Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
After video of George Floyd being killed while handcuffed and held to the ground by Minneapolis police officers emerged and players began to speak out at the loudest level in the National Football League’s history, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer knew he needed to say something to his team.
He asked Andre Patterson, who has known Zimmer for more than 30 years, how he should approach the subject.
Some coaches might pay close attention to political matters and social justice and find it easy to speak eloquently about subjects like inequality. But Zimmer is all football. His dad was a football coach. He played football and then went into coaching football and has done nothing else for his entire life. Following an eye injury that caused him at least six surgeries, Zimmer said he would rather keep coaching until he went blind than stop for the sake of the eye.
Zimmer is also a man that fits the profile of someone who wouldn’t know what to say to players in need of wise words. He watches Chicago PD and watches film while hunting in a tree stand. In 2016 he was insistent that his players stand for the anthem when Colin Kaepernick was kneeling and has since made several remarks that made it clear he hadn’t changed his mind.
Players were hurting and they needed to know that Zimmer wouldn’t push back against their public statements. Patterson advised Zimmer to simply tell his players what he was feeling.
“My conversation with him was ‘tell them how you feel,’” Patterson said on Wednesday. “They’re going to listen. There’s no right or wrong. The worst thing you can do is stay silent. Tell them how you feel.”
Zimmer did exactly that. He explained to his team that he did not understand from first-hand experience the types of racism that black players have spent their entire lives facing. But he told them that he stood behind them.
“He humbled himself greatly and said, ‘man, I don’t understand and maybe I haven’t given this as much attention, but I know I love every single last one of you guys in this room and I’ll fight for you guys just like you were my sons,’” running back Ameer Abdullah said. “That meant a lot for me because coming from Alabama, I grew up Muslim and black, so I was a double minority. I didn’t have a lot of people of the other color or other religion speaking for me, even when they didn’t understand my religion, even if they didn’t understand my background. So to have Zim come out and humble himself and say ‘I don’t understand but I stand with you’ was powerful for me.”
Linebacker Eric Kendricks has led the charge for change within the Vikings’ team, from challenging the NFL on social media to do more than just put out a statement to meeting with the Minneapolis police chief. He said that Zimmer offered to get involved with the team’s social justice committee.
“It was a big thing because he communicated to us that he does not understand,” Kendricks said. “He is not from the same background. He does not share the same skin. He can’t begin to relate with us, but he hears us and he’s there for us. He expressed that if we want him to get involved with anything that we have going on as a committee, that he’s right there with us.”
The Vikings’ head coach released a public statement acknowledging the power of protests that were sparked across the nation by George Floyd’s death.
“I want to express my deepest condolences to the family and friends of George Floyd as well as the entire community for his senseless death,” Zimmer said in his statement. “Peaceful protests can help bring change, and we definitely need change, so we can all live in harmony. Everyone needs to respect each other’s ideas and work together to strengthen, not weaken, our community. I believe our football team is an example of how people from all different backgrounds and experiences can come together for a common goal.”
Everyone who has followed Zimmer’s career is well aware that he can adapt. He was once asked to flip from a defensive scheme with a four-man front to a three-man front in one offseason and still thrived. When his defense gave up a perfect passer rating to the Los Angeles Rams in 2018, he made mid-season changes and still finished with one of the best defenses in the NFL. Even last year with players slipping from past performances they ended up fifth in points allowed.
But adapting schemes isn’t exactly the same as adapting from a stance that looked at social commentary as a distraction to embracing players like Kendricks’s activism. It was an important step for Zimmer in both the eyes of his pupils and the organization.
In recent years, Zimmer’s team was made up of players who had been with him since the beginning of his tenure. The 11 that started in the playoffs in 2019 were all on the team in 2015. That group came to accept some of his jagged edges and understood how their coach operated. But this year he’s looking at a lot of new faces -- at many younger players who have grown up in a world in which athletes are activists. And he was looking at the next group of players taking on bigger leadership roles like Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Adam Thielen, Danielle Hunter etc. since some of the team’s previous leaders have left. They needed to hear that he was in their corner.
The organization is also aiming to be one of the most progressive in the NFL. They announced on Wednesday that $5 million will be donated to social justice causes. COO Andrew Miller said he felt, “anger, grief, frustration, sadness, and resolve” after the killing of George Floyd. General Manager Rick Spielman was emotional on Wednesday talking about how his own son was racially profiled.
“One of my sons gets pulled over because he’s driving my wife’s car -- that's a really nice car -- and he gets pulled over because of the color of his skin,” Spielman said. “To think that black man can’t be driving that car, he must’ve stolen that car. My son actually had to call home and get my wife on the phone to explain that it’s our car.”
As Zimmer goes into the final year of his current contract and ownership ponders whether they want to go forward with a coach who has taken them to an NFC Championship and won 60% of his games, there’s little doubt that part of the decision will be based on whether he’s pulling in the same direction as the next generation of players and the front office and ownership.
The past two weeks have changed the football world forever. It will take more than just words for Zimmer to show his team that he’s coming along with them but his message of solidarity put him in a better position to lead them into 2020 and to better understand the world around him.