They gathered around the helmet in the center of the Colts practice field on Monday night, a diverse group of students from different Indianapolis high schools brought together for one purpose.
“We wanted to make sure the youth voice was heard in this city,” said John Shertzer, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council.
The students meet monthly to discuss important issues that impact their city.
“Then, we go out into our communities and hold listening sessions and we get input from other teens in our community and report back the next month with our findings,” said Katie Baker, a junior at Roncalli High School.
One of the issues they’ve taken up is race – how it affects schools, society, and the responsibility they feel to support equality.
When social justice took center stage in the NFL last season, the Colts used it as an opportunity to come together and take action.
“Our team, led by our players, started ‘Breaking Barriers,’ which is an effort to encapsulate a lot of these different issues and do something about it,” said Steve Campbell, Vice President of Communications for the Colts.
Part of the initiative is to foster community dialog.
On Monday night, Colts players Jacoby Brissett, Matthias Farley, Kenny Moore, Jabaal Sheard and Ahmad Thomas joined students from the MYLC to talk, listen, and learn.
“You, players of the Colts, are also a voice that needs to be heard and a voice that’s emerging – as many NFL teams and cities are finding – in issues facing their communities,” said Shertzer. “We thought, ‘Get these two voices together, two very distinguished parts of our city and talk about some of these issues very candidly.’”
The students wasted no time.
The first question was, “How does being in the NFL and the public eye coexist with your own sense of identity and your rights as a citizen?”
Farley likened it to living in a fishbowl.
“You have this platform. But you have to keep the ecosystem of the fishbowl ok too,” he said. “There’s a diplomatic way to facilitate discussions and talk about things that are really hard to talk about.”
Brissett reminded the students that they too have a voice.
“No platform is a bigger platform than another,” he said. “Just because we’re pro athletes and we have social media and the Colts organization to back us, don’t think that you all don’t have influence. You have classmates, you have families, you have siblings.”
The Colts players may wear their team’s colors on their jersey, but they also wear their family’s name on their back.
“We go back home at the end of the season and we still have family that live in those environments,” said Sheard. “The picture is bigger than we are.”
“It’s our job to go back and help them and help everybody,” said Brissett. “To be able to inspire the people in our community and our families to understand what it’s like on both sides of the spectrum.”
And that’s where it starts.
“The key word is understanding,” said Thomas.
“Understanding who you are, what type of person you are deep down,” said Brissett. “We have our Instagram self, our Facebook self, all that stuff – but who you are at the core, in your heart, it has to speak louder than all those things.”
It continues with conversation.
“The most important part of having a conversation is being able to listen,” Brissett said.
As part of the #BreakingBarriers initiative Colts players engaged in conversation with local high school students to talk about important topics surrounding social injustice.
Eventually, there’s evolution.
“You’ll start to see that snowball effect,” said Brissett. “More and more people are going to start to join hands and not try to find a solution, but find an understanding of constant growth.”
And that, he said, is a step that never ends.
“It will always be a conversation that needs to be heard. It’s all about constant growth and understanding the other side.”
They all walked away with a bigger picture, better knowledge, and deeper understanding.
“I think it was just a good experience for everybody involved,” Moore said. “It made me feel better about myself just being in their presence and them being in mine.”
A student can learn a lot about life from a football player.
“Everybody’s story is different,” said Moore. “We’ve all seen and experienced different things.”
And a football player can learn a lot about life from a student.
“They look up to us,” he said, “but I look up to them as well.”
For the Colts, making life better for those around them is part of the job.
“The theme that all the players have in common is that they care. They all care,” said David Thornton, Director of Player Engagement. “How they express that care, how they want to support, how they want to be involved may vary, but the theme is the same – they care about these issues, they get it.”
And many of them act on it.
“Inspiring community members, that’s what our players do. Our players are extremely active. You’d be shocked how active they are in the community,” Campbell said. “Today is a Community Monday, but they’re out all the time doing things in the community to inspire all people about things that need to change in our society.”
On Monday, they found themselves inspired.
“I called my brother afterwards and just told him about everything,” said Moore. “It was honestly a great time.”
It takes time and teamwork to break barriers – and it’s work the Colts are committed to doing.
In the end, it’s not about being the same – it’s about recognizing our similarities, celebrating our differences, and appreciating what makes each of us unique.
For more information on Breaking Barriers, go to: Colts.com/BreakingBarriers.