CJ Stroud warms up ahead of kickoff before the Houston Texans’ game against the Denver Broncos at NRG Stadium. Cooper Neill/Getty Images CNN —
CJ Stroud’s voice cracks. He’s just acknowledged his faith in reference to the road he’s been on. “It’s taken a lot of hard work,” says Stroud as he fights back tears.
Stroud is speaking on stage at Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri, in front of thousands of people in attendance and many more watching on TV.
He has just been selected by the Houston Texans with the second overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft. It is the culmination of a journey that has led him from familial struggles to a starting quarterback job in the NFL.
It’s a journey in which he has dealt with his father being sent to prison, living squeezed into a small apartment above a storage unit raised by a single mother and the countless setbacks a prospective football career brings.
It’s no wonder he is emotional.
“I don’t have to be anything or be anybody else. I have to just be myself and be comfortable in my own shoes, comfortable in my own skin,” Stroud said at the time.
Stroud poses with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected by the Texans with the No. 2 pick in the first round of the 2023 NFL draft. David Eulitt/Getty Images
‘I really don’t think I’ve even touched my potential yet’
It’s Week 13 in the NFL and Stroud strides off the field at NRG Stadium in Houston to the adulation of the thousands who have stayed behind to serenade him.
The 22-year-old rookie has just completed 16 of his 27 passes for 274 yards, throwing for a touchdown, no interceptions and a 106.1 passer rating as his Texans narrowly beat the Denver Broncos.
One might understand if Stroud was feeling overconfident or wanted to sing his own praises. And that would be well within his rights; he’s spearheading the unheralded Texans to the brink of a playoff spot on the back of his own historic performances.
Stroud runs out onto the field ahead of the Texans’ game against the Arizona Cardinals. Tim Warner/Getty Images
But he’s not.
He says his parents, in particular his mother, are a key reason for keeping him grounded. In fact, Stroud can single out a specific moment which he says was “pivotal” in his sporting career, playing in a youth basketball championship game at the age of 12.
As the game goes to overtime, Stroud remembers his team and the fans shouting in excitement at the close of the game about his standout performance; everyone, that is, except his mom, Kimberly.
“She came over to the bench – and this is during a timeout in overtime – and she grabbed my jersey and was like, ‘Boy, you stay humble no matter what. You do that again, I’m going to take you to the bathroom,’” Stroud recalls.
“I’m a grown adult now, I know to be humble. Even then, I’ll be thinking, ‘Ah, let me stop. My mama get on me.’ My parents did a great job raising me as such to be a humble young man, to understand how quick you get it is how quick it can be taken away.”
That attitude has served Stroud well throughout his life and football career. From being a five-star prospect out of high school to a two-time Heisman trophy finalist at Ohio State, Stroud has never let the stage overawe him.
That early December victory against the Broncos was the latest evidence of Stroud’s composure, masterminding a gritty win which not only continues Houston’s unlikely push for a playoff spot, but also continues his record-breaking first year in the league.
Stroud celebrates a touchdown against the Broncos. Cooper Neill/Getty Images
Stroud set the single-season rookie Texans franchise record for touchdown passes in the Week 13 outing and also remained atop the NFL’s charts for passing yards. If he was to finish the season in that position, Stroud would be the first rookie in the Super Bowl era to lead the league in passing yards.
It also meant that over his previous five games, Stroud had thrown for 1,740 yards – the most in any five-game span by a rookie in NFL history. He’d already set the single-game rookie passing record earlier in the season.
“I’m going to have to take a couple months to start looking back, and be like: ‘Dang, that was special or whatever,’” said Stroud.
“We’re in a grind right now, and I’m right there with [Houston head coach] DeMeco [Ryans] leading the surge to the playoffs. It’s already started. It’s cool. I’m blessed to be able to be playing at a high level, and I want to keep that going,” he added.
“I really don’t think I’ve even touched my potential yet. I still have things I need to clean up every week. But it’s a blessing to be able to put some things together to get accolades in a league where it’s all dogs. To do it at such a young age, I’m blessed.”
Stroud throws a pass in the first quarter against the New York Jets. Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Stroud was raised for the majority of his life by his mother after his father, Coleridge Bernard Stroud III, pleaded guilty in 2015 to charges of carjacking, kidnapping, robbery, evading an officer with reckless driving and misdemeanor sexual battery. As a repeat offender, he was sentenced to 38 years in prison.
As a result, Stroud spent a large portion of his childhood living with his three other siblings in a small apartment above a storage unit while his mother worked to earn money to put food on the table.
However, against the odds – he was once told by a teacher that he had a 0.0078% chance of making it into the NFL – Stroud has made it to the top of his chosen sport.
Stroud drops back to pass during the first quarter of the Ohio State Buckeyes’ game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Ben Jackson/Getty Images
“He had a choice when his father went away,” Kimberly Stroud told Sports Illustrated in 2022. “He was going to let that motivate him and be the best or he was going to succumb to it and become a statistic of a kid whose parent did something they shouldn’t.
“I sit and I’m amazed at how resilient he is. CJ is the most amazing human I have ever met.”
And now Stroud is using his platform to advocate for prison reform, while also supporting his father, often using the phrase “Free Pops” accompanying his social media posts.
The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation on the planet, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. More than half of inmates — 57% — serve sentences of 10 years or longer, according to the Council on Criminal Justice. Of people serving prison terms, one in seven is serving a life sentence. Those kinds of prolonged separations make any notion of being able to nurture soul-sustaining familial bonds a pipedream.
In February, Stroud posted on Instagram that he had attended a meeting of the REFORM Alliance, a non-profit which “aims to transform probation and parole by changing laws, systems and culture to create real pathways to work and wellbeing.” Fellow NFL rookie and long-time friend Bryce Young and social media star Kim Kardashian were also in attendance.
“Was blessed to be able to have a great dinner the other night to discuss and shine light on prison reform and our corrupt criminal justice system and how we can get things fixed. Was able to explain my story and how this issue has effected [sic] my life and so many more families around the country,” Stroud wrote.
A picture of Stroud’s cleats with the word ‘REFORM’ emblazoned on them. Houston Texans
As part of the NFL’s ‘My Cause My Cleats’ initiative – where players are able to display their passions away from the game on their shoes – Stroud wore a custom pair of shoes with the word “REFORM” on the back as well as the phrase “Free Pops.”
Following the Texans’ Week 9 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Stroud talked about the poor conditions some inmates have had to endure, including “rats, roaches.” He also spoke about the state of the criminal justice system in general and his desire for change.
“I didn’t want to make this public, but our criminal justice system isn’t right, and it’s something that I need to probably be a little more vocal about, because what he’s going through is not right,” he told reporters.
“He called me this week,” Stroud said, referring to his dad, “and we got to talk, and I’m praying for the situation and a reform, and the people with reform are helping me a little bit. But, I think just letting it be known that it’s not just my dad’s situation, but the whole criminal justice system is corrupt.”
Stroud added: “I’m praying to God that something can happen that he can get out and come to one of these games.”
Stroud’s journey is one of determination and defying the odds, but one through which he has lived every moment by the phrase, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
On the field and off it, Stroud has few comparisons.