It took the solitary figure of Brandon Marshall on one knee for me to fully celebrate the multitudes who stand.
On Sunday afternoon at Mile High, I stood along with nearly 77,000 others for the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" while Marshall, the Broncos' brave and defiant linebacker, kneeled, as if in prayer.
I stand, and always will, to recognize my late father, who enlisted in the Army as a teen. He adored the anthem, and sang the words at each game we attended. At some point during every anthem, I hear his glorious baritone voice. The anthem is part of our bond, and always will be.
I stand to recognize the promises of our country, promises we always will struggle to fulfill. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." The words were written by Thomas Jefferson, a dreamy idealist who owned 175 slaves. No one articulated the radical visions of America more powerfully than Jefferson, and few violated those visions more profoundly.
For centuries, imperfect women and men have labored to make Jefferson's words come true. This striving never will cease. Neither will the failing.
Marshall and his friend Colin Kaepernick are among the strivers. They are optimists at heart who see flaws in our great land. Police, they say, mistreat and misunderstand young African-Americans, and sometimes this misunderstanding veers into fatalities. Marshall and Kaepernick understand America's ability to transform. They believe the nation they love can become more just.
A week ago, I enjoyed a long dinner at a table full of friends, and Marshall dominated our conversation. It was a bracing, intense hour, so bracing I can't remember what I ate. Voices were raised, but no one stopped listening.
Most at the dinner table do not approve of Marshall. They wonder why he shows disrespect for a nation where he will earn $4.55 million this season to play a game. They wish, as many do, for Marshall to buy a one-way ticket to a far-away land.
I wish Marshall, a villain to most of the table, could have joined us.
He approves of the profitable disagreement at our table.
"I know what I'm hoping for," Marshall said Sunday afternoon, less than four hours after he kneeled. "I'm hoping to do what I can, to do my part to create some kind of change and to create some kind of conversation. ... It's really a national story, a national conversation. People say it's going to divide our nation, but I think it's the opposite."
Opposite is right, but opposite in ways Marshall and Kaepernick might not have expected.
The majority of us still stand to recognize our nation's accomplishments and potential. I am not unsettled by Kaepernick's and Marshall's decision to kneel. They are patriots who walk a different road while taking immense risks, financial and personal, in their crusade. I will not join them in kneeling, but recognize their courage and conviction.
It is utterly American to protest. It is utterly American to ignite change. The English wondered in 1776 about the shouts for freedom and equality and justice from the women and men who inhabited America. May the shouting never end.
I embrace the anthem, even if there's little holy about the song. The song never will lose its grip on my heart, even though the words "land of the free" were composed by Francis Scott Key, a 19th-century slave owner and lawyer who failed to recognize African-Americans as his equal, describing them as a "distinct and inferior race of people."
He represented plantation owners seeking to recapture escaped slaves. The owners considered the slaves "possessions." So did Key.
Yet he opposed, and subdued, a lynch mob who wanted to hang a black murder suspect. He opposed the brutality of the slave trade. He understood and struggled against the violent, wicked reality of a slave's daily life at plantations.
Key at times stepped in the direction of bravery, but never was brave enough. He failed to join the battle against the evil right in front of his eyes. He was a highly contradictory man who wrote a rousing song for his highly contradictory nation.
I stand, despite the contradictions, each time we sing the anthem of a nation that struggles to deliver on its unmatched promises.
Marshall and Kaepernick currently kneel during Our Nation's Song. Please, don't tumble into the mistake of calling them Un-American.
They could not be more American.