Q&A: Byrd reflects on racism, protests

Former CBA, Syracuse star is now a personal trainer and author with three young kids
David Byrd Jr., left, and his son David Byrd III visit Manley Field House at Syracuse University.
David Byrd Jr., left, and his son David Byrd III visit Manley Field House at Syracuse University.

Categories: Sports

David Byrd Jr. can’t prove it, but also can’t help wondering, if his uncle Butch Byrd suffered some repercussions for having boycotted the 1965 AFL all-star game.

The country was in the midst of the civil rights movement — Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn’t be assassinated for another two years and four months — and Butch Byrd and many other AFL players, white and black, boycotted the all-star game in New Orleans, after players experienced racist practices there.

“He was a rookie. It’s been awhile since we spoke about it, but I do remember him saying taxis were impossible to get for black folks, even if you were part of the game,” David Byrd said on Friday afternoon. “He was scared. You really never know what could happen. They were told to make sure you’re not out past dark. ‘Sunset is at this time, you should be back in the hotel an hour before sunset.'”

The AFL moved the game to be played in Houston, and Butch Byrd, a defensive back, went on to have a distinguished career with the Buffalo Bills and still holds the team career record for interceptions (40).

The 42-year-old David Byrd Jr., who grew up in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood in Schenectady and starred in football and track at CBA — he held the state record in the 400 meters — realized a love of writing after his college and playing days were over at Syracuse University. He has produced blog posts, poetry and a self-published book, “When Fate and Dreams Conflict,” that sometimes address racism in the U.S.

Now a personal trainer who founded Fast Feet Fitness and is an assistant coach on John Audino’s staff at La Salle, Byrd has an 18-year-old son, David Byrd III, and “my two little princesses,” 12-year-old daughter, Nadia, and 3-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, who has “personally almost gotten me back in shape,” he said with a laugh, with her never-ending energy. David III, a defensive back who lives with his mother in Maryland, plans to play college football.

David Byrd Jr., who lives with his wife Melissa in Latham, has had “The Talk” with David III, twice, the more recent of which was a detailed game plan of what to do if his son is ever pulled over by the police while driving.

In a 2015 essay titled, “The Boycott Of A Buffalo Bill: Race Relations In Sports Then And Now,” Byrd wrote: “For professional athletes to willingly subject themselves to the scrutiny stemming from becoming involved in political debate or social injustice in such a politically correct 21st century is courageous.”

So I was interested to see if he wanted to expand on some of those thoughts. He did.

(Note: Drew Brees came back with a follow-up apology and reply on social media to President Donald Trump a few hours after our conversation. David emailed, “Drew’s response to the president was golden. Anti racist talk America needs!”)

Here’s our Q&A, which has been edited for clarity and brevity:

Q: Why did you write your book?

A: It was like a sort of venting, to get some stuff out of me and onto paper. Like, ‘Ooh, OK. I feel better now.’ The other piece of that was there’s so much going on, and the perception of an author is not what I thought it was growing up. My idea of an author was kind of a geeky white guy with glasses.

Growing up on Hamilton Hill in Schenectady, really all I could identify with — and everybody hears the cliche, inner city has sports and rapping — there was a certain piece of me that was developing when I was writing the book. I wanted to be an example. I looked at it as a personal challenge, but I also wanted kids to know — and this isn’t a black or white thing, it’s an inner-city community type deal.

It was a melting pot of everybody kind of surviving together. So I wanted to change the physical appearance of what some kid might think an author is. I’m that same guy who played football. I’m that same guy who walked down Craig Street, cutting across State Street from Chestnut Street, walking to Mont Pleasant High School. That’s where Pop Warner practice was. I walked back. I’m the same guy. If I can do it, they can do it.

Q: What is your oldest memory of having encountered racism?

A: I love CBA. I was a freshman. It was football camp, summer days, August, double days … it was rough. There was a varsity locker room, the modified kids and JV kids were not supposed to go in there, the modified kids weren’t supposed to go in the JV room, all types of dumb stuff.

I was cutting through the varsity locker room. Our encounter in the doorway was full of racial … stuff. It was back in the day when we had those high-top fades, and he started talking about how my hair was a great lint collector, and N-words left and right, pointing at me, hitting me in the chest with his finger.

I think I was more surprised with the person [a co-captain] who was doing it than what was actually happening. I continued on, I didn’t do an about-face. I walked my ass right through the door and into the weight room or wherever I was going, and that was that. It didn’t get physical. I stood up to him. I didn’t get scared. I was just so caught off guard by this guy who I kind of looked up to.

Q: Since then?

A: There’s been times when I’ve left certain interactions where I’m like, “Wellll, that was kind of funky right there.” But I can honestly say, overtly, in your face, I can’t remember a time when it’s really, really been like that. I might’ve left a store and been like, “I don’t know, did this …? Nahhh, I’m not going to go back and ask him, make it some kind of negative verbal altercation. I came around this way, and you’re there, and then I walked back the other way, to the other end of the store, and you’re still there.”

Q: Between Drew Brees and Vic Fangio, it was a busy week of apologizing in the NFL. How much do their initial comments — from, by all accounts, otherwise socially-minded people — reflect a lack of awareness or empathy for the plight of black people in the U.S.?

A: I’ve been teaching my son for a long time that sports are a microcosm of society. I say it around the guys at La Salle. I say it as much as I can. I don’t know these guys. It’s difficult for me to believe that Brees is a racist. Is he a little bit lost? Yeah. Does he not quite get it? Yeah. Is he all about his family and his great ganddads? Yeah. I can respect that.

However, what I think is necessary is anti-racism. We need guys like Drew to be anti-racist. Obviously, he’s not a racist and he was a little disconnected with his comment. But just sitting back and not doing anything because something isn’t affecting you, personally, in your every day life, in my opinion, is an injustice. Especially when you have a certain platform, when you have the attention of people that might not listen to people of color.

Q: Colin Kaepernick has been clear about why he was taking a knee. What does it say about the state of race relations that so many people choose to interpret it by their own definition instead of listening to his message?

A: It’s disappointing. And in my mind, things haven’t truly advanced from what we were talking about with my uncle. History is repeating itself in a lot of ways. People are choosing to ignore what they’re being told is the purpose behind something just because if you say it’s not about the flag, the first thing out of their mouth is “You’re kneeling during the anthem, which makes it about the flag.”

Then in the middle of the third quarter, in between TV timeouts, if I take a knee, you don’t know if I’m tired or protesting. You do it when all eyes are there. Now, I don’t know what good kneeling is going to continue to do. Because it was originally done to bring awareness to the problem, social injustice, police brutality, racism. So I think there’s awareness. I don’t know how anyone can be more aware of what’s going on.

Now, what are we going to do to fix it? It can’t be white against black. That’s division. It can’t be Republican against Democrat. That’s division. It can’t be Christians against Muslims. That’s division. Anytime there’s division, you can’t work on social issues. In this specific situation, you’ve got to have racists against non-racist, in every context, in every facet of society. I’m talking about the workplace, I’m talking about the locker room, I’m talking about the family. At the cookout. If your great uncle throws a racially charged joke out there, everybody’s laughing. You be the one that checks your racist uncle. Check his ass. Say something about it.

But the division has got to stop. And it has to be narrowed down. You can’t get into all these details. The looters and rioters are white and black. However, they’re not the protesters. They’re two completely different things. It’s not even close.

Q: What was going through your head when you saw the George Floyd video?

A: I can’t watch the video. I’ve seen the stills, the stuff on the news. I’ve never watched the whole thing. I can’t do it. Like, Ahmaud Arbery, they both hit home to me, but taking things a step further.

When Ahmaud Arbery, he’s out running, that hit home to me, because I run. What happens if I come against the wrong racist on the wrong friggin’ day, and he’s in one of his moods trying to show off for his cousin? That really sticks with me.

Q: What do you tell your kids about racism and what to do if they encounter the police?

A: When Trayvon Martin happened, David was 10, and a lot smaller in stature, so at that time, he had a lot of questions, and I told him, “David, one day, you’re going to be a threat. Just because of your skin color, because of your height, because of your build — you’re a little guy now — but one day, you’re going to grow up and be a perceived threat as you walk in the room. As soon as you get out of the car. That’s just the reality.”

So now you fast-forward to the present day, and the conversation has changed. “David. Now you are that threat. You are no longer that little kid who has to grow up and learn. You are there now.” Taller than me, big hands, long arms. So I talk to him about understanding that you can’t go against the establishment and expect to win.

What I mean by that is if you feel like you’re pulled over unlawfully, and you feel like you’re done unjustly in that traffic stop, this is not the time to go to war with that cop then and there. You do what you have to do to get out of the situation, you come back and tell me, and then we figure it out from there. But you’ve got to understand how to handle yourself.

So we go through the whole deal when he was starting to drive. “OK, son, you’re going to get pulled over. So this is the drill, when you get pulled over. I don’t care, it doesn’t matter if it’s 30-below outside. You roll all your windows down. Every single window that goes down, goes down. You have the vehicle in park, the music is off, make sure you have all your documents ready to go. You find peace of mind knowing everything is legit. Hands on the steering wheel. If your wallet’s in your pocket, say, ‘Hey, my wallet’s in my pocket. I’m going to reach for my wallet to get my license out of there.’ Err on the side of caution.” And he’s driving now and he tells me, “Dad, I ride by the police and get so nervous. My hands get a little shaky.” And I say, “Son. I know what you’re saying. But relax. Everything is up to date and legal. Find peace of mind in that.”

My message now is drilling home that he is at that point in time when he is considered a threat, a risk, of people not being quite sure how to interact with him.

Q: Can the activism we’re seeing now make a difference? There have been protests before, but has anything fundamentally changed? Can it?

A: It ain’t changing in my lifetime. Again, I’m like Marshawn Lynch, I’m about action. What are we going to do here? There’s plenty of awareness. I made reference earlier to it being racists versus non-racists. That’s what it has to be.

In a sports context, it’s going to take a lot for everything to change, from the top on down, from the owners down to the players. It’s got to be non-racist owners who are standing up for the rights of humanity. And doing the right thing behind closed  doors, where 20 owners don’t want to give Kaep a job, and the other 11 or 12 say Kaep needs a job but we just don’t need a quarterback.

By the same dynamic with law enforcement, there has to be non-racists against racists.

The question I get now is would I have stood or kneeled? And that’s a tough question. Coming from Hamilton Hill, and getting to that point, that I identified as a third-grader, I’m in the NFL, paying mom’s mortgage or my money is here or there, if I take a knee am I going to get cut? I saw what happened to Kaep. It is the right thing to do, I need to do my piece to bring awareness. But, man, if I got cut, I don’t know how I’m going to support my family. So guys who are in that boat, why not sponsor a kid to go to the police academy? Pay for that guy to go to college who’s going to go in there and not become one of the good old boys and go with the flow.

There’s no question, there’s a bunch of good cops out there, but they’re not there when police brutality and these type of injustices happen.

All the protesting, the marches, it’s cool, and I understand, you’ve got to keep on drilling, to make people aware. However, people have been marching since Selma. At some point there has got to be action.

Reach Mike MacAdam at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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