I check the weather app on my phone.
“Daddy, I want to learn how to ride a bike.”
That’s my daughter, Naomi. She’s five, she loves ballet and soccer, and apparently she’s unfazed by the heat. When she wants something, she gets straight to the point. In that way, she’s a lot like her father.
This is last July, right before the start of training camp, and I’m home with the kids. My older daughter Grace, she’s six. And she can ride without training wheels, no problem. Naturally, Naomi wants to do anything her big sis can do.
I look back at my phone.
Feels like: 108.
Is there any way I can get out of this?
My wife is nine months pregnant with our daughter. It’s not like I’m going to ask her to go outside to run up and down the block in this heat.
New Orleans weather is a beast. I’m sweating just standing in the doorway.
Naomi is already in the driveway, ringing the bell on her bike. The training wheels have come off. She’s geared up: Elbow pads, pink helmet, the whole outfit. And she’s getting impatient.
Ding, ding, ding.
And I’m telling you, the humidity, it’s like rain. Hot, even for Louisiana standards. Of course, I’m not missing this for the world. I’d already worked out twice that day, but that wasn’t going to stop me. I knew this was a moment.
“Daddy’s gotta hydrate!” I yell, and sprint back into the kitchen. Four bottles of water later, I’m ready.
You know how it goes when you’re teaching someone how to ride a bike: you hold the seat and you run alongside them. When the bike feels steady, you let it go a for a second — maybe five seconds — but you’re still right there, ready to grab the seat when the bike starts to wobble. But you can’t do that forever. Sooner or later, you have to let the bike go and hope they don’t fall. You’re just holding your breath. Inevitably, they fall.
Naomi wobbles and crashes into the grass a few times. Each time, she gets up and looks at me and says, “Again, again!” I’m sweating — like I just took a shower — but we keep going. After an hour, she was riding down the driveway by herself without falling.
After two or three more days, she was on her own riding a bike.
In that moment, all my cares and worries completely vanished. If you’re not a parent, you probably can’t understand why it’s such a powerful thing. It’s such a small moment, but it fills your heart with so much joy.
Maybe it’s like a type of nostalgia, but one that’s happening in real time. You’re watching your kids grow up right before your eyes.
Like last month, when I came home after a hard day of practice and my five kids all rushed me at the door.
One of them yelled, “When’s the season over so we can see you every day?!”
Those moments, as a parent, are the sneakiest. They really get you.
But these moments carry another feeling, too. It’s hard to put into words. Maybe it’s like a type of nostalgia, but one that’s happening in real time. You’re watching your kids grow up right before your eyes. When I saw Naomi in her pink helmet, so determined to ride her bike, I couldn’t help but think: It’s all happening so fast. Soon she’ll be in middle school, then she’ll be getting her driver’s license, then dating, then college, then…
I know, I know! She’s only five years old, but still. It sneaks up on you. You want to embrace every moment. Because each one feels fragile.
Last summer, Grace, my six-year-old, walked into the living room while I was watching CNN. The program on at the moment was about the victims of police violence. A newscaster’s voice accompanied pictures of the victims, mostly young black men:
“Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by police as he played in the park …”
“Unarmed teenager Laquan McDonald was shot by Chicago police …”
“Eric Garner was put in a choke hold …”
“Freddie Gray was found dead in custody in a police van …”
“Michael Brown …”
The newscaster was listing several more names as I changed the channel.
“Daddy, what are they doing to that man?” She was pointing at the TV.
For a parent, this was a dilemma. But I believe it was a very important one. First and foremost, a parent always wants to protect his children. There’s no more automatic instinct on earth. But now that my daughter was in the room, I had a choice: I could act as if it didn’t happen, or I could try to address it. I could try to use it as a teaching moment.
So we were able to talk about it. I tried to use terms my daughter might be able to grasp. But I wanted to be honest.
That man was doing something wrong. The police officers came. This time they used too much force, and something bad happened. That’s why people are protesting and people are talking about it.
There’s no telling how much got through to her. After all, she’s only six. But as a black parent, the reality is, you know that at some point your kid is going to realize they are black. As they get older and they’re out in the world on their own, their “race” will become a big part of their identity — to themselves and to others. You want to prepare them for that as best you can. When somebody says something about your kid’s hair at school, or about their skin, or about them being somehow different, you want them to be equipped with the knowledge and the self esteem to be able to handle those situations.
Then it hit me. I was having my first attempt at “The Talk.”
Maybe you know about The Talk. It’s okay if you don’t.
As a black parent, the reality is, you know that at some point your kid is going to realize they are black.
The Talk takes many shapes, but at its core it’s the conversation black parents must have with their kids about what it means to be black in America — both historically and right now in 2016. In reality, it’s a series of “talks” over the years as they grow up.
For my sons, who are still very young, I know The Talk will be especially hard for me. When my sons get older, I’ll have to, in so many words, tell them, “You’re cute little boys now, but as you get a little bit older and start getting some muscles, you might be looked upon as a threat.”
I’ll have to prepare them for reality:
Even if you are a law-abiding citizen, sometimes you won’t get the benefit of the doubt.
Even if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t make sudden movements in front of police officers.
If a police officer pulls you over, you need to show them your hands and be respectful, because you might not get the same grace that somebody else would.
The most important part of the Talk is to teach our children to think of people as individuals. To see a white man, black man, policeman or any other citizen as humans that may look like others in “their” group but don’t necessarily act or think like them. And if I’m really being honest, the hardest part of the Talk is the conviction that takes place in my own heart, when I must practice the words I preach to my babies.
As a parent, you just want your kids to come home safe. The Talk is a heavy duty to bear.
One night in the fall of 2014, I opened my Notes section on my iPhone and started writing. I just had to put my thoughts down somewhere.
What it turned into was this Facebook post about the events in Ferguson. I expressed a mix of emotions about the death of Michael Brown and the protests that followed. I expressed anger, but also embarrassment. I expressed sadness, but also sympathy. I expressed confusion, but also hope.
I didn’t intend for it to go viral, but it did. Almost a million likes and half a million shares later, I found myself at the center of an online — and, later, offline — conversation about race. Less than a year after that Facebook post, I wrote a book, entitled Under Our Skin, inspired by its themes.
We often hear about how the United States needs a “national conversation” on race. I agree.
But sometimes I think calling for a “national” conversation feels like an all-too-easy way to dismiss a topic that’s hard but necessary. I believe what we really need are more conversations with individuals who are different from us — personal conversations with our coworkers, neighbors and friends.
A lot of people are surprised to hear that athletes talk about “serious” stuff. I have a teammate I’m close with who’s white, and we like to talk openly about a lot of things – sports, politics, family, and race. We’re always in the locker room talking about whatever’s on our minds.
Sometimes he’ll say to me something like, “I just don’t get this. Why is the black community responding in this way to X or Y issue?” And I’ll offer my views.
And maybe I’ll ask him, “What do you think about how the police reacted in X or Y case?” And we’ll debate. We try to have really honest talks. From the outside, I could see how people would view our conversations as “controversial” or “tense.” But it’s not like that at all. Sure, we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but that’s not the point. There’s mutual respect. There’s curiosity. There’s humanity.
A lot of people are surprised to hear that athletes talk about “serious” stuff.
I know a lot of white folks who have confided in me that they are uncomfortable talking about race because they might come off as insensitive, or worse, be labeled as racist. They don’t always know how to talk about race, even if they’d like to. I understand that. And I know black folks who assume they can’t have a candid conversation about race with their white counterparts because they wouldn’t empathize. I understand that, too.
The belief in dialogue, equality and building stronger communities is strongly rooted in my faith as a Christian. In 2008, my wife Kirsten and I started non-profit called the One More Foundation, inspired by the Gospel’s principles of loving your neighbor as yourself. It is our belief that the best way to instill hope and love is to meet people’s basic physical needs first. That’s why the One More Foundation focuses on spreading the love and hope of Christ to one more soul by meeting people’s real needs: promoting education and providing enrichment opportunities through charitable initiatives and partnerships. We believe that when we are a blessing to another, they in turn will do that for one more, who will pass it on to one more, who will pass it on to one more, creating a ripple effect as far as the eye can see.
I’m not saying dialogue is easy or that we need Kumbaya moments with our friends about race. But through dialogue, we can say, “I see you. Over there, I see you. I hear you.”
Now and then, I think back to the day last summer when my daughter first learned how to ride a bike. Man, the heat was brutal that day. It was uncomfortable, it was exhausting, it was humid — but in the end it was worth it. I wasn’t going to miss a chance to spend time with my daughter.
But on another level, I knew it was my duty.
The Talk isn’t so different. It’s uncomfortable, too. But it’s our duty as parents. And I think we need to think more broadly about The Talk. We need all families — white, black, whatever race — to have their version of The Talk, too. That’s what I’m hoping: that as I’m having The Talk with my daughters or sons, maybe there is a white dad across town talking to his son about race, too. Yes, the conversation will take a different form, but education always starts in the home. It starts with family. When families decide to teach their children and challenge themselves about difficult subjects like race, I believe that’s when you start to see hearts change.
We already have some laws that have changed — and brave people are out there challenging unjust laws that still need changing. But if we truly believe that we’re all brothers and sisters, we must try to stand in each other’s shoes. That starts on a personal level. With your family member, your coworker, your coach, your teammate, your neighbor. We need to care about things that don’t necessarily affect each of us individually. It might be uncomfortable, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve got a long way to go. It’s a long road to empathy. But as neighbors in a diverse nation, it’s our duty to try.
My biggest hope is that when my daughter has her own children some day, they will never have to walk into the room, see what’s happening on the TV, and ask her, “Mommy, what are they doing to that man?”
Benjamin Watson is a finalist for the 2015 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. The winner will be announced during the 5th Annual NFL Honors awards show, a two-hour primetime special airing nationally on Feb. 6, the night before Super Bowl 50, from 9-11 p.m. ET on CBS. For more information, visit nfl.com/manoftheyear.