Penn State bestowed its first jersey No. 0 to senior Jonathan Sutherland, a two-year captain who helps form the program's special teams core. Sutherland earned the distinction by being, as coach James Franklin has said, "the ultimate example of what our program is all about."
Penn State said that the player who wears No. 0 is a "tough, dependable, disciplined, physical leader who inspires teammates with his accountability and production." That was evident last year, when Sutherland's teammates rallied behind him for off-field reasons. Here's the story.
Sutherland still has the letter he received in October 2019, the one from a Penn State graduate and sports fan that said Sutherland's "shoulder length dreadlocks look disgusting."
Why did he keep it? Sutherland explained.
"Honestly, when I first read the letter, it was upsetting and everything," Sutherland said. "But I feel like just having it kind of reminds me of all the support I've got behind my back and how much as a society that we need to progress in the right direction."
Sutherland, a safety and special teams captain, earned the 2019 Captain's Award at the team's banquet. Last October, Penn State coach James Franklin called Sutherland "one of the most respected players in our program."
Yet, Sutherland received a letter that referenced the "awful hair" and "disgusting tattoos" of today's athletes and criticized his personal appearance. Sutherland said the letter lingers as a reminder, particularly of the steps society must continue taking to address prejudice and social injustice.
Last fall, Dave Petersen, a Penn State graduate, wrote Sutherland to say, in part, that he misses "the clean cut young men and women" from years past. The letter further asked, "Don’t you have parents or girlfriend who’ve told you those shoulder length dreadlocks look disgusting and are certainly not attractive."
It was signed, "For the glory," the first words of Penn State's alma mater.
Sutherland responded on Twitter, and Franklin offered passionate support of his player, team and sport at his weekly news conference that week.
"The football that I know and love brings people together, and embraces differences," Franklin said a year ago. "Black, white, brown, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim, rich or poor, rural or urban, Republican or Democrat, long hair, short hair, no hair. They are all in that locker room together. Teams all over this country are the purest form of humanity that we have. We don't judge. We embrace differences. We live, we learn, we grow, we support and we defend each other. We're a family."
From the moment that letter became public, Sutherland said he felt unwavering support from teammates and coaches.
"I didn't feel alone at all," Sutherland said. "I felt like everyone had my back and everyone was willing to fight for me. It was really supporting, and I appreciated it for sure."
Still, teammates said the letter expressed a sentiment that went beyond merely criticizing a hairstyle. In an interview earlier this year with Big Ten Network, Penn State offensive lineman CJ Thorpe said the letter shed light on the "power dynamic" some fans feel they have with regard to athletes."
In that situation, there was somebody literally saying, 'I want to be entertained by you, so I want you to look how I want you to look," Thorpe said in the interview. "I want you to do the things that I'm telling you to do. You see how that power dynamic changes?
"He's not seeing [Sutherland] just as a person. He's seeing a player on the screen, so he's like, 'Well, I should be able to customize my player on the screen.'"
Sutherland said Penn State held team meetings often to discuss issues of race, sports and society. More than two-thirds of the team joined these video meetings, Sutherland said, which the coaches joined as well.
In particular, Sutherland praised Franklin for encouraging the team to have "tough" conversations, which have included visits with Penn State president Eric Barron and board chair Mark Dambly.
"I don't think a lot of programs in the country have done that," Sutherland said.
"We have guys from all different cultures, all different ethnicities on the team, so it's a conversation that needs to be had," Sutherland added. "We've had great dialogue with one another expressing the concerns, expressing how we may be feeling and what we can do to overall educate ourselves and just try to fight this racial inequality that's going on in this country."
Sutherland, who played in all 13 games last season, said he pushed himself this offseason to become a lead player in Penn State's secondary. He is majoring in labor and employment relations. In his media guide biography, Sutherland said he aspires to be a CEO.
"Jonathan Sutherland is one of the most respected players in our program," Franklin said last year. "He's the ultimate example of what our program is all about. He's a captain. He's a Dean's List honor student. He's confident. He's articulate. He's intelligent. He's thoughtful. He's caring and he's committed. He's got two of the most supportive parents, and I would be so blessed if my daughters would marry someone with his character and integrity one day."
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