Their flags billowed in the breeze as a steady rain fell.
But through it all, they remained undeterred.
They stood there for hours on the side of Abbott Road, with New Era Field at their back and midmorning traffic in their sights. And they proudly held the symbol of our nation in their hands: the red, white and blue of the United States of America.
Bonded by military green, the three veterans took to the streets to protest a protest of a different kind — one that, in their estimation, disrespected the flag and fellow military members.
On this particular Friday, they braved the elements for a purpose greater than themselves. They wanted to be seen. They wanted to be heard. All three began the week as strangers. But now, Edward Houck, 38, of Hamburg; and Travis Griffin, 28, and Pat Giumento, 70, both of Orchard Park, are united in their opposition to players kneeling, sitting — and worse, stretching — during the national anthem.
They insisted their actions are rooted in a request for unity, not in wanting football fans to boycott the Bills or the NFL. But their resounding theme was this: There’s a time and a place for everything. Even when discussing police brutality, oppression and social injustice.
“We’re just trying to get them to show the respect to the flag and the veterans,” said Houck, a disabled veteran who served a tour in Iraq in 2004 and '05.
“We get their issues and all three of us would go down to wherever they want to (in order) to fight the injustices of the people. Because that’s what we joined for. We joined for everyone to be free and to have the same rights and rights to be able to do whatever they choose; not to be oppressed, not to be beaten.”
Hours later, Shareece Wright was in the Bills' locker room — a tenth of a mile away from the very spot Houck, Griffin and Giumento stood — voicing similar concerns about oppression.
Wright was one of 12 Bills players — and one of dozens around the NFL — to kneel during the anthem last week. And the cornerback told me he plans to continue kneeling for the rest of the season.
But Wright’s convictions didn’t keep him from pulling over his car as he exited the facility Wednesday. While several Bills have honked their horns and flashed a thumbs up to the veterans, Wright initiated a conversation with them.
“I was trying to get a better understanding of what they’re trying to do,” he said after Friday’s practice. “I don’t get how this has turned into an American flag type of thing. That’s a symbol of the United States, that’s what represents our country, but that’s not what this is about.”
What’s happening inside One Bills Drive — and right outside the complex — is indicative of what is happening in society at large.
We are a nation divided.
A nation divided on what we value, what we deem offensive, what we feel is appropriate to say and do and what roles we expect our athletes to play in society. Collectively, we can’t agree on how we got here, let alone how to move forward.
Giumento said his opposition to the anthem protests has “nothing to do with race,” adding that his grandson is half-Chinese, his niece is half-black. “It’s to do with the flag and separating it from the issues that Americans have," he said. "If they want to stand and do the right thing with the flag, I’ll stand with them in any kind of demonstration they want to make to prove their point. Because I agree with them.”
But around the country, difference of opinion has given way to disrespect and racially charged rhetoric, and divergent political leanings have resulted in an unwillingness to understand points of view unlike our own.
The movement sparked by Colin Kaepernick last year was designed to awaken our social consciousness and to bring the conversation surrounding police brutality, the oppression of poor people of color and social justice reform to the masses. But it was LeSean McCoy’s pregame antics last week against the Denver Broncos that caused Griffin to grab the American flag from the side of the house Tuesday morning and walk down the road the Bills' facility. By 11 a.m., another veteran had joined Griffin. By noon, four more had followed.
A day later, Houck and Giumento were on Abbott Road as well, flags in hand.
“That’s what upset me,” said Griffin, who usually stands outside until 6:30 p.m., sometimes with his 7-year-old son, Chace. “You’re going to find some characters out here. There’s a guy saying, 'Boycott the NFL'— I told him, stay over there. The gentlemen I’m with are about representing the flag.”
"I’m not protesting the Buffalo Bills,” he added, pointing proudly to his blue Bills cap. He also said he previously was employed by the team as a guest services ambassador.
The Orange County, Calif. native, who is half-black and half-white, stressed that his upbringing and his service as a police officer in California and his five years in the Navy (until 2013) give him a unique perspective and an appreciation for unfiltered dialogue.
“There’s a reason they’re protesting on a knee. Their voices need to be heard. Let’s hear it,” said Griffin, who will celebrate his birthday on Sunday, the same day Wright and others NFL players will be kneeling pregame. “But it doesn’t need to be done when you’re (disrespecting) veterans.”
His words were punctuated by the blaring sounds of honking of motorists, and collectively, the veterans were greeted by thumbs up and and unexpected hospitality from passersby. One woman brought them assorted donuts and a box of Tim Horton’s coffee. A man, wearing a knee brace on his left leg, parked his van at the side of the road and handed out $10 gift cards for coffee. He was not a veteran, but he wanted to show his appreciation for their service.
Griffin said “plenty of players have shown their support” as they’ve driven by this week. And while he conceded McCoy isn’t “sitting here saying he hates America, the way he went about (stretching during the anthem) shows it.”
Griffin then added of the star running back: “The fact that he’s going by, smiling with thumbs up, that’s a good sign. So it’s in the locker room. They see us.”
Like the veterans, Wright and his teammates were united in their need to express themselves, too. And they also felt supported by those around them — including, owners Kim and Terry Pegula and general manager Brandon Beane, all of whom Wright credited with fostering a safe place for players to have their voices heard last week.
“A lot of guys (in the NFL) are afraid of losing their job, which is why they don’t do it or didn’t do it before a game,” Wright said.
President Trump co-opted the movement against social injustice by starting a social media war with the NFL and its players. And in the week since Trump called those kneeling athletes “sons of b----,” the NFL has managed to bastardize the message altogether with an ongoing compromise of teams interlocking arms and calling for unity.
But Trump’s divisive language prompted more NFL players, coaches and owners to start engaging in conversations about the world outside the white lines.
‘There are some idiots in this country who make ridiculous remarks. And I voted for that idiot,” Giumento said, referring to Trump. “(His comments) escalated it. No doubt in my mind. But I still think players should understand that it’s not about the issues they have… I agree with demonstration. We’re doing something to that effect.”
Once the Pegulas told their players that they could express themselves “as long as we do it together,” said Wright, “that’s all I needed. They gave me he OK last week. What’s any different between this week and last week?”
But what is the end goal for these NFL players and for veterans such as Houck, Griffin and Guimento — all of whom feel disrespected because of the words and actions of others?
“What I want is an open dialogue,” said Houck. “The reason America has turned into what it is is, nobody talks anymore. Nobody talks about their difference. And the only way we can get past that is if everyone meets to talk and start understanding.”
Hours later, Wright explained: “There’s a process to everything we do. There’s certain things that need to take place before the next things happen. Have they ever reached out to players before players started doing this? Now we have your attention.
“Just like the owners. It took Trump to say something and offend them for them to open up the doors for the conversation.”
Dialogue, however, can’t be the end goal. Action must be.
“Police brutality is something I deplore,” said Giumento. “But they should keep this separate from that. My friends died for this country. One of my best friends in Vietnam was an African-American. One day I was sitting next to him. The next day he was gone.”
Like Giumento, defensive tackle Cedric Thornton said he “doesn’t see color,” either. But his viewpoint differs drastically on the anthem issue. “It’s a misperception for people to think we’re kneeling to disrespect the flag,” Thornton said. “We’re not doing this out of a white and black issue. I don’t see color. … I’m not dictating who you vote for, so you shouldn’t dictate my situation and what I’m kneeling for.”
Here’s the truth: What’s happening inside One Bills Drive — and right outside the complex — is indicative of what is happening in society at large.
Until we rally around the belief that “all men are created equal” with the same fervor that we promote the importance of being American, we will never rid our society of divisiveness. And until we understand and accept that there are systems in place that perpetuate unchecked racism and oppression of people of color, we can’t move forward to fix what is broken in America.