My son can’t stand or kneel. It hit me when the "Star-Spangled Banner" started playing ahead of the Feb. 20 University of North Dakota football game at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. While there has been much discussion and debate about what athletes do during our country’s national anthem, I would jump into Hunter’s wheelchair for the rest of my earthly days to give him an opportunity to stand again alongside his teammates.
Prior to the national anthem, UND played a video featuring head football coach Bubba Schweigert and the team’s five captains: Jordan Canady, Garett Magg, Nathan Nguon, Jaxson Turner and our son, Hunter.
While I’m not going to recount the full script, the message from the coach and each player-leader focused on unity, equality, diversity and inclusion. For many, this encompasses divisions of racial inequality and the message of bringing all people together also includes Hunter, who played on the field for three seasons and stood as a redshirt.
Truthfully, as a white, middle-class mother from rural America, I’ve never thought much about inclusion and equality in terms of our own three children but have thought of it as a teammate, colleague and friend. Couple an ethnically diverse football team with my son’s obstacles as a “seated” teammate now, and the video means more to me than UND’s early season wins and rankings.
The video led me to be a part of a post-game discussion among parents, who are some of our most loyal friends. We have been doing life with this group for the past five years and they were by our side during some of our darkest days after Hunter’s accident and through his rehabilitation.
My takeaway from the video is this: We need to have conversations with people from different places, races, ethnic experiences and points of view to bring all people together. We need to listen.
If Hunter were playing, rather than on the sidelines now, I don’t know if I would have allowed myself enough time and space to pause and soak in the opening video and message. I don’t know that I would have noticed each team member as they stood for the national anthem, together as one unified team who always stood by Hunter when he played and continue to do so now as he remains seated during the national anthem.
The message of unity resonated throughout the day when I connected with a mom of a player on the opposing team.
I knew the first game we attended after Hunter’s accident would be emotional. I tried to prepare and work through the emotions ahead of time. But the first time Hunter rolled onto the field with his team, I was thankful my mask could soak up my tears.
As the game started, I glanced down at my phone to find a social media message from a fellow football mom from the opposing team. I walked over to the opposing team’s seats to meet the parents of a Southern Illinois Saluki’s player. They had followed Hunter and our family’s story. While the game carried on with an exciting interception, I sat in the opposing team’s section and saw our North Dakota fans cheering.
I felt more unified than divided among the “opposition.” Last week, a similar yet different message connected me to a mom of a South Dakota State football player. Meeting her reminded me we all have a story. Each of us suffers and works through our own process to overcome and move on in our life.
If Hunter’s accident and story hadn’t unfolded over the past 14 months, I wouldn’t have paused long enough to connect and listen on a deeper level to his teammates and their families as well as two families seated in the visitor’s section. I know I wouldn’t have paid close attention to the video message ahead of the national anthem to the depth, understanding and appreciation I did. I recorded the video message at the second game of the season, shared in social media and replayed at home for our daughters.
I don’t have answers or solutions to the divisions we face culturally or as a nation, but I know starting in my own corner by listening and being a part of conversations is a positive start.
Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect with her on Twitter @katpinke.