NASHVILLE – Titans coach Mike Vrabel sat down in a pew in the historic, octagon-shaped chapel at Fisk University last month, and began to see his vision turn into reality.
Vrabel's words at the start of the "End Racism" video produced by the team, which also included voices from 13 of his players and Titans General Manager Jon Robinson, spoke to the organization's mission to make a positive change in the community as it relates to social injustice and racism.
The idea stemmed from a project Vrabel was part of at Ohio State University seven years ago: "A Reading of the Letter from Birmingham Jail," a landmark civil rights document penned in 1963 by Martin Luther King Jr.. Vrabel, a former player and assistant coach at the school, was among those who recited an excerpt from the hour-long film released in 2013 by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at OSU to facilitate diversity discussions among employees. The project impacted Vrabel so much, he mentioned to members of the organization when he was hired back in 2018 he wanted to do something similar in Nashville one day.
The idea came to fruition when the team's video was released this week, and the end result was a powerful message delivered with players reading quotes from the likes of Dr. King, Malcolm X, activist Frederick Douglass, former President Barack Obama and several other important historical figures. The Titans and Fisk University also hope their partnership with the project during the Black Lives Matter movement will be a big step in forming a longstanding relationship between the organization and the historically black school.
"The Tennessee Titans support the movement and want to be a part of positive change," Vrabel said in the video, which was shared by the NFL's social media channels on Wednesday, when it had over 200,000 views. "Our players have selected inspiring quotes and words that as you listen, we hope bring upon reflection, inspiration, and the conversation necessary to lead to action."
Tina Tuggle, Senior Director of Community Impact with the Titans, said the team wanted to shoot the video at a location that was historically relevant to Nashville's culture and climate of diversity and racial sensitivity, and that led the team 3 ½ miles down the road to Fisk.
In 1865, barely six months after the end of the Civil War and just two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Fisk School was established in Nashville. Fisk convened its first classes on January 9, 1866, its first students ranging in age from seven to 70. The Fisk Jubilee Singers helped raise money for the school, and it let to the construction of Jubilee Hall, the South's first permanent structure built for the education of black students. Designated as a National Historical Landmark, Jubilee Hall remains as the focal point of Fisk's campus, and it was featured in the video that first appeared on the team's social media channels on Monday. In 1930, Fisk became the first African-American institution to gain accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. In 1978, the Fisk campus was designated as a National Historic District in recognition of its architectural, historic, and cultural significance.
"We were able to tour the campus and learn a lot about the history of Fisk University, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, and just understand the significance of the university and the historical value," Tuggle said. "We're very appreciative of Fisk allowing to shoot this important piece (on their campus)."
With Jubilee Hall and other historical monuments on the campus serving as the backdrop, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, tight end Jonnu Smith, linebacker Rashaan Evans, receiver A.J. Brown, safety Kevin Byard, safety Dane Cruikshank, defensive lineman DaQuan Jones, tight end Anthony Firkser, center Ben Jones, fullback Khari Blasingame, tackle Taylor Lewan, linebacker Jayon Brown and safety Kenny Vaccaro all read quotes or delivered their own personal messages to reflect their feelings on issues they're passionate about. The video also showed flashbacks from the sit-in protests in Nashville in 1960, and the Black Lives Matter protests in downtown last month.
Dr. Vann Newkirk, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Fisk University, said he was proud to see the Titans at the school, which has an enrollment of just under 1,000 students with students from Tennessee, and all over the world.
"When you see all of the movement with Black Lives Matter, we're looking at universities and we're looking at the history of systemic racism in America, and when you look at what Fisk has done, it has probably done more with less resources than any university in America," Newkirk said.
"We are a jewel, and there is so much that we do and that is important to me, and it is important for so many people at our university. You can see the rich history on campus, just by looking at the buildings. … I'd love to see a partnership with the Titans, with the team embracing the educational excellence the university stands for."
Tuggle, who helped spearhead the organization's "We Stand For" campaign several years ago while working with some of the team's former players, said the team's current players wanted to speak their feelings about what the world is dealing with from a social justice perspective in current times. The team's "We Stand For" campaign is designed to focus on positive ways to impact the Nashville community, and beyond. While the platform promotes social justice-related issues, it also promotes issues that affect society as a whole.
In the roughly three-minute video, Tannehill, standing in front of Fisk's Jubilee Hall, followed Vrabel by reading a quote from Dr. King's visit to Nashville during the civil rights movement in the 1960s: "I came to Nashville, not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that is taking place in this community."
One by one, other players appeared in the video, using their platform to help create change.
A Frederick Douglass quote was read by Evans, Brown and Smith: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress."
Byard and Tannehill read a quote from President Obama: "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change we seek."
A quote from writer Ida B. Wells-Barnett was read by Robinson: "The way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them."
Smith, Cruikshank, Vaccaro and A.J. Brown read a quote from Kaepernick: "Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything."
DaQuan Jones and Firkser read a quote from writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde: "It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences."
Jones and A.J. Brown read a quote from Helen Keller: "Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much."
Blasingame, standing in front of a W.E.B. Du Bois statue on the Fisk campus, and Jayon Brown and Lewan shared a message on the BLM movement: "Black Lives Matter simply refers to the notion that there's a specific vulnerability for African Americans that need to be addressed. It is not to suggest that other lives don't matter. It's to suggest that other folks aren't experiencing this particular vulnerability."
Jayon Brown, Blasingame, Tannehill, Firkser, and DaQuan Jones shared an Eldridge Cleaver quote: "You're either part of the solution, or part of the problem."
Then Vrabel reminded, "For those of us who can, we must be the voice for so many people that can't have one."
"To unite as a community, we have to stick together," Ben Jones said. "You have to listen, you have to learn."
In the video, Lewan said he wants to have uncomfortable conversations to help create change, and Evans said everyone can play a role in society.
"Racism comes in all forms," Smith said, "whether you believe so or think so or not."
"I think that cohesiveness that exists within our team," Robinson said. "If the entire country can kind of have that same love and same respect and same feel for each other, we will end racism."
Tuggle said the response from the organization following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, and the protests across the country that followed, has made her proud.
Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk issued a strong statement for equality while reiterating the organization's stance against all forms of racism last month. Vrabel and Robinson have also been outspoken on the subject.
"During the Black Lives Matter movement, that means so much to different people," Tuggle said. "So when you ask different groups: What does Black Lives Matter mean to you? Some people will say equity, others will say equality, others will say police brutality, or whatever the case may be. But we wanted (players) to be able to identify quotes and words that mean a lot to them and let them speak to that. There were quotes above love, and quotes about understanding, and quotes about sacrifice. Whatever speaks to you, let's start the conversation. The most relevant portion of it was starting the conversation, encouraging people to get uncomfortable talking about things, so that we could inevitably affect change.
"What makes me the proudest is that we (as an organization) are actively trying to make a difference in our community in that regard, particularly with social justice, and making sure that we listen to what is important in our community, to the organization, to our players, to our staff. For us, (the video) isn't something that was just done to do something, this was actually part of the fabric of the Titans organization, and I am really proud of that. We have a leadership team that is really effective in trying to efficiently listen to what is said and determine how we can use our voice to make a difference."
Vrabel, who was involved in conversations with his players on the push for social justice during the team's virtual offseason meetings, said on Wednesday night he wants the organization to continue to do its part to help the world be a better place.
The team's End Racism video, which dates back seven years in Vrabel's mind, is just a part of an effort that must continue, and never end. From the wooden pew at Fisk Memorial Chapel, erected in 1892, where renowned lecturers such as Booker T. Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in the past, he's glad his voice - and the voice of his players - could be heard.
"It's something I thought would give our players a platform, give our organization a platform, to try and inspire some people," Vrabel said. "We want to motivate people to try and create the positive change we want to make, and hopefully that will inspire even more people."