BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — They set up early, 20, 30, 45 minutes before he was due to arrive: cameras, microphones, notepads, klieg lights, lined up like a barricade in front of his platform. The last time Malcolm Jenkins was on this stage, he did not leave his hotel room, the nerves and excitement of the looming game too much for the rookie first-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints to handle. Now, he is a destination, his podium one of the most heavily visited pit stops during media availability sessions, the topic of conversation rarely lingering long between the lines.
"A lot has changed," Jenkins said Wednesday as he sat in a hotel conference room and surveyed the media frenzy that buzzed before him. "I mean, a lot. My experience the last time on this stage was totally different. The things that I think about, the position I was in on the team — totally different."
Jenkins has spent a lot of time this week using some iteration of that word. Platform, stage, spotlight: a reference to the game, yes, but also everything that comes along with it. From the perspective of a typical athlete, it is a strange thing to embrace. The run-up to the Super Bowl can shock even the most veteran of players, the routine that has shaped his previous 20 weeks now forced to adapt to interviews and photo ops and hotel living. But Jenkins has spent the last couple of years destroying the notion that there is anything typical about him — and for a player who has made awareness his mission, there are few greater opportunities to raise it.
In a sense, the role he has played in leading the Eagles to this point on the field has served as the best possible culmination to his crusade off it. When he first raised his fist in Chicago a year and a half ago, there was a segment of the population that tried to balance itself atop the divide in national opinion. They claimed a sympathy with the cause, but a disagreement with the method.
I just wish he'd pick some other place to express himself than the national anthem.
What this line of thinking failed to comprehend was the significance of the setting. The national anthem was the thing, the whole thing, and nothing but the thing, the only stage that could adequately capture the gravity of the intended message.
"I didn't realize that the platform could be this big until Colin Kaepernick first took a knee," Jenkins said. "When he did that, it was kind of an 'aha' moment to me. When I saw what Colin Kaepernick did, and the amount of coverage and conversation that built around it, that's when I truly realized how much influence we have as athletes, especially if we uses our voices collectively, that just exponentially grows the amount of impact that we can have."
In an editorial in the Washington Post published earlier this season, he detailed the plight of many of these Americans*: Ronald Lewis, an HVAC contractor from Philadelphia whose two misdemeanor convictions 13 years ago hamper his attempts to land business; Gilbert Cruz, a Houston man who spent more than two months in prison unable to meet a $3,500 bail; the litany of unarmed African American men who have died at the receiving end of a government-issued service revolver.
Jenkins' fist, like Kaepernick's knee, was the asterisk that so many of our countrymen feel attached to their national identity.We live in a country where it often feels as if there are Americans and Americans*. A life lived in the latter demographic is in many ways an alternate dimension, a parallel universe that exists side by side with the one the majority considers to be real. It is a universe where institutions that the other world knows only in theory can feel, in practice, like an inescapable weight that an unrepresentative segment is forced to carry.
Jenkins' fist was a portal between these two worlds, a thunder punch through the layer of comfort that makes up many of our atmospheres. It was an announcement that all was not right with the America in which he lived, a wake-up slap to a parallel nation whose words did not always match its actions.
It was a reminder that they do not teach us to pledge ourselves to a rectangular piece of fabric, but to the republic for which it stands, a republic that is and was and always will be constructed of ideals.
"Every move is calculated with Malcolm," said Eagles wide receiver Marcus Johnson. "When he does something, it's not out of impulse. He does it because he believes in what he's standing for, he's looked into it, and not only is he doing it to do it, he's also taking the necessary steps to help in whatever area."
Johnson, a second-year player out of Texas, was one of several Eagles who joined Jenkins in his protest at various points.
"It's liberating, man," Johnson said. "You have a group of men next to you who believe in the same thing. You stick out like a sore thumb. You definitely know they see us. You have guys who have lost everything fighting for this, so you kind of know the criticism that comes with it. But it's bigger than we are. It's for the masses."