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#TGW: It's A Humanity Issue

By Jon Cooper | The Good Word

Georgia Tech football head coach Geoff Collins has no problem talking. He’s proved great at filling a reporter’s notebook.

For nearly an hour earlier this week, Collins talked on a number of subjects, but his most powerful and heartfelt words were reserved for the need for racial equality around the world in reaction to the death of George Floyd, and the right of football players — especially African-American players — to express their opinions.

Ironically, Collins feels his greatest impact in recent days has been by not talking.

“You just want to give your heart. You want to listen. You want to be empathetic and just try to get a better sense of what the guys are going through,” he said. “I’m born and raised in Decatur. I was raised in a predominantly black neighborhood but that does not mean that I know the experience. When those things happen, they happen to our black brothers and sisters, I know that our players are internalizing it. Listening and hearing and feeling, having an empathetic ear and a sense of what our guys are going through and what the country is going through, that matters and that’s important.”

Of course, Collins hasn’t stayed completely silent. He was one of the first major college football coaches in the nation to address Floyd’s death when he did so on Twitter last Friday.

On Sunday, he went on to address his thoughts and feelings even more in depth on local radio.

“Let my guys know, the black community as a whole, ‘Your experience matters. That you matter. That your hopes matter, your dreams matter, your life matters, your family matters.’ That was just on my heart,” he said. “My heart is for the black community — in Atlanta, in the Southeast, nationwide and even globally. Whatever I can do to lend my voice to help, I want to do it.

“The last [several] nights, there have been a lot of sleepless nights — watching the news, watching what’s happening on social media and just reaching out to the leadership groups and the individual guys,” he added. “Just letting them know, ‘I might not be able to fix everything but I want to play my part and play my role in making this world a better place and to make their experience better.’”

What he’s heard is real. And real hard.

“It breaks your heart,” he said. “I’ve got young black men on my team that have expressed their fear of driving after dark. I have a young man that said that over the weekend he was running low on groceries but it was dark outside and instead of going to the grocery store he just stayed in and found something else because he was fearful of going out after dark. You can sense and feel pain, anger, fear, all of those things with a bunch of strong black men that are such unbelievable individuals. They are such great young men that have mothers and fathers and grandparents and brothers and sisters that love them so dearly. Your heart goes out because you want them to have the same experience and the same chance and the same safety that my four-year-old daughter does.”

Collins has encouraged his student-athletes to continue to express their opinions on social media.

“It’s a humanity issue,” he said. “If you see the things that are going on in the world and you see the things that happened with George Floyd, and you see Breonna Taylor, there’s got to be a humanity piece that goes on and you see that and, as a human, you understand that those actions are wrong. You want to be a part of the change. We’ve got a lot of young men in this program that want to do that and want to be a part of that change and the healing process. I told them I’m committed to that.

“At Georgia Tech, we’ve got a bunch of highly intelligent young men. They’re high-character, [from] great families. The entire time we’ve been here, they have used social media responsibly. So we encourage them to do that,” he added. “I had a young man, call me [Monday], almost in tears, apologizing to me for something that he posted on social media that some followers of people took offense to. It’s something that was in his heart, some other people read it the wrong way. He’s an unbelievable young man who has a big heart that is feeling a lot of things that a lot of people in this world are feeling and decided to share them. We love our guys, we support our guys and we want to help them navigate it. They have a voice just like everybody else in America has. They’re feeling a certain way and it’s their right to express it.”

Collins also had the opportunity to comment on how showing empathy and caring can make a difference. He specifically pointed to the video of a white Atlanta police officer listening to, then walking hand-in-and with a group black protesters. That officer is Lt. Kevin Knapp, a Georgia Tech graduate and offensive lineman for the Jackets in the late 1990s.

“He’s a lieutenant now, high character, played hard, tough, physical,” said Collins, who was a graduate assistant under George O’Leary for Knapp’s senior year in 1999. “I thought it was powerful. The principal at Hapeville Charter, a Georgia Tech graduate, Candace Bethea, tweeted that video to me. She was a classmate of Kevin. It’s a special moment when those kinds of things happen. This is a Georgia Tech graduate, a Georgia Tech football player in this great city doing something positive for our community.”

Collins hopes Knapp’s actions can resonate and positively impact the future. It’s the kind of future he’s seen in interactions of his daughter, Astrid, and wide receivers coach Kerry Dixon’s son, Kerry.

“We were both at the University of Florida together, his son, Kerry, and my daughter were born roughly the same time,” he said, then paused as he was overcome with emotion. “They’ve grown up together. Her third birthday party last year, there’s a picture of them just happily staring out a window together being close friends. They don’t know racism. They don’t know hate. All they know is ‘That’s my friend.’ ‘That’s my buddy.’ ‘I love them.’ ‘I love their dad.’ It’s heart-wrenching that the world can’t be the way we’ve got it. Our coaching staff, our families around and the way they interact with our players, white and black, is beautiful. You see those things and you long for the day when that’s the norm. They can have that level of love and care and hope and safety and all of those things that go along with that.”

It starts with empathy and communication — something Collins has stressed for his charges.

“One of the biggest pieces that we’ve done since we’ve been here is that foundation of trust and love and care that we have. That lends itself to when we do have issues that come up, social issues or injustices or inequalities that are shown constantly on social media and constantly on the news right now,” he said. “We can talk about them and be transparent and we can be committed to being part of the change to make this community and make this world a better place. I’m so proud of the young men that I get to coach, so proud of the coaching staff that is willing to be honest with me and help me navigate all of these situations.

“It’s not just a social media post. It’s not just an interview. It’s not just a press conference. It’s our daily walk that we’re going to have whenever we’re back together and whenever we’re able to be out in the community,” he added. “I love this city. I listened to [Atlanta] Mayor [Keisha Lance] Bottoms the other night and just how she’s handled this and the way she speaks, and the things that she cares about in this community. We’re committed to helping her and everybody else in this city to make this a better place.”

Collins is confident that the Institute is fully committed to doing its part.

“Whenever we get back together, the conversations have to continue,” he said. “The people we bring in, whether they be speakers, whether it be hiring people to support our guys, we’re committed to doing that. I know our athletic department, [President] Dr. [Angel] Cabrera is committed to making sure that all the resources our guys need and all the students at Georgia Tech need will be provided for them moving forward.”

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