A 97-year-old WWII vet who took a knee in tribute to NFL players' protests during the National Anthem has said he did so to demonstrate that it's important to "love everybody" "like Jesus."
The photo of John Middlemas was posted to Twitter by his grandson just hours before before over 200 NFL players knelt, raised a fist, or locked arms while the National Anthem was played.
"My grandpa is a 97 year-old WWII vet & Missouri farmer who wanted to join (with) those who #Takeaknee: 'those kids have every right to protest,'" wrote Brennan Gilmore as a caption to the photo of Middlemas.
The picture quickly went viral, shared over 25,000 times and "liked" by more than 59,000 accounts hours after it was posted. As of Wednesday morning, the image has over 440,000 "likes" and 167,687 retweets.
According to the AP, Middlemas, a father of six and grandfather to 32, served in the Navy for 21 years, including on submarines during World War II, before settling on a farm in Missouri.
He told the News-Leader that by kneeling, he hoped to convey a message of "peace and acceptance" and explained his desire to be inclusive stemmed from his time serving alongside black members of the military while deployed on a submarine.
"I wanted to communicate what I always told to my grand-kids and everybody else," Middlemas said. "When they'd go to bed at night, we'd tell the kids we wanted to be like Jesus."
"I'm trying to say that you have to love everybody," he said, adding he hopes "the whole world" will get his message. "We don't kill people. We want to make people live."
Middlemas said that kneeling during the national anthem is "not disrespectful at all" and that he had great respect for the NFL players, "because their belief is exactly the same as mine."
The controversy started after President Donald Trump suggested during a rally on Friday that players, such as former NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the national anthem was a "son of a b***h" who should be fired from the NFL.
Over 200 NFL players subsequently knelt or stood and locked arms with one another in response to Trump's comments, while team owners issued statements in support of the players' right to free speech.
However, the President stood firm, tweeting, "The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!" He later tweeted the hashtag, "#StandForOurAnthem."
Later, Gilmore shared more photos of his grandfather on Twitter, saying he appreciated the positive messages.
"My Grandpa has been an ally to the civil rights movement for many years," he said in a follow-up tweet. "He's an amazing man always on the side of justice."