The chef flew in from Chicago the day before the Seahawks’ first home game against the New England Patriots, landing in Seattle around 6 that Saturday night. About 28 hours later, Andrew Sledd completed his latest culinary masterwork: four pounds of Cajun fried chicken, a pot of collard greens, an overflowing pan of macaroni and cheese, Cajun cornbread stuffing and, for dessert, peach cobbler.
Sledd and his wife, Marie, had come to Seattle for the first time at the behest of Seahawks rookie offensive lineman Damien Lewis, who grew accustomed to Sledd’s cooking after his college games the past couple years at LSU. Lewis wanted that tradition to continue in Seattle. The Sledds were happy to oblige — and happy for an excuse to visit their 4-month-old grandson, Damien Lewis Jr., the first child for Savannah Sledd and Damien Lewis.
The family watched on a 70-inch TV as the Seahawks pulled off a last-second victory over New England, then waited for Lewis to get home. Then they feasted.
“Oh, it was nice,” Lewis said of the spread. “We had to do it the South way — ain’t too much soul food around here.”
For the Seahawks’ next game, Lewis came up with a way to show his appreciation for his future father-in-law, “Mr. Sledd,” as Lewis has insisted on calling him. The NFL gave formal approval of the gesture, and there it was on the back of Lewis’ helmet Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys:
The NFL has granted players permission to honor victims of police brutality and racial injustice this season. Many Seahawks players, Lewis included, began the season with Breonna Taylor’s name on their helmets. Lewis has a personal connection with someone he wanted to share, and he’s offering a hand — and a helmet — to help spread the message.
Sledd, a Chicago native whose mother is Black and father is white, was a 24-year-old basketball player at St. Xavier College when in 1989 he became a victim of police brutality. He is sharing his story in detail now, for the first time publicly, in hopes of continuing the conversation around racial injustices. He said he feels an obligation to speak for those victims — for Breonna Taylor, for George Floyd, for Jacob Blake and for the many Black victims before him — who cannot speak for themselves.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Sledd said.
The first bullet grazed the top of Sledd’s head. The next one almost killed him.
Officer Elroy Baker was firing his 9 mm gun over his shoulder, blindly shooting as he ran down a flight of 20 stairs. Baker, who was African-American, was one of seven Chicago police officers executing a search warrant at Sledd’s family residence around 10:30 p.m. on March 31, 1989, court records show. The narcotics team was looking for a man who didn’t live there and had no association with Sledd or his family. Officers were not wearing uniforms, they did not announce who they were and they did not knock before breaking down the front door, key assertions confirmed by a family babysitter who was on the first floor at the time of the raid and two neighbors — a teacher and a lawyer — who lived on adjacent sides of Sledd’s townhome, according to court documents.
Marie, then Sledd’s fiancee, was in his upstairs room; his 6-year-old brother was asleep in a second upstairs room. When officers busted down the front door, Sledd testified he believed they were about to be victims of a home-invasion robbery. He went into his room and retrieved his .22 Marlin sport rifle, which he had used on family hunting trips at their Montana cabin. Baker ran up the stairs and entered Sledd’s room at about the same time Sledd was collecting the rifle. Baker turned back down the stairs as Sledd followed, hoping to chase him out of the home. Sledd never fired his rifle.
At the top of the stairs, Sledd was engulfed by a “storm of gunfire,” he later testified, as two other officers joined Baker near the bottom of the stairs and began firing up. Sledd was struck multiple times, with one bullet hitting him squarely in his lower torso. He collapsed. Baker approached and stood over Sledd, punched him in the face, kicked him in the groin and held his 9 mm to Sledd’s right temple. “We’re the police, you (expletive). I should blow your (expletive) brains out,” the officer said, according to court records.
Sitting outside an eastside coffee shop, Sledd recounted the scene in a recent interview with The Seattle Times. He raised his right hand next to his temple and mimicked the way he slowly nudged away the officer’s gun from his head. He paused and imagined himself again in that moment.
“Horrifying,” he said.
The whole incident, from the time the officers battered down the door to the time Sledd collapsed, took 20 seconds, 30 at most, he estimated. But the larger ordeal — his legal battle with the justice system and the City of Chicago — would consume Sledd and his family for much the next decade and altered his life forever.
As he lay bleeding at the top of the stairs, Sledd was arrested and later handcuffed to a hospital bed, while unconscious, as he underwent multiple operations the next several days. One surgery lasted more than 12 hours, and Sledd’s mom was told at one point her son was unlikely to survive. He later learned he was being charged with attempted murder, armed violence, aggravated assault and possession of cocaine. Sledd alleged an officer planted the cocaine in his jacket — a claim that had credibility with an Illinois appeals court because one of the officers, Guy Lindsay, was a known cocaine user who was suspended and fired from the Chicago Police Department nine months after the raid.
After a bench trial, Sledd was exonerated on all charges. In 1996 the appeals court ruled in Sledd’s favor in his lawsuit against the City of Chicago for false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. The court ruled that the officers “behaved in an objectively unreasonable fashion.” In 1998 the city settled the suit for a reported $693,000.
A bullet fragment remains lodged in Sledd’s spine, in a spot too dangerous for surgeons to remove. If that bullet had stuck a half centimeter another way, Sledd was told, he would have been paralyzed. As it was, he lost use of his right foot and has never regained it. He spent weeks in a hospital, losing 60 pounds from his 167-pound frame before the shooting, and several months in a rehabilitation facility learning how to walk again. After many more months and years of training on his own, he was eventually able to play pick-up basketball again; he became a dedicated weightlifter, maxing out his bench press at 405 pounds.
He and Marie have experienced post-traumatic stress from the ordeal. He is also partially deaf because of the shooting and has frequent, random bolts of pain throughout his body. He learned to manage the pain and maintain a normal life — or, as he put it, “back to as close to normal as I could.”
The couple would go on to have five children; their oldest, Chloe, left a job at Google five years ago to start her own app, called COMMUNITYx, whose aim is to connect activists around issues such as social justice, the environment and LGBTQ+ rights. Her inspiration, she has said, was her father.
Damien Lewis and Savannah Sledd met at LSU a couple years ago. He was a hulking, 320-pound offensive lineman from a small town in Mississippi, the strongest man on the best football team in the country. She threw the shot put and hammer for LSU’s track and field team.
Andrew Sledd recalled the moment he embraced Lewis into the family.
“Mr. Sledd,” Lewis told him, “I love your daughter so much.”
“Why is that, Damien?” the father asked.
“Because she completes me. I feel like a whole man now that I have Savannah in my life.”
Before long, Andrew and Marie were regularly making the 13-hour drive from Chicago to attend LSU football games. They were in the stands in January when LSU won the national championship in New Orleans. And they were back in Baton Rouge for the NFL draft in April, when the Seahawks selected Lewis in the third round, completing an unlikely journey for someone who didn’t have any scholarship offers coming out of high school.
Lewis is the oldest of four boys raised by a single mother, Stacey Lewis. Their home in Biloxi, Mississippi, was submerged by a Hurricane Katrina storm surge in 2005. They relocated to a rural town upstate called Canton, “a little place where a couple of people make it out,” Damien told The (Baton Rouge) Advocate in 2018. “Too much gang activity. People want to just fight and drop out of school.”
Stacey didn’t own a car when Damien was growing up, and she’s never flown on an airplane. She is planning to take her first flight to Seattle for the holidays this winter, joined by her three youngest sons, ages 11, 13 and 17.
“They love their big brother — they’ve always looked up to him,” she said. “They all love football, just like him.”
Of Damien, she said, “He’s just a blessing. To see something like this happen to my child, I’m just so proud.”
After high school, Damien spent two years at Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia, Mississippi. In two seasons there he started every game and was never late for a team meeting, landed on the dean’s list and graduated in 18 months.
He drew interest from many of the top major-college-football programs and soon settled on LSU, where he started all 28 games at right guard in two seasons, earning All-America recognition and winning a national title.
After the draft in April, Andrew and Marie stayed in Baton Rouge, awaiting the impending birth of their first grandson. Damien Jr. was born May 11, at 22 inches long and 10 and a half pounds. “A future left tackle,” his father proudly predicted.
The family celebrated with food. Sledd is an amateur chef; it’s something in which he takes great pride, and it’s something Lewis fully appreciates. Sledd’s teriyaki flank steak is Lewis’ favorite of his meals, and he ate a lot of his favorite dishes while Sledd was in Baton Rouge in the spring. Lewis gained about 14 pounds in two weeks, up to about 340, and had to shed that before reporting to Seattle in July — or risk being fined $780 for each pound over 320, as stipulated in his Seahawks contract.
Lewis, back at 320 pounds, has been everything the Seahawks could have hoped early in his rookie season, grading out as the team’s top lineman in the running game through the first two weeks, according to Pro Football Focus. He sprained an ankle in the Seahawks’ victory over Dallas on Sunday, but the injury isn’t expected to keep him out long.
“Man, I just thank God for everything,” Lewis said. “I’ve had many, many blessings coming my way.”
Sledd flew back to Seattle for the weekend and made Lewis’ favorite meal for the family’s postgame spread Sunday night: Bok choy, shiitake mushrooms and flank steak.
Sledd turned 56 on Sept. 23. A week before his birthday, Sledd had been debating his parents — both in their 70s now — about whether he should talk publicly about his ordeal. They tried to dissuade him, fearing unwanted attention it might bring. He told them he felt compelled to speak up.
“I’m alive,” he said, sitting outside the coffee shop, wearing a COMMUNITYx T-shirt with a “Unite Humanity. Mobilize the World” slogan.
“I’m flesh and blood. You can ask me questions, and I can give you my thoughts. For George Floyd, the only thing we know was he couldn’t breathe and he was scared as hell.”
Sledd said he has been devastated by the onslaught of deaths of young Black people at the hands of police. But he is also inspired by a new generation’s ongoing efforts to influence change.
“Police brutality and misconduct have obviously been going on for a while, because for me it was 30 years ago … and they’re doing the same thing to people now,” he said.
He acknowledged he was fortunate because his family was well-educated and had access to a team of top lawyers to support him in his case. His mom worked in marketing; his dad was an English professor; his grandfather was a professor at Harvard; and his great-grandfather was the first president of the University of Florida. That privilege, he said, is not available to all victims of police misconduct and especially not for many Black men.
“Unfortunately it’s such a systemic issue,” he said. “It’s not just the police. It’s the court system, the judges, the prison system. And for many people, it’s a railroad to nowhere in that system.”
The critical element of trying to enact change, as he sees it, is sustained pressure on public leaders and decision makers. The current movement for social and racial justice is “a step in the right direction,” he said, but he remains skeptical that any real change is imminent.
Damien Lewis, as a 23-year-old rookie, said he has been inspired to become more socially aware and active since joining the Seahawks, who have had regular conversations around ways to promote means of social and racial justice. Carrying ANDREW SLEDD on his helmet and sharing Sledd’s story is Lewis’ way of contributing in that realm.
“What happened to him, and what happened to others, people have to be aware,” Lewis said. “Whatever has happened in the world needs to be brought to light. It can’t be in the dark anymore. It’s time for people to speak up.”