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KIKI STOKES The Woman Behind a Movement

By Andrew Sogn, South Dakota State University

"I'M DONE. I CAN'T BE HERE."

Six words from the mouth of Keandria "Kiki" Stokes that began a movement the softball world, perhaps the athletics world in general, has never seen.

Stemming from an ill-advised, misguided tweet from Stokes’ professional team, she and her teammates walked out the door.

This story isn’t about the tweet. This story is about a leader.

Humble.

Proud.

Black.

Female.

A leader who, when the time was right, decided she had something to say.

Kiki Stokes found herself thrust into a leadership role on June 22, walking out on her professional career to stand up for what she believed in.
Kiki Stokes Has Always been Tough

She demanded a spot on the football field as a young elementary student, starting at running back until her middle school years alongside the boys her dad, Kenny Sr., coached.

She brought an ultra-competitive edge into an All-American career as an outfielder at Nebraska, hitting over .400 in her final two seasons as a Cornhusker while starting all but two of her 235 career appearances.

She dove headfirst into a caretaker role in 2008 when her mom, Odester, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, teaming with her younger sister Kirsten to serve as nurses and handle anything that came their way as the family matriarch fought.

Toughness has defined Kiki throughout her 26 years, and perhaps nowhere has that grit shined through more than when she took the toughest step of her career on opening day of the 2020 season. She walked away from a team she had given five years to; that called her name in the first round of the 2016 National Pro Fastpitch Draft.

Kiki proved her toughness early, pushing her way onto the football field to compete with the boys. Coached by her dad, she served as the team's starting running back through her elementary years.

After losing the first game of the season on June 22, Kiki and her teammates expected to go into the locker room and sulk about their failures, or perhaps discuss what could be fixed for the next game. Instead, they arrived to group chats filled with screenshots of the post, questions and angry comments.

“You could just kind of feel everyone’s eyes on Kiki,” teammate Sam Fischer said. “I remember seeing the post and thinking, ‘this is not good.”

Sitting in her corner locker, Kiki grappled with emotions coming fast and heavy. Teammates expressed concern and offered support, but as the only black athlete in the room at the time (and one of two on the team), Kiki was alone in her thoughts.

“You could physically see the internal struggle going on,” Fischer said.

Then a teammate spoke up.

“Kiki, what do you want to do?”

The outfielder spoke from the heart, sharing that she couldn’t play for a team that lacked awareness and understanding of what was going on in the world, or couldn’t read between the lines as outrage for the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement spread nationally.

After apologies and support from coaches, who had no part in the tweet’s crafting, and a tone-deaf, failed attempt at justifying the post from the author, Kiki and the team had heard enough.

Jerseys came off. Bags were packed.

A promising Scrap Yard season, one that would highlight the professional softball ranks as the only pro league playing during a pandemic, was over.

A standout at Nebraska, Kiki established herself as a leader who took others under her wing and inspired greatness from those around her.
KIKI HAS ALWAYS BEEN A LEADER.

“Everybody always wanted to do what Kiki was doing when she was younger,” Odester remembered. “Even when she was more reserved or didn’t say much, it just seems she’d seize the moment and have people always looking to her for answers.”

That natural ability to bring people under her wing was important during her time at Nebraska.

“I didn’t have to do a lot of pulling the team together when Kiki was on the field,” Nebraska head coach Rhonda Revelle recalled. “She said whatever needed to be said before I had to. That type of peer leadership really helped our team."

That’s not to say there weren’t growing pains as she came into her own.

Before offering the above-mentioned stories of Kiki’s huddle conversations and on-field leadership, Revelle spoke on the lessons learned in her early years as a Husker.

As a true freshman, Kiki had the talent to start in centerfield for the Big Red, but would run into communication problems alongside senior captain, and right-fielder Brooke Thomason.

“Kiki knew she was good enough to get the ball if it came between the two of them, but wouldn’t communicate and the two would run into each other,” Revelle remembered.

Thomason eventually laid a “her or me” ultimatum in front of the staff after collisions continued, and Kiki was moved to left field.

“She might have been grumpy about hearing the message early on, but later in her career she never let an opportunity to communicate or gather her team while running off the field go by,” Revelle said.

Kiki’s leadership has been important through her two years as an assistant coach at South Dakota State, as well. Head coach Krista Wood remembered moments from the 2020 season where a young team found itself “flat, or going through the motions,” before the energetic assistant stepped in.

“She’d take the huddle late and our team would really feed off her energy,” Wood said. “She is great at flipping our mentality when we need it and moving us in a different, positive direction.”

Stokes was hired as an assistant at South Dakota State in the summer of 2018 and immediately bought into Krista Wood's culture of GRIT: Growth, Resilience, Integrity and Trust.

Returning to her years as a collegiate player, Revelle shared continued stories of Kiki’s rise from an inconsistent freshman to all-conference performer, and notes that the Olathe, Kansas product, “really grew as a leader when she learned to lead herself.”

That lesson played out publicly in the moment of the walk-out.

“For me, the decision to leave came from a place of knowing my self-worth,” Kiki shared proudly. “It took courage and guts to say enough was enough, but I work so hard to be a good person every day. If someone can’t respect that or give me respect, then I have to walk away, no matter what.”

KIKI HAS ALWAYS BEEN REAL.

Stories of publicly taking a stand are powerful. They expose true character and strength, invoke emotion and bring a sense of pride to those who know the subject. They’re also only part of the story.

While Kiki’s outward expression was an example of strength, internally there was pain. In the private moments, the heartache spilled over.

“She called me when it happened and was immediately crying,” Odester shared. “My first thought was, ‘okay, what did you break?’ because the pain was so real, it felt physical.

"the pain was so real, it felt physical."

Tears flowed freely over the next few days, as did intimate conversations with family, friends and mentors, along with numerous team meetings as those who followed her posed the question, “what’s next?”

The now-former Scrap Yard team met privately the night of the tweet, and Kiki once again spoke from the heart.

“It was late, but we knew we needed to decide what we wanted to do, and Kiki stood up at the meeting and said, ‘This sucks, but my career as a softball player isn’t going to end this way,’” Sam Fischer recalled with a touch of emotion. “It was really impactful for us, and I think we were all kind of like, ‘hell yeah, let’s play ball!”

And with that, a new team was born.

KIKI HAS ALWAYS BEEN PERFECT FOR THIS MOMENT.

“Control what you can control. Never make a decision out of emotion,” Odester said.

“Whatever you do in life, be professional. You don’t call people out. You do things with humility, and you do them the right way.” Kenny Sr. said.

“Strong leaders stand up for what they believe in, but do it in a respectful, tactful and diplomatic way,” Revelle said.

“Meeting people where they are, sharing your beliefs with passion and listening to others is a great place to start making a difference,” Wood said.

Like many others, Kiki has been blessed with strong influences along her path. Parents, coaches, siblings Kenny Jr. and Kirsten, friends and teammates who have spoken into her life; mentors who made an impact in the moment, though the impression may not be felt until years later.

One of those lessons, the importance of prayer and faith in God, was on display early and often. Odester prayed immediately for, and with, her daughter in conversation, and Kiki found herself looking for the strength to forgive.

“I think the day after the tweet was sent was the worst day, when I had to sit back and think about if I was doing anything or saying anything outside of my character,” Stokes remembered. “I also needed to make sure that I dealt with the fact that I couldn’t hang on to the anger and frustration forever, and I had to have some forgiveness in my heart and move on.”

Team meetings and conversations with mentors, friends, co-workers and family filled Kiki's time as This is Us sorted through the chaos of building a team while coping with a powerful, emotional walkout.

If you mention the name Kiki Stokes to young softball athletes, and even more so if you say you know her, eyes will widen.

“You know Kiki? She’s my favorite!” is a common phrase shared with enthusiasm across the softball world.

Kiki is a star. She’s larger than life, for many, and has always been marked for making an eternal impact. She has a platform with the eyes and ears of so many in the softball world, and a faith that allows her to stand strong.

“Kiki has a large following, a lot of support and people who love and care about her in the softball community,” Kenny Sr. shared.

And, as her dad recalled, when it came time to represent those fans, she rose to the occasion.

“You’re about to see a change,” Kenny Sr. remembers hearing over the phone as Kiki’s new team, This is Us, came to life.

As soon as the team decided to, “play ball,” as Fischer put it, the wheels began turning.

This is Us, the new team name, focused on three words: Awareness, Empowerment and Unity.

Awareness of what was going on not only in the softball world and injustices within the game, but outside of the game in the black community worldwide.

Empowerment of women and providing an opportunity for voices to speak up.

Unity for bringing people of different backgrounds, social status, ethnicity and more while working towards a common goal.

“I remember Kiki saying, you know, that ‘we made the waves, now we need to ride the waves,’" Fischer said. “So we went to work.”

Meetings, phone calls, emails and texts filled the remainder of the week, as a team for the players was built from the ground up and accomplished in five days what many take months, even years, to sort through.

“Everything we did from that point on was on us,” Kiki remembered. “Every decision, every resource, every sponsor. We did the work. We didn’t have an overseer anymore."

The work wasn’t easy as the team lined up uniforms, travel, equipment, medical care and more.

Neither was sorting through the emotions.

“We had team meetings every single day, checking on each other and making sure we were okay,” Stokes said.

“We had a lot of individual conversations as well, and found so many connections in our differences,” Fischer said. “So many of us had different backgrounds -- (USSSA Pride pitcher) Keilani (Ricketts) and I are married to veterans. We had girls involved who had military backgrounds in our families. We have black teammates, or teammates who are in relationships with black men. There were so many different ways to connect to this conversation and we wanted to make sure it was a safe space for everyone to talk.”

Acceptance was everywhere. Judgement was nonexistent.

“We pushed through the awkwardness,” Fischer said.

“There were little moments throughout the week that stuck out and taught us that even when you’re going through something tough, something really personal or emotional, there are times to be strong, step up and push through,” Fischer shared. “It was a great lesson for all of us.”

Finally, though, after all the work, the game of softball once again provided a sense of normalcy.

“Until Friday, the day before our game, none of us had time to even practice as a team,” Kiki said. “We were finally able to go out of the feel and just play, not thinking about the meetings, logistics of building a team or small details we may have forgotten.

“We were reminded in that moment why we loved the game, and how it provided an escape from our worries off the field,” she said.

Stokes and a number of her This Is Us teammates hosted a postgame panel to discuss the team's movement, and have already met with teams like South Dakota State to talk about what was happening around the nation, and in softball.
KIKI HAS ALWAYS BEEN MEANT FOR MORE.

Kiki signed with Nebraska with an enthusiasm coach Revelle has never seen again, as the youngster dove across the desk when a scholarship offer was presented.

The All-American was drafted to the professional leagues as the No. 5 overall pick in 2016 and committed to an up-and-coming team with enthusiasm and made an instant impact.

The young coach was hired as an assistant at South Dakota State in the summer of 2018 and immediately bought into a culture of GRIT: Growth, Resilience, Integrity and Trust, helping the team to its second-consecutive postseason appearance in the National Invitational Softball Championship.

Success has followed Kiki, as has the opportunity to make an impact.

This is Us played six games against the USSSA Pride before COVID-19 officially ended the 2020 summer softball season. What happened between the lines, however, wasn’t the point.

“We won that first game back, which was really cool, but after the game I remember going into the locker room and telling everyone, that being a part of this was ‘the proudest moment of my life as a softball player,” Fischer shared.

A life-altering event that wouldn’t have happened without Kiki’s courage.

What exactly has happened?

Change.

Real Change.

This is Us hosted (and streamed online) a post-game panel with Kiki, Fischer, Aubree Monroe, Taylor Edwards and Sam Show, discussing the week’s events, This is Us, Black Lives Matter and why certain decisions were made.

“We wanted our voices to do the storytelling,” Fischer remembers. “It was a heavy conversation, but an important conversation to have.”

South Dakota State has hosted Kiki, and teammates Fischer, Show and Ally Carda in a Zoom call, discussing what was going on around the nation, and within softball, candidly.

“It was so important for them to understand what happened, what the story was and why it happened because they are the next generation of this game,” Kiki recalled.

Fischer and Wood, two of the lucky ones who have witnessed the activist in action, shared their support.

“Watching her (Kiki) explain what was going on to her girls in a way they could all understand was special,” Fischer said. “That’s such a powerful thing to have a person deliver the same message across so many platforms while connecting with so many different groups.”

“It’s so important to educate and grow ourselves on things we don’t understand,” Wood said. “I think this generation of student-athletes, those we are coaching now, are going to be incredibly powerful voices for our game in the future.”

That message has turned into action for South Dakota State under the leadership of coach Wood.

“We’re going to continue exposing ourselves to things that initially may be uncomfortable, but are important,” Wood said. “We’re going to push our team to get involved with things outside their comfort zones, not because they are mandatory, but because having a broader perspective of the world and diving into difficult conversations is important.”

The world continues to evolve rapidly and randomly, but Kiki, Jackrabbit Softball and This is Us has primed itself for a major impact in the years to come.

“She’s still a young woman in her 20s,” Revelle said. “Imagine when you double her age, how gifted she is going to be as a leader.”

Photo credits: This is Us photos of Kiki Stokes, the team and postgame panel were taken by Jade Hewitt. The University of Nebraska Athletics provided photos of Kiki's time as a Cornhusker, and photos of Kiki at South Dakota State belong to Dave Eggen/Inertia Sports Media, Laura Mullen and Bruce and Annie Lenox. Additionally, the Stokes family provided courtesy photos shown throughout the piece.