Over the past six months, hundreds of college football players across the country have spoken out about social injustice and police brutality, looking for effective ways to make an impact both locally and nationally. One of those athletes is South Florida senior defensive back KJ Sails. After leading a unity walk in central Florida earlier this year, Sails shares his personal story, as told to ESPN’s Andrea Adelson.
It is sad that I can walk outside my house and people just look at me a different way because of the color of my skin.
I am a Black man who has darker skin, so I have been racially profiled, I have been called a thug, and I have been watched while I walk into a store.
I have also been followed by the police before because of the way I looked. I remember when I was playing at North Carolina in 2018, I got pulled over after leaving the drive-thru at a McDonald’s. The white male officer said I didn’t have my lights on, but I know my lights were clearly on. He then said, “Well, son, do you have any weed on you?” I responded, “Sir, I don’t smoke.” He told me to stay there.
The next thing I knew, four more police vehicles surrounded my car. I had my stepdaughter in the back seat, she was around 4 years old at the time. It was very scary; she was crying and thought something was wrong. I didn’t know if I was going to live past that day; your heart is pounding out of your chest, and all you can think of is to stay alive, just stay alive.
It was a traumatizing experience for me as a Black man. I don’t ever wish it on anyone.
My 3-year-old son, King, was just a few months old at that time. I tell him, “I’ll protect you with my life, no matter what, I’ll always protect you.” He probably doesn’t understand anything I’m saying. He just says, “OK, Daddy,” but I’m scared that I won’t be there to protect him one day.
I will never forget the expression on his face when I had to do a skit for one of my classes at North Carolina. I had to act out something that resonated with me personally. I chose to do a skit about Eric Garner, a Black man who suffocated to death after being placed in a chokehold by a New York City police officer. My son was about 1. He and my grandmother, Loretta Powell, came to watch. I reenacted what I imagined Garner must have been feeling. I fell to the ground, like I was getting strangled, and yelled out, “I can’t breathe, help me, I can’t breathe.” My son didn’t know what was going on and he started crying out, “Daddy! Daddy!” He, my grandmother and some classmates all began to cry. The whole scene hurt me.
So, imagine how Garner must have felt. Two years later, I had to watch another Black man, George Floyd, scream, “I can’t breathe” and call out for his mother — a grown man with a family, crying out for his mother — as a Minneapolis police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck.
There was nothing Floyd or Garner could do. They were hopeless, crying for help; they couldn’t fight back. There’s nothing they could do but cry out. Seeing what happened to Floyd, it was like I was a little kid again. It truly touched me because I know I would have probably done the same thing. I would have cried out for my mother.
Athletes usually don’t want to get involved in politics and things outside what we do because people have so much to say about it nowadays. Many feel obligated to not say anything and continue to push through whatever is going on.
But after Floyd’s death this past May, and the reaction that came with it, I couldn’t just sit there and not do anything. I lost a childhood friend, Levonia Riggins, to police brutality. They came into his home and they had a warrant, but he was laying in his bed and they shot him. We remember that day forever; we say “0830,” that’s Aug. 30, the day everything changed.
I called my uncle saying, “I want to do something that brings everyone together.” We need change, but we need to be unified during a time like this. Before we can change the world, we have to change our communities first.
My childhood was tough. I don’t know who my biological father is, and neither does my mother, Shawntay. Growing up in that way, we lived pretty much everywhere in the Tampa Bay area with my great-grandmother, Loretta Hardy, practically raising me. My mom tried to make a better situation for us by moving out to Riverview in the suburbs.
I really didn’t have a father figure in my life until I got to high school. My mom was homeless at the time, but still always tried to make it better for us. It was tough for all of us. But my best friend at the time, Christian Angulo, and his dad, Oscar, took me in like I was their own. Oscar changed my life, really.
I always knew I wanted to play football because I wanted to be like my uncle, Richard Woodbury, who played at Bethune-Cookman. I played at East Bay High School, but really didn’t take the sport seriously until I talked to a college coach, Art Kehoe, the offensive line coach at the University of Miami.
My East Bay coach, Frank LaRosa, told Kehoe, “KJ is going to be really special one day; he’s just got to get his mind focused.” I smiled, and Kehoe said, “Son, you have a beautiful smile. I can tell you have a great personality, and I can already see the greatness in you.” That was the turning point, what truly made me want to work harder at football. If I could ever talk to Coach Kehoe again, I would want to thank him, because he also really changed my life.
I started to get recruited more, but fell in love with North Carolina and its defensive coordinator, Gene Chizik. The team was 11-1 at the time, things were rolling, and I signed with the Tar Heels in 2016. I developed great relationships and friendships that will last a lifetime. But what happened over time convinced me that I couldn’t stay there.
It was February 2019. I remember it like it was yesterday. I had a weird feeling. I called my grandmother, Loretta Powell. I asked if everything was all right. She said, “Well, your great-grandmother is in the hospital and she’s not doing well.” She told me she had to call me back.
I immediately called my teammates Dominique Ross and Rontavius Groves and said, “Y’all, I feel weird, like something bad is about to happen,” so they came and picked me up and I stayed at their house. I called my grandmother again, and I was on the phone and … I just remember hearing the beep of the heart monitor. A long beep, a long beep … it was so long. I remember hearing my grandmother screaming, “Mommy! I want my mommy!” I lost it, started bawling. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared because I lost the woman who practically raised me. In 2016, she was fine, everything was good. When I left for college, it was like she started declining and … I just wish I got more time with her.
I went home for the funeral — it was a great celebration of her life. I played the drums, something I used to do for her at church. But after I went to sleep that night, my phone rang, and it kept ringing. It was around 2:12 in the morning. I was exhausted and said to myself, “I’ll get it in the morning.” When I woke up and checked Instagram, I started seeing posts about my close friend, Takiya Fullwood. My heart dropped.
Kiya was like a sister to me. I used to stay with the Fullwood family all the time growing up, and we became really close with them. One of her brothers, Tajee, played at USF. Another, Trey, is my son’s godfather.
I made a call. My friend told me, “They killed Kiya.” A student at Florida Atlantic University, she was in Tampa visiting for the weekend and went to a party and someone shot her in the head. They murdered her, and the killer is still out there.
These back-to-back tragic events put me in a bad mental state. I did not want to go back to Carolina; but I knew if I didn’t go back, I was going to flunk out of school. So, I scraped up enough money to get home for the funeral and then I returned to Chapel Hill. I was continuing to struggle there and could not focus. Depression is real, and if you aren’t there mentally and if your mind isn’t there mentally, your life can get out of whack quick and you get stuck. No one can help you but yourself; you can talk to everyone in the world, but only you can help you.
I eventually spoke with head coach Mack Brown, and he even said to me, “I think you would be in a better place at home.” I was a two-year starter, so playing wasn’t the question; but, at that point, my family needed me and I needed them because I was mentally in a depressed state.
It was a hard decision, but I transferred to South Florida in May 2019. The transition wasn’t easy. I didn’t have any money; I didn’t have a car; and I was trying to figure out my place with the team and the school. My teammate, Mike Hampton, and his family helped me out during that time, and I can’t thank them enough for that. Eventually, things began falling into place. I was closer to my family, including my longtime girlfriend, Kiana, and my son.
My mom says I was meant to be here in Tampa, especially now in this moment. I left after high school to get away and see something new. Looking back, my childhood shaped who I am today and why I feel so connected to this community. After what happened to George Floyd, I knew I wanted to lead by example, lead my people and become a hero for my people. Just like Chadwick Boseman.
I decided to lead a unity walk in Tampa. I wanted to walk through the old Central Park Village so people would know this was the Harlem of the South. Ray Charles performed here. My great-grandmother used to tell me stories about James Brown coming into town. I wanted to show people the history. It was a beautiful sight this past June: hundreds and hundreds of people walking in a storm, in the rain, to show we’re standing together for what’s right. Black, white, it didn’t matter what color you were — it was truly beautiful to see. Also, when I put on my shirt for warm-ups this season, the back of it will read #ICantBreathe.
Everything is put into perspective for me now — being from Tampa, living in different neighborhoods, having family that’s from a lot of different neighborhoods. I had the chance to live in both worlds, the projects and the suburbs. There’s a connection there — I know the circumstances my people go through, the environments they’re living in and how they survive. I know how to help them, and that’s my true calling.
My thing is to show them we truly care. We need to revamp our communities. Like Deion Sanders says, “If you look good, you feel good and you play good.” If these people feel good about where they’re living, they’re going to be happy about where they’re living. They’re going to wake up and go to work happy, and they’re going to feel good. We need to give everyone hope.
Football has given me a platform to change my life and change the lives of the people around me. I truly believe, one day, I will become the mayor here, and I will impact my community even more in Tampa.