SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The two text messages were sent only a few hours apart, but a lot happened in that time. A relationship was formed, at least one long conversation on how to effect meaningful change in the United States took place, two football teams warmed up for a preseason game, and most members of those teams stood, hand over heart, while two players knelt for the national anthem.
In another corner of the world, perspective was gained.
Nate Boyer, the former Green Beret and Seattle Seahawks long-snapper, was at home in Los Angeles when the call came from the San Francisco 49ers on quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s behalf. Kaepernick, who had been drawing a mixture of criticism and praise, in addition to unrelenting attention, for his decision not to stand during the national anthem, read Boyer's open letter on ArmyTimes.com and wanted to sit down to talk about it.
With the 49ers set to play their preseason finale in San Diego, Kaepernick invited Boyer to the game and sent an Uber to drive him the roughly 120 miles through Southern California. The destination was the Westin hotel in downtown San Diego, where the Niners were staying.
But before Boyer had a chance to meet with Kaepernick, he received a text from a friend. Because the friend is still serving in the special forces, their name has been left out here, but the message made clear the soldier's feelings on Kaepernick's silent protest:
“Hey brother, at first I was with you on the Kaepernick issue, however I just stood in formation while one of our brothers was pulled off of a plane with our nation’s flag draped over a coffin. I had to fight back the tears as I saw the pain in the eyes of staff sergeant Thompson's wife and his family. While I would like to sit here and tell you that I rose above it all, I have to be honest, my heart filled with rage. Rage for anyone who takes for granted the ideals of the symbols that we fight and die for.”
Kaepernick greeted Boyer with a quick explanation of his feelings toward Boyer and the military.
"The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘I want you to know, first and foremost, I really do respect the heck out of the military, and I really want to thank you for your service. I just want you to know that,’" Boyer said Monday evening. "I said ‘Yeah, I do know that.’"
Over the next 90 minutes, Boyer, Kaepernick and 49ers safety Eric Reid sat in the Westin lobby in front of a large window discussing their perspectives on the issue. As fans stopped to snap selfies with Kaepernick in the background, Boyer saw in the quarterback a person who wanted to make his message about racial oppression in the country clear, but who also wanted to find a better way to do it. During the conversation, Boyer showed Kaepernick and Reid the text message from his friend.
"I could see it in his eyes," Boyer said. "It definitely affected him. He said, ‘How can I show respect to people like that, but still get my message across that I’m not satisfied with the way things are going in this country?’"
Reid, who had been having conversations with Kaepernick all week about how he could support the quarterback, was uncomfortable with the idea of sitting during the anthem. He was prepared to join Kaepernick if they could find something other than sitting down. Boyer said he'd love to stand side-by-side with Kaepernick during the anthem, suggesting Kaepernick bow his head during the song. Kaepernick wasn't ready to stand. Reid suggested kneeling.
"He actually showed us the text messages that his buddies were sending, how they said they were pissed about what he did, but they still understood why he was doing it," Reid said. "Which led to the decision for him to not sit but to take a knee, to show respect to the people that felt hurt by that action."
Boyer agreed taking a knee was more respectful and suggested Kaepernick join his teammates during the anthem rather than isolating himself as he'd done in previous games.
"I told him, 'It’s a good step, and it shows progress on your part and sensitivity and that you care about other people and how this affects them, their reaction,'" Boyer said. "It’s still definitely a symbol. People take a knee to pray. In the military, we take a knee all the time. It’s one of the things we do. When we’re exhausted on patrol, they say take a knee and face out. So we take a knee like that. We’ll take a knee as the classic symbol of respect in front of a brother’s grave site, a soldier on a knee."
The 90-minute conversation covered more than finding a different way for Kaepernick to protest.
Early in the discussion, Kaepernick mentioned military veterans who don't get the help they need when they return from service and move on to other pursuits. Boyer showed Kaepernick his honor ring, a black ring worn on the index finger as a salute to veterans. Boyer told Kaepernick about 22Kill, the organization started by some of his friends that, among other things, asks people do 22 pushups to call attention to the roughly 22 veterans a day who commit suicide.
Kaepernick was shocked by the numbers, and Boyer suggested that Kaepernick add that to the list of issues he's working to change.
"As we had that conversation, those are discussions that this country needs to have," Kaepernick said. "While I was talking to him, he mentioned 22 military vets a day commit suicide, but this country will let those vets go and fight the war for them, but when they come back, they won’t do anything to try to help them. That’s another issue. And these issues need to be addressed."
Kaepernick, in turn, told Boyer about his friends who live in communities where they don't feel comfortable calling the police when something bad happens. Boyer suggested bringing police into the conversation and emphasized that Kaepernick should try to ensure that people know the quarterback isn't generalizing when he speaks out about those issues.
"I mentioned that most cops are good cops -- you’ve got to understand that -- and I think he did, he agreed," Boyer said. "He said he knows that. He has people in his family that are police and they do it the right way. So I said, 'When you talk about this stuff, you need to acknowledge those things. If you don’t, people will just assume that you’re generalizing, and that’s exactly what you’re fighting against.'"
From there, the conversation moved on to a discussion of ways to make sure Kaepernick's message isn't getting lost in the protest itself. Boyer, Kaepernick and Reid agreed that the divided nature of the country right now is making it difficult to communicate clearly about complicated issues. They hope that people see and understand their conversation, and that it will lead those who can effect change to have similar discussions.
Before the meeting was over, the mission had turned to next steps. Kaepernick announced he would donate the first $1 million he makes this season to organizations that can help people affected by the issues he's discussing. Boyer wants to make sure that Kaepernick doesn't get taken advantage of, so the two are staying in touch.
"So now you’ve got everybody’s attention, what are you going to do with that? How are you going to take action? That’s the key right now," Boyer said. "A lot of people want to know what you’re going to do about it. If you’re going to bring attention to a situation, you not only have to devise a plan, but you have to have measurables of what you want to achieve, what you’re looking for and what for you, in the simplest form, what will get you back up on your feet for the anthem? What do you need to see? You need to define that. You need to know. I need to know. Anybody who wants to help out needs to have an idea for that, so that’s what we’re trying to work on now is that next step."
After seeing Boyer standing next to Kaepernick and Reid during the national anthem, former Marine Sgt. Johnny "Joey" Jones reached out to Boyer. Jones wanted to speak to Kaepernick about a tweet he had sent.
Jones, who lost both of his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan in 2010, was initially angry at Kaepernick for his decision not to stand during the national anthem.
"He reached out to me and said, ‘Dude, I’ve been thinking about it and I read your open letter, and I saw that you guys had communicated and were working together,'" Boyer said. "He said he was inspired by it and really moved by it, and he said, ‘I almost feel wrong for writing what I wrote.’ And if anybody has any right to be upset, it’s him. If anybody living right now has the right to protest Colin’s protest, it is that guy. I thought that was incredibly huge. He said he just wanted to apologize to him. I said, 'You don’t have any reason to be sorry, but if you are willing to have that type of humility, it would really mean a lot to Colin and be yet another huge step in the right direction.'"
Boyer told Kaepernick that Jones wanted to reach out. Kaepernick told Boyer to pass along his contact information. On Saturday afternoon, Jones tweeted again saying that he had spoken to Kaepernick and they were planning to work together.
As it turned out, Jones wasn't the only one who had doubled back to Boyer about Kaepernick. Hours after he was nearly moved to tears at a military funeral and saw Boyer standing next to Kaepernick on the sideline, Boyer's friend sent him another text message:
“After I’ve calmed down, I do think it’s awesome that he reached out to you, there needs to be more bridges built between veterans and civilians. The last thing I would want to do is add to the growing division in our nation. You look back over the last 20 years, the one silver lining of all the tragedies is that for a brief moment following 9/11 we were one as a country and as a people. I remember how tall I felt as a soldier and as an American.”
It's a feeling that Boyer hopes he, Kaepernick, Jones, Reid and anyone else willing to help can re-create.
"You’ve got myself, you’ve got Joey, you’ve got Colin, you’ve got Eric and countless other people on both sides of the spectrum that I’m sure would be interested in continuing discussions and trying to involve as many people from both parties as we could and find something, whether it’s some sort of change in policy or at least bridging these gaps in communication," Boyer said. "Maybe what Colin is doing, as off-putting as it may be to a lot of people, maybe it’s exactly what we needed to happen to move forward."