The death of Ahmaud Arbery has captured the attention of the nation, but it has struck a deeply personal chord with Detroit Lions safety Tracy Walker.
Arbery was killed in February after he was confronted by two armed men while jogging through a Brunswick, Georgia, neighborhood. The men, Travis McMichael and his father Gregory McMichael, allegedly believed Arbery was a suspected burglar and were attempting to make a citizen's arrest. An ensuing altercation resulted in Arbery being fatally shot.
Due to conflicts of interest relating to Gregory McMichael's past work as a county police officer and contracted investigator for the prosecutor's office, the first two prosecutors assigned to the case recused themselves, slowing the judicial process. On May 5, video of the incident was released by lawyers representing Arbery's family, sparking national outrage. Two days later, 74 days after Arbery's death, Travis and Gregory McMichael were arrested.
After the video release, Walker tweeted, "That’s crazy they killed my cousin in cold blood like this."
The term cousin is used loosely in Brunswick. Last year, the Lions had three players from the southern Georgia city on the roster — Walker, Darius Slay and Justin Coleman — and comments made by one or more of the players led to confusion whether the three were actually related.
“Man, the city where we’re from everybody are cousins," Coleman once clarified. "We’re not blood-related but we definitely are close, we grew up together."
In an interview with ESPN published Tuesday, Walker claimed Arbery was his second cousin. Regardless of the family tree, the two were unquestionably close growing up. According to Walker, the two lived across the street from each other and would play video games until late in the evening during high school, where they played together on the football team.
The two remained close in recent years. Walker told ESPN the two met up in February, when Walker was in town for his 25th birthday, weeks before Arbery's death.
When the video was released, Walker watched it, over and over, trying to make sense of what had happened.
"Man, he did not deserve that," Walker told ESPN. "He did not deserve that. And, you know, God has a plan for everybody, man, but, you know, it's tough. It is. That's why I watched it so many times. I couldn't grasp it. It's such a gruesome video, you want to know why."
Walker described Arbery as an uplifting person, who was also trying to make his friends and teammates laugh.
"He was a beautiful soul," Walker said. "He wasn't a hateful person. He was not. I can't name one person he had a beef with growing up. Everybody loved Ahmaud because he was just a clown, a funny guy."
The circumstances of Arbery's death bring to mind another tragedy that befell a family member of a former Lions player, wide receiver Anquan Boldin. In 2015, Boldin's cousin Corey Jones was shot and killed by a plainclothes police office in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
That officer, Nouman Raja, was eventually convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Boldin, who retired in 2017, has become one of the leading athlete voices on social justice issues, helping found the Player's Coalition with New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins. The group's purpose to improve racial equality at the federal, state and local levels through advocacy, awareness, education, and allocation of resources.
This week, Boldin wrote a letter to United States Attorney General William Barr asking him to investigate Arbery's killing. The letter was signed by dozens of prominent athletes, including Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady.
On May 10, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr also requested Barr's Justice Department to investigate the handling of the case.
For Walker, justice for his cousin is critically important.
"We want justice for Ahmaud," Walker said. "We want the proper justice."
Walker intends to honor Arbery during the 2020 NFL season. Walker will wear one of Arbery's T-shirts under his jersey during games, while writing Arbery's initials on his cleats.