he’s just out riding, my mind went to the worst place possible. Did somebody see him and think he didn’t belong in this neighborhood?
“I jumped in my truck to go check on him. He was just playing in a construction site.”
Imagine that. Alexander had seen the images of Arbrey walking into a construction site before his death. He was not thinking of the fact that Paradise Valley is the most affluent community in the state of Arizona. He was thinking of what can happen to young males simply because they happen to be black.
“Obviously, nothing happened,” Alexander said Tuesday by phone. “But that’s the mind frame of a lot of black parents when you don’t have your eyes on your kids. Understanding the world we live in, it can be fearful at times, especially when things spike. It’s just crazy.”
Yes, it’s a crazy, fearful time in America, and Alexander was near tears telling the story. Emotions are on edge nowadays, in the continuing chaotic aftermath of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman in Minneapolis a week ago Monday.
Alexander, who played his last NFL game on Jan. 4, has been sorting through his emotions, wondering what to make of it all. He has a diverse group of friends. His best friend with the Bills was a white man, Kyle Williams. He has known many decent policemen while working in the inner-city communities of Buffalo, Oakland and Washington, D.C.
But as a black man and a father of four, he has been rocked by the recent killings and the violence that has consumed our cities over the past few days. Alexander, the Bills’ nominee for the league’s Walter Payton Man Of the Year award the last three years, was a constant presence in the community. He was one of the most beloved Bills, and his voice mattered.
In retirement, ‘Zo’s voice still resonates. He remains the vocal vice president of the NFL Players Association, which recently signed a new 10-year contract with the league. Three years ago, during the furor over Colin Kaepernick’s protest, he said it was important for athletes to use their voices. That hasn’t changed.
“It’s saddening in a lot of different ways to see how still divided our country is, or appears to be,” Alexander said. “It’s hard to get a good bead on it, right? We see everything that happens on TV and you see people rioting, but you don’t really know where people really stand. It’s so chaotic and it’s saddening to see.
“What happened to George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and so many other countless people that have died because they were black is very discouraging. I know racism is there, but it’s hard to even understand it because it doesn’t impact me every single day. I have white friends, black friends, latino friends. I have cops. I never got a sense of any type of hate from them.
“Have I experienced it? Yes. I realize it’s there. At this stage of my life, I’m more fearful for my sons than myself, because I’ve learned how to navigate through it for the most part.”
He knows what it’s like to be a large black man and have a woman clutch her purse when you pass her on the street, or cross to the other side. He knows how it feels to be watched closely in a grocery store, or the suspicious attitudes of clerks when you’re interested in making an especially big purchase.
But Alexander also knows what it’s like to succeed in the white culture, and to help young males make their way without giving in to anger and misbehavior. You don’t become a three-time Payton nominee without making an enormous impact in the communities where so much of the chaos occurs.
Alexander’s ACES Foundation has been working in cities for years. ACES stands for Accountability, Community, Education and Sports. Its mission statement: “Every youth will be inspired to obtain a higher education, pursue a career, maintain a strong family unit, and give back to the community.”
It stings to see what has happened throughout the country the last several nights, as many of those inner-cities communities were torn apart by demonstrations that turned to violence. Like many Americans, Alexander was confused. Who protested peaceably? Who ignited the violence?
Alexander said it’s hard to know what to say right now. Social media can be a valuable resource, but when everyone has to comment it becomes difficult to sort through the noise. He tweeted out a message that said “It’s going to take all of us” over a one-minute Nike ad that urged people “Don’t turn your back on racism.”
He posted a video of an impassioned eight-minute speech by the rapper Killer Mike, the son of an Atlanta police offer who pleaded with citizens “not to burn your house down with anger” despite what he called the assassination of George Floyd. He urged young blacks to “plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize.”
“Leadership,” was Alexander’s one-word message on the Killer Mike video. Planning and organizing are what come easiest for ‘Zo, who was an admired leader and spokesman during his four years with the Bills, a man Sean McDermott leaned on heavily to help establish a strong internal bond in his locker room.
Alexander was one of the Bills who knelt in support of Colin Kaepernick early in the 2017 season, after President Trump referred to players kneeling during the anthem as “sons of bitches.” The issue of police brutality was twisted into a debate on dishonoring the military and the flag. Alexander was no radical. He only knelt that once. But the SOB comment, a transparent racial trope, hit home.
“I knew what he was talking about,” Alexander said of the President. “I think most black people understood what he was saying and have understood who he is. The worst things get, the worse you see the lack of leadership that he has. I mean, that’s very apparent.”
For Alexander, leadership means continuing to go into communities and help young people rise above racism, through education and humanity. Martin Luther King said a riot is “the language of the unheard.” So listen, and help change the culture.
“You want to make sure the next generation isn’t so callous and angry,” he said. You don’t want to lead with fear and anger, and this world can make you become that. Sometimes, you’re so frustrated it reinforces what they already think so it pushes them away. When you’re frustrated, you riot.
“My job is trying to help young men mature and at least process their emotions to where they’re patient and go through that process, so when they make a decision, it’s thought-through and wise. Put yourself in a position where you can change things from the inside-out, or build relationships that don’t allow somebody else’s fear or hatred become yours.”
That sounds like a man who worked hard for 15 years to make it in the NFL establishment and only became a star in his 30s. Alexander talks a lot about the process, which is McDermott’s pet word.
“It’s going to be a continual fight until it’s completely eradicated, which is a long process,” he said of racism. “So people need to be patient during this time and stay energized and motivated. Everybody doesn’t have to be Martin Luther King. I think you need to find your role within the movement.”
Get involved, he says. Make an impact in education, or the legal system. It takes more than posting on social media. Find a skill that can make a difference in the community. And of course, vote.
Alexander, who turned 37 on Sunday, said he’ll continue to use his voice and his foundation to make a difference in a turbulent time, while raising his four kids — two sons and two daughters. The eldest, Zoie, sang the national anthem as a surprise for her dad before the Bills’ home finale last season.
“I realize that I’m trying to raise people who will hopefully go to college, be successful, own businesses and do whatever they decide they want to do in life and be great. But if I don’t address the other side, I’m only doing half of the job.”
The other side, of course, is giving the talk that all black parents dread, even in 2020. Be careful or you could wind up being the young black kid who winds up dead on the ground. He’s already had the talk with Mason.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.