Ahmaud Arbery’s football family made sure his slaying wouldn’t be ignored
NFL players, former high school players and his old coach helped force authorities to revisit the case
For Ahmaud Arbery’s family, it was painful enough that the former high school linebacker had been killed while seemingly doing nothing more than taking a jog on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon.
But as week after week passed following the late February shooting and no arrests were made, the Arberys began to lose faith in the people running their hometown of Brunswick, Georgia.
Then something unusual happened: A movement started. And the primary people behind it were members of Arbery’s football family.
Clearly, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, had the most influence in helping move the case to the point that three men face charges after months of delays. She kept memories of her son alive with daily interviews on national cable television and other media, and refused to be shut out of the official investigation.
But the public awareness campaign that brought so much attention to Arbery’s death also grew out of his strong relationships in the world of football. Former teammates and coaches started the movement, called I Run With Maud, and high school classmates who now play in the NFL quietly reached out to power brokers to help get a full investigation of his death.
At the heart of I Run With Maud are two of Arbery’s former Brunswick High School teammates and one of his former coaches, along with two others. They organized a 2.23-mile run on Arbery’s birthday in May (Feb. 23 was the day of his death) and created the #IRunWithMaud hashtag and a Facebook page that now has 90,000 followers.
Their efforts grew out of the pain and frustration knowing that the 25-year-old Arbery was cornered by three white men and shot as he ran in their neighborhood, and what organizers perceived as a lack of transparency in the investigation in the first two months after the shooting.
Others in the football world joined the Arbery cause, including the Players Coalition, a group of current and former NFL players who advocate for social justice and ending racial inequality in America. Nearly 100 pro athletes signed a letter from the coalition calling for a federal investigation into the shooting.
The Arbery case drew support from NFL players who are normally reluctant to involve themselves in social movements. The biggest name who fits this profile is six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady, now of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who signed the coalition’s letter.
“Tom understands our problems and what’s going on in the black community,” Takeo Spikes, a Players Coalition leader who lives in Georgia, told The Undefeated.
“If the NFL is 70% black, you’re not winning six championships without knowing what’s going on in the black community.”
Spikes said the Arbery case is a horrifying example of the problems the coalition was created to address.
“This falls right up our wheelhouse as the Players Coalition,” he said. “It’s mind-boggling to me that this young man was going out for a jog, no different than what I do all the time and millions of people do. And some vigilantes saw his black skin and decided to follow him and wanted justification for his existence in their area. They hunted him down like an animal and shot him.”
Ahmaud Marquez Arbery was born May 8, 1994, in one of the most passionate football regions in America. From an early age, he dreamed of playing in the NFL. But first, he wanted to play at the University of Miami, the alma mater of his favorite player, Sean Taylor.
Arbery was the youngest of three kids. His sister, Jasmine, was a year older and brother, Marcus Jr., was two years older. Their mom, Cooper-Jones, 47, is an insurance claims adjuster, and their dad, Marcus Arbery Sr., 57, drives a truck and operates his own businesses.
Affectionately known as Maud or Quez, he had a smile that could light up a classroom or a locker room. He started playing flag football at age 6. He also honed his football skills in a game known locally as “hot ball,” in which each player competes against everyone else. It’s a rough game and Arbery never shied away from hitting or being hit, gaining him mad respect, one friend recalled.
“Ahmaud was the type to be outside with no shoes on his feet,” said Akeem Baker, his best friend and fellow hot ball player.
Growing up, Arbery hung around his older brother as much as he could. By the time he was in middle school, Marcus Jr. was already a big man in town on the football field. Marcus Jr. played running back and patterned his game after the NFL’s Reggie Bush, who was known for his ability to make defenders miss in open space.
“He would ask me like, ‘Bro, how did you see that hole?’ Or, ‘How would you go about making this tackle?’ ” Marcus Jr. recalled in his first media interview since his brother’s death. “He would just ask me things like that, because he really looked up to me like I was a legend. But little did he know, I was just playing the game, that’s all we did.”
Arbery dreamed of making it big in football to help one special person, Marcus Jr. recalled. “My brother said, ‘Man, one of us going to have to go to the NFL. One of us going to make mama rich.’ He really believed that.”
Arbery’s favorite football player, Taylor, was drafted fifth overall by the Washington Redskins when Arbery was 10.
“He was like my brother’s hero, man. It was a big reason why we both wanted to wear No. 21,” Marcus Jr. said. “We looked up to Sean Taylor, just the way he played the game. … Sean Taylor wore a visor on his face mask, [Ahmaud] tried to do that. He wore Nike cleats like Sean Taylor. When Sean Taylor grew his hair out for football, he wanted to grow his hair out. He just wanted to emulate everything Sean Taylor did.”
As a high school freshman in 2008, Arbery was barely 5-feet-6 and weighed around 140 pounds. But “right after his freshman year, Ahmaud grew 6 inches,” said Victor Floyd, Brunswick’s head football coach at the time. “He went from 5-foot-6 to around 6 feet. That changed the whole dynamic.”
Even after that growth spurt, “He was a smaller, skinnier guy,” said Jason Vaughn, an assistant coach on the team. “He was behind some future NFL players in the defensive backfield. We were literally DBU,” said Vaughn, referring to Darius Slay, now a cornerback with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Justin Coleman and Tracy Walker, defensive backs with the Detroit Lions.
Although Arbery was fast and strong, “he wasn’t always the most elite athlete, but he was the most improved player,” said his teammate and cousin Demetrius Frazier.
Arbery’s turn to start for the Pirates came in his senior year, the 2011-12 season. “He was a good fit at outside linebacker because he was quick,” Vaughn said. “We had teams trying to run that wing-T and he would key in on that motion guy and that motion guy would be a nonfactor. He would completely take care of that dude.”
Frazier recalled one play from a midweek practice in 2011.
“We were doing goal-line drills and it got competitive. If the defense didn’t get that stop, they’d have to run,” said Frazier, who played offense. “I remember we had a running back named Jarvis Small, and he was built like a bowling ball. Jarvis came through the hole and Ahmaud lit him up.”
Several people said in interviews that Floyd was upset with Arbery for hitting a teammate with such force. “If we need that goal-line stop, Ahmaud was there,” Frazier said, laughing.
Arbery played well in his senior year, finishing with 77 tackles. But Coleman and Slay had gone on to college and the team lost six of its 10 games, its first losing season in Floyd’s seven years there. Arbery received an invitation to play in a Georgia-Florida all-star game for under-the-radar players. But he was a 160-pound linebacker and no college offered him a ride.
“At that point, we had to regroup and look at our resources and we decided just to go to a technical college and take up a trade,” said his mother.
Cooper-Jones said her son attended South Georgia Technical College in Americus, Georgia, for a year and a half before returning home. He worked various jobs around town, including one at McDonald’s and another at his father’s car wash.
When Arbery had free time, he liked to hang around family and was a regular babysitter for his brother’s two children, ages 2 and 1. Besides loving football, he was a big NBA fan. “Ahmaud,” Cooper-Jones said, “was a LeBron James fanatic. If you wanted to know any statistic about LeBron, Ahmaud was your go-to guy. When I say he studied LeBron, he studied LeBron.”
He also studied his running routine. He’d put his heel down before toe and often hit the road two or three times a day. He’d start at the family’s home on Boykin Ridge Drive and where he would end up would be anyone’s guess. “He ran everywhere, man,” his brother remembered. “I-95, the interstate. The Sidney Lanier Bridge. He would be behind the Dairy Queen. Numerous times I would be coming home from work and I would see him way back there behind the Winn-Dixie, running. I’d stop and say, ‘Bro, you need a ride home?’ He’d keep running. He’d ignore me. He was working out.”
“I think that Ahmaud did that for some type of therapy,” his mom said. “When he’s running, he’s alone. If he’s stressed about anything, running is how he relieved his mind.”
On Feb. 23, Arbery, dressed in brown khaki shorts, a white T-shirt and gray running shoes, headed out of the door of his home and wound up crossing U.S. Route 17, a four-lane highway, about two miles away.
He darted through the community until he got to Satilla Drive, where he entered a house under construction two doors down from the home of Gregory and Travis McMichael. Theories abound about what Arbery was doing in the house. The homeowner speculated he was getting a drink of water. His family has suggested he was looking at the wiring, as he’d talked about following in the path of his uncles and becoming an electrician. “He was looking at electric boxes, trying to look at electric work and stuff like that, because he wanted to be an electrician,” his dad said.
The McMichael men had become fixated on strangers in the neighborhood. Only a few black families live in Satilla Shores. The McMichaels suspected Arbery might have been behind a string of burglaries in the neighborhood, records show.
Arbery left the unfinished house after about three minutes and continued his run. Gregory McMichael, 64, a former cop and prosecutor’s investigator, later told authorities that Arbery seemed to be “hauling a–,” and not just jogging. He got a .357 Magnum and his son, Travis, 34, grabbed a shotgun. They got into their pickup and gave pursuit.
Another resident of Satilla Shores, William Bryan, joined the chase in his pickup truck. Arbery was running from three men in two pickups and no matter where he went, he seemed trapped, say prosecutors from Cobb County who are now handling the case. At one point, Bryan brushed Arbery with his truck. Arbery jumped into a ditch to avoid Bryan’s vehicle at other times, they say.
Eventually, Arbery ran out of room. Bryan was behind him and the McMichaels were in front of him. Finally, Arbery tried to run around the right side of the McMichaels’ truck, according to video of the incident. He was met by Travis McMichael pointing the shotgun at him, prosecutor Jesse Evans said in a court hearing.
So Arbery engaged Travis McMichael in a fight in an attempt to save his own life, Evans said. Travis McMichael then shot Arbery three times. Gregory McMichael watched while holding the .357 Magnum and talking to 911. According to investigators, as Arbery lay bleeding to death, Travis McMichael called him a “f—ing n—–.”
“Ahmaud Arbery was chased, hunted down and ultimately executed at the hands of these men,” Evans said. “He was on a run on a public road in a subdivision. He was defenseless and unarmed.”
Floyd, Arbery’s former head coach, now lives and works in South Carolina, and that’s where he was when he found out Arbery was dead. “When I first heard what happened, I said something about that isn’t right because Ahmaud wouldn’t want anyone shooting him,” said Floyd. “Kids change but I didn’t see him doing anything detrimental enough for anyone to shoot him.”
“I just remember getting a text from my mom that my brother was killed and just saying to myself, ‘This can’t be true. Is this a dream? They got the wrong person,’ ” Marcus Jr. said. “And it just didn’t seem real. Still, to this day, I’m just waiting to see my brother walk up to me and give me a hug.”
From the beginning, the case has been awkward for authorities in southeast Georgia. The reason: Gregory McMichael’s connections to law enforcement.
The Glynn County district attorney recused herself because Gregory McMichael used to work in her office. George Barnhill, the prosecutor in the next jurisdiction over, Ware County, also recused himself several weeks after he learned that his son and Gregory McMichael had worked together in the Brunswick district attorney’s office. But before he stepped aside, Barnhill wrote a letter to the Glynn County police saying there were no grounds to arrest the McMichaels or Bryan. Barnhill wrote they had a legal right to pursue Arbery and make a citizen’s arrest because they thought he was “a burglary suspect” in “their neighborhood.”
“It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived,” Barnhill wrote. “Under Georgia law this is perfectly legal.”
The McMichaels were only arrested after a third prosecutor was assigned to the case and the video emerged in early May, more than 10 weeks after the shooting. Eventually, the case was reassigned to prosecutors hundreds of miles away in Cobb County in northern Georgia.
A month after the killing, The Brunswick News obtained the police report of the shooting. The report only included Gregory McMichael’s version of events: that Travis McMichael shot Arbery in self-defense. Arbery’s supporters were especially angry that the newspaper mentioned an old legal case in which Arbery had been cited for carrying a weapon at a high school basketball game when he was 19.
“That article was absolutely so disrespectful,” said Vaughn. “To be honest with you, it sparked anger in me.”
The day after The Brunswick News article, Vaughn’s brother, John Richards, a lawyer and pastor in Little Rock, Arkansas, moderated a Facebook livestream to bring attention to the case and develop a strategy to pressure authorities to investigate the case with more rigor. The livestream was also designed to get The Brunswick News to publish a more complete version of who Arbery was.
At one point early in the livestream, the brothers appeared on the screen side by side: Richards in Little Rock and Vaughn in Brunswick. The coach, 39, talked about Arbery’s smile. About what a leader he was on the field. About how Arbery would make fun of him if that would help lighten the mood in the huddle or in Vaughn’s U.S. history or black studies classes.
Then he talked about the last time he saw Arbery. It was a Friday in November 2019. He saw his former player’s 5-foot-11, 165-pound body running the streets of Brunswick. Vaughn, who liked to run on game days, gave chase, but there was no catching Arbery.
“Maud was running like a deer,” he said.
Vaughn got emotional as he was wrapping up. “I want Maud to know, I run with Maud. That same strength, that same endurance he used to run these sidewalks with, ‘Maud, man, I run with you!’ I run with Maud. I run with Maud.”
“That’s a great hashtag: ‘Run With Maud,’ ” Richards said. “I love it.” A slogan had been born.
In New York, Baker, 25, was watching the livestream. Arbery’s best friend and former teammate was still struggling with the circumstances of his death. The next day, April 4, Baker created the I Run With Maud Facebook page to reclaim the narrative of Arbery’s life.
The team behind I Run With Maud started with Baker, Vaughn and Richards. They were joined by Frazier and another one of Arbery’s cousins, Josiah Watts. They were five black men doing this work for Arbery, but also for themselves and their own children or future children.
“We have to set ourselves up and encourage the younger generation, and even people that’s older than us to these action steps,” Frazier said. Over the next month, they rallied other supporters, including the three NFL defensive backs who played at Brunswick High with either Arbery or Marcus Jr. — Coleman, Walker and Slay.
“The friends and teammates I grew up with contacted me and said, ‘Hey, man, we got to get this truth out. It didn’t go down the way they said and these guys [the McMichaels] were part of law enforcement,’ ” Coleman told The Undefeated. “They’re trying to kick it under the rug.”
Coleman, Walker and Slay began raising awareness through their social media feeds, including promoting the #IRunWithMaud hashtag.
“And I know a lot of people in Brunswick wanted justice,” Coleman said. “And they put together that march to get the word out. That’s amazing for my city. I’ve never ever seen anything like that. I don’t want to say the [shooting incident] was positive, but what the city did was positive. They actually came together and said we have to get justice for Ahmaud.”
In an interview, Slay added: “It’s sad that it took a death to make it happen. It is sad that it had to be that way, but it’s a change happening. You can feel it. Some losses you have to take to have successes in the future. Our ancestors, they all had to take certain things so we can have it better. But this is for his nephews and younger people can have a better future.”
“Without those football guys working to bring attention to this case, none of this would have happened,” said S. Lee Merritt, Cooper-Jones’ attorney. “They were fighting for him first, long before anyone else.”
Arbery’s high school teammates got The Brunswick News to print additional information on Arbery and to acknowledge the paper had mishandled that all-important April 2 article. “I’m more than willing to admit we didn’t handle that story the best,” Buddy Hughes, the managing editor of The Brunswick News, told The Undefeated.
National attention came on April 26 in an in-depth piece in The New York Times. But it wasn’t the result of NFL players pulling strings. The story came about after Watts, Arbery’s cousin, sent an “anguished email” to a food reporter he knew at The New York Times. That reporter tipped off the paper’s Atlanta bureau chief, Richard Fausset, Watts said.
“He asked me what I think happened,” Watts said. “I said it was murder in broad daylight.”
“The first person I saw retweet the article was Bernice King,” Watts said, referring to the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and CEO of the King Center. “Now it’s becoming something bigger. We get messages from all over the world, from France to Germany. We hope that this will change the consensus and lead to accountability and somehow this will [lead to] political reforms.”
Two weeks later came another break in the case. A radio station obtained video of the shooting that had been shot by Bryan. Two days later, the McMichaels were both arrested. Two weeks later, Bryan was arrested, too. All three are charged with murder and aggravated assault and are being held in the Glynn County jail without bond. A judge has ruled that there is enough evidence for the case to proceed to the trial court. And the U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing whether it should bring federal hate crime charges.
In television interviews, at protests and in court hearings, Cooper-Jones is the picture of solemnity, an unflappable woman fighting for justice for the son she lost. She has long braids and her face shows little sign of aging. When she smiles, she looks like Arbery. “The time to grieve is not now,” she said. “I have to keep pushing because I knew if it was me or anybody that he loved, he would do the same.”
She is happier with the direction of the case now. Cobb County prosecutors, aided by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, have made it clear that they think Arbery was murdered in cold blood and that race was a motivating factor in the killing.
“Ahmaud would just be so proud to have Ms. Wanda as a mother,” if he saw how she has fought for justice, said his friend Baker. “He already was proud of Ms. Wanda as a mother when he was alive. But you know, he would just be so, so proud, man, just to see all the love and support and how hard his mom is fighting to get justice for him.”
Two weeks after Arbery’s death, Cooper-Jones put the home she bought when Arbery was 12 up for sale. “Each time I go into my home, I go into his room and I look into the direction where he was lying in the bed when I saw him last.”
That was the day before his death. She was headed to Dallas on a work trip. “I left on a Saturday morning to go off for some training. It was before dawn,” she said. “Ahmaud was still in bed. I went to Ahmaud’s room door like I always do when I’m leaving. I said, ‘Quez, I’m leaving. I’ll be back in a couple days, and I love you.’
“His last words to me was, ‘I love you, too.’ ”
Others try to be there for her. Because she doesn’t get emotional, it’s sometimes hard for them to figure out what she’s thinking. “My lowest point is when I have reflections on how the local authorities handled me, how they handled my family,” she related. “They took my calls of pain knowing they had no interest of helping me.”
Cooper-Jones refuses to watch the video of her son being shot. She just wants what she says is a corrupt government in Glynn County to be cleaned up.
“Justice, to me, would be having all hands involved in jail, in prison, and not just one, two, three people, everybody,” she said.
Her other son misses his brother. He notes that Arbery died young, just like his hero, Taylor, who was shot and killed at age 24 when his house was robbed.
“I know they’re both up there in heaven,” Marcus Jr. said wistfully. “I know they’re telling jokes and throwing a football around a little bit up there. “
And even though Arbery never made it to the NFL, he’s changing the world because he fought for his life against all odds, his brother said.
“The funny thing is, my brother always said that he was going to be a legend, and he just always believed that, man,” Marcus Jr. said. “And I hate that it had to be in this situation, but if I had to tell him, ‘Bro, your dream came true.’ “