BEMIDJI, Minn. -- The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last week has sparked protests and discussions of racial injustice across the country. Many college football teams have been at the forefront of such discussions, including at Bemidji State.

BSU players and coaches met via Zoom video calls Monday and shared their experiences with racism.

“It was an eye-opening experience in terms of what a lot of our players have gone through with racism,” head coach Brent Bolte said. “We want to do our part to bring awareness to it, and more importantly, just talk about it. I think that’s the bigger part. Uncomfortable conversations have to happen and that’s how you move forward and make change.”

Players and coaches have taken part in protests in Bemidji and spoken out on social media against racism and police brutality.

“We have our own guys in Bemidji who’ve experienced almost police brutality or social injustice. We have coaches on staff, too,” said defensive line coach Darius Carey, who is black. “A lot of guys just went around and gave their piece. We kind of just wanted to shed light to more of, it’s not ‘You guys versus us.’ It’s more we’re trying to figure out the root of the problem. … It was good that the guys talked about that.”

Carey has reached out to players within his position group.

“I feel like you’ve got to have tough conversations,” Carey said. “That’s the biggest answer right there is having tough conversations with different groups of people that aren’t like you. It might rub you the wrong way, but at the end of the day, it’s just more trying to get to know that person.”

Along with listening to others, Bolte also urged his team to speak out against racism.

“Whatever we can do, that was kind of the message,” Bolte said. “And don’t let things idly go by. Speak up if you hear things that aren’t right and make a difference. That was kind of the overall theme. It was eye opening. It was truly one of the more humbling meetings I’ve been a part of.”

“I appreciate every single last person (who’s) not a minority that’s speaking up,” Carey said. “I feel like that’s the biggest goal, for me at least, is to see people who feel like it does not affect them finally say, ‘You know what? This is awful. I have to say something.’”

Carey shares his perspective

As a native of Ferguson, Mo., Carey has a unique perspective when it comes to racial injustice and police violence.

The 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer ignited protests and unrest in the St. Louis suburb, and helped bring the Black Lives Matter movement to national attention.

At the time, Carey was a defensive lineman for Quincy University in Illinois. When he heard about Floyd’s death, it was sadly familiar.

“It was shocking, obviously. Jaw dropping,” Carey said. “But it was more of, I don’t know what else has to happen in order for things to change. It was good that it actually got caught on camera, just so the people that don’t feel like it affects them can actually see it now.”

What was the last week like for Carey to witness nationwide protests in all 50 states against systemic racism and police brutality?

“It was actually less chaotic than when it was during Mike Brown because obviously that happened in our backyard, literally,” Carey said. “But I feel like something different has to happen, because like I said, the people of Ferguson -- we marched I don’t know for how many miles, for how many days, for how many years, and obviously the same stuff has been happening.”

Originally from the inner city of St. Louis, Carey attended a predominantly white St. Louis high school. He encountered his share of racism there, and also while in college where he heard people call him the N-word.

“My mom taught me to have strong skin, so even when I do hear it, I don’t even notice because I know it’s always going to be there,” Carey said, “which is how I shouldn’t live my life because it should not be there. But for me personally, in the back of my mind, I know no matter what there’s still going to be hatred in somebody’s heart because of your skin color.”

While in high school, he had an encounter with the police when he was out with a group of friends getting frozen yogurt. Carey parked his car with his girlfriend and his cousin, both of whom were black, while another group of friends, who were all white, parked their car. Police, who Carey believes were responding to a reported shooting, swarmed his vehicle.

“I didn’t have anything, obviously,” he said. “I’m in high school. I was wondering what the hell happened.”

The police stopped Carey and his car’s passengers, put them in handcuffs and searched their vehicle before letting them go about their business.

“My friends who were right in front of us, all said, ‘That’s part of the problem. How can they attack them, but not us.’ And we had gotten there at the same time,” Carey said. “In that situation, I just felt like, it is what it is. That’s how it should be. But it shouldn't be that way.”

Carey went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s in education from Quincy. He pursued such a degree after getting to know people in law enforcement growing up.

“I saw what they were trying to do for the city,” Carey said. “I saw they were trying to mold young men.”

He almost became a juvenile officer before deciding to pursue a coaching career upon realizing he could still impact the lives of others through football. After two seasons as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Carey joined the BSU staff prior to the 2019 season.

Football melting pot

With players from a variety of backgrounds, college football teams could provide society with a model on how to tackle issues like racism.

“I feel like they’re probably the best people to be able to do that because they already experience diversity just by coming onto a football team,” Carey said. “You’ve got kids from different walks of life and that’s what it takes for people to not have these situations occur is to know how different people react in certain situations.”

“It is a melting pot within the boundaries of the locker room,” Bolte said. “I don’t think they look at each other as a guy from a rural part of the country or the city, or if they’re black or white, or whatever. They’re brothers, they’re teammates. That’s the important part of football. Athletics in general is a huge platform.”

Carey believes there’s a long way to go in fixing the injustices and racism that African Americans have faced for centuries. But he remains optimistic.

“I feel like our generation is going to make things change,” Carey said. “I do feel like our generation is more willing to work with each other because we all know that we need each other, especially in these times right now.”