He met George Floyd in sixth grade. Now he's grieving alongside millions.

"They're chanting his name across the world," said one of Floyd's former high school classmates in Houston, "but they didn't know him like we knew him."
Image: Jonathan Veal
Jonathan Veal attends the wake of George Floyd, his longtime friend. Fred Agho / for NBC News

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By Mike Hixenbaugh

HOUSTON — On Memorial Day, Jonathan Veal was at home in Oklahoma City, getting ready to start up the grill, when he saw a disturbing video circulating on social media. It showed a black man struggling for breath under the knee of a white police officer in Minnesota.

"No, no, not again," Veal remembers thinking.

He felt the same sickening tightness in his chest that hits him every time a new viral video shows a black man or woman being killed by a police officer. That could have been him or one of his five children — or a friend.

At first, he didn't recognize the man whose face was pressed against concrete, gasping for his mama. It wasn't until the following morning, when the name George Floyd started appearing in social media posts and news articles, that Veal, 45, made the connection. Afterward, he locked himself in his office at the leadership consulting company he owns and sat in silence, trying to process the realization — memories of "Big Floyd" rushing through his mind.

Back at his house that afternoon, Veal broke down in tears as he shared the news with his wife: "That was my friend," he said, before playing the video for her. "I've known him since the sixth grade."

Full coverage of George Floyd’s death and protests around the country

On Saturday, Veal drove six hours back home to Houston to say goodbye to a high school classmate who, through his death, had become something much more: an international symbol of racial injustice and a catalyst for nationwide protests.

After spending a night in his childhood bedroom, Veal woke up Monday morning and slipped on a red T-shirt emblazoned with the words "I can't breathe." He drove across town, toward the same church where he'd attended a different funeral last year, for a high school friend who'd died of chronic health problems. Only this time, Veal had to park a mile away, along with hundreds of others, and wait for a bus to shuttle him to the public visitation.

Jonathan Veal.Fred Agho / for NBC News

"I could never have imagined anything like this," Veal said, surveying the line of strangers outside The Fountain of Praise church, many of them wearing T-shirts with a picture of his old friend printed on the front. "Not for a kid from Third Ward."

As Veal waited in line, a dozen TV cameras — news crews from around the world — recorded interviews with people who'd come to pay their respects a day before Floyd's private funeral and burial. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, one of many elected leaders in attendance, greeted Veal with an elbow bump as she walked by.

"It's a lot to process," Veal said. "I knew this guy, ya know?"

Jonathan Veal bumps elbows with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, at George Floyd's wake. Fred Agho / for NBC News

He wondered, Is this what it felt like to be one of Emmett Till's grade school classmates? Till's lynching during a family visit to Mississippi in 1955 — and his mother's decision to display his 14-year-old body in an open casket — shocked the nation and helped ignite a new chapter of the civil rights movement.

And now Floyd's death had done the same. On Sunday, members of the Minneapolis City Council announced radical plans to disband the city's police department and create a new system for ensuring public safety — one of many reform efforts unfolding in cities across the U.S.

"They're chanting his name across the world," Veal said, "but they didn't know him like we knew him."

He still remembers when they met, on the first day of middle school in 1986. Veal was sitting in the cafeteria, waiting for the bell to ring, when he noticed the biggest 12-year-old he'd ever seen.

"I was like, 'Wow, that kid's tall,'" Veal said.

They sat next to each other in their first-period class and were friends ever since, Veal said. They played basketball and football together and spent countless hours hanging out on sweltering summer days in Houston's Third Ward, a predominantly black neighborhood south of downtown. Floyd was a star athlete with dreams of going pro. But he was quiet, and he didn't like being the center of attention.

"He would have hated all this," Veal said.

Christopher Gray, another football teammate, spent the weekend reminiscing with Veal and other classmates. Like Veal, Gray said he was overwhelmed by the international outpouring after Floyd's death. It's made it difficult for him to grieve, he said.

Thousands gathered to mourn George Floyd in Houston on Monday. Fred Agho / for NBC News

“Just imagine one of your best friends who you went to high school with, played ball with for four years, walked the halls with for four years, and now you have to share him with the whole world," Gray said. "We just have to respect what's going on right now and find our own way of grieving and paying our respects.”

Veal remembers hanging out with Floyd and a few other friends at "The Hill," a grassy lot adjacent to the school, on the last day of their junior year at Jack Yates High School. They started talking about their plans for senior year and for what would come after.

"I'll never forget, Floyd said, 'I want to touch the world. I want to impact the world,'" Veal said. "He was talking about sports, ya know? He didn't mean it like this."

Jonathan Veal, center-kneeling, poses for a photo with his '93 State Championship team members.Fred Agho / for NBC News

Although they both left the state after graduating in 1993, Veal and Floyd stayed in touch sporadically in the years that followed. Floyd played college basketball for a couple of years, but his NBA dreams never became reality. Back home in Third Ward, he got into trouble with police on a few occasions, eventually serving a stint in prison a decade ago following a conviction on aggravated robbery charges.

Veal remembers seeing Floyd a few years after he'd gotten out of prison, at their 20th-year high school reunion in 2013. They'd both put on some weight — "We don't look like wide receivers anymore," Floyd joked — but Veal was glad to learn that Floyd had seemed to turn his life around. He was volunteering with a church group, mentoring teens in Third Ward.

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"Even before all this, he was an inspiration to me," Veal said. "He had paid his debt, and now he was trying to help other kids avoid the same mistakes. I feel like that is the ultimate redemption story."

That was the last time they saw each other. Floyd texted Veal a few months ago to wish him happy birthday and let him know that he had moved to Minneapolis, where he said he was trying to get a fresh start.

"I love you big dog, that's straight from 88 to 42," Floyd wrote in the January text message, referring to himself and Veal by the numbers they wore on their high school football jerseys.

On Monday afternoon, five months after their final text exchange, Veal had reached the entrance to the church after more than 30 minutes in line. An usher scanned Veal's forehead with a thermometer and asked him to pull his mask over his mouth, a reminder that this was all unfolding in the midst of a pandemic.

Veal swayed silently as he stepped slowly through the sanctuary, waiting for his moment in front of Floyd's golden casket. Dozens of bouquets of flowers were piled on the floor in front of a painting of Floyd.

Jonathan Veal (center) and George Floyd (left) at their senior year homecoming dance in 1992.Courtesy Jonathan Veal

An usher waved for Veal to step forward but stopped him from getting too close. As he stood 10 feet away, looking down at Floyd dressed in a tan suit, Veal thought not of the man whose name has been chanted in cities across the world, but of the 17-year-old who once posed with him in a white tuxedo at their senior homecoming dance.

"He looks good," Veal started to say.

But after just a few seconds, the usher waved Veal to move on. More than 4,000 people had already come to pay their respects by then, and thousands more were waiting for their turn.

It felt too rushed, Veal said afterward. He wanted to linger, to tell Floyd that he was proud of him and that he loved him.