Duckler: When taking a knee means you’re standing up tall

  • Samuel Alicea of the Merrimack Valley High School football team has taken a knee during three games this season as a peaceful protest against the treatment of African-Americans nationwide. Alicea agreed to be photographed after practice last week. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/1/2016 11:49:25 PM

Samuel Alicea was unsure if he’d do it, right up until the time his right knee hit the grass.
The Merrimack Valley High School junior, a reserve on the football team, knew negativity might spread through the crowd like the wave if he followed Colin Kaepernicks’s lead, especially in the Concord village of Penacook, a mostly white community.

He knew taking a knee before the school’s Homecoming Game last month, during the national anthem, could make him an outcast. And he knew the ramifications of his actions wouldn’t simply disappear like fans emptying the bleachers after a game.

“Nervous, definitely nervous,” Alicea told me last week. “It was more than me trying to be like the NFL players, much more than that. I felt the night before that I always wanted to make a change, I feel that I don’t do enough to make a change, and I think there are inadequacies in the country that need attention drawn to them, so I decided the best way to protest would be peacefully.”

Standing up for what you believe often is not a peaceful procedure. Or at least it’s rarely smooth, and it rarely goes unnoticed. Add race to the mix, and a recipe for dynamite is never far away.

Alicea didn’t care. He knelt during the national anthem at MV’s first home game, on Sept. 16, a festive Friday night with an estimated 2,000 people in attendance at the school’s impressive sports complex.

Alicea knelt again before each of the last two road games, including Saturday’s matchup in Plymouth. But it was his protest on his home field, the first one, in front of lots of people he knew, that caused the biggest stir.

Reports differed on how agitated the crowd became, but we’ll deal with that later. Folks had plenty to say on social media, good and bad.

The player in the middle of this is a receiver and a key component on kickoffs. He’s lean at 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, and is a sharp dresser, fitted in a red sweater vest and khakis when I met with him last week at his grandmother’s home in Boscawen.

He’s handsome, and in fact has done modeling for Reebok. Also look for him on the box of a game called Battleship, which Alicea posed for five years ago at Hasbro headquarters in Rhode Island.

Alicea volunteers at the Friendly Kitchen – for altruistic reasons, not school credit – and worked as a page at the State House as well.

There is no school or state athletic policy dictating that high school athletes must stand for the anthem, and the MV coaches and administrators I called expressed full support for Alicea’s right to do what he did.

“Sam’s a very respectful young man,” MV football Coach Jim Coll said. “If he feels this is the right thing to do, then we have to respect his right.”

Following a role model

He took the idea from Kaepernick’s playbook. The backup quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers knelt on Sept. 1, before a pre-season game against the San Diego Chargers. African Americans cheered, fed up with videos of unarmed black men being shot, mostly by white cops.

Veterans, though, jeered, insulted that an American had had the audacity to disrespect the flag, while they and their brothers had fought to make this country free. Some of those military people had even died on beaches or mountainous regions thousands of miles away.

Kneel during the anthem? Not in our house, they said. Not in our country, either.

To Alicea, though, that hardly mattered, because as he saw it, his view, bringing attention to equality under the law, had nothing to do with the other, which concerns honoring those killed in battle.

Alicea firmly believes African-Americans and other minorities suffer from inequality, in jobs, in education, in life. The police shootings over the past few years have simply served as the catalyst for something that Alicea insists is not a knee-jerk reaction on his part.

“Racism has been all around throughout humanity,” Alicea said. “I would assume even in caveman times. They say that we’ve improved since the ’80s and the ’70s and the ’60s. It got better, but it’s starting to get worse. The only difference is we have smart phones now to record.”

How did he get here?

What pushes a 16-year-old kid to kneel at three consecutive games, while classmates worry about dating and popularity and video games?

View it through the African -American prism, in this case the one created by Alicea’s mother, Stephanie Alicea, and grandmother, Caroletta Alicea. They’re an educated family, a longtime Penacook family, full of college degrees and participation in state government and volunteer work.

Start with Caroletta, whose words belied her soft-spoken nature. She graduated from Emerson College, does residential placement for people with developmental disabilities and is nearing the end of her second term as a state house representative.

Caroletta says she marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C. To her, the injustice she felt through the decades was palpable. She felt the sting of racism after moving here, following her high school graduation in 1969.

“My children went through school here and I saw horrible and sad things happen to them,” Caroletta said. “And now I’m afraid someone is going to kill my grandson.”

Caroletta and Stephanie, who graduated from Merrimack Valley High in 1992, spoke about mistreatment in the school district, condescending behavior by teachers and rough treatment by classmates.

Stephanie remained proud, one year using a crayon to darken the pasty white Alice in Wonderland mask she had to wear for a school play. The sun would later melt the color, streams of crayon sliding down her mask, but Stephanie’s resolve could not be touched.

“My mom has gone through two generations of having trouble after trouble,” said Stephanie, an instructor at the Merrimack Valley Diversion Center who earned her master’s degree from New England College. “Samuel has heard what’s happened. I send my resume in, it looks fabulous on paper, and when I walk in that door, the look on people’s faces says it all.”

As for Samuel, he said he was bullied on the school bus, elbowed in the ribs, talked down to by teachers, accused of stealing when Pokémon cards disappeared, and accused of plagiarism when his writing was judged to be too good. He switched schools, moving from Boscawen Elementary, to St. John’s and back to Boscawen Elementary, before sticking with the district’s middle and high schools.

“There’s only so much you can do for a child,” Stephanie said. “You want to make sure they are safe, happy and learning in the right environment. Not to say school will be perfect all the time, but if a pattern of behavior from educators persists, that’s where I start to get a little concerned.”

A boy becomes a young man

Meanwhile, Samuel, an only child whose father played little part in his upbringing, spent a lot of time by himself, watching the news, reading, thinking.

“I found myself alone a lot, but that also gave me plenty of time to think,” Alicea said. “So being by myself and thinking that much, you come to conclusions.”

Kaepernick, who had once led his team to the Super Bowl, reached a conclusion, too. He took a knee before a game on Sept. 1. The nation noticed, and soon other big-league athletes, amid harsh criticism from war veterans and others, were doing the same.

Alicea’s stance came 15 days later, before the team’s first home game. He told some players, friends and an assistant coach who worked at the school beforehand, and word spread, preparing fans for a scene that was not overt.

Alicea expected a big crowd, but not the estimated 2,000-plus he said attended. But, he added, numbers didn’t matter. What was being said, without uttering a word, was what counted.

I asked Alicea if he believed bigotry was behind the recent police shootings of African-American men.

“I do,” he said.

I wasn’t at Homecoming, and gauging the level of agitation in the crowd that Friday night two weeks ago proved difficult. It’s also impossible to decipher which comments grew from anger over disrespect for the flag, and which connected to the color of Alicea’s skin.

Alicea said he heard stuff like, “Get off the field number 5,” and “You shouldn’t even be in there.”

Caroletta swears she heard nasty stuff, writing to the school administration, “He was booed, called names throughout the game regarding his character.”

Head Coach Coll, Superintendent Mark MacLean and Principal Dave Miller, while fully supporting Alicea’s right to kneel, were told of comments hurled from the bleachers, but said they heard none themselves.

“In the school district there are a lot of families who have members in the military or who have served in the military already,” Miller said. “I think it’s reasonable to assume there were probably a lot of people who were offended by that.”

One was Joshua Nixon, a 1992 Merrimack Valley grad. He’s the assistant fire chief at the Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass., and he served in the Air Force for eight years.

He wasn’t at Homecoming, but his two children were, one of whom, his daughter, alerted him about what had happened that night. Nixon wrote a lengthy letter to MacLean and Miller, telling them, “I would like to express my extreme disappointment towards that player and also inquire if there is any policy in place to deal with an act of this nature, and if not, if there is a plan going forward.”

And for those who suspect Nixon’s response was laced with racism, consider: he adopted a son, who happens to be African-American/native Alaskan.

“I took what (Alicea) did to heart,” Nixon told me by phone. “To me, the flag and the national anthem represent men and women of our military over generations who have fought and died to preserve the freedoms we enjoy, and I believe those who decide to kneel during the anthem are disrespecting those people.”

And what about the team?

Tapping into the pulse of a team with more than 50 players is impossible without conducting a formal poll. From what I was told, most players had no problem with Alicea.

“He can represent the way he feels any way he wants,” said Cameron Tillman, a junior on the team.

But Michael Smith, a senior lineman, said, “It’s his right, but in a way I thought it was disrespectful. I understand what he is trying to say, that black lives matter, but the flag means so many other things, people fighting overseas, things like that.”

Miller gave me the sense that the school’s hallways weren’t buzzing after Alicea’s protest, telling me, “I gained the sense that the student body is indifferent to the situation, to be honest with you.”

Not so on social media, where I found some F-bombs and the word “faggot” to describe Alicea after that first home game. The N-word was not used.

I also found irony: men and women fighting for our right to protest, then criticizing those who exercise that right.

“If you can’t show them respect I guess you don’t love this country enough and you should leave,” read one post.

Read another, written by an Air Force veteran, “When I heard that you took a knee, I said, ‘That’s what I fought for.’ ”

No easy answers here. Two different sides. Two strong points.

I saw that on Saturday, during Plymouth Regional High’s Homecoming Game. Before the anthem, the public address announcer asked for a moment of silence to honor four Plymouth grads who had died in war.

Alicea stood with the rest of the team, his head slightly bowed. Then came the anthem, and Alicea took a knee, surrounded by teammates, unnoticed by Plymouth fans, untouched by MV voices.

The jerseys of the honored players – Nos. 32, 40, 65 and 87 – flapped in the wind behind Alicea, attached to the press box, high in the air, just 20 feet away.

The whistle blew for the start of another game.

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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