Aaron Maybin was an All-America linebacker at Penn State University and was drafted 11th overall by the Buffalo Bills in 2009. He played four seasons in the NFL for the Bills and New York Jets before retiring in 2014. He has since turned full-time to his art, chronicling his hometown’s challenges with poverty and crime through painting, photography and poetry, and he works as a teacher in Baltimore schools. Last winter, he became the outspoken face of outrage after many of Baltimore schools went without heat during extreme cold. He was written a book, Art Activism, which chronicles Maybin’s journey.
Here, as told to ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg, Maybin tells about his path from a life of football to working on behalf of kids from his neighborhood, how he connects with students and why he doesn’t see himself as a hero.
When I was younger, football gave me an identity.
Growing up in communities like the one I grew up in, West Baltimore, you’re always fighting for your identity. From the time you’re born until you’re grown, you’re literally inundated with stories of how your safety is always in jeopardy and how everybody – from your parents to people in the community to folks at your church – is just so hell-bent and focused on keeping you safe.
So many of us in those neighborhoods are so angry, so furious, at everything. At the world. I lost my mother at 6 years old. I was mad at God. I was mad at my family. I was mad at everything. In those kinds of environments, especially for young kids of color, people look to attach themselves to something greater.
I had been an artist my whole life, but when I was younger, it was not cool for you to just be like, “Yeah I’m an artist. I make things.” Football was the first thing I did and I excelled at to the level where I gained acceptance and admiration from everybody that saw me do my thing. It was like an outlet.
Football was the first space that I was afforded where you’re not penalized for your anger. You’re celebrated for it. You knock somebody out of a game and people give you praise. They know you as this guy not to be messed with, to be respected and celebrated.
It wasn’t until I got older that I didn’t want my identity to be tied to a game anymore.
I can look at football now with a certain amount of nostalgia and not be too heavily tied to it, because at the end of the day, I stopped being tied to the game.
It was probably around college at Penn State that I realized there’s something wrong with how we were being conditioned as athletes. Even as great a coach as Joe Paterno was, he had some deep-seated issues that were rooted in race and patriarchy and bigotry that reared their heads in how we were handled as players and as men.
The idea that we couldn’t have facial hair, for example. If it was past like a five o’clock shadow, then you would get penalized. If you had locks or an Afro or something like that, he would be like, “You’ve got to do something with that.” Guys would get it braided or twisted, but as soon as he would see it, he would be like, “Cut it.” If you look at people like myself, LaVar Arrington, Jared Odrick, NaVorro Bowman, basically every black player who went to Penn State, you see them leave and go through an almost Rastafarian physical transformation where we all grow our beards out. We all either get our hair in locks or twists or cornrows.
College years are very pivotal years, right? Throughout the same time that you’re just starting to learn about your blackness or where you fit in the larger society, you’re starting to learn about historical context of your roots. You have somebody who you look at and revere as your leader who tells you that there’s something wrong with you. That there’s something unacceptable about the natural things that make you who you are, that there’s something wrong with your person.
I didn’t realize how problematic it was back then. I was young. I didn’t really understand how deep those things went and where they were coming from. I just knew that those were the guidelines that I had to abide by. We’ve got to ask ourselves why a lot more.
When I retired from the NFL, it was the first time that I had really been able to lock into the art studio and not give a damn about what anybody had to say about what I was about to create. Nobody can fine me, nobody can kick me off a team, nobody can tell me I’m relegated to the bench. I can do whatever I want. I just started creating.
That was amazing. Between that experience of being able to really have that intimate father time with my children and being able to have that freedom as an artist and as a writer to say what I wanted and do what I wanted, I just got happy again.
My thing now as a father is: Why are you so quick to ask me if my kid plays football? Why not ask me if they’ve gone to a coding camp? With all due respect, it’s because you don’t expect that from my kids. You expect them to dribble a ball, to put a helmet on. There’s a condescending air to that, that always affects us in a way that it doesn’t necessarily affect other communities because you don’t even expect it from us. That’s why my kids are participating in art, in music, in learning another language, before they play in any organized sports. I’m exposing them to the world. If my kids have to play sports to accomplish success, then I failed.
Now I’m teaching at a school in West Baltimore. I was always teaching, even when I was playing. Literally, I was in the league and in OTAs for three days and then coming home for the last two to do my workshops at the end of the school year before they got out, and then having my summer camp that was art- and football-based.