On Friday, Jan. 29, a stroll through Kansas City would've been an easy way to spot Chiefs gear. In just over a week, the team would take the field in Tampa for Super Bowl LV, looking to win its second championship in as many seasons. On Friday, Jan. 29, a stroll through Kansas City might've also offered a glimpse at a special gathering in a city park.
That afternoon, more than a dozen youth from both sides of the Kansas/Missouri state line came together for a public journey of introspection. Some were Chiefs fans. Some were indifferent to the NFL. But all of them were there in large part due to Kansas City's quarterback -- the reigning Super Bowl MVP and, potentially, the youngest signal-caller to ever win multiple titles: Patrick Mahomes.
At 25, Mahomes isn't that far removed from the kids who assembled in the park, though his circumstances suggest otherwise: Unanimously considered the most talented arm in football, he seemingly waltzed his way to another MVP-caliber season in 2020, headlining the Chiefs' attempt to become the first repeat champ since 2004. Now he's set to square off with Tom Brady, who's after a record seventh Lombardi Trophy, on sports' biggest stage. Suffice to say, he's got his hands full this week.
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His hands, however, were also in that city gathering. While locked into Super Bowl preparations with a chance to make NFL history (again), a piece of his heart remained nestled in that quiet Kansas City park.
There, students from ages 11-18, stemming from various racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds, participated in a "diversity walk." The activity has been a tool for countless nonprofits and schools in recent years, with participants lining up and then individually stepping forward during a list of commands.
If your parents or guardians attended college, take one step forward ... If you can buy new clothes or go out to dinner when you want to, take one step forward ... If your ancestors did not come to the United States by force, take one step forward.
By the end, all the participants are staggered across the open field -- some out in front, some in the middle, and some barely removed from the starting line. While simple and familiar, the "walk" always and obviously illustrates privilege.
In Kansas City, on Jan. 29, this particular walk was followed by students discussing lessons learned and then developing their own parameters for exhibiting gratitude and understanding others' way of life. It marked the first step -- literally -- in a broader racial equity project fully funded by Mahomes and his foundation, 15 and the Mahomies.
Following MLK in Kansas City
Over the summer, an international service organization called Youth Volunteer Corps (YVC), which began in Kansas City as a summer youth program back in the 1980s, sought a grant from the foundation, which is centered on improving the lives of children. On Sept. 17, Mahomes' 25th birthday, the quarterback celebrated by signing off on a $10,015 gift to YVC. (That's $10K, plus $15 for Mahomes' famous jersey number.)
Three days later, Mahomes celebrated again -- not just because of an overtime win over the rival Chargers to start 2-0, but because the racial equity project, which opened with the diversity walk, was borne out of the new partnership.
"We were blown away by the Youth Volunteer Corps," says Marques Fitch, the executive director of Mahomes' foundation. "It's hard to find groups that are doing this kind of great work and really making an impact on young people, especially during a pandemic. That takes real creativity."
Improved race relations are of particular interest to Mahomes. The Chiefs' gunslinger is universally admired for his acrobatic throws as the headliner of his generation's dynasty-in-the-making. But it's easy to forget how outspoken -- and potentially divisive -- he was prior to the 2020 season, when some of the NFL's biggest names joined a national conversation about police shootings and America's long, ugly history with the Black community. Fresh off a historic Super Bowl win, he was the first player to utter "Black Lives Matter" in a stern and viral address to league owners, calling upon his bosses and peers not only to discuss issues but act on them.
It wasn't long before Mahomes and his team surprised Kansas City leaders with plans for a nearly $1 million 2021 renovation of the city's Martin Luther King Jr. Square Park, a long-neglected metro space. ("Patrick wants to build a destination playground," the parks and rec director said. Not just that, but a full-on interactive educational site for learning about K.C.'s Civil Rights history.)
And it's no coincidence that YVC, which hosted the diversity walk and has additional service learning projects scheduled through the spring, was founded on a principle espoused by Dr. King: "Everybody can be great because everybody can serve."
And that's the key: Everybody really is included. In Kansas City, a majority-white city that was segregated into the 1960s and saw race riots on the day of MLK's 1968 funeral, YVC's programs in relation to diversity are not workshops for students to become politically correct or better debaters about U.S. history. They're open forums for physically living, learning and serving alongside other kids, regardless of how they look, how they were raised and how much money their family makes.
It just so happened that the organization's first big utilization of Mahomes' financial backing came the week of his next Super Bowl appearance.
"We need good voices on (these) issues," says Marques Fitch, of Mahomes' foundation, "and we're happy to create young leaders in this space. Knowing they kicked off their project this week is like music to my ears ... From the foundation's standpoint, we're just trying to use our platform to educate everyone on folks from different walks of life and how we can come together to improve things. It's the locker room analogy: We're from different backgrounds, and we all want to compete on the field together."
'The best representative of Kansas City'
These are not empty words from Mahomes' camp, and they are not falling on deaf ears, either. Immediately after the QB's foundation granted the $10K in funding in September, YVC youth made a supersized birthday card for the Chiefs superstar to thank him for his contributions. Months later, at the diversity walk, within driving distance of Mahomes' K.C. stomping grounds at Arrowhead Stadium, teens and adult volunteers alike held back tears while getting vulnerable with each other. One young girl found a new appreciation for her foster mother while reflecting on her frenetic upbringing. Others drew inspiration to form their own diversity councils at school.
Danielle Small, program director for YVC in Kansas City and a mother of two daughters, says that once Mahomes joined the national dialogue on racial equity, many area youth -- especially middle- and high-schoolers -- did the same.
"There's an eagerness to learn more," she says. "We've seen a definite rise in interest, even during the pandemic, from youth wanting to volunteer their time with YVC. They're making a true impact in their own families, with their friends, and in their schools. Patrick Mahomes has already played such an integral part in the transformation of our community.
"It's just really emotional to see what's going on, but it's a good emotion," she continues, fighting back tears. "With him, first of all, leading us to the Super Bowl in Kansas City, I think it's a great start -- he's bringing our city together. But him also standing and being a professional about racial equality, saying, 'I stand for this,' he's a great role model for our youth. And for him to back us up, provide us with this grant, just means so much to our program and just makes me dig deeper to make this program fit his mission and support him for supporting us. He just motivates me all the time."
Caroline Lubbe, 16, is a regular YVC participant, but she didn't grow up a football fan. She is, however, very interested in issues of diversity and within the African-American community. When NFL players began peacefully protesting police brutality, or defending the Black Lives Matter movement, she tuned in to see what the league would say. After Mahomes headlined those speaking out, her social media "blew up" with posts from her peers, who were interested in knowing more about the issues.
"That's when I saw the NFL starting to make a change," Lubbe says. "It just took someone like Patrick Mahomes to speak up to help everyone realize there really was a problem. If I could pick anyone to be the best representative of Kansas City, it's Patrick Mahomes. He used his voice for good and has set an example for all of us to follow. I'm really excited to learn more."
YVC is not strictly a racial equity organization. Its programs include everything from healthy-lifestyle projects like community gardens to art preservation initiatives like the creation of local murals. Mahomes and his team, however, have allowed YVC to plug deeper into issues that touch him -- and thousands of his fellow Black Americans -- right in the Kansas City community from which he emerged.
"He's prioritizing issues," says YVC CEO Tracy Hale, "that matter far beyond Arrowhead Stadium."
And that's why, when Mahomes returns from Tampa after Feb. 7, it won't matter much whether he's earned a second ring or not. In Kansas City, he's already a winner.