Why Cardinals' DeAndre Hopkins honors Denmark Vesey on his helmet

TEMPE, Ariz. -- After the NFL allowed its players to honor victims of systemic racism and social injustice with stickers on the backs of their helmets this season. The names or initials of people like Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Botham Jean and George Floyd have been seen around the league.

But the name on the back of DeAndre Hopkins’ helmet wasn't so well-known.

Hopkins was one of 11 Arizona Cardinals to wear a helmet sticker. Quarterback Kyler Murray and defensive lineman Corey Peters put "End Racism" on their helmets, running back Kenyan Drake and defensive linemen Rashard Lawrence and Zach Allen had "Stop Hate" on theirs, quarterback Brett Hundley had "George Floyd," offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum had "Breonna Taylor," kicker Zane Gonzalez had "Vanessa Guillen" and wide receiver Andy Isabella and linebacker Devon Kennard both had "It Takes All of Us."

Hopkins had "Denmark Vesey." Vesey was little-known figure in the fight against slavery 200 years ago from Hopkins' home state of South Carolina.

Vesey's story isn't usually found in history books, but it's one of importance. A former slave who bought his freedom in 1799 around the age of 32 after winning $800 in a city lottery, Vesey is best known for plotting a slave rebellion in Charleston with the main goal of getting to the city docks, where he and others were going to take a ship to the recently-made-independent island of Haiti.

Local authorities were tipped off to the plan, however, and Vesey and 34 others were hanged in the summer of 1822, when Vesey was believed to be 55.

"Denmark is definitely somebody who was a leader in African American culture, led a revolt," Hopkins said. "He's somebody who, I guess, stood out in his time and gave his life for something that he believed in, and that was equality. And obviously, his life was taken away for doing what was right.

"But being from South Carolina and him being from South Carolina, I think it's something that set with me, resonated with me, not just now but my whole life. It's something that they don't teach you in history books about people like that."

Hopkins said he has enjoyed learning about history, especially Black history, since he was a kid. He reads "a lot" of books on not just Black history but the backgrounds of other cultures as well. That thirst for knowledge and information as it relates to where and who he came from has amped up during his time in the NFL.

"It's definitely just good to know who you are as a person, anybody to know where you come from, especially in a place where the history of your people isn't taught so much like the history of certain things that are publicized," Hopkins said. "So it's just good to, especially us African American people, it's important for us to be able to teach our kids the history of us, the real history of who we are.

"I think that definitely helps because you have places and rules right now that certain people can discriminate against you for having long hair, and long hair and locks is something that's native to us, to our people. So there's laws against that, and it makes people really not appreciate who they are and know who they are."

Hopkins' interest in things beyond football has endeared him to his new teammates in their few short months together.

"He talks about a lot of stuff," Murray said. "I don't know what he tells you all, but he's a bright guy.

"I know he reads. I know he does a lot of things that people probably wouldn't think that he would do in his off time. He's an interesting dude."

Hopkins has been open about his family's history in Clemson, South Carolina, where he's from, said wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

Said cornerback Patrick Peterson: "He's a guy that wants to learn and wants to know about the unknown or at least curious about other things in life. So that's the thing I love about DeAndre is [there are] never no limitations with him. He's always trying to get the best out of himself."

After his death, Vesey's name was "really important" in Black communities in the North and South, said Douglas R. Egerton, a history professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, who wrote a biography of Vesey in 1999 titled "He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey." Egerton said Frederick Douglass referred to Vesey while recruiting young Black men to enlist in the Army across New York.

A statue of Vesey was raised in Charleston six years ago, but by and large, Egerton said Vesey is a relative unknown outside of South Carolina. Yet his legacy lives large, he said, for those who do know Vesey's story.

"It's kind of a legacy for African Americans and Americans who understand this country has been involved in the struggle toward rights and democracy from Day 1," Egerton said. "He's a reminder that there was always somebody like that, like Frederick Douglass, who was willing to put everything on the line and risk, literally risk their bodies in the case of making the country a better place -- or in Vesey's case, it was escape the country thinking it would not ever be a better place."

And now Egerton believes Hopkins recognizing Vesey with the type of national platform given to NFL players can stimulate the conversation around him.

"It is very exciting," Egerton said. "It's very empowering, and then if people are inspired and motivated to think 'I need to know more about this guy or about the complicated American path,' that's fantastic."