By Jeff Fisher
As told to Jonathan Jones
Buddy Ryan always found a colorful way to get his point across.
I played under Ryan in Chicago from 1981 through our Super Bowl season, and I joined his first staff in Philadelphia when he became the head coach of the Eagles in 1986. Not only do I carry his football lessons with me to this day, but also how he instructed his team to carry itself for the national anthem.
He believed lining up in formation for the anthem was part of the “look good, play good” mentality. I’ll always remember him saying to the guys, “You [expletives] don’t play good unless you look good and I see your [expletive] [expletives] in front of the mirror before you go out! If you want to look good and play good, this is part of looking good. So line your [expletives] up on the sideline.”
When I became the Houston Oilers interim head coach in 1994 and eventually the permanent coach in ’95, I brought those ideas with me, even if I didn’t present it like only Buddy could. For more than two decades as a head coach, I did the same thing every preseason. Before our first exhibition, I would instruct the players how we’d line up and run through it in our final walkthrough. Defense is on the left, offense is on the right and all the players are standing side by side on the sideline. Your helmets are tucked under your arm, and if you left your helmet on the bench then your hand is over your heart. Trainers, doctors and other staffers are behind the players and I’m behind them. I told our video crew to pan our sideline before a game and compare it to the opponent’s sideline. Where we are displaying focus, teamwork and unity, the other team was dancing or not paying attention or trying to stare holes through us to intimidate us. The evidence of who looked better was convincing.
I want to show respect for the anthem, the flag, our country and our freedom. I love our country, and even in unemployment this year I’ll be taking a USO tour. But this is also a special moment to take a deep breath and realize just how lucky we are to be doing what we’re doing. Every single anthem since 2009, I’ve thought about Steve McNair and said a prayer for his family. I don’t want to call it meditation, but it almost, in a sense, is for me and also for our players. It’s the last opportunity to focus and realize where you are and how lucky you are to be doing what you love.
You probably saw this exact presentation I made to the Rams last preseason on Hard Knocks, but understand that was a 70-second edited clip that didn’t show the full depth of the conversation. That took place before Colin Kaepernick ever took a knee and launched this discussion into the national spotlight.
I’ve dealt with social issues as a coach in this league. Five of our players in St. Louis exited the tunnel before a 2014 game in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pose while we were still reeling from the events in neighboring Ferguson. I respected their right to do it and stuck by them, and we weathered the criticism both locally and nationally. In Los Angeles last year, Robert Quinn and Kenny Britt stood in formation for the anthem but raised their fists while making a statement against racial inequality in our country. I said then just like I say today: I understand their right to do it, and I get the issues surrounding it.
We drafted Kenny in Tennessee in 2009, and he joined me in St. Louis a few years later. I like to think I’ve had a part in helping him grow as a man. Even though we didn’t specifically discuss his fist-raising, we’ve had numerous heart-to-hearts over the years. I totally understand his plight, getting pulled over because he had tinted windows and then getting harassed for no reason other than being an African-American. That’s not right; he knows that I know that.
Normally I don’t deal in hypotheticals, but if I had Colin on my team last year, how would I have reacted? I’d like to think the issue would have been raised during my preseason presentation, or possibly in private afterward. We would have had a deep one-on-one discussion that would have remained private, and hopefully we would have heard each other’s side so we knew where we stood. Those are the kind of conversations that bring your locker room closer together.
If you decide to take a knee or protest in some way, I think you should back it up with words and actions. You’ve captured my attention by doing this act, so let’s hear what you have to say. But I understand the inherent difficulty in finding the right place to take a stance and the right time to make a statement.
What’s the alternative to not kneeling before a game but making a similar impact off the field? I don’t know the answer to that. You can’t just call up the media relations department and request an interview with local media to discuss non-football topics during the season. It doesn’t work like that. You’re using the platform you have.
But the coach in me wonders about a player’s pregame focus. Are my players looking around seeing what their teammates are doing during the anthem, rather than using that time to focus in the moment? The element of focus increases as you near kickoff, and I don’t necessarily want to lose control of that focus prior to kickoff.
I know there are many, many other players who want to take the same stance as Colin. And they have the right to. And the reasons to. But they have chosen not to, so clearly there are thoughts and considerations that go into that. And one of those might be, is this what you want to be thinking about right before kickoff?
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