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Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long proved that activism isn’t a ‘distraction’ in the NFL

NFL coaches and front offices worried about player activism becoming a distraction. For the Eagles, it was anything but.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- ”Someone has to do it …” was a Malcolm Jenkins message here on Monday night at Super Bowl 52. This prominent, activist Philadelphia Eagles safety was emphasizing the power of NFL players’ voices on American social injustice. He was talking about the unique platform NFL players own.

NFL rosters are annually comprised of nearly 2,000 players, but only a relative handful this season sprung forward with overt involvement. Jenkins understands.

“There is a need in America and a lot of players feel the same way,” he said. “But they do not want to be out in front. They do not want to take the fallout. I’m OK with that.”

He is so OK with it that he had has been a leading voice in the Players Coalition for change and has visited directly on Capitol Hill and with the league office, police forces and in communities. His work along with defensive end Chris Long — a stout advocate who is donating his salary this season to his alma mater Virginia after its racially-charged tragedy last August — makes Jenkins and Long major faces and voices of NFL player activism.

Amazingly, that is two national, distinctive, potent voices in one franchise.

I wondered how this translated into the Eagles’ locker room?

NFL owners and coaches routinely preach about avoiding “distractions” in their season-long Super Bowl quest. Some owners this season (see Dallas and Jerry Jones) swung hard against player anthem protests. Some coaches privately and consistently voiced concerns to me over the disruption and commotion players becoming activists this season caused.

Some Eagles players on Monday night — for example, veteran defensive end Vinny Curry — told me that they were “totally able” to separate the Jenkins and Long work from the Eagles’ work and “never gave it much thought for our locker room or our team.”

Eagles third-year cornerback Ronald Darby agreed. He said while both players set “powerful examples,” he pushed that aside from his work and the team.

Curry and Darby were Eagles exceptions.

Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks respresented more of the Eagles message I received:

“It takes a lot of courage to really stand up and do what Malcolm and Chris have done. There are some core values required in that. They were able to transfer their leadership into this locker room. We were going through a lot of trying times trying to win games, handling the criticism of players protesting, dealing with issues that arise for our families and all of the ongoing stuff that is just part of an NFL season. They set the example on how to deal with and handle it all. I have no doubt in my mind that it is part of the reason and fabric we are in this Super Bowl. They have set a culture in this locker room that I think will last here for a very long time.”

And this from Eagles running back coach Duce Staley:

“I watched it all with this team, monitored it all. I wondered, too, how the team was going to handle Malcolm and Chris becoming such national figures in such a hot, divisive topic. But what has to be said first is they entered that arena already having the respect of their teammates. They didn’t earn it with their willingness to take a stand, it was a foundation of who they were already here among their teammates. So, it all only grew. Just like they looked across the nation, the world, and asked people to join and follow them, they did the same in this locker room — follow me. In turn, when they stepped outside, when they took the heat in their national work, they could always look behind them, back here, and see and know they had more than 60 guys right behind them.

“This is the ultimate, the essence of team. This is the ultimate goal of what NFL coaches want when they talk about leadership in the locker room. This is how you get more than just pockets of trust and effort and doing things the right way on your team. This is the attitude that permeates throughout when you have dynamic leadership and guys know across the board, whether they are drafted or free agents, first-round picks or the last pick, that you count, you are part of something special. What Malcolm and Chris preached on a national level they brought right here into this locker room in their example. We are all better for it.”

Sure, it could have all gone south.

The nature of the work of Jenkins and Long stirred national debate. Long created more with his refusal to visit the White House after New England won the championship last year and his insistence he will not this year if the Eagles win.

Jenkins and Long have been called attention grabbers and trouble makers. Some extremist labeled them much worse. They entered a political conversation that was on fire at a time in U.S. history where discussions and actions over race, inclusion, immigration, education, and police responsibility continue to percolate.

Had Jenkins and Long not deftly handled their roles within the Eagles, a locker room might have been splintered and a season wrecked.

“Everyone has the opportunity to contribute,” Long said. “But I think the key is respecting everyone’s decisions and positions.”

That is exactly what Jenkins and Long did among the Eagles, according to rookie cornerback Rasul Douglas.

“They are both born leaders,” Douglas said. “What I love about them is they don’t just talk to you and do all of the talking. They want you to contribute and share. They want to listen. They’ve changed my perspective on a few things this season. I love those guys.”

It is a raging Eagles’ defensive front line that has vaulted them into Super Bowl 52. It is a sound running game. Rising receivers. The admirable fill-in work of quarterback Nick Foles. The excellent Eagles’ coaching.

A hidden fabric has helped push the Eagles toward a chance for their first Super Bowl championship. There has been artful massaging and molding of chemistry and leadership in this Eagles locker room.

Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long are the staples.

“They are both one-of-a-kind people,” Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham said. “They blessed us with teaching the importance of accountability across this team. It’s rare. It’s what a lot of NFL teams miss. They have sown the example of what it is to not just care about yourself but look beyond to your teammates. You can’t get to the Super Bowl without that — the larger example of sacrifice.”