When a high school teammate from Houston was released from a Texas prison in the late 1990s after serving six years for armed robbery, then-Texas A&M football star Dante Hall was there to greet him.
And take him in. And help feed and clothe him and keep him out of trouble. And to steer him to find work and his own place and set a new path.
“Funny you brought him up,” Hall said Tuesday night in a phone interview from his home in Summit, New Jersey.
Noting that the friend who soon began driving trucks now owns his own company and has raised a family and is “taking care” in what has become an apparently redemptive life, he added in a later text message, “He’s matured, paid his debt to society and is now an outstanding citizen.”
This wasn’t a case of a wrongful conviction. But it does speak to the compassion and heart that informed the decision of the Chiefs’ spectacular former returner to become engaged with the Midwest Innocence Project as the honorary chair for its Faces Of Innocence Virtual Gala on Thursday night.
“I’ve always had an affinity towards the wrongfully convicted in the justice system,” said Hall, adding that he’s had friends and family members caught up in such situations.
He remembers his awareness being raised by the 1999 movie “The Hurricane,” which was based on the true story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Though the movie was controversial for some of its fictions and exaggerations, Hall said it opened his eyes to the intricacies and problems within the justice system.
For years since, he said, he’s had empathy and sympathy for those falsely tried and vaguely wanted to do something about it but never felt he had time or the right mechanism.
Until he was approached about MIP by former teammate Will Shields, the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in 2003 for public service who has continued to serve others with such distinction ever since — including as the MIP honorary chairman last year.
“I probably would still be on the sidelines if it weren’t for Will Shields,” Hall said, adding that his call “just made me realize, you know what, stop making excuses and help in any way you can.”
This year’s event will feature a keynote speakers’ panel with former Innocence Project clients Ricky Kidd, Faye Jacobs and Floyd Bledsoe, who per the MIP combined to spend more than 45 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
And it comes at a time where the need for this important work is as resounding as ever with the appalling ongoing abuse of Lamar Johnson and Kevin Strickland when each should be freed at last.
“The news of Kevin Strickland and Lamar Johnson’s innocence and continued incarceration has highlighted the failure of an entire system,” Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the MIP, said in a statement previewing the event. “Many people’s eyes are being opened to the systemic problems within the criminal legal system. Each year, we celebrate what we have achieved together, but also recognize how much farther we have to go. We look forward to sharing our victories with you and shedding light on ways to hold the system accountable for people like Mr. Strickland and Mr. Johnson.”
Lending his time and name to the event isn’t the only way Hall remains attached to Kansas City. He still considers the area a second home and retains the franchise record for most career combined yards (12,356 from 2000-06) and yards in a season (2,446 in 2003) … all in scintillating style.
Those numbers have the makings of a fine case for the Chiefs Ring of Honor for Hall, who also is sixth in NFL history in career punt and kick return yards (12,397) including two seasons in St. Louis. The player alternately known as the “Human Joystick” or “The X-Factor” set an NFL record by returning kicks for touchdowns in four straight games in 2003. And he was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-Decade team for the 2000s as a kick and punt returner.
Because of the changing nature of special teams rules in the name of safety, he figures a number of those records will keep. And that’s “cool to talk about or brag about,” he said, but he’d rather “see the brand of football I grew up on and have my records broken.”
Looking back now, it’s quite a thing how those records came about: After his rookie year in 2000, then-coach Dick Vermeil convinced the college running back that his future in the NFL was in versatility. Vermeil figured that would be greatly enhanced by a season in NFL Europe with the Scottish Claymores. Hall initially balked and figured this was the first step toward his demise with the Chiefs.
Instead, he said, the stint overseas “was everything, not only athletically but personally.” He learned to be a receiver and refined his return game, yes. But he also found his entire perspective on life opening up as he saw a world he never would have otherwise.
“What’s that saying, when in Rome, do as the Romans?” he said. “I decided to do as the Romans and adapt.”
In hindsight, he remains particularly grateful to Vermeil, who became a father figure to the young man who had lost his own when he was 16. Only a few weeks ago, in fact, the 84-year-old Vermeil and his wife, Carol, drove from Philadelphia up to Summit to have lunch with Hall and his family.
“How awesome is that?” he said. “That man still treats me like I’m his son.”
Meanwhile, Hall retains an ongoing affection for the Chiefs, including his awe of Patrick Mahomes and his appreciation of Tyreek Hill — with whom he feels a particular connection as both a relatively diminutive man by NFL standards and one who had not been a receiver before he entered the league.
As a Chiefs Ambassador and otherwise around the team on occasions, he’s also grateful for what he calls “this Big Red Ride” … aka, the leadership of coach Andy Reid.
“Other than Coach Vermeil, he would have been the one coach I’d have loved to play for,” he said, noting how Reid treats former Chiefs players as if they had played for him. “I would run through a wall for him.”
Most of the time now, though, he’s running through a wall for his family as a father of four with three young children while his wife runs a marketing company. He’s a fulltime dad and husband and parttime, well, lot of other stuff,
“A little bit of everything,” he said, laughing and adding, “Just like when I played: The X-Factor.”
One adding to his repertoire by embracing this noble cause.
Full disclosure: My wife, Cindy, and I have supported the Midwest Innocence Project in the past by hosting fund-raising dinners in our home.