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P.J. Fleck: 'This is the generation that can change this'

The Gophers football coach is drawing praise for his passionate discussion of race, community, and why the voices of his players are so important.

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Gophers head football coach P.J. Fleck doesn't go half-in on many things. His passion builds connection with the young players he recruits, and inspires them to grow both on the field and off, as athletes and young men.

On Tuesday, Fleck's heart-on-his-sleeve emotions were on display during ESPN's "First Take." During his discussion on the upheaval and unrest following the officer-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Coach Fleck described what a difficult week it has been in the Twin Cities.

"It's unfortunate, and sad, and it hurts my heart, it breaks my heart and soul that it happened in a city that I love so much, and have become so fond of," Fleck told ESPN's Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman. "But if it can happen here it can happen anywhere."

Fleck talked about his role in steering the lives of 115 student-athletes, but insisted things are different right now. As a 39-year-old white man, Fleck said it's his job to listen as his players come to grips with Floyd's death and what it means in a larger sense.

"You tell me, you call me, I'm here to listen. Too many times as a head coach we want to talk and talk and talk and talk, we get paid to talk, and we talk for a living, but this is a time to listen, and to have empathy, and to be very real about what's going on with the social injustice around us," Fleck said.

The coach maintains that right now society can learn a lot from college athletic teams, which are built with young people of different races, religions and backgrounds. Fleck says his goal is to run a life program, not a football program, and that lessons learned from what is happening in society are as important - or more - than what happens on Saturday afternoons. That's why he insists his young people, and those across the country, can be the catalysts as America finally makes a change.

"Everyone is rowing towards the same things," he says. "This is the generation that can change this."

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