Nate Boyer is stunned by the attention — far more than he ever received when he was with the Seattle Seahawks as a prospective long snapper during the 2015 preseason.
It started when somebody from the Army Times website called Boyer to see if he would like to write an op-ed piece about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s controversial decision to sit during the national anthem as a protest against race relations in America.
Boyer’s response was emphatic. No way.
“I didn’t want to write an opinion piece,” Boyer said in a phone interview this week. “I just didn’t feel like it was going to help anything. What’s the point? Everybody else had written why (Kaepernick is) right or why he’s wrong. It’s up to the individual; who knows what’s right or what’s wrong?”
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The publication was correct to assume that Boyer would have a unique perspective on the polarizing topic that has stimulated heated commentary across the country. He had been a Green Beret with multiple war-zone deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he spent time with the Seahawks after having been a snapper at the University of Texas.
Boyer thought it over, and decided to shape it as an open letter to Kaepernick. Included was the wise advice his mother had given him: The last thing our country needs right now is more hate.
So Boyer’s letter was respectful of Kaepernick’s constitutional rights, but voiced his initial anger, spurred by his experiences in combat, and the deeply personal connection he had to the flag’s symbolism.
But here’s where Boyer broke through the entrenched contradictory narratives. “I’m just going to keep listening with an open mind.”
An open mind? Listening? With mention of a concept so antithetical to contemporary social debate, Boyer became a national sensation.
“The only way we’re going to get anywhere is by being willing to listen to the other side,” Boyer said. “Everyone seems so absolute these days; they’ve got all the answers. Everybody thinks they have the right way, but they only know their perspective.”
Boyer has a theory why this simple message was so resonant.
“Maybe because I was vulnerable in it,” he said. “I was just speaking from the heart, and I wasn’t trying to push my opinion on anybody, just telling them where I was coming from, my view of things, and the steps I was going through trying to relate to them.”
Kaepernick quickly noticed the letter and invited Boyer to chat before a 49ers preseason game at San Diego. What transpired was a civil conversation with both parties committed to hearing the other.
“He’s also kind of searching; I’ve spent a lot of my life doing that, too,” Boyer said of Kaepernick. “It came across that he’s sensitive to the way people were thinking about things. He’s very supportive of the military and knows people who fought, and some that died, to protect the very right he’s expressing.”
Kaepernick seemed most moved by a text that Boyer showed him. It was from a Special Forces friend of his at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. It recounted his recent experience of seeing the flag draped over the coffin of a friend who had died in battle, and how his “… heart filled with rage for anyone who takes for granted the ideals of the symbols that we fight and die for.”
“It definitely affected him,” Boyer said of Kaepernick’s response. “He asked, ‘How can I express my feelings without hurting people like that?’ ”
At the subsequent 49ers game, Kaepernick was on one knee during the anthem, and along with his teammates, rather than seated apart, as he had been the previous game. And standing beside him was Boyer, his hand over his heart.
“I think it was a snapshot of where we are in America right now,” Boyer said of the moment. “Recognizing that we’re different, with different backgrounds, goals and missions. The flag means different things to us, but we manage to live together, and we were shoulder-to-shoulder with a willingness to try to make something happen.”
Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane sat during the anthem, in support of Kaepernick, at Seattle’s last preseason game in Oakland.
Boyer said he hasn’t talked to Lane, although he has addressed the topic with other Seahawks.
“I don’t want to mention anybody’s names, respecting their privacy, but I have talked to them about the situation,” Boyer said. “I think they’ve had some meetings about how they can share something that’s really important.”
Did he offer suggestions? “I’m not going to tell anybody what to do,” he said. “But I will respect their rights to do it.”
Proving that adults can talk about their differences without it devolving into a junior-high playground scuffle may be the most impressive contribution Boyer has made.
At 35, he granted that opportunities for him to find a roster spot as a snapper in the NFL are slim. But he’s busy with important social causes, particularly advocating for the organization 22Kill, which is working to reduce the horrific statistic that 22 veterans commit suicide every day in America.
And, yes, Boyer said, he’d love to see the time when Kaepernick and all others felt proud to stand at attention with him during the anthem.
“Whether you love it or hate it, what Colin has done has stirred important discussions — a conversation that needs to be had,” Boyer said.
It’s a conversation to which Boyer has added unique perspective and insight — with it all coming straight from the heart.