At three in the morning, Tremane McCullough awoke to the sound of screams and sobs from his mother, who had accompanied him to Orlando from a church convention. His older brother Tavaris—“the one who made everyone laugh, brought everyone together, a father figure to me”— had died violently.
Back in West Palm Beach, Tavaris, 21, had been at a nightclub with his cousin when an altercation broke out. Someone shot the cousin, and when the police arrived, they mistook Tavaris, standing over his body, for the killer. “They just opened fire and shot my brother three or four times, shot my brother in the head, killed him,” McCullough says. “I was like 14 at the time. It had a major effect on us.”
McCullough, a talented wide receiver, is now a senior at Southeast Missouri State University, less than 150 miles from Ferguson and not much further from the University of Missouri, where football players walked off the field last fall in protest of racial conflict.
Last month, McCullough and his fellow Redhawks players joined local police to play flag football, show unity, and raise money for the families of officers killed or injured in the line of duty. Their Cops and Hawks Bowl raised about $4,500 for the nonprofit Backstoppers.
After the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five Dallas police officers, Redhawks head coach Tom Matukewicz knew he wanted to help his players cope with the news. After Ferguson, he says, he’d remained silent and had missed the opportunity to encourage these young men to talk about the issues and show leadership.
So Coach Tuke texted the players on his leadership council, asking for ideas about what they could do. Almost immediately, sophomore quarterback Dante Vandeven responded with an idea: Why not host a flag football game with the local police department?
“We wanted to be different than other colleges in the nation,” Vandeven says. “Not only do we support cops, we see them as people, too.”
Matukewicz loved the idea and sent out a challenge on Twitter.
Hey @CapePolice with what's going on in America right now. How about a flag football game? SEMO football vs the Cops? DM if interested.
— tuke (@CoachTuke) July 8, 2016
The cops loved it, too, says Cape Girardeau Police Chief Wes Blair, joking that their only hesitation was facing Southeast Missouri’s renowned athletes on the football field and not being able to keep up.
“The players said, ‘We want to be on the same team, and we want to intersperse with officers and team members,’” Blair says. “Once we got out on the field, it was amazing to see two different cultures that the media has tried to play off each other come together. … And after, to see people sitting down together from completely different backgrounds—just sitting down, eating, and having conversations. I thought, what a model, what an example for how society needs to be acting.”
McCullough’s presence made the day particularly poignant, both Chief Blair and Vandeven said.
McCullough gives credit to his mom, who urged him to view people as individuals, and to his Christian faith, which taught him how to forgive. “I felt like this was very important,” McCullough said. “I felt like Mizzou went about it in the wrong way. Their team divided each other. … We hope [our team] will inspire the world, not just college students and college teams. Not all cops are the same. You can come together in different ways.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.