I nearly quit watching the NFL. The humanity of Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long brought me back | Will Bunch

Eagles strong safety Malcolm Jenkins raises his fist with teammate defensive end Chris Long (left) and free safety Rodney McLeod during the National Anthem before the played the Washington Redskins in September.

For Chris Long’s former high school football coach John Blake, there is one moment — and one image — that really showed the world what the Eagles defensive end is all about. And it wasn’t Long’s headline-grabbing announcement that he’d donate all his 2017 game paychecks to worthwhile causes, including two scholarships to send underprivileged kids to his Charlottesville, Va., alma mater, the St. Anne’s-Belfield School.

It was the preseason game back in August when the 10-year NFL veteran stood up for the national anthem and — in a gesture of solidarity and support — put his arm around his teammate Malcolm Jenkins, who was raising his fist to protest racial injustice in America. It was no little thing, as Long became the most visible white supporter of the protests that have roiled pro football for the last two seasons.

“What Chris was trying to do, basically, was to say that we need to listen — he’s got a point, all of these guys who are doing this are doing this for a reason,” said Blake, still head coach at the Virginia prep school. It was a brave political statement around the time when no less than the president of the United States was berating any athlete who protested during the anthem as a “son of a bitch,” but that arm-wrap also set the stage for all the giving-back good deeds that Jenkins, Long, and, increasingly. their Eagles teammates did in the Philadelphia community in the days that followed.

There are so many story lines as these Birds stormed through the regular season with a league-best 13-3 record and won two playoff games on the road to Minneapolis and Super Bowl LII — the canonization of once-maligned coach Doug Pederson, the rise of young quarterback Carson Wentz, and the gritty and improbable comeback story of replacement QB Nick Foles when an injured Wentz went down. But it’s hard to dispute that it’s Jenkins and Long who became the heart and soul of these would-be champions, determined to prove amid the violent and most unlikely world of pro football that, yes, in the end,  the love you take really is equal to the love you make.

Bill Cobb, the Philadelphian who was once incarcerated and is now a leading advocate for justice reform with the ACLU, rode this fall with Jenkins and teammate Steven Means to Graterford Prison to meet inmates and listen to their issues and is now working with the Eagles safety on other social justice issues. “What I like about his leadership,” Cobb told me, “is that Malcolm gets people to understand that their leadership is possible.” As the Birds marched closer toward their date in Minneapolis, more and more of Jenkins’  and Long’s teammates joined them in giving something back to the community, to show that making a statement about progress can start during “The Star-Spangled Banner” but not end there.

It was impossible to ignore. Well, almost impossible.

A decent number of fans stayed away from the NFL this season for a variety of complaints about an enterprise that rakes in $14 billion a year but struggles to find its moral compass — and there were times I thought about joining them. Like some boycotters, I was angry over the league’s Joe McCarthy-style blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick for launching the protests against injustice, and  I questioned how I could still watch the game knowing that a lot of the players might someday join the veterans who’ve suffered brain damage playing football.

When the Eagles kicked off their season Sept. 10, I wrote an anguished essay on these pages that railed on about “the moral bankruptcy” of today’s NFL, only to conclude the cultural bonds that began for so many of us with father and son were simply too strong to make that clean break — at least not yet, not for me. The hope that the rising Eagles could pull our often-fractured city together still loomed, and I pleaded with football “to do a lot better.”

Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long and their teammates answered those prayers. It turns out they were doing it all along.

Jenkins’ desire to give back goes all the way to the roots, to his upbringing in North Jersey and college years at Ohio State and then his pre-Eagles stint with New Orleans Saints — launching the Malcolm Jenkins Foundation the same year the Saints finally won the Super Bowl.  Working with kids and financing scholarships is laudable but not unique for today’s superstar athlete, but with the arrival of the Black Lives Matters movement, Jenkins also saw the need for more complicated and politically charged reforms — the things that can bring lasting change to underprivileged communities.

While Jenkins drew flak from some for raising his fist during the anthem, he was also forging close ties with the Philadelphia Police Department, not just meeting with top brass but riding around with rank-and-file officers to learn how cops and the communities they serve can develop better trust — a real-world strategy for reducing shootings by police. While some angry fans, with Donald Trump’s hateful “son of a bitch” rant burning in their ears, chortled that protesting black athletes didn’t even know what they were protesting for, Jenkins made a mockery of that ignorant claim. He was busy writing a searing series on criminal justice in the Philadelphia Citizen, traveling to Harrisburg to lobby lawmakers on “Clean Slate” legislation to wipe clean the records of low-level nonviolent offenders, urging sweeping reform of the broken bail system, and calling on Pennsylvania to release inmates given life-without-parole sentences as juveniles. One such ex-offender who did win his freedom recently, Kempis Songster, will be in the stands at the Super Bowl — because Jenkins paid his way to get there.

Amazingly, he did all this as an involved dad — Jenkins and his wife even greeted a new baby daughter last month, amid the playoff drive — and an entrepreneur, while somehow finding time to anchor the NFL’s best defense. His relentlessness off the field has brought both controversy and results. In pro football’s justice wars, Kaepernick became the fiery but divisive Malcolm X while Jenkins was more of a Martin Luther King-style figure, not willing to compromise on his principles but willing to negotiate with the other side. When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell met with Jenkins and his Players Coalition, Goodell agreed that the league would give $90 million for social causes — and Jenkins ended his anthem protest.

Chris Long was with Jenkins again that day, helping to make that happen. Like Jenkins, Long is already a Super Bowl champion — he excelled with last year’s Patriots — but his desire to give back really flourished when he arrived at Eagles camp this summer and when — like much of the rest of America — he was shocked at the racist protests and violence that erupted in Charlottesville, where he still makes his home.

You know that subculture exists in our country, and it has in our country for a long time, but when they all get together in one place — especially your hometown — it really bothers you,” Long told reporters. And so he braced Jenkins during those early anthem protests, and then he went a lot further. Long said he’d give his first six game checks to support educational causes, and then he said, why not make it all 16? At year’s end, the ex-Patriot-turned-true-patriot was hailed by no less than Barack Obama as an example of “what’s best about America.

His former coach Blake was hardly surprised. Long had a uniquely privileged background for an NFL-bound athlete — the son of Hall of Fame defensive end and sportscaster Howie Long — and so even as a teen he burned to both prove he was his own man and to give back to others not born with the same advantages. “He wanted to get it for himself,” said Blake as he watched the younger Long earn a football scholarship to the University of Virginia. His former coach also said Long believes education is the antidote to the ignorance that marched so close to his home in Charlottesville. “There’s an educational aspect to what’s going on” with the current division in America, Blake explained.

But the miracle of this year’s Eagles has been the way that these two crusades — for a better America and for the Vince Lombardi Trophy — seemed to magically blur into one. And the players like Jenkins feel it. He recently told the New York Daily News that “I think when you have a group of guys that care about the community, the city, care about each other, it just makes for a unique locker room. We’ve said all year it’s been a special year, and that’s definitely a part of it.”

You saw that magic on the playing field when Long — now a cagey veteran role player — made arguably the biggest play of the season, getting his fingertips on the pass that led to an interception that saved a victory, and kept hope alive, on what could have been the gloomy day when Wentz went down against the Los Angeles Rams. But you saw it off the field when Lane Johnson — who became a poster child for the Birds’ championship drive by wearing that canine “underdog” mask after that first playoff win at the Linc — and Long told the NFL that any profit from selling underdog attire would have to support education, and the league quickly gave in. Now, the ethos of community and philanthropy comes as naturally to these Birds as diving for a loose football on an onside kick.

None of this absolves the NFL of its myriad sins, wipes away the shame of its unconscionable treatment of Kaepernick, or fixes the concussion problem that might ultimately strangle the sport before we ever make it to Super Bowl C. But if the last couple of years in America have taught us anything, it is that we live in a deeply flawed world, and we can either curl ourselves into a tiny ball — or stand up and root for the good guys. On Sunday, I’ll be watching Malcolm and Chris and the rest of the Eagles and rooting along with everyone else in our lovingly imperfect Philadelphia for the nice guys to finally finish first. Fly, Eagles, fly — but then you already have.