Teammates’ experiences in Edmonton made Brandon Zylstra realize the realities of racism

Photo courtesy: Carolina Panthers

The brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin sent shockwaves around the world.

For a sheltered white kid from rural Minnesota like Brandon Zylstra, it was a window into a different lived experience.

“It’s all heartbreaking to me,” Zylstra told Darin Gantt of “I was like a lot of people, I didn’t think things like that could happen in my home state.”

The former CFL All-Star turned Carolina Panther didn’t see a lot of racial diversity growing up in tiny Spicer, Minnesota, a town of 1,167 people. His close friend and teammate Jayme Moten, who now serves as his NFL agent, represented a large percentage of the town’s Black population and they rarely discussed their different experiences as kids.

“Racism didn’t seem like a problem to me then,” Zylstra openly admits.

The campus of Division III Concordia College was hardly more diverse and it wasn’t until he arrived in Canada to play for the Edmonton Football Team that Zylstra realized racism was alive and well.

Canadians like to think themselves morally superior to their Southern neighbours on issues of race but standing at a bus stop in Edmonton one night with Black teammates Bryant Mitchell and Darius Morris, Zylstra was shocked by what he saw. People gawked and stared, unpleasant words were hurled and a minor altercation resulted.

“I was like, ‘Dang, is that what’s it’s like out here for you?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, every day,'” Zylstra remembers of that night.

“I had no idea. Was I in a bubble? Absolutely. I’d call my Black friends and just admit I didn’t know it was like that, and hear their thoughts, and I wanted to apologize, at least be one guy, because I didn’t realize it was as bad as it was.”

The tragic events in his home-state, first the killing of George Floyd and more recently the gunning down of young Daunte Wright, prompted more conversations with Moton and others. Now entering his fourth NFL season, Zylstra decided to do something.

Acutely aware of the struggles associated with student debt after playing without a scholarship in Division III, he has launched the ‘Brandon Zylstra Road Less Travelled Scholarship.’

Fueled by donations, the award will be given to two Black students studying in the US to ease the burden of higher education. The pot currently sits at $8,050 and will continue to grow thanks to generous contributors. With a minimum donation of $15, anyone can help make the change happen.

“Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not,” Zylstra wrote in the scholarship explanation.

“Inequality of opportunity is pronounced in the Black community in many different realms. Its prevalence in education is particularly important because education is one of the most powerful determinants of access to opportunity.”

When it comes to the immense challenges of systemic racism, it may be just a drop in the bucket, but even a small act can go a long way.

“I just knew I wanted to do something. I wanted to be able to make some kind of difference,” Zylstra said.

Now you can too.