NAU junior linebacker Tristen Vance will be featured in a Joe Biden commercial during Monday Night Football. (Photo: NAU)
Tristen Vance has long been interested in politics, social issues and the difficult conversations that result from both.
But his voice wasn’t heard much beyond Chandler, where he played football for Hamilton High, and then Flagstaff, where he plays linebacker for Northern Arizona.
That changed about a month ago when Vance was contacted by someone from the campaign staff of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to gauge Vance’s interest in shooting a commercial for the campaign.
“I didn’t think it was real,” Vance said, “because around that time, I’m sure everyone’s phone was blowing up with political text messages and things of that nature. I was very hesitant about it at first, but at the small chance it was real, I wanted to continue the process.”
A phone call followed. Then four or so other interviews with other people who were with the campaign. Still, Vance was not a total believer, because the interviews were over Zoom or Google chat, and the other parties weren’t showing their faces.
“Eventually, they liked what I was about and the things I had to say about the whole climate in the world, just beyond political stuff,” Vance said.
Then an email came with release and privacy consent forms attached. A camera crew from New York was scheduled to come to Flagstaff.
“That email was actually her name followed by @joebiden.com,” Vance said. “I was like OK, this is the real deal.”
The result was a 30-second ad that aired during the Monday Night Football game between the Cardinals and Cowboys on Oct. 19. Since then, it’s been in the Biden campaign ad rotation, especially via streaming services such as Hulu, Netflix and YouTube.
“I don’t blame President Trump for the virus,” Vance said in the ad, “but I 100 percent blame him for the response to the virus.”
Tristen Vance was an integral part of Chandler Hamilton’s football program in 2014. (Photo: Rob Schumacher/azcentral sports)
Vance, who is pursuing a master’s degree in educational leadership, realizes a good portion of Americans will disagree with him. And a good portion of those will do so vehemently.
“The backlash really wasn’t in my mind initially,” said Vance, 23. “I just saw a great opportunity to be able represent a rare population of people that doesn’t get represented, whether that be student athletes, the Flagstaff community, the Phoenix community African-Americans, et cetera, et cetera.
“I felt like it was pretty close to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to share my voice on a major platform.”
There has been some backlash, Vance said, most of it from anonymous social media accounts. “But the amount of love and support I’ve gotten has greatly outshined and outweighed that.”
Some of that love has come within the NAU football program and athletic department.
Coach Chris Ball said he has encouraged his players so speak their minds and to protest peacefully if they are so moved.
When the players returned to campus this summer after being apart because of COVID-19, Ball and his coaches used two of their allotted 12 hours a week with players for team building. Included were conversations about various issues, including racism and inequality in the justice system, and registering players to vote.
“There is so much information out there,” Ball said. “We spent time teaching what to look for, the websites they could find to get true facts, to find out about each candidate. We tried to stress, ‘hey, don’t go vote for somebody just because of what you see on Twitter or the Internet. Do the research yourself and then make up your mind.’
“I was proud of him (Vance) making a stand. It’s touchy. But it opened up some discussions. This country, one of the get things about it, people can speak their views. My thing is, just because you and I might disagree on something, doesn’t mean we’re enemies. We’ve got to be able to have conversations about certain issues and not get mad at that.”
That’s what got Vance noticed by the Biden campaign in the first place. He and teammate Brandon Lawless started a podcast called “The Social” that focuses on race, inequality, voter suppression and “anything of that nature that we feel is important,” Vance said.
Lawless came up with the idea of the podcast, and Vance embraced it because he was looking to expand identity beyond being just a football player.
The Arizona Daily Sun wrote about the podcast in late August. Someone on the Biden campaign apparently noticed and thought an ad featuring an Arizona college player, airing during a Monday Night football game, might resonate.
“My stance with the podcast, with the ad, is that I don’t believe in the divide that has been created,” he said. “I’m hopeful we can slowly bridge that divide.
“I’ve always had a willingness to have conversations about anything, with a fearless mindset and in a leadership role,” Vance said. “The motivation behind the podcast, is I felt we were at a breaking point in the social climate of our country.”
This fall, Vance had more time on his hands than usual because NAU’s football season was canceled. Next season will be his last year of eligibility, after which he would like to try to make it in the NFL.
In the meantime, he and Lawless plan to continue the podcast, and Vance will look for additional ways to “encourage dialogue and not division.”
I’d bet on him finding them.
Reach Kent Somers at Kent.Somers@gannett.com. Follow him on twitter @kentsomers. Hear Somers every Monday and Friday at 7:30 a.m. on The Drive with Jody Oehler on Fox Sports 910 AM.
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