It was a typical Tuesday during football season, which meant the Miami Dolphins were out and about doing a community event.
Kenny Stills was there because, well, Kenny Stills is always there.
On this day, this was a multi-part event involving the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), teens and law enforcement officers. There was a RISE workshop in the morning, a police Ride-Along in the afternoon, a visit to a Police Athletic League facility and finally a surprise visit to residents of an apartment complex in the City of North Miami.
During one of those stops, Stills came across a PAL boy by the name of Jonathan, and the encounter captured the essence of Kenny Stills.
“The kid was reading his name because he had a name tag on,” North Miami Police Chief Larry Juriga explained, “and Kenny takes his own name tag off, puts it on the kid, takes the kid’s name tag — a boy by the name of Jonathan — and puts Jonathan’s name tag on him and says, ‘Hey, now we’re partners. See this?’ So it’s just his special way of interacting with the kids that I certainly appreciate. I know the kids do.”
It was a small gesture, sure, but one with big significance for Jonathan.
It also is but one example of the time Stills puts in to, in his own words, “help others” and “be a positive influence.”
“I know that I wouldn’t be where I am without the help of others,” Stills says. “I never want to forget that. So it’s important me to give back and try to use the position of power that I have because of what I do to try and help others and be a positive influence. I’ve just really focused on making sure that I use all of my time here on this earth, however long it is, to do something good and impactful and leave a positive legacy.”
Stills’ resume of community involvement is a long one.
Whenever the Dolphins go out in the community, you can count on Stills being there. But his community involvement extends even beyond team-organized events.
It truly was no surprise when it was announced Thursday that the Dolphins had selected Stills as their nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
“Ever since he’s been here, Kenny has been the model community citizen in terms of how you draw it up, in terms of being active, being engaged and being proactive as well,” said Jason Jenkins, the Dolphins Senior Vice President for Communications and Community Affairs. “He was definitely a great representative for this award.”
This is the second consecutive year Stills has been selected as the Dolphins’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
He said on his Twitter feed he was “humbled and honored” to receive that recognition and said he was thankful for the support he’s received from teammates, the organization and everyone who helps spread messages of equality, love, and justice.
“I’m encouraged by the relationships we’ve built and the progress we’ve made locally to help foster positive relationships between law enforcement and the communities they protect,” Stills tweeted. “Looking forward to bringing this message to more cities around the country.”
This clearly is serious business for Stills.
He has worked closely with law enforcement, not only a couple of Ride-Alongs but also in community-building events where serious issues are discussed.
He participated last February in the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project Police and Youth Conference at Hard Rock Stadium, an event that attracted more than 600 high school students and South Florida law enforcement officials and was designed to promote positive interaction between youth and law enforcement.
He joined fellow wide receiver Albert Wilson in visiting patients at the Miami Veterans Affairs (VA) Healthcare System two days after the Dolphins’ marathon season opener against the Tennessee Titans.
He was named a Luminary Icon by LGBTQ-rights group SAVE in September for his social justice work in the community.
“Given the realm of sports in general and although there have been people like (former NBA player) Jason Collins in the past that have come out publicly, typically within the sports realm and especially within the sports realm and talking about players of color, you don’t necessarily see a whole lot of standing up specifically for LGBTQ rights,” said Tony Lima, the executive director of SAVE and Dolphins FOOTBALL UNITES™ partner. “And I think for us that’s what was inspiring about Kenny because he took that step further. He gave young people, specifically young LGBTQ folks, he became an inspiration for them and all of us by being able to those stances. Although he’s not LGBTQ himself, by being able to use his platform, being able to be very vocal about it, showing up at our event, which was 90 percent LGBT folks, and giving a very heartfelt speech on his dedication to leveling the playing field when it comes to equality is a huge deal.”
Stills also has done extensive work with RISE, starting with leading a town hall meeting in September 2016, which led to the idea of police ride-alongs as well as pregame tailgates designed to strengthen relationships between community leaders, youth and law enforcement.
Stills joined Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and teammates in helping fund the tailgates.
And then there was his involvement in a voting registration campaign that led to every player on the team completing the paper work to become registered voters, an initiative created through a partnership with RISE and the Drum Major Institute.
Stills mentors with Empowered Youth, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of inner-city, at-risk youth.
And, of course, there was his offseason trek through the South, where he continued his work in spreading the message of equality and social justice.
“There’s lots of people in our world, whether it’s in athletics or any other type of profession, that talk a big game and Kenny talks the talk but he walks the walk,” Juriga said. “He’s out there pushing not only with his time, which is certainly valuable; he’s pushing with his money to make sure things are getting done. He’s not just saying, this is a problem and everybody needs to know about this problem. He’s saying, this is a problem and I’m pushing for solutions to this problem. We’re having issues with social justice, or social injustice. He’s trying to engage with the community, engage with law enforcement, engage with the kids so we can find a solution to the injustices that are happening in our country. And by him doing that, he’s certainly a role model and a leader not only within NFL players, within the NFL community or with athletes in general, but in our community and our world as a whole.”
For Stills, maybe what matters most are the relationships he’s developing, whether it be with boys like Jonathan or adult women, like those he met on visits to the apartment complex in North Miami.
“It’s tough to single out one moment (that stands out), but it was really cool recently when we did our second Ride-Along of the year,” Stills said. “We went to the neighborhood down in (North) Miami and to see familiar faces and to really start to feel and understand the impact that we’re making, I think it’s special. A lot of times we do work and you really don’t hear from people, you don’t hear the impact that you’re making, so when you get to see somebody for the second year around, the officers, different people in the community and just start to realize the relationship that we’re building and knowing that our visits and time that we’re spending are meaningful. Anytime you have the opportunity to see somebody for a second time or third time and share some of our time together and really just catch up on how the year has gone, I think that’s really special.”
Make no mistake, Stills doesn’t just show up to community events so his face will be seen.
He gets involved, whether it be chatting up youngsters, having a young reader read him a book before the start of a presentation, or stepping up to help when it comes to preparing food at an event like the Dolphins Kids Cook-Off Presented by Publix.
“The funny part is we never know when he shows up just because he’s already there talking to somebody else,” Jenkins said. “He may be in a corner doing some things on his own and building connections. He’s a person that’s very solution-oriented. He’s talked about some of the challenges that we face in our community, but he’s not a person that’s going to sit back and let it happen without his action being a part of it. I think that’s the main thing that I respect about him is that he puts in the work.”
“When we ended up going out to one of the apartment complexes, we go to one of our apartment complexes and it’s five different apartment buildings and it’s not in the higher end of our city,” Juriga said. “There’s people that are economically challenged there and it’s pitch black other than the police cars with their lights on in the area, illuminating the area. And people started to see that the Dolphins were there and the police were there, and they were apprehensive at first seeing a bunch of policemen there.
“A couple of people came out and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ And we said, ‘Hey, Kenny Stills and some of the Miami Dolphins are here.’ So people slowly starting coming out. And you saw people texting here and more people started coming out. And people started calling each other and more people started coming out. But Kenny, whether it was the youngest kid that would come out, he’d get down on his knee and hug the kids as they came out. Or some of the older ladies that would come out. They’d come out real apprehensive at first, then you’d see their whole demeanor and their expression change when they see Kenny with that big smile of his. And he’s hugging them and we’ve got pictures of him giving some of the older ladies a kiss on the cheek.
And that helps the police department because if people are comfortable with us, if they’re comfortable with the people we’re with, like Kenny and the Dolphins, they’re going to be more likely to engage with us and to give us information if there’s an issue happening, to cooperate with us or partner with us within the community. That helps us overall.”
Stills is now in his fourth season with the Dolphins after coming over in a trade with the New Orleans Saints in the spring of 2015.
He has grown quite a bit since that time, both as a player and as a man. One thing that hasn’t changed is that Stills doesn’t seek the limelight.
But, as with most things, actions speak louder than words. And when it comes to trying to make the world a better place, few speak louder with their actions than Stills.
“I’ve definitely taken the initiative to making sure I’m doing something all the time,” he said. “I think that’s working and excelling in my sport and in my job, but also giving back and helping others.”