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Meet the Division III QB kicked off his team for kneeling during the anthem

READING, Pa. -- The invitations have already started coming in for Gyree Durante, perhaps the nation's first college football player to be dismissed from a team for kneeling during the national anthem.

Durante spent Tuesday at the statehouse in Harrisburg as a guest of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus and met several members of the Philadelphia Eagles, including Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long. He'd also been invited to speak at a planned protest at his school, Albright College, the week before but that was cancelled. He might also attend a proposed student-led demonstration at Albright's football game Saturday.

"Some would say that I'm [an activist] and some would say that I'm not," Durante told ESPN.com. "But I don't think I've done enough work to call myself that yet."

What's clear is there's work for him out there if he's willing to embrace all of the opportunities, improbable as it all may seem for the reserved 19-year-old.

Neither Durante nor Albright College would've seemed likely candidates to be near the center of a roiling national debate over freedom of speech, police brutality and the national anthem that peaked in recent weeks with a running feud between the NFL and President Donald Trump.

"Some would say that I'm [an activist] and some would say that I'm not. But I don't think I've done enough work to call myself that yet."

Gyree Durante

When Durante kneeled on the sideline in defiance of the team's agreed-upon plan for protest, he thrust himself and Albright into a spotlight all but unheard of for a football program almost as far from the big time as possible and this idyllic campus of 2,300 students nestled by the foot of Mount Penn.

In many ways, Durante's stance -- and subsequent punishment -- by Albright inadvertently exposed why many college athletes have been absent from public activism that started anew with Colin Kaepernick and resulted in Trump criticizing the NFL for not penalizing players who kneel: Most have little leverage against their coaches and none of the protections collectively bargained by the pros.

"They're just going to get the pain," said Harry Edwards, famed sports sociologist and civil rights activist. "Because they're unknowns. Who cares about" a Division III athlete, he said.

Things came to a head the week before Albright's Oct. 7 game against Delaware Valley University, when the team's 24-member leadership council voted to kneel during the coin toss to show unity and stand during the national anthem.

Durante decided to take a knee during the anthem on his own and was kicked off the team two days later.

Albright eventually backtracked as news of the dismissals made it into headlines around the country and many on campus balked at the punishment, including a rare public statement from school faculty. "His dismissal is a threat to freedom of conscience and freedom of speech," the statement read.

Albright president Jacquelyn Fentrow offered Durante reinstatement last week, saying in a written statement that "what we understood to be shared agreement among players, student leaders, and coaches has not been adequately supported."

But Durante said he declined the president's offer after a brief meeting Wednesday with head football coach John Marzka and co-athletic director Rick Ferry.

"I don't think they were surprised," Durante said. "I just felt like it was too late by that point."

No officials at Albright -- including the school's president, athletic director and football coach -- were made available to comment despite several attempts by ESPN.com.

Thus brought a close to what started off as a promising homecoming for Durante, who was raised in nearby Ephrata, about 20 miles south of Albright. The oldest of three children borne to a semi-pro basketball coach and an accountant, Durante was raised in a home where willfullness was one of the family heirlooms.

"No, we didn't walk outside with picket lines," said Ronnell Durante, his father. "But I also taught my son that you don't have to surrender your thoughts and beliefs to people because it makes them uncomfortable."

Gyree Durante and his family moved to South Florida for his final three years of high school, where he helped West Broward High School earn its first playoff berth as a senior but broke his leg near the end of the 2015 regular season. That injury meant the end of a handful of football scholarship offers at bigger schools like Marist and Lafayette.

In stepped the coaching staff at Albright, which saw a steal in Durante -- an athletic and sturdily built prospect (6-foot, 195 pounds) who also excelled in the classroom. From Durante's perspective, Albright offered him the chance to go to school in an area with which he was already familiar and where family was only a short drive away. It seemed like a good fit.

"I respect Gyree with everything in my being. A lot of people I know think standing up for yourself is a great thing. It's just a shame that he lost his football career because of it."

Albright freshman Isaiah Knox

"They sold us on [Albright] because they said, 'We know you're athletic but that's not what's important to us,'" said his mother, Seidah Durante. "I loved Albright, I loved the whole atmosphere."

"I knew I would have a lot of support," Gyree Durante said.

Little more than an hour northwest of Philadelphia, Albright's campus sits between the northern reaches of the Appalachians and a well-kept residential area in a city once dubbed the nation's poorest by the New York Times. It is not a place where anyone would go seeking attention or even entertainment; Albright is a place that prides itself on its intimate liberal arts education and relatively diverse student body (nearly 40 percent of students are non-white).

That remoteness didn't make Albright immune to controversy: In October 2016 -- Durante's first semester -- two students were suspended for appearing in an online video showing one in blackface makeup and that mocked the Black Lives Matter movement.

"That caused considerable discontent," said Guillame de Syon, chair of Albright's history department. "Like all campuses, we've had these things and we were reeling a bit."

Meanwhile, Durante made a fairly seamless transition to college.

He recovered fast enough from his broken leg to become the starting quarterback on the junior varsity; he posted a GPA over 3.0, earning distinction for the accomplishment at the team banquet; and he even dabbled a little in protest, kneeling during just one game with two other teammates. There was no censure for that flirtation with activism, Durante said. Marzka "talked to us as a team about it," he said. "But there were no one-on-one meetings, no repercussions over it."

That's what made Marzka's blow-up over the same demonstration a year later a surprise to Durante. In the first couple of games this fall, now as the top backup to the starting quarterback, Durante had raised a fist with a few other teammates during the anthem.

But he decided a more drastic response was in order after Trump's speech to an Alabama crowd in September, when the president attacked protesting NFL players. He asked members of the crowd if they'd "love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he's fired'?"

"It definitely struck a nerve in me," Durante said.

Durante was the only member of the team to kneel that week, a game at King's College in Wilkes-Barre on Sept. 30. Marzka, he said, erupted in anger at his protest.

"He started off calm," Durante said. "And I said, 'Sorry, Coach, I hear what you're saying but I've got to do this.' That's when Coach started yelling at me."

The rest of the game largely passed without incident: Durante, who usually got in for a few plays per game this season, never left the sideline.

The next morning at Albright, Marzka beckoned Durante to his office. The meeting, according to Durante, started with Marzka going over the history of the anthem and closed with the coach telling Durante he thought the protest was disrespectful to the military, including his own family members who served.

"I told him I was doing it to protest systemic racism, discrimination, social injustice and I told him about what Trump said," Durante said. "That's something I just can't stand for."

Marzka, he said, was unmoved. "He told me, 'You're not going to take a knee again. And if you take a knee, you're off the team.' I told him that was just a risk I was willing to take." Later that day, Marzka convened a meeting of the team's leadership council, which came up with what it considered a compromise.

The council's plan included a statement that was read before the game, including the lines: "We storm this field behind the American Flag as a symbol of our commitment, our unity and the value we place on our freedoms. We both kneel and stand tall out of the mutual respect we have for each other and the value we place on our differences."

Durante didn't find it sufficient and took a knee anyway, much to the chagrin of the coach and his teammates. "I felt kinda like, 'Dang, I thought a lot of people would have my back.' I think a lot of the players that voted for the compromise were kinda intimidated by the coach."

Kaska dismissed Durante two days later, just minutes before a team meeting and practice.

Josh Powell, a freshman defensive end from Tampa, Florida, told NBC 10 that Durante broke his teammates' trust by kneeling. "We trusted him throughout the week, after time and time again he told us he would stand," Powell said, according to NBC 10. "When you can't have a player on a team that you can trust, he's got to go."

Fentrow's subsequent statement offering reinstatement did little to clear up the reasoning behind his dismissal, and to many others, exposed issues that have long festered on the campus.

"We have a racial problem more serious than it appeared at first," de Syon said, responding to the president's statement. "If we are serious as a liberal arts institution about respecting freedom of opinion and encouraging student exploration (i.e. applying the first amendment within the context of teaching), then we have serious work to do outside the classroom."

Now that Durante has declined the offer to return to the team, he has found there's much stronger support for his fledgling activism outside of the locker room.

Today he has become more popular than he ever was as a football player. "It's surprising," he said. "It's been pretty much all positive." In the school's cozy campus center, a black-and-white picture of him kneeling is prominently placed on one of the corkboards leading into the dining hall.

"I respect Gyree with everything in my being," said Isaiah Knox, an 18-year-old freshman. "A lot of people I know think standing up for yourself is a great thing. It's just a shame that he lost his football career because of it."

Durante has also gained fans from much farther away: Oakland A's catcher Bruce Maxwell, who last month became the first MLB player to kneel during the anthem, sent him a message on Instagram. "Aye bro!!! Proud of you!," Maxwell wrote. "I'm glad you took a stand! It's bigger than sports!"

But even with all of the new attention and entreaties to devote himself more to activism, Durante said he just wants to finish out the semester and then resume his football career somewhere else. At least one nearby Division III school has already inquired about his interest, his father said.

One recent evening, munching slowly on pizza at the off-campus apartment he shares with a sophomore running back, Durante seemed much more concerned with his accounting test that week than his speech at the protest.

"I'll probably just speak from my heart," he said. "Grades come first. And then after that, we'll see."