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A group of veterans who had an impromptu meeting with Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett this week said the happenstance of a woman driving by in tears might have been the moment America needed as the country is divided over NFL players protesting during the national anthem.
"Nothing conveyed a message like her reaction," said Marty Ellison, 72, a former Navy A-6 Intruder pilot.
Ellison and his fellow veterans were outside Seahawks headquarters in Renton Tuesday. They were along the side of the road talking to one another, with their backs toward the building.
"We were putting our backs to the players. We didn't want to be disrespectful, but we wanted them to know that we weren't happy with what's been going on," said Ellison, referring to NFL players sitting or taking a knee during the national anthem.
"The intent was not to be confrontational. We just wanted to make a statement that there are some things that we don't agree with," Gary Dagon, 73, a Vietnam veteran Air Force pilot said.
The pregame protests, which players have said are intended to bring awareness of racial and social injustice, were conducted by a handful of players since last season. Bennett was one of them, choosing to sit for the anthem since this preseason.
After President Donald Trump called on NFL owners last week to fire the players for doing so, the league, most team owners, and many players repudiated the comments. That led to hundreds of players either taking a knee, locking arms, or not coming out of the locker room for the anthem. The Seahawks were one of the teams that did not take the field until after the ceremony.
Bennett saw the men Tuesday and pulled his Rolls Royce over to have a discussion. Bennett talked about what it was like to grow up black, to which Ellison said he empathized.
"We had a chance to explain that as much as we support his dissent, we just wish he would pick a different venue," said Ellison.
"There's never a wrong time to do the right thing," said Bennett during his Thursday press conference. "Is there really a time that we shouldn't be talking about equality? Is there really a time that we shouldn't be talking about racial discrimination? Is there really a time that we shouldn't be talking about women's equality?"
But something happened during that chat that these veterans believe was a moment that changed everything. Dayna Coats, a military wife who lives right next to the team headquarters, witnessed what was going on. As she drove by and saw Bennett and the veterans shake hands, she burst into tears and had to pull over to compose herself.
Bennett came over to talk to her and to listen.
"And it was just the most fortuitous sequence that allowed Michael and her to exchange real sincere feelings," Ellison said. "At that time, we were just kind of window dressing on the side of the road, so we just got out of the way and let that happen."'
Coats posted about her experience on Facebook and why she expressed to Bennett she had been so conflicted over the issue.
"And I want to hear. I want to listen, but I don't want to seem like I'm taking sides and I don't want to seem like I'm coming down on one side or another without understanding it all and I didn't understand it all. And so I was willing to listen and he spoke and I appreciate that. And he listened to me, too. He was very respectful," Coats said Wednesday.
Her message was shared over and over across social media.
"It was a non-political. It was a person-to-person, heart-to-heart conversation, and I think that's the reason why so many people liked it. That's why I liked it," Dagon said.
Bennett said his reaction was one of inspiration.
"You get a chance to actually hear what people really want to talk to you about and you get to see their emotions, and you get to see a person change as you talk to them and, for me, I cherish those moments," Bennett said.
The veterans' message
The veterans say, however, they still have a message to get across to the players about why they don't want to see the protests during the anthem and flag presentations continue.
"Could anyone, and I wish that they were here, tell us of any other symbol that we know of that represents all of America. And it's the flag. It represents all races, all religions, everybody that we all fought and some of our very close friends died for," said Dave Cable, 76, another former Navy Intruder pilot.
He explained what the colors of the flag mean, something he says he also conveyed to Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin.
"Red stands for valor and the blood that was shed for our country," Cable said.
"But most important on here is the white stripe that very few people maybe understand," he continued. "The white stands for the purity of our purpose. Think about that. The purity of our purpose. We're never going to be perfect, but our objectives are always pure."
The blue stands for liberty and justice, Cable said.
Cable also talked about how he believes the flag is about unity, something the players and teams have said they have been wanting to demonstrate, in one way, by locking arms.
"Give me an example, any other symbol that does that. And it's our flag. To disrespect it, I think, disrespects every American. And in addition to that, think that there are so many immigrants who come here legally and, what do they do? They pledge allegiance to the flag when they get here. So we disrespect those folks," said Cable, who added his daughter-in-law is an immigrant.
Where do we go from here?
Ellison said he got the feeling of uncertainty from Bennett about what's next.
"But I think that he represented a, 'Well, we're really not sure where this whole thing ought to go' and I think that that's probably echoing around the league at this point," Marty said.
Cable has a suggestion.
"They should get out into the community, one-on-one. That's where change takes place. Not in a demonstration where people are kind of captive to this whole thing, and they can't respond. We're all sitting here in the stadium or at our TV sets, and we can't respond to that. But what they need to do is get the real feeling, like what Dayna did." Cable said. "I think that's marvelous."
Bennett said that's what compelled him to pull over when he saw the veterans.
"I could easily just drive past and be like, 'My opinion is right, ' but for me to be a great leader, you have to be able to listen to the other people. You have to go out and talk to them," Bennett said.
Cable says taking the knee before the anthem plays would make a big difference.
"That would be very compelling, I think, to the public as well," he said "But when the national anthem is played, they stand up as one group. Americans, devoted to the ideals that the flag stands for."
The Dallas Cowboys did that very thing before their Monday Night Football game last week.
Just as the veterans admit they have not lived Bennett's life, Bennett says he has not lived theirs.
"I never walked a mile in their shoes. I don't know what it feels like to be in a war and don't know what it's like to lose a brother in battle, but I do know what it's like to be a black man. I do know what it feels like to be a minority. So to be able to express what I'm feeling and express what they're feeling is common ground where we can have great and constant dialogue," Bennett said.
But will Tuesday's roadside chat and surprise, heartfelt conversation between Bennett and Coats make a difference?
"We hope for the best, but we don't have a lot of high expectations that what we did here is really going to make much difference," Cable said. "It's going to take a lot of this, all around the country."
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