Coming together to remember Antwon Rose Jr.

There is nothing that will bring Antwon Rose Jr. back.

There is nothing that will allow his mother, Michelle Kenney, to see his smile again.

There is nothing that will make the tears stop, tears that come all times of the day and night.

There is nothing that will heal the heartache for his mother, the pain, of suffering the loss of her 17-year old son,

"Sometimes I just cry," said Kenney. "I just cry thinking about Antwon being gone."

* * *

On the night of June 19, 2018, the car Antwon Rose Jr., who is black, was a passenger in was pulled over by the East Pittsburgh Police. While the driver was being handcuffed on suspicion of being involved in an incident that happened earlier that evening, a frightened Rose fled from the car. The cell phone video a bystander captured showed Rose running, and then you could hear gunshots and see as he was fatally shot in the back three times by a white East Pittsburgh Police Officer.

Never in her wildest dreams could Kenney have imagined her son losing his life this way. Rose was accustomed to being around the police after his mom spent more than a decade working for a nearby police department in an administrative role. There were police in his family, including Kenney's father, an officer for more than 35 years in another jurisdiction.

"My kids had a different relationship with the police than most kids," said Kenney. "My kids hung out with their kids. My kids hung out at the station. My kids even rode home with them sometimes. I know having that positive relationship with the police removed that fear some have so you wouldn't feel the need to run right away. Antwon didn't have a fear with the police until he had a negative engagement with the police on a traffic stop my daughter had where she got a ticket and they put a gun to his head. That changed his perception. At 16-years old he was scared. Scared enough that he didn't know what else to do but run."

* * *

Rose's memory is honored in the Pittsburgh area in numerous ways throughout the year, including on his birthday when the Hawkins Village community he grew up in gathers to celebrate in a manner that benefits other kids in the same neighborhood.

But tonight, when the Steelers take on the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on Monday Night Football, his memory will be honored on one of the biggest stages imaginable.

This year the NFL is allowing players to wear helmet decals to honor victims of systemic racism. Players could select the name of an individual to wear on their helmet and the Steelers players and coaches united as one to wear a single name on the back of their helmets and hats for the entire 2020 season – Antwon Rose Jr.

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Kenney received a call from Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin last week to inform her of what the team is doing.

"I can't explain it," said Kenney of what it was like to get that call. "It was indescribable. It's my son. And not only is one person on the team going to wear his name on their helmet. They took a vote, and the entire team is going to wear his name on their helmets. How do you even make sense of that? I wish I could give you some adjective to explain, but I can't do anything but cry. I can't do anything but cry."

Her voice cracked as she searched for the words, tears flowing as her wish of working together with the Steelers to make a change became a reality.

"Being on the phone and hearing that the sports team right here in my city wants to represent my son and tell his story, there are no words for that," said Kenney. "I wish I could give you something nice to write, but you can't express that. You hear Mike Tomlin's voice on television, and I am not saying he is a superhero, but you hear him on television. I am holding the phone and I know it's him, but I just couldn't believe the words I was hearing.

"To get a call, with Mike Tomlin on the phone, to tell me he has two sons and he worries too. He said the team took a vote and they decided to do it. He told me he understood. He told me he worries about his kids. My thought was if he is worried about his kids, then everybody has to worry.

"Then to say we are going to support you. We want you to be involved in what we are doing. There are no words to describe that. I am just Antwon's mom. This situation comes with a whole lot of pain. I mean a lot of pain."

It's pain she can't hide.

"It's been a whirlwind ever since that call," said Kenney. "There are so many mixed emotions. I realize at the end of the day, Antwon is gone. But the Steelers are taking a stand. They are trying to make change and they want to be involved. That means more to me than anything. There are kids out here that look up to these players. Kids who watch the Coach on television, they look like most of the kids I know. It's important. It really is. I hope the players understand how important this is to these kids.

"Them wearing his name takes it to a whole other level. That is something so different. I am just grateful.

"To me it's not about Antwon. Antwon is gone and I couldn't save him. But if I could collaborate with the Pittsburgh Steelers and save one life, I am grateful."

* * *

Kenney means what she says about wanting to save other kids. Her past and continued relationship with those in law enforcement gives her a unique perspective.

"There are some great cops out there. I have friends who are cops," said Kenney. "We talk. They call me. I call them. They showed up at Antwon's funeral. They aren't all bad. I don't think the kids know that. I think if the kids could see what I saw when I was working there, things would be different. But I don't think they see these kids as just kids and the kids don't see them as good cops.

"Without that. Without bridging that gap, it's never going to change. I always am trying to figure out how to bridge that gap. With me, trying to change the law, people assume I disconnect with the police and that's not it. I want it to be better for both sides. I don't even want there to be a side. We need law enforcement. It's necessary. But there needs to be a balance and we lost that. I am hoping us working together we can help find that."

Cameron Heyward knows that there is power in numbers, that people working together for one cause can make a difference, even if that means saving just one life.

"When you think about Antwon Rose's story, we don't want to ever let his legacy go away," said Heyward, one of the Steelers team captains and a voice that has been heard in the team's fight against social injustice. "That kid had a bright future and he was taken away too early. We see all of these things happening across our country now. This hit home.

"The work his mom is doing to better the community and improve police relations in the community is awesome. We want to show we are with her as she continues to deal with this. I know it can't be an easy thing. She has to deal with this every day. But we are behind her. We see what she is doing and love what she is doing. We can do so much more if we can have her back and continue to remember Antwon.

"It's so powerful. We understand we can't bring back the loved ones we've lost. All we can do is try to prevent more. We know there are great people who are police and are involved in their communities. But all we can do is try to improve that. We want to have better relationships, so it's never escalated. We don't want to lose any more of our loved ones. Hopefully we can say in the future Antwon Rose's story changed the narrative and the hearts of many people."

* * *

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Rose had a bright future ahead of him. He was only 17-years old, he did volunteer work.

"Antwon was really a good kid. I know a lot of moms say their kid was a good kid. But Antwon truly was a good kid," said Kenney. "One bad decision shouldn't cost you your life. There was not a second chance for Antwon. Meanwhile some of us have had many. He did well in school. He was involved in his community. He volunteered. He worked. He gave away everything he had. He didn't deserve to die. He didn't."

The heartache in Kenney's voice was palpable. The tears, they were flowing once again, or maybe still is the right way to say it. The heartbreak isn't even close to healing for her.

"When your kid leaves the house, you shouldn't have to pray that he is going to come back home," said Kenney. "I never, ever, ever would have imagined this. Not even in my nightmares. But if it can happen to Antwon, it can happen to anyone. He really was a good kid, and he was just a kid."

Rose was a sports fanatic. You name it, he loved the sport. And football was right near the top, with a love for the Steelers.

Kenney remembers when Rose was just six or seven and framed photos of Steelers players were made available at the U.S. Post Office in the Pittsburgh area. Rose wanted a picture of Antwaan Randle El because they had the same first name, even if it was spelled differently.

"Antwon had me going from post office, to post office, to post office to find this one photo," said Kenney. "Finally, we found it at the Braddock Post Office. We bought the photo, then we had to go get the shirt because it had Antwon's name on it, even though it wasn't spelled the same. I couldn't convince him that it wasn't him. It's a true story. We went to every post office there was."

* * *

Kenney stopped and thought for a few minutes. She took some deep breaths and realized over the past week nobody she shared the news with has talked to her about this. Nobody asked her the question, the question of how she was going to feel tonight when the moment happens, when the Steelers take the field with her son's name on the back of their helmets.

"It's crazy you would ask me this question. No one has asked me it," said Kenney. "It's like a train wreck. I want to see it. I want to feel the love for my son. But the pain of knowing what happened to him and how it happened, I just don't know. I am literally struggling because it hurts just to think about him.

"In the same breath, I am Antwon's mom. Nothing greater could have happened in these last two years than this right here. Don't get me wrong, I have had some good things happen. But this isn't just good for Antwon, this is good for the city. This is for communities such as mine. It's not just for Antwon. It's for all the little boys and girls out there that look like Antwon.

"I have been thinking about that. Not even just the actual game itself. I have been worried how everyone is going to handle that mentally. I understand with all of the good press, the positive things being said, the Steelers are going to face a backlash. People can be mean and really cruel."

What Kenney is hoping is that cruelty turns into love. It turns into understanding. It turns into unity and togetherness.

"I am hoping with all of the players using their platforms, and all of the followers they have, at least some of these people are open minded enough to listen," said Kenney. "I am a firm believer if you support the player, your views probably align. I am hoping the players using their platform, they will be able to change the minds of some of their followers.

"I pray all day, every day, that change happens. I just keep getting my feelings hurt because every time you turn around it's happening again. I know we can't sit back and do nothing. Public speaking was never for me, but I know if I talk and people listen, we have a chance of making a change. I figured put Antwon Rose's mom and the Pittsburgh Steelers together, a whole lot of people are going to listen."

And with a national television audience seeing his name, saying his name on Monday night, people are going to listen to Antwon Rose's story.

"Although I am smiling, I am still crying," said Kenney. "Everyone is going to hear his story, see his name, but it's my son. I don't know what I am going to do on Monday. No doubt I will be glued to the television. The memories, speaking about it, and knowing Antwon is still going to be here.

"I will probably be crying, and it won't have anything to do with what is happening in the game."

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