Sheyenne running back, Bison football commit Kpeenu playing for more than himself
West Fargo Sheyenne running back Barika Kpeenu grew up watching Nancy Grace on primetime TV with his mom. He saw Trayvon Martin’s name flash across the screen in 2012, and he didn’t understand why his mom was crying.
It was the same confusion two years later with the news of Tamir Rice’s death, and other police killings of unarmed Black people that followed.
“You see that and you’re like, why? Why is that happening? You’re a little kid and you don’t understand that,” Kpeenu said. “You see your mom crying and you never know why. Why is she crying? And now I’m living in it and I’m seeing it and I’m like, wow, this is actually something that needs to be fixed and needs to be handled.”
There was more to Kpeenu’s game Friday than just lighting up the scoreboard. Kpeenu, who committed to play football at North Dakota State in April, exploded for four touchdowns in the Aug. 28 season opener against Grand Forks Red River.
Kpeenu looked up and pointed to the sky after all four of his rushing touchdowns Friday. He was playing for more than himself.
“BLM” was written in black marker on the white tape around his wrist as a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement. The point to the sky was also a tribute to a former classmate, Ben Merck, who died last November after being diagnosed with ALS the month before.
Since last year, Kpeenu has pointed to the sky after a TD as an acknowledgment to the two things he puts above himself — God and his family. This year’s season opener was about Merck, who was a 16-year-old sophomore at Sheyenne High School when he died.
“I thought about him when I was playing, and it was kind of emotional for me because he was a guy who loved football,” Kpeenu said. “He would do anything to play football, and I’m here living out a dream where I’m playing football. It just tells me that I can't take this game for granted and I have to play every snap like it’s my last down."
Merck was on the sidelines at Essentia Health Mustang Stadium all last season.
“He was always there regardless of how cold it was, how warm it was,” Kpeenu said. “He was always there trying to support. That really touched me, especially with what he was going through.”
Kpeenu was the Eastern Dakota Conference’s leading rusher last season. He tallied more than 1,200 yards, averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game.
From his wrist tape to honoring Merck, Friday’s game meant something special for the Sheyenne senior. Kpeenu has paid attention to the news this year. He’s seen and read the stories about the police killings of several Black men and women in recent months, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and most recently, Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.
“When I wrote it on my wrist, I knew I was playing for something greater than this game,” he said.
Kpeenu said he wasn't much of a political guy before this year. He stayed away from discussing anything politics-related to avoid arguments with friends.
“I can’t keep it closeted anymore. It breaks my heart and it hurts me because some people don’t have to go through this,” Kpeenu said. “You look at it and you’re like, ‘Why aren’t we all the same?’ Growing up, I’ve been here for a long time where there’s cornfields everywhere and everything like that, and I've always been that one odd man out, the most different guy out there.”
Kpeenu said he probably could have counted how many Black people were in his school when he was younger.
“You have friends who are either, they don’t see color at a young age until they get older. And then you see the difference — people asking you can I get the (N-word pass), can I get this and that. You kind of joke it off, try not to start anything, but now it’s bigger than that. Some people are with that and some people are against that. And you never know what people stand for unless you have a discussion with them.
“I'm not the type of person to judge you on what your political beliefs are, because everyone's different, everyone has their own side of things," he said. "But you see this and you see people are dying. Everyone has one life. And you’ve taken away a life where you never know what happened.”
In Fargo, non-Hispanic white people comprise 83.6% of the population, with Black people representing 6.1%, according to 2019 U.S. Census estimates.
The senior running back has experienced racial microaggressions, which are the everyday slights, snubs and insults in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
“It’s real. It’s not a thing that it’s us people just trying to say ‘We want power’ or whatever. It’s a real thing that goes on,” Kpeenu said. “You see this type of stuff and you're like why is this happening? Why does this happen to a certain group of people? Whereas the other people that aren't seeing these trials and tribulations. It’s something that touches me.”
Kpeenu said it means a lot to play with the Black Lives Matter acronym on his wrist.
“It’s bigger than football or anything. My parents growing up, they always told me I had to be home at a certain time and I never understood that,” he said. “If you get brought up in a community or a home where you’re African American or you’re Black, you understand what this means.”