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Five NFL players headed to Capitol Hill: 'We have to make a difference'

Corey Jones was driving home 13 months ago after a gig with his church band when his SUV broke down on a South Florida highway at nearly 2 a.m. Roughly 90 minutes later Jones was on the phone with roadside assistance when a white cargo van pulled up in the dim light. A man wearing blue jeans, sneakers, a tan T-shirt and a baseball cap got out.

"You good?" the man asked.

"I'm good," Jones answered.

"Really?"

"Yeah, I'm good," Jones repeated.

"Really?"

"Yeah."

The next sound on an audio recording of the phone call was the man shouting: "Get your f---ing hands up! Get your f---ing hands up!"

"Hold on!" Jones said.

"Get your f---ing hands up! Drop!" the man yelled before firing three gunshots within two seconds.

According to a report filed by the state attorney's office, the man fired three more shots 10 seconds later -- only "more deliberately" -- with one shot every three seconds.

Jones, 31, died on the side of that highway after being struck by three of the six bullets. His death sparked local protests because the man who allegedly shot him, Nouman Raja, was a plainclothes Palm Beach Gardens police officer who failed to show a badge or identify himself as an officer. Raja was driving an unmarked van.

Raja was charged with manslaughter and attempted murder eight months later, but to date there has been no trial and no closure for Jones' family, which includes cousin Anquan Boldin, a receiver with the Detroit Lions. Boldin would like answers for not only his family, but all families who have experienced such a tragedy. It's one reason he and four other NFL players have traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday for meetings with a handful of congressmen, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

"No. 1, you want to hear that they hear you," Boldin told ESPN.com. "You want to make sure they understand the things that we, as an African-American community, are going through. I don't think our community feels that way right now, especially when it comes to law enforcement and the way we're being policed. Our neighborhoods are feeling hurt. No. 2, you want to see changes in policy, in terms of how we train our police officers. And lastly, you want to see accountability -- that justice will be served for all -- to make sure that the relationship between the African-American community and police can be better. There's work to be done on both sides because there's a huge mistrust there. I want to help close that gap."

Boldin, the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2015 for his production on the field and his community work off it, began contemplating the trip well before August, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started protesting police brutality against people of color by sitting and subsequently kneeling, during the national anthem.

Boldin reached out to Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, Lions safety Glover Quinand quarterback Josh McCown and wideout Andrew Hawkinsof the Cleveland Browns-- "all guys who are well respected in the league and who have the same goal in mind as myself" -- to join him. Each said yes. Boldin did not reach out to Kaepernick because, he said, it would have been tough logistically for Kaepernick to make the trip from the West Coast. Also, Boldin didn't want the meetings to draw attention that could negatively impact their desire to make positive change.

For some players like Hawkins, the issue is deeply personal. He thinks back to the November day two years ago when 12-year-old Tamir Rice -- who was black -- was shot to death by a police officer while playing with a toy gun on a Cleveland playground. Hawkins reflects on how he could've been Rice a decade earlier had his mother allowed him to play with the toy gun he had gotten from a church giveaway for kids.

"I thought the gun was the coolest thing ever, and my mom took it away," he said. "I asked why, and she said, 'Someone is going to think it's real and shoot you.' I didn't understand it because all of my friends -- I went to a predominantly white elementary school, Catholic school -- they all had BB guns and would play with them all the time. I always thought it was so cool, but my mom would tell me, 'You don't have that luxury.' I didn't understand it as a kid, but I do now. I have a son of my own."

His mother's words came rushing back to him when Rice was killed, just as they did three months earlier when John Crawford, a 22-year-old black male, was fatally shot by police while holding a toy BB gun rifle inside a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio. Those killings prompted Hawkins to wear a T-shirt that read "Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford" on the front and "The Real Battle for Ohio" on the back before a December 2014 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"It created a lot of controversy at the time, but it's something that was important to me then, and it's important to me now," Hawkins said. "To be honest, it was probably the proudest moment that I've had as a professional athlete. ... We have a lot of power because we're visible, and there was a sense of responsibility that I felt I had because I'm in a sport where I might be the only person of color to get the opportunity to be on TV and articulate how a lot of people of color feel about the situation. That's not a responsibility I take lightly, so it was important for me."

What does he hope to accomplish Tuesday?

"I'm not a lawmaker, and I don't come from a background of politics," Hawkins said. "My expertise is in the communities that I grew up in, the people that I know, the firsthand encounters that I've had. I'm just curious to hear what our congressmen have to say, as people who are in charge of government and who have that responsibility and power. I want to get the other side of it. Going forward, this is more of a baseline than anything. We're probably not having extensive meetings and sitting there and loosening our ties and really getting down to business, so I don't know how much can be accomplished or how much can be said. But it's a first step and an important step because you can't get to the next one without this one."

The players are scheduled to visit with Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), as well as with members of the congressional black caucus. The meetings were arranged by Andrew Blejwas, an associate director of marketing for the nonprofit The Nature Conservancy, who since 2012 has been advising players like Boldin on how they can maximize their off-field work. The NFL Players Association also worked to arrange possible meetings with Speaker Ryan and some White House staff.

No one is sure what will come of the sessions, but the players are firm that they'd like to walk away with something tangible, even if it's an agreement to meet again for more discussions on what actions can be taken to address the issues. While Boldin and others want to be heard, McCown wants to listen.

"I don't believe we, as white people, can understand what African-Americans go through on a daily basis, because it's different," McCown said. "For me, first and foremost, I want to be able to acknowledge that and say that our stories are different and our histories are different, but let's just try to be a part of making it better moving forward. That's been my resolve -- starting in my family first, and in my circle -- to be able to go, 'I'm going to listen better and be better and be on the side of good and good things to move forward. But what does that look like? To me, it looks like justice and standing with your friends for what's right. So many times in this situation it feels like you can't be for law enforcement and for Black Lives Matter. There's such a stark line that you have to be on one side or the other. I'm trying to process that and understand. Why can't you be for both? I want the message to be that we can be for both. I don't know if that's possible, but that's where my heart is."

McCown said he began to understand the issueafter police shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. He said he began to read and listen more intently to what was going on around the country. The stories resonated even more during offseason bible-study meetings each Thursday with former and active players. Many of the participants were black and shared personal stories of how they or family members had been mistreated by law enforcement.

"You're listening to what they've gone through, and I call it a 'weighted vest,'" McCown said. "That probably doesn't do it justice, but I was like, 'Man, they do live with a weighted vest on. It's not the same race we [whites] are running here. It began to change my perspective."

Boldin's goal is to raise awareness and create positive change. His commitment is even stronger following the contentious presidential election.

"It makes me even more passionate because I see a country that's hurting," Boldin said. "I see so much divide, to the point that I don't think we've ever been at this point in my lifetime. Has there always been racism? Of course. Has police brutality always been there? Of course. You name it, and it's been there. But at this point, it just seems to be so brazen.

"When you hear about the things that are happening on college campuses, high school campuses, even elementary school campuses, it's mind-blowing. This is the type of stuff I didn't have growing up, where you have young kids just being blatantly racist. There's a huge divide in our country now, and if we don't find a way to heal it, things are only going to get worse. I don't want to bring my kids up in a country like that. I don't think any of us do. We've got to do some work. And we can't leave it to politicians and the government alone. We have to make a difference. If we don't, we're doomed."

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