Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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By O.J. Howard

We grew up on a dirt road in a small town outside Prattville, Alabama. Autauga County. It made getting back and forth everyday kind of hard. Enough that I remember always asking, "Why hasn't our dirt road got paved yet?"

That's because the county commissioner hasn't been approved for the funds yet, my mother would tell me.

It was probably in third or fourth grade that I first remember seeing my parents wearing those little 'I voted' stickers. I would ask questions about that. My mom was like, "I'll show you later." They would just go down the road to an old community center that was a polling station. You walk in, vote and come out. I just remember my parents doing that all the time. Like, taking the time on their lunch break at work or after work.

O.J. in a Jerry Rice jersey with his cousins growing up in Autauga County, Alabama.
O.J. in a Jerry Rice jersey with his cousins growing up in Autauga County, Alabama.

Then the day came when my mom did break down why getting that voting sticker was so important. One day, she introduced me to Mr. Johnson. He goes to our church, she'd said. And he's running for District 5 Commissioner. He would be the one to help get the funds to pave our roads.

That's when I started realizing how important it was to vote for the deputy in the sheriff's department, the fire chief, things like that, all that stuff in my small town was important for us because it affected our everyday life, day in and day out.

My grandmother owned the community restaurant and the town was so small that you'd see everybody there weekly. The county commissioner, for instance. The fire chief, too. The sheriff. The mayor actually came into the restaurant every day and was so nice to both my mother and grandmother. I interacted with these people. I went to high school with the mayor's granddaughter, but I'd known him since I was four or five years old. The sheriff, too. So, I was interacting with these people before they became the mayor or became the sheriff or the fire chief.

O.J.'s grandmother in her restaurant with her homemade sweet potato pie.
O.J.'s grandmother in her restaurant with her homemade sweet potato pie.

It took it to a level where I felt like my mom and my grandmother had tremendous respect for them and respected what they did. When it came time to get into a position of power, it would have been an easy choice to vote for them.

Except we couldn't. Not for the mayor, at least.

We lived in the country, on the outskirts of the town and out of the district where the restaurant was. So, our ability to vote for who had an impact on our daily lives was limited. When it came down to make a decision on those who were in higher positions, the only thing we could do is encourage people to vote and put out positive facts about each candidate.

Knowing what it's like not to have it, I now have an appreciation for the voice and platform I do have, especially as an athlete.

Howard making sure he's registered to vote at AdventHealth Training Center as part of the Bucs Social Justice Initiative on voter education.
Howard making sure he's registered to vote at AdventHealth Training Center as part of the Bucs Social Justice Initiative on voter education.

I was on my phone and my TV this offseason and I was seeing what was going on with George Floyd, I was seeing what was going on all across the country with the protests and how everyone is distraught. It's like chaos. Everyone is just so disappointed. And I was like you know what? I look at LeBron James and how he does so many positive things in the community. Using our voice does a lot and is a huge step, but we have to take it to the next level like him. I felt like now it's time for me to take my platform to a higher level and voting is such a simple and small thing you can do. I think that's the day, on the couch right here I was like, "Mom, I want to register to vote in Florida. How do I do it?"

"Let's just look it up."

It was that easy.

With everything going on in our country right now, this is one of the most important things for this generation. Everyone has their things they want to change. Everyone has what they believe in. Whatever you believe in, this is an opportunity for you to effect it. You can't talk about being disappointed in those who are in positions of power when you don't do your part and vote. That's your part. That's how you make your voice heard.

This is the most pivotal time for us to use our platform and do our due diligence as humans, as Americans. Vote for whoever you want to but at the end of the day if you don't vote, you don't have a say-so in what goes on. We have to do better as people and take advantage of the opportunity because it only comes around so often. We want change and this is the most effective way to create it.

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