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There wasn’t a dry eye in the room during the presentation of the annual Arthur Ashe Award for Courage during the 2016 ESPY Awards on Wednesday night.
The honoree, Zaevion Dobson, was a 15-year-old football player from Knoxville, Tenn., who was killed in December when he shielded three girls from a spray of bullets. Sacrificing himself, he died in the shooting.
To introduce the award, the NBA’s Steph Curry gave a pointed speech against gun violence — a prevalent theme during the annual awards show that opened with a Black Lives Matter call to action from fellow NBA superstars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
“In an average year in America, more than 33,000 people die after getting shot by a gun,” said Curry. “Wherever you’re from, whatever you think, whatever your politics are — what you can’t forget is that every one of those people who dies has a story.”
He continued: “[Dobson] had nothing to do with the bullet that took his life. He and his friends didn’t know the people who killed him or anything about the feud that led to their gunfire. But in a split second, because of his incredible courage, he became part of one of the saddest statistics in America.”
Zaevion’s mother, Zenobia, and brothers, Zackelyn and Markastin, took the stage after a powerful tribute video about the tragedy.
After accepting the award on behalf of her son, Zenobia launched into a powerful speech about gun violence that had nearly every A-list athlete — from Aaron Rodgers to Shaquille O’Neal — listening with tears in their eyes.
“I’d loved to stand up here and tell you more about Zaevion, all the hopes and dreams he had for the future. All the things I dreamt about for him,” she said, before telling the crowd about his cousin, who also was killed in a drive-by shooting four months after Zaevion’s death. The 12-year-old was coming home from a basketball game where Zaevion was honored.
“I’m here to fight back,” said Zenobia. “We as a country need to take a stand against the effects of gun violence on families throughout America.”
Encouraging all of the people in the room to join the movement to save innocent lives, she spoke directly to the athletes.
“We need to rewrite laws to make it harder for the people to get guns,” stressed Zenobia. “Some progress has been made, but just a few months ago in Tennessee, a law was passed to allow more people to carry guns on college campuses. What sense does that make? We need to go in the opposite direction.”
She continued: “All the athletes in this room, you have a lot of power. People look up to you. I know Zaevion did. I urge you to think tonight about why he died or what you can do tomorrow to prevent the next innocent young man or woman from being lost as well.”
Zenobia ended the emotional address with a message for her son: “Your act of bravery and boldness revealed to the world the real you. Fly high, our Falcon 24.”
The 2016 ESPYs aired live on ABC from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. See all the winners here.
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