College football players are perceived to be a privileged class — above-the-fray Big Men on Campus. But that was far from Coney Durr’s experience when the Louisiana native first arrived at the University of Minnesota in late summer 2016.
The freshman Durr said he and two other Black Gophers players were walking through campus on their way to a party when they were stopped by police and told they fit the description for nearby break-in.
“We were on the sidewalk, afraid,” Durr, now a senior starting cornerback, said. “We didn’t do nothing. We were just trying to go have fun. It was tough, but that happened.”
Durr recalled last week how that experience came within a month Philando Castile being shot and killed by a police officer in St. Anthony, and Alton Sterling being shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, La., Durr’s hometown. Both victims were Black.
When the Twin Cities later became the epicenter for racial strife with George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis cop in May, Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck asked his leadership council how the team should respond.
“Everybody’s saying, ‘Action and empathy and listening,’ and I get all that,” Fleck said. “But I said, ‘OK, how are we going to act on this?’ And Coney Durr just said simply: ‘Education.’ ”
That grew into the HERE Campaign, which stands for Helping End Racism through Education. It became that acronym because Floyd’s death occurred five miles from campus.
While Gophers fan message boards light up with trivial concerns over what Floyd’s death will do to the Gophers' recruiting, Fleck and the Gophers have not shied away from truth happening at home.
The Gophers are wearing “HERE” stickers on their helmet, and their gold jerseys have “END RACISM” on the players name plates. Star receiver Rashod Bateman changed his number from 13 to 0 to signify “zero tolerance” for racism.
One of the first HERE Campaign meetings included roughly 35 players and coaches, white and Black, standing up in a meeting to share their experiences with racism. Durr stood up and shared his experiences, how he saw Black history taught differently in more-diverse urban areas in downtown Baton Rouge, La., compared to suburban Geismar, where he moved to attend Dutchtown High School.
While all-Big Ten honorable mention last year, Durr’s first love was baseball. He credited his mother, Karlyn, with providing opportunities to play on traveling teams. When he got to Dutchtown, he was one of the last cuts from the varsity team two straight years, including one year where he played well and hit a triple in a scrimmage.
While Durr’s close friend Jared Sparks, a Purdue receiver who also is Black, made the baseball team after playing in the program since youth, Durr said he felt racism in being cut. It sank in when he was told, “You should just go run track.”
Gophers walk-on Preston Jelen, a white running back and special teams contributor from Prior Lake, said he felt fortunate to hear others’ stories.
“It’s really eye-opening and something that I never really saw or had to deal with in Prior Lake,” Jelen said. “It’s been very informative to hear from my teammates, hear their stories and it definitely makes everyone on the team want to make change and unite this community.”
Fleck said some of the stories were new to him.
“When you hear the hurt in their voice for things that happened when they are eight, nine years old, when they were 16 years old, maybe two weeks ago, your heart just hurts,” Fleck said on KFAN-FM.
Fleck said one exchange with receiver Seth Green of Woodbury has stuck with him.
Green asked, ” ‘How many African-American teachers have you had in your life?’ ” Fleck recalled on the radio show. “ ‘I haven’t had any.’ It put into perspective for me.”
For last week’s HERE Campaign meeting, a professor was invited to share details of how the 1963 March on Washington was much more than Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The discussion included the role of A. Philip Randolph’s organizing an original march in 1940 after Blacks had been excluded from job opportunities. It was called it off after President Franklin D. Roosevelt forbid discrimination against workers, but racial issues didn’t disappear.
“It hit deeper than just seeing something on CNN or being taught something in a history class,” Durr said.
When the Gophers went to Maryland to play the Terrapins in 2018, they briefly visited the Lincoln Memorial in nearby Washington and saw where Dr. King gave his famous speech. This year, Fleck wanted to take the team to King’s memorial, but COVID-19 restrictions and the proximity to the election didn’t make that possible.
But the HERE Campaign will continue throughout the season.
“It’s educating guys on our team,” Durr said. “We come from a billion different backgrounds, and some guys didn’t even have Black teammate in high school. It’s getting them to understand where we are coming from as young Black men. We’ve got a lot of great guys on the team, so they are willing to listen and just make the world a better place.”