MINNEAPOLIS -- Last summer, in one of the few trips he's made back to his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, since he left to attend the University of Minnesota in 1960, Minnesota Vikings Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller visited the house where his grandmother worked as a maid in the 1950s.
Eller's grandmother was a maid for the family of a Moravian Church reverend back then. On his walk to see a movie, Eller said, "I'd stop by and visit her -- and maybe get a nickel or dime, and I could buy a treat at Krispy Kreme donuts.
"I'd go in the back door to visit her and spend time with her. But I stopped there [last summer] because I was there visiting, and I wanted to show my friends some familiar sites and stuff like that. ... Standing on the front steps, [the current owners] invited me to come into the house -- through the front door. I froze. Emotionally, I could not apprehend going through the front door, because that was denied for me [as a child]."
More than a half-century later, the vestiges of racism that surrounded Eller as a child are still vivid enough to stop him in his tracks. The defensive end, who made five All-Pro teams and reached the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, was one of the Vikings' earliest African-American stars. He said Monday night that he felt a responsibility to do his best because of how fleeting the opportunities had been for his predecessors. As Eller and Alan Page -- two Hall of Famers from the Vikings' famed "Purple People Eaters" defensive line -- spoke on a stage in the Vikings' practice facility, their words were tinged with reverence for how profound their struggle was.
The two Vikings legends offered some of the more poignant remarks of the team's Black History Month kickoff celebration Monday night, speaking to a group of about 50 high school and middle school students from Minneapolis and St. Paul. Current Vikings right tackle Phil Loadholt underscored the importance of the communication that exists between different groups in the team's locker room now.
Geji McKinney-Banks, who oversees the team's nutrition as the Vikings' food service operations director, said she got where she is because "I don't believe in being ordinary." Minnesota-based novelist Jonathan Odell shared the ways he was indoctrinated in racism growing up in Mississippi. And Vikings chief operating officer Kevin Warren -- the highest-ranking black executive on the business side of a NFL team -- outlined all the ways to carve out a successful career in sports beyond being a professional athlete.
Yet the words of the two oldest men on the stage -- Eller and Page -- served as a clarion call to the students to remember what came before them, particularly as the Twin Cities continue to grapple with the effects of the Jamar Clark shooting in north Minneapolis in November. Page, whose 23-year tenure as a Minnesota Supreme Court justice ended with his retirement in August at age 70, called on those in attendance to take a hard look at their own biases.
"We're all -- because we're different -- we all have our own biases," he said. "And the question is, whether we are willing to look at people who are not ourselves, who are different from us, whether we are willing to look at the individual and not just the perceived stereotype? We can do that, whether we're athletes or not. Most of us are not athletes. Most of us are just ordinary, everyday people. I include myself in that group. I happened to be an athlete, but the reality is, I'm just another person. All of us -- not just some of us -- have to look at the person next to us, and base our decisions and views on that person on what they do, not the color of their skin."
Asked to compare the Black Lives Matter movement with his own generation's struggles, Page pointed out that "in the criminal justice system, people of color are grossly over-represented," before he relayed a story from his childhood in Canton, Ohio.
"When I grew up, [my friends and I] would see a police car coming," he said. "The first thing we'd say is, 'What's a penny made of? Dirty copper.' I've come to understand, over time, that not every police officer is a bad person. Not every law enforcement officer is out to do you ill. There are some bad ones. There certainly are those. But that being said, I think they are in the minority.
"I should be honest and say, I think there are more incidents of police abuse that result in somebody being killed. I don't know that there are necessarily more incidents of police abuse. Part of that is, we've gotten to a place in our society where the first thing we do is shoot first and talk later. I suspect that if, in fact, there is an increase in the number of deaths, it is because of that."
On an evening that transcended the sometimes trivial nature of sports, the words of the two Vikings greats were a reminder of what profound change can begin from an athlete's platform.
"It's not over, and the job is not done," Eller said. "It would be nice if it were, but that's the nature of the battle. That's what I would say to the young people: You have -- I wouldn't call it an obligation -- but you should be really proud of what your parents and grandparents did for you. They were remarkable people, and I really admire them. I'm so indebted to what they have done to make it possible for me."