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In His Words: Steven Means
'With the riots and the chaos that’s going on, that’s a cry out from a group of people who are the unheard' 
By Steven Means Jun 08, 2020
Photographs By The Atlanta Falcons

I think it might have been a couple days after everything happened with the situation with George Floyd where I was called about it and I was asked questions about it. I told them I didn't feel like I was in a good enough head space to open up and talk about it because of my experiences, the things I've been through, the things I've witnessed.

I wasn't able to filter my emotions, trying to be in a positive space, so I sat it out. I wasn't really going to harp on it as much. To be quite honest, it's been almost a week, and I still feel the same way.

I know that so much of it is just me facing the fact that this is not something that's going to be able to go away over time.

Racism isn't normal

I can only speak on my truth, so I've just recently, within the past couple of years, come to the realization that the normality that I might've known, what I've considered normal for most of my life, hasn't been normal.

I come from a background from the inner city of Buffalo, New York. It's not a pleasant place to be. It's not the suburbs, I call it the inner city for a reason. In those type of areas, you're surrounded by a lot of crazy situations.

It can become normal for you.

I always felt like I was lucky, because I grew up in a household with my mom and my dad. When you grow up, and you see the world for what it is, you realize a lot of people grew up without their mom and their dad.

In my situation, out of everybody I knew – cousins, family, friends, classmates and teachers – nobody grew up with their mom and their dad in the household. Some people might have had a stepfather there that was beating their mom, or they might have had just their mom, and she might have been on drugs because she was trying to cope with the mechanisms of the father being gone, whether he was dead or in jail.

As far as everything seeming normal, it's real.

I grew up on a notion where you're just taught to be a certain way. You're taught that you have to be strong and never show your weakness, or people are going to prey upon your weaknesses.

Always stay aware, because the split second that you're not aware, the split second that you're walking down the street with your head down looking at your cell phone in those type of environments, that could be the last time you take a breath in this world.

I even grew up seeing what's going on now with my own eyes. Police brutality, seeing it happen.

I'd be walking up the street to the store and I'd see police brutality at its finest. You grow up and you think there is no way to win because there's no evidence.

You know, I'm young, this is before camera phones, this is before video recordings, it's before all of that.

There's no way to win because it's your word versus their word, and they win every single time.

You get into a space where you start accepting that to be normal. A normal way of living, you try to avoid it. You try to pick your own battles.

Then you get into a space where footage is starting to be recorded. You get the Rodney King situation where you got video evidence, and that's still not enough.

Then you get to a point where you start seeing camera phones, but you don't see the entirety of how the situation progressed, so you feel like that's being used.

Then you get to a point in 2020, where everybody and their mom has a phone out and they're recording it. The entirety of the situation is on camera, its video recorded and it's still nothing. It's crazy.

You aren't listening

Do I feel like my voice is heard? No.

Now, more? Yes. A lot more. I'm struggling with this question because I don't know if it's me thinking about my voice being heard or me being looked at as a human.

You can hear a cry out, right?

Right now, with the riots and the chaos that's going on, that's a cry out from a group of people who are the unheard, in a sense.

Yeah, like, as an athlete playing in the NFL at a high level, you can feel like your voice is heard.

But once they take the shield from you, once your time is over, that's not the case all the time from what I'm told.

That wasn't the case before I joined the NFL.

But I feel like now, if there was ever a time …

Now, with the platform that we have been given, with the terrible, disgusting things that are transpiring with Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, I think if any time, now is a time that we can possibly be heard.

But I don't think, to have to sit and watch a video of a man pinned down …

What about his kids? Do his kids have PTSD? They had to watch their father pinned down by three people. One on his legs, one on his back and one on his neck who had his hands on his side with a smirk on his face that told the world that he protected.

So, no. Do I feel like as a black man I'm heard? No.

That just brings me all the way back to my childhood, to growing up, my environment, my community.


Every time I go back, I see the same thing. There is a high level of trauma. There is a high level of PTSD. 

I talk to seven of my family members who have been in the military who are alive on a regular basis. Two more family members who have served are deceased. 

I ask them, "Hey Unc, cuz, talk to me about PTSD." They break down to me talking about PTSD. 

They tell me, yeah, there are situations where you get shipped off, you get deployed from your family. You're taken from your family; you're sent over to another country a lot of times and you're with a group of people who are there for the same purpose. 

You get in touch with that group of people, you get close to them. You might have one person you get close to, y'all share a lot of your deep feelings about things. Y'all share how y'all feel at that moment. Y'all share family. 

You talk to them about your family, your personal business, you break down to them a lot. You create close relationships with people, you train with them, you go through the same type of pain as them while you're training. You start to build a best friend relationship with them. 

Then you go through these wars and you start to see people drop dead. 

When one of those people, the person you confided in, the person you cried to, the person who helped you get through certain aspects while you were there, the person who might've saved your life two minutes before, drops dead right in front of you, or you see their body parts in the air because they stepped on a bomb or something of that magnitude, that creates PTSD. That creates a certain level of trauma.

When they tell me this, I'm like, OK, that's crazy. I have family members who have PTSD and this is who I'm talking to. 

So I ask them, what do you think the difference is between a boy that's growing up in a neighborhood or area where all he sees around him is poverty? All around him he sees killing. All around him he sees people dead in the middle of the street. All around him he sees people running up to people and in the blink of an eye, one person is killed? 

What about the boy growing up and his dad is in jail and his mom is on drugs?

What about the kids who are growing up and see their parents taken away from them and they have to go to their grandmother's house? 

What about the boy who is being told in school that he can be all that he wants to be?

Then the same person who tells him to be all that he can be asks that boy, "What do you want to be?" and the boy tells him, "I want to go to the NFL." Then the man looks at him, and he gets close so nobody else can hear him, and he says, "The chances of you making it out of the hood are slim to none. Be more realistic."

What about the boy who grew up with a friend and his friend was going through the same struggle as him? They go through life together. They grow up as kids together. They create close friendships with each other's families. They have family ties and they have kids and designate each other as the godparent of those kids. They create such a bond where they don't even call each other friends anymore, they call each other brothers. 

Then they get a phone call and they find out that their friend got gunned down in the middle of the street at their mom's house. 

Is there a difference? 

They tell me every time I ask them, "There's no difference. That's the same level of trauma. That's PTSD." 

That's all the same thing. 

My favorite music artist is Meek Mill. I listen to all of his music. In one of his songs, he says, "Ain't no PTSD, them drugs bring you that ease." 

That just made me think, coming up in those environments, there's no such thing as going in front of a judge and saying, "I was carrying this gun around because I have PTSD because I've saw my brother killed. My dad was killed on the same block. I was scared. I was going to the store to get some food." 

Or "I was coming from work and I was scared I was going to get shot on the same block I have to walk home on." 

There's no such thing as PTSD in those areas. There's no such thing. People don't look at those areas like they have trauma.

Black mental health matters

I always express my relationship with God. I tie that into everything I do. Football is an extreme, tremendous outlet for me to be able to get a lot out.

Nobody to this day ever stepped foot in my house growing up except for my best friend that I grew up with. We played Pop Warner together. We played for the same team, we played against each other on the streets, we grew up playing up the street from each other. We grew up going to each other's houses. High school football together, same basketball team, track team, swim team. 

He had kids, named me the godfather of those kids. He was coming to the games with me at the dorms all the way through college. Once I got to the NFL, he was still down in Tampa with me during the offseason. I still see his kids. 

When I was in Philadelphia, the same year there was protesting, he was gunned down in front of his mom's house. The same house we grew up in. Right up the street from my house. I remember getting that phone call. 

His dad wasn't in his life, so he called my dad his dad. Getting that phone call from my dad at midnight, knowing that I was going to have to skip practice and go back that next day. 

I had to come back the following day after that. I left, and to be there and see his mom and have her cry on my shoulder, and to just be in that environment brought a lot of emotion. 

Football forced me to have to leave and go back to Philadelphia and continue practicing. I think it was best for me to leave at that point. Then I was able to go back for the funeral that weekend. 

Football is a big outlet in those types of times where you don't have too many things that you grow up with knowing as an outlet.

You can talk to certain people, but people can only understand you to a certain extent, especially when you get to a point where you lose the closest friends around you. 

Mental health awareness is key. That's something that needs to be acted on.

A great idea I heard was that we need to have some type of fund that allows kids who are in those type of impoverished areas. 

Almost every kid growing up in the inner-city area, the hood, the impoverished area, with a lot of poverty, they have a lot of trauma and a lot of PTSD. 

They need to be able to have a space where they can see somebody that they don't know and talk about what they have going on because everybody knows, we need to be able to vent sometimes to get some stuff off of our chest. 

That could be the difference between a kid who has that much rage and trauma in their heart, that they go make a decision that's going to land them in jail or dead. 

To me, that's one of the biggest things that we need to address, and that is the kids growing up in this environment.

Platform for change

My parents did an amazing job of shielding me from the world once I was home. 

They could only do that so much. When I was in the house, I didn't have to deal with the battles of the world I was surrounded by, but once I touched the ground off of the porch, it became real. 

With social justice, getting to the point I am now, I never pretend to be the smartest person in the room, but I like to think I operate with a high level of common sense. 

I like to indulge in stuff that makes sense to me. I would hear people all the time, you hear it every single day growing up, "Man, you gotta make it out the hood. You gotta get your family out of here. You gotta get out of here."

People telling me, "Get out of here, don't come back. Use football to leave. Just don't look back, keep going."

There are a lot of those type of quotes and a lot of people telling me that. It's with all good intentions, but to me, it never made sense. 

It never made sense for me to say, OK, let me find a way to get me and my family out of our situation, out of the hood, because I always felt like there would be another young boy growing up the same exact way. 

I understood what they meant by saying that, I just knew that me leaving or me trying to get in a position where I can get me and my family out of there, that wasn't going to change the next Steven Means, per say, to come.

Not knowing what to expect, not knowing if he was going to see his 18th birthday, just hoping and praying that everything goes right, and everybody repeating the same things to him. 

 I felt like just me looking out for myself wouldn't change the dynamic of that situation. It would just delete one person. A couple weeks or days later, there's another kid in the same situation.

I always felt like I had to do my part in that way. 

A lot of people classify it as a lot of different things. You classify it as social justice committee, you classify it as turkey drives, you can classify it as scholarship funding, you can classify it as feeding the homeless, you can classify it as a multitude of different things. 

I just like to look at it as reaching back. To me, it's my way of reaching back and trying to change the scope.


Bringing awareness

In 2016, I took part in the anthem protest. It was a situation, I was in Philadelphia, we raised our fists.

I feel like those type of things, peaceful protests, are to bring awareness. 

Once you bring awareness, you grab the attention of a massive amount of people. I feel like now is the time to go ahead and do the groundwork and do some things to take action with.

For me, I like to get perspective. I like to gain wisdom from the older generation.

I make sure to call and get their opinions. I have nine family members who have served in the military at some point, a couple of them are active right now. Seven of them I actively talk to every day.

They talk to me about stuff, I talk to them. They've said from day one that they understand. 

They don't feel like it's a disrespect to the flag. They know exactly what it is.

It's about the social inequality. It's about the police brutality. It's about all this racial inequality. 

It's bigger than what a lot of people are trying to narrow it down to. 

I just think it's unfortunate that the message was missed in the spur of all the stuff that was going on during that protest. 

The intentional reasons for a protest, in any magnitude, is to spark awareness. And that happened. 

Whether we missed the mark or whether we hit the goal, whatever the case, awareness was sparked. 

Now, more than ever, the table has turned, and you see everybody with receptive eyes now. 

That's a big thing. People are open to seeing, "OK, what can be done for a change? We see something wrong; now how do we go about fixing it?"

Under construction

Right now, we are definitely under construction. We're trying to figure out exactly what we can do. 

We don't want to jump on something too fast and it really doesn't make an impact.

If we can just try to figure out the best approach – if we can figure out if we are all going to attack one thing and make a big powerful statement that way, or if we're going to branch off and try to hit a wide spread of different things. 

We're definitely trying to see if we can make a bigger impact than we have in the past.

I think the organizations are doing a great job. Falcons owner Arthur Blank came on a team call and voiced how he felt. Coach Dan Quinn has been super proactive about it.

I think in these types of spaces, when you have coaches and owners of teams who are willing to stand up and say, "I see that this is wrong," it's super important. 

It took me a while to filter through my emotions and everything, but I'm getting to this point in my life now where I'm able to emotionally and mentally sit back and realize that everyone's experiences are not my experiences.

I may have been through stuff that other people may not have ever seen. 

Just understanding that you may not understand how we feel as a people, I think that's OK. 

I would just hope that everybody is able to see that there is something terribly wrong with the system and that it's time for a change. 

I think it's big that corporations and organizations are coming together as a united front. 

Sports is one of the biggest unifiers in the world. It draws people of every race and every ethnic group together. You have the Olympics. Everyone watches the Olympics. You have the Super Bowl, where everybody watches the Super Bowl. You have the NBA Finals; everybody is watching that. 

I think it's big for us to come together, not just a social justice committee or team or one sport, but for all of us to come together and try to make a change in that way is big.

I had a talk with my uncle the other day and he helped restore that hope. 

He just showed me what I haven't seen with my own eyes from the past where you have all of these marches, you have all of these protests, where it doesn't really shake the world.

But this, in the wake of these three cases with the brutality and the magnitude of the brutality, it feels like it's shaking the world. 

You have people of all races, you have white people coming out in droves, you have all 50 states protesting. 

It's definitely a situation where I feel like if there was ever a time you could hope for a change or you could see that there could possibly be a change, I feel like it is now.

I hope change is coming.

Staying committed

I think starting now is going to be the biggest part of what I can do. 

The spectrum of this problem, of this situation with George Floyd, it can become overbearing to a certain extent if you let it, to where you get to the point that it's so big, there are so many different areas that need to be covered, to where you can almost get discouraged enough to just stop. 

I had guy named Inky Johnson come talk to me and he broke down what it means to commit and it shifted the way I look at it. 

I view it as staying committed to what you're going to do long after the mood and emotion you said it in has left. 

It's easy for people to say, "Yeah, this isn't right. Let's do this about it!" or "Yeah, I like this idea. Let's do this."

When it sounds right, it's easy to do that, but when that excitement leaves, that's when true commitment comes to face. 

I think for me, staying in touch with reaching back. Doing everything in my power that I can do, to change the perspective of other people so that we all can come together and change the next generation. 

I pray that we can all come together and make that change to where the next generation doesn't have to see this. To where the next generation, you get kids in the inner city of Buffalo who don't have to walk down the street with so much rage and trauma from the things that they've seen, from the bloodshed in the streets, from their family members getting thrown in jail for decades that aligns them in the situation where they are going to make a mistake that lands them in jail for the same amount of decades or lands them six feet under. 

I feel like there are different people who feel different about ways of helping. 

Some people are really emotional right now. They just want to do something right now. A peaceful protest is definitely the best route for them right now.

Some people want to change stuff, and like I said before, voting is critical. 

When you live in an impoverished environment, when you live in that type of community, the local elections are going to be the ones that impact you the most. You need to vote for the presidential election, too, and that's important. 

But what's also equally as important, is voting for the local officials. 

Voting certain prosecutors, district attorneys and judges out of office. Getting new people in there that really care about the communities in the local elections and the local level especially, because that's what's going to really impact that community.

I think the main thing that needs to be changed is legislation. I don't know how to go about changing that, but I know that the way the laws are written, they're not written in our favor. 

They're not written even closely applicable to justice. 

When you talk about police brutality or you talk about George Floyd or you talk about Breonna Taylor, when you talk about these type of situations, Philando Castile, you keep going down the list, all the way down, the way that the laws are written … 

I recently researched this, but it said that a police officer could use deadly force if they feel like their lives are being threatened at their discretion.

I didn't know, so I went and looked. I was like, maybe what discretion means to me isn't what it actually means. I looked it up and it's exactly what I felt when I read it.

I was thinking, so you're telling me if I flinch or if I sneeze? If I'm allergic and I go to sneeze, and you feel like that's life threatening to you, you can use deadly force and kill me? 

To me that's real crazy but that's the way it's written. Then it started to make sense … this is how, like I was saying before, you're starting to get video evidence of stuff …

People are getting killed on video camera, on Facebook live videos, on Instagram live videos, just being recorded and nobody is going to jail. 

When you start thinking about the way the laws are written, and how it's coming down to it, for somebody in that situation for that cop to get charged, and I don't want to say his name because I don't want to bring his name light, but for that cop to get charged, that's a great start.

But let's not get it twisted.

For all those cops to get charged, that's a great start, but let's not get it misconstrued. They have to be convicted. You can see that there aren't a lot of convictions being made because of the ways the laws are written. I think legislation changing is something that really needs to happen.

Stay committed. That's another thing. Commitment is going to show. Commitment is staying true to what you said long after the mood you said it in has left.

Right now, this is in the moment. 

We don't want it to be another situation for us to remember this situation and go, "Oh yeah, we were supposed to do this." 

We have to stay committed to everything we are saying now, months down the line, even after the trials are over with for these police officers. Even if it goes in the favor of George Floyd and he's granted justice, continue to still dig for this type of stuff because we are at the point now where we can make a change. 

Our commitment now is going to be the biggest factor on whether or not a permanent change is made.

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