Sports

Talking About Race Made Falcons Teammates Matt Ryan and Ricardo Allen Partners in Activism

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Six years later, the photo remains one of Ricardo Allen’s favorites. Standing in a Dick’s Sporting Goods, the Atlanta Falcons defensive back is smiling ear to ear, having just been promoted to the active roster after spending most of his rookie season on the practice squad. Matt Ryan, the team’s star quarterback, is walking into the frame to shake his hand.

“Now it’s time to be making some of those big checks,” Allen remembers Ryan saying, referring to the sixfold bump in pay he would receive. “And with them comes a greater level of responsibility.”

Allen, 28, cherishes the picture because it captured the elation he felt after overcoming being cut in training camp — a scene captured on the HBO reality show, “Hard Knocks” — and his unlikely relationship with Ryan, 35, that has now guided both men through this tumultuous year that has rocked them both, personally and professionally.

As two of the longest tenured Falcons, team captains and leaders of the offense and defense, players who study the game obsessively and share notes, they have leaned on each other as the team, and its social justice committee that they lead, sought ways to respond to the social upheaval roiling the country, a journey The New York Times is following this season.

Allen and Ryan don’t finish each other’s sentences or hang out often at backyard barbecues. Rather, their friendship was forged in the training facility, where their lockers face each other’s, and it has deepened to the point that when Allen’s brother was killed this summer, Ryan was among the first people to reach out.

“There’s a level of depth that comes with time,” Ryan said of their relationship. “You just feel for the guy, your friend and what he’s going through, losing a loved one.”

The team’s miserable start, in which the Falcons (4-7) lost their first five games and fired Coach Dan Quinn and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, could change Allen and Ryan’s future as teammates, a concern that looms as the team continues social justice initiatives they’d planned as part of a wave of renewed N.F.L. activism.

ImageMatt Ryan, right, congratulated Ricardo Allen on the day, in 2014, that Allen, center, was promoted to the Falcons' active roster.
Matt Ryan, right, congratulated Ricardo Allen on the day, in 2014, that Allen, center, was promoted to the Falcons’ active roster.Credit…Ricardo Allen

Like it or not, the losing has bled into the Falcons’ off-field activism, and the committee’s plans for 2020 were winnowed down to primarily focus on mentoring high school football players on election rights via videoconference calls. Their work resulted in students from Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and Savannah’s Groves High School volunteering at polling stations during November’s general election, with plans to return for Georgia’s runoff election on Jan. 5. Personally, Allen plans to ramp up his work with Black teens in detention centers and Ryan has raised nearly $2 million to help underprivileged youth in Atlanta.

Their efforts reflect the different paths they took to the N.F.L. Ryan attended private schools, was drafted third over all in 2008 and has become the face of the franchise in Atlanta. It was only after George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police in May that Ryan felt compelled to come off the sidelines on the issue of racial inequity.

“When you haven’t gone through something yourself it’s harder to be able to relate to it,” Ryan said to explain not getting involved earlier. “But turning a blind eye is no longer acceptable to me. It took time and I wish I had done it faster, but we’re in a position where I hope we’re starting to move things in the right direction.”

Allen’s involvement is driven more by his lived experience. The first member of his family to attend college, the diminutive cornerback (he’s 5-foot-9) earned a roster spot off the practice squad, a kind of N.F.L. Horatio Alger story.

Allen was raised by a single mother, Brenda Green, who worked two jobs, and an older brother, Adrian, whom he idolized. Allen didn’t play youth football because money was tight. He later joined the football team at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he befriended Michael Squillacote, one of a handful of white teammates. Their relationship changed the trajectory of Ricardo’s life.

He spent weeks at a time at the Squillacote’s home, which sits on 10 acres in a largely white area north of Daytona Beach, about 10 miles and a world away from where Allen lived. The two teenagers bonded over video games, talking football and working out. In return for their hospitality, Michael’s parents, Steve and Betsy Squillacote, expected Allen to complete the same chores as their two sons and carry at least a 3.0 grade point average. Allen and Michael worked at Steve’s home-building company.

“He just needed a push in the right direction,” Betsy Squillacote said.

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Allen, center, with Michael Squillacote (far right) and their high school teammates in the Squillacote’s Florida home.Credit…Betsy Squillacote

The Squillacotes’s house, he said, was something “you only saw in the movies and on TV.” He appreciated that for the first time, he had a father figure in his life. He also fended off scrutiny from his Black friends.

“I’ve had people come up to me, and say, ‘hey man, what are you doing hanging with that family?'” Allen said. “I said, ‘what are you talking about? They helped raise me.'”

The Squillacotes’s influence helped ease Allen’s move to Purdue University, in predominantly white West Lafayette, Ind., to play college football. But it still came as a shock to him when campus police stopped him one night on campus and asked to search his backpack for no apparent reason. Later, Allen came to feel that he had been racially profiled, an uncomfortable reminder that even his notoriety as a football player did not exempt him from being targeted because of the color of his skin.

After Allen was promoted to the active roster late in 2014, he and Ryan’s relationship blossomed. They faced each other in practice and Ryan taught Allen how to read offenses and how to navigate the off-field responsibilities of being a professional football player. Allen, a favorite of Quinn’s, rose to being a full-time starter at safety in 2015 and founder of the team’s social justice committee in 2017.

“I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for him as a player but as he’s grown into a more veteran player, his voice is heard more on different topics,” Ryan said of Allen. “He’s a confidante for me.”

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Ricardo Allen at his football camp for youth in Daytona Beach in 2019.Credit…Dan Lundy/The Ricardo Allen Football Camp

During their seven years together, Allen and Ryan have obsessed over the minutiae of their sport. Before every game, Ryan stops at Allen’s locker for a pregame pep talk. After practice, they chat about parenthood in the hot or cold tub. In the off-season, the pair organizes workouts in Florida for veteran players. Only occasionally did they discuss tougher topics like race relations and police brutality.

In the past three years, though, Allen and other Black teammates began speaking out publicly against police brutality. Few white teammates joined them, including Ryan, who said he didn’t have the vocabulary to speak up and said his support “was always in the background.”

That changed for Ryan this summer when the Falcons held virtual meetings about Floyd’s killing. Hearing players, including Allen, describe instances of being racially profiled by police, Ryan recognized he could no longer sit idly by.

“For our team, it was the third or fourth time talking about the same things,” Ryan said. “If we continue to take the same approach, and guys continue to do what we’ve been doing, that’s not going to work.”

In early June, after ESPN wrote about Allen’s 2018 trip to Selma, Ala., to visit the site of 1965 Civil Rights march, Ryan called and, in what he said was an uncomfortable conversation, asked how he should speak out because he was unfamiliar with talking about issues of race.

Allen told him just to be himself and speak from the heart.

“I’m from the ‘hood and live in the country club now, but I can see how people don’t understand what it’s like in the ‘hood because they’ve never seen it,” Allen said of Ryan’s discomfort.

“Matt and a bunch of other white teammates hit me up, and the main thing they tried to tell me was they don’t know the perfect thing to say,” Allen recalled.

Ryan’s community efforts, to that point, focused on supporting children’s hospitals and Boys and Girls clubs. Growing up outside of Philadelphia, Ryan had classmates and teammates of various backgrounds. But he did not have to confront the harsh realities that Black teammates like Allen routinely did.

“I feel fortunate to come from where I come from,” Ryan said. “Playing sports my whole life, I’ve also come to appreciate it even more because knowing other situations that guys have gone through. There’s a lot of things they’ve had to overcome that I didn’t.”

Ryan joined the Falcons’ social justice committee and decided to use his popularity in Atlanta to raise more than $1.3 million, including $500,000 of his own money, to support after-school programs in underprivileged neighborhoods in Atlanta to give Black children a safe place to exercise and learn from mentors.

To drum up donations, Ryan held a radio-a-thon and invited Allen, who talked about growing up in Florida. When Ryan formed a committee to help him disperse those funds, Allen suggested including influential people in Atlanta’s Black community, including the rapper Killer Mike, born Michael Render, who is one-half of the hip-hop duo Run the Jewels.

Allen has been “one of the first guys I asked to help, and he’s been one of the first guys to give advice on things going on from the jump,” Ryan said.

Then the violence that surrounded Allen growing up hit home. In late July, Adrian Allen, who was 31, was stabbed to death in a fight in Daytona Beach. Adrian had been in and out of jail over the years, Ricardo said, cleaning up his life for a while, then falling backward.

Ryan was one of the few Falcons told about Adrian Allen’s death, and he immediately called to offer his sympathy, something that reminded Ricardo of how far they’d come as friends.

“You don’t really have very many good friends in the N.F.L. because players come and go and they’re focused on their lives,” Allen said. Ryan’s call “says that I’m not just a football player to him, that he cares for me outside the walls of what we do for a business.”