FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- A quick stroll through a neighborhood on Atlanta's rugged west side gave Ben Garland a different perspective, and a better appreciation for life.
The Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman and United States Air Force captain, who hails from Grand Junction, Colorado, didn't grow up in an area riddled by violence. He never experienced feeling helpless or abandoned. But he got a taste of what it might be like during a five-hour, police ride-along back in May. During the trek, the police officer he was with discovered a dead body inside an apartment building. The police did not disclose the specifics behind the man's "natural" death but informed Garland the man had no immediate contacts.
"So I'm standing over the corpse of this dead body and right as I'm doing that, they informed me that his name is Garland," Garland explained. "I haven't met that many Garlands in my entire life, but it was a 70-year-old, African-American man. We were like opposite juxtapositions: He was old, I was young; high income, low income; black, white. Literally everything in society's eyes, we were opposites. But in that moment, we were family."
Garland, one of the members of the social awareness committee the Falcons formed last season, shared his experience with the entire team.
Our players, our team want to do more. For nearly a year, they have been planning and working to make an impact for social good in an effort to move the conversation from Protest to Progress.— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) June 11, 2018
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"It was incredible, because you got to go on the ride-along and you're thinking about the perspective -- not only of the cop and the decisions they have to make, but also like what the people in these tough neighborhoods are going through and what they see," Garland said. "I didn't grow up in a tough neighborhood like that, so I don't really understand. But at the same time, you see from the cop's perspective and from the people living there and their perspectives. It was really interesting and really eye-opening for me."
The Falcons formed the player-led committee last fall with the goal of enlightening themselves and others on a variety of social issues -- including the oppression of African-Americans brought to the forefront when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee and staged the initial protest. The topics continue to be a lightning-rod issue, with the league owners this offseason approving a new policy for players during the playing of the national anthem before games. Players who are on the field during the anthem are required to stand. NFL players maintain the crux of the demonstrations has nothing do with disrespecting the country or the flag but about bringing to light social injustices.
Rather than formulate a plan on how to react to the new anthem policy, the Falcons focused their committee efforts on getting out in the community and experiencing life from different points of view while actively trying to support the less-fortunate, with full support from owner Arthur Blank.
They huddled with kids at the Boys and Girls Club and let students shadow them at the football facility. They went on the police ride-alongs and engaged in police simulation training exercises to understand the officer's view in quick-reacting situations. They helped build homes in the community through Habitat for Humanity and met with advocacy groups.
"Ballplayers and coaches, we wanted to take some action," coach Dan Quinn said. "There are issues that need our attention, and we really recognize it.
"I'm hopeful that the work the men did this year can almost like have an expansion effect, like, 'OK, that worked good. Let's try this. Let's add to that.' As we get into each offseason, let's grow it to say, 'Let's impact this. Let's grow it again. Let's grow it again.' We're hopeful that's something we'll talk about years from now. 'Remember back in 2017, 2018, when we started this program and it was just a couple of guys doing some things?' However we can continue to make an impact here in Atlanta, that's pretty cool."
The Falcons also were inspired by a meeting with civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Stevenson, a public interest lawyer, has devoted his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned, and has educated communities on slavery, lynchings and segregation.
Falcons nose tackle Grady Jarrett was one of two Falcons to take a knee during the national anthem last season, along with defensive tackle Dontari Poe who left the team in free agency. Jarrett's stance was a reaction to President Donald Trump addressing the issue of kneeling NFL players in September by saying, "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag to say, 'get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired." Jarrett might not take a knee again, but he appreciates the opportunity to educate kids about social injustices.
"It's always been important to me as far as the youth," Jarrett said. "Spending time with them, you talk through some things, like police officers and things like that. As long as you try to impact youth life, whether it's about social justice or just about life itself, it's always good."
Falcons cornerback Brian Poole, who once wore cleats protesting against police brutality, has a unique perspective to share with the younger generation. Poole, who grew up with his father in prison, was part of a question-and-answer session at the Boys and Girls club that included some of his teammates and police officers.
"We just sat down and [the children] asked questions to us, I asked questions to some of the law enforcement officers, and they asked questions to some of the law enforcement officers," Poole said. "I felt like the whole thing was just kind of to get on the same page with the youth, and us, and the police officers.
"I was once one of those kids at the Boys and Girls Club that really didn't know what my future had. It was definitely good for me, because I can relate to them. It's one thing to go talk to somebody. It's another thing to be able to go relate to them."