Shaka Toney calls himself a positive person, saying that he likes to “always have a positive light on things.”
The positivity might be difficult for some to justify. Growing up in West Philadelphia, Toney has seen a lot, including “police brutality in front of my eyes firsthand, so I know what that stuff feels like, to be racially profiled or things of that nature,” he said.
- Linebacker Micah Parsons makes it official, announcing he will leave Penn State and prepare for 2021 NFL Draft
- Penn State plans to play without fans at Beaver Stadium and other fall sports venues in 2020
- Penn State’s PJ Mustipher motivated to inspire young African Americans by how he represents himself in quest for racial justice
There had been more in the nearly three months that the Penn State defensive end spent at home after the university closed its campus in March because of the pandemic, such as gun violence in the neighborhoods and protests in the streets sparked by the murder of George Floyd.
Toney said he participated in a few demonstrations in Center City, including the day when protesters blocked the Vine Street Expressway and police responded with tear gas.
“People were trying to escape the tear gas,” he said. “Everybody was crowded up on the side of the highway trying to go up that wall. I was down there for that one when it started, but I got out of there. Tear gas isn’t fun.”
Toney also was acquainted with a few of the merchants on 52nd Street whose businesses were the victim of looting the weekend after Floyd’s murder, including a Foot Locker store “that I used to always get my sneakers from.”
Toney, 22, used football as an outlet, graduated from Imhotep Charter High School, and earned a scholarship to Penn State. Now, as he prepares for what he hopes will be a full senior season, graduation, and a chance to be a high-round NFL draft choice, he wants to make his voice heard and work for change against social injustice and racism rather than do nothing or feed into the negativity.
“Sometimes bad things happen in life and you’ve got to try to find a positive there to try to find the best possible outcome to get things done,” he said Tuesday in a Zoom interview. “You can go and protest, sign petitions, get out there, and do more than just sit in front of a TV screen and be angry. I think that’s something that my mom really told me.
“I just do my due diligence and support who I need to support. I think that was the best way for me to go about it. If you want to be public, then be public, but if you’ve got to support, give 110 percent. Don’t say ‘Black Lives Matter’ or whatever you support and just only say it. Do something about it. Go out there and show your support. Go out there and do something to find a way that you actually are going to help the cause.”
Toney is the youngest of five children of Deborah Toney-Moore, who described Shaka as having “a strong sense of right and wrong and being helpful where he could make the best impact.” She said she raised her children “to help them get through adversities, to keep their mind on the prize and remain positive and upbeat.”
“With so many young people, his friends, even our family members, dealing with so much and seeing so many things that young people should just never have been exposed to, the loss of really good friends, it’s really hard that you realize that you have to go on and you just have to live the best life that you can live,” said Toney-Moore, an executive administrative assistant at Imhotep.
“You have to help as many people as you can along the way, and live with hope, never give up. You just push through and don’t forget to help as many people along the way as you can. If you’re given the opportunity, you have to make the most of it because so many people that Shaka grew up with will never get that opportunity.”
Toney has continued discussions with his teammates about social injustice now that he’s back at Penn State, where the Nittany Lions began training camp Friday for what they hope will be the start of the 2020 football season on Sept. 5. As the only player on the team from Philadelphia, Toney isn’t afraid to speak up.
“I’ve been through a lot,” he said. “A lot of guys on our team aren’t from the inner-city area or a poorer part of the city, so I always try to let them understand what it was like growing up for me and give them my insight. I let people understand, they can always ask me. I always want to speak up. I’m not afraid to voice my opinion. As reserved as I am, if you talk to me, I’m going to give you a straightforward answer.”
Toney said he feels “blessed sometimes to have the environment that we do” with open discussions among players and coaches.
“We have that dynamic where it isn’t color in our locker room, it’s, ‘You’re my brother, you’re my sister. You’re family to me,’ ” he said. “I think the biggest thing I’ve learned … it’s hard for you to be a racist in sports because you go through so much with this person, you learn so much about him. I think a lot of racism stems from people that fear the unknown, or believe in what you’ve been told.
“You’re led to believe that and all of a sudden, that’s all you know and that’s what you’re thinking. Now it’s as hard as concrete in your head and you’re not going to get nowhere.
“If you’re in sports, you get time to have that open dialogue and spend that quality time with somebody where they can really learn who you are and you can learn who they are. I just think our environment allows that to happen to the fullest.”
Toney knows that there’s work to be done but that people’s eyes on social injustice have been opened since Floyd’s murder, and he will do his part for change.
“You’ve had multiple times where a Black person was killed by a police officer,” he said. “People yelled and screamed and nothing came out of it. Now stuff is getting done. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction that we haven’t had in a long time.