The Philadelphia Eagles’ 2020 season all but hung in the balance on Sunday night in Santa Clara. Early in their prime-time showdown with the San Francisco 49ers, the home team threatened to erase Philly’s eight-point lead — and, ultimately, their early-season status as likely playoff material. Quarterback Nick Mullens floated a pass toward the Eagles’ end zone with the first quarter nearing its close, the stadium’s virtual crowd prepared to explode. The ball went up, then finally landed cleanly in the hands of … Rodney McLeod. The veteran Eagles safety’s interception didn’t just stop the 49ers from scoring on that drive. It also paved the way for the Birds’ much-needed first win of the year, helping correct the wayward course of a one-time Super Bowl contender.

McLeod, 30, is no stranger to takeaways. In just over four seasons with the team, he’s recorded more interceptions (9) than all but three others Eagles defensive backs since 2010. But the Maryland product, who came to Philadelphia in 2016 after four years with the Rams, has never just been about changing games on defense. He’s invested in changing communities as well.

Anyone who’s given an inkling of attention to the Eagles’ community efforts in recent years should know McLeod has become an unofficial spokesman for the team’s off-field work, following in the footsteps of his former teammate and fellow safety Malcolm Jenkins. But 2020 has been especially fruitful — and challenging — for the former Super Bowl champion. Just this week, McLeod announced a partnership with WHYY, a local radio station, for a Game Changers initiative designed to empower Greater Philadelphia youth.

Rodney and Erika McLeod announcing their Game Changers initiative in Philadelphia.
The Brand Architects

This week, McLeod sat down with CBS Sports to explain the program, which includes a plan to “Elevate Black History,” as well as discuss all this and more:

  • Why he thinks sports are the perfect platform for activism
  • How LeBron James and civil rights leaders inspire his advocacy
  • How fashion helps him fight for change (and how you can be more fashionable)
  • Why the Eagles can never be counted out (even this year)

Note: The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Can you share what Rodney McLeod, the man, has learned or battled, or even learned, during this season of social action?

Rodney McLeod: I think 2020 has been a season of conversation and just creating dialogue. One thing I’ve learned is I’ve gotten comfortable with being uncomfortable. And what I mean by that is using my voice for the greater good, for my community. Often, Black and Brown people’s voices aren’t heard or are silenced, in a sense. And I’m fortunate enough to be an NFL player that demands a lot of attention and has a great following and this platform to be able to speak out on a lot of these issues that concern me and are near and dear to my heart.

And so regardless of how I’ll be judged or viewed, whether it’s by other peers of mine or fans, whomever it might be, I’m comfortable being uncomfortable and with having whatever judgment has passed me, because these things (are) needed. It’s also having those conversations with teammates, with friends. And I think the only way we can grow, not only individually but as humanity, is if we put ourselves in those uncomfortable settings and not necessarily hearing from people who have the same viewpoint as you but those who see things a lot differently.

You’ve got an Elevate Black History initiative as part of your Game Changes partnership. What are some of the things you want to accomplish with this?

McLeod: Our focus is pretty much enhancing Black history curriculum — being able to provide that to a lot of classrooms, first locally but hopefully across the nation. We want to be able to not only provide curriculum, resources and tools but find ways to enhance it, whether that’s creating different learning methods, whether it’s new digital media or some sort of art form or music, we think it deserves some sort of reform.

The time is now to teach not only the African-American kids about their history but those non-African Americans who might not know as much, and (then) including the good and bad about Black history — the evolution of us — so that they can have a deeper understanding of how we evolved to where we are now, and why these social events are occurring, or why (their) peers feel (a certain) way about what’s going on in this world.

History is always, forever changing and needs to be updated. You need to learn about the past, to make it relevant and present. You need to learn about not only leaders of the past — you know, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King — but you now these new world leaders that we have, that we’re seeing on our televisions and out on the streets right now.

Speaking of Black history, what specific figures — either well known or not — have personally inspired you the most?

McLeod: It kind of formed and started with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Those two fought the fight, they fought for our freedom and our rights that we have today. When you think about protest and where it originated from, those are two iconic figures if you listen to how vocal they were, what they spoke out on, how they were able to rally so many individuals to go out and fight for change and for what was right.

When you talk about most recently, you look at Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James and my former teammate Malcolm Jenkins. Those three have been pillars of the community in the fight for change, whether it’s them changing policies, inserting schools like LeBron James has done in the Cleveland community. And I think of Malcolm, just learning alongside him … I gained a greater respect for him. And now you see the torch being passed on.

Fashion is also very important to you, and you’ve used that to call for social change. What hat are you wearing now?

McLeod: This one is ‘Make America Great Again,’ and then it just has ‘BLM’ graffiti’d over it. (And then I have) other ones that are ‘Make America Great Again,’ and the ‘Great Again’ is slashed out and it says, ‘Make America Arrest the Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor.’ The first time I saw that hat was on LeBron James. So what’s what I’m saying, it’s another public figure using fashion to bring attention to what’s going on. I quickly saw it, I made a purchase myself and got some of the other (Eagles) defensive backs the hat. It’s good just to see everyone a part of the movement trying to bring justice to the Taylor family, as this fight still goes on, unfortunately.

I (also have) a T-shirt with ‘State of Emergency’ to bring attention to educational reform. There’s disparities there. We actually gave proceeds from it back to Digital Pioneers Academy back in D.C. I think they’re actually the first (tuition) free tech middle school.

Your wife, Erika, has been step for step with you in these initiatives. How important is it for you, as a married couple, to be united in this mission?

McLeod: It’s huge having your loved one, your wife, your companion support the same mission as you and believe in the same rights. I think what’s most important is the fact that she is a woman. So often when we think of leaders in our nation, we think of men. And there are so many women who are leaders who have taken the step to speak on women’s rights and just be strong and intelligent and beautiful creatures. To have my wife alongside me, fighting for equal justice, fighting for education, equal opportunity, but most importantly what’s near and dear to her heart is healthcare, it’s good just to see her on the front lines. Women are amazing. There’s a huge community of women out there who are leaders.

Some fans obviously push back on the fact you’re calling attention to certain issues. But would you say it’s fair that you and Erika and other NFL players using their platform for these issues aren’t out to alienate one side of a debate, but rather unify?

McLeod: I think we want to make this world equal. That’s what we’re fighting for: Equality for all. And that’s Black, that’s Asian, that’s white, that’s Hispanic. Everyone should be treated equally and fairly and with dignity and respect. Specifically, the Black and brown community is asking for and looking for (that) starting from the leaders of our nation all the way down to civilians and to society. That is literally it. I feel like right now there’s so much division, and it’s sad, so as much as we can, we have to exemplify unity, and the one place I know where that exists is sports. And so it’s imperative for a lot of us athletes to show that unified effort and demonstration and just (hope) that this country sees it.

When it comes to the Eagles, many fans are probably asking themselves: How in the world does this team always find a way when it’s backed into a corner?

McLeod: Man, it’s us just staying together, us just believing in one another and keeping the faith. That’s it. As cliche as it sounds, it’s true. Despite what we’re hearing outside the walls, from fans or media, we don’t let it get in between us when we get in between those white lines. My message on Sunday was, ‘Let’s play as one. We came out here as one, let’s go to battle as one, let’s make plays as one, let’s celebrate as one and let’s win as one.’ It wasn’t perfect — no game is — but what’s most important is we stayed together throughout it all, from the first snap to the last. And we won the game. We’ve learned so much from each game. Is it ideal that we’re 1-2-1? No. We want to win every game. But I think we built off of every loss and now this victory, we can build off of that as we go into Pittsburgh and look forward to another win on Sunday.

And why should fans believe in the Eagles moving forward — in Carson Wentz, in Doug Pederson, the defense, the whole team?

McLeod: Because there’s no quit in us, man. It’s as simple as that. We’re gonna fight to the end. And there’s never any doubt in my mind or in our mind as a team in what we can overcome. There’s no mountain too high that we can’t climb. We’re gonna continue to just stay together … and that’ll put us in the position we wanna be in at the end of the year, which should be NFC East champions, wearing that hat again, going into these playoffs.

Last question: Since you’re the fashion expert, what’s the first step someone can take to becoming fashionable?

McLeod: (Laughs) First step? You gotta figure out your style. Like, what’s your style? What do you like? And then I would say, it’s never a bad place to start with kicks. Everybody can get a fresh pair of kicks, and then build your outfit from there. Just let the kicks do the talking, its simple.

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