While high-profile news coverage of protests has diminished since the summer of 2020, the emotions of individuals who feel deeply about racial issues are still felt very deeply.
Members of the BYU football program were among those impacted and continue to look to make a difference by sharing their concerns.
“I think the last year has been important because it finally showed people what a lot of people of color go through,” Cougar junior defensive back D’Angelo Mandell said at BYU football Media Day in June. “I think it is hard to understand, especially in an area like Utah where there is not that much diversity. I think it is important to see that side of things. I think it was great.”
BYU cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford understands many of the things his players are feeling, both as a former player and as a position coach. He applauded how both the football program and the university have worked to show everyone that they matter.
“It starts at the top, from the president down to everyone involved,” Gilford said. “Being their for our players, having their back, asking what we can do better — not just as a school but as a community. Guys definitely felt welcomed. Guys aren’t feeling like things are being taken away but are feeling that people are helping them. They want to make a change and the school is backing them.”
His view on improving social injustices is based on universal fundamentals.
“We need to have the same mentality, one where right is right and wrong is wrong,” Gilford said. “I believe that if our mentality changes, it will bring us closer together. If something is wrong, how someone looks or their religion or their political background, those things don’t matter. It was either right or wrong, period. I think if we change our mentality and get on that same page, it will bring us together.”
Ellis and Mandell both acknowledged that friends and teammates have started to be more receptive and attempted to learn more about what they are dealing with.
“A lot of guys asked questions and I think that was the biggest thing,” Mandell said. “It was about finding ways to help and things to know. I think the biggest thing is just being aware. We had player meetings and everyone was informed.”
Ellis added: “Some guys were just unaware of it. They come from a different culture. It was great having the conversations to let them know things from our perspective and seeing things from their perspective. Bringing that awareness was great.”
Ellis said he appreciated the way the Cougars looked to focus on inclusion and love instead of the things that are divisive.
“One thing I particularly love is the ‘Love One Another’ shirts,” Ellis said. “I think that was a great message, and it’s great to see other teams and fans wanting to have the same gear. I thought was a great way to bring awareness to the whole situation.”
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake has always emphasized the need to show love and appreciation, which Gilford believes has created a culture that aids those who are facing different challenges.
“It’s been huge because it has allowed guys to have those open conversations,” Gilford said. “At the end of the day, we all love each other. It might be different things from different communities, wherever you are from, but we are all together. We need to talk things out and find ways that we can all be comfortable here together. They can then start to see things they relate to and it starts to become more clear.”
Mandell pointed out that failure to see things from different perspectives is at the heart of a lot of our current problems, not just social issues.
“The biggest issue in the world today is that no one understands being in each other’s shoes,” Mandell said. “I don’t know what it is like being in your shoes and you don’t know what it is like being in mine. I think it’s important to understand people and be aware of everything.”
While they thought some good steps have been taken, Mandell and Ellis think it’s going to take a lot of time before there will be real, widespread change.
“I don’t know if we will be alive to see big changes but I think our kids will have better experiences,” Mandell said.
Ellis added: “I think it is going to keep progressing. I like to always be optimistic about things but change is always going to be slow.”
As they have navigated the turbulence of the last year, Ellis said having Gilford there has been a big deal.
“He’s amazing,” Ellis said. “We laugh but we know when to be serious. The chemistry off the field and having that connection is important. He really knows his stuff and helps us improve on the field and off the field. He’s a great person and we all love him.”
Gilford said he appreciates seeing his athletes face their challenges — both in football and in life — and evolve into the people they are going to be for the rest of their lives.
“My job is to support them in everything they do,” Gilford said. “Seeing them grow, seeing them make decisions, it brings joy in my heart to see them go from being young men to grown men.”