Former Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Santana Dotson met George Floyd only once, but it was an interaction he never forgot and forged a bond that would never be broken.
For the two would always be Yates High School football alums.
Dotson, a 1987 Yates graduate, was the reigning 1992 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year when he returned home to Houston after his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was asked to speak to the current Yates team, which had suffered a heartbreaking playoff loss.
That was Floyd’s team.
“George’s team went to the state championship and they lost, so when I came back after my rookie season, I spoke to the team and we were introduced,” Dotson recalled in a phone interview from his home in Houston. “We were looking eye to eye and there weren’t many kids in the room as tall as me.”
At first, Dotson didn’t make the connection between what happened in Minneapolis last week -- when Floyd, who is black, was killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin -- as the man he knew from his high school. A memorial was held for Floyd on Thursday in downtown Minneapolis.
“I did not realize right away, and then one of my high school coaches reached out to me to let me know that’s who in fact it was,” Dotson said. “Coming up in our community, everyone has a nickname. His nickname from his family and from the football team was ‘Big Freak’ -- as in Super Freak because he was a basketball player and football player. When I went back and talked to the team, we were eye to eye. He had to be 6-5 or 6-6 then, so thus the nickname.”
It was their only face-to-face meeting.
“But he’s a hometown guy,” Dotson said. “And he’s part of the brotherhood that is and was Yates football.”
Dotson, who played 10 NFL seasons and was part of the Green Bay Packers Super Bowl teams in 1996 and 1997, has lived in Houston since he retired.
“The thing to me is there’s no difference in Santana Dotson and George Floyd,” Dotson said. “It was just the opportunities that were put in front of us and being able to take advantage of it.
"In addition to that, the only difference I honestly feel is that being on video for nine minutes. We’ve talked about this happening in our communities since I was 7 or 8 years old. That’s the heartbreak when I look at my kids, who are preparing to have kids, and I feel like I have let them down.”
Dotson described Yates as a "community school," one made up of mostly black students.
The school's website says it was named for "Rev. Jack Yates, a former slave who eventually became one of the most influential leaders of Fourth Ward Houston in the 19th century. Reverend Yates founded both Bethel and Antioch Baptist Churches, around which the Fourth Ward grew, and sponsored many other churches and schools in hopes of developing youth as leaders.”
"It's a school full of pride, full of tradition," Dotson said. "My grandmother, who is 101 years old and still living, she was in the first graduating class at Jack Yates. My dad, my aunts, they all went through Yates High School. When I say it is a community school, it really is."
Dotson has taken part in vigils, along with several of his former Yates teammates, in the days since Floyd’s death.
“It’s tremendous pain,” he said. “These things honestly have been there, but when it hits so close to home, it’s tremendous pain. I’m 50 years old now and I’d have to say the sadness is that we’re still here, meaning that it seems like we’re still stuck in the mud from a humanity aspect and an equality aspect because the things the African American community are asking for is just equality -- equal justice, equal rights, equal education. Those are the same things MLK was talking about in ’59 and ’60 and here we are 50, 60 years later, and we’re still talking about the same thing.”
Dotson was aware of the video message the current Packers players and coach Matt LaFleur released on Thursday and wants to encourage even more dialogue about racial divide. The Packers and team president Mark Murphy are making separate pledges of $250,000 to Wisconsin causes that support social justice and racial equality.
“There has to be an acknowledgement,” Dotson said. “Everybody says the system is broke, but I would dare to say the system is working exactly how some want it to work. So there has to be an acknowledge of that, and we have to say we have to go in and correct these things because the marginalized communities are paying for it, and we’ve got to find a way to get better.
“I would dare to say to the white community: 'Listen to the pain. If you know somebody black, have the courage to reach out to them and just listen. Now is the time to listen. Listen to the heartbreak, listen to the sadness, listen to the madness. The act of even reaching out would be extraordinary to the black community. Not lecture. Everybody wants to talk about the looting and the riots, and let’s talk about the cause and effect.'"
Dotson said the school is planning a vigil for Monday, when Floyd’s body is returned to Houston.
“I feel like it’s my duty to let people know that he was a living human, and he really, truly cared,” Dotson said. “He was a sincere character who would give you anything.”