PITTSBURGH — The mother of Antwon Rose Jr. said she was disappointed that Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey did not reach out to her before writing on Instagram that he was distancing himself from the team’s decision to place her son’s name on its helmets.
But Michelle Kenney said she believes she and the Steelers organization can work toward a common goal of establishing better relationships between police and the communities they work in and in reforming the way police departments operate in Pennsylvania.
Kenney’s son was killed by an East Pittsburgh officer as he fled a traffic stop in 2018.
On Thursday, Pouncey wrote on Instagram that wearing Rose’s name on the back of his helmet “inadvertently supported a cause of which I did not fully comprehend the entire background of the case.”
Kenney said her issue was not that Pouncey didn’t want to wear her son’s name — and was choosing to make his own decision about what name to wear going forward — but that he didn’t reach out to her for an opportunity to understand each other.
Though her son was fatally shot by an officer, Kenney said she is not anti-police. She added that she believes she and Pouncey, who wrote that his focus will “continue to be on helping the police in our communities,” can work together to reach the same goal.
“If he got to know me, he would understand that I am not anti-police,” Kenney told ESPN on Thursday night. “I’m actually an advocate for not defunding the police. … I actually want the relationship between the police and the community to be better. So based on part of his letter, we have some common ground here.
“I’m definitely with him that we need to make some changes so that we can establish better relationships between the police and the communities but there’s work to be done … I would have much rather he reached out to me and said, ‘Ms. Kenney, I’m questioning my decision on wearing Antwon’s name. I’m choosing not to do it, but how can we move forward?'”
Before the first game of the season, the NFL announced players could wear helmet decals honoring the victims of systemic racism and police violence. In a statement Thursday, Steelers president Art Rooney II said the organization supported the decisions of each player, coach and staff member in how they express themselves in social justice topics.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) September 17, 2020
Rose, who was unarmed, was shot and killed by East Pittsburgh police in 2018 after the car he was riding in with other teenagers matched the description of one involved in a drive-by shooting.
Officer Michael Rosfeld ran after Rose, one of two passengers who fled the car, and shot him three times in the back, face and elbow. Rosfeld, who had been on the force for just three weeks, was charged with criminal homicide but was acquitted of all charges. During the trial, Rosfeld said he thought he saw one of the two teenagers point a gun at him, but he didn’t know which one.
The shooting was captured on video and sparked some protests in the region. Rose’s name has continued to be a rallying cry used by protesters in demonstrations.
The family reached a $2 million settlement in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the borough of East Pittsburgh and Rosfeld in 2019.
Kenney said the Steelers told her before Monday night’s season opener that the team took a vote and the majority decided to put Rose’s name on the back of their helmets — something safety Minkah Fitzpatrick refuted Thursday. The team did not offer additional clarification when asked.
“It was mostly made from people upstairs and everything else like that,” Fitzpatrick said of the decision. “Don’t know exactly who. Don’t know exactly how. But we did. We knew that we were going to have somebody on the back of our helmets, and it wasn’t exactly clear on what it was going to be. It was mostly made by everyone upstairs.”
The news that the Steelers would wear her son’s name moved Kenney — but it was about far more than his name.
“I was crying,” she said. “Not because the Steelers were recognizing Antwon, it’s more because the Steelers were recognizing what was happening to Black people in this country was wrong. And for so long, this particular entity has remained silent because they come here and they’re told how to behave. Because the Steelers have an image. All I wanted was them to recognize that the city that they play for is not perfect and they have a voice and a platform that can make a change.
“I was excited, and it has nothing to do with Antwon’s name being on a helmet. For me, it’s bigger than that. It’s about the fact that they want to do the work. They want to step up, they want to push a platform and they want to make these changes come to fruition. The helmet is just the icing on the cake.”
Because of that, Kenney said she’s OK if the Steelers make the decision to put a different name on the backs of their helmets this season.
“I am 100 percent open to that because there are other individuals that have lost their lives for no good cause and their mothers are suffering the same as I am,” she said. “So if they opt to change the name, I’m sure that there will be some outcries from the public, but it’s not about the name. The only thing that would matter to me is that they decide to stop doing the work.
“I’m just looking for people that realize that we need to make a change and actually make that change happen. If there are 52 people on the team and only 40 of them believe that there’s a problem with the way we do policing in this country, I’ll work with the 40. If there’s only four, I’ll do that, too. I just want to move forward, but I’m not begging anyone to stand next to me.”
The team announced before Monday night’s game that it would wear Rose’s name all season, but offensive lineman Al Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan, covered it up for the first game and instead wrote the name of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, a Black soldier who was killed on duty in Iraq and was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for heroism.
Though Villanueva told Steelers coach Mike Tomlin of the change before the game, the move “surprised” defensive captain Cam Heyward.
Kenney said she wasn’t upset that Villanueva changed the name on his helmet, but that he broke from what she believed to be a team decision, made by a majority vote.
“I don’t have an issue with him not choosing to represent Antwon,” she said. “I believe that he, like everyone else, is entitled to their own opinion. … My only problem with the entire thing was that I was told they were taking a team vote. I do not believe that Antwon’s life supersedes the death of any other person. I just believe they died in different ways. Him choosing to represent someone else wasn’t what offended me.
“I feel like with Pouncey, like with Villanueva, if you didn’t want to wear Antwon’s name, say that and don’t do it. Don’t set the movement backwards because of your own personal agenda. Because this is bigger than Antwon. Antwon’s gone. I’m trying to save the life of the next Black person.”