TEMPE, Ariz. — When the Cardinals assigned their personal character and football character grades to prospects before this year’s NFL Draft, center Evan Boehm was on a short list.
“He was probably one of the five or six players that warranted a double A, so his intangibles are off the charts,” general manager Steve Keim said after Arizona selected Boehm in the fourth round. “With everything that went on with that football team this year, he was the rock. He was the rock that kept Missouri going.”
In the span of his four-year career with the Tigers:
– Boehm helped rally support for teammate Michael Sam, the first openly gay football player taken in the NFL Draft.
– He spearheaded the football team’s protest of racial discrimination and the mistreatment of minorities on campus that eventually led university president Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin to resign.
– A few days later, he watched head coach Gary Pinkel resign to spend more time with his family after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
“It was a very interesting four years but I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Boehm said this week. “A lot of stuff did happen but I think it made us closer and I think it made me stronger.”
Sam told the New York Times and ESPN that he was gay three months before the 2014 NFL Draft in which he was selected in the seventh round by the then-St. Louis Rams. Boehm said the announcement was no revelation to Missouri’s players.
“We all knew at the beginning of that same year when he came out but nobody else knew because we’re a family,” Boehm said. “That’s the way he wanted it so that’s the way we kept it. We kept it together and we kept it among ourselves. You have to hang with your brothers.”
Boehm said that experience, though vastly different, helped prepare him for the turmoil of his senior season.
While walking across campus, a group of black football players came upon black graduate student, Jonathan Butler, who was staging a hunger strike in response to what he wrote in a letter to the Board of Curators were “a slew of racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., incidents that have dynamically disrupted the learning experience” of minorities at Missouri.
“After that meeting I got a call and I was really the voice for everybody else on the team,” said Boehm, who was the Tigers’ only white captain. “They said, ‘we need your help to spread the word. We need you to back us up. We need everybody to back us up’ and that’s what we did.”
At least 30 black members of the football team announced they would not participate in team activities, including games, until Wolfe resigned or was fired. Boehm helped swell those ranks to most of Missouri’s team.
“We had a meeting with all of the players and with the coaches, and coach Pinkel stood with us, which made us respect him even more,” Boehm said. “It was a tough decision but you wouldn’t change it because you did it for a reason. You did it for a cause. You did it because you thought it was right.
“To see the brotherhood that was built from that — you knew it was strong already, but it got even stronger.”
Boehm said the hardest part wasn’t the thought of skipping games; it was dealing with the backlash.
“The scariest part was the on-campus stuff people were making up like bomb threats, and saying certain hate groups were on campus and there were gunshots on campus,” he said. “Day to day, you have to do what you do and you walk with your chest held high but when you hear about bomb threats and hate groups and gunshots on campus, it’s scary and nobody wants to go to class. Nobody really did.”
After Wolfe, Loftin and Pinkel had all announced their resignations, the Tigers played an emotional game against BYU at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. Misouri won, 20-16.
“All of us talked about seeing coach up at the podium crying and you couldn’t do anything but feel for him,” Boehm said. “It’s his life at stake and if you know coach Pinkel, you know he is really family-oriented.
“When I saw I him the last two times, he was with his wife and the next time he was with his two kids. I think he’s really cherishing this moment after being a head coach for 25 years and not really seeing his family. To win that game for him was a big monkey off our back.”
Boehm said he never took the time to put his role in the protests into perspective until he discussed it this week.
“Did it piss other people off? Yeah, it did, but it also proved to people we were more than football players playing for ourselves and for our livelihood,” he said. “If something wrong was happening we were going to talk about it, be involved in it and help make it right.
“When you’re in it, you don’t realize how big it is but now, when we look back on it, a group of 52 of us went above and beyond what a lot of other people can do or will do. That is amazing. It is eye-opening to see what you can do together.
“I hope when people talk about that in the future, they don’t say those Missouri football players were pieces of dog. I hope people will say this is why they stood up for a cause. This is what happened and this is why it needed to happen.”
Regardless of how history judges the 2015 Tigers football team, Boehm said he is confident he can handle anything the future has in store for him, including his NFL career.
“I’ve been put in situations that not a lot of people have been put in,” he said. “If something happens, whatever it is, I know what I have to do, I know what we have to do and I’m ready to deal with it.”