Before Ahmaud Arbery became a symbol, he was a teammate and a friend

People gather in front of a mural of Ahmaud Arbery painted on the side of The Brunswick African American Cultural Center demanding justice for Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, November 4, 2021. REUTERS/Octavio Jones
·6 min read

It was Mother's Day 2020 when I called Avery Sweeting. He answered his cellphone while at his mom's house on the north side of Brunswick, Ga., where he was reared. He graduated in 2012 from the city's namesake high school, Brunswick High, where he starred at wide receiver on the football team with one of his best friends, Ahmaud Arbery.

It was just a couple of weeks after the country found out that Arbery, at 25, became another statistic on the graph of Black men killed by police, or people playing police. A story mentioned Arbery played football. I found a few game stories in the Brunswick News about the Brunswick Pirates in 2011, Sweeting's and Arbery's senior season. One led me to Sweeting because it was accompanied by a photo of Sweeting running with the football, "and Ahmaud's blocking for me," Sweeting told me, finishing my thought.

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Before Arbery became an involuntary martyr in an episode that culminated Wednesday with three White men convicted of his murder; before he was muralized on T-shirts and a Brunswick wall; before he was the latest ugly data point on a rung of racism in this country, Sweeting told me 18 months ago how Arbery embodied a quality we champion sports providing us for life: friendship.

"We knew each other since Pee Wee football," Sweeting, who went on to play at Georgia State, told me in a soft voice. "But our friendship actually got closer in fifth grade. That's when I moved from Burroughs-Molette Elementary to Altama ... the north side of Brunswick. We were both in fifth grade. I had a mutual friend that was already friends with Ahmaud, and I used to ride my bike over to his house after school, and we'd ride our bikes over to Ahmaud's house.

"And middle school is where we got our real friendship, our real bond, where we got to know each other. Needwood Middle School."

"We actually played with each other in middle school. I played quarterback. And Ahmaud, he was always the big hitter. He loved to tackle, he was one of the big hitters on defense. Very passionate about football. Everything he did was 100, gave it his all. He was playing safety. Then when we got to high school ... I moved from quarterback to receiver.

"I actually started playing varsity 10th grade. Ahmaud didn't actually get playing time on varsity till our late sophomore year. I think it was the playoffs he started getting playing time on varsity. Ahmaud moved from safety to outside linebacker, and that's pretty much where he stayed his entire high school career. ...

"We made the playoffs three out of our four years in high school. Each year we made it to the second round. Except our senior year. Our senior year was a big upset ... because we lost a quarterback who was starting for us for three years. And I ended up getting hurt our senior year. I missed like six games. Our last game would've determined if we made the playoffs, and we ended up losing to Lakeside ... the last time we put the pads on together. I want to say he got his first interception in our last game and almost returned it for a touchdown. I think he got tackled at like the 10- or 15-yard line.

"When I came home for summer breaks and stuff like that, we always ended up connecting, either going to the field and working out, or [with] the guys playing with some of the younger guys just having seven-on-sevens. That was pretty much it other than hanging out and going to parties, stuff like that. Other than that, it was pretty much on breaks.

"The last time I saw Maud was about six months before his death. Because I know school had just started for Brunswick. So it was like around August, September time.

"And when I saw him then, he was jogging down Altama [Avenue]. The street that he got murdered on was in the neighborhood across the street from where he lived. But Altama is like the main road that runs through Brunswick.

"He was in very good shape. Always. He just really liked to run. He was very strong. He did lift weights, but it was more cardio than lifting weights. He didn't run track. He wasn't the fastest guy. He was more technique sound, a fundamental sound guy. Very coachable. Great teammate."

"Back in February, the day I heard he got shot, I was either at a friend's house or just getting off work. One of my friends sent me a text message, and it was like, 'Abe got shot.' We used to call him Abe for short, Maud Abe.

"I was like, 'Are you sure?' But it wasn't confirmed that he passed away. A few hours went by before another one of my friends [and former teammate] Akeem Baker - he's the one who started our 'Run with Maud' page - he called and confirmed it.

"That was one of my toughest days, man. Just knowing someone that you grew up with and spending a lot of time with from our young youth days all the way through our teenaged years, some of my adult days, it was just tough. Especially when you know his older brother and older sister. We all grew up with each other. His older brother was in 11th grade when we entered high school. So we got to play two seasons with him. He played DB [defensive back]. He also wore no. 21 as well.

"No one told us why he got shot until the article came out, which said he was shot during a burglary. And that just didn't sit right with me and my friends because we knew Ahmaud and we knew that there was no way he was trying to break into no one's house [at] 1 o'clock in the afternoon. So we x-ed that out. We didn't know about the McMichaels [Travis and Greg, the son and father convicted of Arbery's killing] until another article came out. But when we figured that out, we were like, it's something that's just not right. He's not that type of guy. Just a funny feeling with us, it just didn't sit right."

The day before I talked to Sweeting, he and his old teammates held a celebration of Arbery's life. They included a dozen guys who grew up playing football together, at least eight of whom earned scholarships to college. Some athletic, such as Sweeting, who played four years at Georgia State. Some academic, such as Baker, who won an Oprah Winfrey Scholarship for college and graduated from Morehouse, and his brother Rafeal, who graduated from Morehouse and wound up at Duke's medical school.

They released balloons. They shed some emotion. And they exchanged old stories about one among them gone far too young - a teammate, a friend.

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