SEATTLE – The ball was in Kenny Stills’ hands, and then it wasn’t.
The ball was in Stills’ hands and he had a clear path to the end zone and there wasn’t a defender within five yards and he was going to remember the moment forever.
It was going to be a culmination of all of Stills’ offseason work, on and off the field. Stills had arrived as a trusted Ryan Tannehill target, more than just a deep threat, yes, but there’s nothing wrong with a 71-yard touchdown at Seattle.
And then the ball wasn’t. The ball bounced away from Stills and the moment slipped away, too. The ball fell to the turf and Tannehill dropped his head and teammates on the sideline grimaced.
It was only the second quarter, but it was clear this was a critical moment.
“No excuses. Just a drop,” Stills said afterwards, voice cracking at times, emotions still raw. “It was a good ball. I just dropped it.”
When the play was over, Stills raised an arm as if to say, “My bad.” And it was. By all accounts.
It would seem this moment would be the most difficult to speak about with media in a locker room after a defeat. Stills had dropped a clear touchdown in a game in which Miami should have pulled the league’s greatest Week 1 upset.
Yet, it wasn’t the most difficult moment to speak about at all.
It wasn’t even the first thing Stills was asked about.
No, what Stills was asked about was dropping to one knee, and covering his heart, during America’s national anthem, on 9-11, a few feet removed from servicemen and police officers holding up a 100-yard American flag.
Stills kneeled alongside teammates Arian Foster, Michael Thomas and Jelani Jenkins. But in the postgame, he deferred a specific explanation of the protest to Foster, who led a Dolphins discussion in the days before the game.
“We talked as a team,” Stills said. “And a couple of individuals on the team felt like because of what’s going on in this country, we wanted to make a statement by taking a knee and putting our hands over our chest.”
What specifically are you upset about in this country?
Stills paused. He paused some more. He sighed.
“We have made our decision,” Stills said. “And we stand by how we feel. And, um, really the person you should speak to about it is Arian. He is the most clean-spoken and can send the message that we’re looking to send.”
In the moments after Stills’ drop, I tweeted, “I wonder if Kenny Stills’ long TD drop was at all related to distraction and anxiety of pregame anthem protest participation.”
No, this was not sarcasm, as some wondered.
No, this was not parody, as some ascertained.
I sincerely wondered, as I would say in a clarifying tweet, “My point was pass drops are mental and I wonder if there was a lot on Stills’ mind. It’s fine if you think no way.”
After the game, Stills was asked if there was any chance that the events of the pregame affected him on the field.
Predictably, Stills said, “No, we knew it was a big deal. But the game is the game.”
Foster had told his teammates to do what they felt was best, then to focus on the game once it began. Perhaps easier said than done.
After I sent those tweets, a mini fire-storm ensued. More than 400 people liked the initial tweet, more than 240 re-tweeted the tweet and what seemed like hundreds of people either accused me of being racist, a moron, or for suggesting I was implying that bad things would happen to black players who protested (no, not at all my point.)
My point was as stated. I wondered – without making any judgement at all as to the right of those players to make a personal statement – if it may have affected Stills’ focus, mindset or emotions in the game.
So, the Dolphins lost a game. And Stills dropped a pass.
I understand and believe, too, that social injustices should be addressed and that prominent figures driving conversations about those injustices are integral for our society. And that those conversations and actions of correction are far more important than the result of any play or any game.
In the wake of 9-11, it was said that Americans came together. It was also said that Americans were literally brought together at sporting events such as the World Series.
On this 15th anniversary of 9-11, the decision of some NFL athletes to sit or kneel during American national anthems has been remarkably polarizing. When I asked Stills what he was thinking about while he was kneeling during the national anthem, he said he was praying.
I’m praying, too.
I’m praying that the actions of these players create not further divisiveness on teams, in cities and in our country. But that they do what they are intended to do – draw attention to incidents and circumstances in our country that can be better.