There are 252 NCAA Division I college football teams, and most of those schools keep 85 players on the roster. There are around 170 Division II schools, and more in Division III and beyond. What that means, in practical terms, is that there are tens of thousands of college football players in the U.S., and most of them have no hope of becoming one of the 2,016 players who earn a spot in the NFL, either on an active roster or on a practice squad.
Myke Tavarres beat those odds. He played college ball at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, a football program with traditions that date all the way back to 2009 as an independent Division II program. The school moved to Division I in 2013, and joined the Southland Conference—home to universities like Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist, and Sam Houston State—a year later. Players at programs like University of the Incarnate Word are not frequently tapped to go to the NFL, and in its seven football seasons, the university has not produced an NFL draft pick. (Abilene Christian, meanwhile, has been a surprisingly robust source of quality NFL starters over the past decade.)
Tavarres is one of two former Incarnate Word players who found himself signed as an undrafted free agent. He was brought on to play linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles during training camp, and Tavarres impressed his coaches early on, prompting defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to single him out in May: “I never thought I’d use the words ‘Incarnate Word’ during a press conference,” the coach laughed when talking about the player. (The other player, Cole Wick, is a tight end for the Detroit Lions, and had an impressive camp and preseason himself.) Tavarres is in the mix for a roster spot on the Eagles, and as a promising young player with a lot of upside, he’d be likely to earn a practice squad slot if he doesn’t end up making the 53-man roster.
All of that makes the last 48 hours or so of Tavarres’s career interesting. Last weekend, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem to protest the way black Americans are treated by police. In the aftermath, coaches are falling all over themselves to condemn Kaepernick, and other NFL players are getting some “support the troops” cred for disagreeing with his decision. Tavarres, however, declared on Monday morning that he would also be sitting during the anthem at his next game.
“Oh, I thought about it. Believe me, I definitely thought about it,” Tavarres said of sitting Saturday night. “And usually I’m front and center on the line with the rest of the guys, and that’s since pre-K all the way up. Saturday’s game, I stepped back, I was in the background, and it didn’t feel right to me at all, and so I will be taking a stand—or sitting down—for the fourth game.”
Kaepernick’s decision has been controversial, but he is in a unique position: He’s already received a lucrative second contract, and he’s been on the outs with his team since his former head coach, Jim Harbaugh, left before the 2015 season. (Harbaugh, for his part, told reporters that he “doesn’t respect” Kaepernick’s decision to sit.) This year, after new coach Chip Kelly was brought onboard, Kaepernick sought a trade, which was not accommodated.
Kaepernick, in other words, has a lot less to lose than an un-drafted rookie free agent hoping to make an NFL roster. If Kaepernick is done, he’s done after five seasons and a Super Bowl appearance. Someone like Tavarres, meanwhile, faces much higher stakes. If you piss off coaches when you’re just starting out, and when nobody has invested more than a few thousand dollars in your career, it’s likely no one will even learn just how good you can be.
That could explain why, a few hours after telling ESPN about his decision to sit during the anthem, Tavarres changed his mind. He issued the following statement via his agent on Monday afternoon:
I want to apologize for the distraction I’ve become to all of Eagle Nation. I feel passionate about racial issues going on in our country and I thought that sitting during the National Anthem would bring more awareness to this issue and encourage more constructive discussion to find solutions, but I feel I only made things worse. I want to make change in this world, but sitting down during the national anthem just isn’t the best way to do it. With that being said, I do plan on finding a better way. I’m young and I still have a lot to learn about saying and doing the right thing. For now, I will stay focused on football; but I will definitely look for opportunities to do what I can to prevent injustices. I am so blessed to be an American and I just feel a responsibility to do what I can to make things better.
It’s a good statement from Tavarres, and one that doesn’t back down from the conviction behind his initial comments. It does, however, acknowledge the reality of his situation. It also shows that once Kaepernick used football and the national anthem to bring attention to the issues he’s passionate about, a player like Tavarres doing that in the same way has much less of an impact. Tavarres sounds like an interesting guy, and one who wears his convictions on his sleeve; if you can carry forth with that kind of passion and get after the passer, coaches should be excited at the prospect of having you around.
Tavarres might have a good career ahead of him, and it’d be a shame of the lack of nuance that’s been chasing Kaepernick around the past few days hampered Tavarres’s chances. We don’t know what the future holds for the linebacker, but hopefully we get to see him earn it on the field.