"I Can't Breathe!"

Former Florida Gators and NFL lineman Lomas Brown

“I can’t breathe!” gasped George Perry Floyd Jr. as he lay face down on a Minneapolis street on May 25. He was handcuffed and unable to resist arrest or fight to save his life as police officer Derek Chauvin applied pressure with his knee to Floyd’s windpipe while three fellow officers watched and refused to lend a hand that could have saved the life of a 46-year-old African-American man.

Lomas Brown has seen the video. He has heard the words. Forgive him if he hears more than just one voice begging for mercy but instead hears 400 years of African-American voices crying out for help while onlookers refuse to help. Forgive him if he shakes his head when he sees the statistics that show only 10 unarmed African-American men were killed by police in the United States last year.

“Think 400 years,” Lomas says, pain so abundant in the tone of his voice.

He is a giant of a man with a smile that can light up a room and a voice that can sound like the one Moses heard on Mount Sinai when he was told to remove his sandals because he was standing on Holy Ground. Only his voice softens when he speaks about George Perry Floyd Jr. and the aftermath of his death that has resulted in protests that have turned violent while striking fear that America is going to burn down in the hot summer months ahead.

“This is not about just one year when 10 black men were killed by police officers. It’s not just about one man getting murdered in Minneapolis. It’s generation after generation after generation where this kind of thing has happened. People are angry. People are frustrated. They want their voices to be heard.”

George Floyd’s voice was certainly heard by the three fellow officers yet no one really listened. If they had, it stands to reason they would have done the right thing.

But they stood and watched. They did nothing. One more African-American man died.

The video of Floyd’s death went viral. Shocked, angry people took to the streets. Minneapolis was just one of many major American cities where angry protestors took out their frustrations by turning entire communities into war zones. Two weeks later, the protests still go on.

America burned and more burning and looting is possible in the future. Are you paying more attention to the burning and the looting or are you listening carefully to what is being said?

Lomas Brown condemns the violence and the looting but he wonders out loud if anyone is bothering to get to the heart of the matter. The burning and looting is only a symptom. The problems go deeper. Much, much deeper.

“I don’t agree with looting and burning down communities where people live and work – that’s not the right way to get it done and the cost of rebuilding homes, businesses and lives is just too great – but this kind of thing has gone on for so long,” he says.

“How long do you have to cry out and say, ‘Listen to us!’ before anyone actually listens? How long before we sit down and actually start talking to each other? There are some serious issues that nobody really wants to talk about but if we don’t sit down to start talking and we don’t listen and then start doing something about it, the future is going to be scary. It’s time to listen. It’s time to start understanding each other. If we don’t start talking and listening, then we’re in trouble. This can’t keep going on.”

Before proceeding, please understand this. Lomas Brown loves the United States of America. He appreciates that his athletic skills have taken him from inner city Miami to a college degree and an All-America football career at the University of Florida, He appreciates that the lessons learned at UF under Charley Pell prepared him not only for a brilliant 18-year career in the National Football League where he made All-Pro and earned a Super Bowl ring but to become an exemplary husband and father.

Lomas Brown during his time at Detroit

Lomas Brown is the first one to tell you that he’s been blessed to live in a country that offers opportunities like this but he is also quick to tell you that the United States isn’t perfect and needs to have some serious conversations about race.

“We’re past the time when we need to be talking,” Lomas says. “We have to start now.”

* * *

The death of George Floyd was like pouring salt into open wounds for Lomas Brown. He is reminded of 1980 when four Miami police officers were acquitted in the death of African-American insurance agent Arthur McDuffie, a former Marine. The officers were charged with manslaughter and there seems to be ample credible evidence that evidence was tampered with, yet a jury gave the four a pass.

Liberty City and Overtown burned when the verdict was read. Three years later there were similar riots on those same streets when another Miami police officer shot and killed 20-year-old Nevell Johnson Jr.

Then, as now with the case of George Floyd, it wasn’t just a single death that was the can of gasoline tossed on smoldering coals of resentment and injustice. In each case, one death was simply the latest in a long list of grievances and injustices that date back to the days of slavery. We keep waiting for things to change. With each generation comes the promise that change is coming, but does anything really ever change?

“This isn’t so much about one man being killed,” Brown said, referring to the death of George Perry Floyd Jr. “It’s that he’s one more man. We ask when does it stop? When does the knee come off the neck? When do we get to breathe? When do people take the time to listen? When do people begin to understand that there are people who are grieving and it didn’t start yesterday. It’s been going on long before any of us alive today were born.”

Long before Lomas Brown was born, his dad was growing up in North Florida. Like most southern states, Florida had Jim Crow laws designed to keep blacks and whites separated but it wasn’t until July 2, 1964 that the Civil Rights Act was signed that guaranteed equal rights in all 50 states of the union. It was the memory of what it was like in those days in North Florida that kept Lomas Brown’s dad from co-signing scholarship papers when he elected to attend and play football at the University of Florida

“If you were to check my scholarship papers there is one signature missing,” Lomas recalls. “My mom signed. My dad refused. He was born and raised in Tallahassee when racism was all he knew. It wasn’t just Tallahassee but it was all over North Florida, all over the south and probably pretty much all over America. His experiences growing up weren’t good experiences and he didn’t want me to have to go through the same things he went through. He wanted me to stay here in Miami, close to home. It wasn’t perfect here, by no means, but he knew Miami and thought I would get a fair break here that I wouldn’t get in Gainesville.”

He might have stayed in Miami to play for Howard Schnellenberger if not for Charley Pell, the second influential white man in his life. The first was Frank Battaglia, a driver’s education teacher and the JV basketball coach at Miami Springs High School.

“He (Battaglia) saw something in me that maybe nobody else did,” Lomas recalls. “He took me under his wing and introduced me to a world I didn’t know existed. Where I was from it was all soul food. For us, we couldn’t afford to go out to a nice restaurant so Friday night at McDonald’s was a family dinner out and a real treat. He taught me about Italian food and the kind of restaurants I never had gone to. There were so many things I didn’t know about. Little things – you might think this is funny – like where does your silverware go and which fork to eat with, how to read the menu. And there was so much more than that. Lessons about all kind of life outside my little world in Miami. He expanded my horizons. He took the time to talk to me and to listen to me and I listened to him. Besides my dad, he’s the second most influential male ever in my life.”

Battaglia’s influence of opening up an unknown world opened the door for Pell. To this day, Brown wishes more coaches were like Charley Pell for a variety of reasons but the two most prominent are seeing people without first seeing skin color and taking responsibility even when things are at their worst.

“Coach Pell, I can tell you, never saw race, not once,” Lomas says. “I’ve never met a coach like Coach Pell. We all knew his background about how he played and coached under Bear Bryant. We knew how Alabama was one of the last schools to have black football players and we knew about the history of race and injustices in Alabama. There was this perceived notion that everyone from Alabama can be like that but in four years with him it was always about doing what is right. He didn’t care whether you were black or white, but he did care if you were doing what is right and don’t do right and you were going to catch the wrath of Coach Pell. He was tough as anybody I ever met but it was about fairness and about doing what he told our parents he would do which is help us grow into men.”

It was the NCAA that showed a side of Pell that created another lasting lesson in the young mind of Lomas Brown. When the NCAA came calling on the Florida football program there was no shortage of accusations of wrongdoing. Players accused of accepting improper benefits were grilled by NCAA investigators. Threats were made in an attempt to force cooperation.

Pell brought each player in for a private conversation and Brown learned about being a stand-up guy who doesn’t point fingers.

“Guys were afraid of losing their scholarships and we were scared,” Brown said. “Coach Pell told us that all we had to do was tell the truth. He was calm as he could be. It was humbling to hear him tell us that we shouldn’t worry, that he was the leader and everything that happened on his watch was his responsibility. He didn’t blame anyone else. He took the bullet for all of us. That is what a great leader does. It makes me sad that doing that was the death of Coach Pell’s coaching career. He was a great football coach but he was a great man.”

* * *

Brown was the All-America left tackle on the 1984 Florida offensive line known as “The Great Wall,” still considered by many experts the best O-line in the history of the Southeastern Conference. He won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy that year as the best blocking lineman in the SEC. He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

A first round draft pick of the Detroit Lions in 1985 (sixth overall pick), Brown made the Pro Bowl seven times. Three times he was a first team All-Pro selection and three times made the second team. He capped his NFL career with a Super Bowl ring for the 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs. It’s only a matter of time before he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

He now lives in the Detroit suburbs where he is a successful businessman and moonlights as a color commentator for Detroit Lions radio broadcasts and ESPN. His most important job, he will tell you, is being a good husband and father.

That means doing things that a white father doesn’t ever have to do. There are far too many stories about black men being pulled over by police for “suspicious activity” that was nothing more than driving in the wrong neighborhood or perhaps driving a nice car. There are too many stories through the years of African-American men going to prison for crimes they didn’t commit only to be exonerated by DNA evidence or the actual perpetrator being exposed. As a father, Brown feels the need to constantly remind his kids that their skin color is often the basis for being stopped by the police and how they have to be careful not to be perceived as doing anything to provoke a violent reaction by the cop.

“I have to have conversations with my 19- and 22-year-old that you wouldn’t have to have as a white man,” Brown says. “We have to do things differently than your son would … things like if you are stopped by the police to constantly keep your hands on the steering wheel and at all times talk in a very normal tone showing respect. Tell him everything you are doing. If you need to reach for your wallet to get out your license or reach to the glove box to get your registration and insurance papers, tell him what you are doing before you do it. Things like telling them don’t do anything nervous if you see a police car pull up behind you and follow you a few blocks.

“These are things you wouldn’t think you have to do but as a black man, you have to if you want your kids to be safe,” Brown said. “You have to equip your kids. Not every policeman is a bad policeman. I’d say more than 99 percent of them are good people who are here to protect us, but that less than one percent … those are the ones you have to be careful about. You probably don’t ever think about those things, but as a black man, you’ll be at the top of the endangered species list if you aren’t prepared. This is the kind of thing we have to go through every single day.”

This, he says, is the reason the protests have been so loud and so demonstrative in the two weeks since the death of George Perry Floyd Jr. Floyd wasn’t the first African-American man to die senselessly because of a white policeman but he needs to be the last. The protests and demonstrations have raised awareness that something is wrong but if nothing is done to bridge the gaps of misunderstanding and attempt to heal the long-festering wounds, the only thing the demonstrations will accomplish is more ill will and resentment on both sides.

Yes, both sides. This is a two-way street and Brown knows it. White people can’t begin to understand what an African-American man has to go through – “It’s like starting a football game 14 or 21 points behind to be a black man in America,” Brown says – and black people have to understand that not all white people think like the cop whose knee collapsed the windpipe of George Perry Floyd Jr. or the three who stood around and watched. There are far too many misconceptions that need to be addressed.

So how does change come about? What can be done to create a more caring, thoughtful and understanding society where the color of one’s skin isn’t important? What can be done to erase the fears that exist?

“It starts with conversation,” Brown says. “We have to have meaningful conversations with each other. We can’t keep going on the way we’re going and expect anything to be different in the future. If we don’t talk, then nothing will change at all and the time to talk is now. We may not ever have a better time to talk than right now. As much as I hate the riots and the looting, maybe it will get the attention of black people and white people alike to bring us to the table to talk about making meaningful changes.”

Talk alone, however, won’t cut it. For decades we’ve heard one politician after another talk about healing our society and making it so that every kid has a chance to grow up educated and ready to live as an adult in a society where you’re given a fair opportunity to find success. So where has all the talk gotten us? We live in a country that spends more money per student than any country on the planet yet we have failing schools that send kids into the world almost doomed to a life of failure and underachievement because they weren’t properly educated. Too many of these schools are in predominately African-American communities. We live in a society where wealthy people who can afford powerful lawyers skate for serious crimes while poor people who don’t have access to the same representation get the book thrown at them for crimes for which a wealthy white would get probation.

It goes on and on and on.

The answer, Brown says, isn’t simply about talking but actually listening.

“All my life I’ve heard people talk – Democrats, Republicans, you name it – but for all the talk what’s actually happened?” he asks. “Unless the people doing all the talking take the time to listen, nothing is going to change. Nothing at all.”

So before you point a finger at someone about the eruption of violence in our streets and communities these last couple of weeks, take a moment and think about these three words then try your best to put your feet in the shoes of someone who doesn’t look like you.

“I can’t breathe!”

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