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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Former ODU Football Player is Driving Force Behind March for Justice

By Harry Minium

As a defensive lineman for four seasons with the Old Dominion University football team, Mufu Taiwo played an almost anonymous role on the field, as do so many linemen.

On Thursday, he was anything but anonymous.

Now a graduate student, Taiwo organized the student-led March for Justice that began at noon.

He reached out to ODU President John R. Broderick, who led the march with Taiwo. It began at Powhatan Avenue and 43rd Street and ended in front of the Webb Student Center, where both he and Broderick spoke.

The March for Justice is a response to the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis policeman who used his knee to pin him down by the neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd's death sparked a national outcry that has led to weeks of demonstrations.

"I don't think the voices of student-athletes are being heard as well on this issue as they should be," Taiwo said the day before the march. "I decided to take a stand and set the tone for student-athletes. They should use their platform and speak up for what they believe."

This is just the latest of many causes Taiwo has taken on at ODU.

He became a passionate advocate for athletes three years ago when he joined ODU's Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). The NCAA-sanctioned group allows athletes to help shape policies and empowers them to speak directly to administrators about athletes' concerns.

Taiwo served more than two years as ODU's SAAC president. He joined Conference USA's SAAC group and was appointed a student representative to the NCAA's football oversight committee, where he had input into national rules changes.

He's spoken at NCAA and Conference USA meetings, where he's pushed efforts to improve the physical and mental welfare of athletes.

At ODU, he's led food drives, toy drives, participated in events with the Special Olympics and helped the ODU football bone marrow drive while also being involved in student government. He was elected Student Government Association treasurer this spring.

He was also a finalist for the Wuerffel Trophy, given to a college athlete for "exemplary community service."

"There may not have been a more impactful student-athlete (off the football field) over the years than Mufu," said Wood Selig, ODU's athletic director. "We talk about building bridges across campus, and he has done that. He's been a wonderful ambassador and his impact stretches well beyond our campus."

Taiwo's parents are military veterans. He was named for his father but shortened his name so that it would not be mispronounced. His full name is Mufutau Abdul-Kareem Taiwo II, a nod to his family's Nigerian roots.

He remembers a discussion with his mom, Paige Payne, when he was a child. It was "The Talk" that so many African American parents have with their kids. She explained that innocent African Americans are sometimes killed because of their race and that social injustice is unfortunately fact of life.

"She told me that she hoped racism would go away by the time I grew up," he said. "But it didn't. We've made so much progress from the 1950s and 1960s, but we have so far to go."

Floyd's murder was terrible, he said.

"But people weren't having these conversations before that happened," he added. "Even in the work environment, we weren't having these conversations because some people were fearful of losing their jobs. Now we're finally having those discussions we should have had years ago."

He said he hasn't experienced racism at ODU, which is one of the most diverse campuses in America.

"President Broderick is dedicated to diversity and is sensitive to the needs of minority students," Taiwo said. "When all of this happened in Minneapolis, he reached out to me and others and asked if we were all right. How many college presidents do that?"

A big part of the racial divide, he said, is that many people don't know much about the black experience. He participated on a panel recently when a white adult admitted he'd never heard of Emmett Till.

Till, a 14-year-old African American from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 when he was kidnapped, tortured and killed by two white men for allegedly flirting with the wife of one of the men. The men were acquitted by an all-white jury.

Years later, the woman recanted her story.

"It wasn't his fault that he didn't know about Emmett Till," Taiwo said. "He was never taught black history. He was a product of his environment."

To his credit, Taiwo said, the man asked him for the names of books or videos to learn more. That kind of racial reconciliation, Taiwo said, is what this march was all about.

"During our discussion, he began to take this personally," Taiwo said. "We can all gather together and sing, 'Kumbaya' but until it becomes personal to people, it will not motivate people to think outside the box."

He added: "We're still in the healing phase. It's going to take time, but we need to heal and come together."

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