They were some of the most powerful conversations anyone who sat through them had ever been a part of.
As protests against racial inequality and police brutality raged across the country earlier this spring, the Detroit Lions spent in June more than a week of their offseason program talking about the fires that were burning around them.
Players shared first-person accounts of the discrimination they faced as children and adults. Their stories, conveyed in hourslong Zoom meetings, sparked emotions from their teammates and coaches ranging from sadness to compassion to outright rage.
Lions running backs coach Kyle Caskey spent most of that week processing what he heard — both the testimonies about what happened and the suggestions about what could be done.
He didn’t say much on the calls, and when they finished, he was somber.
“He definitely was almost like a changed person during that time,” said Caskey’s wife, Kayla. “I personally wasn’t in on those meetings, and he was just trying to explain some of the things to me. He’s just like, he just kept saying, ‘You could see the pain in their eyes, in the players’ eyes, as they were talking.’”
Kyle and Kayla have long lived a service-oriented life.
The couple met at noontime bible study when Kyle was a graduate assistant at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, and Kayla was an occupational therapist at the school. As Kyle worked his way up the coaching ranks, they lent their time to causes that empower young people through education and fight cancer in kids.
Caskey — who spent nine seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals and strived to one day build a foundation like former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis’ Marvin Lewis Community Fund — was one of the first Lions to hold out a hand when the coronavirus pandemic hit; starting a virtual food drive that raised more than $20,000 to provide meals to Gleaner’s Food Bank.
The conversations he heard in the months that followed stirred those feelings even more. And in June, as Caskey talked to his agent, Kelly Masters, on unrelated business, the idea of starting his own charity came up.
Within weeks, the Caskey Family Foundation was officially formed.
“We’d get off those meetings and I don’t want to say I was sad, I was more, I had a little bit of anger because of certain things that were happening and it was just a mix of emotion,” Caskey said. “After you hear things from other people’s views and you’re like, ‘I can’t believe that people have been doing the things they’ve been doing.’ It’s just been, I think it was more of a self-reflection. I wanted to make sure that I’m doing the right things and then it was more of a, how-can-I-help type of thing.”
For its first project, the foundation — Kayla serves as executive director, Kyle as secretary — is trying to raise $70,000 to provide Microsoft Surface tablets for virtual learning to each of the 100 or so students at Detroit Lions Academy, the public alternative middle school on Detroit’s east side.
Though it’s against her nature, Kayla has spearheaded the ambitious project, stealing time when the couple’s two kids, Olsen, 3, and Kolten, 1 ½, take naps to make fundraising phone calls, do media interviews or work on graphical elements for the foundation’s website.
Kyle, when he gets home from training camp, usually pops a bag of microwave popcorn, tucks the kids into bed if it’s not too late and gets “the Cliff Notes” version of what she worked on that day.
“Whatever she told me, if it took her five minutes to tell me about it, she probably spent two hours on it,” he said.
For Kayla, working with Detroit Lions Academy was a natural first step given that she volunteered at the school last year as part of the Lions Women’s Association, a group of players' and coaches' wives who spend time in the community.
For Kyle, helping advance educational opportunities is personal. Beyond hearing stories on those spring Zoom calls about the systemic issues facing inner-city schools, Caskey's mother was an English teacher and his father a principal and football coach in northeast Texas. He saw firsthand “a lot of things (his parents) had to deal with within the socioeconomic side of it."
“Even transportation back then, just getting kids to school sometimes was hard,” Caskey said. “And my mom being a teacher, I watched her, the way she taught different people different ways. Everybody has the same expectations and they’re held to the same standard, but not everybody’s taught the same. And I learned a lot from that.”
Naturally, that’s helped Caskey thrive as a coach, and the connections he's been able to form with players have in turn helped his charity get off the ground.
Lions center Frank Ragnow donated $10,000 to the Caskeys’ virtual food drive in March, and running backs Kerryon Johnson (an autographed football) and Bo Scarbrough (signed game-worn clears) were among the players who had items up for bid at a silent auction that raised more than $6,000 for the “Surfaces for Success” drive earlier this month.
A virtual karaoke event with the Pride of Detroit website raised another $8,100, and the foundation is still taking donations before embarking on its next to-be-determined project.
“I just see a lot of people that are a lot less fortunate than what we are and they give, and I’m like, ‘Wow, if they can give this, why am I not giving more? Why am I not doing more?’” Kayla said. “There’s so many other people in this world that we can help and just give back to and help better their lives. Because just life circumstances, they didn’t choose to be brought up in that home or that economic situation but yet here they are trying to live their best life. If we can help them in any way, that’s what I want to do.”