NEWARK — The JV football scrimmage was underway late Monday afternoon on the turf at Weequahic High, and the crowd gathered behind one end zone was oblivious. These varsity and youth players were busy looking up at four Giants.
Defensive linemen Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon, linebacker/tight end Mark Herzlich and offensive lineman Adam Bisnowaty were dressed in their blue jerseys. The foursome took turns trying to inspire the starry-eyed kids, stressing themes of doing the right thing, believing in yourself and concentrating on education.
“Athletic ability only takes you so far,” Harrison told them.
These Giants presented an oversize check symbolizing the team’s donation of $10,000 for football equipment at Weequahic after doing the same at Newark Central High. But the most fascinating aspect of the two off-day appearances was the journey to get to them.
The four players started out from police headquarters. They rode in a minibus with Newark mayor Ras Baraka and four of the city’s police officers.
And the players and the police had a dialogue amid this controversial season of increased NFL player protests during the national anthem over racial inequality and police violence. They increased after President Donald Trump called those players an expletive and said they should be “fired.”
“It was an open conversation,” Harrison said. “It wasn’t just we’re coming here to tell our side, but it was also to hear perspective from the police officers, as well as the mayor . . . It was refreshing to hear officers’ thoughts on de-escalating situations, or situations that become violent and how to properly handle situations like that, and to know that they’re taking steps, especially here in Newark, to make everything right.”
Vernon called it “a great opportunity, a very great learning experience.”
One of the day’s sponsors was the Newark Bronze Shields. It’s an African-American police association within the city’s police department that includes 300 cops and 50 civilians. Sgt. Levi Holmes is the president of the association, and he was one of the officers who spoke with the players.
“It was a very honest conversation about policing, how involved it is, how challenging it is to be a police officer,” Holmes said.
Vernon has been one of those kneeling during the anthem. Holmes said protesting players have the backing from police in Newark, as well as from many African-American police associations in New Jersey and across the country that have been in contact with him.
“We wanted to let them know that we understand . . . that they’re taking a knee to object to different injustices,” Holmes said. “We wanted them to know that we support them. We believe that as Newark police officers, especially Bronze Shields members, that we wanted to let them know everything we do in terms of community service, community involvement.”
The Giants have interlocked arms to show unity during the anthem at the three games since Trump’s comments.
But Vernon, Harrison and Landon Collins stood out by kneeling at Philadelphia in Week 3. Harrison, Collins and Keenan Robinson raised a fist while Vernon knelt at Tampa Bay in Week 4. Then Robinson raised a fist and Vernon, who was injured and inactive, knelt before the Giants dropped to 0-5 with their loss to the Chargers on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
Harrison decided against protesting again.
“To be honest with you, man, I was scared,” Harrison said. “I pride myself on being a man who stands up for what I believe in. But . . . I took the coward route. I didn’t do what I felt was the right thing to do, which was why coming out here today was a little hard, because you look these kids in the eye and you tell them they can be whatever they want to be and they can do whatever they want to do.
“But you’ve got guys like me who aren’t using my platform correctly to be able to have their voices heard.”
It was just that he didn’t want to be a distraction to the team. Harrison indicated he has no plans to change course again. Vernon said he hopes his kneeling is making a difference. But the backlash toward the Miami native has been intense.
“You get a lot of either hateful comments . . . [or] a lot of eyes that are looking at you in disgust,” Vernon said. “It’s crazy how there’s just a lot of hate when you’re just trying to do good for your community and your country. It’s very eye-opening.”