Cam Newton with Berj Najarian’s custom shoes (photo: Maddie Mullin/New England Patriots)

New England Patriots Showcase Armenian-Themed Sneakers, Call World Attention to Armenia

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LOS ANGELES – If there is a silver lining to the dark clouds of the Artsakh defeat, it is the strong support for Armenia demonstrated publicly by prominent Armenians and non-Armenians during this crisis. One unexpected arena for this in the US is that of professional football. The National Football League (NFL) conducts a My Cause My Cleats campaign, in which custom sneakers or cleats can be worn on the field before final auction for philanthropic purposes. Berj Najarian, director of football/head coach administration of the New England Patriots, has a pair of Armenian-themed shoes which were shown off on the field by quarterback Cam Newton after the December 6 Patriots-Chargers game in Los Angeles. Proceeds go to the Armenia Fund, and as of December 8, their auction price had surpassed that of all others in the campaign.

Berj Najarian, left, and Coach Bill Belichick, both wearing custom sneakers, at the December 6 game (Photo: David Silverman/New England Patriots)

The Patriots have shown support to Armenia and the Armenians on multiple occasion. Coach Bill Belichick wore an Armenian flag pin and Najarian was able to bring up the Armenian Genocide with President Barack Obama during a White House visit in 2015. During the recent Karabakh war, Belichick issued an encouraging statement to Armenians and on November 18, declared he hoped the US would take action against Turkey and Azerbaijan for their deadly attacks on Armenians. Several Patriots players have made their own statements, including Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater. They can be seen on Najarian’s Instagram account. The fact that these players have large numbers of followers and their friends, like Tom Brady, visit Najarian’s Instagram postings, gives their statements great visibility.

 

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Najarian filled in the context for this activism. He said, “Honestly, I think a lot of it goes back to the fact that our players are very socially conscious. They do a lot of work in the community, which has especially intensified this year. This goes back to the spring, when a lot of things were happening around the country in terms of social justice and racism.” The Patriots, he said, became very organized in terms of talking about such issues within the team. From March, team meetings began to be held regularly for discussions.

When the attacks on Artsakh began this September, Najarian said, “It really hit me, seeing everything.” Though he normally is not a big social media follower, he said he started to get more information, and it just kept coming, to the point that it was practically real time coverage. Najarian normally is not the kind of person to wear his Armenia identity on his sleeve, but this war really changed things.

He put up an Armenian flag for the first time in his office and people, he said, must have understood that this was something important. Najarian said, “My office is right by the front door, so people see it and they know why it is there. It wasn’t there 3-4 months ago. It went up when the war started.”

Najarian pointed out that the Patriots are not just football players. “They are very intelligent, socially conscious and aware. They care about things even when they are not directly affected,” he explained. Consequently, he was able to talk to some players to let them know what was happening, and they were interested.

 

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Roughly a month ago, approximately midway through the football season, one of the players asked Najarian whether he would like to address the whole team about the situation in Armenia at one of the social justice meetings. Najarian said, “That was the opportunity I was given. I was blown away to stand in front of these men, whom I respect so much, to be able to spread awareness about things that are so important and, honestly, relatively few people know about.” This was the first time that Najarian had spoken at one of these occasions.

The meeting took place on a Monday several weeks ago, and over 100 people, players, coaches and staff, were present. Najarian had 40 minutes. He said he had to pack in a lot in that time, starting with where and what Armenia is, and a little bit of its history. He touched on the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire and how history seemed to be repeating itself now. He showed images of what was happening.

Najarian said, “If you explain it to people, they can make up their minds about how they feel about it. I got the sense that they were willing to help and be a voice for people who are not being heard.” In turn, that gave him the confidence to ask whether they might speak up publicly.

Slater and McCourty indeed ended up doing so, speaking in a completely unscripted fashion about their takeaways and messages to the Armenians. Najarian said they spoke from the heart in one take.

As far as Coach Belichick and his Armenian statements, Najarian said that as they knew each other a long time, they had many conversations on the Genocide and other Armenian issues, plus he knew Najarian’s father. Whenever something notable happened during the Artsakh war, Najarian said he would bring Belichick up to speed. On November 18, Belichick commented only because the newly appointed acting US secretary of defense quoted Belichick a day or two before in a memo to his employees. Najarian said he doubted the coach otherwise would have reacted.

The Shoes

The shoes were Najarian’s idea, though some people on social media apparently misinterpreted a post by his wife on Facebook. Right when he started to become active concerning Armenia and Artsakh due to the war, the NFL had its deadline for registering for the My Cause My Cleats campaign for this season. Najarian said, “I had never done this. I had never worn shoes for any cause before. I am more of a background person, but this was different now. I thought I should do something.”

The Armenian-themed shoes (photo: Eric Adler/New England Patriots)

He decided to do this to raise awareness, though of course some money would also end up being donated to Armenia Fund. He said, “There is far too little awareness about what is happening and without that, we are not going to have the action that is needed. That is where I figured I could maybe move the needle a little bit.”

He tried to have the shoes tell a story, and talked to a lot of people to prepare. He chose things that he thought were relevant and meaningful and worked with a designer who makes a lot of the players’ shoes. It took several versions to get the shoes done. Najarian explained that it was not a coincidence that Recognize Artsakh and Armenia Fund and Amaras Monastery are on one shoe, while Ararat, which is in a different part of historical Armenia, and Peace for Armenia, are on the other one, which is in a way the more general shoe thematically speaking.

When Cam Newton showed the shoes off, Najarian said, “it was extremely organic and spontaneous—it was not anything planned.” Najarian was standing on the field in Los Angeles and there was maybe a little less than two minutes left in the game. The Patriots were winning the game 45-0 so everything was very relaxed, Najarian said. Newton came up to him so Najarian, after congratulating him on a great game, said that CBS wants to interview Newton on the field afterwards. Newton happened to look down and see the shoes Najarian was wearing. He seemed impressed with how they looked.

Najarian had spoken with Newton a few times previously about Armenia, and Newton was also present at the team discussion, so he knew what the shoes represented. He said, I am going to take these, and Najarian said that was great. After seeing a few players on the other team when the game ended, he came back and took the shoes. They tied the laces together and Najarian stood in his socks in the field, while Newton put the shoes around his neck and went to do the interview.

It all was unplanned, because if CBS chose another player to interview, it would not have happened. Najarian again stressed that “a lot goes back to our players opening themselves to learning and wanting to help, and being about humanity. It is a special kind of environment within our team.”

The Chargers game was the first time people could wear their special shoes on the field, and there will be five weeks of this. Najarian said he will have the shoes on again at the December 10 game against the LA Rams.

Family

Najarian is closely connected with the Armenian heritage and his past through his family. His maternal grandfather, Papken Kechichian, was alive until Najarian was in his early 20s. Kechichian’s life story left a great impression on Najarian. He was a genocide survivor from Chemisgezek (in the Dersim region), who was 10 years old when he lost his parents. He made it to an orphanage in Aleppo, then went to Paris and eventually the US.

Najarian’s father’s parents were born in the US. His father, Dr. Louis Najarian, is a psychiatrist based in Manhasset, NY, who began helping Armenia after the earthquake of 1988 and continues to this day. Although Najarian says that he was pretty assimilated as an American Armenian, his own community involvement throughout his life, as well as his inspirational actions now, belie that.

Berj Najarian (courtesy of his Instagram site)

He was married in Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Cambridge, Mass., baptized in St. Illuminator’s Armenian Apostolic Cathedral in New York City, and active in the Armenian Youth Federation and Camp Haiastan as a child. As Najarian himself said, his Armenian identity was there all the way through.

Bidding on the unique Armenian shoes continues until January 6. Najarian has written that this date being Armenian Christmas is no coincidence. For those who want to bid, go to https://bit.ly/3mICUwY

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