WILBORN: Outspoken Penn State player fearlessly takes on 'evil' in world, Kaepernick, more

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Penn State safety Lamont Wade (38) warms top prior to an NCAA college football game against Indiana in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Nov.16, 2019. Penn State defeated 34-27. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Lamont Wade

Penn State’s Lamont Wade has never been shy about using his status to voice his opinion.

Two years ago, he was among those on the South Side protesting the killing of teenager Antwon Rose II. On Tuesday, one day after another police-involved death of a black man, this time in Minnesota, Wade let his voice be heard again.

“I don’t want my son to grow up in a place with as much evil as there is now,” Wade said Tuesday. “Even though you can’t avoid it. I feel like I’m trying to diminish it as much as possible, so whenever the next generation comes up, they don’t have to deal with as much as evil, or just how people look at people sometimes because of their appearance and not knowing people.”

The man, later identified as George Floyd, died in police custody. Four Minneapolis officers involved in his Monday arrest were fired Tuesday, hours after a bystander’s video showed the handcuffed man pleading that he could not breathe as a white officer knelt on his neck.

Penn State safety Lamont Wade (38) drops into pass coverage during the first half of the NCAA Cotton Bowl college football game against Memphis in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

Last season, one of Wade’s teammates, Jonathan Sutherland, was confronted by racism with a vile letter asking him to, among other things, cut his dreadlocks. Over the weekend, Nittany Lions defensive lineman Aeneas Hawkins shared via Twitter the racist treatment he says he encountered at a gas station. In New York City, a verbal dispute between a white woman walking her dog and a black man bird watching in Central Park took social media by storm this week.

Crediting Kaepernick: Wade watched from afar and tweeted support for each of those men. He credited former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for lighting his flame for justice.

“I definitely admire him for that and because of how brave he was,” Wade said of Kaepernick, who in 2016 began kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest racial injustice. “He wanted to do something that’s way above just himself. He wanted to use his platform for his community, raise awareness and shed light on it.”

Many believe Kaepernick is now out of the NFL for the wrong reasons. Black athletes have always had this risk for representing their community. From Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball to Curt Flood standing up for free agency, there’s always been a cost for black athletes who don’t “stick to sports.”

He'll continue to speak fearlessly: Wade could easily allow the fear of losing a career before it really starts persuade him to dance to the cadence of complacency. But he said he’ll continue to speak fearlessly against racist structures, even if it comes with a cost.

“One thing I really don’t do in life is fear,” Wade told reporters. “I don’t really fear anything. I can’t focus on the things I can’t control.

“I would rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not.”

Standout player: What Wade also is, in addition to being a 21-year-old keenly aware of the society in which he lives, is one hell of a football player.

The Clairton native put in work for the Nittany Lions in 2019. He was in the top five for the Penn State defense in pass breakups, forced fumbles and tackles. His 64 tackles were fourth-most on the squad. He also had 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

Wade’s performance earned him All-Big Ten honorable mention recognition by coaches and media. The NFL in 2021 isn’t that far away.

“I think he has a tremendous upside. He played on the hash but also showed the ability to play in the slot, which is big if you look at the next level,” said Penn State co-defensive coordinator and safety coach Tim Banks. “The NFL looks very similar to a lot of the college programs now in my mind.

“A lot of three-wide receiver sets, and even when you have tight ends, you’re flexing them out, so you need to have guys in the game that ... can cover but also have enough stout to be able to make tackles. I think Lamont can do that.”

Criticism from place of love: All that talent makes Wade an elite athlete. He knows people will listen to him based on his exploits on the field.

He chooses to critique his country from a place of love. He also hopes to appeal to people who love him as a football player and help them see the humanity in people who look like him who aren’t in his cleats.

“If we were to talk more about the football games and everything and less about the other stuff, then we’d be real happy,” Wade said. “But if we were to talk more about the other stuff and less about football, then there would be differences. So I think it’s just real important to realize what brings us together, instead of what separates us or divides us.”

Nobody knows when there will be football in 2020. There is a lot of uncertainty in this world. But there are two things we do know: Racism will exist, and Wade will be there to speak against it.