CLEVELAND -- Gameday. Thursday afternoon, just before 3 p.m., five hours before Browns-Broncos. I was sitting in a Panera Bread place here, having lunch. My phone vibrated.
The screen read: Brandon Marshall. I answered.
"Don't you have a game in a little while?'' I said to the Denver wide receiver.
"Yeah,'' he said. "But I need some advice.''
"Joey Porter?'' I said. "The popcorn-muscle thing?''
"Nah,'' he said. "Forget that thing. I'm thinking of doing something tonight if I score, and I wanted to run something by you.''
Uh-oh. I could just see it now -- Marshall scores, does something lame-brained, gets penalized 15 yards, fined $20,000 and says, "Well, I ran it by Peter King and he thought it was a great idea!''
"Go ahead,'' I said, with a little trepidation.
"I really want to make a statement, a positive statement, about our country because of what's happened this week with Barack Obama getting elected,'' he said. "So I was thinking -- remember back in the Olympics when those two athletes did that black power thing? What was that?''
"The '68 Olympics,'' I said. "Two black Americans got on the medal stand. John Carlos and Tommie Smith. They put on black gloves. They put their fists in the air and looked down when the National Anthem was played. It was their protest over the conditions of blacks in America.''
"Yeah,'' he said. "I don't want to do that. This is nothing political. This is about unifying the country. I want to color my gloves -- half black, half white -- and when I score, hold up my hands to the camera. You know, kind of a gesture of how far we've come as a country that we could elect an African-American as president. Forget Democrat-Republican. Forget black-white. It's about the progress of our country.''
"Great idea,'' I said. "Brilliant idea. I'm trying to think about whether you'd get penalized or fined. I don't think the league would do anything to you.''
"I think I'm going to do it,'' he said.
We got off the phone. At the game that night, I noticed he wasn't wearing the half-and-half gloves, and I wondered if someone had talked him out of it. But in the closing seconds, Jay Cutler threw Marshall the go-ahead touchdown pass, an 11-yarder, giving Denver a 34-30 lead with 1:14 to play. Marshall reached into his pants, struggled for a second (I figured he was reaching for the gloves, which he was), and quickly veteran teammate Brandon Stokley ran to him. "No-no-no!'' Stokley said. "Not now! We can't risk the 15 yards!''
Stokley thought if Marshall made a big show of putting on gloves, seeking out the camera, he might get flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct (though if the refs had known the meaning of the gesture, it would actually have been "sportsmanlike'' conduct). And with the greatness of Cleveland returner Joshua Cribbs, Marshall would have risked giving the Browns superb field position to come back and win the game.
In the locker room, dressing next to Marshall, Stokley told me, "His gesture was fine -- but only not at that time. We couldn't take a chance of giving Cleveland 15 yards.''
"Veteran move,'' Marshall said. "Smart move.''
In the wake of the game, somehow, the gesture got to be seen to some as a latter-day black-power salute. As in: We got Obama in the White House, white America, and now we're going to use our power and might to right all these years of inequities. I asked Marshall about it Saturday.
"No, no, no, not at all,'' he said. "Like I told you the other day, this was my silent gesture to say, 'Let's unify this country.' I know what the black power thing was 40 years ago. This was definitely not that. This was about everybody being one. It was about the progress of our country.''
Marshall lived in predominantly black East Liberty, a Pittsburgh neighborhood, until moving to a predominantly white neighborhood in Orlando just before middle school. "In Pittsburgh,'' he said, "There was one white kid, Eric, in my school. In Orlando, I was one of five black kids in my school. So I saw both sides. I have pictures of my best friends, and there are blacks and whites in the pictures.''
All kinds of barriers have been broken in the NFL in recent years. A black coach, Tony Dungy, won the Super Bowl two years ago. A black GM, Jerry Reese, won it last year. Twelve quarterbacks in the league are black. Seven coaches are. Six GMs (or men with that authority) are black. The players' union leader, until Gene Upshaw's untimely death last summer, was black. The game has changed. The country is changing.
I called a few enlightened football people over the past five days to ask what they thought of the events of the week. Their responses:
Wide receiver Hines Ward, Steelers: "We'll all remember where we were when our first black president was elected. It used to be that a black coach was unheard of; now I'm playing for one. A black president was certainly unheard of, and now we have one. Martin Luther King talked about having a dream, and now we're all living it."
Defensive tackle Tommie Harris, Bears: "I just had a son, and now I can truly say to him, 'This is the land of the free.' It is so surreal. I was watching the election results, wondering why I felt so emotional. It's because we were witnessing history. A few of my teammates went down to Grant Park for Barack's speech, and they said it was amazing -- the friendliest crowd they'd ever seen in Chicago, with strangers high-fiving each other. When I woke up this morning, I thought, We have a minority president, and I just couldn't believe it. It is so good for our country. A lot of guys on the [Bears] have been talking about taxes and what's going to happen to their money, but this is so much bigger than that. Everyone should pray for him.''
Linebacker Scott Fujita, Saints: "I can't explain how proud it made me to take our two baby girls to vote with us. Definitely a great day for America.''
Quarterback Byron Leftwich (born and raised in Washington, D.C.), Steelers: "I don't have kids, but people who have kids, now they can look them in the eye and say, 'Everything is possible.' That used to be a lie. Now it's the truth. You know what I'm proudest of? Not that the African-American guy won. But that the most qualified guy won, and he was African-American, and both African-Americans and whites saw it that way.
"I couldn't fall asleep 'til 2 o'clock in the morning after watching everything, just thinking how incredible it was that we have an African-American president. I could have cried. I really could have. I ain't cried in a while, but when I saw Jesse Jackson with tears running down his face, I almost did. And all the other people from all walks of life celebrating ... it was just so powerful.
"I was talking to my mother on the phone while we were both watching what was going on, and it was amazing --she thought she'd never see this happen in her lifetime, and I thought I'd never see it in my lifetime. We don't have much of a political locker room, but every now and then today, someone would just yell out, 'OBAMA!'"
Linebacker London Fletcher, Redskins: "This changes the perception of how African-Americans are looked at by society, and also how African-Americans look at themselves. Did I really think I could be anything I wanted to be as a kid? Was it really possible? No, but for it to actually happen now is a great thing for our country.''
And now we're back to football.