SEATTLE — DeAndre Hopkins emerged from the showers inside the visitor’s locker room at CenturyLink Field late Sunday afternoon. The Texans wide receiver saw the television cameramen jockeying for position at his locker and the two dozen reporters armed with notepads refreshing their Twitter feeds and sighing. He groaned, complained of claustrophobia and waded into the fray.
He knew what they wanted—to hear from him. It had been a crazy week—and an insane afternoon—and that’s saying something halfway through what seems like the strangest NFL season in years, if not decades. Hopkins had skipped practice Friday, after Houston’s owner, Bob McNair, was quoted in an ESPN story as telling other owners that “we can’t have inmates running the prison” when they were debating players kneeling and sitting for the national anthem. Hopkins never explained what seemed obvious—that he had left because of what McNair had said.
He wouldn’t do that Sunday, either. He had said enough, apparently, on the field, first by kneeling with more than 40 of his teammates for the anthem, then by catching eight passes for 224 receiving yards and a score.
At his locker, underneath a small, white No. 10 sticker, Hopkins tugged on gray sweats, gray sneakers and gray headphones. It had been that kind of week but not that kind of game. The contest itself ranked among the best offensive football performances this season, from the 79 points scored (the Seahawks won, 41–38) to both quarterbacks surpassing 400 passing yards to five touchdown plays of 18 yards or longer.
Hopkins may have walked out of practice, but on Sunday, he sprinted into the end zone late in the fourth quarter, after taking a screen, shifting right, cutting left and rocketing up a seam 72 yards into the end zone. It was the kind of play that makes him one of the best players in football. Had the Seahawks not scored once more that would have been the game-winner.
Instead, Hopkins found himself surrounded at his locker. A team employee packed up his equipment bag. He then performed his best Marshawn Lynch impersonation, answering any question even remotely related to McNair with some variation of “Seattle played a great game,” an answer that was at once true and incomplete.
“Any football questions?” Hopkins asked.
There were those of, of course. There had to be. Quarterback Deshaun Watson proved on Sunday that he’s a revelation and should win offensive rookie of the year. The Texans may have fallen to 3–4 but they looked like a playoff team at CenturyLink, gaining 509 yards and hanging 38 points on a defense that perennially ranks among the best in the NFL. Hopkins said he took no moral victories. He said he was proud of his teammates. He didn’t say why he left practice, other than, “I play football for a living.” He didn’t say what he felt about McNair, other than, “We’re not going to be affected by anything around us.” He didn’t say how Coach Bill O’Brien handled the mess that was last week for the football team in Houston, other than, “Our coach is trying to win football games just like we are.”
His most illuminating answer was also his saddest. When asked if this was the weirdest week he’d had in five NFL seasons, he said no. “I’ve had family members murdered and played that week,” he replied.
Hopkins’s catches, his actions (on Friday and before the game Sunday) and his teammates—they spoke for him. Teammate, anyway. Most of the Texans treated the open locker room period (quite fairly) like a fire drill, dressing so fast they bound outside with ties askew and shirts unbuttoned, anything to avoid addressing their owner’s comments. Some players, like backup quarterback Tom Savage, described the “dialogue” that took place on Friday and Saturday as productive. Others, like left tackle Duane Brown, said “not that well” when asked how McNair’s meeting on Saturday with the players went.
Brown, a 10-year NFL veteran, served essentially as the unofficial team spokesman. So many reporters crowded around his locker that they blocked the path from the shower to other lockers. Brown oddly took a question about football before the McNair queries started. Then he answered them, calmly and politely and honestly. It was, frankly, a clinic in crisis management that many teams could learn from.
He admitted there were emotions before the game on Sunday but said the Texans were not distracted by what seemed obviously distracting. He said they “felt a huge sense of unity” when they knelt. He said he didn’t have an issue with the mostly white players who stood beside or behind the kneelers. He said he didn’t look at them any differently, that everyone could make their own choice.
The questions just kept coming. The Reverend Jesse Jackson had said NFL owners have a plantation mentality with players, and he had argued that McNair deserved to be sanctioned by the league. What did Brown make of that? “It’s hard for me to answers these questions right now,” he said.
It has been that kind of season in the NFL, in a league as divided as a nation, thanks to player activism and President Donald Trump’s opposition of players kneeling for the anthem. The debate around all this has shifted so far away from why former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt in the first place. It has devolved into arguments over the flag, the military and patriotism—none of which were ever why Kaepernick had knelt.
That’s why what the Texans did on Sunday was significant, even if it seemed like an obvious response. They play football in Texas, the same state where Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said his players would stand for the anthem or not play. They knew they would face backlash, and they knew it would likely to be intense. They knelt anyway.
Before the game, photographers staked out space on the visitor’s sideline, jockeying for the right angle and best position. There was more interest in what Houston’s players might do before kickoff than the game itself. A game that, it’s worth noting, featured two playoff-caliber teams, the Seahawks’ star-laden roster and Watson.
All hell had predictably broken loose late last week. McNair issued one of those sorry-to-anyone-I-offended non-apologies on Friday, then met with his team and released a second apology Saturday that attempted to clarify that by “inmates” he actually meant the league office and not the players.
“Nobody believed that,” Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin said. Definitely not Hopkins and rookie running back D’Onta Foreman, who had both skipped Friday’s practice. “I’m not surprised,” Seahawks defensive end and chief activist Michael Bennett told The MMQB. “I think a lot of guys wanted to walk out but [they] were the only ones brave enough to do it. On our team, definitely a lot more guys would have walked out and not showed up. I’m actually surprised more [Texans] didn’t [walk out].”
All Sunday morning, speculation swirled on social media as to what the Texans might do. Some suggested they might rip the decals off their helmets. Others said they planned to kneel as a team, or not come out of the locker room altogether. There were even more extreme rumors that maybe they wouldn’t play. “It’s one thing to say that …” Bennett said, trailing off.
As game time drew closer, the usual pre-game machinations unfolded without incident. A drum troupe took the field, and then the Seahawks cheerleaders went through their routine. Seattle’s punter, Jon Ryan, boomed practice punts between gyrating dancers. It was cold, gray and misty—a typical Sunday in Seattle—as photographers turned the Texans sideline into a mosh pit.
At 12:53 p.m., Houston’s players stood in the visitor’s tunnel near the south end zone. They bounced up and down and waited to be released onto the field. Most jogged onto the sideline, past the photographers bundled all together, with tight end Ryan Griffin sprinting to the opposite end zone, where several service members stood, waiting to unfurl one of those field-width-sized American flags. The players knelt in the end zone, as if in prayer, and then ran back to the sideline, where they slapped fives, bumped fists and jumped up and down.
At 12:56 p.m., the Seahawks ran from their own tunnel, as fireworks shot skyward from columns and the team’s mascot, Blitz, looked for players he could chest bump. This was the rare instance where the home crowd focused more on the other sideline. Almost every seat was filled. The defense was introduced and Bennett ran first out of the tunnel for the starters. He waved a white towel and stood near the entrance, hyping up his teammates, before taking his usual place on the bench for the anthem. He, too, looked across the field.
Two minutes later, all the cameras pointed toward the Texans’ bench. The flag was unfurled on the north side of the field. Service men and women marched and the first notes of the anthem played. At that moment, the majority of the Texans, at least 40 players, knelt on their sideline. I counted 10 members of the team, mostly white players, who stood. Many of those who stood rested hands on kneeling teammates. The rest knelt together while cameras trained in on their faces and a national television audience looked on.
“What did you expect?” Baldwin said. “I mean, Bob McNair, hello, you can’t say those things. You have to be smarter than that.” Baldwin wore a black shirt with “equality” across the front, as he added that while others believe McNair’s comments could unravel the progress made in recent months between players and owners, he saw what McNair said, while “disgusting,” would spur more dialogue, leading to more change.
After the anthem ended, the game started and what a game it was. Watson threw four touchdowns. Running back Lamar Miller scored twice. And the Seahawks—there was so much going on with the Texans, it was possible to forget about the Seahawks! Quarterback Russell Wilson recorded a career-high 452 passing yards. Tyler Lockett and Paul Richardson surpassed 100 yards receiving. Safety Earl Thomas returned an interception 78 yards for a score. Bennett notched 1.5 sacks. Someone asked Wilson to recall a specific play afterward. His response was basically, “Which one?”
In four hours on Sunday, a random game played in Seattle between two teams that look capable of deep playoff runs—or first-round playoff losses—both typified and countered the themes of this NFL season. Typified in that everything before kickoff was overtly political, with players pitted against ownership and racial overtones present and awkwardly accounted for. It was Trump supporters and conservatives all over Twitter saying they planned to continue to boycott the NFL—although, somehow, they hadn’t missed all the Texans players kneeling. But this game countered this season, too, in that it was high-scoring and thrilling and played at a high level (on offense, anyway). Anyone who missed it for a boycott missed out on one of a handful of the best games in the first half of this season.
Bennett declined to say how many owners might feel the same way as McNair. “I hope none,” he said. But he knew that wasn’t true. He knew that in the same ESPN story Redskins owner Dan Snyder was quoted as saying 96% of America wanted NFL players to stand for the anthem. Maybe 96% of Snyder’s America, Bennett said. He laughed, then turned serious.
“I was surprised [by the inmates comment] but then I wasn’t surprised,” he said. “Some people think like that. They look at us like that. It’s like you live in a world where people are in denial of racial tension. I just feel like it’s time to put that in context. This time we’re living in has a lot of people on edge right now. There’s racial tension going up and down.”
That tension existed even in the Texans locker room once the game ended. It existed mostly in silence and not what was spoken—clichés, love for Watson, much on the emergence of wideout Will Fuller—but what went unsaid, which was what it meant for these players to hear comments like that from their owner, come together and play the way they did.
“At this point, we’re all just going to play for each other,” Brown said. “I’m sure [the McNair comments] will come up again at some point.”
As the Texans trudged out of the locker room, trucks were backed up to the doors, the doors open. Bags were being loaded. A buffet was mostly being passed. Hopkins walked out into the night, with the rest of his teammates. Crazy week. Insane game. Strange season. All that continued Sunday night.
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