Titans linebacker Avery Williamson came out of the tunnel wearing his custom patriotic cleats for the season opener against the Vikings on Sunday, the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Williamson had planned to wear the cleats to honor those who died, but changed his mind when an NFL representative called to inform him about a looming fine for violating uniform code.
“I don’t want to draw negative attention, so I’m just going to focus on playing the game,” Williamson told The Tennessean on Friday. “Once I heard from them, I didn’t even try to argue anything. I just left it alone. I didn’t want to press the issue.”
Several of his teammates offered to help pay the fine if he wore the cleats. And after his story went viral, four New York and New Jersey police associations did as well, including the union that represents the police department that patrols the World Trade Center complex.
“On September 11, 2001, the PAPD lost 37 police officers at the World Trade Center, the largest, single loss ever suffered by a police department in the history of American law enforcement,” the union’s public information officer, Bobby Egbert, wrote in a statement to The Tennessean on Saturday.
“We read, with understandable interest, your piece on Avery Williamson and the NFL's stance on Avery honoring the September 11th victims. We, along with the New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association, are offering to pay any reasonable fine levied by the NFL if Avery chooses to wear his 9/11 cleats.”
Later Saturday, two additional law enforcement associations joined in the pledge, the New Jersey State Troopers Non-Commissioned Officers Association and the State Troopers Fraternal Association of the New Jersey State Police.
Titans general manager Jon Robinson patted Williamson on the chest during team warmups, when he was wearing plain white cleats, like his teammates.
Williamson’s star-spangled blue cleats with red- and white-striped Nike swooshes were airbrushed by True Blue Customs in Lexington, Ky. They feature the words “Never Forget” and “9/11” on the back of the shoes, with the "11" representing the Twin Towers. The NFL mandates all teammates wear the same color scheme on their shoes.
“I’m going to try to get a couple of veterans to come to a game,” Williamson said. “I feel like just reaching out to people, helping them, somebody that’s served our country, I feel like that’s a great honor, so I wanted to do something nice for them. I feel like it’s a great cause.”
The NFL is notoriously strict about its uniform code.
In August, the league prohibited the Dallas Cowboys from wearing a helmet sticker honoring local police.
Last season, the NFL fined two Pittsburgh Steelers players $5,787 each for first-offense uniform violations — running back DeAngelo Williams for wearing "Find the Cure" in his eye black to promote breast cancer awareness and cornerback William Gay for wearing purple cleats to raise awareness about domestic violence.
The New York Giants' Odell Beckham and Victor Cruz planned to wear patriotic cleats in Sunday's game against the Cowboys, as did Atlanta Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The NFL has not responded to a request for comment about whether these players received special permission or are simply willing to pay the fine.
All NFL players will wear a league-approved helmet sticker to commemorate the anniversary of Sept. 11.
Williamson was raised in Milan, Tenn., about 110 miles west of Nashville, and drafted by the Titans out of Kentucky with a fifth-round pick in 2014.
Williamson said he realized how large a platform NFL players have when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick stirred controversy by refusing to stand for the national anthem, in what he described as an effort to protest police brutality and minorities being oppressed by the United States.
“I guess if he wants to stand up for something, he can, because everybody has a voice,” Williamson said. “If that’s the way he wants to express himself, that’s the way he’s doing it. It’s his decision. And I just wish him luck with it.
“It can be used for good or bad, either or, but you definitely have a bigger platform than you think.”