While the New England Patriots were playing the New York Jets on Sunday, an airplane flew over Gillette Stadium with a banner saluting ex-Pat Vince Wilfork as “Irreplaceable.”
Meanwhile the 330-pound (we’re being polite here) nose tackle was not having much impact for his new team, the Houston Texans. They were getting trounced by the Miami Dolphins, and Wilfork would finish the game with nothing but zeroes on the stat sheet. No tackles, no sacks, no QB hits, no takeaways.
Perhaps at age 33 he no longer can effectively carry that sort of weight.
Or perhaps he had other things weighing him down.
Corey Jones, 31, a close friend from his childhood in South Florida, was recently shot dead by a policeman. “He was like family,” Wilfork said. So the player took advantage of NFL scheduling to huddle with the Jones family and say a few things about an annoyingly recurring coincidence in America: young black men being shot by police who aren’t being fired upon.
When African-Americans become famous athletes, they’re often criticized for speaking out on civil rights issues.
Or for not saying enough.
Muhammad Ali and Carl Lewis were at times reviled for being too outspoken about injustice. At the other extreme, Michael Jordan was accused of arrogance and conceit for splurging with his billions while not saying much in behalf of those who have not received so much justice.
Yo, Mike, lip service ain’t that expensive.
He did not want to say anything that might offend Nike. Asked why he didn’t speak out for the rights of African-Americans, Jordan once said, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
Wilfork, by contrast, says pro football has given him “a platform” and he’s going to use it to try to improve society. He’s a person who tends to be listened to, being that Wilfork is so massive he could not be easily forklifted.
Jones, a pastor’s son and a drummer in a reggae band, was driving home from a concert when his SUV broke down. He sat with his vehicle on the side of the road, awaiting arrival of a tow truck.
Instead, according to the Palm Beach Gardens Police Dept., he was met by officer Nouman Raja, who pulled off I-95 to inspect a broken-down car at 3 in the morning and ended up shooting — three times — an “armed subject.”
A gun was found near the body of Jones, but his family and their lawyer contend it had not been recently fired. Police records showed it had been legally purchased just three days before.
Raja, 38, was a plainclothes cop driving an unmarked van. There was no dashboard or body cam to show exactly what happened.
By plainclothes, I mean this plain: ball-cap, jeans, T-shirt. He was doing undercover work on drug deals. You see someone dressed like that on a highway at 3 a.m., and you’re supposed to trust him and do what he says? Attorney Benjamin Crump, working for the Jones family, said, “He went to his grave not knowing he’d been shot by a cop.”
Jones had a license to carry a gun. Being a Texan, cherishing gun freedom above all other constitutional rights, I was surprised to hear you needed a license. But anyway, Jones had one, so he could protect himself and his expensive musical equipment.
“We’re working hard to figure things out,” Wilfork posted on his team’s website. “We’re going to continue to get justice. . . . We’re dealing with somebody that was shot dead. We have to figure it out as a society.”
Later speaking to reporters: “We’ve seen a lot of this going on in society, but when it affects you personally . . . it’s important for me to stand up and talk about this issue.”
Some of the St. Louis Rams about a year ago walked out onto the football field with arms raised to acknowledge the tragic shooting and rioting at nearby Ferguson, Mo. The Rams’ coach, Jeff Fisher, expressed support for them making the controversial gesture.
Now, far away in Palm Beach Garden, another such incident. To be investigated and, most probably, whitewashed.
But speaking as someone with none of his white skin actually in this game, I cheer for Wilfork demanding accountability for what happened to his friend.
“I tell my kids to treat everyone with respect,” Wilfork said. “No matter if you’re wrong or right, and especially when you’re dealing with law enforcement. But stories that you hear, you never can get the true answer, and that’s what we search for.”
Being a celebrity, especially one who’s well financed, he will have influence. Perhaps he could start an organization, Citizens Against Police Violence or such.
There are times, though rare, when sport intersects with real life, when athletes can shape history. Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Arthur Ashe, Hank Aaron did and said things outside the sports arena that made a difference in the real world.
Vince Wilfork has made his mark as a Pro Bowl player with Super Bowl rings. It’s not surprising he is missed in New England, where he clogged up the middle of the line and kept running backs from breaking through. But now he’s getting into something truly big, bigger even than he is.
This country has a problem: a police force that’s underpaid, undereducated, undertrained, and overly inclined to act like soldiers charging into battle, guns blazing, instead of being calm, careful peacekeepers protecting the citizens from violence. Perhaps it takes someone as big and difficult to ignore as Vince Wilfork to get our attention.
Click here for Kate Jacobson’s article on Corey Jones in the Palm Beach Sun Sentinel.