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DEAR KAEP,

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Needed you aware of my immense gratitude for your sacrifices, for what you’ve done for our collective consciousness, for how you’ve transformed my thinking and seeing. For instance, the time I was riding a NJ Transit train with a horde of Jets fans (poor souls) returning from MetLife Stadium. Dozens and dozens decked in Jets jerseys and hats, no few recapping game highlights:

That dude’s an animal, some said, their breath a brewery.

Such and such is a beast, they said.

Did you see that hit? That guy’s a savage!

This was around the time the King of White Audacity threatened, “You shouldn’t be playing,” that “maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.” Which means you’d already gone from sitting to kneeling, were—unbeknownst to you, I suspect—becoming the target of perhaps the most infamous blackballing in sports history, were damn near 40-yard-dashing down a path that would transform you from a superstar Super Bowl–starting quarterback into a civil rights icon, which is also to say: a symbol.

The language used that day on the train was nothing I hadn’t heard before, but in that moment it was a caustic that scraped the inside of my ears and ramped my pulse. Because my impressionable son was with me. Because I’d been writing about race in America. Because your nascent crucible was on my mind, a struggle that forced me to consider the ways the jargon used to describe football players—animal, beast, savage, brute—echoed words that’d been used to cast our people as inhuman.

We are human and should be treated as such—that’s what I’ve gleaned as the crux of your message.

And here you are still delivering it. In speeches. On the screen. In books. At your camp. Here you are still pressing toward your dream of a return to the NFL.

To keep it 100, that last part hurts, bro. Every time I read a headline announcing another workout, watch a clip of you throwing a sublime spiral wearing not football pads but Nike gear, every time I encounter a TV or magazine interview with you proclaiming, “That’s not something I will ever let go of, regardless of the actions of 32 teams and their partners to deny me employment” or “The same way I was persistent in high school is the same way I’m gonna be persistent here,” it’s painful. Not because I disbelieve in your gifts or grit, your supreme confidence or unwavering wherewithal, your dogged belief in achieving the impossible. It pains me because I can’t help but mind proof of their shamelessness, their infidelity to fairness and equality, to honor and integrity, to the hallowed principles they swear are represented in their beloved flag and revised anthem.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave . . .

The league colluding to refuse your labor is a wound because, in it, I see the legal woes foisted upon Ali for his conscientious objection; them people usurping the glory and spoils due Smith and Carlos; the machinations that robbed Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of a prime career. In your long public (and who knows the measure of private) struggle, I’m reminded of the physical and psychic torture they doled to the enslaved they deemed literate or hopeful or obstinate or some other quality they perceived as a threat to their supremacy. Your plight reveals yet more proof of whiteness and its unyielding will to power, to endure by any means.

Still, I have no doubt you’ll press on however you can for however long you can. And though you owe me nothing—absolutely, positively, unequivocally nothing—I do wonder, dear brother, at this stage, does it all feel worth it?

Sincerely, Mitch

Joshua Kissi

This story originally appears in the October/November 2023 issue of Men’s Health.

Headshot of Mitchell S. Jackson

Mitchell S Jackson is a contributing writer for Esquire, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award as well as the acclaimed author of the memoir Survival Math, and the award-winning novel The Residue Years.