This Is Us softball team

 

Kiki Stokes sat in a chair beside home plate after a 3-1 win, facing the crowd. 

The former Husker softball player’s jersey read, “THIS IS US,” and under that were three words: “Awareness. Empowerment. Unity.” Joining her on a postgame panel were teammates Samantha Show, Aubree Munro and Sam Fischer, along with former Nebraska teammate Taylor Edwards. 

As Stokes answered the first question posed by Fischer in the player-led discussion, she said the week had been “emotional.”

Five days prior, their professional softball team had been wearing different jerseys. On Monday, June 22, the Scrap Yard Dawgs played their first game of the season against USSSA Pride. During the game, general manager Connie May tweeted a picture of the players standing for the national anthem from the team account. The tweet read, “Hey @realDonaldTrump Pro Fastpitch being played live @usssaspacecoast @USSSAPride Everyone respecting the FLAG!” 

Stokes, the only Black player on the active roster, didn’t see the tweet until after the game, along with the rest of the team. Stokes said that she and the team were mainly upset that they were spoken for and used for a political statement. 

As the only Black person in the room, the team then turned to Stokes and asked what she wanted to do.

“I was like, I have to walk away, I can't be here,” she said. “I can't play for an organization that doesn't stand behind me and my values and my morals. And so they were like, then we're doing the same thing. It was an easy decision.”

May came in the room about 30 minutes later, according to Stokes. May didn’t apologize, and attempted to justify the tweet, including saying that “all lives matter.”

However, Stokes’ cue to leave was when May said she was in an uncomfortable situation. Stokes has been one of few Black players on most of the teams she’s played with, and said that she’s been told throughout her career that she plays a “white sport.” 

“[May] had said that she was uncomfortable but I mean, imagine being the only Black person in the room, how uncomfortable that can be,” Stokes said. “So for me, I walked out. I don't really know what was said after that.”

The rest of the team followed soon after. The team was back in action on June 27 against the Pride. The team came out in all-black jerseys, with the names of Black softball players on the back. Stokes was the only one to wear her own name on her jersey.

After making the decision to continue playing the day after walking out and separating from Scrap Yard, Stokes said that the team was in meetings and making phone calls all day every day, trying to find a way to keep playing. The team needed new gear, and ran on donations, along with their own resources and connections. Though head coach Michael Steuerwald is still with the team, the effort was nearly all player-run, according to Stokes. 

This gave the team the opportunity to show unity with a new name. After the players walked out, some tweeted out statements saying, “This isn’t us.” This ended up being part of the inspiration for the team name, This Is Us. 

“We were thinking like,’ what do we want people to know?’ Well, this is us,” Stokes said. “This is what we're doing. This is all of us coming together and doing it. I think that's how we just found it.”

By game time on June 27, This Is Us was ready to play. The team touched on their experiences throughout the week in a postgame panel.

“It was just a really cool moment to be a part of, I think, a pivotal moment in our sport,” Stokes said. “Particularly just seeing people band together and do the right thing, I think was just really powerful.”

***

When the decision was made that the team would honor Black softball players, Peaches James was the first name that popped into Edwards’ head. 

James was a pitcher for the Huskers from 2001 to 2004. In her senior year, she won Big 12 Player of the Year and was a finalist for USA Softball Player of the Year. Edwards, who played for Nebraska from 2011 to 2014, said she met James in 2010 and created a bond with her. She texted James prior to wearing her number and name to let her know.

“I want to be like her and I want to have such an impact and be a light for so many people. And I was like, ‘I hope it's okay with you,’” Edwards said. “And she had texted me back with all these like crying faces and saying like, ‘of course, it's so inspiring.’ And it was a very good conversation.”

The team had decided during the week that they wanted to do something with their jerseys to speak up about things going on in the Black community. They considered honoring victims of police brutality such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, according to Stokes, but decided on honoring Black softball players that paved the way. 

“I was like, I think we honestly should highlight our own black community and the softball community because I think sometimes some of the black athletes can get overlooked,” Stokes said. “And so highlighting that, I think, was a no-brainer for us.”

Edwards wasn’t the only one to honor a former Husker with her jersey choice. Outside of Stokes and James, two other Huskers were represented on the jerseys. Show wore former Nebraska infielder MJ Knighten’s name and number, while Ally Carda represented Tori Tyson, who played as a pitcher and outfielder throughout her time at Nebraska. 

Both Knighten and Tyson said they were overwhelmed with emotion when the players texted them. 

“It meant a lot and brought some tears to my eyes,” Knighten said. “I thought it was a true honor and I took it very, very to heart and I enjoyed every minute watching her play, seeing my name on the back of her jersey was awesome.”

Both Knighten and Tyson are currently coaches for collegiate softball programs. Knighten is an assistant coach at the University of San Diego, while Tyson is the head coach at Howard University. As a head coach at an HBCU, Tyson said she’s never used her voice more than she has now. Although her career as a Husker was derailed by a back injury, she said that being a player was just a step she had to take to get to her “final destination.”

“I tell people all the time. I don't think that my calling was to be a star player, but I do think I was destined to be an impactful coach,” she said. “ … I worried about my reach because I didn't have a stellar playing career. So I mean, when she sent me the picture, I think it was just like an overwhelming amount of emotions.”

Both coaches said they’re looking to use their voice and support the team in any way they can. Knighten also has a personal connection to the league as her younger sister, Shay Knighten, plays for the USSSA Pride. MJ Knighten said Shay has supported This Is Us throughout this process and that she’s proud of her for doing so.

“I remember when this whole thing first came out with Connie May and she called me and I felt the passion and the anger in her voice,” MJ Knighten said. “ … I knew something was brewing inside of her that she was going to be changed and she was going to stand by them. Yeah, we may be rivals on the field when it's play ball time. But at the same time, we're fighting for something bigger.”

She also said that this movement is important and she’s proud that the team chose to continue playing and send a message. They could’ve just decided to walk out and left it at that, according to Knighten, but instead, they decided to play “for something bigger than softball.” 

“What they're doing is amazing, and they're paving the way for so many young girls to do the same if necessary,” Knighten said. “Hopefully, you know, it doesn't get to that point ever again. You never know, but they're paving the way, which is awesome.” 

***

As the former coach of all four Black former Nebraska softball players represented on This Is Us’ jerseys in that first game, Nebraska head coach Rhonda Revelle said that she’s learned a lot. 

This process didn’t just start after the team walked out, either. As nationwide protests started following the death of George Floyd, she noticed Tyson speaking out. Tyson said although she’s known Revelle for about 15 years, she’s had some of her best conversations with her former coach recently.

“She's just been so supportive of me in using my voice, and to have her backing means everything to me,” Tyson said.

Along with that, current Husker sophomore pitcher Courtney Wallace was named to the Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition, which was created at the start of June. Since then, Revelle said she’s been working diligently to listen and educate herself.

This process has included correcting some beliefs that were well-intentioned but harmful. Revelle said she had always described herself as “colorblind” and never thought much about the impact she’s had on Black softball players. Recently, her players have helped her change that thought process.

“Now that they've had the courage to say, 'Coach, you need to see our color and recognize it,' I'm like, 'I got it, I hear you,'” Revelle said. “And so that's been very powerful too. So while I've never really thought of that, this time, seeing those jerseys for instance has really caused me to think about how it's nice to be a part of that journey with them."

For those former players, Revelle’s support has been “pivotal,” according to Stokes. Revelle has had multiple conversations with Stokes, Edwards, MJ Knighten and Tyson individually, along with Zoom calls as a group. 

Edwards said Revelle is like a second mom, and the coach has always been there for her. Revelle reached out to Stokes and Edwards to show her support for This is Us, according to Edwards.

“She's reached out and just saying, ‘I'm here for you. Whatever you guys need. I love you. You guys are my family,’ to both me and Kiki,” she said. “It's been very special and to know that our bond goes beyond the softball field, and it's very empowering and if I potentially coach I want to make an impact like coach Revelle made on me.”

Stokes said that Revelle has done a lot for the sport, and created an environment at Nebraska where Black players and players, in general, were accepted and listened to. When people asked Stokes why she chose to attend Nebraska, she said, “you have to experience it to understand it.” 

She also said she was appreciative of the support that she got from Nebraska during this stand with This Is Us. That support was an example of how important it is for Black athletes in softball to be welcomed and heard.

“We all felt loved while we were in Lincoln, and so I think that's a huge point to just point out that this goes beyond softball,” Stokes said. “It's all about inclusivity and how we can make sure that everybody is felt when they walk into a room.”

Moving forward, Revelle said she still has more learning to do. She said that she’s set a goal for herself to read something every day, even if for a short time, that will help her widen her perspective and be better. 

On top of that, she said she plans to continue to support This is Us and that them being vocal has been powerful.

“What's really been great is that I feel like I'm seeing these women through a different lens, more of their lens because they've been given more permission to speak their truth,” Revelle said. “So I've just learned more about them. And I'm sorry it's taken this long, but I'm grateful that it's happening now.”

***

Since their first game under a new team name, This Is Us hasn’t stopped. The team brought in over $36,000 in donations to help them continue playing, and they recently landed a sponsor in Smash It Sports. Rawlings Sports and Nike have also given gear to the team, according to the team’s Twitter page.

Stokes said the team’s goal moving forward is to continue to raise awareness. As mentioned on their jerseys, the team’s three defining words are awareness, empowerment and unity. Personally, she wants to be an inspiration to girls that come after her.

In planning and organizing this movement, Stokes said that things have been moving “1000 miles per hour type fast.” She’s been overwhelmed at times and had to take moments to decompress along this journey. However, the team’s motto throughout this time has been that they’re going to “ride this wave together.”

“Myself and my teammates have created some of these waves and we all have to just ride them, and with riding the wave comes times when you're gonna fall down and you're gonna crash, but you gotta get back up again nonetheless, and do it again,” Stokes said. “And that's my motivation, and knowing that this is changing our sport, this is changing the people around us.” 

sports@dailynebraskan.com