SANTA CLARA -- A year ago, 49ers linebacker Eli Harold decided to ride along and support Colin Kaepernick in his protest aimed at bringing attention to inequality and police brutality toward minorities.
First, Kaepernick protested silently alone. Eric Reid joined Kaepernick in the final week of the exhibition season after Kaepernick was asked to explain his views, creating the initial uproar.
Then, Harold was right there, kneeling with both men during the national anthems for the entire 16-game regular season.
Harold, 23, and Reid will not continue the protest this season on the 49ers sideline without Kaepernick, who is still unsigned after parting ways with the organization in March. Harold remains in contact with Kaepernick. He looks back on 2016 and said he believes the protest was a success because it opened a national dialogue.
“Of course, that’s exactly what the motive was, to get the conversation going and have people talk about an issue that was broad and bigger than ourselves,” Harold told NBC Sports Bay Area on Monday. “We accomplished that.”
Although Harold is now focused on retaining his job with the 49ers as he enters his third NFL season, the societal issues about which he protested last season are never too far out of his mind.
The subject hit especially close to home over the weekend when Harold watched the unrest in Charlottesville, where he attended the University of Virginia, played football and majored in African American studies.
Groups described in media reports as neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and white nationalists converged on Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue honoring Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general in the Civil War who led battle against the U.S. government of Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War.
“I was shocked,” Harold said. “My three years there, I never experienced anything like that. But seeing that on TV, it was horrific.
“It upset me. I had people coming up to me saying, ‘What’s happening in Charlottesville? I can’t believe you went to that school.’ I don’t understand it. But people from Charlottesville were like, ‘It’s not us. It’s people that came from outside the area.’ ”
One protester from Ohio allegedly drove a car into counter-protesters, killing a 32-year-old woman from Charlottesville. He faces numerous charges, including second-degree murder.
“I just don’t understand why the world is still this way,” Harold said. “It’s 2017. You’d think those days are over. It’s the world we live in. Not everyone is good.”
Harold has taken a lot of criticism in the past year. He deactivated his Facebook account to shield himself from the online hate, he said.
“You try not to let it affect you, but when people are constantly saying things, it’s in your consciousness,” Harold said.
But the blowback he received is only a fraction of what Kaepernick went through last season and continues to experience.
“I did this because of Kap,” Harold said. “If Kap had never done this, I would’ve never done it. I thought that was the most courageous thing I’ve seen anybody do in my lifetime. I commend Kap.”
At 29, in what should be the peak of Kaepernick’s career, there are serious questions whether he will ever again play the sport at its highest level.
Kaepernick has generated little interest as a free agent– even after a season during which he rushed for 468 yards, threw 16 touchdowns, four interceptions and compiled a passer rating of 90.7 in 11 starts.
Harold also believes the fact Kaepernick is not among the 115 quarterbacks in an NFL training camp also proves the point he was trying to make all along about the state of race relations in the United States.
“They’d rather sign a guy who’s never played in the NFL, coming from the Canadian league, than sign Colin,” Harold said. “Are you serious? You have people killing, but you get upset about a guy who takes a knee and protests silently? You mean you won’t sign him up because of what you think the fans will say about it?
“It doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m not trying to call the people racist. But at the end of the day, if he’s still unemployed because of the protest, how can I not call you racist or prejudice?
“There are 32 teams. Each team has, what, three or four quarterbacks? You’re telling me there are that many guys better than Colin Kaepernick? It makes no sense.”