Sitting among dozens of football players in the Rams locker room at SoFi Stadium, the quarterback explained why he had ripped an index card with the word “Black” on it.
It was part of an icebreaker focused on appreciating personal identities, and Daron Cotton, 17, a senior at Lincoln High in East Los Angeles, insisted Tuesday night that the world should see past his skin color and to get to know his character and values.
“I want to be known as the person I am — and not the person I look like,” Cotton said.
The sentiment drew the loudest applause of the hour-long activity from his teammates as well as players from Dorsey High in Crenshaw.
The Rams and a national nonprofit, Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), brought the two inner-city teams together for a weeks-long leadership and community-building program.
“What a great opportunity for these young people,” Edward Jones, director of programs for RISE, said while watching the Lincoln players joyously gather — with their cellphones held high — around the lockers of Aaron Donald, Van Jefferson, Cooper Kupp and Matthew Stafford.
“It’s amazing,” said Marvin Gomez, 17, a junior slot receiver and cornerback.
“It’s a dream come true,” agreed Dominic Lopez, also 17, a senior defensive end and special teams player. “Who wouldn’t want to be in a NFL locker room?”
For the five past years, RISE with the Rams invited five area high schools to each send 10 players of various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds to the program. This year, with race relations at top of mind, they picked two schools and had them send their entire teams.
Dorsey, with a predominately Black student population, claims Johnathan Franklin, the former UCLA star and NFL running back who’s now the Rams’ social justice and football development director, as a graduate. Lincoln, with mostly Latino and Asian students, boasts Kenny Washington, a Black running back who in 1946 joined the Rams as the first player to reintegrate the NFL after a 12-year color ban, as an alum.
The Dorsey and Lincoln players and their coaches watched a new Rams short documentary, “Kingfish: The Story of Kenny Washington.” Then they listened to a panel discussion featuring Rams Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson, Franklin and head coaches Stafon Johnson of Dorsey and Gabriel Cotero of Lincoln.
The film suggests that Washington’s pioneering achievement paved the way for generations of students and athletes of color to achieve their dreams. And yet Dickerson, one of the greatest running backs of all time, told the audience that he had not known Washington’s story.
“But that just goes to show how in a sense that history has been hidden,” he said. “They hide the things that we were able to do, the Black athlete, the Black lawyers … I think it’s a great story.”
The Hall of Famer and other panelists urged the athletes to think now about what they might do with their lives, and how they may serve their communities after their playing days end.
Speaking about leadership, the coaches emphasized that it is most in need off the field. Johnson spoke of once keeping his team from quitting when four touchdowns behind by halftime during a playoff game. Cotero told of working to persuade parents that he could protect his players from further harm after games resumed during the pandemic.
“If you believe in something, do it — make it happen,” Cotero said.
The RISE With Rams program will have the two teams meet four more times.
They will focus on diversity concepts and unconscious bias during an outing to the Rams’ training camp at UC Irvine, then meet at each school for community-building sessions. The program ends on Aug. 12 with a visit to NFL Los Angeles — the league’s West Coast headquarters at Hollywood Park — and seats for the Rams vs. Chargers preseason game at SoFi.
Javaun Lewis, 16, a senior running back and linebacker at Dorsey, said the program is inspiring.
“It’s something I needed, for my mindset to be stronger,” he said of the panel discussion in particular. “I learned to be patient and fall in love with the process.”
Herbert Lowe is a Times visiting academic fellow and senior lecturer at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.