Organizers and members from the UNE football team Back row: Keagan Stanton-Meas, 20; Alex Huff, 23; Brandon Crawford-Adams, 20; Chris Kibwara, 19. Front row: Jaymeson Maheux, 20; Julian Connerton, 21; Jeremy Diaz, 20; Cobey Johnson, 21. Credit: Nick Schroeder / BDN

BIDDEFORD, Maine — Before football players at one of the state’s largest universities would take the field for a practice Wednesday afternoon they joined forces to hold a Black Lives Matter rally.

Roughly 500 gathered on the football field at University of New England in support of racial justice efforts and the broader Black Lives Matter movement.

Momentum for the rally originated with the football team, which had already begun practice for the fall season when a new wave of protests broke out around the U.S. in August.

Julian Connerton, a junior linebacker who studies business and sports management, floated the idea in a team group chat that players should skip practice to talk about racial justice. His teammates supported it, and they spent their next practice splitting into groups of 20, sharing stories and talking about racism.

Jeremy Diaz, 20. Credit: Nick Schroeder / BDN

“We had over 100 football guys and everyone was talking,” Connerton said. “There wasn’t one group where people weren’t sharing their stories.”

The team’s head coach, Mike Lichten, encouraged them to grow their conversations, and the idea for a campus-wide rally was born.

At 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, black-clad protesters queued in long single-file rows before filing out into a march, a formation designed to observe social distancing guidelines during the pandemic. More than 90 percent of those were current students, UNE Communications Director Sarah DeLage said.

Jeremy Diaz said he wanted to organize the rally to shed light on the situation of racial injustice, and also to make people feel comfortable supporting it.

A junior at UNE studying business and sports management, Diaz said he was inspired seeing racial justice protests reach the National Basketball Association, where games were canceled when players went on strike in August following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“It brought a lot of people together,” Diaz said. “People put their foot down, and it got a lot of people talking.”

UNE is implementing new policies to advance racial equity at its College of Arts and Sciences, including “sustained professional education on racism” and holding ongoing discussions about race and racism in curriculum, recruitment and hiring practices, dean Jonathan Millen told the BDN in July.

Diaz credited coach Lichten, for helping organize the protest’s logistics, and to the university for showing “that they stand with us.”

“He was really supportive and wanted us to have our vision,” Diaz said.

The group marched for roughly 45 minutes before returning to the field.

Players said that the rally is a good first step, and it helps to know that university officials stand with them.

“When 500 people of all races and genders take time out of their day to stand with us, it speaks loud,” Connerton said.

Jaymeson Maheux, a sophomore who studies applied exercise science and plays running back, said it’s important that the campus doesn’t let this movement fizzle out, like it has before.

“For me, being African-American, it really meant a lot that we were able to come together, despite COVID,” Maheux said. “But I don’t want this to be the only step we take.”

In July, the Commonwealth Coast Conference, of which the University of New England is a member, announced the suspension of intercollegiate athletic competition for the fall semester.